Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My Games: Suspicion

The rules have stabilized enough for me to feel confident to post the print and play version of my first card game, Suspicion.  The game is for 4-8 players (I've  mostly played with 5) and takes around an hour (the more players you have, the longer the game lasts).  There is no real theme with the idea that the game itself is fun and if it is successful enough, I can release future themed editions of the game like Fluxx does.

So in order to print this, you can either print duplex style (I have never been able to test this method since my printer can't print that way) or you print all 8 odd pages, flip those 8 printed pages over and put them back in the paper tray, and print the 8 even pages.  If done correctly, page 1 and 2 should be a single page, page 3 and 4, page 5 and 6, etc.  Then it's simply 12 cuts per page (4 to trim the borders off, 8 to separate the cards).  Even though the images on the pages are aligned the same on every page, I have never been able to get things to line up perfectly from one side to another, so just in case you have the same experience, cut the back side of the card so that players can't tell which card is coming because of how a card is cut.

The balance of the game has not been perfect, so feel free to tweak the numbers after a few plays to see how things can change.  There are also 4 blank Manipulate and Agenda cards for you to create your own if you come up with good ideas.  If you do, let me know so I can try it when I play.  If you have any problems, comments, or feature requests, let me know.  Also, if you enjoy the game, let me know!

In case you missed the above download link, here is another link to download Suspicion.  Enjoy!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Crystalis

One of the very earliest action RPGs I ever played was Crystalis.  The music was top notch, the gameplay was a good balance of intense (usually for boss fights) and pleasant (wandering around killing monsters for money/experience), and the setting is amazing (100 years after a nuclear war where magic has been rediscovered and is combined with science).

The player wakes up in a strange tower with no memory, but is guided by four different sages through the story to ultimately combine four different elemental swords into the Crystalis sword and defeat Emperor Draygon who is conquering the world.  As cliche as that sounds now, it certainly wasn't when I was a little kid.  Although I'm not sure how well this game stands up if you didn't grow up on it, it's definitely a game I go back to play every once in awhile.

Essentially, combat is like Secret of Mana.  You run around in a mostly top-down view, stab at enemies with B, can cast some spells, can charge up your sword attacks to various levels by standing still (the character, not the player) and holding B (the player, not the character), use gold to buy upgraded armor and shields or useful items, talk to lots of people to figure out what to do next (eventually you get a Telepathy spell that lets you read people's minds, which is an interesting way to get information), and vanquish evil.  I really want to go back and play this game again now just thinking about it...

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: Dishonored

I think I've finally figured out why I have such a high standard for sneaking games.  If done well, they are my absolute favorite genre, but it's very easy to make them drive me insane.  Sneaking games let me indulge my meticulous side, but if the guards' don't walk in patterns or my sneaky character walks into an ambush during a cutscene or it isn't clear why I got spotted, I will inevitably make the game infinitely harder on myself by being determined to still knock out everyone using stealth and then I will resent the game for not letting me play it right.  Fortunately, Dishonored does no such thing.

The men and women of Arkane Studios have done a wonderful job of truly letting the player decide their own playstyle and having it work throughout the entire game.  There are never any zombies that always spot you no matter how sneaky you are.  Cutscenes never place you somewhere you wouldn't have gone yourself.  There are always at least three or four paths to your destination (unless it takes you into another area, these are generally funneled into one or two entrances).  If you want to fight your way through, you can.  If you want to sneak past everyone on the ledges, go for it.  If you want (or need) to go through every avenue, then you can.

The choices you make can also affect the story, but sadly, this isn't as rewarding as the gameplay itself.  Essentially if you're not playing the sneaky, nonlethal game, you are going to make the game harder on yourself later on.  So although the game lets you play how you want, it definitely rewards one playstyle over all the others.  On the one hand, this is a good message.  Killing is bad.  It will make your life harder.  But from a gameplay perspective, this is kind of harsh for players who want to cut a swath through the city of Dunwall.

Another interesting aspect they added is that if you knock out a guard and then they get killed, it counts as you killing them.  So you have to be very careful when placing knocked out bodies lest other guards spot them, a rat swarm eats them, or they are lying in an inch or two of water (apparently the water won't wake them up and instead they drown).  This not only added some strategy to my playthrough, but it also created this game's OCD moments where I'd try to put the guys somewhere safe, but also somewhere where it would be funny to think of their reaction when they wake up.  So one guy went on the Lord Regent's bed (ruler of the entire city) along with one of his maids - hope he wakes up before getting caught!  Other guys would go in piles on top of each other or as close to sitting on chairs as I could make them.

