Turning dreams into gold, one jot & scribble at a time.

Gaming

The #GamersGate Post

This was pretty much inevitable.

It is foolish to paint any large group of people with a monochromatic brush. Human beings are individuals, even when they band together into groups over a common cause or belief. Sitting here and writing about how huge swaths of the gaming community are toxic, ignorant, vile pieces of invective filth is the easiest thing in the world to do. But justifying their behavior in any way, shape, or form is just as harmful and non-productive. So you will not find this post doing either of those things.

Better, more experienced writers than myself have tackled this issue extremely well. People who make games, and write about games for a living, have already held massive discussions on the state of our community. I neither make nor write about games for a living – yet – so I feel underqualified to write about this from those perspectives. All I can do is the following:

Hi. I’m a gamer.

I think games are transformative. I think that they can speak to us on a level other forms of media struggle to reach. The interactive nature of games pulls the player into more intimate contact with the message and ideas of the game. Well-made games, from huge productions like BioShock Infinite to small independent titles like Papers, Please and Depression Quest, can make the gamer think – to put down the controller or step away from the keyboard, and really mull over what was just witnessed and how it affects them.

Note the use of the word “can”. Not every gamer is like me. Not every gamer wants to have that level of connection with their entertainment. Some gamers just want to be pandered to, looking for distraction more than interaction. That’s okay; there isn’t anything wrong with that. Call of Duty and Madden make fucktons of money for that reason – bread and circuses for the masses.

I am not the first to point this out. Games journalism in general, and criticism in particular, have started to become very pervasive and even widely recognized. Lumaries of the art can look at a game from an almost entirely objective point of view, highlight its flaws (because every game has a couple), and describe for whom the game is best suited. Professionals like those at Rockpapershotgun, Joystiq, and Polygon do this extremely well, and make it look easy. Imagine me shaking my fist in good-hearted jealousy.

The problem – and it is a really big one – is when some gamers take it upon themselves to criticize the makers of games, and the critics of games, rather than the games themselves. Especially when said makers and critics self-identify and outwardly display as non-male, non-white, non-hetero, or some combination of the above.

Let’s look at the facts. Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Susan Arendt, and many many others have been bombarded with all sorts of bile simply by existing in the public eye of the gamer community. While some try to play it off as critiquing their work, it seems clear that the majority of this incendiary bullroar is based on the fact that these people happen to have vaginas. They’ve recieved threats of rape. Photos of their houses have been sent. Some even threaten death.

The fact is, the world is a large and diverse place. Half or more of its population are born with vaginas. I cannot speak to their orientation or self-identification as children, but as adults, people make all sorts of decisions regarding how they want to live and be percieved by others. They, somewhat reasonably, ask to be treated equally and taken seriously by the world around them. They explain themselves intellectually and eloquently, make artistic or critical statements, and accept actual criticism with grace and understanding. And the response from the community around me is – death threats?

Refraining from historical examples (look them up), attempting to assert control on a large population through fear and intimidation does not work. At least, it doesn’t work for long. The more a group attempts to build walls of terror around those they wish to corral, the more individuals will band together against that control, seeing it for the weak and foundationless position that it is. While there are people who do not necessarily have the wherewithal to realize domestic verbal terror assaults for what they are, and believe the rhetoric of those who threaten death and despair, experience has shown that game developers and games journalists are not among them. To continue the invective is to fight a losing battle. Attacking the people instead of criticizing their work or position is foolish and wastes everyone’s time. It is, objectively, idiotic.

By way of example:

I do not necessarily agree with every point Anita Sarkeesian makes in her videos. I think her presentation tends to be rather dry and impersonal, which can make engaging with her material difficult. She definitely has points to make, and some of them are good, but others could use more drive to get them to hit home for someone like me. But, that is my individual position, and while I acknowledge her videos are imperfect, the videos are made with the intent that future games can be better than those that came before, and in that, they have a chance at real success.

In the example above, points are made about the videos produced by Anita Sarkeesian and their content. Mentions of the content creator herself are imited, as the critique is aimed at said content, not said creator. This is the sort of thing that can be used to make future content better, and instead of seeking to silence the voice that is tackling a hard issue, encourages it to speak louder.

I could go on about how ad-based journalism sites will always have problems with objectivity or the tragedy of journalists becoming disengaged from and desensitized towards the community around that which they love, but I think I’ve covered a good amount of ground for now. I leave you with the following.

