Friday, October 27, 2017

Dave Reviews: Bots And Dice And Cards And Luck


In the short history of Renegade Games, they've developed a very positive reputation, built on the backs of high-quality titles like Lanterns, Flipships, Clank, and Lotus. They're not perfect; their greatest sin is making a game called Shiba Inu House and not Doge House, which is what it is, LOOK AT THE DOG ON THE FRONT, IT'S THE FKING DOGE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING RENEGADE

Their new title is Sentient, a game about being a futuristic corporation and hiring AIs to I'm just kidding it's about dice. The theme looks very cool—the art is fantastic—but there's nothing about that theme which has anything to do with the mechanics. They could have gotten a Dora the Explorer license and turned it into a simple algebra game for kids. That's not to say the game itself is bad, but if you hoped for something that would let you sink into a futuristic world the way Pandemic throws you head-first into a toxic one, that's not what you're getting.

The game itself has each player taking control of five dice, four agents, and five assistants, in an effort to collect the cards and chevrons that will earn you more points than your opponents. Players start with a board that has a space for each of the dice and a chevron with one of the five types of AIs available. Games are three rounds; at the start of each round, players roll their dice, place them by color, and have to work with whatever numbers they got.

Each turn, a player can place one agent and any number of assistants next to an available AI card, then place the card between two of their dice. AI cards have requirements the dice on either side of them must meet in order to score that card's points at the end of the round. Making things trickier, each card has a +, -, or = sign in each upper corner; you have to add or subtract one from the appropriate die, or leave it alone for an equals sign. However, you have the option to place an assistant on one or both of those corners, which keeps the add or subtract function from happening, which you will need at some point for your dice to give you what the cards require.

(Also, once per round, players can choose to wipe the board and place their turn-order token; the earlier you do this, the later you go the following round. Turn order determines tiebreakers for winning chevrons (see below), but going later lets you set up your agents and assistants after other people are done, so there isn't a big advantage to any spot in the order.)

Five chevrons matching each of the AI types sit out on the middle of the table. Available AI cards sit between two of those chevrons (thus four cards are out at any given time). At the end of each round, players count up how many agents and assistants each of them have next to each chevron; whoever has the most next to one gets it, while whoever's in second receives a one point consolation prize. At the end of the game, each chevron is worth points equal to the number of cards of that type you've taken during the game. Thus, while one person might grab anything that scores maximum points  each round regardless of type, another player can stack up three Service chevrons and five Service cards for fifteen bonus points at the game's end.

That's pretty much the game. To its credit, Sentient is well balanced between the strategies of grabbing point cards and grabbing sets. If you never collect any chevrons besides the one you start with, it'll be hard to win solely on high-value cards, but you have to be fairly unlucky not to get any unless you dump all your assistants into avoiding pluses and minuses. However, if you plan completely around good assistant placement and maximizing the chevrons you collect, and just score points on cards where you can, that's not going to be enough either—there aren't enough bonus points reasonably available to make up for a desperately low score.

The question here, as it is with other games of a similar dice-puzzle type, is how much you can deal with playing around weird strings of good or bad chance. It's entirely possible you've built an empire of military AIs and just need a couple more in the last round to solidify the victory, and they just don't come, or they fit what other people need so well they take the cards without even trying to hurt your cause. The math between your dice and the available cards might just not work one round. And this can sink you, because whatever strategy you employ at the start is going to define your game. If you have two rounds of twenty-plus points but only a couple of chevrons and a wide variety of card types, bad math in round three can't be made up for by suddenly dumping all your efforts into whatever sets might work best for you. And since you need to score a reasonable number of points each round even if you're focused on sets, a final round where you can't find anything to add to those sets isn't likely to be fixed by a random selection of high-point cards.

The randomness is a feature, not a bug, so there's nothing wrong with it. It's a simple game with enough decisions to make people go into the tank hard at times, but it's probably not something that will require twenty playthroughs to develop as optimal a strategy as is possible. This is where a strong thematic tie-in to the game itself would be nice, but as it stands, Sentient is perfectly good while not being particularly close to great.

Score: Nine busted up information bots out of twelve.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

League Worlds Semifinals: Gaming's Longest-Running North America-Free Zone (since 2012)

I did not realize NA hadn't put a team in the Worlds semifinals since season 1. Back then, there were eight teams in two groups, and the top team in each group took a bye directly to semis. That ended up being TSM and Epik, NA teams who both lost in those semifinals. TSM then beat Epik in the loser's bracket before falling to against All authority, who went on to the Grand Finals.

