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Smorgasbord: Summer '19 Report

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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Times seems to fly these days.

Here we are, 6-months later, since the last report on my boardgame activities. My last post was about my game collection woes - and perhaps tipped off by a recent thread, I figured this was good timing to circle back on what I’ve been playing of late and how “the collection” is faring.

First of all, I did a little reorganization of my BGG inventory, and if you click HERE you’ll get a list of ~110 games that I “own” and consider principally part of my collection. I realized one little fatal flaw with my usage of the “has parts” tag to denote games that my household owns but that I don’t consider “mine” - which is that I started getting peppered with requests for game parts! Whups!

Now, I simply take all my owned games and then use the “want to play” flag for those games that I could conceivably desire to play sooner or later (rather than never). This gets us to 110 games and excludes from the list all the assorted kids games (2x copies of Candy land, etc.), games I want to sell/trade away, and other games that would require a “family discussion” were I to try and purge them from the shelf. It’s a reasonably-sized feeling list - and while there are few in there still listed for trade, unloading them is a low priority.

WHAT HAS BEEN PLAYED

But enough of that! You want to hear about all the games I’ve been playing over the past few months. I’ll start with a listing and then dive into specific titles in more detail below. Here we go!

* Sekigahara (x3)
* Root (x3)
* Aerion (6+)
* Sylvion (2x)
* Blue Lagoon (~10x)
* Broom Service! (~10x)
* Hand of the King (~12x)
* Ginkgopolis (1x)
* The Game (12x)
* Heroes of Terrinoth (~10x)
* Keyforge! (40+)
* Kingdomino - Age of Giants (~12x)
* Lord of the Rings (3x partial games)
* Raiders of the North Sea (1x)
* Small World (3x)
* Shadows Amsterdam (1x)
* Yellow & Yangzee (2x)
* Wizards Wanted (6x)



Sekigahara (x3)
Last update, I had recently acquired but not yet played Sekigahara. Since then I’ve played it three times and this title has made quite the impression. It’s my first foray into block wargames (and I should mention I’ve only dabbled with wargames overall). My friend and I have been embarking on “Sake and Seki” sessions, when where we split a bottle of warm Sake and replay the famous reunification wars in 1,600 Japan.

It’s not a terribly complicated game - but there are a lot of subtitles to the rules that are easy to miss (or maybe that was the Sake?). We had some fatal rule fumbles in the first two games (realized afterwards), but we’re getting the hang of it now. The interplay between force movement and cards is really tremendous and creates a fascinating decision space and tons of tension and uncertainty about how the battles will pay out. Really enjoying this one more and more with each play.

Root (3x)
Root continues to captivate my friend group as well as the younger generation of kids and nephews - who are surprisingly adept at internalizing all of the rules and quirks in the game. I understand people’s criticism about the need for “player-driven balancing” (aka table talk and negotiation). But for me, this player-to-player interaction and brinkmanship is exactly what makes certain games (e.g. Root) so fun and engaging for me (and explains my general dislike for lower interaction engine-builders).

I’ve kickstarted the second expansion for Root (due later this year), and looking to dive into that when it lands. I feel like I’m just barely getting a handle on the first expansion factions. So much to dig into in this game.



Aerion (3x)
I recently picked up Aerion, which is the 6th game in the Oniverse series. I adore this series, not just for the artwork but for the great solo and co-op gameplay. Onirim has long been a favorite of mine.

In any case, I “think” Aerion might take the cake for my favorite solo game and possibly favorite Oniverse game as well. Aerion tasks you with building a series of airships by managing a flow of cards that emanate from six stacks, which you draft from using dice in a yahtzee-like die rolling fashion. There are clever means of cards affecting dice in turn affecting card draws, that is a delightful puzzle to sort out. But it has enough randomness to force you to adapt and keep on your toes.

As with other games in the series, the box comes with half a dozen “expansions” to layer more onto the game. So far, I’ve found that expansion #1 (flagship) and #6 (with the hellkite) to be a nice balance of maintaining focus on core gameplay while adding just enough other tensions to open up the decision space more. Love this one.

Sylvion (2x)
I also went back to Sylvion briefly, as it had been a while since I played it last. Not too much to report. I like the theme and basic structure of this one, but depending on your card draft and hands drawn, the experience oscillates wildly between overly easy to downright impossible. In some ways, it feels like it plays itself and I’m not sure there is enough player agency in the mix.



Blue Lagoon (~10x)
I picked this up a few weeks back on vacation, after eyeballing it a whole bunch over the past few months. I’m so glad I picked this one up - and even more excited that I’ve got it to the table a few times a week! It’s been a hit with everyone: kids, friends that aren't “gamers”, my wife, other people’s kids, gamer friends. It’s quite easy to teach - although for many people it’s one of those games where you just need to play a round and see how the scoring works for it all to click. It’s awesome watching people’s eyes light up when they start to see how it all connects.

It’s also one of those games - true to many of Knizia’s designs - where the depth continues to open up the more you play. There is a ton of nuance in where you place huts, both to make it easier to get onto islands in the second round but also to potentially block your opponents from islands and/or resources. The first round is interesting for it’s Go-like feeling of having this big decision space where you are pre-positioning and scattering your influence in hopes of linking it all together later in the round. Just amazing.

Broom Service (~10x)
My 5-year old - somehow - has processed this game to a freaky level. She’s memorized what all the cards do and has a crazy ability to program out her turns. Anyway - I still enjoy this game and it hits the table pretty often.



Hand of the King (12+)
I’ve had this game for a while, and on a lark brought it out to a family restaurant. I broke it out while waiting for food and the kids took to it immediately. Maybe it’s the artwork (very cool), or that it’s a way for them to “get in” on the Games of Thrones mystique (no - they have not watched the show!). I like this game for its simplicity. It does a great job getting the kids to “think ahead” about making moves that benefit themselves but tempered against not giving their opponent an even better follow-up move. Fun, quick game.

Ginkgopolis (1x)
I dug this one back out with my friend group as we were discussing various game design topics and I mentioned this as an example of a “clockwork” design where there are these different systems that feed into each other. Tile placement and board control connects to card play and drafting, which connects to tableau building, which connects to scoring and back to the board, etc.

That said - my fondness for the game plummeted after playing it again. I was reminded of how utterly fiddly this game is. Passing and managing cards, making sure to check the tableau, placing reminders on new tiles so you remember to sort through the decks to add the cards to the other deck when it gets reshuffled. Juggling tiles and resources and score tokens behind your player screen. I think this is a game I appreciate more from a conceptual and aesthetic standpoint that I do from actually playing it.

The Game (~12x)
This has a similarity to “The Mind” (I’m not up to speed on the origins of these respective titles), as a game where you take turns trying to play cards in numerical order across four lines. It’s okay. Doesn’t do a lot for me and if I’m going to play a non-coordinative co-op I’d much rather play Hanabi.

Heroes of Terrinoth (6x)
I was on the quest for a nice cooperative dungeon crawler game. I’d been eyeballing Warhammer Quest (Card Game) for a long time, and this reimplementation of it seemed worth trying. I really like the mechanics and basic structure of this game. However, it feels overly procedural and doesn’t flow all that well. I also think it misses the appeal of dungeon crawlers with respect to character advancement. “Leveling up” your skills during the game is nice, but no substitute for acquiring skills and gear that persist between games and builds more attachment to your character (like say Hero Quest or Mice & Mystics). The kiss of death on this is that the setup time is agonizing. You have to organize all the stacks of enemy and item cards and rebuild a deck for each mission. It’s ridiculously irritating.

Keyforge (40+)
Oh boy. I’ve really fallen for this game (as you might have noticed from my last blog article). I started with two decks at the start of this summer, and now I have… maybe 18? Anyway - a bunch of buddies have got into it as well, so we all have a fun time playing. It scratches the Magic the Gathering itch without relying on the time consuming card collection and deck construction cycle. It’s great having a fixed deck that you can spend time learning more and getting better at playing, instead of endlessly fiddling with your deck lists. I really enjoy the structure and pace of the gameplay too - very dynamic.

Kingdomino - Age of Giants (~12x)
I’ve enjoyed Kingdomino since it came out, and my 5-year old in particular really enjoys it too. I picked up Age of Giants expansion for her birthday and it’s gone over well. It adds a pretty light layer onto the gameplay along with a fun thematic element. ‘Nuff said.



Lord of the Rings (3x partial games)
This is a case where I owned the game once upon a time, sold it off unplayed, and then re-bought it second hand. Mostly, my kids were interesting Lord of the Rings after we watched bits and pieces of the first movie, and started looking at Lord of the Rings games…. and here we are.

In any event - this game is an oddity in the history of gaming. It was an early cooperative design and one that was structured around a finely crafted set of events following (loosely) the narrative of the books. Parts of the game feel very outdated (I’m playing the original version BTW) from a clarity and graphic/iconography standpoint. It makes the game a little hard to manage (and the kids struggle to follow the phasing and turn structure). I feel like this game could do with a redesign. But even as is, we’ve been having a fun time working through it in stages.

Raiders of the North Sea (2x)
Snuck in a couple of plays of this, one with the gamer group and one with my 8-year old. Not too much to say that I haven’t before. As far as worker placement games go, this is one I find palatable. Reasonably interactive, competing for shared space (reminds me of Caylus in way), quick turns, amazing art.

Small World (3x)
I stumbled back into Small World and have been playing a bunch with my 8-year old. Years ago I played a ton of 2-player Small World, which I vastly prefer over 3+ players, so it’s nice to go back to that. This is a solid and streamlined design. I am on the hunt for the Realms expansion (that lets you build randomized maps) as my only complaint is that the board geometry is fixed and leads to similar gameflows from game to game.

Shadows Amsterdam (1x)
Finally managed to get this to the table at a family gathering, where we played with a nice mix of kids and adults. It’s a really cool concept, and has structural similarities to Code Names (two teams each with a clue giver and multiple guessers). The design is a little fiddly feeling for what it is, and it can be an awful lot to visually parse at times. Need to play it more with some different groups to see how it goes over.

Wizards Wanted (6x)
Ths kids and I have been playing this one quite a bit. Who knew that Mattel was in the business of designing movement programming and resource management, set collection games? The theme here is wacky (kids love it), and the gameplay is a little fiddly at times for what essentially amounts to racing around the board and collecting cards. But there is some enjoyment to be had in puzzling out the optimal moves to get you to where you want to be ahead of your opponents. Amazing components for a $20 game!



Yellow & Yangtze (3x)
Played more games of Y&Y, and deeper opinions are starting to form. Despite being so similar to Tigris & Euhprates at the structural and overall goal level - the differences in these games are really stark in terms of the flow of play. The more I play, the more different these feel.

In general, I like Y&Y for the hex-based system and (most) of the tile actons - like discarding two blue farmers for a catastrophe, or two traders to move a pagoda. The off-board leader abilities are also a nice touch and can add a good wrinkle to the gameplay. However, what I miss from T&E is (1) treasures on the starting tiles as a driver for play (and more interaction) in the early game; (2) the greater stability of monuments creating more geography on the game board and a less volatile landmark to fight over; (3) the system for resolving fights.

The streamlining the fights in Y&Y, while seemingly simpler from a rules standpoint, at times create odd counter-intuitive situations. For example, when a player has leaders in two different kingdoms, despite “winning” one side of their fight, their own leaders in the losing side might nevertheless be displaced. It’s a little strange and disincentives the co-mingling of leaders and kingdoms that is such a cornerstone of Tigris & Euphrates.

I’d love to have a game that blended both games and did so in a more 2-player friendly manner perhaps. Maybe it’s time to restart design work on Rhine & Rhone?

LOOKING DOWN THE ROAD

I set a soft goal (resolution?) to try and get my remaining unplayed games played this year. There aren’t too many on the unplayed list:



* Acquire (low interest - I have a copy for vintage purposes mostly)

* Brutal Kingdom - I bought this on a whim and didn’t really do my homework. Given the player count and style I’m not likely to get this to the table ever. Feels really overwrought for what it is.

* Condottiere - Also bought on a whim. I’m hoping to get this to table. Feels like a great, tight blending of incremental trick-taking and area scoring.

* Domaine - Bought this at a garage sale year. This is great seeming abstract-ish game, based on my solo-play and learning the rules. Feels like it occupies a similarish design space as T&E/Y&Y, as a complex spatial abstract with a layer of theming on top.

* Fabled Fruit - I bought this as a drafting/deck-ish building game (mostly) for the kids, hoping the theme would be of interest to them. But every time I pull it out and suggest we give it a try it gets the vacant stare of disapproval. Might need to go on the purge pile...

* Mission: Red Planet - Benn sitting on the shelf for a while now, sadly. I love Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti games and this one looks like a great combination of elements. I just need to push this one a little to get it to the table.

* Monad - Odd little Sid Jackson relic. No intention or great urge to get it to the table. Mostly have as a collection item.

* Pocket Mars - Purchased as part of homework on other Mars-related games. Seems like a cool, quick playing design. But somehow doesn’t seem all that exciting, so it might be a tougher sell getting it to the table.

* Tea Dragon Society Card Game - Another one the kids don’t seem too interested in playing. I think they’ll like it if I can catch them in the right mood. The game is designed to be played “open hand” which should make it pretty easy to teach. I love the theme and artwork.

* Via Nebula - Picked this up in a math trade, after eyeballing it for a long time. This is kinda-sorta a super streamlined train game but presented via (no pun intended?) a completely different theme. The kids love the artwork and the piggy-meeples. Hoping to play this soon.

* Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow - Not likely to play this anytime soon. Grabbed it for $1 at a garage sale. I think I’d also chose to play Mascarade (different game style I know), over something like this. Could be good to hold onto for the right moment though. Maybe a fun campfire activity with the whole family?

Beyond the unplayed stuff, there are plenty of games I want to get back to the table. A Study in Emerald is #1 on that list. I only played it once (and loved it), so need to bring it back with more people. I’d like to get some games of Tigris & Euphrates in again soon for comparative purposes, and I’d also like to revisit Glen More, which I haven't played in quite some time. Oh, and Inca Empire (aka Catan on steroids). And so many more..

So many games, so little time. Cheers until next time!
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Thu Jul 18, 2019 4:38 pm
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Self-Deception & My Game Collection

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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File this post under first world problems. Or privileged peoples’ problems if you want.

After all, how silly is it to cry “woe is me, for I have too many board games on my shelf and it’s causing me psychological grief!” I suppose one small consolation is that at least I can use the opportunity to impart games to people that can put them to use (i.e. play them). But we’ll get to that..

How did this start?

Recently I looked at my BGG “owned game” tally, and was rather surprised to see that it said 179 games. How did that happen? What made it worse is that I know that isn’t even all of the games sitting in my house. There are dozens more kids game procured from garage sales or bargain bins that I never owned up to in my BGG collection.

Now, 179 games may not sound like a lot to many BGG users, but for many others it’s surely a ridiculous number. For me it feels like entirely too much. In an ideal scenario I’d have maybe 10 or 20 games that were the ones I really, truly loved. Okay, maybe 25 or 30 and. And surely not any more than 50. 75 would be right out. But 179? Downright lunacy.

It bothers me to see that number and to know that a great many of those games are sitting on the shelf and haven’t been played in years. Thankfully only a few linger entirely unplayed, as I am pretty good about getting everything to the table at least once. But still, I don’t “feel” like someone that wants to own 179 games.

And thus begins the self-deception....

First of all, are all of these 179 games really “my games”? The answer is no. Quite a few, when it comes down to it, are games that aren’t really “mine.” They are games that if it were only up to me, and I didn’t have anyone else consider (you know, like my children) then the games would be donated to the nearest store ASAP. But I can’t go throwing out my 4-year olds copy of Candyland, or my wife’s copy of Sorry! that she’s had since she was a kid. I’m not a monster.

So I asked myself this: if it were purely up to me, would I get rid of this game immediately? Games that met this criteria I removed from my owned list and shuffled over to the “Has Parts” list. While I was at it, I moved all my miniature game stuff over to that category as well. The six editions of Warhammer 40k, stacks of Battletech books, various CCG leftovers, etc. are categorically a different animal than the “board games” on my shelf, so they’ve been banished from the list. 38 down. 141 to go.

Next up, I got in touch with a local high school that was starting a board game club and wanted games to get their library started. Without further ado I posted a list of all the games on my “for trade” list that wasn’t a high value item (I don’t have many of those anyway). They said they’d take one modest stack (and were quite humble about it). So I did the charitable thing and gave them “two” modest stacks of games instead. 13 more down. 128 games left.

Next up I have 8 games on my trade list. Most of which I’d be fine just snapping my fingers and having them go away. I have copy of “Hegemonic” for trade, but really I have nearly a dozen copies sitting my basement. I like to donate or drop copies of this game off at places I visit (that are receptive to it of course). Ignoring Hegemonic, that’s nevertheless 7 games that I’d part with readily. I moved these to “For Trade” and removed from the owned category. Down to 121.

Last up are expansions. These are included as owned “board games” but also tallied separately under the expansions section. I have 13 of those at the moment. I’m pretty religious about stuffing expansions into base game boxes, and they are sort of a package deal at that point. So that’s 13 more down, bringing us to XXX games. We seem to be getting into more reasonable territory here.

So that leaves me with 108 games. Much better than 179, but still above where I’d like to be.

To Prune or not Prune the Collection?

108 games is still far more than I can reasonably expect to play in any sort of regular manner. There are games I’ve played just once, years ago, languishing on the shelf. And so I have to be honest with myself about answering this question: why do I still have these games? The answer is… nuanced.

There are some games that I own, simply because I enjoy the fact that I own it, if nothing else than for its aesthetic, sentimental, and/or collection value (not necessarily monetary value mind you). If I had all the time in world, I would surely find time to play these games too - but baring that, I get some value out of simply having them.