Winston Churchill once said “I have always felt that a politician be judged by the animosities he excites amongst his opponents”. When Theodore Roosevelt came under fire for taking on big business, he said “I welcome your hatred”. Like it or not, games development and games journalism have political aspects, and by Churchill’s standards, people like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Susan Arendt are luminaries of their fields, based solely on the animosities they excite amongst the masses. In addition to being short-sighted, ignorant, and terroristic, the threats and bile do not disprove the points being made by those being attacked; rather, they give those points more visibility and turn more people on to the viewpoints held by those who would remain silent through fear and doubt. The perpetuators of hatred in the gaming community are doing a wonderful job of defeating themselves, and though I do not think their hatred should be condoned or encouraged, I have to smile at the irony that they are doing such an excellent job of shooting themselves in the kneecaps.

I know it’s scary. I know it’s vile. But as a community, as a part of the human race, as gamers and game makers and game critics who are more interested in better games than we are in sharpening daggers and hating that which is ‘other’ – we got this. You’re not alone. And it won’t last forever. Look at history. It never does.

The future is ours. And we will get there together.


Return of the Jedi (or possibly Sith)

Courtesy LucasArts

Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy evokes the old feelings of wonder that came with A New Hope. Maybe it’s the discovery of the excellent X-Wing Miniatures game. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. But whatever the cause, I have been on a sizable Star Wars kick lately, and a big part of that is the time I’ve been spending in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

I did a first impressions post a few years ago when the game was in beta, and upon reflection, I ended up being a bit harsh in the name of blunting my nostalgia. I think leaning towards objectivity is good for anybody looking to present a review of entertainment for a wide audience, but I think it would have been okay if I had talked more about my curiosity and excitement about a new facet of the universe opening up and less about the clunky mechanics and the opinions of non-fans.

Playing it now, I’m definitely hooked. I’m curious to see where the various stories go. I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoilers, and I’m actually enjoying the quest structure. It doesn’t feel like a grind – I’ve never had more than two or three quests in my log at any given time. “Kill X amount of Y” only pops up as a bonus, and since I get jumped by uppity bunches of Y on my way to the objective anyway, why not pull in a little extra XP? It does still have a lot of mechanical similarities to World of Warcraft, but the little differences do more than their fair share in setting the game apart. The bottom line is, even moreso now than back in the game’s beta days, I see potential.

I think that’s been what keeps Star Wars a positive thing in my mind. For all of its flaws and missteps, the universe Lucas created has always contained the potential for truly great storytelling. The military sci-fi bent of Rogue Squadron stories, the antiquated feel of Tales of the Jedi, the way Dark Forces felt like so much more than a DOOM clone because you were stealing the Death Star plans… I could go on. Lucas may not be the best director or a very good scriptwriter, but the seeds he sowed almost 40 years ago were in very fertile ground indeed.

I’m interested in exploring the Edge of the Empire RPG, probably after I move, if I can rope my new housemates into it. I’m expanding my collection of X-Wing Miniatures. I’m going to play a lot more of The Old Republic. And I am keeping a wary eye on this new film of theirs. While I don’t agree with the official word ejecting the expanded universe as canon, JJ Abrams has always been more of a whiz-bang director than the intellectual contemplation that Star Trek really demands. In spite of my cautious curiosity, though, one thing is certainly clear.

Star Wars is back in my life. I enjoy Star Wars quite a bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.


The Sith Have A Point

Courtesy LucasFilms

The X-Wing Miniatures Game by Fantasy Flight has been teasing me for a long time. I’ve tried to keep my attentions elsewhere, but with the excellent review over at Shut Up & Sit Down has nailed the coffin shut on my intentions. Soon, I will be picking up the Starter Set, and I have the feeling I will be fielding the Imperial forces. Despite the fact that we are intended to sympathize and root for the heroic underdog Rebellion, we have to remember that every villain from our perspective is the hero from theirs, and when you get right down to it, the Sith have a point.

The Jedi are held up as paragons of virtue, galactic peacekeepers devoid of emotional attachment and personal ambition. However, if you give them more than a cursory glance, you start to see leaks in this presentation. They say that ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes,’ yet they consider Sith to always be on the wrong side of a battle. Always. No exceptions. An absolute. Makes you think, doesn’t it? There’s also the fact that the Jedi Masters that we find ourselves keying into – Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, etc – are often seen as renegades or iconoclastic among other Jedi. Others attempt to adhere to their strict adherence to being emotionless icons of righteousness. Absolute ones at that.

