Dur-ration

July 31, 2013

I think the main takeaway from my recent gaming has to do with the concept of how long a game should be.

Thursday night, I played an HoR3 mod, and it was the normal amount of time.  … boring.

Friday night, I played Shadowfist and a game of Hanabi.  The latter was fine, though I could see it having more value the more varied your group.  For those that don’t know, has nothing to do with fireworks.  It’s a groupthink game, where you get to see everyone else’s hands and try to give information in prescribed ways for the group to score as highly as possible building up stacks of colored number cards.  The most interesting part is what information is conveyed by what you don’t choose to do.

But, Hanabi has nothing to do with today’s theme.  No, what was most notable was one of the Shadowfist games, where an oldtimer was lamenting how long the game took.  His comment was how games used to take 30 minutes and be better.  He hadn’t played V:TES but heard at least some good things about it, but I think my comment that tournament rounds were 2 hours and that games may time out wasn’t much of a sales pitch.

Anyway, 30 minutes for a multiplayer CCG is, to me, too short.  At first, I was thinking 1 hour was about the right length of time, but, then, I recalled that Babylon 5 felt long when it got close to tournament time limits, and tournament time limits tended to be 75 minutes.  So, I suppose I’d revise the theoretical optimal time to more like 45 minutes.  But, is that 45 minutes for a four-player CCG or 45 minutes for any multiplayer CCG?

And, is it really time that’s the issue or how much that happens in that time?

What’s wrong with a 30 minute, multiplayer game if fun stuff happens in that 30 minutes?  Maybe 15 more minutes is not any more fun.

For instance, the Wheel of Time CCG routinely took us 2 hours as a two-player CCG.  And, we were experts and we used lots of shortcuts!  I didn’t feel like the length was a problem when playtesting or playing casual games.  Tournaments, though, … 2 hours is harsh.  Demos of CCGs to folks should be more like 15 minutes, which is not likely to capture the nature of this game, though I’m the type who would rather play a game through then just see part of it, so for those people who make quick decisions on games, something far less than 2 hours would work.

Two hour games of V:TES don’t bother me.  What bothers me are games where little interesting happens.  We played that three-player Shadowfist game for something like 2.5 hours, with two other guys playing 5 duels in the same period.

One of the primary problems the Babylon 5 CCG had out of the original set was that the build up phase of the game was such a bore.  Players built up their infrastructure for five or more rounds, then, two rounds later, someone might win.  The starting agenda that either radically accelerated the opening or had more things going on sooner were a huge boon to the game.  Of course, various antiwin cards, especially We Are Not Impressed, prevented the “I play two real turns and win” scenarios in most cases.  Original Non-aligned faction rules and Conscription did allow for especially quick wins, but people adapted.

For me, in my limited Shadowfist experience, a quick win is often a not very interesting one.  But, that could be because I’m used to longer games, like V:TES.  I’m used to defensive play.  I’m used to a narrative being developed around multiplayer games that I don’t suppose I worry about in two-player games.

Are my expectations simply different?

Getting back to RPGs, Saturday, I ran my FSTH campaign for the first time in 3 months.  While there wasn’t much action at the beginning of the session, I thought it had less awkward pacing than other sessions.  It fit the window we planned well.  Okay, also boring.  Why do I keep coming back to RPGs?

Maybe I just find it notable that I gamed Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, Monday night, and Tuesday night within the last seven days, with four different games being the focus of events.

Sunday morning was Mechwarrior.  We needed to finish up a Battletech fight of lance against lance.  It ran way over planned time.  I always forget how long Battletech can take.  But, the GM had a good point – low firepower, maneuverable mechs make combat take much longer.  I have a Valkyrie, not because I think it’s a good mech – it’s a horribly designed light mech in that it’s just a medium mech scaled down to be worse in every way than what you would do with a 55 tonner – but because there are various 3025 mechs I’ve never seen in action, and I’m curious as to how they actually function, rather than how poorly they are designed.  We also had a Jenner on our side, which hits like a heavy (at shorter ranges) and defends like a light.  We also had a Griffin and a 3025 Black Knight.  Other side had a Trebuchet, Cicada, Assassin, Javelin.  In effect, while the middle two are technically mediums, they are really just lights that aren’t as pathetic as a lot of lights are – Cicada being a better Locust, Assassin being correctly engined but with insipid weapons.

