Friday, September 22, 2017

Dave Reviews: One Game Contaminated By Absolute Clusterfuckiness

First Martians

This game, as currently constituted, can eat a slimy pile of assholes.


If you want to watch a review that ends up getting into how the game plays, watch the Shut Up and Sit Down video. Quinns put the time together to figure it all out, which isn't something you should have to say to describe a game, but neither is this: discovering professional reviewers stared at this thing and couldn't comprehend this smoldering dumpster fire without repeated visits to Google and the sacrifice of multiple small animals made our group's inability to finish a single game much less disheartening.

To be clear, 'finish a single game' means just that. Not that we lost. We packed it in halfway through because nothing made sense and we assumed we were playing the game incomprehensibly wrong. And that's what this review is going to be about: how everything about a promising game can go terribly, terribly sideways.

You set up this board full of lovely green cubes and the occasional red one, marking functioning and broken systems. In the middle of the exploration area is your terraforming station, surrounded by three explorable rings. Your goal is to finish whatever mission is placed before you. This may involve, as in the introductory mission, building a few items which start with red (broken) cubes that must be fixed into green ones. However, you don't have enough green cubes to fill the whole board and all the slots on the items you need to build.

This is where I'm supposed explain how you get around this, but it all breaks down. You have the option to swap pieces of the station into the items you're building, breaking one thing to fix another, which sounds pretty cool. However, in the intro mission there's a threshold you're not supposed to cross, which is six red cubes in the stations systems. In order to fill everything as ordered, you're going to end up with seven red cubes.

What did we miss? No clue! And while this was the problem that finally broke the game (hard to feel compelled to continue when you're not even sure what you're supposed to do), we routinely had to grab the rulebook to look for guidance on problems that wound up not being anywhere in the rulebook or were, perhaps, uselessly explained.

Hopefully there's a new rulebook put out, available as pdf and which would be sent to anybody who wants one. That's the least the designers should do. Until that happens, don't bother with this.

Potential score: Seven to eight-ish out of ten
Current score: Every dumpster fire, lit

Dave Reviews: One Simple, Fun Game

Flip Ships

Do you want to play Galaga on a table? Do you want it to be harder than actual Galaga? I got something for you.


Flip Ships has the same story as Galaga, Space Invaders, and most of the futuristic bullet hell games in existence: aliens are invading in way bigger numbers than we have and we have to smash them, one and all. You start with two ships but can potentially end up with seven, and the strength of the enemy scales to however many players are in the game (one to four). The enemy is a deck of alien ships and a mothership, all of which have to go down for you to save the world.

So far, so normal. It's how this all plays out that's great.

The aliens go five wide, and you fill the two rows farthest from the atmosphere. They have different stats, including speed, so they drop closer to the planet at different rates. Some move one space at a time, some two; some will advance until they hit a ship in front of them, so they can go from the top all the way to the planet if there's nothing in front of them at the end of the turn. Enemies also have varying levels of power (damage dealt), and a few either take two hits to kill or shield any adjacent ships from damage until the shielding ship is dead. Dead enemy ships go into a discard pile; ships that hit the planet do damage, then get shuffled back into the deck for another turn.

But how do you kill them?!

You flip your ships on them!

Flip Ships is a dexterity game. Your ships are circular tiles that you flip onto the enemy cards. Anything you hit dies (unless it takes two hits or is shielded, which just means hitting again in that round). The mothership is effectively a big box that you need to flip ships into to damage it, which is a height-plus-distance-plus-accuracy test that is incredibly challenging until you find a method for consistently getting the height and distance so you can work on the accuracy. The effect is that there's a really good chance you'll fail to win your first game or two, wiping out the deck but not killing the mothership in time.

At first it might feel like the enemy ships are running you over, because you don't have many ships to throw at them and (depending on the draw) they might start trashing the planet pretty hard. But this is where Flip Ships goes full genius: you add to your available ships as the planet takes more genius. In other words, you gain the strength to fight back just as the situation starts becoming desperate. In a single mechanic, the game adds the right amount of stress and feeling like a hero (because it is a skill-based game).