The Sith seem to have a different approach. While many of them do pursue selfish ambitions that result in others getting hurt or the innocent getting suppressed, the general philosophy embraces the strength of independence, free thought, and ambition. It’s certainly true that this sort of thinking can lead to people going down darker paths. However, it can be argued that a path of righteousness can also lead to dark places. Not that Jedi would ever admit this. Sith strike me as more honest in retrospect; the Jedi have good intentions but their strictures can yield rigid minds devoid of mercy as much as they are of emotion. As brutal as some of them can be, they have a point – passion can be every bit as powerful as rigid adherence to strictures, and in some cases, the passionate path is preferable, and not necessarily easier.

For all of the flak Lucas deservedly gets for some of his ill-advised creative decisions, the universe he created is not devoid of merit, and this dichotomy is worth examination. Instead of the naked good/evil conflict we see all too often, in the right hands it can be a crucial examination of the debate between free thought and organized discipline.

It can also be a simple backdrop for laser swords and dogfights in space.


From The Vault: The “Real Game” Has Begun

Life’s upheaval shows no sign of really ending, but there are lulls in the quakes. In some of them I’ve started inching back towards Azeroth. I suspect I’ll still be doing a lot of the things listed below, so here’s my take on the end-game content in the game’s current iteration.


Courtesy IcyVeins and Blizzard Entertainment
A surprisingly provincial addition to a world full of dragons and wizards.

When I’ve played MMOs previously, especially World of Warcraft, the prevailing sentiment has been that ‘the real game begins’ at the maximum level a character can achieve. For the most part, this has applied to large-group raid or player-versus-player content. Not everybody is interested in such things, though. The question becomes, then, what does one do once their main character hits the ceiling of the maximum level?

There’s always the option of rolling another character, for certain, but I would argue that a good MMO provides a plethora of content for a player who’s struggled through the slow grind upwards. There was a part of me that was concerned when I approached the top level available as I worked my way through World of Warcraft’s new continent of Pandaria. However, when that bright light and familiar sound met me, I was in for a surprise.

Like many previous expansions, World of Warcraft’s newest areas feature multiple factions towards whom a player can endear themselves. They’re all over Pandaria, but unlike the forces featured in Cataclysm or Wrath of the Lich King, they’re not necessarily worried with getting your help to save the world. The Anglers are fascinated by the various kinds of fish you can find around Pandaria, the Order of the Cloud Serpent raises the continent’s unique breeds of dragons (and you can, too!), and the Tillers are farmers, plain & simple. I’ll get back to them in a moment.

Top level players have been queueing up to enter dungeons for a long time, but Pandaria also gives us scenarios to experience. These instances are smaller and more scripted, geared for 3 players instead of 5 and not necessarily requiring a specific team makeup (a tank will certainly help you, though). With many of the factions I mentioned, you can participate in daily quests ranging from slaying nasty critters to corralling lost yaks. These quests and instances yield plenty of gold to finance other endeavors, gear either through direct drops or special currency, and even reputation with the factions above. But not everything that you can do with your max-level character is so confrontational.

The Tillers allow you to start a farm of your very own. I’ve been told this portion of the game is lifted almost directly from the Harvest Moon games, based on the different crop conditions and finding gifts for fellow farmers. Either way, it feels to me like a lovely change from the usual grind of post top level gear gathering. It’s still a bit of a grind to get your farm to a point where you can grow materials you need for your professions, but considering the things you can do with the other crops in the meantime, it feels like less of a grind, and a player getting a positive feeling from an in-game experience is evidence of good mechanical design.

If you skipped a profession on your way up, or want to change from one to another, max level is great time to retread those steps a bit. Archaeology, in particular, is a neat secondary profession to explore at top levels. Few of the areas you’ll be digging in are actually dangerous to you, you pick up unique items, and it’s a skill that can be used for dailies in Pandaria. In fact, the Order of the Cloud Serpent has dailies that call upon your skills as a cook, medic, angler, and archaeologist. It pays to diversify your skills, after all!

And then there’s the Brawler’s Guild, which I haven’t even touched yet…

Of course, this could just be my feeling about reaching the current top level in World of Warcraft. I’m sure others are more interested in the raiding scene or jumping into the Arena to take on other players. While there will always be alts to level, the game clearly does not end when the levels do. A MMO worth its asking price should keep providing fresh, new content, and for my money, Mists of Pandaria is doing that pretty well for World of Warcraft.


The Appeal of Hearthstone

UtherLightbringer as seen in Hearthstone
I will, in fact, fight with honor.

I’m working on a post that talks about time management. It is, from my perspective, one of my biggest flaws. I find it difficult to parcel out my time in the most efficient way possible. The dayjob, exercise, writing, home maintenance, eating, sleeping… things get pushed around and I get distracted, and I end most days wondering where the time went. I know, consciously, that I need to make more time for things that are important to me.

Why, then, am I setting my sights on playing more Hearthstone?

