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Subject: Some thoughts on game balancing and difficulty rss

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Timo R
Germany
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As our group is getting more and more experienced with the game I have been following a lot of discussions on the topic lately. What I found very intriguing is the fact, that there seems to be a growing fraction of players who claim the game to be not challenging enough, even at highest difficulty setting. For some, this seems to be a consistent problem throughout the entire table life-cycle, for others this gradually arises once you progress towards end-game, i.e. close to 100% unlocked content paired with many retirements and permanent enhancements to class skills.

We are a group of 5 players with 1 rotating in and out per scenario so we always play with 4 characters and one person takes the role of non-player content manager or sometimes is not even present. We are currently at 2-3 retirements per player, prosperity close to 7, reputation maxed out (20+6) and about 56 scenarii in (campaign almost concluded). We started playing at normal, quickly switched consistently to hard and now play often on very hard. We have lost 4 times so far - every single time on one of the more challenging scenarii, where we carelessly decided to play on very hard without much thinking ahead. 2 times, we all exhausted, 2 times we failed the scenario goal.

We found, that difficulty in this game is a complex topic and far from evenly spread throughout the different scenarii and group compositions.

Especially the scaling with number of characters in your party has significant impact, and from our experience so far we are firmly convinced, that the game has been balanced and fine-tuned for 4 characters. There is scaling for lower player counts, but it is not perfect and allows for strategies, builds and plays, which are just not viable with 4 players. There are a lot of people out there who mostly play with 2 characters and extrapolate their experience to higher player counts, which has a very high impact on the meta game and general discussion about the game on internet forums. For instance, there is a lot of talk about concepts like tanking, healers etc., that – at least to my group – seem to be mostly incompatible to the game mechanic with 4 players at high monster levels. As well, there are lot of supposedly “right” ways out there to build a character, which as beginners we often took at face value and found incredibly helpful, but with growing experience have found to be somewhat inaccurate, prone to generalization and often pretty superficial.

Rather than adding additional monster levels or house ruled handicaps, here are some suggestions that for us have helped the game with rules as written to stay challenging, varied and interesting throughout its life cycle on our table:

* Always aim for parties of four (I know, not always an option for many)

* Impose some time pressure during card selection phase and be absolutely strict about the “shared knowledge and communication rules” – this has significant impact

* Add some fluctuation to party composition to make people think twice about interdependency in their character builds

* Challenge yourself by making some of the more intricate character build strategies work. If done right and applied correctly during play, a lot of generally frowned upon mechanics of the game (summons, retaliate, position manipulation/control) can work pretty well and even on par with more straight forward approaches (direct DPT). You just have to think a bit more and harder. This has been the most rewarding part of the game for us!

* Make sure, you apply ALL 2nd printing changes. Even if the designer himself claims, they are just minor adjustments (he probably has to say that to keep some of the more distinguished types of 1st printing owners happy), we however are convinced they have noticeable to essential impact on game balance (just look at the skill nerfs for some classes like “lightning bolts” and judge for yourself – suddenly, levelling isn’t a no-brainer anymore, cool!)

* When retiring a character, avoid trading in all your items for some last minute enhancements (there is no rule against that, but be aware that it permanently increases power level of the class when picked next time without the conflict between investments into items VS enhancements)

* Last but not least: Don’t cheat – being short on money (directly translating to being item and enhancement limited) is part of the game balancing per class. The conflict in xp generation, collecting gold, accomplishing battle goals AND winning the scenario is a core mechanic. Any fiddling there can have very high impact. Additionally, even getting some seemingly minor part of the rules wrong can make the game significantly easier in many cases (unintentional cheating). I cannot emphasize this enough.


I would really be interested in what more experienced groups think in this regard. Is there a point, where you feel the game becomes consistently trivial at very hard even if everything I just listed is applied? Let me know!
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Vasilis
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Although I do find the game's 'Normal' difficulty setting to be actually easy based on how many mistakes it allows before a quest can kill you, I have to add here that many people won't be playing the game as intended either by mistake or because they don't want to.

I'm talking about the amount of hidden information during card selection each turn. If the players are communicating, mentioning specific cards, effects, numnbers and all around manipulating the Initiative order, the game becomes SIGNIFICANTLY easier.

Add to this some possible intentional grinding of Treasure and XP that some parties may do either by 'losing' or loot-scooping the level manipulating the end game etc. and you can quickly see that the game's apparent difficulty level will be completely different between player groups.

Moreover, add the fact that certain groups won't keep their battle goals a secret and/or will cooperate to complete them and it quickly adds up to even more powerful characters.