Inca Empire for example is game that I really liked the one time I played it. It’s also a jaw droppingly beautiful game (IMHO). Even if I won’t play again for years - or maybe never - I still like it on the shelf. Fantasitqa is a game I bought because (a) I love the cover painting by Caspar David Friedrich and (b) I bought it at BGG con during the launch of Hegemonic. So it has some sentiment attached to it.

As I discussed in a previous post of this nature, at this point in the self-deception I find it useful to consider groupings of related or similar games and ask myself: if given the choice between playing A or B (assuming A & B are relatively in terms of style of game, length of play, etc.), is there one I’d always rather play? If so, I should boot the other one out of the collection.

What follows is a list of the 25-games I most want to keep with an eye towards covering my bases in terms of style of game, playtime, likely audiences, and so on. So this ultimately reflects a broad range of games, from those I enjoy playing with my kids to big meaty games that will take a whole afternoon or evening to play. In addition to these top 25, I’ve also flagged about 30 runner ups that I’d strongly like keep to round out the collection. The rest? If they vanished one day I probably wouldn’t bother trying to replace them.

In no particular order...


Asymmetric / COIN-series like


#1: Root

DESCRIPTION: This is an amazing game in a lot of interesting ways, and a fascinating case study on the current market and trends in the design of boardgames. While I'm likely never going to dig into really heavy wargames, this one scratches at the edges of GMT's COIN series games. Asymmetric player factions, plays 2-6 players, has solo/cooperative modes. Feels both sandboxy and tightly designed. Wonderful.


Block Wargames

#?: Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan

I've only played this one once, which was awesome (and just happened recently). I'll see how repeat plays go, but I may need to chisel out a space in the collection for this.


2-Player Light Battle/War Game


#2: Iron Curtain

DESCRIPTION: Basically a 20-minute version of Twilight Struggle that captures the essence of the ops vs. event card play, area majority on the world map, and variable scoring timing that is at the core of the original game. I'm really impressed with how satisfying this game is for being in such a small package. Only complaint is that the box is too big!


Empire Games / Dudes of a Map / Wuero Hybrids


#3: Antike

DESCRIPTION: Fabulous rondal game of ancient civilizations. Has just enough historical notes to make it feel like a proper civilization game but in a reasonable playtime. A few house rules even out the timing of the end game when more players are involved to keep things from overstaying their welcome. A very clean and classic feeling game.


#4: Cyclades

DESCRIPTION: A true hybrid / wuero-style game that combines dudes on a map style area control with a clever bidding system. Awesome pacing.


#5: Runewars

DESCRIPTION: Super impressed by the times I've played this game. A poster child for Ameritrash-style games from FFG.

Runner Ups:
* Civilization

Adventure Games

To be frank - I don't have one of these that sits in the top 25. I am on the look out for an interesting adventure game, and there certainly are tons of them on the market, but none I've played have really grabbed me.

Runner ups:

* HeroQuest - bad boy from the late 80's
* Key to the Kingdom - my daughter loves this hideous throwback. Nostalgia in effect
* Tiny Epic Quest - Zelda inspired compact adventure game. Pretty slick.

I guess I'm still on the hunt for the right kind of adventure game. I do have some ideas sketched out for one that I'd like to make. More to come on that front - one day.


Beer & Pretzels

This is a category where I own a bunch of games but frankly don't have much interest in playing them. Too much chaos and not enough interesting choices. And these can be frustrating for the kids. Doesn't really have an audience anymore.

Runner-ups:
* King of Tokyo
* Illuminati (this game still has a special place in my heart though!)
* Plague & Pestilence


Lightweight / Quick Games


#6: 5-Minute Dungeon

DESCRIPTION: This is a real-time cooperative card-based dungeon crawler. And it's a blast with almost anyone. Fun times.

Runner ups:
* Rhino Hero
* Pit


#7: Sushi Go!

DESCRIPTION: About all you need to in card drafting game.

Runner ups:
* Sea of Clouds


#8: Kingdomino

DESCRIPTION: Awesome little puzzle building game. Love this one.

Runner ups:
* Fairy Tile


Role Selection / Set Collection (Family Game)


#8: Broom Service

DESCRIPTION: This has become one of my favorite family games. There is a tremendous amount of variability within the game and the various optional/advanced rules that can be tacked onto it. Great deduction and double-think angle.

Runner ups:
* Witches Brew
* Mission: Red Planet (unplayed)


Tile-Laying (Family Game)


#10: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers

DESCRIPTION: A favorite game for me and my wife. Builds on the classic game with enough twists to keep the gameplay fresh and tense after 100's of plays. Great, great game.

Runner-Up:
* Explorers of the North Sea - tile laying crossed with pick-up and deliver and a simple action point system. Pretty fun game, just not exceptional.


#11: Taluva

DESCRIPTION: A masterful game of multi-level tile laying. Plays quick but has tense gameplay from the opening moments to the end. Really excellent design.

Runner ups:
* Hive
* IOTA


Press Your Luck / Dice Rolling

I also don't own a great game in this category. But maybe that's okay - but I'm sure I'm missing some classics in here.

Runner Ups:
* Roll through the Ages
* Loot


Cooperative & Solo Games


#12: Onirim (second edition)

DESCRIPTION: I like this game *a lot*. Plays well solo or with 2. 7 Expansions in the game box provides all kinds of ways to add variability and different challenges to the core game. Amazing artwork.

Runner-Ups:
* Sylvion - part of the Oniverse (with Onirum)
* Castellion - also in the series


#13: The Grizzled

DESCRIPTION: Both thought-provoking and challenging gameplay. Brilliant execution and handling of the subject matter. Strikes a nice balance between coordinative and non-coordinative play.

Runner ups:
* Hanabi
* Pandemic Cthulhu
* Lost Expedition


Social Deduction / Bluffing


#14: Mascarade

DESCRIPTION: Off all the love letter, coup, citadels style games - this remains my favorite. The game can be a real mind-bender with just 2-3 players but also scales up to being a whole roomful of people activity if you want it to be.

Runner ups:
* Citadels
* Coup


Complex Card Games (Eurogame)


#15: Innovation

DESCRIPTION: Fantastic small box game with big brain-burning gameplay. So much variability and interesting card combinations make this is a solid classic in my book.



#16: Race for the Galaxy

DESCRIPTION: Race for Galaxy is an excellent, excellent game. It really does require that everyone have a firm grasp on the mechanics and the pool of cards in order to make smart decisions. For that reason, I have a hard time getting to the table. Thank god for the digital implementation with a pretty decent AI.

Runner ups:
* Villages of Valeria
* Pocket Mars (unplayed)


Deck-Building / Bidding / Other Stuff


#17: A Study in Emerald

DESCRIPTION: A Study in Emerald (first edition) is the kind of game I'm increasingly being drawn to. It's not perfect and clean and clear. It's convoluted and messy in many ways. And yet it's such a deeply interesting game. The deck building combined with area control and bidding and hidden roles and all of it makes the game almost more impressive as a story generator than as a game. But it's a damn fine game too.

Runner ups:
* Hit Z Road
* Fantastiqa
* Serica: Plains of Dust
* Star Realms


Map-Centric Euros(Area Control & Tile Placement)


#18: Yellow & Yangtze

DESCRIPTION: Could it be that I'm placing this above Tigris & Euphrates. Whatever the reason, it's made it to the table more than T&E and I like hexes more than squares. But seriously - Y&Y is a more approachable if more forgiving game, and yet has a nuance and character all of its own. I think I like it more. Maybe it's not the deeper of the two games, but it's deep enough and balances it well against other aspects.

Runner ups:
* Tigris & Euphrates
* Samurai
* Domaine (haven't played this yet!)
* Acquire


#19: Eight-Minute Empire: Legends

DESCRIPTION: I really like this game for its compactness, quick playtime, and high degree of interactivity. I adore Ryan's artwork as well. Kinda like a miniaturized version of El Grande without quite as much brain burn.

Runner ups:
* Small World (really like this one still, awesome 2-player game)
* Condottiere (unplayed)


Engine Building / Clockwork Games

Clockwork games are my term for games - and generally eurogames - that combine a bunch of a different mechanics together into some big engine building thing. My tolerance is generally pretty low for this sort of thing.


#20: Raiders of the North Sea

DESCRIPTION: I really, really like this game. It reminds me bit of Caylus in that it's a worker placement game that focuses on the jockeying for spaces on a shared board. Awesome theming and artwork seal the deal.

Runner ups:
* Stone Age: I play this one as math practice with my kids!


#21: Glen More

DESCRIPTION: Probably the most solitaire-like tableau building game I have. Nice and small package with a clever tile selection system that nicely balances jumping ahead for a juicy reward against taking more actions. The tile placement puzzles are fun to work out.

Runner ups:
* Ginkopolis: Gosh I really like this game too. Has more shared board space in the area control game, but there are so many mechanics in thi one that it can feel a little incoherent. But I so like it.


#22: Inca Empire

DESCRIPTION: Another game I need to play more. It's like the next step on the Catan rung, with a combination of network building and shared assets. Absolutely gorgeous looking game too. Really need to get it to the table more.


Rank & Suit Style Games


#23: Decktet

DESCRIPTION: Amazing. 6-suited, dual suited deck oozing in mystique. So many amazing games can be played with it.

Runner ups:
* Lost Cities
* Rook
* Wizard
* Pixie Deck
* Badger Deck
* Traditional Cards


#24: The Fox in the Forest

DESCRIPTION: Excellent 2-player trick taking game.

Runner ups:
* Odin's Ravens


#25: Arboretum

DESCRIPTION: A lovely, lovely game. It can be a serious brain burner for sure. Reminds me a bit of golf but with more nuance and depth in the scoring and card arrangements.

Runner ups:
* Red 7
* Lords of Scotland
* Monad


Traditional Abstracts

All excellent stuff - but I prefer slightly less abstract games.

Runner ups:
* Bakcgammon
* Cribbage
* Go
* Othello




Well there you have it. If I had to pair things down to just 25 games, this would be it. To recap:

* Carcassone: Hunters & Gatherers (2002)
* Taluva (2006)
* Antike (2006)
* Race for the Galaxy (2007)
* Decktet (2008)
* Cyclades (2009)
* Glen More (2010)
* Inca Empire (2010)
* Innovation (2010)
* Rune Wars (2013)
* Study in Emerald (2013)
* Eight Minute Empire: Legends (2013)
* Mascarade (2013)
* Sushi Go (2014)
* Onirim (2014)
* Broom Service (2015)
* Raiders of the North Sea (2015)
* The Grizzled (2015)
* Arboretum (2015)
* Kingdomino (2016)
* 5-Minute Dungeon (2017)
* Iron Curtain (2017)
* Fox in the Forest (2017)
* Yellow & Yangtze (2018)
* Root (2018)

Now... How about you?
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Tue Dec 18, 2018 4:12 am
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The Inglorious State Of 4X Games

Oliver Kiley
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NOTE: This article was originally posted at eXplorminate. Head over to eXplorminate to get your fix for 4X and strategy game news, reviews, and more.





Greetings! If you haven’t listened to the 33rd Strategic Expanse – 4th Anniversary Hangout featuring all of the lesser (I’m jesting) eXplorminate staffers then please stop reading this and go listen to that first. The rest of this little rant (thoughtful article?) will make a bit more sense with the proper context. With that out of the way…

I’m elated that, despite my absence on the podcast episode, my name was referenced (usually couched in swear words) a significant number of times. That means you’re all listening to me, which is good because it makes me feel a little less like a crazy person screaming into the wind – and more justified because I’m sure you’ll agree that I’m right. And if you don’t agree now, then maybe you’ll agree to agree with me sometime in the future. Only time will tell.

Alright, alright, enough of the snarkiness.


This episode, live from the Galactic News Network.


The StraX episode centered on a number of big questions pertaining the 4X genre:

*** What is the current state and market of the genre?
*** What needs to happen to evolve or innovate the genre?
*** What are the low points and the high points in the genre?
*** What are you playing now and looking forward to?

All of these are very serious and important questions. And so are my answers.

State of the 4X Market

Many have described the past few years as a new Golden Age for the genre, while others insist that it was only a Silver Age or, perhaps, a Renaissance. There is no doubt that we have seen more big titles (exhibit A: the 4X database) with bigger budgets and from big publishers, as well as indie games, released to the 4X market than any other time in the past. But looking back, I would not call this a Golden or Silver Age.

Perhaps the Gilded Age is a more apt comparison. We’ve certainly witnessed an explosion in the total sales and number of games being released, as well as an industrialization and commercialization of the genre. But frankly, it feels like a veneer of gold (aka sexier graphics and features) plated over a dearth of design innovation. New shiney look, same old stuff.


What do the Gilded Age and Cthulhu-looking monsters have in common?


Many of the big games are merely a modern regurgitation of the classic formulas, and I’m not convinced the underlying designs are all that much better. The resulting opulence of new mechanical systems and features have added little to the narrative structure or strategic depth of 4X games. We’re still stuck in the same basic pattern of sending out colony ships/pods/carts, optimizing our cities/colonies, incrementing along tech trees, and waging war/diplomacy with typically incompetent AIs in pursuit of boring victory thresholds where it’s evident who is going to win hours before the ending arrives. We’re still stuck, thoroughly, in this colonization paradigm. Maybe this paradigm is, by definition, what a 4X has to be – but I don’t really buy that. I want better.

I would be doing a disservice to the genre and its fans if I didn’t mention that there are games nipping at the heels of this paradigm. Thea comes to mind, with its focus on questing and survival in a hostile environment. Or the promise of Stellaris (delivered on or not?) to be a grand simulation sandbox where all things are possible. Or the focus of Age of Wonders 3 on its deep and diverse tactical combat system. Or Star Ruler 2’s quirky take on diplomacy and planet management. Even the highly asymmetrical factions of Endless Space 2 and Endless Legend are a step in the right direction.

But really, none of that is enough. Maybe I’m hard to please or I just hold game creators to a higher standard. Or maybe it’s as Brad Wardell said in my interview with him: “We [4X] developers kinda suck … There is what we want to do in games and then there is ‘what we’re able to do’ given the size of the market.” Well, the market recently got a lot bigger. What now?

The fundamental question is this: how do we want the genre to innovate? My worry is that we had this big Gilded Age opportunity, where the market turned its eye to 4X games, and instead of offering up something novel and amazing, developers just put out more of the same. I really hope we didn’t miss our window to innovate and gain traction with a larger audience.


I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.


So, how can the 4X genre innovate?

A few things come to mind, but the biggest by FAR, is the need for more varied and engaging victory systems and end-game triggers. This is critical for the future of the genre.

First of all, it has to do with the variety of experiences on offer within the 4X genre. How many 4X games rely on the same old combination of conquest, economic, political, and technological victory conditions? Almost all of them do. And as a consequence, we’re really just playing the same damn race-to-victory game reskinned a dozen different ways. The hoops and hurdles we go through along the way – fighting off barbarians or space pirates, optimizing build orders, chasing pointless quests – don’t make for truly different experiences.

It’s my view that the arc and the narrative structure of 4X games (not the plotline mind you, but rather the story created by the sequence of strategic choices you make) is largely the same. So many of us play out the opening moves (exploration phase) only to abandon it when we reach the point where we know how the rest of the story will go. Once the mystery is gone, the illusion is shattered and our motivation to keep playing plummets.


Shattered dreams, like this broken window.


There are two aspects to this issue of victory systems that are important to acknowledge. One plays into the strategic depth and challenge in games and the other plays into our desire for roleplaying and immersion. I feel, these two aspects are frequently at odds with one another in the design of 4X games – with successful games tending to fall more on one side or the other. Games that appeal to both sides – the “grand unification of 4X games” – seem non-existent.

For example, AoW3 clearly places its design emphasis and victory conditions around strategic warfare and tactical challenges. On the opposite end is something like Stellaris – a great big sandbox where you can live out your fantasy as the hive-mind behind a race of xenophobic hamster slave-masters… Or whatever strikes your fancy. The point being, victory conditions in Stellaris are irrelevant to the game’s larger purpose of letting you craft a story and inhabit a universe. In the third corner of the ring is a game like King of Dragon Pass or Six Ages (admittedly not a traditional 4X by any stretch) – which genuinely puts the narrative first and foremost and structures the gameplay around these events.

Incidentally, the game that has come the closest to this unification is Emperor of the Fading Suns, which is a big beautiful mess of a game. But it takes the idea of a clever victory condition (in this case snatching a certain number of “scepters of power” from the hands of rival houses) to reach victory. You can get these through diplomatic exchange, warfare, or espionage. The key is that these tools are all applied towards a common, narratively-based win condition – they aren’t separate tracks that lead to a divergent victory point. It forces players to adapt and think deeply rather than to merely follow a pre-baked pathway to the finish line. Why aren’t more developers remaking this game (instead of yet another MoO2-clone)?


Empire of the Fading Suns: A forgotten dream of what a 4X could be.


So, I believe that the biggest potential for innovation is the idea of crafting more unique and varied victory conditions that are tightly coupled to the roleplaying and narrative-building aspects of the game. It’s creating new strategic challenges and marrying that to a roleplaying experience. I don’t think this is terribly hard to accomplish and I feel like it can be achieved within the structure of many existing games. Nevertheless, novel approaches to victory are critical for enabling whole new 4X gameplay experiences to emerge.

Let’s consider Stellaris again. What if it was restructured such that multiple crises occur simultaneously (and perhaps in competition with each other) and your faction’s ethics align you with one of these sides? The result is a grueling geopolitical nightmare scenario. But if you survive (and are hence on the winning side), your race ascends to godhood and you win the game. The struggle is real, but the rewards are worth it. Suddenly, the game isn’t about merely surviving and creating your little sandbox story, instead it is connected to a much bigger narrative that has huge mysterious consequences for the how the endgame will play out. It blows my mind that these sorts of ideas aren’t developed or implemented more often.