Specifically, I’m going to be playing more Constructed – I’m not that great at Arenas. I’m brushing up on advice for more effective laddering, choosing a deck that I will stick with – probably DKMR’s Paladin deck – and pulling myself back when I begin to tilt. Ideally, I’ll be putting in time on this every day after I take the time to write, and that in turn would be happening after I get home from the dayjob.

The reason for this is simple: I miss high-level competitive play in these sorts of games. The events of Magic: the Gathering I’ve attended, both when I was younger and more recently, were at their most enjoyable when I was locked in competition with another player. I haven’t been part of that scene in a while, and I won’t be getting involved in a Netrunner community until after I move. The advantage of Hearthstone is that it’s a digital form of the same type of competition. The barrier for entry is lower than StarCraft 2, and personally, I find the experience of playing Hearthstone less clinical than playing StarCraft, even if I do enjoy both games. The in-depth interactions of cards, the delicate nature of move-countermove over the course of a match, and the visceral feeling of both winning and losing – these are things that really appeal to me.

Part of this is certainly Hearthstone‘s glossy coat of that certain Blizzard magic. Their games are always high quality in terms of graphical presentation and sound design. But on top of that, the more I play the game, the more I find things very finely balanced. With a variety of ways to play a class, to say nothing of different classes, success or failure ultimately comes down to the individual player. Without the immediacy and attention demands of a real-time strategy game, careful decision-making and precise timing are rewarded in a very satisfying way. This could just be my take on things, but I can’t deny that this, too, is part of the appeal.

I want to get better at Hearthstone. My goal is, eventually, to compete in a tournament with the confidence to advance at least once through its brackets. To do this, I will aim to climb the Constructed ladder into the Legendary ranks. When the new season begins, I may even begin streaming and recording my games. Who knows? This could open new doors for me, and that’s never a bad thing. It’s another step in my journey forward, and it’s my hope that folks out there will be willing to take that journey with me.

Or at least point out whenever I miss lethal damage.


Making Twilight Imperium Mine

I’ve written up a couple in-depth after-action reports of Twilight Imperium before. I’m willing to do it again for the game that happened yesterday, but I find myself spending time and brain-power analyzing the game in terms of its structures, house rules, and interaction with the players. I’ve only played the game a few times, so I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve seen a variety of races bounce off of one another, and I’ve tried bringing different sets of rules to the table.

6/21 Game
Our galaxy on 6/21.

One of my favorite discoveries is ‘Star By Star’. Part of the fan-created set of mods called Shattered Ascension, ‘Star By Star’ modifies the initial setup of the galaxy. Instead of everyone’s Home System sitting on the outermost rim of the galaxy, the hex containing that system is in with all of the other hexes, which are dealt to all players and held like a hand of cards. This allows more dymanic placement of systems and intriguing gameplay. You can’t put your home right next to Mecatol Rex, the former throneworld of the Lazax Empire, and the Embers of Muaat need to start on the outermost rim.

The other major change in house rules that I feel makes the most of the game is the modified nature of the objectives. Normally, Preliminary Objectives are dealt to players in private, and Public Objectives remain in their deck face-down until the Bureaucracy strategy reveals one. And in that case, the person with that strategy can reveal an Objective that very suddenly ends the game. There is an option rule called Age of Empire that makes Public Objectives… well, public… from the very start. I modified our Bureaucracy strategy so that the Objectives are tied up in ‘red tape’, requiring them to be ‘unlocked’ before they can be scored. Additionally, the Preliminary Objectives are shuffled up and one for each player is set out. Any player can claim any Preliminary Objective, allowing them to score a Victory Point and draw a Secret Objective, but each player can only score one Preliminary Objective. This is a bit more balanced and allows players to play to their strengths and positions, rather than wasting time and energy on something that’s outside of their plans.

Game on 6/21
A clash between the Barony of Letnev (red) and the Federation of Sol (blue)

I’ve played Twilight Imperium with several different players. While the randomized nature of the procedurally-generated galaxy, the Objectives, and race selection always ensure that every game is a different experience, it’s become clear that some races favor a particular style of play. Those that give advantages in terms of combat strength, such as the L1z1x Mindnet, Barony of Letnev, and the Mentak Coalition, seem to shine under the control of an aggressive player, while others like the Emirates of Hacan, Xxcha Kingdom, and Universities of Jol-Nar reward more patient play. There appears to be a balance between those types of races in the base game, with the Federation of Sol right in the middle.

