Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: Puerto Rico

So you've gotten your friends into proper board games using Settlers of Catan, but are looking to get them into something with a little more depth and a lot less luck?  Welcome to Puerto Rico.  Players compete to be the best developer of their own city and countryside of Puerto Rico (I guess?  I'm still a little fuzzy on this part).  The object of the game is to get the most victory points by producing a variety of goods (corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee) and shipping them back to the Old World.  You can also sell these goods to make money to buy buildings that help you produce more, ship more, sell more, or get more victory points.

Each round, each player will pick a role that not only determines what game phases happen that round, but also what bonus they get in those phases.  For example, if you choose to be a builder, then everyone will get to buy a building and you will get to buy at a lower price.  My favorite part about this game is that the only aspect of luck in the entire game is that the plantation tiles are shuffled and unveiled randomly.  Everything else is purely determined by player choices, so as long as you can out-think your friends, victory is assured!  At least that's what I like to think...

The game has three different conditions that can end it and if you're not paying attention one of those can sneak up on you and end the game earlier than you think.  3-5 people can play the game and games generally last between 2-3 hours in my experience.  This game is definitely meant for players who can focus and enjoy strategy and thinking ten steps ahead of your friends.  It's also a game that could end friendships since it's pretty easy to screw people over with your choices, so be careful.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Dragon Warrior

As I've alluded to before, Dragon Warrior is the game I attribute much of my education for saving money.  My parents making me keep a balanced account of my savings helped, too, of course, but Dragon Warrior helped teach me that sometimes it's smarter to save your money for the higher quality things in life.  The general flow of the game is: find a town, see equipment better than yours, fight monsters to get gold, use gold to buy equipment, be strong enough to go to next town.  At some point I realized it was faster to just save enough money to buy the most expensive item at each town rather than buy my way up the equipment ladder as it were.

This game is also where I've gotten the fantasy name I use for my main character, Erdrick - the original Dragon Warrior.  Yeah, basically it's just my name with a slight fantasy spelling to it, but I've never been good at naming.  Most of my Pokemon are named after the first attribute I see in them or what animal they resemble.  This is especially since that's pretty much their name anyway (e.g. Zubat = Batty).

There are enough game design issues with the game, that I don't think I could play through it again nowadays (I would not look forward to spending hours walking up and down those three squares fighting werewolves to try to kill a metal slime before it runs away).  However, there are designers out there that still have the right touch, as evidenced by the time I sunk 100 hours into Dragon Quest IX without realizing it (you get an accolade for playing the game that long and I was utterly surprised when I got it).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Random Loot Drops

I've started to get really annoyed lately with the random loot drop model of rewarding players in games like Borderlands, Darksiders 2, and Diablo.  This reward model feels exactly like a slot machine to me except instead of pulling a lever, I'm killing a monster or opening a chest somewhere.  It means that instead of any skill I have being rewarded, it's a random die roll determining if that activity I just partook in was a waste of my time or not.  Not to mention that if you do get that natural 6/20/100/whatever that gets you the most awesome loot, then that pretty much solidifies that the loot you get for the next hour if not the rest of the game is a complete waste of time.  It also makes gold in a game completely pointless since killing enemies potentially gives you better equipment and experience, whereas gold could potentially buy you yet another random chance at something better than what you have.  In a game where rewards are determined based on hidden items, important kills (i.e. bosses), and expensive items, players are rewarded for their hard work, skill, and ability to work towards a goal.