Then, we have the retiring hero gold manipulation trick which I find completely unacceptable and will never do but that's just me.

All of the above are simply too many factors affecting difficulty. In general, whenever anyone tells 'this is easy' or 'this is difficult' in this game, you can't trust him. His/her experience is quite probably completely different than yours.
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Callidus wrote:

* Always aim for parties of four (I know, not always an option for many)
...
* When retiring a character, avoid trading in all your items for some last minute enhancements (there is no rule against that, but be aware that it permanently increases power level of the class when picked next time without the conflict between investments into items VS enhancements)



I would comment on these two points. Parties of 3 are just as much fun and take less time than parties of four, and the table has fewer monsters making single shot characters more powerful and AOE less powerful. AOE can be overpowered for 4 party games.

As for the second, no. Just No. First of all, the game creator was expressly aware of this power up and allowed it. He did it because:

a) the game itself has a power progression. As you become more powerful, the city and scenarios become more difficult. To compensate for this you start at a higher level. I.E. When you retire, chances are the prosperity level will be high enough that you won't start the character at level 1. But at the same time you will be taking a level drop. I.e. you go from playing a 3rd level character to playing a 2nd level character. You need the extra power in the old characters from the purchased enhancments

b) pre-played characters are not as interesting as new characters because they lack the newness

c) the first six characters are generally just a little bit less powerful than the sealed characters. They need the power boost to compete.

I see lots of reasons to let characters use the game rules as WRITTEN, and not cheat by underpowering the less interesting, easier to play, slightly weaker older characters
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Otis Comorau
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My wife and I have played around 30 scenarios so far, all 2 player. We’ve each retired one character and we’re each close to being done with our second characters. (Well, I know I am! Not 100 percent sure about her, obviously, but I have an idea of what her character’s life goal is.) Although we strictly abide by the rules (we only say “early, middle, or late” when describing our planned initiative number), each of our games takes a looooong time. Like 2.5 hours min. We plan our turns forever, speaking in general terms of course. We love it.

We have found that the game gets way too easy. After accumulating a bunch of items and stuff, we found “very hard” to not be challenging at all, except for some random levels (often involving ooze). Eventually, we maxed out the difficulty. At that point, we started setting up the monsters as if the game were a 3p game. First on easy. Now on hard. (She’s a level 8 and I’m level 6. We’re playing a 3p game with monsters on level 5.) Now every game is a nailbiter. It’s so much fun. And our games are longer than ever. We rarely finish a scenario in less than 4 hours, with our crazy amount of planning. (Again, we don’t mention specifics. But we’re very clear about where we’ll each be going, who we’ll be fighting, who’s intiative should be lower, if we’re planning on using items, etc.)

I should note that we have house ruled a few things, and are lenient with our mistakes. For example, we don’t like the rolling modifier rules for advantage and disadvantage. (There are tons of forums on the topic.) We’ve house ruled changes to that rule which, to be honest, makes things better for us. In addition, if we do something dumb (as in, “oops, I forgot to create fire on my turn for you to use on your turn”), we correct our mistake. We don’t force ourselves to continue despite our error. Of course, if we make a STRATEGY mistake (as in, “crap, maybe I should have attacked the other guy instead”), we live with it.

Gloomhaven is one of my favorite game of all time. After some 18xx games, it’s probably the game I most enjoy. If you reaaaaaaally put the time in during the planning and playing portion of the game, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish. Reminds me a lot of Mage Knight in that regard.

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Bruno Wolff
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Callidus wrote:

* Impose some time pressure during card selection phase and be absolutely strict about the “shared knowledge and communication rules” – this has significant impact

We've found that we start learning each other's cards after a while. Even when describing intent according to the rules, it isn't that unusual to know what card they are playing and what their exact initiative will be.
Callidus wrote:

* When retiring a character, avoid trading in all your items for some last minute enhancements (there is no rule against that, but be aware that it permanently increases power level of the class when picked next time without the conflict between investments into items VS enhancements)

I agree with the points raised by another poster already noted in this thread. There are good reasons to add enhancements for the next player, especially for the initially unlocked classes.
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Timo R
Germany
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Thanks for your thoughts on the topic!

brunowolff wrote:
I agree with the points raised by another poster already noted in this thread. There are good reasons to add enhancements for the next player, especially for the initially unlocked classes.