As for the expansions, it may seem that the Embers of Muaat are incredibly overpowered, but the advantage of their starting War Sun can be blunted by players on the lookout as well as those racing towards War Sun technology of their own. Some of the races favor a longer game with patient play, such as the Arborec or the Ghosts of Creuss, while the Nekro Virus rivals the Mindnet in terms of naked aggression. There are a few races I haven’t seen in action yet – the Clan of Saar, the Winnu, and so on – but they’re certain to make an appearance sooner or later.

Game on 6/21
The Barony beating out the Arborec (gray) for the win.

Regardless of the races in play or the rules you use, I have yet to play a game of Twilight Imperium that’s disappointed me. Every one has been a day-long experience, every one has left me intellectually drained, and every one has been deeply satisfying. I love that it can both play right into your individual play-style and push you to try new things, as well as providing ways to get to know your friends. Who will stab you in the back while you’re pursuing a particular Objective? Who will send a Spy to the Galactic Assembly when they’ve been talking about making peace? If you have the time and resources, I highly recommend playing it at least once. Despite its scope and complexity, it is an excellent game; perhaps one of the best that I have ever played.


Tabletalk: What’s In A Game?

As pleased as I am to see board gaming emerging from basements and grottos to become a more visible and enticing hobby, I think some people still see it as something of an enigma. The average person probably still thinks of Monopoly or Risk when ‘board games’ are mentioned. Thankfully, modern games provide a lot more than dice rolls to keep their action going and players coming back to the table. Let me tell you about a few of those methods.

Worker Placement

Lords of Waterdeep

‘Euros’ are board games that hail from Europe, or that are inspired by the same. They lean heavily away from random chance as a game mechanic, focused more on player choice and limited resources. Gathering those resources often takes the form of worker placement, as in games such as Caylus, Notre Dame, and to a lesser extent Lords of Waterdeep. With a mere handful of representatives on the board, players must claim what resources they can to achieve their goals before the game ends. That’s another feature of euros – many of them have limited turns, adding pressure to the puzzle presented by the board. And with other players competing to complete their puzzle more completely than yours… well, you get the idea.

Deck Building

High Command: Warmachine

Made popular by Dominion and a key feature in games like Eminent Domain, Ascension, Arctic Scavengers and High Command, deck building games present a tableau of choices to their players, letting the participants craft their experience to their liking. The goals for the game may be the same, but they can be achieved through different means. Rather than resources being directly limited by a static board, a stack of cards can get depleted if it proves to be popular. Like worker placement, deck building games do not entertain the possibility of random chance ruining the experience, but rather use it (in the form of players shuffling decks) to spice up the game and keep players coming back for more.

Procedural Boards

Archipelago

Perhaps one of my favorite mechanics of modern board gaming, the type of game that features what I call ‘procedural boards’ places a randomized set of tiles in front of the players and has them assemble the board on which the action unfolds before them at the time of play. This can be a central board, as in Twilight Imperium, Archipelago, Escape! The Curse of the Temple, Mage Knight or Quantum, or it can be in front of the individual player, as in Galaxy Trucker or Suburbia. Not only does this provide the charm of being different every time, it can also allow for other game mechanics to be layered on top with little difficulty. Archipelago, for example, uses worker placement as well as a procedural board, and Mage Knight has elements of deck building.

What other aspects of modern board gaming do you enjoy?


Game Review: Transistor

Big budget studios love their hype machines. They see their customers as fuel for mechanical devices that print money. They choke the causeways of industry news with information on pre-orders, exclusive editions, the latest innovations and “ground-breaking” technology, sometimes before we even get a screenshot of the game in question. Independent studios tend not to do this. The only pre-order benefit that Supergiant Games provided for Transistor was the soundtrack to their game, and if you know anything about the studio, you know that they didn’t need six different exclusive editions to win us over. They seem to have this crazy idea that solid design and powerful storytelling alone are enough to sell a game.

Courtesy Supergiant Games

Welcome to Cloudbank. It’s a nice enough town. There are plenty of modern amenities from automated flatbread delivery to concert halls with plenty of seating. But for the Camerata, it isn’t quite enough. They want to make adjustments to Cloudbank, on a pretty massive scale, and to do this, they have unleashed the Process, an automated vector for change. Voice have risen up in opposition, and one of those voices belonged to Red, a prominent singer popular in Cloudbank. Their attempt to silence Red forever is only partially successful, and while her voice is gone, she manages to escape with seemingly the only means to stop the Process and defeat the Camerata: the Transistor.