These are the main takeaways as regards NA's history at Worlds:
  • NA has never won a winner's bracket match at Worlds. 
  • NA's only match win was in the loser's bracket of season 1 (the only season where there was a loser's bracket), in an NA vs. NA matchup.
  • NA has lost eight matches in the bracket stage (two each in 2011 and 2014; one each in 2012, 2013, 2016, and 2017).
  • Cloud 9's recent 3-2 loss to Team WE was the closest match for any NA team in the bracket stage since TSM's 2-1 loss to aAa in 2011, and the only time an NA team has won two games in a main bracket match.
  • It may be a misnomer to say NA has ever made the semifinals. TSM and Epik are listed as semifinalists in season 1, but after that match, Fanatic played aAa in the final, followed by a rematch in the Grand Final. If you define semifinals as the round of four—which is perfectly reasonable, I'm not trying to unnecessarily shit on NA here—then yes, those teams were proper semifinalists. But no NA team has ever been one match away from competing for the championship through the normal bracket (TSM would have been in the Grand Final had they beaten aAa in the loser's bracket).
  • NA is fucked and will never win in the bracket stage. (Speculation.)
Korea owns the stage because they, as a gaming culture, are obsessed with being number one. China's bonkers-huge population should, or at least can, give them the advantage in the long run. Europe in theory can out-perform NA because Europe's population is about double, but it remains to be seen what the effect of the new four-region system is on their international performance. The Champions League style sounds really cool, but since it will be confined to EU and they're more than doubling the number of teams involved, it's hard to see how they avoid the situation of having improved performance top to bottom but more dispersal of talent from the teams that would be representing the region at Worlds or MSI.

Plenty of people more engaged with the scene than I am have opined on the reason for NA's failures, so I'm not going to pretend to have equivalent expertise. I'll just say this about NA's performance and the comments that follow up: the general sense is that NA should be good enough, yet somehow isn't, so why? There was no reason Immortals should have failed to make it out of groups, but they did. That group was split by hairs, though, and sometimes that happens. Plenty of people (including me) had TSM first in their group, but that was without realizing how good Misfits had become. What looked like an amazing group for the team to be in wound up as one where TSM was clearly third-best. Likewise, Cloud 9 was the second-best team in their group, even though going in it looked like EDG should have been superior. 

One thing the NA's history should make clear is that arguments about whether Bo1 or Bo3 are better for domestic competition are pointless. They haven't made a difference. Cloud 9 got their 3-2 match against WE because it was WE. As well as WE performed in groups, remember, that was the group where TSM was expected to do well because it was so theoretically weak. C9 sure as shit wouldn't have taken Longzhu, SKT, or RNG to five games. 

Yet, what do you do to the rosters to improve them? Short of throwing out the import rules and making a bunch of Korean kids rich, who do you take off of TSM to noticeably improve the team? Svenskeren is the easy target, for good reason, but numerous comments have been made about how he's playing a style that doesn't suit him. Maybe pull Xmithie now that Immortals disbanded? Sure, that's a start. It's hard to see him performing worse, and the change would free up an import slot. Hauntzer? Opinions on him vary wildly, but he's American, and it's hard to see what NA top laner is going to be a substantial improvement. If Sven is replaced by Xmithie or another NA jungler, then the sky's the limit, in theory. If TSM has another import slot available—I can't tell if they do, but it seems like Biofrost is Canadian and the other EU player listed on the roster is a backup who should be easy to drop for a high-quality starter—maybe you see about getting somebody with a better rep than Biofrost? Even then, Biofrost has had enough good performances to make it difficult to find someone that will be both available and unquestionably better.

I don't know, man. I want to see NA do well, but I want to seem them do well in a sustainable way. C9 squeaking past WE would have felt good but disregarded the fact that Misfits were the best Western team in the quarterfinals. They have something to build on. NA... maybe someday.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dave Reviews: Sneaky People Sneaking Like Sneaks


BGG revamped their ratings at one point (though I don't know if it was the whole system or just what number we see), and scores spiked. Where anything with a 7 or higher previously tended to be quite good, now if a game doesn't at least hit a 7, there's a good chance it's trash.

If you click the above link, as of this writing, the approximately three hundred reviewers of Secrets have put it at 6.8. Trash level.

Those people are wrong.

Secrets is a social deduction game for a group of four to eight players, where everyone belongs to one of three factions: the KGB, the CIA, or the hippies who keep asking the KGB and CIA, hey man, why all the hate. You're trying to recruit people to your side and help your team end with the highest score, if you're KGB or CIA; if you're a hippie, you win if you have the lowest score, because fuck the military-industrial complex. The points a given person is worth is roughly based on what they do; positive points tend to mean a negative effect for you (e.g. the journalist is three points but makes you show your affiliation to the rest of the players), and negative points have a positive effect (e.g. the detective is negative-two but allows you to look at one other player's identity token).