These two very strong replies on this particular topic surprised me a little to be honest. Just to be sure: My suggestion was not to forgo enhancements at all in situations just before retirement. My point was in taking care not to convert the complete set of items a character owns into enhancements before retiring, as I believe this beats the intent behind the entire game economy. Usually, you are forced into a trade-off on what to spend your money for. Without grinding or cheating, you can either be well equipped OR have powerful/costly enhancements on your skill cards - with some classes being exempt from this rule by design (e.g. my triple spears character was so filthy rich that I could afford both - but class mechanics somehow made me feel that this was more or less necessary to be on par with the power level of other classes?).

Further, there are rules against trading/transferring items between characters for a reason. Allowing one last shopping phase just before retirement seems to be a rules oversight to me - or at the very least a typical "*sigh*, I would not recommend doing this but I won't stop you" moment of the designer

Permanent enhancements, bonus perks as well as a starting budget scaling with prosperity of the city are there to kick-start newly created characters joining at higher levels and provide an incentive to pick-up classes already played before.

There still is a power creep inherently built into the game, but at least to me it seems to be tuned to match the average progression of an average play group until they decide to shelf the game. This naturally does not match progression of grinders, min/maxers and completionists and comes at the expense of making the game too easy for some groups. I just tried to point out ways to mitigate that issue to some extent.

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Jamey P
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Re: Enhancements:
I’ve found that ‘retirement enhancements’ add a lot in terms of player engagement with continuing to care about gold collection after getting a full item build. I don’t disagree that mega-enhanced characters are less interesting and make game balance more difficult. So instead I’d recommend avoiding any enhancements that let you go on autopilot (+disarm to big AoEs, extra hexes on hard cc, etc), but have more free rein with things like element generation, +poison, possibly +immobilize that lead to interesting gameplay and cross-class synergies.
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Darren Nakamura
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Callidus wrote:
As well, there are lot of supposedly “right” ways out there to build a character, which as beginners we often took at face value and found incredibly helpful, but with growing experience have found to be somewhat inaccurate, prone to generalization and often pretty superficial.


This is probably my biggest complaint about most of the class guides out there. Each class has at least three different ways to build/play it, but a lot of the guides treat some options as absolutely better than others.

As a side note: the plural for "scenario" is just "scenarios." It's not "scenarii." (The i suffix to pluralize is used for some Latin words ending in -us, like radius or locus, so there are a couple reasons why "scenarii" is wrong.)
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Robert Marney
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I found 3P to be the sweet spot: enough monsters that AOE can work effectively, but still moving at a good clip. I think the game is balanced for 4P (just look at characters like Tinkerer or Eclipse), but I have no desire to spend 8 hours to get through 2 scenarios.

That being said, a lot of people around here play primarily solo, like me. 2P solo is much faster and more enjoyable for me than 3-4P solo. Therefore, most of the guides and strategies are geared towards environments with very few monsters and no ability to rely on other party members to cover your weaknesses.

As far as enhancements go, I think there should be fewer enhancement slots in general, but selling your items to buy enhancements is the only thing keeping me buying anything from the prosperity 5+ item shop at all.
 
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Instant kill attacks break the game and trivialize content once a player has access to non-loss versions of them. Biggest problem with later content.
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Timo R
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Dexter345 wrote:
As a side note: the plural for "scenario" is just "scenarios." It's not "scenarii." (The i suffix to pluralize is used for some Latin words ending in -us, like radius or locus, so there are a couple reasons why "scenarii" is wrong.)


Thanks. Always happy to take that kind of advice from a native speaker.

However, I was sure I must have picked this up somewhere before (not the type to make up words), so I googled it:
English - Noun - scenarii - (nonstandard, rare) plural form of scenario
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/scenarii

Old-fashioned, maybe weird, but not wrong ;-)

phillipsjr2 wrote:
Instant kill attacks break the game and trivialize content once a player has access to non-loss versions of them. Biggest problem with later content.


We have found these abilities to be powerful as well, but mostly reined in by situational usefulness and required setup. In our games, the Triforce class lvl 7 delete skill has certainly helped, but does nothing against a quite common problem in 4P map setups: Normal monsters often are the minority.

Likely, this is what is actually wrong with these types of skills - they are not compatible with the scaling mechanisms in the game. Changing their effect to "suffer x damage", with x being a reasonably high but fixed value, depending on the level of the skill, maybe could fix it?

I think, there is something we are not considering here. Cannot believe, that the designer did not at least ponder this option ...

A triple spears skill has been nerfed for 2nd printing which did exactly that to 2 targets. But the cost for using it was already pretty high before and comparing the current gimped version with unchanged delete abilities of other classes makes me scratch my head.
 
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