With the higher movement rates, jump ability, and little in the way of firepower of many of the mechs, other than a headshot on the Javelin and the Jenner getting ripped up some, it took forever to down anything.  My Valkyrie never took internal damage.  The Cicada could have run away, we think, and only got stopped by leg damage.  The Assassin also got stopped by leg damage.

But, getting back to duration, did this take too long?  Maybe.  We don’t allot a lot of time for Mechwarrior.  If every Battletech resolution in the campaign is going to take 4+ hours, we are going to have a lot of problems finishing fights within a single session.  We could try to allot more time, but that means scheduling issues.

How long should Battletech take?  I think for a Mechwarrior campaign, we want to look at 2 hours or less.  If we were just playing Battletech scenarios, I would look to book 6 hours or so and try to get around two fights done in that time.  Does this mean that I have to give up my “precious” Valkyrie to play a mech with more firepower (slower, in the case of a Valkyrie, wouldn’t be needed)?  Heavy vs. heavy or adding in assaults will make for more slugfests where they just pound on each other for a couple of turns and somebody is in bad shape.  Even just having everyone be limited to 5/8/5 in MPs would keep maneuvering under much greater control.

Monday night was HoR3.  Okay, not notable, right?  Actually, Monday’s result was one of the drivers for my thinking about how long games should take.  We basically started on time.  We were done with the mod 3 hours later.  We had a break and some “technical time”, so we played for more like 2.5 hours.

If you are used to HoR in person, especially at major cons, you may be thinking “Well, I’ve played a mod in 1.5 hours, even 1 hour, we are often done in 3 hours or less.”  Others, more familiar with online play, will think about how online play tends to add considerable amounts of time.  But, it wasn’t so much the time as it was how suddenly over it felt.  I was strongly concerned that we blew it and missed something important, and I’m sure others felt that way, too, based upon our trying to continue to investigate after we solved the crime.  We did straightforward things which led to direct resolution of the plot.  After we were done, the GM said that we avoided a bunch of stuff written into the mod because we didn’t bother chatting with a bunch of NPCs but just did legwork.  That makes sense, I guess.  And, again, HoR mods are supposed to take less than 4 hours when played f2f to fit into major convention time slots, which means they could very well take more like 2 hours or less of quick play.

I just felt like I missed out on story development.  It wasn’t a bad experience – I got to role-play a bit and make such amusing rolls as my Honor 8 character rolling Stealth to avoid waking a samurai sleeping in his quarters!  But, it felt nearly hollow.  I never got to fly kites in the strong wind.  I never played my flute.  I barely interacted with the other PCs.  If we would have known how efficient we were being, we could have padded things out with such thematics, but since we didn’t realize we were on the right track, we stayed focused on our mission.

Given that online play of HoR, in my experience, often has lulls, breaks, distractions, or whatever, I think 2 hours of actually doing stuff is probably plenty for any single PC, with the actual amount of time spent by any set of PCs being more like 3 or 3.5 hours if I’m on stage for 2.  Take 3 hours of meaningful stuff going on and add in the breaks and technical issues with Skype, Ventrilo, IRC, or whatever, and you are looking at 4.5 or 5 hours being more like the standard window for playing an HoR mod.

Of course, quality is, again, a consideration as opposed to focusing only on quantity.  Many of my more fun HoR moments involved private conversations with another PC.  Those didn’t necessarily take that much time nor take time away from the group’s activities.

Finally, there was Tuesday night, where I was running our local L5R campaign.  It was all combat, well, with running towards and away from fights.  A tedious pursuit skirmish was followed quickly by a fight, which was followed by fleeing from another possible fight.  We started late, and we didn’t end unusually late, but because of the amount of time taken up with combat, especially 2 hours of trying to chase guys down who started far away, I don’t know how satisfying it was.  It wasn’t terribly L5Rish, for one thing, to be so combat oriented, especially without a solid reason for it being so combat oriented.

On a tangent, pursuit in L5R 4e (and seemingly other editions that were less tactical) is messed up.  You need the GM to allow for Athletics rolls or some such, otherwise, you know exactly how far everyone can move and there are no AoO rules.  Did people already know all of this?  Probably, it wasn’t news to me, being in some pursuit situations myself.  But, this session was a good example of not setting up tactical fights where much of the party is irrelevant for long stretches, even if it made sense to take advantage of the party’s weaknesses.

