Monday, September 17, 2012

Bones to pick with Planet Baen

So, at the recommendation of Slagdar the Ineffable, I'm trying out planet Baen. Yeah, pros and cons. And naturally I'm gonna be talking more about the cons than the other way around.

So, I'm actually not that dismayed by the game's progress quest like nature. It's all about making your numbers go up, but there are ways to fiddle that, and make the numbers go up faster. I like seeing numbers go up, and I like seeing it happen even faster, so that part of the game doesn't really bother me much. And there are constraints on design.

It's an open ended game on the internet. You want your players to play for as long as possible. Given that the cost to play is "free" the budget for making this game isn't through the roof. There's only so much you can do to keep them playing; games like World of Warcraft are constantly writing the next patch, the new dungeon so there's more stuff to keep their current player base going. If you're bribing your players to play you don't have the same money for software development.

So they try other ways to keep the players from getting bored; they limit the time players can play; after a certain amount of interacting with the game you have to wait until a period of time has passed until you can play again. It works; As I'm writing this I'm waiting for the daily rollover at Kingdom of Loathing. So, in Planet Baen you get a series of decisions that take perhaps 20 minutes a day. (Or would, if I wasn't also the type to obsessively check this stuff) and then you're done. Works.

I have my problems with the specifics of the decisions being made.

When they designed the game, they wanted some sort of a politics simulator. From that linked story there was some sort of arguing about politics that went down, and they're right, a lot of science fiction uses the laboratories of the stars to demonstrate the consequences of politics. Or at least to argue their points. To take a classic example, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land expresses his ideas about sex, religion and human nature, and his Starship Troopers discusses his ideas of foreign policy. (To wit; there are always going to be wars, so it's best to always be prepared to fight and win them).

This is a dangerous road to go down. To begin with, politics simulators never really work. Whatever you actually think about politics bleeds through in the assumptions you program in. If you think that free markets are heartless and cruel, your game is inevitably going to reflect that and penalize players for going down that path. In principle you can compensate for that by knowing your biases and reflecting that in your equations, but that doesn't work. Because then your simulator will give you results that you know aren't right, because such and such a variable was left out.

Whatever conclusions you get, they always won't be correct because you've left variables out. The only system complicated enough to accurately simulate something as messy as politics is reality itself. Anything less is an approximation, and you can't really say how close it gets. This is my problem with simulations in general (err... not Sim City, but people simulating the climate or stock market to make real world predictions.) So when I play the game, I choose to join the Hayek league because the free market is inherently the moral choice, and if it doesn't earn me in game stats as quickly as the others I get annoyed at the game.

There's another problem with making these things. Even if you could make the simulation accurate, that wouldn't make a good game. Real life isn't balanced. If you take a stat in reality and you try to min max it (money, for example) hey, maybe you end up like Bill Gates. Or maybe you lose out and go broke. So how does someone who went broke catch up with someone who's a multi-billionaire? They don't. In a game, it's always more fun when the outcome is still in doubt, so we put in catch up mechanics to prevent people from taking a commanding lead early on and just winning. If the free market is really as superior to command economies as history tends to show, then it makes for a lousy game mechanic. You either choose correctly and win or you don't and you lose. So when you put that into your game simulation you cannot make it accurate and still have a game worth playing.

And finally, when you mix your politics with your business, you offend people and you lose customers. See that bit above there where I said that the free market is inherently the moral choice? Goodbye, half our potential customers. We both know that you'd never translate into actual customers unless you got jobs. Hippies.

There are other problems with the game; the design is somewhat clunky, and they make some incorrect choices, like making me read white text on a yellow-green background. And some of their mechanics choices are counterintuitive, and furthermore penalize successively for not intuiting them correctly. While I like the idea of using a game as a next generation advertising tool to sell science fiction books, I think they'll need to put some more work into their game.

On the other hand, free books!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

On Gamification

So I'm looking at the trusty calendar of blog posts around here, and it seems it's been about five months since I personally have written anything. To be fair, I've had something to write about for a couple months now, not including the Axis and Allies Global contests where the Axis actually won. You'd think that would be something that should have come up, especially since I was the one who pulled it (actually it was twice) off, but I'm lazy. And as it turns out, the topic I am going to write about isn't the one that's getting written about. Suckers!, you shut up.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I've been playing Fallout 3 again recently. It's still a good game. One of the aspects of the game has gotten me thinking though. Quite apart from the quest lines and the normal course of bartering you can turn in certain items you find scavenging the ruins of DC for a reward. Let's take an example:

Sugar Bombs have a listed value of 5 caps, which means that the various eateries in the capital wasteland will sell them to you for six to eight caps, depending on how many points you've put into barter. Murphy, a ghoul in Meresti Station, will buy Sugar Bombs from you at 15 caps per (more if you talk him into it). So quite apart from scavenging, whenever I'm at a bar trying to parlay a battered suit of Raider Badlands Armor into a stimpack or two I pick up any Sugar Bombs they have on hand.