When I talk about wanting to tell stories that draw in the audience, interactive storytelling, or getting into the gaming industry, it’s games like Transistor that I have in mind. With a minimum of exposition and even dialog, Supergiant Games conveys an emotional and thought-provoking story that feels deeply personal. I still adore their first title, Bastion, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Red, as a character, is more fleshed out and more compelling than The Kid for reasons I have discussed at length – her personality shines through in her actions and design, and rather than being the blank slate many video game protagonists are designed to be, remains her own person making her own decisions from beginning to end.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
Red’s found herself some trouble.

Another advantage that Transistor has over its predecessor is the combat system. While Bastion was frenetic in its fights, player choices coming in weapon selection between arenas, Transistor offers players a robust system for dispatching the Process. The abilities provided by the Transistor have a surprising amount of depth and customization, allowing Red to mix and match what its primary abilities can do and how she benefits from the functions it hosts. The Turn() system is also shockingly flexible, in that it can either work similar to the pause function in FTL as a break from fast-paced real-time action or pushes the game towards more of a turn-based experience. You (and Red) can either stay out of the ethereal wireframes and bash heads as quickly as possible, or you can take your time to plan a perfectly executed combo, or you can mix the two to your liking. Rather than a mere set of mechanical tools, the options in Transistor are more like dabs of paint on your palette, allowing you to participate in the creation of this work of art. It provides you with just as much agency as Red is given, pulling to further into the world of Cloudbank.

I do not use ‘work of art’ lightly. Even if the combat wasn’t extremely well-realized (it is) and the story wasn’t absolutely flawless in its execution (it is), Transistor would be a treat for the eyes and ears. The richly painted and noir-inspired pseudo-future world of Cloudbank is offset by the austere white of the Process, and the wide streets and empty chairs and benches throughout the city make the experience feel very lonely at times, further underscoring the struggle Red is undertaking. Enemies each have unique appearances, abilities, behaviors, and challenges, and the Transistor’s attacks produce striking effects as it takes them apart. Logan Cunningham’s voice work remains top-notch, the uncertainty and pain of the Transistor’s voice making the narration far more immediate and intimate than that of Rucks in Bastion, as good as that was. The music, as written by Darren Kolb, adds another layer to the world we’re exploring, and hearing Red hum along with it underscores the haunting beauty of the entire experience.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
You seriously cannot tell me this game is not a work of art.

There’s no multiplayer. No imposed social media or proprietary platform functionality. Supergiant Games isn’t interested in bilking their players for money or regulating their activities. These are talented and passionate folks interested in telling good stories and making great games. With Transistor, they have knocked it clear out of the park. The art is magnificent, the music is electrifying, the combat is exciting, and the story is compelling and engrossing. It hits all of the points to make for an unforgettable experience. With a New Game plus (or ‘Recursive’) option, unexplored permutations of Functions, and a world this breathtaking and characters this fully realized, there’s no reason not to enter Cloudbank yourself. Transistor is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Tabletalk: The Rules of the Game

Courtesy Theology of Games
Courtesy Theology of Games

There are only a few board games that one can play entirely on their own. They essentially become very complex puzzles that you setup and solve on the fly, rather than being assembled, disassembled, or arranged correctly. Sometimes this is fine, but for the most part, you’ll want to get other people involved with your games. That means, you have to teach them the rules.

The rules of any given game provide the framework and nature of the challenge that game presents. They’re essential to board games of all shapes and sizes. But teaching said rules does not have to be a dull undertaking that fills up time you could spend playing and having fun with tedious rules explanations that sound just short of obfuscatory legalese. Here are a couple basic tips for making a session of teaching the rules of the game not suck.

Don’t just read from the rulebook.

Direct reading of rules from a rulebook to a potential player is poison to the interest in the game. While some gamers will still be fascinated by how the rules interlace or the ramifications of certain situations, new players in particular (especially if they don’t often play board games) will not want to hear the dry, uncharacterized rules right from the off. That will just play up the stodgy stereotype of board games and the people who play them, and we do not want that.

Instead, give the players an idea of what their options are on their turn. As much as this can lead to players being somewhat isolated in early turns, it puts their focus on what’s in front of them. “So you have these cards, these pieces, and this objective in mind. What do you want to do next?” When they decide what they want to do, be it for the objective or just for fun, encourage them and show them how its done while explaining any rules involved. It gets you playing faster, it gives context to the rules, and it pulls new players in quickly.

Introduce components before rules.

The other problem with rules explanations is that it requires new players to focus entirely on what you’re saying, and it needs to make sense. Dry readings from the rulebook can be very difficult to make interesting or even sensical, as some rulebooks are more reference sources than coherent reading experiences (looking at you, Fantasy Flight Games). But your board game has more than just the board and the rulebook – you have components, cards, dice, miniatures, and all sorts of things that can help your players pay attention.