How you recruit these people is where the game between the players lies. Whoever controls the deck flips up two cards for everyone to see (redraw one if they're both the same). That person then chooses one of those cards and offers it to another player face down. They can say anything, or nothing, about the offered card. The second player then chooses whether or not to take the card or give it back to the one who offered it. After each turn, the deck passes to the left, but any player can be the recipient of an offer.

Here's how it plays out in practice: you start by looking at your identity token and the one of the player to your right (unless you only have four players, in which case you might just want to play a different game). With seven or eight, you also get to see the center token briefly before it goes face down again, which can noticeably change how people view using the double agent, and to a lesser extent the detective, at the start of the game. Then everything becomes a balancing act—you need to act in the interests of your faction, keep in mind the faction of the person to your right, yet behave in such a way as to not give away your faction so people are less inclined to use a psychiatrist or diplomat on you (which swap out your identity token for another player's or the one in the center, respectively). You also need to try and track where the tokens you know end up as best you can, not just to keep from helping an enemy, but also to talk teammates into cooperating if it's late enough in the game that nobody can fight back if you acknowledge your faction.

Or to make people think you're on their team and screw them over. Espionage!

When the game's humming, it's a lot of fun. One of the reasons I'm guessing BGG has such low scores is that if you play enough times, there will be occasions where it's hard for you to get involved, and that feels bad enough to plausibly override whatever positives the game has for some people.

If you're a six player game, for example, you're guaranteed to act once every six turns, when you choose the cards to hand to someone. Even if people are moving fairly quickly, this is still going to take 3-5 minutes. On average, you'll also be offered a card one time. Between those two acts and mulling over the information building (or breaking down), there's generally enough for you to think about to keep you occupied until you get the deck back.

However, there will be games where you're just not getting card offers. Logically it shouldn't take that long for it to start, because the game ends when any one player holds four cards, and rarely do people want to spam one or two people early and often. For as long as that situation maintains, however, it can be difficult to stay engaged, not because there isn't enough to think about but because you're watching everyone else play more than you. That's part of the design, and there will be other games where you're the center of the action, but in the moment it sucks.

It's also easier for the game to fall into silence, because the mechanics don't require discussion, but it's a game that improves when people are chatting it up. Nothing about the game is going to fix that. You just need a group that likes to talk.

On the other hand, if you don't have a problem thinking critically about what's going on around you without being part of the action—deducing who's part of what faction from tracking the movement of tokens you've seen, player behavior, which cards everyone else offers and to whom they offer those cards, and determining if you can talk people into making decisions advantageous to you—there's more to work through here than in most social deduction games. That's admittedly a pretty specific type of gamer, but there is definitely a niche for Secrets.

If you're new to social deduction games, buy The Resistance. Saying Secrets isn't as good isn't a knock against it, because nothing's as good as The Resistance. But if you know what you want from this genre, and you have a group that fits what this game offers, it's a good game with great value for the cost.

Score: Ten deported spies out of fourteen involved in the prisoner swap

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Dave Reviews: Colossal Gargantuan Enormous Obscurity Gloom Twilight

Massive Darkness

Only in the world of Kickstarter can a $120 game end up with a name like Massive Darkness.

Massive Darkness is a dungeon crawling miniatures game that involves up to six heroes, a substantial collection of enemies (not used all at once, unless something has gone terribly, terribly wrong), and dungeons consisting of up to nine 3x3 tiles and a couple of adjoining bridges. In normal mode, players take a fresh character sheet, start at level one, and crash through doors, triggering guard spawns they have to take down while events potentially spawn roaming monsters every turn. You don't level up by gaining experience, but rather by moving forward; when the dungeon becomes level two, you can use level two abilities, and so on up to the max level of five.

Everything is affected by the dungeon level. Once you hit level two, enemies spawn at level two, you gain level two treasures, and so on. This affects previous tiles as well; any doors you haven't opened on level one, for instance, will spawn level two everything if you reach level two before going in. This can potentially be used to earn better equipment than the level of that tile would normally offer, as long as you can meet the challenge. Early on this is probably unwise, especially since a bad spawn combined with a bad event can be fatal to an under-equipped party, but if the dungeon is long enough you can usually skip stuff on levels two and three, go to level four, then come back and loot a bunch of better stuff.

What makes this possible is the equipment system, which is the ultimate roleplayer's power fantasy. First, while some classes have abilities that synergize better with certain types of gear, any equipment can be used by any character or class. Second, as long as you follow the most basic of equipment rules (range on different weapon types and only having two hands with which to hold things), you can swing anything you pick up, leading to conceptually bizarre but viscerally enjoyable scenarios like a battle wizard dual-wielding spears because they're the best weapons he has and the assassin, who's designed to dual wield, already decked herself out with plate mail and a fire bow. Third is transmuting.