One way to mitigate the ill effects of the random loot drop reward system is to still put in those hidden chests, those bosses that reward you with guaranteed superior items, or expensive items that you can't find randomly, but the random loot drop still isn't adding anything worthwhile to the game.  This whole system is kind of like how rolling character stats in older games based on D&D worked.  You roll to determine your starting stats and then tweak them how you see fit.  The problem is, I'll just sit there re-rolling until I get the best numbers, which not just wastes my time pointlessly, but I can't use my stats to help roleplay my characters since they are all the same (e.g. I won't have a dumb fighter, or a wizard incapable of hand to hand combat).  But I've already talked about this, so getting back to the topic at hand, another problem with the random loot drop is that moment when you do get that totally amazing item with super high stats, but it's for a different play style than yours.  So, the chances of another super rare and awesome item are rare and since it's not your play style, you either have to change how you play the game, which can be difficult to do, or it's just a waste of a great item, which is really depressing.  Who knows, maybe years from now I'll start liking this model again...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Collectible Maps

I love to explore in video games.  Enter every hidden nook and cranny.  Find every hidden goody.  However, I don't have the infinite time I had growing up to spend hundreds of hours to find everything anymore.  My backlog of games is also growing instead of shrinking.  This is one reason I'm very appreciate of well-designed games with collectibles that give me ways to be efficient about exploring everywhere and finding everything.  One of the tools a game designer can use for this respect is the collectible map.

If you tell me there are 100 whatsits to collect in a given area and it's a fairly large area and that's all the information you give me, I have two choices: wander aimlessly for that 100th item when I have 99 of them found and hope I stumble upon it or play along with a map from the beginning to make sure I collect them all as I go.  Neither of those prospects are good.  One is horribly inefficient, time-wasting, and generally not fun.  The other makes me feel like a miserable, no good, terrible cheater (because I am).  On the other hand, I also understand that wandering around aimlessly to find whatsits can be fun on its own for a little while.  This is why my favorite way this is handled is how most of the Assassin's Creed games handle it - at some point in a game I can buy or am given a map showing the locations of all the collectibles I haven't found yet.  This means that I can try to find them all on my own, but I don't have to beat my head against a wall for that last item.

The absolute best way I've seen this handled is that the map is automatically unlocked once you've found roughly 75% of the items.  That way, you've proven that you want to find all the whoosits, but you probably have only the really hard ones to find left.  The absolute best game designer will have put those items in places where it's easy to see where the item is, but it's a clever puzzle to figure out how to get there yourself.  So put an item up on the edge of a cliff with a narrow path winding around to where the player can't see.  That way, even though you have a map showing you exactly where the item is, it's still fun to try to get all the items.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Anticipation

The very first four player game I played on a console system was the game, Anticipation.  The game itself is just Pictionary where the computer is drawing the picture for you.  Since the NES only had two controllers, they had to be creative for four players.  A player is assigned either the Control Pad or A/B buttons on a controller to buzz in with.  So with two controllers, up to four players can play.  That's assuming, of course, that once you buzz in, the other player assigned to your controller will let you have the controller to enter in your answer.

The game has multiple levels where players must answer each of four categories correctly to progress to the next level.  The higher the level, the less hints there are to suggest what the drawing is (less dots, no category, no dashes to indicate how many letters).  Higher levels also have gaps in the board so it's possible to fall back down to a previous level.  The first player to complete all four categories on the highest level wins the game.

This game was definitely a lot of fun to play as a kid, but even back then I realized that my brothers (and eventually I) knew all the answers already since we had played it so much.  Just like any game with a fixed set of questions/words/whatever, the game stops being fun at that point.  I wonder how different things would be if there was DLC for games back then...

Monday, March 18, 2013


A webcomic I discovered fairly recently was Weregeek.  The whole webcomic is a celebration of nerdiness/geeky things in all its forms.  The basic plot is about a (at first) normal guy, Mark, who stumbles into a group of geeks playing Vampire: The Masquerade and discovers the beauty of relishing in his inner geek.  It's really awesome because each chapter of the story cycles through various different games.  Sometimes they'll be playing D&D, sometimes Shadowrun, sometimes Vampire: The Masquerade, etc.  The comic will alternate between showing the people playing the games and what it looks like in those peoples' imaginations.  There's also a couple stories running throughout the entire series (some interpersonal drama, some strange fantastical mysteries, etc.) that are intriguing in their own right.