I would much rather use time effectively for fun stuff, given that our Tuesday night sessions only have around 4 hours in which to complete things.

So, it’s obvious to everyone that how long something takes depends upon the nature of the experience and expectations for the activity (game).  I just thought some actual examples would highlight different aspects of this.  Where I could see playing 2 hour Shadowfist games because I’ve played 2 hour V:TES games and 2 hour B5 games and think 2 hours is okay for a boardgame, maybe 1 hour is on the outside of how long that game should last (for four players).  A RPG session, all inclusive with eating and technical problems and looking stuff up and whatever, that runs 3 hours or less just seems crazy short.  On the other hand, that’s what we’ve booked for Mechwarrior, so we can’t be having a lot of 3+ hour Battletech fights to resolve mech combat.

Ultimately, want to have fun.  Fun isn’t so much tied to time as it is to quality.  But, to some extent, time factors in, especially when a game takes too long to resolve the activity.  For instance, I don’t see why a EuroBoardgame should take more than 2 hours, except when learning/teaching the game.  And, 2+ hour RPG combats usually meant things dragged a lot, unless it was some epic “us against the horde” survival scenario.


Mechfist

July 15, 2013

Yesterday was unusual.

We talked about starting up another Mechwarrior campaign, only with a different GM, based upon talk from last year.  Was looking at 2 players, then 3 players, but, with one of the players away for the Summer, we are down to 2 players, looking at the year or two before the original idea will begin.  I believe we decided that the campaign would start 3026, somewhere around there.  So, the two of us will be building backstory from, I guess, 3024.

In the morning we had our first prequel session.  Mechwarrior is always strange because even though it’s supposed to be about the pilots, the people, the/their world revolves around ‘mechs.  I thought things went well and the situations made sense.  Because I had to run, we saved our first ‘mech engagement for the beginning of next week’s session.

What did I have to run to?

Shadowfist.

I got together with three of the local oldtimers at Earl’s place and we played 3 games of Shadowfist, followed by dinner, followed by … 3 more games.  Yeah, don’t think 6 pickup games of V:TES would happen in one day, certainly not with a start time after 1PM.

I borrowed decks for every game.  We didn’t play Modern, in fact, few Modern only cards were used.  In theory, in August or September, I’ll have a collection again.

First game, I played a Dragon Hero deck, with Reluctant Heroes and Wandering Heroes.  Having no idea how to properly use Independent and Tactics, I didn’t do hardly anything.  Hard to remember too many details of six games in which I’m largely unfamiliar with the cards.  I recall Gangsters and Everything Falls Apart to my left.

Second game, I played an Ascended and CHAR deck.  I got out Shinobu Yashida and CHARs, made a bid for victory, got stopped, sat around for a bit, then made another bid for victory with a Tunneler Drone and won.  Power was gained because Ascended do that.  CHAR was resourced by Arcanomoths.

Third game, I played a Hand + Monkey deck.  I had a bunch of Edges:  Shield of Pure Soul, Mo’ Monkeys, Mo’ Problems, Payback Time, Stand Together (Monkey).  I got out Iron Monkey and a bunch of Big Macaque Attacks.  Players to my left and across were having problems.  So, why did this go badly?  Player to my right was also playing a monkey deck, so all of our Big Macaque Attacks were huge but cancelled each other out.  He played Ba-BOOM!, which I agonized over whether to block.  I smoked everything in play as his deck seemed way out of control.  That let the other players into the game, and I never recovered enough fighting to be relevant.  Even losing lots of sites which gained me a lot of power didn’t rebuild my forces.  Before massive monkey murder, I could have Iron Monkey attacked to the right, the one guy with power at the time, but didn’t.  That and smoking Ba-BOOM! were considered mistakes.