If you enjoy sneaking games in the least, then I highly recommend this one.  It's the first (in my memory) to let you be completely sneaky from the beginning of the game to the very end of the game.  It's also pretty rare for a game where you're an assassin to let you play through the entire game without killing anyone, but this one manages it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cartoons I Grew Up On: The Mysterious Cities of Gold

I want to say the series, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, was my introduction into a show having continuity.  Unfortunately, I would miss episodes here and there, which made things a little confusing, so I wasn't able to watch the whole thing until a few years ago.

The show takes place in 1532 and revolves around a young Spanish orphan, Esteban, who is searching for his father while navigating for a mysterious man named Mendoza in his search for the Cities of Gold in the New World.  During their entire search, the crew is constantly hounded by other people also hunting for the cities of gold, including the commander of the Spanish forces, Gomez.  The closer they get to achieve their goal, the more they realize there is more to finding the mysterious cities of gold than just becoming wealthy beyond imagination.

This has some very minor similarities to Avatar the Last Airbender.  They both aired in the States on Nickelodeon, they both focus on three children (two boys and a girl), they both deal with the fantastic (although Avatar is admittedly way more fantastic than this is), and they are both animes (although this is also made by the French).  It definitely is a cheesy show (it is a kid's show after all), but it has some very interesting concepts in it that are worth watching.  It's only 39 episodes, so not that long of a series to go through.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: Telestrations

Normally I get nervous with any game that requires drawing, acting, or generally trying to get people to guess something.  One of the beauties of Telestrations is that half the fun is when people are wrong.  Poor artist?  Awesome!  Can't spell?  Spektakular!  Can't remember what the word to describe the action?  No worries, just describe the action and see how it changes things.

The game starts with each player writing a word on their pad and drawing it on the next page Pictionary-style.  After 60 seconds of drawing, each player passes their pad to the next player who then guesses what the drawing is and passes the pad to the next player.  That player draws the new word and this all repeats until each player gets their book back.  Then each player reveals their pad's evolution however they see fit (back to front, front to back, first drawing to the end and then the secret word, etc.) and everyone has a good laugh.

There are two methods to score the game, but I'll be honest, I never even read them because the game is fun enough without a winner or points.  To mix things up, our group would change directions we pass the pad and seating arrangements after each round so we never were passing to the same person twice.

The upside of this game is that I guarantee you will be laughing when playing this game, especially if you leave any judgements against poor drawing/spelling skills at the door.  The downside of the game is that you need at least 6 people for a quality game.  Also, you will learn quickly that embellishments can either be a dangerous or hilarious thing depending on if you want people to actually guess your word or not.

Friday, January 18, 2013

TV Show Idea: Matrix Murders

Synopsis: In order to convince people that they are inside The Matrix, a group of humans that have escaped (red pills) enter in and solve otherwise unsolvable crimes.  The operators outside the Matrix are able to hack the system in various ways (disguising the people inside the Matrix, changing the environment, giving the people jacked in tools and weaponry, etc.).  The more frequently the operators hack or the jacked in people bend the rules of the Matrix, the faster the Agents will find the group and eliminate them.

Basic episode plot: Someone's loved one just died/someone is being stalked by a murderer/etc.  The heroes approach that person and convince them they can solve the mystery.  As the operators read clues from the code and the jacked in people bend the rules to access areas normal people couldn't, the Agents start to chase the heroes.  Eventually the mystery is solved, the heroes escape the Matrix, the person saved/involved is rescued from The Matrix and brought to Zion.

Season 1 overarching story: One particular Agent is obsessed with catching the group and progressively bends/breaks more and more of the Matrix rules in order to catch the group with a climactic battle ending with the Agent being disowned by the other Agents.