As with most webcomics, the art style has drastically improved since the beginning.  The characters are all highly amusing and unique, the hilarious puns and punchlines are well-written, and the celebration of things geeky is a thing of beauty.  It does make me a little sad that (as far as I know) I don't turn into an awesome were-beast when I really geek out, though.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Trivia Games

My game night group has been playing a couple trivia games lately (namely The Logo Board Game and Star Wars Trivial Pursuit - The Classic Trilogy) and I've learned a few things: I have amazing knowledge about kid's cereals and am severely lacking in my Star Wars knowledge.  This has taught me that trivia games are tremendous fun when you actually know the topic well and pretty torturous when you don't.  Part of the problem is the incredible delay between chances at playing the game (especially if your friends are experts) and the other part is that if you don't know the trivia, you have no way to win the game.  Obviously, the second makes perfect sense since that's the point of the game, but that doesn't make it any more fun to sit there playing knowing there's no way you can win the game.  It's like being that player in Settlers who got blocked in and can no longer build anywhere.

I've thought of a few ways to fix these issues while keeping in mind that the purpose of a trivia game first and foremost is to show your friends how smart you are, so it should be very difficult for someone with no trivial knowledge to win, but the game should still make them feel that they can win.  In a trivia game, this means that they need to be able to answer some questions even with minimal knowledge.  This train of thought led me to think an ideal trivia board game should be more like Jeopardy where players get to choose a difficulty level for each question (a strategic choice!).  The higher the difficulty, the higher the reward.  But the easier questions should be answerable by anyone with a very basic knowledge of the content (e.g. "What are the fuzzy inhabitants of the  forest moon of Endor?") so that players won't feel utterly defeated if they are sitting between people who know the names of all the relatives of the guy who held the boom mike in the fourth scene of the third movie.

That same issue also leads to a second important aspect to a good trivia game.  Turns should be short.  There should be some chance for players to answer multiple questions in a turn, but not to keep going until they get a wrong answer.  The Logo Board Game does a good job of balancing this.  Each card has four questions and no turn can last longer than four answers.  This way, even if you're sitting next to a trivia genius, your pathetically short turn won't feel so depressing when compared to the geniuses' only mildly lengthy turns.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Mille Bornes

My dad didn't give up playing games with us kids like my mom did, but there weren't that many games he would play with us (especially once Top Gun for the NES made him give up video games).  One of the games we could consistently get him to play with us was the game of Mille Bornes.  In this classic French card game, players are racing to be the first to reach 1000 miles (or 700 with the option for an extension).  Players must start by playing a green light card, they may play hazards (like flat tires) on other players, remedies (like spare tires) to fix hazards on themselves, safeties to completely prevent hazards (like puncture proof tires), and miles to get to the end of the race.

It's not a complicated game, but there are a lot of strategic options depending on how vicious you want to be to the other racers.  It also (at least in the version we had growing up) comes with both English and French words on the cards, so just like Bang, players can learn a completely different language - although if you're like my dad and me, you will learn the correct word, but pronounce it as ridiculously as possible (e.g. Roue de Secours becomes Rudy Sookers!).  I think using games to teach players is under utilized.  This is a prime example, if you made a game out of vocabulary flash cards (with phonetic spelling on the card), the act of repeatedly playing the game and needing to know the words to win the game will teach the players in a fun way.  Likewise, math flash cards in a game could easily teach a player basic math skills if done well.  The simplest game I can think of off the top of my head would be a game like Taboo or Catch Phrase where you try to solve as many math problems as you can before a timer buzzes and someone watches you with that terrifying buzzer for wrong answers.  But given some time I'm sure I can come up something more entertaining.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Torment: Tides of Numenera Kickstarter

If you have not already heard of this, there is a Kickstarter to make a spiritual successor to the old Infinity Engine CRPG, Planescape: Torment.  The people in charge of this are mostly people who worked on the original game, but due to licensing issues (and also in my mind because The Nameless One's story is already told), they are switching settings from Planescape to Numenera.