Fourth game, I played the Dragon deck from above, again.  Everyone else played Lotus decks.  Demon Whiskey on my left and Underworld Trackers and Palace Guards meant everyone recovered better than I did.  I did amass a big army of Reluctant Heroes and Wandering Heroes, but I couldn’t punch through Demon Whiskey + Devil’s Rope + Cave Network on my left, and he nuked the world.  I did make a bid for victory but should have seized instead of burned a site as that brought back a bunch of blockers for going after a weakly defended Dockyard for the win.  I made two mistakes.  One was not going for play + seize + win.  Another was not trying to hit for 7 on an undefended, blind Feng Shui Site, which wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

Fifth game was three-player, player to my right was playing 36 card deck for the quick game.  He got out Queen of the Ice Pagoda fast and King of the Fire Pagoda.  I played big power, big dudes Ascended.  I couldn’t Shadowy Mentor with any of the four I ended the game with.  I was totally screwed on power.  Other player was screwed on resources.

So, we played a sixth game.  Two of us played the same decks.  My opponents got screwed on stuff, and I generated obscene amounts of power with Secret Headquarters, Family Estate, FS Sites I played and stuff I took.  My deck was mostly about Ascended Stealth, so El Tigre superleaped to seize two sites, which I’m sure happens all of the time, and I plowed through a space deck’s lack of defenses for the win.

In both the fifth and sixth games, I had to discard like mad to get playable cards.  The hitters were just ridiculously prolific in the deck.  In the little I’ve played Shadowfist, Draco has never done me any favors.

What was interesting was that I had so much more of an idea what was going on in these games than I ever had before.  I had little idea what the abilities of cards in play were, but I think I finally got the rhythm of playing cards, if still not how to decide when to attack.

There are certainly similarities to V:TES as well as the significant differences.  I think V:TES is more forgiving.  Decisions are also less difficult.  Shadowfist is very much about the potential for wild swings but also has grindy elements more akin to V:TES.  I’m pretty sure I know which factions I’ll prefer.  As much as I like the idea of Dragons, they always suck for me, not being controllish enough.

Anyway, I expect to play quite a bit more of both games.  It’s nice to do something different.


RAND()

July 11, 2010

One could read an article by a professional on randomness in gaming (especially Magic) by reading this:  http://www.wizards.com/magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/37

Or, one could read on.

Chess.  I never got into it.  Sure, I played it, not so much with my father who apparently had a real interest in it but for some brief time in high school.  Is chess random?

Well, yes and no.  The game itself is one of a number of games that has no random element to play.  But, I’d contend that every game needs a random component to make it viable.  Chess just happens to have the same random component that every game starts with – the players.  Even if someone argued that a machine playing would not have any randomness to its game, having the machine be an opponent was a random (variable) match of opponents.

I’m not much for chess.  I used to have somewhat more interest in Chinese Chess and other less common members of the family.  But, the problem I have is the perception of solvability, of the mechanical nature of the game.  It’s not enough to have games vary depending upon players or how the players think that day or whatever.  Now, of course, the number of possible moves is high enough that I won’t solve the game, even if I were more interested in doing so.  Still, I fail to see the point.

So, I was playing Talisman last night.  Talisman is pretty much the same game to me as WizWar and a bunch of more mainstream games.  It’s randomness with the payoff having nothing to do with the goal and everything to do with the activity.  If chess fails in being conceptually dull, Talisman fails in being conceptually about nothing.

I’m quite fond of weird/unexpected interactions in games.  I’m pretty sure I can say I try to produce them, which is why I favor games such as CCGs where there’s greater control over the play (is this ironic?).  But, weird/unexpected/whatever is always within a context of what is normal and what isn’t.  When there’s no baseline, no standard of normality, then there’s also no unusual.

Now, someone could play the game differently than what I experience.  Instead of being more interested in screwing over other players for whatever social reasons, players can be memorizing card pools and working out probabilities of any result arising.

RPGs.  Just talking about resolution systems, off the top of my head, I believe every RPG I’ve ever played had some sort of random element to resolution.  Two things …

One, systems that feel too random to me irritate me.  Whatever the actual probability math is on White Wolf games – I’m thinking World of Darkness games, the resolution feels way too high variance to me.  Characters who are supposed to be good at things routinely fail; the opposite – character getting unusually lucky may not bother me at all, after all, I like L5R’s d10 system with its long tail on the high side.  d20 – same problem with perceived excessive variance.  d20 should really be d10 as then proficiency would have a far greater impact, again addressing the appearance that high levels of supposed competence don’t really bear out in actual play.  On the other hand, while failure is often boring, catastrophic failure is often fun, so it could be more about whether a system sufficiently penalizes failure (as I feel that L5R does) rather than the commonality of failure.