There are a number of other turn-ins. The Brotherhood of Steel will give you 100 caps per pre-war book (nominal value of 1). Walter at the water processing plant in Megaton will give you 10 caps per piece of scrap metal (nominal value of 1) and Winthrop in Underworld will trade chems direct; 5 pieces of scrap metal for 1 Stimpack, Rad X or Radaway. There are more, but those should suffice for the current discussion.

Back to the Sugar Bombs for a moment. If they're generated at one point (let's assume that a different scavenger brought them in and sold them off). You can make a profit just by knowing where you can buy them and where you can sell them. Arbitrage.

Given how much time I spend in game keeping an eye on things I can buy one place and sell another, couldn't you get rid of all that stuff with Super Mutants and raiders and so forth and just make a game about buying stuff one place and selling it another? Oh, right, that's what the Escape Velocity series was all about. And come to think of it, EVE Online. Except they tend to junk it up with random spaceship battles.

Let me clarify for a moment; I love gunning down super mutants and blowing up spaceships and such. It's just that I can name a dozen games where you have spaceships trying to blow each other up; Escape Velocity is the only one I can think of with that sort of trading.

So why is that? Well, that sort of thing gets boring after a while. Supposing you find a good route. You land, fill up your hold, take off, fly three star systems over, land, sell everything off. Buy something else, take off, fly back to the first system, sell everything off. Repeat. You get to see numbers go up, but that's not much of a reward for a mechanical task. You also get to upgrade your ship, which is a case of "I can make the numbers go up faster", unless you're also branching into space combat. That gives you a whole range of potentially interesting upgrades, which makes the Escape Velocity games work.

Its' still the trading system that makes them unique though. And I don't want to make a game that's just a copy. So we modify the trading. In particular, we automate. Instead of physically transporting the goods from one system to another, you hire someone else to do it. You establish a trade route, which then gives you a certain profit each time your captain completes it, and then you move on trying to find another.

At this point we've got a puzzle. Or at least the wherewithal to build a puzzle. Once you find the best trade routes it's essentially solved. You can increase the life of the game and also make it
closer to life if you change the efficacy of the routes over time. Winthrop in underworld might finally get enough scrap metal, and offer a lower bounty. Murphy has a pretty small operation, and might only be able to process a certain number of Sugar Bombs. If we make the value of certain runs time dependant, you have to keep an eye on them and redirect your caravans when they stop being profitable. It's still a puzzle, but a trickier one.

From here we could make this into a full on game. We'd need a way for several players to interact, or a way to keep it interesting for a single player. (At this point it pretty much has to be a video game; it's entirely too time consuming to do all these calculations with a physical game.) We'd also need to strip out the references to Fallout or Escape Velocity; it's all right borrowing mechanics, but taking from someone's creative side might engender a law suit. In any case, we've got plenty of games being designed right now, so I feel comfortable leaving this idea to simmer where it is.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

RISK Legacies and Diablo III

Playing more RISK Legacy. Got my name on the board. Friggen Finally. The game is continuing to update, and now there's a faction of mutants on the board. Figures that we'd end up nuking each other before we managed to put the world capital on the board. I'm still 1/7 amongst four of us, so I'm still doing worse than average. Grr. Barbarossa is up to three signatures now.

Also? Playing Diablo III. Having a great time playing it, it's a wonderful game etc, etc. Don't intend to elaborate on it much, except for this bit of inspiration. Naturally it gets me thinking about... math. Yeah, who didn't see that coming? Allow me to elaborate.

Diablo III has numerous monsters that spawn other monsters. As long as you stand around like an idiot that portal device will keep summoning imps, or that doom bat nest will keep popping out doom bats. Pretty cool and all, except there's a part of me that wants to just stand around, waiting for them to spawn enemies for me, and then just kill those enemies. The sweet EXP without having to go running about and all. It's a case of cross incentives because pretty obviously what the game wants you to be doing is running about and all, killing other, more varied things.

