Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Lemming Mafia

Lemming Mafia is a quirky little race betting game from Mayfair Games, the makers of the Settlers of Catan series of games.  I think the best way to think about it is that the players are all betting on a horse race, only instead of horses it's lemmings and instead of racing to a finish line, they are racing to jump off a pier into the water to their death.

Every turn, players roll two lemming dice to determine which lemmings they are allowed to move.  They then move their chosen lemming into the next section with a vacant spot and choose which space to place the lemming on (if there is more than one vacant spot in the section).

The different types of spaces are:

  • Blank spots - Nothing happens
  • Wet cement - The lemming gets a cement token put on his piece.  If he already has two tokens, he gets cemented out and placed in the lowest place at the end of the board
  • Jackhammer - Remove a cement token from the lemming
  • Getaway vehicle - Roll a 6-sided die to see how far forward he moves, if that spot is occupied, the lemming does not move and instead gets a cement token put on him
  • Bidding - Players can bid on who they think will come in first (i.e. jump off the pier or be the last one cemented out)
  • Mafia boss - Players can get rid of one mission card (more on these in a sec)
The game ends when a lemming jumps off the pier or 5 of the 6 lemmings get cemented out.  In the former case, all remaining lemmings are placed in second to last place based on their distance to the pier.  The winner of the game is the player with the most points.  You can get points with two things: Mission cards and bidding.

At the start of the game you get three mission cards.  You may discard them during play if someone lands on the Mafia boss spot, but you may never draw more.  At the end of the game, fulfilled missions are worth positive points, unfulfilled missions are worth -2 points.

The bidding is a little too complicated to explain here without accompanying imagery, but it can get you anywhere from 0-6 points.

This is a strange, but fun short little game with amazing art and figures (the 6 lemming figures are awesome).  There is a lot of strategy and predicting what other players will do involved in winning and it's very possible to go from a perfect score to the absolute lowest score possible between your turns (I know from experience).  My only complaint is that the bidding system feels way complicated (or at least is hard to explain even if you have the cards and can show people), but once everyone understands it, it's an interesting risk/reward system.  And ultimately, that's what the whole game is about, risk and reward.  How much are you betting on your ability to manipulate fate and get your lucky lemming to jump off the pier?  How much would you lose if everyone else wants that lemming to get cemented out and sleep with the fishes?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: Kenichi - The Mightiest Disciple

From childhood, Kenichi Shirahama has had a very strong sense of justice.  One day while walking home from school, he sees a bunch of street thugs threatening a beautiful girl, so he decides to rush in and save her.  Unfortunately, he has no idea what he's doing, so the thugs make fun of him and push him away.  As they are about to beat him up for being a hero, the girl takes off her glasses and gracefully kicks the stuffing out of  the thugs.

It turns out the girl, Miu Furinji, was raised at a martial arts dojo with her grandfather and 5 other masters of various martial arts.  After finding out Kenichi is merely getting picked on in the school's karate club instead of trained, Miu offers to bring him to her dojo so the masters can train him.  Hilarity ensues as the masters train Kenichi using methods that seem very much like torture.  (It's funnier than it sounds, I promise).  The rest of the series follows him as he continues to train to be the best, while fighting off a local gang, Ragnarok, who want to at first recruit him and then destroy him as he continues to grow in strength.

Much like Naruto, Bleach, or DBZ, this show is mostly about fighting and getting stronger.  One big difference is that unlike everyone on the other shows, Kenichi has absolutely no talent.  His enemies tell him, his masters tell him, and I'm pretty sure he tells himself that constantly, too.  But what he does have is a lot of perseverance and hard work.  I think that makes it that much more awesome when Kenichi gets serious, uses a new technique he learned and defeats someone who would have destroyed him one episode before.  Another nice difference from the other fighting animes is that Kenichi learns actual martial arts moves and with quite a bit of detail and explanation, so it's possible you might be able to learn or at least understand the moves yourself.  Even if you don't, a lot of the first season adds little history lessons with his training.  I'm not sure how accurate these lessons are, but it makes me want to learn more, which is pretty impressive.