This Kickstarter has already broken a large number of records by achieving its goal in 6 hours, reaching $1 in under 8, and reaching $2 in two days.  It seems to be majorly slowing down now (possibly due to the weekend), and I think that needs to stop.  Both the original and this one have a focus on telling a deep story more than anything else, so all the extra money that goes in to the game will be spent towards making the story better and better.  If gaming is ever going to have its Citizen Kane, I think it's going to be in a game like this.  Also, on a more personal level, my brother, Adam, was a part of the original Torment game and they have gotten him involved in this one, too.  So the better it does, the more steady a job my brother has.

Lastly, I think it's important to fund awesome video games like this through Kickstarter because it not only tells publishers that gamers do want games like this and that we'll pay good money for it, but also funding games through Kickstarter helps free the developer from the chains of a publisher so they can make the game they want more than what the publisher says is popular right now.  The closer we can get to a video game business model with few publishers, the better.  I'd say no publishers, but I think they have their place as well.  I think there is room in this town for the the two of them.  Anyway, so if you haven't backed the game already, please do so!

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Pink Starburst Effect

Growing up, my family would help out at/attend a high school summer camp from my church called Survival Camp.  There were many activities to do during free time that week, but one of my favorites was Starburst Poker.  Obviously, since it was a church thing, outright gambling wasn't going to be allowed.  There was a daily Snack Shack setup where kids could buy candy, though, and since they're all individually wrapped, it was easy to use Starbursts as chips to bet with.  Starburst Poker has an interesting side effect that you'd never see in real poker that I have dubbed the Pink Starburst Effect (PSE for short).  In regular Poker, chips or money are all worth the same amount to players across the board.  The blue chip for me has the same value as the blue chip for you.  However, in Starburst Poker, since we all can eat our winnings and people have different taste, different colors have different value to everyone.  With most people, the pink Starburst is the most valuable one (hence the name), but that wasn't always the case.  For me, yellow, red, and orange were all valued at 0 (throwaway money) and the pinks meant I had something awesome.  I'm not good at bluffing, so I don't even try.

I never really thought of using this effect as a game mechanic intentionally until the last couple times of playing Suspicion.  Early on in playtesting, I used little white tokens for people to easily tally how many points they had.  In the later iterations, I changed it so you steal points from each other and I noticed a funny side effect with using those tokens.  If people didn't have a game incentive/feud helping them decide who to take points from, they would pick based on shapes to help them create whatever it was they would make using the shapes when they weren't playing.  For example, one of my friends like to create a battleship, so if he needs that road piece for the cannon and you've got one, then you better watch out!

In the final version of Suspicion, the tokens aren't going to be shapes, so that game mechanic won't be in the final version, but it's definitely given me an idea for another game.  I would like to see if actually turning that into a mechanic ruins the fun of it.  Stealing a particular shape from someone for fun is entertaining and harmless.  But if the game makes you search for particular shapes, is the enjoyment PSE going to be altered?  One day I hope to find out.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

TV Shows I Grew Up On: The Cosby Show

One of the absolute best television shows I grew up on was The Cosby Show.  For those who haven't ever seen the show, it revolves around the Huxtable family dealing with the situations common to family sitcoms.  What makes the show so awesome is how creative the parents, Heathcliff and Clair, are when dealing with the situations.  For example, when Theo as a teenager says he's going to move out because it'll be easier to live on his own than with his parents, Heathcliff and Clair setup the entire house to simulate the real world - they take out all his stuff from his room and make him pay rent to stay in it and buy back his own furniture and go through a job interview to earn that money in the first place.  There is also one episode where Heathcliff eats right before going to bed and the entire episode is Heathcliff's dream that involved Muppets and a lot of nonsense.  Another dream episode (caused by the same thing), puts Heathcliff in a world where men start becoming pregnant including all the men of the Heathcliff family.  Unfortunately, I can't explain the best part without spoiling the ending, but suffice it to say it is utterly ridiculous.