Season 2 overarching story: A group of humans who don't agree with Zion or its goals have split off and formed their own city.  They are trying to work with the Agents to bring all of humanity back into the Matrix because it is more peaceful than their current existence.  This group is constantly working against the heroes all while the Agent from Season 1 is trying to find where he belongs.  Throughout the season his alignment shifts between working against the heroes and working to help the heroes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cartoons I Grew Up On: Thundercats

With the planet of Thundera about to die, some of the nobility, the Thundercats, escape to safety in a space ship.  They enter sleeping pods on the ship in order to go into suspended animation until a suitable new home is found.  Unfortunately for the young Lord of the Thundercats, Lion-O, his pod malfunctions and he ages during his sleep.  When they awake, they find themselves on a planet called Third Earth, where they try to get along with and aid the friendly inhabitants of the planet, while at the same time constantly defending attacks from the evil ones, such as Mumm-Ra the Ever Living.

I once tried to introduce a friend to this series, making the mistake of having not watched it myself since I was a kid.  I had forgotten just how cheesy this show was and even though my nostalgia (and my love of cheesy cartoons) was able to help me ignore the cheesiness, my friend was not so lucky.  Just like many shows of the 80's, this series is fairly predictable as a whole.  The good guys will always win by the end of the show (unless it's a two-parter) and their method of success is almost always the same.  Just when things look their worst, Lion-O will use the power of the Eye of Thundera in the hilt of his Sword of Omens to break whatever enchantment is on the ThunderCats, give them strength to overcome their enemies, or overwhelm their enemies with fear.

Part of the cheese factor was that every episode would end with a life lesson teaching good morals and values.  This is precisely why I think showing this show to your kids is a great idea.  And as I am overly excited to tell everyone I can, Panthro is voiced by the grandfather from the Cosby Show, which is also very awesome.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: Paper Mario Sticker Star OR How To Oversimplify

Ever since Super Mario RPG first transformed into a spin-off series called Paper Mario, the series has continually evolved while keeping the core combat and RPG systems intact.  That is, until Paper Mario Sticker Star.  Not only did they reduce the number of stats you have down to just your health, but they also added a combat system where it's possible to not be able to attack.

This game is all about stickers.  All of your attacks are each stickers.  You have a sticker album where you keep your attacks.  When you use an attack sticker it is gone forever and you must collect more.  Fortunately, they do seem to be scattered all over the place, so usually you won't run out, but there are definitely times where you'll be forced to use your higher quality and more powerful stickers against a weak enemy because you don't have any other low quality stickers to spend on him.  Although this adds a somewhat interesting ammo consumption strategy to all the fights, it also makes the fights a lot more frustrating since you can't always use the best attack against the enemy.

On top of that, the only way to get more than one attack per turn is to successfully get two or three in a row on a slot machine style spinner that costs 3 coins to use each time.  And since there are only a few sticker types that hit all enemies and only one of those works on flying enemies, of which there are an abundance in this game, you are forced to get really good at that slot machine, really fast.  Especially since, unlike other Mario RPG games (at least in my memory, which is admittedly faulty) even if you successfully time the button press to block incoming attacks, you still take quite a large chunk of damage.  In previous games, you could either level up or equip some badge that would reduce how much damage you take, which would make this less of an issue.  In this game, however, you're just as likely to get killed by an enemy you meet early on at the end of the game as you are the final boss.  And this is precisely why I miss the stats.  By the end of the game, I felt no more powerful than I did at the beginning.  Fighting a Goomba (the weakest enemy in the game) at the beginning of the game and at the end of the game is the exact same fight.

This lack of stats also makes the boss fights more of a puzzle than a challenge of your combat skills.  This sounds like it would be right up my alley, except the solutions to all of these puzzles is to bring very specific stickers into the battle.  If you don't have those stickers or use them at the wrong time, combat is just slow and torturous and your little crown friend will berate you for wasting so many stickers on that battle.  The only way, without looking at guides, to know which stickers are required is to try the boss fight and die at least once after watching the attacks, patterns, and clues from the background/enemy.  So in order to solve the puzzle, you have to fail at least once and that is not the feeling you want to instill in your players.  I don't care if losing doesn't cost me anything, it is not fun to be forced to die against a boss in order to succeed.  I should only die if I couldn't figure out the patterns/strategy before my health ran out.  But if I didn't happen to bring a specific sticker (which generally take up large portions of your sticker album and are thus very costly), there is absolutely nothing I can do, but play through a slow and boring boss fight, hoping I can somehow outlast the other guy.