The other awesome part of the show are the masters themselves.  They have the feel of old kung fu movie masters with lots of wonderful cliches: everything is a lesson or training, the aforementioned torture-like training methods, the pervy master, the drunk master, the wise and sensible master, etc.  And by far the best of the whole lot is the Muay Thai master, Apachai.

To make up for the awesomeness of the masters, I guess the show needed an annoying character that I kept wishing would just go away and that comes in the form of Kenichi's "friend", Niijima, who (along with the Masters) is really the only truly unrealistic character.  The first time I watched the series, I remembered them joking about Niijima being an alien, but thought no one seriously thought that, but watching it again, I'm pretty sure Niijima is just an unexplained random demon or alien or something.

Overall, I feel the show is worth watching if you're a fan of any of the previously mentioned anime series or just like to see a really talentless and weak character grow in skills, confidence, and knowledge to be something so much more awesome.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Minigames: The Game Within A Game

Oftentimes games will have shorter little games to play during your adventure to acquire loot or access to certain areas.  Bioshock had hacking, Deus Ex had...hacking, Skyrim has lockpicking, Mass Effect had bypassing, etc.  Personally, I enjoy these diversions (when they're well done), especially if there are abilities to make them easier (which there usually are).  However, after awhile - and especially once you've maxxed out your stats for that game - you kind of just want to skip it and get the loot.  It becomes less fun and more of just something tedious to do.  Mass Effect lets you pay omni-gel to skip the mini-game and I think that's a good start, but personally, I think if you've proven yourself capable of solving the mini-game enough times before, you should have the option of just skipping it altogether with no cost or penalty whatsoever.  I would equate it to a transformation scene in cartoons, anime, or television.  The first few times this happens, the viewer gets a long sequence showing everything happening because it's an important thing that hasn't happened before.  However, as the show progresses, this sequence becomes shorter and shorter because the viewer has seen it and doesn't want to waste their time watching it again and again even though for the creator, it's a cheap, easy way to get more content made.

While thinking about these minigames, I also thought about crafting items in MMOs and that they could use a little minigame like this.  Currently, when you craft items, your avatar plays an animation for some amount of time and then you get an item with a random chance of a better item.  What if, instead, you could play a short game to determine the quality of item you get?  And if you started to get bored or annoyed with the minigame, you can have the option of skipping it for reduced chances at the same items?  So that way, if you really wanted to super awesome item, you can play a game and earn it through skill, but if you just don't care, you can just create an item without any worry and maybe get lucky?

I also think minigames could work in board games as well.  While the main game is going on when it's not your turn, you could play some side game of some sort to try to get some resources or somehow affect the outcome of the main game.  Obviously, I have not thought this part out enough to get details (or I just don't want to share them...MWAHAHAHA), but I think it's something that could warrant further thought.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Brawl In The Family

One of my absolute favorite webcomics is Brawl In The Family.  First off, it's all Nintendo-based humor (generally related to Super Smash Brothers Brawl, hence the name).  Secondly, it's all very family-friendly humor.  Thirdly, there are a ton of visual gags/puns.  For the most part, the comic is just a series of random gags that either make fun of something very video game-y:

or character specific things:

The first set are mostly about Kirby eating something and what happens to him afterwards:

But every once in awhile, story arcs will appear or the artist, Matthew Taranto, will compose and perform a song that goes along with a comic.  I think those are my favorite.

So, yeah, there's a reason I gladly supported his Kickstarter to make a book of his comics - which is the first Kickstarter project I've given money to.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Review: Dark Knight Rises

Personally, I like this image over the movie poster.
The third and final installment of the Dark Knight Trilogy is a wonderful conclusion to yet another take on the Caped Crusader.  The purpose of this trilogy is to try to add more realism to Gotham City and its denizens.  So no Smile-X gas, no Sugar and Spice, and no bombs you can't get rid of.  At least that's mostly true...both the first and third movies in this set have some Hollywood science that breaks apart easily if you actually stop to think about it, so it's best to just ignore those parts.

Following the end result of The Dark Knight, this movie starts off with Gotham City living in peace and free from organized crime due to the lie that Batman killed Harvey Dent, thus saving his spotless image, which was somehow needed to put away the crime lords...because I guess trials in Gotham City are based on popularity contests between the defendants and prosecutors and not evidence...or something...anyway, since Batman is no longer needed to clean up Gotham City (and he's a wanted man) he has disappeared and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, feeling he has nothing left to live for with the loss of Rachel (who could also be called Two Face).