Amplitude has taken some steps in the direction with faction quests from Endless Legend – but in that case they feel too isolated and disconnected from what the other factions are doing. In ES2 they forgot that idea entirely, it seems. They also missed a huge opportunity to inject a game-winning geopolitical challenge via the Academy quest line. The Academy quest could be cool but it’s implemented in a totally janky and superficial way. It could be so much more. And so could the entire 4X genre.


Not even a Samurai bear could save StarDrive2’s sad ending.


Low points and high points

My low points in the past few years – as it relates to 4X games – are many. The saga of Stardrive 1 & 2 stands out. Not so much because of the developer’s antics (although that has been a challenge) but because SD2 was so close to being a modern MoO2 replacement. I wanted it to succeed so that, if nothing else, we could finally and definitely say, “Here is the modern MoO2 game – it’s great and awesome. Can we move on to new ideas now?” I enjoyed my time with SD2 in particular, but its buggy final state makes me sad.

So many other 4X games, space ones in particular, just failed to grab me. Galactic Civilizations 3, Stars in Shadow, ES2, Stellaris, Dawn of Andromeda, Oriental Empires – I tried and want to like them more, but it’s just the same story each time and I’m looking for a different experience. And for those wondering, despite what Stellaris claims to be, it is far more of a traditional run-of-the-mill 4X than it appears, and from that lens it’s boring. It’s the pinnacle of optimization based gameplay and I just don’t care for it (nevermind that the fundamentals and meta of the game keep changing from version to version). The soundtrack however is freaking awesome. I still listen to that in the car.


“Ahh, it feels so good to be so bad!”


My high points in recent years come down, primarily, to two games.

The first is AoW3, which was released on the early end of this Golden/Silver/Gilded age. The game is often derided as a 4X “lite” but I think it’s all the better for having a clear focus on combat and strategic warfare. The game cuts out the tedious city-building optimization stuff (or greatly streamlines it) and instead focuses on more interesting strategic conundrums: where to position forces, what units to bring to bear, how to hold multiple fronts, how to control objective triggers, and so on. It can be tense and varied, and I think it’s really great.

The other highlight is the Total War: Warhammer series. We can argue about whether it’s a 4X or just enough in the 4X family, but it scratches the itch of building an empire and waging strategic warfare like few other games manage. Almost every choice matters, and the margins for error are slim. The factions all have unique and interesting mechanics, and things like the Vortex campaign are a perfect illustration of creating interesting victory systems that connect throughout the game’s design and strategic decision points. Awesome stuff.

What I’m playing now and in the future

To be honest, I’m on a hiatus from 4X games until the next wave arrives. Mostly I’ve been indulging my inner Warhammer-geek by playing far too much Vermintide 2 for my own good. If you have any interest in Left 4 Dead-style cooperative FPS games – Vermintide is a blast. Pay no attention to the people complaining about loot drop rates and weapon balance. This is a cooperative game – play it for the moment.


Star Traders: Frontiers – another planet, another delectable spice hall!


I’m also really digging Star Traders: Frontier, which is a starship sandbox game (imagine playing Han Solo’s life as a smuggler) from the Trease Brothers. It’s simple but well executed, with elements of Halcyon 6 (also good) and Darkest Dungeon (also good). Reminds me a lot of the X-series of games (also pretty good) but without the first person space sim / flight simulation bits.

Beyond that, I’ve been diving back into board games. I still maintain that strategy video game designers have a lot to learn from board games – particularly when it comes to creating interesting gameplay arcs and victory conditions. Recent favorites include Root, A Study in Emerald (cthulhu meets Sherlock Holmes), Yellow & Yangtze (a civ-building abstract), and Iron Curtain (fight the Cold War in 15 minutes). Good stuff. Root in particular is a rather amazing combination of counter-insurgency inspired wargames (COIN-series) with a woodland animal theme (think Redwall book series). Root boasts an amazing production value, highly asymmetric factions, and lots of negotiation across the table. Puurrrrfect.

As for the future of 4X games, the picture is a little grim overall, but there are a few bright spots on the horizon. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen (and played) of Interstellar Space: Genesis. The game falls within the traditional 4X paradigm (i.e. MoO2-derivative) but it has a lot of unique ideas under the hood. But while the individual systems demonstrate some needed innovation, I nevertheless worry about the overall feeling of the game and whether there will be interesting victory systems to provide a more novel experience. Regardless, it may indeed fill the role SD2 attempted in being the MoO successor we can all point to. Or maybe it will be Dominus Galaxia. That one also has some clever ideas in the works. Fingers-crossed.


Help me AoW: Planetfall, you’re my only hope.


Of course, what I’m most excited about is Age of Wonders: Planetall. I feel like Triumph Studios “gets” what it takes to create challenging and interesting strategic depth in their games. I’m excited about the many ideas they are bringing forth that build on AoW3’s strongest points. AoW3 – more than most other games, had clever victory systems with the Seals and Beacon victory conditions, and I really hope they build something even more novel for Planetfall.

My fingers are double-crossed – not just for Planetfall, but for all of the 4X genre.
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Tue Oct 9, 2018 6:47 pm
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2017 Smorgasbord Part 1: New Stuff Played

Oliver Kiley
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It's been awhile, hasn't it? I suppose that means it is time for the regular yearly gaming update, coupled with the promises to do more frequent updates, right? Promises or no promises, the show must go on! So let's just launch into it.

Father Zargon is Pleased with your Progress


Reflections on the year in gaming


eXplorminate

Excuses first. I've continued to be a contributor over at explorminate. Between writing articles and playing the games we review enough to write those articles competently, a fair amount of time has been sucked up, which would otherwise have gone to writing here at Big Game Theory. Woe is having too many games to play!

I'll do a bigger recap of video game stuff in a separate article, but I'll mention the most interesting tidbit for now. Over the summer I wrote an article, All That Glitters is Not Gold, that was a heavy criticism of the state of 4X games and some of the challenges facing 4X game development.

Specifically, the article was about the lack of "polish" (balance, fine tuning, focused gameplay, etc.) among so many big strategy titles. It is interesting coming at videogames from a boardgame player and designer perspective, because polishing a boardgame design is so fundamental to making an enjoyable game for people. In 4X games, this lack of polish is most exemplified in the late game stages, where it's clear to me that relatively little design effort is focused around victory conditions. Imagine playing a boardgame where it just didn't really end, or where all the things and decisions you made playing the game were disconnected from how the winner was determined. Many people don't see this as a problem for 4X video games - but it bothers me quite a bit.

So before I get too enraged, let's proceed onward to the boardgames!

A Shift in Interests

To kick things off, the kinds of boardgames that I've focused on over the past year has shifted in response to life circumstances. Less time for big heavy multi-hour long games has prompted a deeper look into more kid-friendly games that still retain a spark of depth. While I did manage a few games of Runewars earlier in the year (more on that below), other heavier plays have been relatively sparse.

Hence, I'm finding myself drawn to games with some different traits than in the past:

First, are games with less complexity and fiddliness. Not that I cared much for complexity before, but now I'm really not interested in games that require more than about 5 minutes to teach (at the upper end). Even beyond playing games with my kids (the oldest is almost 7), when getting together with friends over a few beverages, lengthy rules explanations are a buzz kill. I want to be able to dump the box on the table and jump right in to the action.

Speaking of jumping right in, long and convoluted setup processes are also starting to bother me, and I'm wary of games that cannot be setup quickly. When kids are involved or any sort of time constraint exists, being able to get into the game fast is a big plus. Having to sift through a dozen baggies and meticulously arrange the starting board setup just isn't something I want to do. I realize that this may limit the scope of games that I find appealing, but so be it.

Along those lines, I also continue to be enamored with games that pack a lot of gameplay into a small package (e.g. box size). My self-imposed collection limit is that I'll keep what I can fit on the game shelf (which is about 2/3 of a largish bookcase plus a few drawers). I simply don't want more games than that - and a side effect is that games with big over-sized boxes relative to either the amount of components or the amount of depth in the game bother me (man - I'm starting to sound like a complainer!). Basically, I don't want games taking up more space than they need to. And on an even more sublime level, I really like picking up game boxes that feel "dense". Of course, this would seem to work against my desire for less complex games with fewer components, but it's really about just having smaller boxes that tightly fit the components.

And then there are the games that I acquire for some 'vain' reason. Maybe it's that the artwork strikes me and I want the game as a physical product, irrespective of it's potential play opportunities. Other times there may be certain mechanics or ideas (or designers) I'm curious about and want to tinker with - even if I'm not convinced the game is one that will hit the table much (if it at all).

Last - I've been paying more attention to cooperative games than usual. As I've been gaming with my daughters more and they are really into cooperative games and working together. They don't seem very interested in the typical competitive approach to gaming. I try to think of Knizia's quote: When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning. And so I stress, for competitive games, that it isn't about who wins or loses, but that we all do our best in pursuit of the game's goal. That said, we've also taken to playing competitive games in a "cooperative" mode where we just add our scores together at the end for a big uber score. Whoever contributes the most gets a high-five.

With these reflections out of the way, let's talk games!


New Games Played


5-Minute Dungeon (rating: 8; plays: 20+)


This is a joyous game to play, be it with young kids or adults. It is a "real-time" game and feels like an inverted version of Pit, in a way. Each player has a deck of cards aligned to their chosen hero class (bonus points for each hero card having a male and female option). Mostly the cards are simply symbols (shields, swords, arrows, spell books, etc.). The group has 5-minutes to work through a stack of dungeon monsters or obstacles by flipping over a card and then frantically playing cards to match the right symbols to clear the current card.

This has been a big hit with groups of kids as well as adults - and I must say the kids do just as well as the adults do! Despite the simplicity of system, it is surprisingly challenging with more nuance and coordinated play required than one might expect. You have to keep an eye out for opportunities to use a special card or ability to save time (and basic cards - because if you aren't careful you won't have enough of at the end to beat the final boss). It's straightforward yet has room for skill development.

Curiously, the mass market version of the game does not include the same difficulty and player count scaling options that the original kickstarter version did - which is a strange omission because it's really important! Without the per-player difficulty scaling, it's much harder with 2 players and too easy with 5 (for example). Anyway, BGG comes to the rescue once again if you check the file section.



Arboretum (rating: 7; plays: 3)


I finally got this to the table for a few plays this year. Unfortunately, this is one of those games where my typical gaming partners bounced right off the game. While on the surface it has the appearance of a straightforward rank & suit style game card, the play itself is very multifaceted (and fascinating I might add), but in a way that also isn't very intuitive. For seasoned gamers this isn't likely to be an issue, but for casual gamers the mental overhead proved a bit much.

That said, the artwork is gorgeous and the gameplay itself is a very clever mix of tableau/network building and rummy-like card draws + discarding. What throws people for a loop is that the scoring is not only contingent on what you've built in your tableau but is also contingent on what cards you have left in your hand at the end of the game. In order to gain the right to score combinations of cards in your tabelau, you have to the have the highest card value of that same suit in your hand. It's almost like playing two games at the same time and needing to win in both to do well. I find it awesome but not everyone else sees it that way. I'll keep it around in hopes of getting more plays.



Fox in the Forest (rating: 8; plays: 5+)


My wife loves the partnership trick-taker Euchre. Alas, that game requires 4 players. Along comes Fox in the Forest, and lo and behold we have a rather clever 2-person trick taker (a rare thing indeed). The game has 3 suites of cards numbered 1-10. Players earn points based on how many of the 13-tricks they take in a round. The interesting thing is that if you take too many tricks (e.g. shoot the moon or close to it) you don't get ANY points. So there is a really careful line you need to walk in order to score well.

Additionally, each of the odd numbered cards has a special ability that goes along with it, like being able to swap the trump card, taking the lead even if you lost the trick, etc. These special cards are essential to good play and controlling the momentum of the tricks. So far, my wife and I both really enjoy this one - despite me getting consistently wrecked by her!



Master of Orion: The Board Game (rating: 6; plays: 1)


This one is a bit tricky. I'll be doing a review of this at some point for eXplorminate, but after one play I'm quite sketpical. For the record, this is definitely not a 4X-style boardgame in the vein of Eclipse, as one might assume based on the Master of Orion videogame license it uses. Rather, this is a tableau-based card-driven engine-builder. Think 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the design forgot to include much by way of player interaction. Whereas 7 Wonders has card drafting and Race for the Galaxy has the role selection (with role leeching) as a means of making the core action dynamic have an interactive element to it, Master of Orion is a straight up action point game. There are practically no interaction points in the game, with players focused almost entirely on their own optimization puzzle. I haven't played a game that felt more like multiplayer-solitaire since... forever.

This is all kind of a shame. I actually like the basic card play and resource mechanics for building your empire. The problem is that, in the absence of an interactive action system, the card effects themselves needed to have WAY more interactive abilities to make me actually care about what my opponents were doing. A bit of a missed opportunity, sadly.



Raiders of the North Sea (rating: 9; plays: 5)


Now this game caught me unaware - but in a truly good way. Remember how, up above, I talked about "vain" purchase decisions? Well, this was one of them. As I considered my collection one day, it occurred to me I didn't really have a viking themed game. I like vikings quite a bit (I even a viking Halloween costume as my go-to outfit), and so this this lack of viking games bothered me. As I found myself at my favorite local game store, I considered the available viking-themed game options and this one jumped out because of, I'll admit, the artwork. The game is gorgeous and the illustrations are just lovely. This was an impulse xmas present purchase for... myself.

I was a bit worried because Raiders is billed as a worker placement game - which normally I don't really care for. But it turns out it isn't really a worker placement game in the normal sense. It doesn't have the same sort of solitary engine-building exercise that exemplifies most worker placement games, as you're never expanding your action (worker) capacity. The place-a-worker and pick-up-a-worker system de-emphasizes competitive placement decisions and replaces it with a more collaborative dynamic. And yet, many of the cards and crew abilities are directly confrontational and there is often fierce competition for the prime raiding locations.

Anyway - this game is a sleeper hit for me. I wasn't following the whole North Sea Saga series much before, but now I am enthusiastically. I suspect after more plays I'll have a more in depth analysis of this game to unveil.

Bonus points for having a reasonably-sized and dense box!



Runewars (rating: 9; plays: 3)


Last year, I mentioned that St. Nick brought me a copy of Runewars. I had a chance to play this epic monster a few times and it didn't disappoint. This is a BIG game - tons of miniatures, tons of tokens, hundreds of cards, modular boards, and so on. I wrote an equally BIG REVIEW of the game for eXplorminate - so if you want the full story check that one.

Otherwise, I'll just say that I'm very impressed by this game and how all the pieces fit together. For each of the avenues of critique I levied at 4X videogames, Runewars offers up a compelling solution. It's a very multi-layered game, but these layers entwine in compelling ways over the course of the game's seasons (rounds) and the rough choices both big and small. A glorious game. Can't wait to play more.



Hit Z Road (rating: 8; plays: 3)


This game killed 3 birds with one stone. #1: I had no game's my Martin Wallace (oh the humanity!). #2: I had no Zombie games (oh the horror!).
And #3: I had no bidding games (oh except Cyclades). Hit Z Road was a chance to remedy all of this lapses in my boardgame collection.

Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the game, although I would like to get it to the table more and really dig into it. That said, I found the whole artwork and component package to be pretty clever and engaging - and the progression of cards the events that unfold as you get past them builds a cool narrative for the player. The mechanics are solid and I like that the game is kinda-sorta a coop while still being competitive at the same time.



Kingdomino (rating: 9; plays: 40+)


I'm finding that in the absence of other information, the Spiel des Jahres nominees aren't a bad bet, most of the time. I was in the hunt for a family friendly game that I could play with my kids. If I could find something quick to setup, smallish box, and durable components that would be the icing on the cake. When I came across Kingdomino I took the plunge.

After playing 40+ plays, I must say that I really like this game. And Bruno Cathala again reinforces his place as one of my favorite designers. This game has worked well even with my 3-year old. We give her a little slack on tile placement (she doesn't have to stick to the 5x5 grid) and this way the whole family can play together. I love the little details on all the tiles, something my kids noticed right away. While the game isn't super deep, it can be surprisingly cutthroat and competitive at times.

Bonus points for helping the 6-year old with basic math and multiplication.



Rhino Hero (rating: 7; plays: 10+)


Rhino Hero is great. This is a reverse Jenga of sorts where players are tasked with building a tower of cards. I first heard about the game during the research phase of an older article I wrote on competitive and cooperative game formats. Rhino Hero has multiple end-triggers and victory outcomes that are possible. (A) If one player plays out their entire hands of cards, they win. (B) If the building collapses, the player that caused the collapse loses and the player with the least cards left wins. (C) All of the wall cards have been built and everyone wins. The only outcome that isn't possible is the game wining on its own.

All said and done - this works equally well as a kids game or as a drinking game for when adults are behaving like kids.



Jamaica (rating: 7; plays: 10+)


So I was also on a quest for a nice race game, and something that I could play with kids as well. Someone, somewhere, suggested Jamaica and I did a little research before deciding to pull the trigger.

Jamaica is a race game coupled to a pirate theme, coupled to a hand management game. The game plays at a brisk and exciting pace, and the system whereby the active player rolls two dice and chooses which affects the "day actions" versus the "night actions" for all players does wonders to keep everyone engaged and paying attention. While the decision space is small, it nonetheless creates ample opportunity for skillful play. It isn't a deep game by any stretch, but it gets you thinking (and trash taking - like all good pirates).