How do they solve this? Generally by making the enemies spawn at a slow enough rate that it's quicker just to blow up the nest and go searching. (And that's not terribly slow, given the nature of the Diablo games). In Diablo II at least (I haven't checked this in Diablo III yet; having too much fun killing things) when a Fallen Shaman would resurrect a Fallen, the already killed monster would grant you no more experience.

How would I solve this? Math. There are ways to sum up infinite series of numbers that (so long as they're smaller htan one) gives you an actual number when you're done. Image!It's a geometric series, and I think you can get how it works by looking at that picture. So this is how I'd set up my monster generator. The generator itself is worth a certain amount of EXP. The first monster (or wave of monsters) would be worth 1/2 that amount, the second 1/4th and the third 1/8th and so on. Then, when you finally get sick of the diminishing returns and blow up the monster generator, you find that it's worth the sum rest of the square. So the experience gains for that monster and it's spawn are fixed at a given number no matter how long you have waiting, and thus you're pushed to kill the thing quicker and be on your way.

There's a problem with this setup; if you bury the mechanics in combat text (by the by, do I need to mention this is a strictly video game setup? Board game players would get bored entirely too quickly having to do all that dividing.) Anyways, what was I saying? Oh yeah, if you bury the mechanics where only careful parsing and some Science! will dig it out, your players generally won't, and might end up getting frustrated. "I stood there like, all day and still only got a measly 2000 exp!" It goes against that interface design stuff I was talking about.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

All of life is Interface Design

I'm going to repeat that, it's important.

All of life is Interface Design.

Ok, what's interface design? In broad terms, when you try to get someone to understand how to do something, you're doing interface design. Everytime you're managing the way that someone interacts with a system, that's interface design. It's a pretty broad category, which allows me to make sweeping statements like the two up above.

How do you tell good interface design from bad? How easy is your interface to use? Ideally you want people to not even notice the interface is there. In this sense, a banana has better design than a pineapple.

Let's bring this down into the specifics. Supposing you've got a new game to play. If you've never played it before, and if you've got nobody there to teach you, what do you do? You read the rules. It's always an odious task, and oftentimes they don't seem to go out of their way to make it easier.

About two weeks ago I was helping some people learn to play the game Killer Bunnies It's a decent game, so far as I can tell. You have a certain amount of resources, you're trying to deprive your opponents of their resources, and it's complicated by the fact that you need to plan out your actions two turns in advance. I really can't give you any idea of the nuances of the game, I didn't pick up on them because I spent the entire game trying to figure out how to play cards. That's not where you want your player to be.

The game comes with a "your first game" booklet. Ok, that's good. I've been considering writing that sort of thing up for our games. It goes through some basic setup, and tells us that there are five kinds of cards; Run, Special, Very Special, Kaballa Dollas, and Play Immediately. Then it instructs you to deal with the latter two types of cards. Then it helpfully goes into how to play a bunny, which is an important type of resource in the game. It gets you through the first turn, the first round and then... nothing.

Hey wait a minute, how do I play "special" and "very special" cards? How do I play weapons? I've got a lot of weapons in my hand, and I've got no idea how to get them into the playing field. I get how you play bunnies, but most of my cards aren't bunnies, and I don't know what to do with them. From that point the game, whcih was ostensibly started, lurched from confusion to confusion until I had read enough of the second rules booklet (with helpful things like instructions for playing special cards), that finally I had an idea of what I was doing. By then the game was pretty much over. Briefly, this is the paragraph they should have put into the rules:

"Most of the time you'll play cards by sending them through the run. The run, in case you've forgotten, is that set of two cards in front of you. Cards that are the type "Run" (which include bunnies, weapons and some other stuff) can only be played by sending them through the run. You set them down in the "replace" part of the turn (Remember the basic order; flip, slide, draw, replace.), and then wait to slide and eventually flip them on subsequent turns. Special cards can also be played through the run with two important exceptions. First, instead of flipping over the top card of the run you can play a special card from your hand. Or, if you already sent it through the run and flipped it, but do not wish to use it right away, you can set it aside and "store" it for now. On your future turns you can play that card without having to forgo your flip. Very special cards are much the same as special cards, but you can play them on anyone's turn, and you don't have to forgo any flips to do it."

Or something of that nature. If that was for one of my games I'd spend quite a bit more time wrangling over exact phrasing and such, but you get the general idea. If they had that explanation in the rules the game would have been quite a bit less frustrating.