Holy god, transmuting.

Massive Darkness only allows you to equip two hands worth of weapons/shields and one piece of armor. However, you can carry as much other stuff as you want. If some of it isn't useful—and this is going to happen a lot—you can chuck three items to get a draw an equipment card one level higher than the lowest card you discarded. You can do this in the middle of a trade, as well, which means players can huddle together, throw out whatever they don't want, and spread out whatever comes off the next deck to whoever in that zone can use it best without wasting extra actions.

Not only can you efficiently level up your gear this way, but you get a ton of random stuff. Every zone in a room has two or three treasures, or sometimes one higher-level treasure. When you start, you'll use some of that, but the new finds will replace starting gear which can be transmuted as well. You don't go to level two to find level two gear; you go to level two already carrying level two gear, looking for junk to level into threes and maybe fours. The first non-tutorial mission finishes at level four; it's not unreasonable to have a couple of level five equipment pieces floating around the party at that point.

"But that sounds overpowered," I hear someone say. It is SUPER OVERPOWERED! If you can work through level one without getting stomped out by some bad luck, you move to competence at level two and joyful murder in level three. If the dungeon lets you move beyond that and you complete whatever objective is available, you can put the whole thing on farm. You have no reason to stop that involves concern you'll get beaten down and lose. Rather, you'll push to the exit because you can't get any stronger, so spawning giant random monsters and watching them explode in a haze of spider intestines or troll mucus stops being as much of a joy.

A brief overview of the combat system: Every weapon lets you roll a certain number of red and/or yellow dice (red is better), while armor and shields give you blue and/or green dice (green is better). Attack dice roll swords, defense dice roll shields. Get more swords than they have shields, and you do damage. There are also two types of enchantments: small explosion symbols ('bams') and small gems (...'gems'). When using certain pieces of gear, these can offer additional effects, usually quite strong. Heroes also have special abilities which can only be used in 'shadow zones', squares without a light source.

What can make the initial level challenging is when you face an enemy that can potentially do solid damage to you on a bad set of rolls, or requires above-average rolls for you to damage them. The latter is especially problematic if the enemy is an agent, who calls in reinforcements at the end of every round if he's still alive. But get through this and it quickly becomes difficult to find an enemy who can withstand the better and larger number of dice you're throwing, since your equipment scales up faster than their power. You also buy skills with the experience you gain that lets you either even out the variability of the dice or gives you incredible power spikes under the right circumstances, both of which reduce the danger until you have to purposely do stupid things to be have any real risk of losing.

Basically, between the game's naming conventions and its power spikes, Massive Darkness' normal mode seems like it was designed by a seriously emo D&D fan on two Red Bulls spiked with crushed Adderall. Your Nightshade Rangers and Bloodmoon Nightrunners go from zero to bloody quagmire in a half-dozen rolls of the dice. From that description, a gamer looking for a reasonable challenge may not think that sounds like much fun. And once you're a little ways in, it isn't that much of a challenge. But the reason games moved away from relying heavily on dice was the frustration of losing to something so out of your control; this game lets you struggle for a bit, giving you a sense of achievement, before moving you into a position with plenty of dice randomness but minimal risk of losing as long as you're smart about character placement and line of sight. That's a lot of fun.

Of course, given the size of the box, and the tradition of fantasy roleplaying characters slowly becoming stronger over multiple sessions of play, there is the expectation of a campaign mode, which does exist. There are two main differences: first, and much more importantly, experience gained is 'micro XP'. Five micro XP equal one full XP, which means you gain experience at one-fifth the normal rate. Rather than having a majority of your class skills at the end of the mission, after your first campaign adventure, you might have two. Secondly, there's a town market phase between missions, where an assortment of items (some level one, some based on your heroes' levels) are available for trade. You can trade one or two of your items for one or two market items, as long as you're trading in at least as many levels of equipment as you're getting back; this is considerably more efficient than transmuting in the dungeon. After the market phase, your next adventure starts at the level of the highest-level hero (determined by their highest-level skill).

Both of these changes, while pretty cool in theory, are drastically undercut by the way equipment is doled out in the dungeon. Having only a couple of skills keeps things from being the kind of complete rout as you see in normal, but by the end of one mission you're still lugging around level four and five pieces of gear, so you're still obliterating almost everything. There's no reason to save items for the market because at first the highest you'll see is level one or two, so you need to transmute to get the best possible stuff. And when you go into your next mission, you start at level one or two with god-tier gear.

That doesn't make story mode bad. Some of the missions plan for this; for example, if you do the quests in order, the second one requires you to chase down an escaping giant spider who has a head start and a room full of enemies sitting between you. You'll be glad you're overpowered right then. And as the quests get harder, your skills are slowly increasing while your equipment doesn't have much room to improve. Plus, there's no indication this is supposed to be a serious, methodical challenge as compared to the riot of normal mode; it's just a bunch of quests strung together with a mechanic that lets your characters grow over time rather than in a short burst, with the same ability to smash everything in the face.