Red November (rating: 7; plays: 3)


Red November is another game I learned about during my competitive/cooperative game format research. This one is unique because any game outcome is possible: (A) As a fundamentally cooperative game, the players can all win by surviving long enough to be rescued while averting the missile crisis. However, (B) one or some players can win by prematurely abandoning ship - provided that the remaining crew don't survive! (C) The fleeing player(s) can lose if the rest of the crew survives and thereby turns them in. (D) Everyone loses if the ship sinks or gets eaten by a krakken or is crushed by the ocean pressure or the missiles get launched. Oh my!

The game is a little more fiddly than I would've have liked, exacerbated a bit by the absolutely tiny cards with more tiny text. The box is plenty big enough to have contained full size cards, so I'm not sure why it was produced in such a small format. We had a good time with this during our play, but it didn't have quite the staying power of other cooperative games we've been playing recently.



Tiny Epic Quest (rating: 8; plays: 5)


This game meets the criteria for dense games in an... EPIC way! I hadn't jumped on the "Tiny Epic" bandwagon previously, but thought that this one looked like particularly interesting point to jump on board. I'm working on designing a compact, kid-suitable, quest game so figured this one would be good as, umm, research! Turns out it is also a pretty fun game on its own right.

Considering the size of the box, there is a lot packed into the game and a lot of different mechanisms in play. There are movement cards that are drafted to determine how your hero meeples move. There are actions to trigger and plan around on some cards. There are multi-stage dungeons to delve into and goblin underhives to clear. There are quest contracts to fulfill, winds of magic to harness, health and recovery. And of course the customizable meeples with their adorable assortment of wargear and accessories. It's pretty remarkable really.

The gameplay itself is mostly a solitary affair however. There is a bit of interaction through the competition/race to finish certain quest cards first, but nothing too confrontational. And so this is another game that we've adapted to function more as cooperative game. All in all, I happy with game and remain impressed by how much game is packed into such a tiny box.



Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (rating: 8; plays: 20+)


Last, but not least, we come to the Lovecraftian version of Pandemic. I admit that I hadn't played the original Pandemic, although I have played Forbidden Island, which borrows a lot of the Pandemic DNA. Set collection and getting the right cards in the right hands, the need to get to specific locations to do certain things, and various ticking timers that slowly unravel the gameboard and eventually lead to defeat for the players.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu sticks tight to this formula as well, but features the thematically apt "Old Ones" that herald the end times. As bad stuff happens, old ones are revealed and more bad things happen. The players are in a race close four arcane gateways before big daddy Cthulhu itself shows up and says "you lose!"

I've had a lot of fun with this one playing with my daughter. She doesn't seem to mind the vile creepieness of the old ones at all (should I be worried?) and rather delights in playing the hunter and slaying all the Shoggoth monsters that spawn around the board. As with other Leacock designed coops, the game can suffer from an alpha player syndrome, so with younger kids in particular I put the baton in their hand and ask them what I should do on my turn. Mostly it's slaying shoggoths.




Thus concludes Part 1 of the 2017 smorgasbord. Did others get a chance to play any of these games? Any thoughts or comments you'd like to share? The phones are open!

Part 2 will take a look at what other (older to me) games I've played last year, what games are still sitting on the shelf unplayed, and what games I put on the chopping block.

Beyond that, we'll take a look at some of the video games I've been playing over the past year and what exciting stuff I'm looking forward to in 2018.

Cheers and happy new year!
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Wed Jan 3, 2018 9:55 pm
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Smorgasboard 2015-16: What's Going On Edition

Oliver Kiley
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Hello fellow readers! It’s been a little time since posting, but I felt a year-end recap and look-a-head into 2016 was in order. Please bear with the Smorgasboard nature of this post, but do feel free to bounce around, sampling which ever delights strike your fancy.

Today’s Menu:
- Boardgames!
- Articles & contributions!
- Wot I’m Playing!
- Game design projects!

Boardgames

I think over the past year, the nature of my boardgame playing has changed considerably. Two kids in the house, full times jobs (plus an extended sidejob), family obligations, friends having kids, my kids now also having friends, etc. introduces a set of constraints. Days spent hunkered over monstrous game boards and drowning under avalanches of meeples and hexagonal chits have dwindled.



Of course, and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t all bad. My daughter (now almost five) continues to like playing and “playing” with all sorts of games; and my two nephews are in the mix as well. We were on a big family trip at the end of last August and collectively played a lot of Eight Minute Empires: Legends, among other games. I had played a number of games previously, but I was surprised how much the kids really got into it. My 7-year old nephew used his allowance to buy his own copy when he returned home! While the game is somewhat dry mechanically (as a simple area control game), the artwork really makes it connect for people. I do love this game.



I also picked up Mice & Mystics over the summer, which was a big hit when trapped inside the cottage on rainy days. The Mouse Guard graphic novels have been making the rounds with the kids in the family, so the Mice & Mystics game slotted into their swirling sphere of perception nicely. It’s a well designed game and perfect for gamer dad facilitating play with the kids. The rule set is loose and flexible enough that we can take some liberties and the game doesn’t totally fall apart. My only complaint is that it can be a lot to setup and tear down quickly, and when you are working with 30 minute attention spans, I end up spending less time playing than organizing bits. But fondling bits never discouraged me … ahem …

I’ve also fallen deeply in love with Shadi Torbeys Oniverse games, as illustrated by Élise Plessis, whichincludes Onirim, Sylvion, and Castellion. First of all, the artwork and presentation is just amazing. I absolutely love the art style and how the boxes are assembled. As single-player games (or two person co-ops), Z-Man hit the mark with creating a compelling experience just in opening the box. It feels like luxury.


Image Credit: KSensei @ BGG


I’ve probably played Onirim 60+ times by now. Mostly in two-person cooperative mode with my wife. The game, in contrast to many cooperatives, feels less like a puzzle and more like a strategic thinking game. By contrast, in Forbidden Island (for instance), you can play nearly perfectly but just get screwed based on how the cards are shuffled. In Onirim, that can certainly happen, but it feels more like you have control, and if you plan and think carefully about your choices, you have ways of nearly eliminating the blind luck of the draw factor. It’s hard to describe, but the game works really well, and I haven’t even dabbled with the seven (!!) included expansions.

I play Sylvion a bunch in solo mode over the summer, and also quite enjoyed the game. The design is based on a lane defense concept, usually seen in videogames, where you are defending your forest from an on-rush fire elementals trying to burn it down. There is an interesting two-stage approach to the design, where in stage one you draft a deck, which you then use in stage two to defend. There are various strategies and synergies to pursue in how you assemble the deck, so there is lots of decision space to explore. As for Castellion, I just got it over the holidays and have only dabbled with it. Unlike the prior card-based Oniverse games, Castellion is tile-based, but I like where the design is going. More on that to come!



I also stumbled across the kickstarter for Keep and picked that up. I had a chance to get it to the table when some friends were over, and I’ve also played a bunch of the two player game with my wife. The game is a simple drafting card game (with 50-some cards) in the vein of Sushi Go. You do the usual “play cards to your tableau and then pass your hand” routine, with scoring occurring all at once at the end based on various synergies between your drafted cards. There is a nifty hidden action element to the game (that I think more could be done with), that adds some wildcards to the experience. It plays quick and is frankly all I’m asking for in a drafting game. Whereas 7 Wonders ends up feeling overwrought, here you get a game that accomplishes nearly all the same things but without the bloat. And it fits in your pocket.

Over the holiday’s I also picked up: Gubs (haven’t played), Dragonwood (meh), Friday (haven’t played, but intrigued!), Red7 (flopped), and the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed set (I’d love to start an RPG with kids in a few years, and this just might work).

One thing that unifies all of the above is that they are all smaller box games. I started out in the hobby gaming world playing more small box games (Drakon, Flux, Muchhkin - don’t judge), and in many ways it is nice coming back more towards that end of the spectrum. Especially in light of having kids with short attention spans and not having the flexibility to spend 20 minutes setting a game up in the first place! Small boxes will inherit the earth. Or something!

Articles & Contributions

I’ve continued to write a number of video game reviews and articles over at eXplorminate (which has been growing its readership steadily over the past year). A few things worth mentioning:

I had an opportunity to play and review Invisible Inc.. If you like turn-based tactics games, Invisible Inc is one of the finest I’ve ever played. It is largely focused on stealth gameplay, set in a sort of corporatized neo-Noire Dick Tracy-esque dystopian cyber-future (how’s that description!). This is like Neuromancer: The Videogame. It has a great sense of style and art direction, with the gameplay being an interwoven tapestry of stealth, spatial planning, hacking, and timing that is really quite intoxicating. One of my favorite games from the past year.

I reviewed a number of other games as well, including This War of Mine, Crowntakers, Eclipse (iOS version). This War of Mine is a pretty engrossing (though somber) survival management game. Crowntakers a pint-sized party-based roguelike romp. And Eclipse is the kingpin 4X boardgame ported to iOS. All solid and fun games in their respective genres.


"Prodigious size alone does not dissuade the sharpened blade."


Most recently, I reviewed Darkest Dungeon, which just released on January 19th. This is worth a moment to describe. Darkest Dungeon is an “operational roguelike,” which means that you are managing a roster of heroes (fools) along with their base of operations (a sleepy-hollow-esque hamlet in this instance). You send your heroes on various quests (battling Lovecraftian horrors in this instance) in hopes of reaching the final goal/mission. It is a roguelike in that your characters have permadeath and you can’t reload when things fail, but it is a little more forgiving as there are always more heroes showing up to test their mettle. The gameplay is really solid and innovative in a few key areas (see the full review), but more than anything the game has a tremendous sense of style. I love the graphic novel look; and the voice over narration, both the writing and the delivery, is outstanding. Excellent little game; if you are into this sort of thing.

Wot I’m Playing

I succumbed to a game, and that game is Payday 2. This is a FPS (first person shooter) game, which is also a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game, and which is also about pulling off all manner of illicit heists. The game takes its cue from the vast swaths of heist-movie history, from Heat to Die Hard, and plenty of other references. I have a longer review in the works, but I’ll share a few things for now...

Not many video games manage to suck more than 20 hours out of me. Payday 2 is one of them, and since last November I’ve logged well over 200 hours. In part, this is because this is one of the first games in the past many years that all my local friends have also got into playing. So while we haven’t been able to get together for boardgame nights as often, we’ve been getting together via Payday 2 to heist the night away. Certainly this is part of the appeal.



To paint a broad picture, the game lets you pick a heist, from a large list, to perform. Heists can range from robbing convenience stores and drilling into bank vaults, to intercepting drug deliveries and breaking comrades out of jail. It’s all morally dark territory for sure; you are playing the bad guys after all! Heists are either “loud” (in which case you go in with guns blazing) or “stealth” (in which case you sneak your way to the objective), or some combination of the two. With 30+ different heists, many of which can be accomplished in very different ways, and a staggering 300+ achievements, there is a lot to see and do in the game.

It also incorporates a rather sophisticated RPG layer. Successful heists earn you money and experience points (XPs) that you use to purchase new gear and learn new skills. There is a staggering 180 skills in the game, 100’s of moddable weapons, along with a host of equipment and other perk specializations. Given that an individual skill build is limited in how many skills it can have active, there are tons of ways to customize how your character works and performs. It’s all quite engaging … and really deep man. The game also strikes a nice balance (IMHO) between being serious and being tongue-in-cheek. This rubs some people the wrong way, but I appreciate the humor the developers have woven into the game.

To be honest, other than a few family boardgames here and there, I haven’t been playing many other games. Payday 2 has clawed me deep.

Design Projects

I’ve continued to advance a number of different design projects.

First up, is my design concept for a pseudo-4X strategy game, Transcend, which I outlined in a prior blog post. This design is for a digital game, and given my total amature status when it comes to programming, might remain a pipe dream … but we shall see.

I did manage to make a few technical steps, using excel of all things. I came across an article that talked about how someone re-created XCOM in excel. I thought to myself, “Well I love spreadsheets, I love excel, I can stumble through scripting … maybe I should see what I can do.” Lo and behold after a few hours (well, more like 10), I came up with this:



Yes, that is all excel, and is a semi-functional mock-up of a UI. On another tab there is a big “generate galaxy” button, that runs VBA scripting to randomly generate a star field of 15-30 stars, generates 0-4 planets in each star system, and assigns planets a few key properties (size, type, etc.). It’s very crude and rudimentary, but it works, and provides a functional basis to start layering lots of other data and attributes into the galaxy generation. Eventually, different excel buttons would turn on/off different data overlays on top of the main star view. I do a lot of data visualization professionally (GIS spatial analytics mostly), and it always bothers me that data in 4X isn’t presented more graphically/spatially (always miserable tables) - so that’s something I definitely want to address with this design.

I also started using excel to build a dynamic model for how the game’s economy and pace of development would proceed. This includes an “end turn” button that lets me queue up orders for planetary improvements, drawing down global resources, and then process the turn. I want Transcend to be much faster paced compared to other 4X games (e.g. get to capstone high-level technologies and developments within 20-30 turns). So experimenting with these dynamic economy models early on are important. I did a cruder version of this (also in excel), when working out the pacing and economy of Hegemonic (which is typically 6-9 turns) - and I think that was one area of the game that really worked well. Resources are in just tight enough supply that you have lots of ways you “could” proceed but have to prioritize down to just a few. I’ll keep plugging away (and I have the next dev diary in the works already).

I’ve also been circling back to one of my first game designs, which is Shifters. I had a chance to playtest it some over the summer during protospiel, and a number of times since. It’s interesting to see how many times this game has been torn down and rebuilt - but finally I’m quite happy with how all the pieces are fitting together. As a game intended to be a lighter weight, take-that style card game, smooth gameplay is important. To this end, there are a few cumbersome spots in the design to streamline. But it is really coming together and I’m contemplating how to best move forward with the design. Probably starting to talk to publishers - but I might also print a number of decks through printer studio and sell it for close to cost via BGG. We’ll see.



And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.
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Fri Jan 22, 2016 9:41 pm
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What's Going On!? The Game of Too Many Excuses

Oliver Kiley
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The last two months have been crazy. But it seems like the last two months are always crazy, so I suppose that’s no excuse for having not updated the blog. And despite my effort to make the What’s Going On!? series a more regular thing - it seems I haven’t. But you’ll all forgive me I’m sure, because now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for another What’s Going On!? Roll the excuses ...


The “eXplorminate” eXcuse

One excuse is that I’ve been continuing to write articles for eXplorminate. The first is a nice little Q&A with Starbase Orion developer Rocco Bowling. I’ve written about Starbase Orion before, and in the realm of Master of Orion successors, I think it remains one of the best over the past many years. It is great to see that the game continues to get development and support. I’m keeping my spider-sense alert for news of Starbase Orion 2, which rumor has it is in the works.



I promised in the last What’s Going On!? article that I’d do a proper review of This War of Mine. I’m happy to say that I have accomplished that goal, and there is a review of This War of Mine over at eXplorminate. This War of Mine is 11bit’s amazing war-torn civilian survival game, that is challenging, immersive, and hauntingly grim in a way that few other games manage to accomplish. If you are at all interested in roguelike games or survival-craft games, this is one to definitely check out.

Moving more into the board gaming orbit, I also did a review of Eclipse at eXplorminate, looking primarily at Big Daddy Creations iOS app version. But of course much of the discussion focused around the core gameplay experience, which has much in common with the physical meat-space version of the game. Long story short, I do enjoy Eclipse and think it does an excellent job delivering on its promise. I also happen to enjoy the game MUCH more as a digital app. Many of Eclipse’s downsides (in my opinion) relating to randomness are easier to swallow when I knock out a game in 30 minutes on my ipad compared to being stuck at a table for four hours surrounded by ancients. Anyway, check out the review.

The last bit of eXplorminate activity is a review of Invisible Inc. I mentioned last time that I’d be looking at this title more, and I am so glad that I did. Simply put, Invisible Inc provides the most fun that I have had in a turn-based tactical RPG game in forever. While the strategic side of the game is fairly thin, the stealth-based, net hacking, tactical espionage missions are just awesome. The game blends puzzle-solving, intuition, and strategy into a multi-layered experience where you are constantly having to juggle way too many things: gear, detection, power, unconscious bodies, surveillance, and more. The game’s character and execution is just wonderful as well. The narrative is the weak point of the game, but that shouldn’t stop you from digging in. If you like turn-based tactics game, Invisible Inc gets a giant glowing green light from me.



I have pile of other stuff in the works that will be cross-posted between this blog and eXplorminate, so stay tuned.


The “I Was On Vacation” Excuse

But I was on vacation. Unfortunately, I had to bring along a trunk full of games, and even sadder was that my family and extended relations kept wanting to play games! The audacity!

As I’ve mentioned regularly, my time for playing big boy games has been challenged over the past year or so (two kids does that, especially in light of other responsibilities). But, this means that I’ve increasingly been shifting focus to playing games with my kids (at least with the four year old who doesn’t try to eat all pieces) and my nephews. Here’s the highlight reel of what me and the fam have been up to:



I picked up Mice & Mystics during the summer, using my hard earned father’s day bonus to selflessly purchase a board game “for the kids” instead of buying yet-another-cardboard space-waster for my shelf of unplayed games. My kids/nephews have been enjoying the Mouse Guard graphic novels (as have I), and playing a game set in a similar world seemed like a no brainer, especially in light of their past interest in HeroQuest. Mice & Mystics is pretty great, with a fun story and lots of character. Given its cooperative nature, it makes it easy for me to sheppard things along, and the 4, 5, and 6 year olds have all made it through a number of quests at this point. They really get into it, which is just awesome to see.