Still, that rulebook wasn't the worst I've seen. You want truly horrendous? Power Grid. Given a group of several intelligent, experienced gamers, we had to read through that rulebook at least three times before we knew what was going on, and even so we spent the majority of the first two games putting things on hold to make sure we're doing things right. It's a very fun game, with all sorts of interesting strategy decisions, but getting there was pretty agonizing.

Does any game do it very well? I don't know. I'm inclined to give some credit to Magic the Gathering, because I know they spent some time and money researching the best way to teach people how to play the game. (Fun fact: the card Giant Octopus got reprinted in 7th, 8th and 9th edition because it made for a really great picture in the "how to play" comic books. Apparently the octopus trying to eat your opponent makes it easy to remember you're attacking them, not their creatures.) Even so, I learned Magic the only really good way to learn a game I've yet found.

I got someone who knows how to play the game to show me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Further updates on RISK updates

Ok, ok, one month is better than three, right?

When last I showed my face around this blog we were talking about RISK Legacy. The promise of the game is that each time you play the game changes irrevocably in new and exciting ways. It's interesting territory, stuff that I haven't really seen games doing before. So I'd been waiting to play the game for a couple months before we finally got a chance to.

Dramatis Personae:
Havoc Jack, playing myself

The game comes with five factions, so maybe if we had been able to rustle up a fifth conspirator that'd've been better, but you go to war with the generals you have. Or something. We divided factions between ourselves.

Each faction starts with a special power. Which you have to choose from two. Then you physically peel the sticker off of the card it comes on and place it onto the faction's card. So, for example, Die Mechaniker (which, for those of you who don't "spreckinze Deutsch" is German for "The Mechaniker"), they get to treat the space with their headquarters as fortified. That is, they get a bonus on their dice rolls when defending home. Oh yeah, you get a headquarters when you start the game, to place on a space of your choice. I went with Russia, recently upgraded from being Ukraine on previous boards. The board itself starts the same as standard RISK. It doesn't stay that way for long.

In the game we each also got scar cards, at first they're just two types; a space gets declared "fortified" by putting a bunker scar on it; that gives all defenders +1 on their higher die roll. Or you can have a space with an Ammo Shortage on it, which gives it a -1 to it's defense instead. In the first game, due to a border war I was having with Barbarossa Brazil got the fortification and North Africa the Ammo Shortage. Each player gets one scar per game to place on the board (provided there are enough scar cards left) and each territory can have only one scar. They remain on the board permanently, affecting future games.

To cut to the chase, Napoleon took this one down. He owned Australia. He got to sign the board (They provide 15 lines for signiatures), and he founded a major city (Erik's Land) in Greenland, because he he heh, those suckers are gonna be soo cold. I founded the city of Scandiland in Scandinavia, Barbarossa founded Jaynestown down in Argentina, and I can't quite recall which town Zerg_Rush founded. Possibly the Prussian Consulate in Siam, but maybe that happened in a later game. There are other options for changing the board at the end, (in a later game, which Zerg_Rush won, he renamed North America to "Twelvepakistan". Or you can choose to upgrade a territory card; upgraded cards count as multiple when trading in cards for armies.)

Anyways, with the first game over there are some changes. Cities on a territory mean that the territory is worth 2 or 3 for purposes of counting for armies at the start of your turn. So if I held Scandiland it'd be worth two and Erik's land worth three. And Napoleon gets a missile instead of a red star. The stars act as victory points; if you control four you win the game. You start with one if you haven't signed the board yet (that is, if you haven't won a previous game), and controlling someone else's headquarters counts as one, and you can get them in other ways. By giving Napoleon the missile (which can be used once a game to change one die roll into a six) you make it harder for him to win in the next game.

So we played the next game. Barbarossa took this one down, (holding S. America), and put up a major city in Russia, named Syktyvkr. (This is a running joke from our playing of Russian Rails, basically that any word with eight consonants in a row doesn't deserve to be pronounced correctly. I'm looking at you Kyrgyzstan. So we tend to pronounce it something like "Skeer-ki-veer-ki-verk-i-gard." Or something longer.) And the game evolved more.

In the box they have some cards blocked off in containers with tantalizing instructions. "Don't open until all the minor cities have been placed." "Don't open until a faction has been eliminated." "Don't open until the world capital has been founded." (How do you open the world capital? It must be in one of those containers.) And my personal favorite. "Don't open. Ever."

After the fourth game we were able to open three of them. In the fifth game we had one faction with another special power (having gained one from being eliminated) and a couple new scar types. Due to repeated provocations by Napoleon, who somehow tends to end up down there, Barbarossa scarred West Australia with a toxic waste dump that removes one army from that space every time he takes a turn. Essentially it means that holding the continent is only worth one extra army, a change I think we can all get behind.