Other awesome things in this show involve Heathcliff's grandfather, played by the actor who voices Panthro in the Thundercats, an episode where all the set pieces look like real life versions of a five year old's drawings, Heathcliff loves jazz and plays the trombone, and the fact that Heathcliff always reminded me of my dad.  I'm pretty sure my dad knew that all us kids thought he was like Heathcliff and so I'm convinced that part of the reason my dad hates The Simpsons is because it came on at the same time as The Cosby Show and we started watching The Simpsons instead of The Cosby Show.  Looking back at this show and the first few seasons of The Simpsons, though, I don't really blame him.  This was a far superior show (at least until a couple seasons in to The Simpsons when the writing got a lot better).

Monday, March 4, 2013

Suspicion Art In Progress

So my friend came up with a great idea for the art for Suspicion.  Since I cannot draw worth beans and I have a lot of friends who like to dress up and enjoy costume parties, why not combine those things and (with my friends' permission) use some pictures of them in costume with some image filters applied as the game art?  It seems to work for Flying Frog Games (albeit slightly more professional than I can pull off at this point).  So without further adieu, here is a sneak peak of the box art with potential filters applied:

Top left: Sepia + Drawing filters, Top right: Black and White + Drawing filters
Bottom left: Black and White + Aged filters, Bottom right: Sepia filter

Friday, March 1, 2013

Review: Ni No Kuni

Ever since I heard Level 5 and Studio Ghibli were teaming up to make a game, Ni no Kuni, I got ready to dust off my PS3 and spend a good 60-80 hours in an incredibly beautiful world with plenty of quests, monsters, and adventure.  I even got the Wizard's Edition that came with (among other things) a physical version of the Wizard's Companion found in the game and a Wizard's coin.  The game certainly did not disappoint.  As expected, the art of the game is beautiful - some cutscenes are hand drawn like any other Studio Ghibli movie, while most of them are in the cel shaded style of the gameplay.  I will admit it would have been nice to have more hand drawn cutscenes, but that's probably because I want to watch another Miyazaki movie.

Gameplay-wise, there is plenty to do just like every other Level 5 game.  If you focus on just the story, you may be introduced to all the types of optional aspects of the game after 5-10 hours.  Between helping people on random errands, hunting bounties, capturing, training, and metamorphing familiars, crafting items with alchemy, finding hidden treasure chests, and competing in a tournament, there is certainly a lot to keep you occupied.  Fortunately, the game does a good job of helping you keep track of these things.  People with errands or things to offer you highlight on the map.  Your journal is very clear about where to go next for every side quest.  Your Creature Compendium lets you know what familiars are in what habitat (once you've fought them there), so it's easy to tell if you've caught all the familiars in a given place.  There is also a progress report on most tasks to tell you how far through you are.

The game is not without its flaws, though.  During your adventure, you will find other companions to travel and fight with you.  Each person has three familiars to choose from at any time, but for some reason the other AI players never use all of their familiars.  They also have a tendency to charge enemies with the familiars that are weak but strong with magic and use up all their mana by obliterating weak enemies with their most powerful spells.  Sometimes I just could not understand why my teammates were as stupid as they were.  Also, anytime anyone casts a spell that affects multiple targets (or a lot of times when I told my familiar to cast anything), it interrupts every spell your team is casting.  So if you're trying to heal your nearly dead teammate and they decide to cast a mass target spell, chances are good they're going to die by the time you manage to pull that heal spell off.  Also, my previous post about Instant Death was caused mostly due to this game.  Not only do random normal enemies have instant death abilities (a lot of them in the last few areas of the game), but apparently some of them have that ability in a tournament where you're not allowed to use items.  Since items are the only way to bring people back from the dead, that means there's a chance that you could instantly get killed in a tournament with no way to defend yourself.   Other than that tournament example, though, it's not so bad because if you survive the combat, any previously dead teammates will be alive with 1 hit point so you can just revive them again.