Enterprising folks could probably devise a way to create a true slow burn; a simple idea might be to disallow transmuting and make every tile level one in the first mission, to create relevance in the town market and make the characters grow in power in a more traditional fashion. The fact nothing like this was included may have been an indication the designers were really trying to keep the fast, fun atmosphere across all modes, but it would have helped in offering something to a wider variety of gamers, especially given the expense of the game.

And if there's a friction point in Massive Darkness, it's there, in the price. $120 is not what most people want to pay for light fun. It's more than that, of course; the game is based on Zombicide mechanics, and likewise relies heavily on having cool miniatures to play with, which costs. It's also important to remember that the game's modular nature makes it very easy for people to come up with new dungeons to challenge players who find the game too easy as designed. There are even programs that create random dungeons, which means effectively infinite replayability with the core set. If you want a deep, challenging game, however, this is not where you're going to find it.

That said, if you can roll dice, smash orcs, and be happy, Massive Darkness is pretty good. If you're willing to put some time into researching or devising house rules that make the game exactly what you want it to be, it might even be great. Since the house rule here is that games are reviewed only on what they themselves offer, we'll call it pretty good.

Score: Twenty-three bloody orc heads still on spikes out of the twenty-nine we set up last week.

Friday, October 20, 2017

League Worlds = Hot Damn

For those unfamiliar with League of Legends Worlds Pick 'Em, it's basically LoL's March Madness: pick the winners, earn points. During the group stage, with four teams in each group, you get points for picking the correct position of each team in the group, a bonus for getting the two teams in each group in the correct order of finish, and a bonus if you nail the whole group. There are sixteen points available per group, for a total of sixty-four. In the bracket stage, you get five points per quarterfinal correctly chosen, ten per semi-final, and twenty if you pick the overall winner, for twenty points per round. So, overall, you can earn up to 124 points.

One of the current missions in League is to score at least thirty-four points in Pick 'Em. You have the whole tournament to do it. Given the relative predictability of most matchups, and the lock-it-in reliability of Korean teams, not scoring thirty-four is almost impossible if you're trying.

Halfway through the quarterfinals, I still haven't, because this tournament has lost its goddamned mind. If SKT had gone out, I might not make it at all.

Something I enjoy about watching League that doesn't often seem to be the case in other sports is how unpredictable results look so obvious in retrospect. Of course EDG ate shit. Of course TSM failed at the last minute. Of course Misfits slapped TSM around and made it out of groups. I believed Misfits could beat SKT, but I still picked SKT because 'could' in this case meant about 10%, which is probably more than 99.9% of fans would have given them. Yet in the games Misfits won, there were no major throws by SKT, just excellent work by Misfits in the drafts and the games to put them in position to throw down the biggest upset in the game's history. 

Longzhu losing to Samsung, even though it was Korea beating Korea, is as close to a real shock as there's been in the tournament when viewed in retrospect. As the analysts pointed out after the match, Samsung straight up played differently than they had during groups, especially in regards to vision play. How they beat Longzhu makes sense, but it's also easy to understand why nobody expected it—teams might talk about holding back their real strategy until they need it, but that's not how these things usually go.

On the other hand, Misfits have been as prime an example as any of how previously poor long-term results are not indicative of future poor occurrences in League. It's possible for a team to have a magical day where they play over their heads, but it's far less likely than in more traditional sports for three reasons:
  • High-level athletic performance is more prone to variance. If you put a basketball player at a three-point line with a hundred basketballs and no defense for ten straight days, that player is not going to hit ninety-eight or more shots all ten days. Maybe Steph Curry could hit ninety every day. Professional LoL players (at least top/mid/ADC) needs to CS at that level while they're laning despite being on the lookout for enemy ganks and facing one or two players actively trying to stop them. They're expected to land the right skills on the right targets in the middle of high-stress, ultra-chaotic team fights. Errors happen, but those errors are noted because of their rarity. As a high bronze player, I have the room between my normal game and my skill cap to play out of my mind, but pros need to be so close to their skill cap already that the only real change they can have is to play worse than normal.
  • Every traditional sport can lean on a superlative performance by one or two individuals. Even if a LoL pro plays surprisingly well, if his average team remains average, the coordination involved in most key moments is not going to be sufficient to beat a far superior opponent. If a team is going to win in a true skill upset, it's going to happen through better drafting and shot-calling, and that's not something which comes and goes. A good strategic coach and team can always draft intelligently. Someone who's capable of shot-calling well doesn't get worse a week or a month later. If you see a team winning through these methods, even if it just started, those teams are usually quite capable of continuing. And when they make a mistake against that superior opponent—see Misfits, Game 4, around 27:30—it can fall apart precipitously.
  • Traditional sports don't have meta shifts. The absolute best players can do any job required of them, but even pros have preferences and are not usually as good on one type of champ as another (e.g. tank vs. carry). In the short-term, if it appears the meta has begun to suit a team, it's reasonable to expect their performance to improve until the meta shifts away from that strength. 
Ergo, despite everybody shitting on Misfits because they had to go on a huge playoff run to make Worlds, their performance against SKT should not be viewed as a shock given that between the playoff run and their work in the group stage, something clearly changed. Likewise, it's completely reasonable to have doubted Gigabyte Marines despite their competitiveness at MSI because their summoner switched to top (position switches matter, just ask Piglet), and their whole bot lane is new. 