So after five games what does the world look like? It's surprisingly more populous; there are cities all over Southeast Asia, various scars all up and down South America, a continent renamed, and five signatures on the board.

Yeah, I'm still irked by that.

So what about the game from a design perspective?


So, I really like the idea of future games proceeding from the way the first one changes. Or, more generally, games that take more into account than the movement of pawns on the board. Richard Garfield's quest to make a game larger than the box it comes in is what gave birth to Magic.

Speaking of Magic, you've got to be careful treading in these grounds. You know how they did a parody set called Unglued? Well, you know what the two least popular cards from that set were? Blacker Lotus and Chaos Confetti. You know what those two cards have in common? Yeah, they both refer to Alpha cards*, but really what I'm saying is they both require you to tear them up to play it. People don't like getting rid of perfectly good stuff. I know I was unhappy to toss away the cards with one sticker still on them, one special ability never to be played. We even went so far as to look up the price of multiple copies of this game in case we wanted to play through it again. Beyond my price range.

Another concern with the game is, once we're past 15 plays, will we be able to continue to play the game? Probably, but if it's still changing at that point it'll only change for the worse. One of the options you have if you win the game is you can tear up a territory card. Literally tear it up. No word as to whether you need to sprinkle it over your opponent's permanents... anyway. You can make them better if you lose a game, so taking that option if you win (instead of renaming a continent, founding a major city, or raising or lowering the army bonus of a given continent) helps you control an out of control territory card. But if you play the game an infinite number of times (in this case, infinity is probably close to 40) you'll run out of territory cards.

Using stickers to modify your cards is probably the best way to handle that, but it does make them harder to shuffle.

How do we manage a play group? Taking the life of the game as fifteen games, it looks like we're going to keep on with the same four players throughout. Most games we invite people over to play, let them play, let them see how things are going, etc. In this one? I sort of want to keep the same group together, because it feels like the 15 games are really all part of one larger one.

Anything else? I think the changes could be a bit more radical. That is, I don't think they're doing enough to change the game. Or maybe I've got enough lingering resentment for how RISK worked beforehand that I could use more change. Still, it'd be nice to see "Nuclear Wasteland: Remove Great Britain from the board." You could print a "cover this up with a sticker" sticker large enough while still fitting it on those cards.

Even so, I'm still pretty happy with the game. Odds are I'll steal some of it's ideas in the future.

If we go 15 games without opening it, I'm cracking the "don't open. ever" pack.

*Hanging Asterisk. I don't see a good place around the web to link to for the chaos confetti legend, so this is a reminder for me to write it up someday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Killing Zombies for Fun and Profit

Time for an update on the Zombie Game. If you'll recall, last time we discussed it the game was undergoing some serious rules revision. After a couple playtests, it's clear that there need to be some even more serious revisions before we get anywhere with it. Quick recaps: the first game featured a surprise attack by the United States on the Arab League. I know, shocking, right? The game went poorly, due in large part to the fact that we didn't have a decent board at that point. So, a couple weeks later, we tried again. Inspired by the previous surprise attack, I, as the Arab League, launched a surprise attack on Russia, for the same reasoning as previous: their lands were wide open. The counterattacks were not unexpected, but the nuking was. The zombies won soon after that.

So, in the third game, we decided to see what would happen if all sides went after zombies exclusively. Short answer: they'd win, but it takes too long for it to happen. After about seven or eight hours of playtime we eradicated most major concentrations of zombies with several sets of minor outbreaks on the board.

Instead of doing the full recap here, I'm just going to outline some positives and negatives I happened to notice.

1. Killing zombies is still really fun.
2. The special abilities the nations have are also a lot of fun.
3. This game is going to be the only time I ever get to say "man, suicide bombers are totally awesome."
4. Making fun of the UN never goes out of style.
5. Rolling 30+ dice at once and still needing to roll more? Also good.

1. Hard to kill zombies fast enough.
2. In a regular game, the zombies are probably going to win.
3. Lack of rulebook meant that half the time we weren't sure how to rule on something.
4. After a while, rolling more than 30 dice can get kind of annoying.
5. Right now, the only way to wipe out all the zombies is with nukes. I'm not opposed to this, but I dislike it being the only option.
6. The event cards are, in general, too uniformly negative, which in a zombie world, might be to be expected. Even so, I think it needs a change.

I think that's about all I've got right now, I might discuss specific changes later now that I've got these going on.