I am very saddened by where this game series has progressed and would definitely not recommend this game to others.  Even though there are still very clever uses of the fact that everything in this world is made of paper, both gameplay and comedic effect, having to go through all that combat with no feeling of progress and fighting puzzle bosses with no way to solve the puzzle the first time except through luck or reading a walkthrough just makes the game very frustrating.  I really hope the next Paper Mario brings back some of the RPG elements that made me love the series in the first place.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: The Logo Board Game

What color is the base of a Duracell rechargeable battery?  What brand had the slogan "The real thing"?  What adjective do Totino's describe their pizzas with that indicates a great time with friends?  If you enjoy trivia games and feel like you've watched enough commercials in your lifetime, then the Logo Board Game may be right up your alley.

The game board is a spiral made of four different colored spaces: purple, green, yellow, and red.  Each turn, one player - dubbed the Quizmaster - will draw a card of questions (one purple, one green, one yellow, and one red always in that order).  They ask the person on their left the purple question.  If they get the answer wrong, they ask the next person the same question.  Otherwise, the questioned player moves their piece to the next purple spot on the board and the Quizmaster asks the same person the green question.  Once all players have gotten a question wrong or all four questions on the card have been answered correctly, the Quizmaster passes the box of cards to the next player on the left and they become the new Quizmaster.

This is a very simple game to get into and quite a bit of fun even if you're terrible at it - like me.  However, the way the board is laid out and movement happens, it's possible to catch up to other players with only a few right answers in most cases.  The downside is that, as with most trivia games, once you've seen all the cards, the game won't be as replayable.  The questions are also kind of all over the place - some questions only my parents would know what company/brands they're talking about, other questions are much more modern.  But all in all it's a pretty fun game.  Just make sure you either have a timer or have friends who won't take hours thinking about a single question's answer.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Midnight Rescue!

Another game I would play in the computer lab after school in elementary school was the first of the Super Solver series of games, Midnight Rescue!  Morty Maxwell has threatened to make a school disappear at midnight and he is hiding in one of the robots patrolling the campus.  It is your job to figure out through deduction and clues you find which robot he's hiding in.

You can get these clues by answering questions (generally reading comprehension questions) found around the school.  The patrolling robots occasionally pop up and you must take pictures of them to get details about them to use with the clues to figure out which robot Morty is hiding in.  If the robots touch the player or their projectiles (some throw pies) hit the player, you will lose some time.  If it reaches midnight without Morty being found, the player will be painted invisible along with the school and lose the game.

If you successfully figure out which robot Morty is hiding in, your lifetime score will increase based on how quickly you solve this, how much film you have left, and how many reading comprehension questions were answered.  The higher your lifetime score, the harder the game will get.  I think this is a wonderful way to increase difficulty dynamically and based on player skill.  It does require playing the game over and over again, but that is kind of the purpose of educational games and the game itself was fun enough as a kid that that was not a problem.  I believe you can find this game as abandonware and can still play it using DOSBox and if you've got little munchkins in 3rd to 5th grade, I would highly recommend you get this for them.  It's useful for training critical thinking and reading comprehension in a fun and enjoyable way.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Repercussions of Choice

I just finished another game with a wonderful denouement, Dungeon Siege III, which gave me a couple surprises.  One, is that Obsidian Entertainment (mostly made up of people from Black Isle Studios) are consistently good about putting in denouements in their game, even when it's a clearly rushed form (Knights of the Old Republic 2).  You always know what happened to the characters you interacted with and how everyone is recovering from whatever disaster you saved them from.  The other surprise this time was that not all of my choices ended up with a super mega happy ending even though I played how I normally play RPGs with choices and saved everyone.  This game was chock full of grey choices that don't have a good/bad or right/wrong choice and I think that makes the choices even more meaningful.

In most Bioware games, I am playing to be the good guy, paragon, light side, etc. and it's usually pretty obvious which choice I should make to further that character.  The results of said choices are usually just as predictable.  I think this method completely eliminates the choice for me.  Predictability is important, but I think every once in awhile, there should be a choice that will have a consequence no matter what.  For clarity's sake, I'll explain the example from Dungeon Siege III.  A town is being harassed by a mysterious person known as The Dapper Old Gent.  Eventually you catch him - after he made half the town's automatons attack them - and realize that he used to be part of your group and was taking revenge on the town for killing all your members that lived there.  So the choice is do you turn him over to the town for justice (he will almost definitely be killed) or let him join your ranks saying you will take responsibility for him?  I chose to save him because my group needed a Dapper Old Gent and up until that last event, he hadn't done that much real harm to the town.  That seemed simple enough until the ending showed me that the town did not like that decision and exiled the guy that had been standing up for our group when the whole town was against us.  This made me realize my decision had longer lasting repercussions than I had realized.