Keep in mind, the reverse is not true. As stated at the end of point #1, a player or team can absolutely fall apart. There are numerous examples of this throughout League history, and EDG/TSM/IMT can be used as examples in this Worlds alone.

And to think, C9 vs. WE seemed like the most competitive matchup when the quarterfinals were drawn. Maybe the main lesson we can take from all of this is that we shouldn't be hard on anyone trying to do pre-game analysis and predictions, because this shit is hard to figure out. RNG should beat the dicks off Fanatic, but who the hell knows anymore? I just hope it goes five. I hope they all do.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Dave Reviews: Throwing Bodies In The Hudson, The Game

The Godfather: Corleone's Empire

Remember: no matter the wealth you collect, you can't spend it if you're dead. So make sure your thugs and lieutenants eat the bullets.

The Godfather: Making Sure Your Kids Get Shot Before You is an area control game, because it's about Mafia families, so of course it's an area control game. New York is broken up into seven areas with a number of businesses spread amongst them, and blank spots where more businesses open up later, just waiting for the mob to shake them down for their profits. You have two types of units: thugs and family members/lieutenants. Thugs go to a business and give you whatever is listed on the front of that business, be it drugs, booze, blood money, jobs, whatever. Family members work between districts, giving you access to the goodies in the back of all businesses in those districts. The backs of businesses are usually a little less good than the front, but since you're often getting three or four at once, the family members are very powerful.

More importantly, at the end of each round, every figure you have on the board counts towards control of the districts they're influencing. Thugs have to sit on one business, so they only impact one district at a time, but family members give you influence over two or three. Basically, family members are great! Better get them out on the board as soon as possible so you get all the things and win influence over all the districts.

This is what you think until your people wind up floating in the Hudson (this is, in game terms, literally what happens) and someone else takes over their influence spots. You'll still get the immediate goods from the backs of affected businesses, but dead mobsters don't scare anyone into compliance. Control doesn't have much of an impact during each turn (though certain cards depend on area control), but building control turn by turn establishes dominance, and dominance of districts is worth big money at the end of the game.

So why would anyone put their family members out before it's necessary? Because jobs are how anything gets done in the city, including murder, and sometimes jobs you can complete are hard to come by. The game begins with a business that will give you a job card, but you may not see another. Three jobs are laid out at the start of each turn that anyone can choose, if they have the resources, but the resources may be hard to come by. If someone can't get their hands on guns, they can't kill your people. Someone will always be able to get guns, but they may not get the murder jobs. If you don't get the murder jobs, you can still do other jobs to make money, but control becomes substantially harder because that means other people have the murder cards and will wipe you while you have no capacity to fight back. In fact, they'll often wipe your people assuming you'll fight back, planning that you'll fight back, and winding up with a happy bonus when you don't have the cards to do it with.

Furthermore, you have to balance your capacity to do jobs with everything else you need in order to not waste cards in light of the hand limit enforced at the end of each round. Sure, you can pile money and resources into your hand, but if you don't stash money in the suitcase or find jobs to spend those resources on before you place your last figure, you'll have to discard down to five or six cards (or two at the end of the last round). Everything is in constant motion; stockpiles must be used quickly or not at all. To maintain the murder example, it's fine if you want to save your guns and job card for the next round, but that will be most of your hand capacity--find something to do with everything else before the turn is over.

But, man, someone has those murder cards. If it's not you, do you work around them and wait until someone else makes the people with the murder cards more angry? Or do you throw everything at whatever is available to you and accept the body count as the part of doing business?

I've been going on about the murder jobs, because they stand out the most. Everything else lets you gather resources and money in a variety of ways, and might be most differentiated by the resources required to do them rather than what they accomplish. And there's a feeling, when you don't get the murder jobs in a game based around area control, that you're getting unbelievably screwed.