Eight Minute Empire: Legends was stuffed into the game trunk as well. I wasn’t sure how well the abstract nature of the game would go over with the kids, but two of them really got into it. It is a testament to the amazing artwork of Designer/Publisher/Artist extraordinaire Ryan Laukat, that the games suckered in the kids so well. The set collection and area control are also very “visual” gauges of your score, which makes the decision making easier. It plays quickly, has plenty of opportunity for strategizing (or can be played more casually). It is among the best of the “high gravity games” that pack a lot of punch in a small box and compressed playtime. I love it, and might pick up the expansion at some point too.

I also have a new budding romance with designer Shadi Torbey and artist Élise Plessis's Oniverse. In particular the solo / coop card games Onirim and Sylvion. I’d like to gush even more about these games later, but I’ll give you the short take here. First of all, I absolutely freaking love the artwork and the whole package for these games. Z-man has done an amazing job of making the act of playing with a deck of cards feel like luxury. Folding open the box inserts is like cracking open a fresh box of chocolate each time. I can’ help myself from drooling.

In terms of Onirim, I’ve probably played well over 100 games over the past few months, most of these with the base game in cooperative mode with my wife. We’ve been playing it a bit in the vein of Hanabi with keeping our table talk to a minimum (which makes it much harder BTW), and it’s been a great experience. We’ve gone from losing almost every game to winning almost every game, which is a nice acknowledgement that skill matters. Still, you can get the bad hand that just doesn’t work. But the game does a great job maintaining tension throughout. I don’t feel a huge need to dive into the expansions, but I’ll probably test the waters more in solo play.



Sylvion is likewise a gorgeous game with a clever set of rules. I’ve played about 6 or 7 games so far, and feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I’ve found it a bit easier than Onirim, so I suspect I’ll be adding the expansions in in short order to ramp up the challenge a bit. Sylvion, for those not in the know, is a pretty slick interpretation of a tower/lane defense type game that are more commonly seen video games - yet the translation to a board game works well in this case.

I picked up Red7 from the illustrious Carl Chudyk. I played a few hands during the vacation with some of the adult types. Unfortunately, the experience confirmed my suspicion that Carl’s games, though simple mechanically in the case of Red7 at least, are really aimed at gamers. There is a certain sort of action planning, look ahead, and mathematical gymnastics that you need to go through to get the most out of his games. If you aren’t inclined towards such things, his games are going to feel dry, flat, confusing, and frustration. Which is the reaction had by most of the table. There is a genius at work in his games, but you have to want to stroke the genius to appreciate it. Ah well...


The “But I Was Glued to my iPad” Excuse

My family, sensing my inner need for games, gifted me some itunes bucks before vacation, so I loaded up my iPad with some new goodies. I tend to stay up way later than the rest of the family (a habit which will probably catch up me in time), which affords me a couple of hours most nights to nerd on out my platform of choice, be it board games or video games.



The first one to mention, and which was recently updated with a free content patch, is Inkle’s 80 Days. This is an absolutely phenomenal game. The game is based on a steampunk interpretation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, but structured as a choose your own adventure style gamebook. Inkle’s Sorcery series (which I also love) cemented their mastery of the digital gamebook, and 80 Days is no exception. In 80 Days, you assume the role of valet for the preeminent Mr. Fogg, tasked with principally with tending to the luggage and securing travel arrangements. Sounds dry, but it is so rich. The narrative and writing is superb, and there are a plethora of decisions to make in planning your route and finding opportunities to sell collected items for a profit, earning funds to continue the adventure. The game drew me in quickly and didn’t let go until I finally collapsed into a heap. If you are at all interested in digital game books, this is one to try.

In a nod to board gaming, I grabbed Battlelore: Command, a fantasy game based on the Command & Colors wargame system. The app is nicely done with great visuals and solid gameplay. I played a number of missions and they can be quite challenging. I’d love to see this game expanded with additional content though.

I have a pile of other iOS games I’ve been dabbling with, in no particular order:

- Warhammer 40,00: Deathwatch (meh, I liked Hunters 2 far more)
- Spacecom (cool slow-time RTS 4X game)
- Battlestaion: Harbinger (ship/fleet building roguelike thing, sorta like FTL, okay)
- Xenowerk (top down action RPG, meh)
- Space Marshals (top down action RPG, humorous, looks promising)
- Galactic Keep (sounds awesome on paper, haven’t played yet!)

I’ll write up more on these eventually. But not just yet.



Last, but not least, is Organ Trail. No, I’m not talking about the game Oregon Trail, the pioneer themed game that you played during grade school in some dilapidated computer lab. This is Organ Trail, the zombie themed game that you can play right now on iOS or Android in your very own home. Organ Trail has you loading up a station “wagon“ (wood siding and all) to embark on your very own cross-country adventure amidst the crescendo of a zombie apocalypse. It will all feel very familiar. Jenny got bit by a zombie. Joey has dysentery. Your wagon broke a tire. You need more bullets. You’re running out of food. And so on. If you like Oregon Trail, and you like zombies and station wagons, then take a look at Organ Trail. It’s really the same thing, but with Zombies. And it’s still just as good.


The “Buried Under Too Many Heavy Games” Excuse

This next excuse has to do with all the big grand games I’ve been playing recently. It’s ghastly to think about it. But I feel like I’m in a golden age for the sorts of games I like to play. And while the menu seems to be growing by the day, there is still the unpleasant task of separating the wheat from the chaff. So let’s get on with the drudgery.

Say what you will, but the 4X video game sphere is undergoing a period of galactic inflation. The number of games coming out that let you play emperor, dictator, or supreme peacemaker continues to grow and with more on the way. Earlier this year I had a chance to play around quite a bit with two often confused game: Star Ruler 2 and StarDrive 2. The former is a real-time 4X game with a number of inventive and clever mechanics, particularly around the concepts of creating resource networks between planets and the card-based diplomacy system. In practice, I found the game a bit too dry and cumbersome to convince me to continue with it, which is a shame because I love the ideas behind it.

The latter, StarDrive 2, is a turn-based reworking (for lack of a better term) of the often criticized original StarDrive. As a point of comparison, SD2 is about the closest we have to a modern Master of Orion 2 game, and it is really quite close to the mark. Except that it isn’t. It seems to have all the right pieces in place for an exceptional experience, but it needs a lot more tweaking and refinement to get the systems working better and to make the gameplay more challenging and varied. It looks good on paper but overstays its welcome quickly when you start playing. Still, it has an awesome ship builder, great visuals, and might be worth a shot. An expansion is in the works, which if coupled with improvements to the base gameplay, could turn this into a great title.



I’ve also put myself up to checking out Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, on behalf of eXplorminate. The game is still in early access, but it feels a bit like a streamlined fantasy version of Paradox’s grand strategy magnus opus Europa Universalis. I’ve never been able to get into Europa, as I just don’t have the attention span to wade through all the numbers and figure out the various systems. If I could figure it all out, I’m sure I’d love it. Oh have I tried. In contrast, Sovereignty takes many of the same ideas but keeps it all at higher more abstract level, and I can dig that. It also has a tactical battle system that feels very wargame-y (in a good way), a magic system (why not?), a slick agent/espionage system (yes!), and tons of diplomacy options (naturally). I need to give this one more time on the front burner, but so far it feels like something I could really dig into.

Then there is Thea: The Awakening, another early access title that has been generating some buzz for its unique combination of settlement management, strategy RPG, roguelike elements, and survival-craft. Here again, I need to spend more time with the game, as on paper it sound exactly like something with the potential to consume me. But in the short time I’ve played with it, I found it overly fiddly and detailed in a way that threw up too many roadblocks between me and the unfolding narrative. But my experience is limited and the game is still in early access, so anything is possible. I’ll be playing this more and watching its development closely.


The “Just One More Run” Excuse

My appreciation of roguelike games (and games with roguelike elements) continues to blossom. I’ve got something more specific in the works about this, but until then I’ll share a little about the games I’ve been fawning over.



Darkest Dungeon. I bit the hook and grabbed Darkest Dungeon. I told myself to wait. I told myself that it will be better when it’s all done. I said I’d never do it. But I did. I lied to myself. I bought the game. And not since I and a close friend had an entire movie theater to ourselves, where we watched nothing other than Van Helsing while screaming and swinging our fists in the air, has a game got me so pumped. Maybe it has something to do with its Van Helsing-ish mixture of Sleepy Hollow meets Lovecraft at the gates of hell (to name a few of my favorite things). But whatever it is, developer Red Hook Studios has got it. The game’s atmosphere (especially its amusingly dark narration) is just perfect for setting the stage for the grisly operation you will be running. Essentially, you have the pleasure of managing a hero mill. Heroes come to town, literally by the stage coach, and you feed them into the maw of various dungeons on your way towards unlocking the darkest of dungeons. Heroes are far more likely to come back from the pits a broken shell of their former selves, afflicted by disease, psychosis, and other crippling ailments. So you send them off to the sanitarium while you get the next load of fresh meat ready for the ginder. This all sounds awful, but I assure you it isn’t. Check it out.



Crypt of the Necrodancer. A friend of mine recently got married, and so we did the bachelor party thing of gathering up as many canoes, kayaks, rafts, coolers, and beers that we could to float down a river as far as it would take us. Curiously, the river ended up, somehow, at my house where I, somehow, had Crypt of the Necrodancer cued up, somehow, on the “big screen.” Crypt is a roguelike with a twist, which is that everything moves to the beat of the completely outrageous techno music that constitutes the game’s high-energy soundtrack. The game is funny, hard, and silly. And it features local co-op, making it an ideal candidate for hanging out with a bunch of jolly friends, keeping the good times rolling after a raucous day on the river. It’s also a pretty damn fun game on its own.

The Flame in the Flood. I just started in on this one. But it plays nicely into my theory that Oregon Trail was one of the first roguelike games. In the Flame in the Flood, you are tasked with navigating your way down a river in a flooded world. The river navigation sequences are eerily reminiscent of the final river stage in Oregon Trail. The rest of the game has you stopping at islands and scavenge around for various craftable materials, used to keep yourself nourished, hydrated, warm, and healthy. The game is still in early access, and the story/campaign mode is not in place yet. So right not it is a “how long can you last” type game. What is present, however, is well produced and engaging. But the game is also HARD. Whether it is too hard or not (for me) remains to be seen, but it’s a cool game nonetheless.



Massive Chalice. The games keep coming! I picked this one up too, and have been tinkering with it a bit. I’m not sure that it is all it’s cracked up to be, although I’m enamored enough with the idea of it that I’ll keep playing. Essentially, the game marries a tactical RPG combat game with a lineage management sim. As a sort nebulous overlord figure, you establish various royal houses and arrange various marriages that will lead to the birthing of various offspring that you can train and deploy in the various tactical combats that you will be variously called upon to conduct. It’s a nice execution, with a reasonable balance of detail in the systems. But I’m not sure how much variety there is over the course of the game, even with all the various things mentioned above.

Almost done. Hang on.


The “Bitten by Nostalgia” Excuse



In an earlier blog post, the one about old school FPS games, I reminisced about Doom and Quake. That reminiscing has led me down a rabbit hole of actually playing these old gems again. Not only that, in the case of Quake (one of my all-time favorite games), I’ve put myself through the horror of getting my own multiplayer server running. This has been a total cluster-f^&k operation that has culminated in me learning more than I ever knew there was to know in the first place about home networking, DNS servers, flashing router firmware, and the command prompt. But I overcame.

More horrifying is that I successfully convinced many of my local friends to dig out their ancient copies of Quake and join with me and the Dark Lord Sauron on the server, that we may rekindle long-extinguished flames. And it happened! A number of us have been playing Quake deathmatch across the trove of custom levels I’ve collected. I even went nuts and started to re-catalogue the 100’s of maps I have. Take a peep at if you dare.

Last, I’ll mention a game I’ve been playing a bit that has captivated me in a number of ways. The nostalgic way is that mechanically, the game plays like a japanese-style RPG, reminding me of playing final fantasy on my Nintendo. The aesthetic way is that the art direction, soundtrack, and narrative is just amazingly well done. The third way is that I’ve been playing the game with my daughter, who seems as enamored with it as I am. The game is Child of Light, and among other things is a nice case study for the kinds of creative design and execution is possible from a AAA studio with a AAA budget when unshackled from the usual AAA constraints.

Child of Light is a side-scrolling adventure RPG about a young princess trapped in a sort of fairyland dreamworld, on a quest to free her bed-stricken father from a comatose state. The overarching story isn’t terribly original, but it is presented in a very touching manner and all of the text is structured to a rhyme and meter. The game world feels like this wonderful little mystery box that you get to explore the nooks and crannies of, and my daughter loves flying Aurora (the protagonist) around and looking at things. It’s like a picture book. There are even some local co-op features built in so that we can play together. And finally, the sound track. I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times on YouTube, especially when I’m working. I don’t know what it is about it, but it beckons to me. Check out the video below, and see if Child of Light beckons to you as it does to me.

Cheers!

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Tue Oct 13, 2015 7:02 pm
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The Snowball and the Steamroller: Fundamental Challenges in 4X Game Design

Oliver Kiley
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4X games are predicated on exploring some unknown geography, expanding your control into newly discovered regions, exploiting resources from those regions, and using those resources to build up forces and exterminate your opponents (who are trying to do the same to you!). Typically, 4X games aim to convey the machinations of entire empires, and hence have a large geographic scale in mind. This basic premise of large-scale empires fighting for resource control to fuel a military domination struggle creates some fundamental challenges for 4X game design, which has been central to whole quest to make the net big 4X game to live up to Master of Orion 2’s legacy. These challenges are inter-related, but stem from a set of relatively simple issues:

- Issue #1 - City Spam & Snowballing
- Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and the Steamroller
- Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out


These three issues are, I feel, the central challenge of 4X game design. And how the design of different games in the genre handles (or fails to handle) this interlinked challenge does as much to differentiate titles as to account for a game’s overall success, failure, or lasting legacy.



Issue #1 - City Spam & Combating the Snowball

Typically in 4X games, controlling more territory gives you access to more resources, which can transpire into a force advantage to enable you to win the game. “City Spam” is the notion that good gameplay heavily incentivizes placing as many cities as you can, or taking over as many colonies/planets as you can, in order to control the most territory. And then there is “Snowballing” (think of the snowball rolling down the hill getting bigger and bigger). Snowballing is the notion that as a player gets a resource advantage over another player, they can apply that advantage towards growing their resource base at a faster and faster rate, and quickly surpass their opponents’ capacity. Thus city spam typically leads to snowballing, although snowballing can also be driven by other factors.



Limiting Management Units
4X games have tried to combat city spam in a number of different ways, one of these is limiting the number of management units directly. By “management unit” I’m referring to cities, colonies, planets, star systems, or whatever the “thing” is that houses your empire’s population, conducts production, etc. Basically, where a production queue is housed is probably what the management unit is.

Warlock 2 (for example) uses a system where only a few of your cities are fully under your control, and other cities get related to secondary support cities that help your empire but in a less direct and less powerful way. Endless Legends uses a region system where each large region can only have one city – hence hard capping the number of possible cities in the game.

These approaches aren’t particularly ideal solutions in my mind. One of the challenges is in rectifying such ideas as a compelling design mechanic in relation to their logical thematic implications. Endless Legend’s region system can be painfully arbitrary seeming at times, and doesn’t make much sense thematically. If no one is occupying these pre-defined regions, how did they even become named regions? What is responsible for determining their borders? From a gameplay point of view they do reduce city spam and they do force a careful consideration of where to place a city within each region as you expand. But it feels forced, a mechanic made to solve a mechanical problem and not one flowing nicely out of the theme.

Alternative Forms of Counter-Pressure
Another approach for dealing with snowballing is to keep the game highly interactive and give tools to the players (and the AIs!) to exert a counter-pressure on snowballing empires. This counter-pressure should come in ways that don’t fundamentally rely on the economic disparity that caused the snowballing to begin with. For example, this counter-pressure could come about through trade, diplomacy, or espionage systems. If for example, lagging empires could exert large trade sanctions or easily form temporary alliances to coordinate attacks (e.g. “Bash the Leader”) there’s a good chance of fighting against the snowball.

Unfortunately for single player games, getting an AI to behave in a coordinated manner is difficult, and likely explains why we don’t see more of this in 4X games. But in games with multiplayer support, this can be a critical aspect of the gameplay. Neptune’s Pride (and Diplomacy for that matter) are entire games designed around these diplomatic negations and pressures. There is the sense that if you get too big you paint a big target on yourself and get attacked on multiple fronts – hence you need to tread lightly and expand judiciously to not attract the ire of your opponents. This dynamic rarely exists in single player 4X games. Bigger is just better most of the time.



Diminishing Returns for Expansion
Last, snowballing can be countered through escalating marginal costs or diminishing returns. Basically, these are mechanisms employed to make continued growth more and more costly the more that you grow. Many 4X games introduce a bureaucracy type element or empire upkeep that consumes Gold or SpaceBucks as your empire gets bigger, making each new expansion hurt the overall efficiency of your empire. Other games use expansion disapproval type mechanics, where your citizens start getting upset and unsettled as your empire gets bigger.

The escalating cost system seems to be the better approach to solving city spam and snowballing in a more organic fashion. The game can be designed around a certain ideal empire size (number of management units) and players can chose to operate above or below that line if it makes sense strategically to do so. Unfortunately, this is also one of those situations where conveying the gameplay ramifications of such mechanics in a clear way is often hard to do. Many 4X games don’t provide a clear understanding of how these mechanics work and when they start to kick into effect, so learning the heuristics of good play is more frustrating than it ought to be. In addition, it often isn’t thematically logical that a big empire suddenly becomes less happy or less efficient due just to its size. In fact, bigger empires could be more diverse with people being happier as a result. Or economies of scale kick in and the empire could actually be more efficient!



Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and Stopping the Steamroller


The result of unchecked snowballing is that, for many in 4X games, matches are decided by “one big battle.” The player with the biggest production and military advantage presses the attack and corners a defender. If they are able to stack the odds in their favor in advance, winning a key fight is often a foregone conclusion. And once the bulk of the defenders army is destroyed the aggressor just “steamrolls” their way to an inevitable victory, with their forces uncontested as they take over the opposing empire.

Stopping the steamroller is wrapped up in the above issues related to snowballing. Minimizing snowballing can slow down the steamroller – but not entirely. Ultimately, the streamroller effect is tied to conflict mechanics. If two players enter a conflict with equal force strength (both are equally snowballing), but winner of the first fight only takes 25% or 50% loses, while the loser has been eliminated, the winner has a tremendous force advantage moving forward in the game.



Managing Force + Battle Size
One approach that many games employ to minimize conflict outcome disparity is having Force Size Limits. Endless Space and Endless Legends are two games that come to mind in this regard, where each fleet or army can only contain a certain number of units. This is another case where I think the mechanical solution can work but isn’t very logical or compelling from a thematic standpoint, and leads to other strange effects. In Endless Space, you can end up with dozens or more fleets all stacked in one location, which adds tremendous overhead to managing your forces and breaks what would be one awesome space battle into a series of smaller and less thrilling engagements.

Age of Wonders 3 has a fixed stack limit of 6 units per hex, and when battles happen the target/defender hex plus all seven hexes around them are drawn into the battle, allowing up to 42 units in a single fight (7 hexes * 6 units per hex). It’s similar to the army size limits that the Endless games employ, and it does dovetail nicely into how tactical fights play out. Yet the system does create its own idiosyncrasies with being able to the game system a little and stack the odds for a fight numerically in your favor. Having a mechanism for drawing in reinforcements of over the course of a protracted battle could be a cool expansion on the basic concept.

Civ 5’s “one unit per tile” (1UpT) system is also a move in this direction. In an effort to eliminate the “stacks of doom” we instead get a “carpet of doom” that makes even less sense thematically and in poses a more serious tactical-spatial challenge for the AI.

Starbase Orion (iOS 4x game) takes a more flexible and nuanced approach (like the flexible escalating marginal cost notion above). Ships require a certain amount of command points (think upkeep) across your entire empire. You can have more ships than command points, but it starts diverting credits away from the general coffers at a really high rate. Regardless, the command points system creates a soft cap on the maximum force size of any one player’s empire – which can keep players a little more even. Yet command points ramp up as your empire develops and grows, so a snowballing empire will just have more command points to support a bigger fleet. And with battles tending to be “all in” the outcomes of a single battle can still be decisive for the game as a whole.



Curious Conquest Mechanics
The conquest mechanics of many 4X games are, in my opinion, one of the more confused and underdeveloped aspects of 4X games. In so many games, eliminating a city’s or planet’s defending army lets you, relatively painlessly, take it over and claim it as your own. Rarely do games require a sustained occupation to convert population – an occupation which could dramatically slow down the steamroller effect and give time for the defender to regroup and launch a counter-attack.

Armada 2526 does a, conceptually, good job of tracking the population of different planets that you capture. When you capture a “alien race” star system, the system is still occupied by the civilians of the alien race – they are often not too keen on their new overlords and suffer major happiness woes as a result. These woes can cascade into revolts and rebellion unless you maintain a fleet presence to “keep the peace”, marines on the ground, or build security centers. An interesting detail is that you can’t actually build marines of an alien race as a way to keep the peace, so it can be quite hard to ‘tame’ a hostile alien population.

I’m still waiting for a 4X game that layers in some sort of cultural affinity system – where for example the population of empire A might really like the culture/people of empire B based on long-term cultural exchanges. This affinity would make fighting across these cultural line highly unpleasant for both sides, and put some counter-pressure on attacking and being overly aggressive.

Fighting on Multiple Fronts
Another, often untapped, opportunity is the extent to which 4X games encourage players to split up their force and be able to attack on multiple fronts. In so many games, the best strategy is to keep all your forces in one spot for maximum devastation when the battle comes. This can be a result of how combat is designed, but it also has a lot to do with strategic movement and intelligence gathering. If you don’t have a way of moving past or around a big fleet (either through speed or stealth or both!) to raid cities or planets behind the line then there is little incentive for players to keep their forces dispersed and defending (and attacking) in multiple different locations.

Age of Wonders 3 does a relatively good job of enabling this sort of play. Scouting and map awareness is critically important, but there are also an abundance of fast moving and stealthy units. It’s entirely possible for players to be in a cold-war state along the frontlines with smaller pockets of forces infiltrating behind enemy lines to try and steal weakly defended cities. Unfortunately, outside capturing cities there is little for a raiding part to do – you can’t destroy resource nodes or structures with your raiding party, and so are somewhat limited in your capacity do deal clandestine economic damage.

I’m not a fan of “star lanes” in space 4X games, but they do create a topography for space with choke points and the like that can make it possible for a compact defensive force to hold the line in some locations while you press the attack in other locations. So that’s another approach to encourage multiple fronts.

Uncertain and Unpredictable Outcomes
The more certain the outcome of a typical battle is, the more unfortunate the impact of the “one big battle can be.” Uncertainty can be a mechanism that keeps a stronger player from holding off on their attack, wondering whether or not they have the strength to win, or what the costs of victory will be. This pause in aggression may be enough to let a lagging player mount a stronger defense, which prompts the attacker to question their advantage again or enables the defender to attack on a different front.

One game that manages this notion well is UltraCorps. Fleets can contain 100’s or even 1000’s of units, the combined strength of which is all rolled up into a few firepower measurements. But the way the combat mechanic itself works is never a guarantee. Outside of doubling the firepower of your opponent, it’s often possible to sustain heavy losses or outright lose the fight even with a noticeable firepower advantage. A few lucky hits early on in a combat round that takes out a key capital ship, for example, can have a compounding effect on the course of the battle. The system keeps things tense and interesting and you are almost always going to sustain moderate loses in a fight.

Armads 2526 detection system also keeps players on their toes in a nice way and makes the gameplay more uncertain. Unless an enemy fleet is relatively close to a sensor array, you won’t know the exact composition of the fleet headed your way, you might only get an approximate number of ships in the fleet. If the fleet is even further way, it’s just a blip, and you have no idea of whether the fleet is a single scout or decoy, or a full on invasion force.

Persistent Damage of Units
This is a smaller concept, but one that that many games use to good effect. For example, in Starbase Orion, damaged ships remain damaged unless the fleet returns to a system with a Starbase and remains idle for a number of turns. This is a nice way of putting the brakes on an invading force, because even if you don’t win the big fight, you can still do a lot of damage and make the next fight easier (assuming of course you have more forced on hand). Unfortunately in Starbase Orion’s case, battles can often be quite decisive, and often a winning force will come out of the battle with minimal damage and loses, and if the defender went all in on the fight, it’s probably all over for them.



Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out

The above two issues, city spam fueling snowballing and the One Big Battle leading to the steamroller effect, combine with the desired scale of most 4X games to create very unsatisfying late game and end game experience for many. City Spam results in players having to micromanage a large number of cities or colonies – often more than players might want to manage to maintain their production advantage. Winning the One Big Battle then leaves the player in the position of having to “mop up” the waning empires in a tedious, drawn out affair devoid of tension or deep decision making. A lot players just quit the game at that point and call it a win.



Bring in the Micromanagers!
An often employed approach to minimize late game micromanagement is to rely on planet/system/city AI managers or governors. The theory is that as your empire grows and grows, you are less and less concerned with optimizing the output on each and every management unit, and hence are more willing (no delighted!) to relinquish control to an AI manager. Personally I find this a really unsatisfying approach – and especially when a game is close and the hour grows late. If I’m fighting for my life to keep a snowball/steamrolling opponent at bay, the last thing I want is an AI governor buying stuff I may not need and consuming resources and time in the process. Yet, if the game requires me to manage dozens and dozens cities/planets/systems as the only alternative, that isn’t a good prospect either!

Generally speaking, if a game as AI managers that operate in any sort of shadow, left to their own devices sort of way, red flags go up.

Better Living Through Technology!
A different tact is to give players tools that make management tasks easier even as the game scales up. One of the most brilliant systems I’ve seen in this regard is the “custom build focus” mechanic used in Starbase Orion. Briefly, you are able setup and SAVE a custom build queue depending on a particular goal you have in mind for the development of a given planet. This queue bulls from all of the possible planetary developments that can happen in the game. For example, you could create a custom “Research Planet” queue that includes all the +research buildings, but maybe also sprinkles in some +production buildings (to make research faster), and maybe at the end of the queue a Starbase or other special projects.

The game handles the queues perfectly and it dovetails with your technology progress – so if you haven’t unlocked “Research Labs III” the custom queue will move on to the next queue item that can be built. If there is nothing currently available to build, the queue can have its default behavior specified (e.g. generate more taxes, boost growth, stockpile production, etc.) so that you don’t need to bother switching the planet focus around manually. At any time, you can swoop in a manually override the queue with a new build order, and when that manual order is done the planet will revert back to its custom queue.

All in all, this system makes it possible to manage many planets and systems quite easily. It accomplishes the same goal as AI managers, but it puts the decision and tools in the players hand and keeps the process far more transparent.

Swift Closure and Alternative Goals
The tedium and drag-out of the late game is at its worst when players are required to effectively exterminate all of the opposing empires to win. If the only goal extermination, and you’ve already won all the possible one-big battles, and the steamroller is steamrolling and the snowball is snowballing, then what is there to look forward to? For all that I like about Starbase Orion, the end can be a slog when it’s clear you’ve already won. Providing alternative win triggers can be a good way to combat this issue.

Age of Wonders 3 has a pretty clever win trigger. Each player/empire has a single “leader” hero, and normally if they die your leader respawns at your throne city a few turns later. However, if you manage to kill someone’s empire and capture their throne city before they respawn, you immediately win! If course, this goal can happen at any time, and often you see players, especially in human vs human games, strategize around assassinating a leader and using concealed units to capture the throne behind enemy lines. This is great for keeping players on their toes throughout the game, but also works well to avoid the end-game slog. After the “one big battle” you can usually scout around and find the enemy leader and make a push right to their throne city for a win.

Age of Wonders 3 also introduced a clever “Seals” victory, which is a sort of multi-point king of the hill system. Maps will have a number of great seal locations (based on the number of players) and holding a seal earns you charges. A variable “charge limit” can be set for an automatic win. With the Seal victory condition enabled, players end up fighting a lot around the seals, pushing people off when they get close to winning in an attempt to secure a win for themselves. This system gives an alternative to cities for forces to target and fight over, and the charge limits functions a bit as an timer to prevent the game from heading into tedious endgame scenario.

Last, Age of Wonders 3 also has a nice “surrender” mechanic – where if you capture a bunch of an enemy empires cities in a short period of time, and you have a large force advantage, the AI will just surrender outright to you, with their leader and throne city coming under your control.

Of course, civ and 4X games have often had all sorts of alternative victory conditions (research, economic, cultural, diplomatic, etc.) – and these can be very compelling ways of minimizing the slog of end-game conquest. Of course, unless you are in a tight race with other empires, achieving these victories if often an underwhelming experience of hitting “next turn” for dozens and dozens of turns on end until you amass enough money, research, culture, population, or whatever to meet the win threshold. In other words, these can feel pretty anti-climactic.



Asymmetric and Unconventional Designs
A current trend in 4X game design, which I think is trying to solve all three of these issues at once, is to just radically rethink the entire formula for what it means to be a 4X game.

An asymmetrical design is one option, such as in AI War or The Last Federation where the “players” empire or domain of control is fundamentally different from the challenge they are up against. No longer is the human starting out in the same situation as the other AI empires. Instead, the human starts out operating in a completely different way from their opposition, and both have fundamentally different ways of winning or losing. In speculating, I think we’ll see a lot more advancement and experimentation with these ideas.

Other games have taken more of an unconventional approach to the empire builder. “At the Gates” and “Empire” (an iOS 4X game) have players managing a sort of roving/nomadic city-state-clan-thing that may settle down in an area for a period of time, but eventually be pushed to migrate and move to a new territory. These games are asymmetric as well, as there are no other roving/nomadic “players” that you are competing with. Nevertheless, they providing a compelling solution to the central issues. There is no snowballing per se because you are hard limited to just a few (or just one!) “management” unit. Likewise, the smaller scale and focus of the game relative to the asymmetric opposition you face makes steamrolling a non-issue. What are you steamrolling against in these contexts? It goes without saying that management tedium is largely a moot point as well.



Wrap-Up

The issues discussed above (snowballing, steamrolling, management tedium) and the various attempts at resolving them, has defined much of the 4X genre at a fundamental level. How different mechanisms are employed to combat these issues and how those mechanisms sit relative to the games theme does a lot to differentiate the core feeling and experience of different 4X games and speaks to multitudes of tastes and interests among 4X gamers.

Recent years seem to be a little golden age for 4X and civ-style games, and it will be fascinating to see how many of the innovative ideas and experiments will be received and which will stick on ceiling as a good idea for the future of the genre.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues. Are there creative solutions to city-spam or steamrolling you’ve seen in games that I didn’t mention? Other creative ideas you’ve had to meet these challenges? The phones are open!
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Thu Feb 5, 2015 5:13 pm
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On Game Obsessions, Disillusionments, and Finding Meaning

Oliver Kiley
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Alec Meer, over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, wrote an interesting personal piece looking back on 2014 and thinking ahead about 2015. In the article, he touched on both his expanding life role as a father – a demanding reality I can sympathize with – as well as how games fit within the broader context of life pursuits and bring (or fail to bring) memorable value. He also raises a concern over the mindless nature of some games, which seem to lure us in with a promise of freedom and a world of wonder but deliver something far less thrilling.

Alec Meer Wrote:
“I have a strong suspicion I spent too much time with too many games which use the Assassin’s Creed structure – the map full of icons, each pinpointing exactly where the next known quantity was, each one closing the door on having an experience which felt in any way personal. It’s a simulacrum of freedom – really, you’re in a theme park, repeating a sanitized and mechanical experience. You know exactly what’s where, exactly what’s going to happen, exactly how it’s going to feel.

The time passes pleasantly, maybe even thrillingly at times, but it means nothing, there’s no sense of achievement other than Achievements. Maybe it’s more compulsive masturbation than Disneyland (or maybe Disneyland is masturbation? Discuss) – make the itch go away, risk a faint sense of guilt and self-disgust afterwards, then do it again anyway.“


I’ve found myself in the same boat many times in the past – where I’m playing a game for dozens and dozens (or more) hours and suddenly the fog parts. And then I’m standing there all alone on the dock, wondering why it is exactly that I’m continuing to play a given game when it is clear that my mental image of what the game ‘could’ (or ‘should’) provide doesn’t match with what the game is, you know, actually providing – that the ship isn’t coming in. It’s a harsh moment that leaves one speculating whether or not they could’ve put their time to more productive use, or at least invested in a game that leaves you with something to show for it beyond a list of checked-off Achievements.

“Achievements” deserve their own topic. But as a teaser, I have to admit that I find the idea of achievements rather repulsive, particularly when the quest to, ahem, “achieve” them becomes a motivation for continuing to playing a game. Shouldn’t the sheer enjoyment of playing the game and the desire to get better at it be the principle driver? It plays into some sense of community showoffs-man-ship that, at least, for me, doesn’t do anything. But to each their own.

A Menagerie of Disillusionment

In an earlier post, My Journey into Haunting Ambivalence, I highlight a bit of the same frustration I sense in Alec’s article – that so many games just leaves him (and me) feeling unsatisfied. I wrote that, for me, games had to have a compelling combination of narrative, immersion, and challenge to maintain any lasting interest. If there is just one - or maybe two - of those elements the game usually won’t make a lasting impression, and I often come away regretting the time I spent playing it.

Among the videogame critics (at least those that I read), I feel like there is a growing frustration with the direction most games are going (achievements, unlocks, gamification-of-games, IAP, game-on-rails, etc.) and a desire to break away from the genre-tropes that have defined the videogame landscape for the past 15-20 years. I think we’re starting to get there, as developers gain more and more means to pursue their own hair-brained projects out from under the auspice of big budget publishers – but this also means there is also an awful lot more chaff to sort through to find those few nuggets worth drooling over.

Kurt wrote a great article, Postcards from the Edge, recently about trends on the board gaming side of the fence, and noted a trend of decreasing fervor in kickstarter boardgame projects. At some level it’s a case of general burnout I think – that perhaps the paradise of kickstarter wasn’t as green as we thought. Or perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, of realizing that we shouldn’t convince ourselves that we need to play 20 or 50 or 100 new games each year to keep on top of things –that instead we can be more discerning in our gaming habitats. And that maybe, just maybe, the 20 or 50 or 100 games we already have on the shelf will do just fine, thank you very much.

Cycles of gaming enthusiasm/obsession

This a little tangential, but as I think back on my own gaming history, I can divide it into rough, mostly non-overlapping, eras of obsession. At any point, I tend to find myself interested in a particular game such that 90% or more of my available gaming attention and time is focused on it – like Sauron’s great eye. And the hallmark of a gaming obsession, for me, is that I will also get involved with the community: joining the forums, doing beta/patch testing, making mods, working on a wiki, etc. My most memorable moments in gaming are thus wrapped up this nexus of gameplay and community contribution.

Cherry picking some moments ….