In steps Bane to mess up the peace and Catwoman to make things awesome (seriously, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is amazing).  This movie has plenty of twists and turns and ups and downs, so I don't really want to wreck anything.  The only things of note are the aforementioned Hollywood science and Bane's character really has no depth whatsoever.  He's kind of just a mercenary leader who is strong.  And likes to hold the lapels of his jackets.  A lot.  But I'm actually kind of okay with the lack of depth because he's definitely better than previous Banes and I'm not sure if Bane really needs much depth.  It was weird that the whole Venom steroid thing that Bane usually has going on is completely MIA in this movie, but just like the lack of Joker's killing with a smile, it's probably for the best for this series since those are harder to suspend disbelief for given the level of realism.

Other than that, the only flaw is that the movie needs more Anne Hathaway, but I don't think I'd be satisfied unless the entire movie was just her.  That'd be way more watchable than a certain other "Catwoman" movie.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Self-Imposed Objectives

Oftentimes when playing a game I find myself adding on my own objectives: make a figure eight with my roads in Settlers of Catan, kill players as Donkey Kong by falling off a cliff while holding them and throwing them at the last second, etc.  Consciously, I'll do this if a game is getting unbalanced or is losing its fun.  If I'm winning too much and my friends aren't having fun, I'll secretly start adding in extra challenges I have to accomplish to handicap myself.  If I'm losing and there's no hope of winning, I'll ignore the main objective of the game and start working towards my secondary one so I can feel accomplished (and so I don't pout and wreck the fun for everyone else).  If a game is starting to get old, I'll come up with new game modes for my friends and I to play (like racing backwards in Mario Kart so last place is first and gets the best items).

I've realized recently that sometimes these objectives get imposed on me subconsciously as well.  Whenever I'm playing a sneaking game like Thief, Alpha Protocol, or Deus Ex, I will ensure my playthrough is flawless and that no one ever sees me or I'll restart the level.  Generally, I also have to knock every enemy out stealthily, too.  When playing a game like Pikmin or Overlord, I refuse to lose any of my little minions and will reset if any of them get taken out.  Sometimes this makes things more fun, but more often than not it just ends up with me being very frustrated and taking 5x longer to finish a level.  Unfortunately, I find these compulsive needs hard to ignore.  It usually takes me losing multiple times or finding some way to circumvent the compulsion to get through the area.  Apparently I'm more okay with losing Red Pikmin versus Purple or White Pikmin (not a color thing, just Reds are easier to replenish) so if a boss is taking too many tries, then I will eventually just go in with an army of Reds and be able to handle losing a few here or there.  Of course, then the daily report shows up showing how many Pikmin I've lost in the entire game so far and I get super sad for all the poor Pikmin that died for my cause.

Monday, July 16, 2012

When Punishment Can Be Good

I played the game Scene It! for the Xbox 360 (I'm not sure which of the versions we were playing) with some friends at a party.  During the first round, I quickly realized that a wrong answer was not reducing my score like I expected.  At first, I figured it just wasn't going to drop me below 0 points, but once I finally had a score, it still didn't go down when I was wrong.  I was pretty excited about this during most of the game and speedily guessed every question whether I had any clue of the answer or not.  I went into the final round with quite a lead (thanks to the Pictogram part of the game) expecting to lose it all because surely the final round will punish people for randomly guessing.  Instead it had a score multiplier it would give you for right answers and reset for wrong answers.  I wondered if no answer was the same as a wrong answer, so I waited until the timer ran out (much to the annoyance of  my friends) and sure enough, my multiplier got reset to x1.  I still ended up winning the game, but it didn't feel like a great victory because the game rewards random guessing by not punishing you for wrong answers.  I made the mistake of wondering this aloud and learned another lesson - never ever ever question or analyze why you won, what you could have done better, or why the game is flawed in front of the people you just beat; wait until you get home.