I can’t take credit for this one. Quinns from Shut Up & Sit Down pointed out that people are actually more attentive if they have something in their hands. If they’re just sitting there listening to a tutorial, they are unlikely to retain everything they hear. Give them a component, a hand of cards, or some currency or tokens, and suddenly they’re paying more attention. This also ties into the previous point of giving them options for their first turn. Tying your explanation into what they’re holding and what their choices might be engages them in the proceedings right from the off.

If you’re going to teach it, know it.

This might seem like a no-brainer. And it doesn’t apply to all situations. If you’re unboxing a game for the very first time in front of new players, it’s impossible for you to know the game front to back the way you really should in order to teach it. But this is likely to be a rare occurrence. Most of the time, you’ll have the game before the time comes to play it. In that case, you should know it before you teach it.

This will help you in not reading dry rules from the rulebook, getting new players involved, and focusing more on their opening moves than on what the rules say.

Provide personal examples.

Most people like to hear stories. Many also like to tell them. There are some humorless folks out there who don’t want some silly story about emotions and morals and personal interest to interfere in their action, but that’s usually more applicable in terms of first-person shooters than board games. When you’re teaching a new game to people, it can be helpful to tell them some of your own experiences with it, especially if you tell them how you’ve lost.

Not only does this help new players figure out what to avoid, it demonstrates that while you know the game, you are not infallible. This will increase their confidence and get them more eager to play the game you’ve taught them. And when the game is over, they’ll have experiences of their own to relate to others!

Don’t take my word for it.

I mentioned Quinns and his site, and he has more tips on rules explanations right here. There are also lots of folks in the comments section to provide guidance. Be sure to check it out here!

Board gaming is a great hobby, and it’s even better when you get more people around the table. The more the merrier may be a somewhat cliched phrase, but it’s true. Even two players tends to be better than one when it comes to board gaming, and some games really come into their own when you get a great number of people playing at the same time. As much as they all need to know the rules, there’s no need for learning said rules to be boring. Make it interesting. Bring them in. And before they know it, they’ll know the rules of the game well enough to teach others. The cycle will continue, the hobby will grow, and more and more games will come out of the basement and into the light.


Game Review: Splendor

Board games come in all shapes and sizes, and run the gamut from frenetic, brief bursts of simple gameplay, like Escape! The Curse of the Temple, to day-long brain-burning grand strategy experiences, such as Twilight Imperium. Some games, however, manage the tricky feat of being both easy to learn and play, and deep in terms of strategy and puzzle-like challenge. One such game is Splendor, a contender for this year’s prestigious “Spiel des Jahres” (game of the year) award in Germany.

Set during the Renaissance, Splendor casts its players as gem merchants, using the glittering resources to build and expand their holdings. Some of these properties do little more than feed more gems into one’s pockets, while others earn the merchant prestige. Famous figures will also watch the proceedings, lending their support to merchants who play into their interests. Merchants are, of course, too refined to degenerate into violence, but that does not mean that the competition for holdings is not excessively cutthroat. You have to be smart, fast, and ruthless to earn the right combination of holdings to earn the most prestige.

The holdings are displayed on cards in a tableau available to all players, arrayed in ranks from one to three. First-tier holdings are simple mines that offer no prestige but are very cheap, and provided permanent discounts to future purposes. Second-tier holdings are pricier but offer prestige along with their discounts, and top-tier cards are pulverizingly costly but bring in tons of points. The aforementioned famous figures each display a given number of holdings in certain colors, and the first player to reach that number of holdings earns the figure’s prestige. On your turn, you can pick up a diverse number of gems, double down on a single color, purchase a holding, or reserve a holding by picking up a single ‘wild’ gem. The purchase of holdings is facilitated with thick plastic chips, each representing a different kind of gem. The number of chips is limited, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, at least until a merchant buys a holding.


The bank of gems: source of and solution to all your problems.

A good board game does not base its core gameplay around randomization, but uses randomization as part of its setup to increase replay value. The decks of holdings are shuffled, and the patrons selected at random, before the game even begins, so the tableau presented to players is always different. The challenge, however, is always the same: how can you use the limited resources available to grab the cards you need before someone else does? Splendor‘s presentation, in addition to being beautiful, always challenges its players. There are multiple ways to carve a path to victory, with some players trying to go wide in their holdings’ diversity while others opt for vertical collections of deep discounts to rush towards high-prestige rewards. Players bounce off of the tableau as well as each other in their quest for victory, and the game manages to combine the tension of competition with the intellectual challenge of puzzle-solving.