I created a new Mechwarrior character yesterday as our first mercenary unit in the Summer campaign we decided upon had a TPF (total party failure).  I used die rolls to randomly determine my lifepaths.  This is MW3, btw, a ludicrous system for character creation.  I had heard of people using spreadsheets to create characters for other systems before, this was the first time I needed to use a spreadsheet to reasonably track the absurd levels of detail and copious amounts of meaningless numbers.  It’s quite amusing how MW1 and MW2 were so restrained when it came to numbering up a character and MW3 goes into some pseudo-realism overload.

Anyway, the overcomplexity of the lifepath system combined with the lack of perceivable connectivity between different aspects of character creation left me with a desire to take the decisions out of my hands.  I didn’t completely randomize character creation, since I wasn’t exactly looking to play an accountant or a farmer.  What did happen, though, showed the strength of having lifecharts in RPGs for those people who need some inspiration.  From the streets of St. Ives Compact to the military academies of the Federated Commonwealth to Knight of Randis – yeah, that’s exactly what I had in mind when I was conceiving of a new character.

Actually, to some extent, it was.  Two sorts of character types are comfortable to me.  No, not brainfolk (scholars, wizards, scientists, etc.).  Rogues (if awfully analytical ones) and paladins.  I tried once to combine the two in a D&D campaign where we used gestalt rules, but I don’t think anyone else got that it wasn’t trying to be wacky but trying to cater to both of my archetypes at once that I was hoping to achieve.  My first MW character was a rogue, if a militaristic one.  This character is, obviously, the paladin.

Of course, there’s my Conan character, a rogue with a streak of paladin.  But, I’m getting way off topic.

CCGs.  What is the most important driver to the appeal of CCGs?  I don’t know.  I’m big on how deck creation enables bringing one’s personality into the game in ways that boardgames can’t achieve.  But, maybe, the most important is the random draw.  A CCG doesn’t really matter if I play my supercool, sweet, neato deck against your lame, banal, loser deck and one deck trumps the other.  There must always be that element of “no guarantees”, just as sports are so popular because sometimes the underdog wins.

I didn’t bother rereading Mark’s article.  I do know that he talked about coin-flipping cards and the like and how randomness isn’t as random as people think.  Games are exercises in probability.  I sucked at probability in school and I still can’t remember the formulae or consistently wrap my head around why they work, but I know that I enjoy the probability games within games.  When I talk about L5R combat being interesting to me, I will get into such things as “I try to figure the 60% probability of success for determining how many raises to call with my character who would have a better roll with an Honor Roll, though circumstances may dictate a tactic of a different risk level.”  With many other games, it’s a matter of trying to approximate the expected value of payoffs for different actions, whether deciding how much to Power Attack for in Conan, the probability of getting a wake or an Archon Investigation when tapping my Dreams when tapped out in front of Dominate bleed, or whether any given player may take first player in Agricola if I don’t this action.

I get into deckbuilding ruts.  In almost every case where I notice it, I think about how one of our former players used a computer program to determine random cards he had to build decks out of.  I couldn’t figure out why he had a Carrion Crows, Tongue of the Serpent deck until I found out that he needed to build around a particular vampire and two library cards.  I thought that was so cool.  Constraints breed creativity, and I frequently have few constraints when it comes to CCG decks I can build.  Much like trying to put together a coherent backstory for a RPG character off of random die rolls can be more fun than simply creating a character without similar constraints, I always thought it would be the big pineapple in the sky to build decks with a random generator.

I believe that CCGs have a great capacity for randomness.  After all, I enjoy multiplayer CCGs, and they are far, far more random than two-player CCGs.  I’m not even sure I prefer two-player CCGs so much as I miss playing them.

Is there a right level of randomness in a game?  Probably, or at least some sort of range of randomness levels.  I go back to the idea that there needs to be a baseline, whether that baseline is a “normal character” in a RPG, a typical series of plays in a CCG matchup, or a typical series of events in a boardgame.  The randomness needs to produce those wacky results that some of us look for.