But this did get me thinking about how this was a case where a game should be punishing players for mistakes.  By not punishing wrong answers, the game is telling you to guess randomly because you have a 25% chance to win (more than that if you're any good at educated guessing).  This means that the winner isn't necessarily the person who knows the most about movies, but is more likely the person who is the best multiple choice test taker.  I don't know about my friends, but I wanted to play Scene It! not SAT It!.  The game should instead subtract the points you would have gotten for a right answer when you answer incorrectly and have a button so you can skip answering (so you don't annoy your friends waiting for the timer to go down).  This way, you can wait to guess so it's not as punishing or just only answer when you know the right answer.  The winner in the end will be the person who knows the most about the movies displayed (or is a fantastic guesser, I guess).  And in the end, isn't that what we want from our trivia games?  To win because you know more useless information than your friends?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: The Adventurers Pyramid of Horus

This game was not exactly what I expected when I bought it, in some ways it's even better.  Players take on the role of adventurers exploring an ancient pyramid that is crumbling apart as they explore.  The goal of the game is to get as much treasure as you can without getting sealed inside.

Each turn, one player (the Dice Keeper) rolls all five colored dice that determines how many actions all players get that round based on the number of item and wound cards a player has.  Players then take turns performing their actions (either moving or searching their current spot).  The Dice Keeper then rolls to see how far the three mummies in the pyramid move and then pick a random stone block to place in the temple.  The person to the left of the Dice Keeper becomes the next turn's Dice Keeper.  Play continues until everyone has either escaped the pyramid or have been sealed in.  The player who escaped with the highest treasure point total wins.

This is a very short game (the first game took an hour, the rest around 45 minutes) with that perfect feeling of "We can fit in another game, I want to win this time!"  With all the die rolling, random blocks being picked, characters with different abilities, decks to search through, and a variable number of actions per turn, this game has a perfect blend of randomness and strategy.  It also has a wonderful high risk, high reward feeling in every single action you take in the game, which adds to that feeling that maybe the next game you'll get luckier and won't get bitten by that snake or cursed by a mummy.  It also comes with figurines for the characters as is typical for Fantasy Flight Games, which is both awesome and a cause for a higher cost of the game.  This game is a perfect addition for those game nights when you have too many players for Dominion, but still want a quicker game.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sense of Danger vs. Experimentation

I recently bought the Sly Cooper Collection on the Playstation Network, which is the first three Sly Cooper games for one nice price.  It's very interesting to see not only how well the first one holds up over time, but also some of the differences between the first and second.  The biggest difference (or at least the one I'm focusing on today) was the change from having a life system like Mario where by default one hit will kill you unless you have certain power-ups and having limited lives to a health system with no lives whatsoever.  Most games nowadays seem to go towards the latter or go even further with a regenerating health system.  Both systems have their pros and cons and I don't think gamers should be limited to experiencing only one of those systems.

As the gamer player base grows, new and more casual gamers are joining every day.  So I understand the desire to make things more accessible.  This, I think, was one of the major reasons for the creation of the regenerative health system (where a player's health regenerates over time or immediately fills back up if they don't take damage for X number of seconds).  The nice thing about this system is it lets players experiment with the systems of a game without as much fear of failure.  They can try one set of tactics or practice moves they're not used to and as long as they can find a safe place to hide to recover, they won't lose.  This, in turn, lets the player figure out how to maximize their fun by playing the game how they want to.  A simple, yet common, example for me is finding the boundaries of the world.  When I first start a game, I like to know if I'm protected from falling off of an area by invisible force fields or not, so I tend to jump off a cliff relatively early on.  If I just take a little bit of damage from this or (even better) grappling hook my way out of the pit then I know that I can experiment freely and can try to get to weird/hilarious places the developer didn't want me.

On the flip side, this system takes away a lot of the sense of danger a game can have, which, as I learned from this amazing talk at GDC one year is very important to make a game worth playing.  With no sense of danger, a game becomes way too easy and boring.  This is one thing the limited hit and lives system has going for it.  The entire time I was playing Sly Cooper and every time I play a Mario game, I feel incredibly fragile because one hit can if not kill me, then make things a lot more difficult.  This feeling makes my victory feel even more satisfying, especially when I intentionally or not pull off amazing recoveries or complete a challenge by the skin of my teeth.  However, just like experimentation, this method has its down side as well. If the entire game is this nerve wracking, then I'm only going to be able to handle it in small chunks or become quickly angry at the game because my stress level is so high.  This sense of danger is crucial, but only in small doses.