You're not, though. Maybe you don't get as much dominance money at the end of the game. Maybe your opponents occasionally get free resources because someone puts a thug in an area they control. But the other jobs are generally more profitable, get you more stuff, and are as viable a method for winning as slaughtering all your rivals if you do it properly. There's also something about the theme of the game that makes it suck a little less to get your people killed--whether they chose this life or were born into it, they knew the risks. (It also makes it a little weird when your family members climb out of the river and go back to work, but, eh, balance.) And if you win auctions at the end of each round for allies, you get extra people to put to work so you use your figures less quickly and, maybe, keep them alive until all the bullets are spent so they can win you all the territory.

Because the game starts with a very thin number of businesses to shake down for goods and services, and more businesses come into play randomly chosen out of a stack, it's quite possible certain resources will be in short supply in a given game. This is an example of good randomness--randomness that changes the experience of each playthrough, but doesn't necessarily advantage one player over another. One person can take a chance and stockpile blood money in round one, and be very well set if blood money jobs are available and the resource hard to get, but it's not the game's fault if that strategy doesn't work (or if it works very, very well). A chance was taken and the consequences of that chance occurred.

Having not played with five people yet, the following is a theoretical statement: I think this game would be most appropriately played with five people. With three, for example, some business slots stay empty the whole game, and it feels like you're not playing with a full city. That's not a criticism; it's unrealistic to make a game for only five people, and the designers did a fine job making it work with less. It's balanced well, so that everyone still has reasonable access to resources while limiting them enough so not everyone can just bathe in them, but it looks like a reduced version of the complete game. The potential carnage in a five player game, the working for influence... again, I need to see it first, but it seems like it could be incredible.

Score: 8.5 horseheads out of 9.7 (it's best if you don't ask where the pieces went)




Queue the NA failure memes. Even better: the only group without an NA team is playing tonight, so we get a whole extra day to flail about and wonder how shit the region truly is!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Dave Reviews: Ancient Capitalism In A Box

Century: Spice Road

A lightly-known fact, though one of which gamers are well aware: ancient civilizations mostly worked on cube-based economies. Where do you think the idea for the pyramids came from?

Century: Spice Road is a game about trading. Not with the other players; fuck those guys. Your trading materials are cubes, your trading abilities are on cards, and your trading partner is the great, ephemeral 'them' that exists in all cultures across time and space.

Cubes come in four varieties: yellow, red, green, and brown, in ascending value. Everyone starts with some number of cubes, based on the number of players and where in the turn order they are. You begin with cards that let you pluck two yellow cubes from the bank, or make two upgrades (which can be two cubes, one level each, or one cube twice). To that you can add cards taken from a row of six. You can take any of the six cards, but only the one on the far end from the deck is free; if you want a card further in, you have to leave a cube on every card you skip. Generally these are yellow, because yellows are worth the least, but you can leave cubes of any type if the card you want is worth it.

Another option for your turn is to play a card from your hand. A card without arrows means you take whatever cubes are listed from the bank; an arrow pointing up means you get that many cube upgrades; and an arrow pointing down means you trade the cubes above the arrow for the ones below it. If possible—and this is more plausible for some trade cards than others—you can do multiple trades with one card if you have enough of the appropriate cube(s) to trade away. Notably, you don't just trade lesser cubes for greater ones; several cards also let you trade small numbers of valuable cubes for larger numbers of less valuable ones.

The last action is to buy a point card. This is where your scoring comes from at the end of the game. Dump the requisite cubes back in the bank, take the card, and if your card is one of the two at the end of the line, take a bonus one or three point coin as well. Watching your opponents build up their caravans will give you an idea what they're going for, but the bonus coins add a level beyond just making sure you get a card before anyone else; you also are somewhat incentivized to wait if possible so your target card moves into a bonus slot before you take it. Add up the point cards and bonus coins at the end; high score wins.

A relatively common topic about games is their interactivity. Generally, more interaction with other players is lauded as a good thing. If you agree with that assessment, this game might lose a little value. Everything involves reading your opponents and working around them, with no way to directly affect their caravans or cards.

On the other hand, does a game lack interaction when you have to constantly be aware of what everyone else has and is likely to do? Is interactivity defined only by being able to make people lose cubes or throw away cards or directly affecting them in some other way? Is swiping someone's clear best option before they can take it less interactive than taking it away from them after they already have it?

Of course, this isn't a polarized question. Interactivity is a spectrum. But sometimes there's a more of a sense of solitary play when each person has their own little card setup rather than when everyone is on a board, even when the latter game doesn't allow you to directly screw with anyone. In Terra Mystica, for example, once a building goes up, no one can do anything about it; moving up the cult tracks is mainly done in relation to the other players, which is similar to buying point cards; and terraforming spaces is mostly for your own gain, rather to block someone else. The only real point of interaction in Terra Mystica that has no good analogue in Century: Spice Road is how building near someone makes certain things cheaper.