The skill isn't just limited to the flipping, either. The game has a timer, and where you really see it is when you're down to the last handful of enemies. Once there are six or fewer, you have one round to kill as many as you can, and any left alive kamikaze into the planet for double damage. After that you have one more round to deal whatever damage the mothership can still take, or lose. You can't really control the enemy swarms when double digits are alive, but once they're too few you have to decide which ships to knock out and which to leave, and then do it. And if you've done a reasonably good job, you may want one or two to succeed in their kamikaze runs, since getting the planet low on HP gets you the maximum number of ships for the last run at the mothership.

Of course, you can go after the mothership and kill it before the swarm is dead, but if you can do that you're probably playing hard mode.

If you're a fan of the old school 2D shooters, Flip Ships is about as good as you're going to get for an analog version. It's simple and everything about it works. And if you become incredibly good at the game, you can ramp the mothership all the way up to 20 HP if that's what it takes to create a challenge--the default for a four-player game is six.

It's SO GOOD. PLAY IT.

Score: Forty-three exploded alien spacecraft out of forty-five (let two through in a controlled kamikaze allowance).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fire Adalaide Byrd

That is all.

No, actually, that's not all. She's currently the poster child for terrible judges, but only because she's the most recent and has some history of dropping mind-boggling scores on fights. But she's not the only one.

There have been comments suggesting Golovkin's team did him a disservice by not objecting to her inclusion as a judge. Maybe, although if they gave it much thought it's possible they figured she was as likely to fuck up the fight in their direction as Alvarez's. (I haven't seen an indication the fights she screws up are all towards a crowd favorite.) It shouldn't be their job to do that, though. Any judge with a history of seriously questionable calls in high-visibility or title fights should not be given duties on a bout of this magnitude. It's not going to screw up their careers; these fights don't come along that often. The NSAC costs themselves far more than they gain, given what boxing as a whole loses in respect and fans, when these sorts of fiascos occur.

What counts as a history? I think two, but maybe that would disqualify too many judges. I'm not suggesting a lifetime ban from huge fights, either. Something has to change, though.

And yes, this happens in MMA, too, although the issue hasn't arisen as much recently. But it's as much a product of the scoring system as the judges themselves, so I wouldn't suggest something similar.

Dave Reviews: A Game About Rifts And... Cards And... Stuff

Riftwalker

Let's be wizards! Or, you know, riftwalkers. Which must be some kind of wizards. There's magic involved. Elements, at least. Which are critical to magic. Because... that's how magic works.

Welcome to Tautology: The Game!


Riftwalker revolves broadly around two things: rifts and elements (this is hopefully not a surprise). There are fifteen double-sided element cards, which allows each pair of the game's six elements to be represented once. Nine of these are set out randomly in a 3x3 grid, with the other six set aside as the deck. On the first phase of your turn, you choose an element by either flipping a card on the grid with that element to its opposite side or taking the top card of the deck, placing it on the grid with the element you want face up, and replacing a card which then goes to the bottom of the deck.

The element you choose determines what type of rift you can play (water lets you play a water rift, storm a storm rift, and so on). Either you can explore a rift, which means playing it from your hand on to the table, or shift a rift, which means turning a rift already on the table. When first explored, a rift is worth zero points; shifting it once makes it worth three, shifting it a second time makes it worth seven. Rifts also have special abilities which can be used when they're explored or shifted. Once a rift is worth seven points, however, it can't be shifted anymore, which means its ability is no longer available unless a different rift ability makes it so.

After exploring or shifting a rift, you can burst a rift. This is how you score points. If the element grid has three elements in a row, and you have a rift of that element shifted to be worth points (ie. you can't burst a zero point rift), you can burst the rift and move it to your score pile. Most rifts are worth three or seven. Occasionally you'll come across a rift that lets you score bonus points. Some of these are relatively straightforward (e.g. bonuses for having enough burst rifts of different types), some are a phenomenal pain in the ass (e.g. bonuses for discarding other rifts).