So, just like most things with game design, it ultimately comes down to a balance between the two.  Adding a tougher section to the game or imposing limits (hopefully something more clever than a time limit) can help give a sense of danger.  Adding an area for the player to experiment with how the various systems of a game interact gives them a safe environment to find their play style and find their own fun.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Spirit Flyer Series

Another book series I grew up with that impacted me greatly as a child was the Spirit Flyer series of books by John Bibee.  I remember getting to church early sometimes since my parents were in the orchestra/choir and wandering around the church library looking for something interesting to read.  They had a fairly decent kids section, but generally I would just be on the lookout for these eight books.

Yes, that's right, these are Christian kid's books.   The analogies they have for Christianity may not be as subtle as C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, but they're also not super preachy books either.

In the Spirit Flyer series, there are a group of people who have Spirit Flyer bicycles.  Old, ugly bicycles with big balloon tires that the other kids mock.  However, the Spirit Flyer bicycles (and the associated accessories), when properly used give kids strange powers like the ability to fly on their bike E.T. style or to get an early warning horn like Spider-Man's spidey-sense.  The trick is that the kids have to learn to trust the bikes and as they do, they start to learn more about the bike's creators (The Three Kings) and the Deeper war between the Three Kings and Goliath Toys (who aren't who they seem to be).

Each book follows a similar formula: the main character of that particular book gets a Spirit Flyer.  The kid starts learning about the bike's amazing powers.  The kid gets in trouble due to the Spirit Flyer (either they misuse its powers or are made fun of for having it).  They ignore the bike and start following Goliath's Toy's current evil plan.  They get into incredible trouble.  Their bike, the Kingson, or other Spirit Flyer owners come rescue them.  They learn their lesson.  They help stop Goliath Toy's evil plan.

Yet, even knowing that formula and that it holds true pretty consistently, it doesn't really matter.  There is plenty of action, real-life issues kids deal with, and the quotes from The Kingson are so memorable that I still use them to encourage myself to this day.  Sure, they may not be direct quotes from Jesus, but I feel like they are things he would've said.  "What I call worthy is worthy.  What I love  is lovable."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Just like video games based on movies, movie reboots are typically things people fear.  While trying to come up with a list of examples, I could only actually come up with two bad examples, however: The Karate Kid and Land of the Lost.  Every other reboot/remake/rewhatever I've seen has been great (and usually better than the original).  Ocean's Eleven, Bedazzled, Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk, Star Trek, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, among others.  The Amazing Spider-Man definitely falls into that latter category.

I love Sam Raimi (especially because he puts Bruce Campbell somewhere in everything he does) and the first two Spider-Man movies he made were entertaining, but the characters were a far cry from the characters in the comic books.  Peter Parker was nerdy without any intelligence to back it up.  Mary Jane was not in those movies at all, just some whiny damsel-in-distress redhead.  And I'm not even going to talk about the atrocity that was "Venom".  The new movie, on the other hand, got things much more spot on.  Well before Peter Parker was ever bitten by anything, there were various examples of his obvious intelligence.  Not only could he instantly diagnose a broken refrigerator just by looking at it, he had a remote-controlled mechanical door lock on his room, he talked shop (i.e. science!) with Curt Conners as if it was second nature to him.  He studied textbooks.  So it made a heck of a lot more sense when he made his web shooters (instead of having webbing come out of his arms just like spiders do...wait...) and he figured out how to stop the Lizard with brain power instead of brute force.

Ultimately, that's what makes Spider-Man what he is.  Sure he has the agility and strength of a mutant spider and he can shoot webs, but he almost never wins his battles merely by fighting.  He always out thinks his opponents.  He quips all the time to get his opponents angry so they stop thinking clearly (that and because it's hilarious).