With Quake (the original) I was heavily involved with the map/level making scene and had my own (and my first) website to review deathmatch levels. There was an intense stint with Magic the Gathering circa ’95 (?). With the Elder Scrolls, and by extension Fallout 3, I was heavily involved in modding and made one of the preeminent Fallout 3 gameplay mods. I’ve been involved in various Warhammer 40,000 communities in times and written my own codex’s (don’t tell GW!). I got back into hobby boardgaming circa 2010 and re-kindled a game design passion, which spawned both this blog and Hegemonic. I immersed myself thoroughly into Starbase Orion (iOS 4X game) and helped with patch development. My current obsession is, without a doubt, Age of Wonders 3, which has set the bar (very high) for what I’m looking for in a turn based strategy game – and I’ve been heavily involved in the community forums and patch testing there as well.

So unlike Alec, 2014 was a good year for me in that I did identify it largely with one outstanding game, Age of Wonders 3 (released in March ’14), which has kept me thoroughly enraptured. The frosting on this cupcake is that I’ve also been able to rope a good friend into playing AoW3, and the game is simply fantastic as a multiplayer turn-based game. Plus I get the friendly interaction/banter going with my friend.

Yet 2014 has also seen far less boardgaming than the past many years, a trend which leaves me a little disheartened. Yet it’s an understandable reality as both myself and many of my close gaming friends are all having young kids running about – which changes the opportunities and dynamics of social gatherings in a rather significant way. That said – my close friends did make a sort of informal New Year’s resolution to actively plan period game nights, to get the aging clan back together for an evening of in-person boardgaming or digital shenanigans online. We’ve had one gathering so far, and need to keep the ball rolling and make it a regular thing.

But back on topic - I will get burned out on a given game obsession. The fog parts on the current obsession and I’m compelled to move on and find the next hit. I’ll hang, perhaps months in a sort of limbo flitting from one game to the next in an attempt to land on a new one that feels right, that can drag me in with its tantalizing mix of narrative, immersion, and challenge. Is this healthy? I’m not sure.

Gaming and the Pathways to Meaning

If there is one thing that seems to unify gamers it is a desire to interact with some other reality and the system of rules by which it operates. Some people describe this as escapism, the desire to have agency or power or control in an instanced world that isn’t the normal one we occupy – to test and challenge ourselves and each other in ways that don’t (usually) have lasting consequences. But if the games themselves don’t have lasting consequences, I do wonder what the lasting consequences of being a “gamer” on the whole will prove to be.

Like Patrick Carroll, will I find myself regularly reflecting back on decades of gaming highs and lows but perhaps struggling to understand why or how it has enriched one’s life. It’s a struggle I think we both share. Then again – the same argument might be said of other forms of media entertainment. Why read a fiction book? Why watch a movie? Why submerse yourself in a never-ending TV series? Games may give us agency to act within their fictional realities, yet do (or can) they inspire us or challenge our world views in the ways that the most memorable movies or novels have countless times in the past?

I’m not sure if games, as a whole industry/body of work, yet provide the sort of cultural meaning that other media can. Yet for many of us, we seem to be on a quest to find that level of meaning within games. To both couple our desire for agency and being immersed in another reality with some sense of greater purpose and insight that might enrich our lives more broadly.

Or perhaps, games are just an excuse to get together over a case of beer and a big bowl of pretzels. Or a 2-litre of Mountain Dew and Doritos. I’ll let you decide.

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Mon Jan 19, 2015 3:34 pm
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2014 Synopsis and Highlight Reel

Oliver Kiley
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So doing these end of year wrap-ups appears to be a thing – so I better get on board lest I be accused of not doing the right things!

2014 has been a bit of a transitional year. Family changes (these things called babies and kids) has made breaking away from the home front an evening of boardgame debauchery a wee bit more challenging – driving me back into the hovel of PC and iOS gaming a bit more. Sadly though, within this hovel, I found myself bombarded with far too many seasonal sales of tempting digital goods for my own well-being. Steam seasonal sales, the Touch Arcade iOS app tracker (with sales notifications!), Humble Bundle sales (lord help me), and the ever-present GOG.com (nostalgia runs deep with this one!) has made sure that my wallet feels the cruel bite at regular intervals.

So given all of this, what have I picked up? What’s worth special attention? What have I actually been playing? What do I wish I was playing? What should I have played but didn’t? Well good friends, read on if you dare!




In the past year I’ve acquired the following (it pains me psychologically to type this all, but I’ll consider it my penance):

Actual Boardgame Acquisitions

- The Badger Deck
- Lagoon: Lost Druids
- Onirim 2nd Edition
- Legitimacy
- Tahiti

This was a slow year in boardgame land. All the above, except the awesome Badger Deck, were acquired as Christmas gifts this year, and have yet to be played. Overall, with my boardgame collection, I feel like I’m at a point where I really have all the games I’m interesting in playing, and I want to just play those games more until I’m motivated to try something new. Ah wel…


Civilization / 4X Games

The 4X/Strategy genre is my favorite genre of videogames, and unsurprisingly were the biggest category of purchases. 4X/civ games are going through a big of a renaissance and there are some fantastic games coming out these days.

PC
- Age of Wonders 1, 2, Shadow Magic (few hours with Shadow Magic)
- Age of Wonders 3 (200+ hours)
- Civilization 4 Complete (un-played)
- Civilization 5 Complete (10+ hours)
- Crusader Kings 1 (un-played)
- Crusader Kings 2 (couple hours, ugh – dense!)
- Endless Legends (~6 hours)
- Europa Universalis IV (un-played)
- Galactic Civ 2 (previously played/owned)
- Horizon (~2 hours)
- Space Empires IV (un-played)
- Space Empires V (un-played)
- Sword of the Stars Complete (previously played/owned)
- The Last Federation (~2 hours)

iOS
- Autumn Dynasty Warlords (played moderately)
- King of Dragon Pass (played moderately)
- Alien Tribe 2 (~ 2 hours)
- Palm Kingdoms 2 (less than an hour)

Age of Wonders 3 is, without a doubt, one of my favorite games of all time. I wrote about it in my review a while ago, and I continue to play it on a near daily basis. I’ve clocked over 200 hours (I own it on both Steam and GOG if that says anything!). It’s definitely war-focused 4X game, as the empire management is relatively simplified compared to other games. However the strategic aspects of force position and maneuver, as well as the tactical combat, is just out of this world. It reminds me a lot of a dream I had, which was playing a Warhammer 40,000 campaign on an over-world map with bases and multiple armies moving about, and then when the armies fight it drops into the tactical level battle. Tons of strategic depth and variety, awesome magic system, great visuals and lore … what more could I ask for?




Endless Legends is another 4X game, released in October, which is making some serious waves. Civilization: Beyond Earth was a letdown critically and for many gamers, but Endless Legends seems to have won people over in its place. It’s a gorgeous game, with some very clever ideas – but I personally find it a bit dull and boring in terms of strategy. Too much management and trivial decisions overall causes the game to feel like it’s playing itself a little bit.




King of Dragon Pass is an older game (from 1999?) released onto iOS and is one of the most incredible game designs/concepts I’ve ever experienced. If you can imagine a game that’s a cross between a tribe-management simulator, 4X, and choose your own adventure, then this is it. Highly immersive and narrative driven strategy game worth checking out. I wrote about KoDP a while ago as well.

A number of other game I’ve re-purchased and want to try out again to see how they hold up (Sword of the Stars, GalCiv2). A bunch of other games I picked up cheap (or got as gifts!) and still need to dig my teeth into. If only I could put down Age of Wonders 3!


RTS (Real-Time Strategy) Games

I used to play a lot of RTS games. Nowadays, it’s hard to get a un-disruptionable (?) block of time to play. Some of these I picked up because I missed the boat when they were first released and I’ve been wanting to give them a try when the moment is right.

PC
- Age of Empires III: Complete (un-played)
- Medieval II: Total War Kingdoms (un-played)
- Planetary Annihilation (un-played)
- Rise of Nations: Extended Edition (un-played)
- Supreme Commander + Forged Alliance (un-played)

iOS
- First Strike (played moderately)
- Haegemonic: Legions of Iron (less than an hour)
- Galcon 2 (less than an hour)

First Strike is the game I’ve played the most in this category, which is a rather interesting weapons-of-mass-distriction based RTS game. Aside from being a frantic and compelling game in its own right, it also provides a bit of commentary and soul searching. There is something horrific that reminds us about the truth of nuclear proliferation when you complete a session. It gives you the civilian death toll and a single message of “You Won?” when the game is over, reminding us that there is little to rejoice in “winning” a nuclear war. Touchingly, part of the game’s sale revenues go to support anti-proliferation campaigns.




Tactical Games

Tactical games (in my world) are generally turn based games down at the “squad” level.

iOS
- Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol (un-played)
- Motorsport Manager (un-played)
- Great Big Wargames (un-played)
- Warhammer 40,000 Space World (un-played)
- Hoplite (un-played)
- Banner Saga (just started playing)
- Shadowrun Returns (played 6+ hours, currently playing)

Banner Saga is an acquisition I just started playing. It is, without a doubt, a beautiful and conceptually interesting game. Experiencing it my iPad seems to be the ideal way to do it. I’ll have more to say on this in the future, I’m only about an hour into so far. Till then, enjoy the trailer!




Shadowrun Returns is a sort of hybrid RPG/Tactical Combat game based of Shadowrun of course, an icon of cyberpunk meets fantasy. I’m currently working my way through the game and greatly enjoying all it has to offer. The world isn’t as open as some previous Shadowrun games have felt, but maybe that’s just my initial impression. I still have a ways to go through the game before the jury is in.




FPS (First Person Shooter) Games

Once upon a time, FPS games were my lifeblood. Playing Quake, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Unreal and so on in multiplayer was where my gaming was at. I’m far less inclined to pick up FPS games these days, and my generally out-of-date computer hardware is happy to reinforce this sentiment.

PC
- Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (played 12+ hours)
- Guns of Icarus (just started)
- Insurgency (un-played)
- Metro 2033 (un-played)

iOS
- The Hunted (un-played)

I did manage to play Battlefield: Bad Company 2 quite a bit – and it is a blast for sure. Guns of Icarus just looks like too much fun to ignore. So I bought all my local friends a copy. Someday we’ll have glorious battles in the skies.


RPG / Action RPG Games

I used to play a lot of RPG games, and as a consequence I’m pretty discriminating about which one’s I’ll sit down to play. I bought a bunch (too many?) in various too-good-to-pass-up deals, but I found a couple of gems.

PC
- Beyond Divinity (couple hours?)
- Divine Divinity (un-played)
- Mount & Blade (un-played)
- The Witcher (1 hour?)
- The Witcher 2 (un-played)
- Gothic 3 (un-played)

iOS
- Battleheart Legacy (played extensively!)
- Terraria (played 10+ hours, currently playing)

Battleheart Legacy is an action RPG (think Diablo-like game) that is just a blast to play. It has a really interesting and open class/skill system where you can mix and match skills from 9 or 10 different classes and come up with all sorts of interesting combos and synergies. It has a great interface and that addictive quality to it that makes you want to keep playing and mashing those skill buttons. I’m currently playing a sort of Teleporting Ninja / Backstabbing Thief / Leaping-Barbarian / Aura of Healing Paladin / Flame-weapon Battlemage sort of character – and it’s glorious warping about the dungeons battling foes. The game feels poised for an interesting narrative, but that aspect of it fell a little flat. Still, it’s a wonderfully well done game that is just a joy to play.




Terraria is my current addiction. It is sort of a side-scrolling Minecraft / survival-craft game. It’s a lot of fun digging down into the earth to look for cool stuff, but then stumbling through some wall and unleashing a Hoover-dam sized volume of water into the area you just excavated and frantically climb up you shoddy platforms and ropes to try and escape. Among other things. It’s a sandbox survival game that’s got a lot of positive press. Great fun and creativity.




Survival Games / Rogue-like

Survival and “Rogue-like” (basically permanent death) games have been on the rise for the past few years, and I find myself simultaneously annoyed and delighted by most of them. They are generally hard and unforgiving – but usually in a good way.

PC
- Don’t Starve (played ~2 hours)
- Drifter (un-played)
- Dungeon of the Endless (un-played)
- The Long Dark (played 6+ hours)
- Shelter (unplayed)

iOS
- FTL Faster than Light (played 6+ hours, continue to play)
- Out There (played 12 hours, continue to play)
- Road of Kings (less than an hour)
- Card Dungeon (less than an hour)
- Wayward Souls (played 4+ hours)
- Arcane Quest 2 (less than an hour)
- Wicked Lair (unplayed)

The Long Dark is an FPS survival game still in early access. It’s a gorgeous game visually, and very immersive in its simplicity. Essentially, you are stranded in some frozen wasteland and need to find food, shelter, warmth, and so on to see how long you can survive. I’ve only made a few days in my best stretch. Usually I get eaten by wolves within a few hours of stumbling around in the dark. I’m holding off on playing more because I really like where this game is going and want to wait until it’s more finished before getting into it too much more.




FTL is an absolutely awesome game, and the iOS tablet implementation is just awesome. FTL has you commanding a space ship and its crew across a number of regions and sectors of space to deliver some secret plans to the good rebel guys. Something like that. I like to imagine that I’m Han Solo in the Falcon running from the empire and trying to get to the rebel base. There are tons of ships to try out, each with different approaches, and the basic decisions you face about how to spend resources and what equipment to utilize along the way is dazzlingly challenging in all the right ways. Things can go soooo wrong.




Out There is my poster child for a modern game with basically no violence (aside form you getting occasionally attacked). Imagine the Oregon Trail but in space. You have a ship and need to manage various resources and your cargo as you warp from system to system trying to reach one of the three end points. I’ve made it to one of them once. I’ve played it a LOT! It’s hard! But it is amazingly cerebral and introspective too. There are great narrative touches throughout and it’s just a wonderful game across the board.




Wayward Souls merits a mention, since it’s topped a lot of charts this year. It has a retro pixel art style reminiscent of the 16-bit console gaming era I grew up in. Damn is it ever hard. Or I’m just bad. There is an interesting narrative that leads you along, but unfortunately I’ve only seen about 1/8th of it because I’m terrible at the game. It is a fun challenge though, and it looks great in a retro sort of way.




Adventure / Narrative Games

I used to play so many adventure games growing up (sierra Quest games in particular). It’s nice that they are making a comeback in recent years, and in particular starting to show some real innovation and novelty in the themes and subjects they address. Adventure games, given their narrative focus, seem to be at the forefront of “games as art” efforts – or at least games pushing non-entertainment-first intents. More to come on that later.

PC
- Dear Esther (completed!)
- Violet (3+ hours, still going)
- Child of Light (unplayed)
- Heroine’s Quest (just started)

iOS
- Hollywood Monsters (finished!)
- Mechinarium (6+ hours, still going)
- Space Adventure: A Cosmic Adventure (4+ hours, still going)
- Heavy Metal Thunder Game book (4+ hours, still going)

Dear Esther is a “walking simulator” type of game. These are games you just … walk. There isn’t really anything to interact with at all. You just walk, following a more or less linear path. Amazing aesthetics aside, there is also a narrator that provides voice-overs as you walk, gradually revealing a story as sublime and haunting as the landscape you are walking though. I won’t spoil the details, but the story has sparked all sort of discussions about WTF has actually transpired, and it’s possible the story isn’t even the same each time you play through. I haven’t dared play it again. But it’s worth looking at for a glimpse into this genre.




Boardgames + Puzzle Games

I’m lumping boardgames and puzzle games into the same category (oh the heresy!). I think I’ve mostly tapped out the iOS-adaptions of physical boardgames that interested me in prior years, and the number of releases for games I want to play has slowed down at bit.

iOS
- Quarriors (unplayed)
- Hearthstone (6+ hours, fading)
- Agricola (2 hours)
- Star Realms (played extensively, 100+ games?)
- Third Eye Crime (played ~6 hours)
- Catchup (unplayed)
- Hitman GO (unplayed)
- Damn Little Town (unplayed)
- Talisman (unplayed)
- Nightmare Cooperative (unplayed)

Star Realms has proven to be a constant winner tough. People knocked it’s UI at first, but I never had any issue with it. It’s a great game, addicting, strategic, and all of that. I’ve been playing it a bunch with local friends, which is a nice way to get some gaming in. Looking forward to seeing how this one expands in the future.




The above 75 or so purchases, all told, probably doubled my game library. And I still have 20 more games wrapped up in Humble Bundle bundles that I haven’t unbundled yet. In total, approximately 30 of this year purchases remain completely un-played – which isn’t too terrible considering the reduced amount of game time I have at my disposal these days.

iOS games have fared a little better since I’m likely play a bunch of different games depending on my mood. When I sit down to play a game at my laptop PC, I have a REALLY hard time not firing up Age of Wonders 3 and leading my empire on to victory. Age of Wonders 3, released in March, has already had one expansion come out, and a second expansion adding a new class (Necromancer) and race (Frostlings) is on the way. I’ve also been playing AoW3 multiplayer with local friends, which has been great fun for both the challenge and camaraderie.

What’s next? In 2015 I’d like to be a bite more judicious in my purchases. Videogame sales are sooo tempting, with games regularly in the $5-15 dollar range, so it hard to turn down a game you’ve been eyeballing when a good sale hits. Yet I have to keep in mind my time and capacity for actually playing all of these games!

That said, my watch list for 2015 is in full swing, and a future post will provide a look ahead at what I’ve been keeping my eyes on. There are some really interesting games coming down the pipe this year. And hopefully I’ll start getting some more boardgaming goodness in as well. We’re slowly emerging from the darkness of infant-to-baby care – and perhaps time will swing back my way again. Till then, cheers!
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Mon Jan 5, 2015 9:59 pm
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Culture Storms and the Evolving Medium of Games

Oliver Kiley
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I’ve been wanting to write something on the culture storm within the video gaming community that’s been brewing and raging over the past many months. On one hand, I’ve stayed relatively silent on the issue because it hasn’t been clear how best I, and this blog, would make a useful contribution to what has become a total quagmire of internet vitriol. On the other hand, my own thoughts are sufficiently confused on the subject that writing about it at least forces me to articulate the thoughts I do have and try to work towards resolution in my own mind. It’s therapeutic on some level.