It's rare that I feel like my choices matter in the long term in games and I think that's a lot of wasted potential for good story telling and world building.  Games are the only medium where the users get to make choices and interact with the world, so I think at least some of those interactions and choices need to be super important and truly affect the world.  The most minor case that always makes me smile is when some news report or random conversation I overhear later in the game references something I did previously.  But some choices should have the possibility of having good and bad consequences either directly or indirectly.  The more the choices affect the world, the more the player is going to feel like they matter and are a part of this world.  So maybe your saving one town will upset the economic balance in the area and cause another town to become super poor.  Or maybe the opposite can happen and saving one town can build a trade route that causes that whole area to become wealthy and other towns start to appear.

Having these impacts later on mean that it's much harder for players to go back and undo them, which means they will have to live with their consequences.  When originally thinking about this topic, I was against that, but that's because then I feel bad and I don't like to feel bad, but maybe games should make bad emotions arise as well as good ones if they ever really want to be meaningful to society as a whole - that is, if we want our Citizen Kane of games.  I still remember how a small dialogue choice I made in Mass Effect 3 cost the life of someone that was important to me.  No one else (in real life) I've talked to even really remembered her, but she had a big impact when my action cost her her life and it was such a delayed consequence that there was no way I could go back and change it.  This more than anything else made the impact of that war affect me and I think that is really important.  No matter how awesome Commander Tamara Shepard was, she couldn't save everyone in the entire galaxy.  Her choices had a greater impact than I could have possibly expected, even the little ones sometimes.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Missable Collectibles

I think there are a few things that are inexcusable if found in games today: getting stuck with no way to progress (I haven't had this happened since King's Quest 5), not having the game autosave somewhat frequently, and collectibles that can be missed with no way to get them without restarting the whole game.  There is nothing more aggravating to the Collector then to finish a game with 99/100 of something, especially if there is no way to go back and find that last thing.  This should be avoidable for any type of game.

For an open world game where players are free to explore, then either players should be able to return to any previous destination at any time or if that doesn't make sense (some area got blown up or otherwise destroyed during the events of the game), then any lost collectibles should be moved to a new location.  Some games have made missed collectibles purchasable, which is a fair trade-off.  You didn't explore well enough and missed something, so you literally have to pay for it.  Otherwise, just find some way to put them in another area or allow the player to time travel back to that area before it was destroyed.  This may be a challenge for the writers to make a non-hokey method of doing this, but I think it's worth it to keep gamers happy.

If the game is level based, then the main menu should give an option to replay a level so that players can go back and get everything.  Even more important is that the level select menu should say how many of each collectible is remaining in the level or at the very least say whether there are uncollected items left or not if you don't want to give away the quantity.

These rules don't just apply to in-game collectible items, but achievements as well.  There is no good excuse to have achievements that players can't go back and accomplish after finishing the game.  That's only going to make upset players when they have to begrudgingly replay the game to get them or be annoyed by having 99% completion.  Wouldn't you rather people replay your game because they want to?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Books I Grew Up On: Ed Emberley's Big Green/Orange Drawing Book

I've never been the artist in the family, but it was never due to a lack of resources.  Two of those resources were Ed Emberley's Big Green and Big Orange Drawing Books.  Ed Emberley's style of drawing style matched my doodling style.  Most everything was a combination of simple geometric shapes (circles, triangles, squares, and trapezoids).  The instructions are kind of like Lego instructions with each step having symbols representing what just got added to the drawing.  Each book (including the other two colors I don't remember us having - Red and Purple) has a theme that matches their colors.  The Green book is very Irish, St. Patrick's Day, Green Dragons, etc along with plenty of other things.  The Orange book is full of Halloween related objects.  Though these are not the most professional Learn How To Draw books, they are simple, well designed, fun, and my personal favorites.