Because the game ends when any one player bursts a certain number of rifts, and each other player gets one more turn once that happens, in theory bonuses are worth chasing since they can swing a game in your favor even if you have fewer burst rifts. Sticking with the aforementioned examples: the bonus for having different rift types is sensible, since you're not really changing your strategy to go after it; you still need to shift rifts and get three in a row, it's just a question of what rifts you target. The number of players can alter their viability, though--a four-player game ends when someone bursts five rifts, so if a bonus maxes out at having four different rift types in your score pile, that might be hard. In a two-player game, which requires someone to burst seven rifts, it's a lot more viable.

Discarding rifts, though, especially ones you've already explored, means you burn a turn getting a rift on the board so another rift can eat it, usually for just a one point bonus. Scoring two bonus points means spending two turns exploring rifts you won't burst. On the other hand, if you take those turns to explore and shift a rift, it's already worth three. One more shift and it's worth seven. If you're behind, you won't have time to build those small bonus points, and if you're ahead, you're better off bursting more rifts so you can end the game.

This is where Riftwalker gets caught between its intriguing mechanics and the thinness of the strategy involved in actually winning. Trying to play the element board to explore and shift the rifts you have, piecing together combinations of rift abilities to burst rifts for maximum points before an opponent can stop you (since they can see exactly which rifts you have down and ready to score)? That's pretty good for a little game like this. You constantly have to play around the possibilities, look at the rifts in your hand and plan ahead, and decide if you need to throw out some of your hand to try and draw new rifts that might better fit what you're doing. Even lacking the ability to mess with your opponent's hand or explored rifts, you're still playing around what they can do, what you think they're setting up, and what they'll try and stop you from doing.

That's what makes the simplicity of the scoring in Riftwalker disappointing. If you're the first to burst however many rifts it takes to end the game, you score seven points on each of those rifts, and no one catches you on their last turn, you're going to win. If you try and rush the finish with multiple three point rifts, most likely if the opportunity arises and you're not sure you'll have a chance to score those rifts once they're worth seven, someone who's only getting sevens will beat you with one less rift. Thus scoring those threes early actually puts you behind, because your potential maximum score is lower and there's no guarantee you'll be able to stay ahead. For the most part, the only time playing a three point rift is worth it is if it's the last one and it'll end the game with you in the lead. Likewise, that makes bonus points only worth it as a way to stop someone from ending the game with a cheap rift and leaving you ahead of them.

Of course, there will be situations where this doesn't hold true. Once people play the game enough and are familiar with the combos, they may find an experienced opponent is too good at stopping them from scoring seven point rifts, making a string of threes the better option. But it's hard to see the game being a draw for long enough to reach that point. There's all this beautiful art and interesting gameplay concepts, and it adds up to an experience that no one thinks is bad, but no one seems to be in a hurry to repeat, either.

Score: Nine burst water rifts flooding the basement out of thirteen

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dave Reviews: Terra Mystica... In Space!

Gaia Project

Terra Mystica is an all-time classic board game. The flaws in it are those of complexity rather than bad design, which is to say there are aspects that make sense but take multiple playthroughs to understand. Gaia Project isn't a mere re-skin of Terra Mystica--after five years, I would hope they could come up with more than a new coat of paint--but you'd be forgiven for asking the question when you first look it over.