The culture storm I’m talking about is related to #GamerGate. If you are aware of the controversy, you probably have some of our own opinions and thoughts. If you haven’t heard of it – wikpedia’s GamerGate article appears to provide a fairly detailed account of the issues in play. I’ve taken to calling this a “storm,” as opposed to a war or conflict, because I think it’s far messier than what a war with cleanly divided sides might suggest.

Ultimately though, I don’t want to talk about #GamerGate directly. My feelings, after reading far too much (from both sides), is that trying to sort out the root causes, motivations, and rationales for pro-GG and anti-GG camps is like trying to fight your way through Minos’ Labyrinth. Except instead of facing the Minotaur you face a never-ending stream of photo collages of retrospective twitter posts, the authenticity and context of which is routinely unclear or absent. Its total confusion on both sides of the fence, with the extreme contingents on both sides screaming conspiracy, causing whatever facts or salient points might have been raised in the middle ground to be completely lost. Phew!

So, I’m not talking about #GamerGate. If you are looking for another voice, Erik Kain wrote a nice piece back in September that encapsulates my frustrations with the whole situation rather eloquently. Instead, I want to focus on the issues that have come out of the controversy that ARE important topics to discuss relative to the health and future of gaming culture and industry overall.

You are probably asking “what are these ‘issues’ that we can pull out from the fire and talk about?” I’ll frame each one below, and try my best to frame the different perspectives that come into play on each, and then include some of my own thoughts based on my own experiences and what I’d like to see happen.


Ethics in Game Journalism Part 1: Gaming Press Integrity

The call for better ethics in games journalism has been a central point in the in the conflict. Many people, rightly-so, are concerned about the close relationships between game developers and the gaming press. “Relationships” covers a lot of territory though, from individuals having close personal relationships outside of their industry involvements, to professional relationships born out of typical business networking. Obviously there is a lot of gray area here, and the call for revealing conflicts of interest is reasonable. At the very least stating relationships and potential conflicts when it could be interpreted as (or is) a source of bias is a good thing.

But at the same time, the relationships between developers and the press (and within the developer and press circles themselves), are important to have. We can’t expect them to exist in separate silos with no form of communication outside of what is posted for public consumption. If readers want to know what’s going on behind the closed doors of development studios, beyond company press releases, then there need to be journalists the developers know and trust enough to share information with. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but provided the nature of arrangements and access is disclosed appropriately, it can still be an ethical sound situation.

There are certainly valid complaints levied against the gaming press – a recent example being press members receiving a certain game early for review provided the game’s negative points were withheld from the “review” (or something to this effect). That’s an ethical trap for sure. Yet it looks like the rally cry for better ethics in game journalism has precipitated changes of policy at some media outlets (Polygon and Kotaku come to mind), which is hopefully a good step forward.

For all the discussion around ethics in journalism, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion about it directly. It is complicated for sure, but doesn’t appear insurmountable.


Ethics in Game Journalism Part 2 – What is a Review?

At a finer scale, the ethics debate has sparked conversation about what should constitute a proper “review.” Reviews drive much of the buy / no-buy decisions for people, and the internet storms that have whipped up about review scores and the motivations behind them provide no shortage of fuel for the ethical flames. There is a BGG thread on this exact topic right now.

I’ve seen comments from people suggesting that a review should be nearly exactly “X, Y, Z”, or that a review should just “stick to the facts” and keep politics or other issues out of the conversation. Paradoxically, advocates for freedom of expression in the games themselves (particularly with regard to not-censoring violence and sexism) can be quick to admonish the freedom journalists have to write however they please about the games they play, particularly when those writings cast games in light of greater political or cultural commentaries.

Some websites (for example Rock, Paper, Shotgun – a favorite of mine) simply avoid calling reviews “reviews.” and instead call them something else. Rock, Paper, Shotgun uses the “Wot I Think” tag for reviews, which emphasizes the subjective nature of game reviewing and playing a game is a personal endeavor that we all experience individually in our own unique ways.

Two things come to mind.

First, I do feel that consumers of games (and game reviews) need to be more informed and cognizant of the nature of what they are consuming. Reviews should never be read and taken as fact. Even which facts are or aren’t reported on in a review is subject to bias, and there is always a level of subjectivity when it comes to writing about creative works – at the very least choosing WHAT works to even talk about in the first place is a subjective decision! As readers/consumers, the critical lesson is realizing that the experience and value you get from playing a game is never going to be the same as the experience and value the reviewer had. As a reader/consumer, you need to decipher the reviewer’s preferences/biases going into their review of the game, and cross-tabulate that with your own preferences and knowledge. There are two levels of signal-to-noise to sort through, yet all too often people come to expect reviews to be fact, only to find out the experience they had didn’t match.

Second, as the gaming culture/industry evolves (more on this later), the landscape of game writing will become more diverse and nuanced. The era of reviewing games “with just the facts” and issuing a numeric score is dwindling in its relevance as games move beyond many of their traditional genres and formats; and perhaps away from the idea of being a “game” in the first place. As the nature of the industry diversifies, there can’t be just one way to talk about games or to write a review – it is far too complex for that.

As an aside, I came across a rather interesting comment (here on BGG) where someone said they came to the realization that few, if any, games are objectively good or bad – they are just good or bad depending on what you as an individual hope to get out of them. This seems obvious once you realize it, but too few people seem to share this opinion – and the result is that you can get shows of disrespect doled out to game creators and the people who DO enjoy those games. For a local example, look no further than Munchkin here on BGG.

So, my advice/wish/dream is that ever more and more voices be brought into fold of game writing. More perspectives seeking to articulate in different ways how a certain game is experienced is a good thing in my opinion. Yet at the same time, the consumers/readers need to find a way to navigate this complex milieu and connect with the reviewers and critics whose sentiments bring them valuable perspectives and insights. But it requires work to find those relevant voices for yourself. At the same time, realizing that voices that don’t match your own opinions aren’t invalid or unjustified for that other person is key to making the industry more mature. In other words, we need more empathy across the board.


Games as Media Form vs. Games as “Fun” Entertainment

I’m going to come back to this topic in a future post – but I do want to raise the point here. One of the bigger lines of debate that I feel underscores much of the gaming culture storm is about the whole notion of games as art versus games’ traditional role as something that is “supposed to be fun.”

People advocate frequently (I’ve had plenty of comments here on the blog affirming this) that games are “supposed to be fun” and why should we be seeking other purposes or meanings from games, much less write about it? Traditionally, videogames adhered strongly to a concept of “fun” as a metric for success and good design practices. An illuminating (and ridiculously long) article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun teases apart how the pursuit of “fun” in videogames has led to a preponderance of game design falling into certain modes, themes, and genres designed to appeal to a particular notion of fun for a particular audience. This situation ignores two important facets of the current gaming culture/industry.

First, is recognizing that “fun” is not a universally experienced attribute. In other words, every individual can have a different interpretation for what “fun” means to them – what’s fun for one person might come across as very much not-fun for someone else. Those advocating for “fun” tend to describe a game experience filled with a certain amount of visceral, active joy, and delight, which is a more limited definition. Instead of talking about fun, we might be better served by talking about the “value” derived from a game – what it is that the game brings to the table (or monitor) that is of value to the player. The range of possible values can go well beyond what typically looks like “fun” – it can be contemplative or instructional, bewildering or rational, depressing or elating.

Which leads us to the second point: games are a form of media. Media; like books, or video, or ancient scrolls, or newspapers, or TV broadcasts, or pamphlets, or press-releases. Just as “books” aren’t all supposed to be “fun, entertaining reads” neither must games. There are books that are written for entertainment (of all persuasions), just as there books designed to teach or instruct, or recount history, or inspire action or bring to tears. A film/video can be an instructional safety video or an inspiring work of artistic vision and narrative. Games are no different – and they certainly don’t have an obligation to be “fun” despite their historic roots. So long as a past notion of fun is used as a benchmark for conceiving of and evaluating games, the potential of the media is going to be constrained.

So in answer to the common question “are games art?” I would say this: games are a media, and like any other media CAN be art, although it isn’t always art. What it is that makes something art or not-art is a debate I suspect can’t be resolved; it’s an unending quest and ultimately up to the individual to decide for themselves what art is or isn’t. That said, a notion that has worked well “for me” is that something is art when it asks us/me to reflect on the human condition and the nature of reality. This can be at the highest level of “what does it all mean?!” down to more mundane matters “why do we clean our houses?!” But it doesn’t require “fun” or “learning” or any other potential values other than prompting me to reflect on the human-perceived reality that resides beyond the reality of the work itself.

As said, I want to come back to this topic in more detail in a future post (with examples!) – but for now I want to assert that this divide between “games are supposed to be fun” and “games can be works of art with greater meaning” is at the core of the culture storm in video gaming right now. The established “core gamer” audience (of which I consider myself a member) is witnessing the media growing beyond the domain of fun and into other avenues, some of which may be art. As the industry grows, more and more players and developers are looking for game experiences outside of the core gamers “fun” bucket – and as a consequence, developer focus and effort, and press and media coverage is diversifying in reaction to this growth.

Which brings us to the next point…


The Gamer Identity and Game Culture Diversity

The game industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and total revenues exceeded the film industry a while ago (for a benchmark point). Much of this growth is in “core gamer games” becoming increasingly mainstream house-hold names. AAA game titles that are cross-platform (PC, console, mobile, etc.) can be very pervasive across wide demographic ranges. Coming from the other side, ever increasing numbers of “casual gamers” are coming into gaming by way of social media games or mobile games. And in many cases these two worlds are colliding and intermixing. And lastly, you have a growing interest, particularly among indie developers, to utilize games as media for purposes beyond “fun” entertainment. Each of these areas, as they grow, brings in a greater diversity of game players, each advocating through their purchasing behavior or direct communications what kinds of game experiences they are looking for.

A series of articles written throughout the culture storm has raised the notion that “gamers are dead”, as in the label of “gamer” has lost its meaning. While the tone and intent of these articles have varied tremendously, the point stands that the contingent of people self-identifying as a “gamer” is changing – largely as a consequence of many more people not-previously considered gamers now identifying themselves as gamers. At the furthest end, some contend that “we are all gamers!” and hence can cast-off the mantle of gamer as a point of our identity.

On one hand, there are people celebrating this state of affairs, acknowledging that gaming has achieved mainstream acceptance and may usher in an era of de-stigmatizing “gamers.” This mainstream acceptance can perhaps open the door to further expansion of the gaming industry and the diversity of games that are produced. More people, more games, more diversity – all good things right?

On the other hand are people, mostly in the traditional “core gamer” demographic that took legitimate offense to the “gamers are dead” notion – taking it as an attack on their validity and identity, a brushing under the rug. This was made more bitter by the feeling that “core gamers” are what made the industry grow to such a point in the first place, and they are now being cast aside. These are legitimate feelings of course. The potential impact of their worries is that as the industry diversifies, development energy for making “fun games” for the core gamers will give way to other types of games appealing to other audiences.

Change is hard, and it’s happened before, and sadly some things are lost while others are gained. The greatest gaming change I’ve had to come to terms with is the “console-ification” of traditionally hardcore PC games. We each have our own opinions of course, but the Elder Scrolls games are my go-to example for games being routinely watered-down and streamlined to appeal to a more causal, console-centric gaming audience. Oblivion/Skyrim will never live up to Morrowind in my mind for this reason.

But the silver lining is that the industry is growing – and the numbers of developers in the industry are growing. If something is lost in one instance, two somethings will fill its place in another. Time will tell if this bears out – but rather than rally against the change, we can re-assert what types of games we do want to play and find a mechanism for getting them made. Space games, both 4X strategy games and space flight simulators are going through a renaissance after decades of big publisher disinterest once crowd-funding opened the doors of opportunities and exposed the latent demand for such titles. As indie developers become more sophisticated and experienced and move up the rungs of the industry, I suspect we will see even greater diversity of high quality games be released. Surely this is a bright spot amidst the gray fogs of change.


Sexism, Violence, and Freedom of Expression

The last topic on want to raise is sexism (and violence) in video games – as it is the eye of the proverbial hurricane of the videogame culture storm; it’s the issue everything else seems to be swirling around and manifesting though. So it is worth addressing for that reason alone, but also because it is important more globally.

Let me attempt to describe some of the contrasting perspective and opinions.

Some contend that a great many games are sexist in nature due to their depictions of women, the roles they assign them, and the agency they are afforded in games; as visual props, or defenseless damsels to be rescued, or eye-candy, or marketing material, etc.. I’ve been playing video games for a long time, and while I can’t make any claims on the relative or absolute share of games that could be interpreted as sexist, I feel comfortable saying that a lot of them are. Look no further than the countless not-safe-for-work ads that pop-up on video games sites. Sex sells, as it always has.

Others don’t perceive these sorts of depictions as sexist, or dismiss them as part of a broader cultural issue to address. For how many centuries have we been writing stories about damsels in distress that need rescuing? Sexist criticisms are often flipped around, asserting that men have an equal right to complain (but generally don’t) on sexist grounds because, for example, in shooter games it is mostly nameless men being gun-downed, equally without agency, as depicted as nothing more than meat shields. Or that the Conan barbarian visage is just as sex-driven of an image as ladies in chainmail bikinis.

But these counter-arguments fail in two ways.

First is that they fail to acknowledge how individual perspectives (mainly women’s perspectives in this case) and the broader context around the issue shapes the criticisms. Most of the games criticized for sexist depictions are games designed for male audiences, which has been the main demographic group for core gamers. Both men and women can be sexualized in this context, but the nature of it and the resulting reaction is quite different. Men are often sexualized in ways where the presumably male audience can see themselves “being” the male character (I wouldn’t mind being Conan for a day!). In the case of female characters, its more about their potential sexual “appeal” – or the eye-candy factor or whatever you want to call it. I can play Conan because I want to be strong and smash stuff in my loin cloth. I play Tomb Raider (circa 1998 or whenever) because I get eye-candy while I play.

Feminists are (I believe) arguing that the reserve interpretations don’t hold up for women. Women don’t want to “be” the overly sexualized chainmail bikini character (for example), nor do they really want to be (or derive the same sexual appeal from) the male character. In other words, though the depictions are equally sexist from a sort of genderless perspective, the resulting interpretation by men versus women are much different. This difference of perspective is further reinforced by layering in historic discrimination and objectification of women. Men aren't outraged because men aren't the demographic feeling objectified by in-game depictions while simultaneously living their daily life in the real-world that also objectifies them.

Second, dismissing the sexist criticisms, even if acknowledging them as reasonable, as part of a broader cultural issue doesn’t recognize that games ARE a part of our broader culture and both reflect and shape that culture in return. I am not an advocate for censorship, and believe that creativity and freedom of expression are a vital part of society. So on this basis, I don’t think that trying to eliminate all possible sexist depictions from games is a worthwhile (let alone feasible) endeavor. However, I do feel that as designers (and consumers), using these tropes and devices turns-off a potentially huge market segment while at the same playing into formulaic expectations (it’s lazy design?). Maybe its “fun” but it doesn’t advance or innovate the gaming offerings (although it shouldn’t have to). I haven’t touch on violence much (I will for a future post) – but it is also a trope that pigeonholes games around certain themes and motifs that appeal to certain audiences.

Under the banner of freedom of expression, games with sexist depictions do have just as much right to exist as do the criticisms against them (and the criticisms against the criticisms … and so on). As long as there are people wanting to buy games of a particular sort, there will be people making, playing, and reviewing them. Largely, it is up to the developers to decide how to respond these criticisms and who they want their games to appeal to. My hope is that by striving to be more inclusive for all audiences, the industry will encourage more participation and involvement by a greater diversity of people and yield a greater diversity of games in return.

And this is why I think addressing sexism is important. Gamer culture has a sitmga of sexism surrounding it, whether true or not (lots of debate on both sides) – and the current culture storm has likely magnified that impression. Yet I know from experience that many games have sexist content, and I also know from experience that having sexist remarks thrown your way from gamers themselves (in online games especially) is rarely more than a stone throw away. The two aren’t explicitly related, but from an outsiders perspective they can look like they are, which turns people away from gaming and marginalizes the whole industry. We can take baby steps to move past this.


#EmpatheticGamer

The issues raised in this post are all part of the culture storm and are certainly interrelated. We need more transparency and ethics in journalism so consumers know what they are reading and how to interpret it. But we also need more voices and perspectives in the industry talking about and responding to the new and different games that are emerging. We need better means of connecting gamers to the voices that matter to them. We need to respect one another’s perspectives and sense of identity at the same that new ones are brought into the conversation.

I love games. I love writing about them, playing them, and designing them. I think the whole gaming culture and industry is at a watershed moment, perhaps even brought to light because of this culture storm. This moment is about recognizing that games can exist “for fun” but that they can also exist for other reasons that are equally valid for different people. I would like to see greater innovation and artistic expression in games, but the whole culture needs to be more inclusive and accepting to get us there. Yet, no one needs to be dismissed or rejected from the milieu of gaming either.

Ultimately, I think this is all about empathy. We all, whether a player of games, a gamer, a developer, a blogger, a reviewer, or someone on the outside, should endeavor to be empathic towards our fellow humans. If not able to fully understand or comprehend one another, at least strive to be respectful. To be an #EmpatheticGamer
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Mon Nov 17, 2014 6:27 pm
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