On top of getting Peter Parker right, they also had a lot of little things that made the movie more believable.  After every single time Spider-Man went out and fought, Peter Parker would come home bruised.  Sure, he's strong enough to get sideswiped by a bus and survive, but he's still going to show the impact on him somehow.  When he was swinging around as Spider-Man, he'd wear a backpack to hold (among other things) his phone and his camera because there was no room in his unitard for it.  Along with his spider powers, he also showed subtle signs of acting more like a spider.  He was twitchier, he liked sitting in corners, etc.  Curt Connors also displayed subtle hints that the lizard DNA was affecting his personality as well.  Both a sign of great acting and direction in my opinion.  It was a little strange he never ran out of webbing mid-battle/patrol, but the rest of the movie was logical enough that I can just assume he carried extra cartridges with him and swapped them when we weren't looking.

So all in all, this was an amazing movie all on its own.  It respected its source material and brought those characters to life while changing things enough to clearly indicate this is its own story line and universe.  I very much look forward to seeing more Spider-Man movies along these lines and hopefully someday I'll get to see Venom done right.  And then see him fight Carnage.  And then see both of them fight Toxin.  Symbiotes are awesome.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Extra Credits

I was recently introduce to a web series called Extra Credits.  For the most part, this is a show that breaks down video games and game design with the intent of bettering gaming as a whole.  I almost immediately got hooked because that's the point of this blog (even though I may not be as articulate as they are or have as many funny pictures).  One big difference is they want to improve games as an art form, whereas I just want to make games more fun, so I identify things that are not fun in games and things that are fun whereas they delve a little more into topics I really don't care too much about.

There is nothing stopping games from being art and being fun (they had a whole episode on that topic), but from my experience, most games I've played that are "artsy games" are generally no fun whatsoever.  I have no problem with having games make me find out stuff about myself even though I haven't really delved into why I love collecting, stealing, helping, etc.  But I do have a problem with something call itself a game when there are zero game elements.  Just because something is interactive, does not make it a game.  Anyway, that's a different rant to go on and not my intention.

If you have any interest in breaking down games with silly pictures and an emphasis on the depth of games versus just the fun factor, then go check them out.

Monday, July 2, 2012


I rewatched the Spiderman 90's cartoon recently thanks to Netflix and realized just how many crossovers there are throughout that show.  For those who don't know, a crossover is when two different IPs in the same universe intersect.  So when Spiderman and Daredevil team up to take down the Kingpin, that is a crossover.  Crossovers help to broaden the scope of a universe you've built and help make it feel much bigger than just the single entry point the consumer is enjoying.  On a business side of things, it also helps introduce people to another IP that they might start buying into now.  Maybe Daredevil seemed intriguing so they'll find out if there's a Daredevil cartoon or buy the comic.

To be done well, crossovers have to make sense (the two IPs have to exist in the same universe and time, so Naruto meeting Edward Elric is probably not going to happen believably any time soon) and they should be more than just a cameo (although that can be hilarious if done well).  So when Spiderman's mutant genes start going out of control and changing him, he goes to Charles Xavier for a cure because he has heard that's what he does.  He knows nothing about the X-Men because they are not common knowledge at that time.  So obviously when he invades the mansion, the X-Men protect him and BAM!  Crossover.  Tony Stark is showing off some amazing new technology, of course Peter Parker would be there because he's both a scientist and a news photographer.  So when someone tries to steal the technology, Iron Man and Spiderman both happen to show up?  BAM!  Crossover.

Crossovers don't necessarily need to be characters either.  An event in one IP that affects the entire universe should be brought up from time to time in the other ones because it was a big deal.  So when Deep Space 9 starts during the battle of Wolf 359 or when Voyager encounters the Borg who have some drones from the same battle, that is a well placed crossover from another series.  Of course, Voyager has its share of awesome character crossovers as well.

Crossovers are understandably hard to pull off unless one IP is a spin-off of another because both IPs have to make sense in each other's universe (Dr. Horrible will probably never be visiting McClaren's Pub since super heroes and super villains would make no sense in modern day New York).  The tones of the two shows have to mesh well together as well (the members of Sacred Heart Hospital would probably never have a murder to solve..well...actually maybe they could...).  It's a shame crossovers aren't done more frequently, but it is fairly hard to set up.  What's your favorite crossover moment?