If you don't know anything about Terra Mystica, there are somewhere between a bazillion and a hojillion descriptions and reviews that explain how it works better than I can. Once you've read some, or if you already know TM, here's what's the same in Gaia Project:
  • Player boards. Each board is double-sided, with a different species on each. The fourteen species each have abilities that are more or less complicated to use, but which you'll need to understand to play them well. There are still five types of buildings split among three levels of strength, with the same upgrade paths. The purple power dots that cycle between three pools at the top of the board are also there.
  • Seven types of terrain (planets).
  • Each species can only build on one type of planet and must put resources into terraforming to build on anything else. Depending on your species, different planet types cost different amounts of resources, and with the correct upgrades terraforming can be made cheaper.
  • The ability to make cities (federations) with groups of buildings that total seven or more in power.
  • Different colored tracks to follow, with only one player being able to take the last spot on each track. You still need a federation to reach the last step.
Basically, all the core mechanics of Terra Mystica have come over to Gaia Project. The differences are more minor, so these are some of the more noticeable.
  • Terraforming is not permanent. You use terraforming to change a planet into what you need it to be the same turn you build on it.
  • Two types of planets exist outside of the core seven. Green ones require a QIC (green cube, new type of resource) to build on them, rather than terraforming. Purple ones require a gaiaformer (don't look at me like that, I didn't name it), which requires research to obtain, and a certain amount of power to be spent. The turn after that's done, the purple planet turns green and can be built upon by the gaiaforming player.
  • The colored tracks are no longer cults, but research. There are six tracks instead of four, and each one offers different advantages. Moving up the track takes knowledge, a generated resource, rather than a maximum number of priests. There are advanced technologies at the top of each track which can be taken instead of moving to the last step (this requires a federation, just like moving to the last step). They also score differently as well--four points per step on the top half of the track, regardless of whether you're ahead of people.
  • Species start with fewer power dots than in TM, but there are ways to add more to your pool.
  • Federations do not require adjacency among the planets that are part of it (it would be almost impossible to make them if it did). Instead you choose the planets and connect them with satellites. Each satellite requires you to discard (not merely spend) one power, so you generally don't want to use too many. However, the lines that create a federation cannot be crossed; if you put a satellite in the right place, you may block an opponent's ability to make a federation.
Terra Mystica vets will nod their heads at acknowledgements that the game takes multiple playthroughs to understand. You are going to bork something the first time through, because the way the systems work together at the deepest level will not be apparent until you've made a play that, even if not particularly bad, isn't as efficient as it needs to be for you to keep up with the more knowledgeable players. Gaia Project is not too different, but one of the main differences is that it's managed to streamline some of the wonkier parts of TM without particularly affecting the game's depth.

  • Adding the ability to put power into your pool is a huge plus. I'm sure there will be some old-school TM players who prefer having to deal with your pool and decide when to discard power very carefully, but with all due respect to them, it's not as strong of a mechanic. Offering the ability to add power gives Gaia Project the freedom to fiddle more with how much power any given species starts with, as well as adding mechanics that let you discard power, since you can be a little more free with it. Overall, it makes power usage much more accessible than TM, so it's easier for people to play with.
  • The research tracks are certainly more useful than the cult tracks. Between the tech tiles and various bonuses on teach track, research can point your species towards a particular type of victory if you focus hard enough on one or two things. And you'll want to focus, because you need to get into the top half of a track to score bonus points. In addition, because Gaia Project plays with a maximum of four people, and there are six tracks, the decision to give flat bonuses to people for moving up a track, rather than comparing their positions, is smart. It's so easy for players to avoid competing with each other for research position that putting in a mechanic where they compete with each other based on position doesn't make a lot of sense, and frees players to tackle any type of research without concern for losing out on any points just because one or two people beat them to it. Keeping the competition limited to the final point on the track works fine.
  • Likewise, removing the limited number of priests and adding a knowledge resource is necessary under this setup. Having the option to focus your empire on something other than resources and buildings is good and done well here.
  • The terraforming change is the... strangest? Most questionable? It certainly doesn't make sense from a thematic perspective. I'm assuming that because the board contains a lot of black space, and isn't completely made up of buildable hexes, they may have found that there was too much potential to spend terraforming points only to screw up the ability of opponents to build there. The game is probably better for the change, but it's important to know the change going in so you don't plan ahead like you would in TM and screw yourself over.
Gaia Project really is Terra Mystica in space. Everything is familiar enough that TM players should have little trouble getting acclimated, but it's still going to take a game to suss out the new possibilities and learn how to read the player boards (a lot of the symbol-based explanations are not at all obvious). It's an attempt to make TM better; it doesn't quite do that, but staying on the same level is still quite good.

Score: Six lonely satellites floating in the ether out of seven.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Quick Notes On UFC 215

It's not the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last, but hearing a bunch of drunk fans boo fighters looking for the right tactical moment to unleash remains a mildly depressing aspect of watching fights. I wanted Nunes and Shevchenko to unload on each other, but if either one tried and missed, they would have gotten faceplanted.