Yet TM feels like the far more interactive game. It's like going to the common area in the library to read: you've got your own plans, no one else is directly affecting what you're doing, but being in a room with other people gives a greater sense of shared space and community than if you duck off into an isolated corner where you can barely tell anyone else is around.

C:SR is relatively short, finely honed game. There's a lot to like. How much you're going to like it, though, may be a matter of perspective. If you like having your own area, and you only have to acknowledge the existence of others when you look up, this might appeal more than if you prefer having people around in a more constant way.

Score: Fourteen horses pulling spice carts out of the sixteen we started the trip with.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Let's Talk League

Whoops, two weeks between posts. Amazing how quickly the time passes when you start playing a little more League.

Worlds just finished its first week of group stage. Keeping in mind that the following observations are coming from a Bronze 1 player dreaming of making Silver but constantly thrown into ranked matchups against higher MMR players, which means only losing 15 LP per match but you still keep sinking when you keep losing and losing because your team falls apart against the mildest pressure—

Right. Worlds.

  • I'm surprised by NA's performance so far (all three teams are 2-1), but at the same time there's nothing shocking about it given how it's happened. The surprise with TSM is that they're not 3-0, but Misfits is one of those teams that seems like it has a painfully low floor with a ceiling higher than most people realize, so if they push towards that ceiling they can do something like beat TSM. Immortals thumped Fanatic and Gigabyte and lost to Longzhu, which is chalk. C9 beat EDG, but if that was lucky, it was lucky because they caught EDG last. Speaking of which...
  • It's hard not to feel bad for EDG on a pure storyline level. Yeah, I like NA and I want to see them do well, but just like it would have been fun to see NA do better last year when Worlds was in the U.S., a better result for the Chinese teams would turn their matches into real sporting events. The noise level in the place when EDG was stomping SKT was serious.
  • I didn't watch the first two TSM games too closely, so I took the analysts more or less at their word when they said the team looked sharp. The first ten minutes against Misfits is like... same team Y/N? I know early games are wonky for lots of good teams, but blurgh. 
  • Korea is Korea. There's a lot of analyst chatter about SKT in particular showing weaknesses and questioning the need to rely on a miracle engage to win a game from a huge deficit, and they're not wrong—if they get in that position again, the unlikely engage is even less likely to happen because teams are going to be hyper-aware of what can happen if you're sloppy for a moment. But no one else makes that play. Korean teams are capable of things no one else currently is. Part of me wants Samsung to get knocked out in groups, then for SKT and Longzhu to meet in the semis, just so a non-Korean team is in the final, but then you just have a situation where the semifinal is the real final. Better for the sport if a non-Korean team has to beat a Korean one to make the final.
  • By the way, the odds of Samsung getting knocked out are still pretty slim. They would have to lose to both G2 and RNG—not impossible—then G2 needs to either beat RNG or face Samsung in a tiebreaker and beat them a second time in the same day. My Worlds pick'em has G2 finishing second in the group, but I knew that was a sketchy proposition and it's proving true.
  • I'm coming around on the Bo1 idea for NA LCS. 'Phoenix 1 beats TSM' is far more exciting than 'Phoenix 1 takes a game off TSM'. Running Bo3 more fully ensures the best teams finish at the top of the standings, but given that MSI and Worlds both start with Bo1 competition and neither involve Bo3, it makes more sense from a 'preparation from international competition' standpoint as well as being potentially more interesting.
  • I'm all for Misfits making it out of groups, as long as they do it at the expense of WE. TSM might have similarities to the Yankees as far as NA goes, like annoyingly consistent success and an insufferable portion of their fan base, but they're still the class of the region and the capacity of the region is largely defined by their performances. No matter how well C9 or Immortals do, they're not going to supplant TSM in that role until they also slap TSM around domestically or outperform them in other international comps. Get them into quarters, let them play a shitshow Bo5 against Longzhu/SKT/SSG, and everyone can walk away with their headlines intact ('TSM did as well as they could' or 'TSM will fail forever').
  • I really enjoy listening to the analysts talk in podcasts or pre/post-game commentary. During the game? Jesus. It's no longer funny when one of them talks about somebody getting deleted or the game ending, only for it not to happen. They're always trying to say something clever in the heat of the action, usually some awkward reference or a shitty pun; not only are the comments forced, but they sometimes trip over what they're saying, which makes it worse. I'm not suggesting their job is easy—they're commentating a game that's far faster and more complex than regular sports—but if anything, that indicates they should stop increasing the level of difficulty by also trying to be extra entertaining. The energy and knowledge they bring is enough.