Dos Anjos' beatdown and submission was a hell of a thing to watch, though. I feel like Neil Magny's not quite as good as his ranking implied--before last night, he was tied for sixth with Donald Cerrone, and I'll take Cerrone in a fight between those two eleven times out of ten--but you're not supposed to walk into a fight with a seven-inch height advantage and get waxed that badly.

Last note: The replay of Sarah Moras' armbar on Ashlee Evans-Smith isn't as gruesome as the article headline makes it sound, but listen to the post-fight interview.

"It looks like you dislocated the arm."
"I hope so."
"I don't think you're supposed to say that out loud."

200 Years of War

(Post title taken from this song.)

The song above is a personal favorite, one of those that cycles through the Google Play list I switch on at writing time. I used it as a marginally clever title designed to lead in to the tumult between the world's two pre-eminent Glorious Leaders (Putin is The Guy In Charge You Don't Fuck With as opposed to Glorious Leader, and if you made a bet on how long it would take to find someone who knew the President of China off the top of their heads, you'd be correct to measure it in weeks). The premise was going to be how we're more likely to end up with two hundred hours of war than years, or months, or weeks. Then I started listening to the lyrics.

Let's be clear about something: as meaningful as music can be, if you're taking deep messages out of an EDM song, you need to get a little more knowledge in your head. But two lines seem apropos.

Fight till we are no more
A curse on the streets of gold

In Barbara Demick's book on North Korea (which is so good, in a just world she'd be able to retire off it), one of the most extraordinary details is how the regime focuses the people on hating the United States for their role in the Korean War. This goes beyond 'damn the Americans' rhetoric blasted out over loudspeakers or shunted through state-run media. Children are taught lessons in school based around America being the great enemy; math questions are, for example, "If yesterday you shot five American bastards, and today you shoot three American bastards, how many American bastards have you shot?" Killing Americans make up some of the lyrics to nursery rhymes. In terms of importance to the national ideology, hating the U.S. is second only to worshiping the current Kim in charge as a god.

Those two lines of the song struck me because they are, in effect, what North Korea is training its people to do and why. I'm coming around to the notion that Kim Jong Un isn't a lunatic. North Korea as a society is batshit, but he's a rational actor doing what's necessary to retain control of a country that went off the rails decades ago, hit rock bottom in the famine of the mid-90s, and has spent the next twenty years finding new ways to keep digging.

The consequences of this, versus Kim being a legit nutball, are hard to ascertain. If he was crazy, then you treat him like the homeless guy on the corner who can't stop talking to himself: mostly avoid him, occasionally talk him down when he looks ready to smack people with his empty 40 oz. If he's making the most logical decisions for a crazy place, though, is there a point when he has reason to start launching bombs?

Ed over at Gin and Tacos made a point that might linger in the back of people's minds if they're paying attention to the situation, but which needs to be put front and center: if this keeps escalating, South Korea is fucked. For all the shit North Koreans learn to talk about the U.S., they draw a very tight connection between the two countries. The capacity of North Korea to hit the U.S. with a nuke may be coming soon, but to treat that as the moment this situation becomes critical is to not give a shit about anybody who lives in the Eastern Hemisphere.

As Ed points out, Seoul (or at least the capital area) is home to twenty-five million people. Americans can't even comprehend how tightly packed their population. You don't need nukes to make things terrible there, just a ridiculous artillery launch and the entire population of North Korea capable of carrying a rifle conscripted into an invasion force.

Even if the final outcome is as positive as possible--the peninsula unites under the current South Korean government, and somehow trying to take care of twenty-five million refugees doesn't short-circuit the economy (seems fair to assume everyone in North Korea would be, in effect, a refugee)--it's almost impossible to imagine a scenario where their death toll isn't in the millions. The only one that doesn't involve dumb fucking luck is one where the threat of war is on the horizon for long enough, and taken seriously enough, that South Korea evacuates the Seoul area. But that would wreak havoc on the economy, and where are you going to put that many people for an unknown amount of time?

It's hard to admit that we don't have total control over a situation with a country that's gone medieval in all but its war technology, but that's the situation. North Korea will a) lose any war it fights and b) leave a major body count in its wake. So far, b has kept anyone from smashing them. Fingers crossed that we can keep it going a little longer.