In addition to its rock-solid gameplay, Splendor is simply pretty to look at. The art of the holdings is very attractive, their color palettes informing the gems required to pick them up. In addition, the gems themselves are weighty, large chips that clack and clatters as they move from their stacks to players’ positions and back again. It lends the game an almost poker-like feel as players study the tableau the way professional gamblers study the spread of cards at a Texas Hold-‘Em tournament. For all of its relatively simple design and easy-to-explain rules, Splendor provides not only a challenging gameplay experience, but a lovely one.


The holdings are just gorgeous.

The Spiel des Jahres award is one of the highest in all of gaming. To qualify for it, a game has to be challenging and interactive but also straightforward enough that anybody can play it. Splendor hits all of the right notes: its concept lends itself to diversified gameplay, its rules are clear and simple, the layout is fantastic, and the design is nearly flawless. Even if it doesn’t win the award, it definitely deserves a place in your collection. In a world of heaving shelves full of wargaming and sci-fi miniatures, and massive boxes teeming with monsters to slay, games like this may seem simplistic and easy to overlook, but a game this attractive, this challenging, and this rewarding is truly a sight to behold. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Papers, Please – A Love/Hate Relationship

Courtesy Lucas Pope
Glory to Arstotzka.

Let me be clear right from the off: I adore the fact that Papers, Please exists.

For those of you who don’t know, Papers, Please is a video game described as “a dystopian document thriller.” You are a citizen in Arstotzka, a fictional country ruled by an authoritarian regime, and you are tasked with monitoring one of its border posts. You examine the documentation of someone entering the country, look for discrepancies, and then bring down the stamp to either approve or deny their entry. You can detain people trying to smuggle contraband or weapons into the country, and your earnings are based on how many people you process in a given day, less any mistakes you make.

In a market dominated by first-person shooters, sports simulations, and massively multiplayer online games, it’s fantastic that Papers, Please even grabbed a toehold on the market, let alone climbing to success. Most of the reactions to the game have been entirely positive. Personally, I think it’s a deeply immersive and very atmospheric experience, with dashes of humor and some very real moral dilemmas that add to the emergent narrative that comes with every person that steps into the booth. Despite not having top-end graphics, the stories both spoken and implied by those giving you their passports and awaiting judgment is some of the most involving story-driven gameplay I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

It’s so involving, in fact, that I can barely play it.

You see, dispensing your tasks requires you to compare the would-be visitor’s documents with several sources you have yourself – a guide to various neighbor countries, their seals and cities, different permits to allow, etc. The money you earn has to be split between your family’s needs, and if you don’t make a certain amount, you’ll have to choose between food, heat, and medicine. Finally, if you miss something, the antiquated dot matrix printer in your booth begins to chatter, telling you how you messed up and how much it’s going to cost you.

It’s this last bit that really affects me. You could even say it triggers me. I have enough problems in dayjobs where a detail slips by me, or the alignment of an element is off by a pixel, or the timing of an animation is not quite what a client was looking for. I’ll think a task is done, on time and without incident, when news hits me like a hammer that no, there’s more work to do, and I know it reflects badly upon me and my self-esteem takes another blow and I feel the crushing inevitability of time and decay as I re-open my assets and go back to something I thought I’d actually done well for a change. And now a game is invoking that feeling? No, thank you.

I bought Papers, Please and I do not regret it. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and Lucas Pope deserves all of the credit he gets for bringing it to life. Maybe, at some point down the road, when I feel less like the sword of Damocles is hanging over me every time I open a new task, I’ll return to that cramped little checkpoint on the border of Arstotzka. There are good puzzles, good stories, and good design all over and throughout it, and I do recommend it. I just hope that someday, I can play the game without that paralyzing sense of dread that I feel during business hours all too often.


Tabletalk: The Variance Question

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast
On top of everything, that hack Robert Wintermute killed Venser…

A quick note before we begin: the movie I’ve been asked to review isn’t available yet. It should be later in the day, but for now we’re going to swap the review with Tabletalk for this week. Okay? Okay.

Magic… it’s time we talked.

I’ve been playing you for years. Decades, even. And there is a lot that I like about you. Your planes are rich with game and story potential. You show interesting design choices at every turn. Memories of tournaments, drafts, and throwdowns with family are evocative of good or even excellent times, and I will never forget them.

But, to be honest, I’ve been seeing other card games.

I don’t want you to feel like you’ve done anything wrong. I don’t think it’s your fault. I am, in all honesty, just a little tired of some of the things that throw me off when it comes to you. I certainly don’t agree with all of your design choices, and I know that no cycle of cards lasts forever outside of Legacy. You may see me coming back to a local gaming store in the future. The big problem, though, is the irritation I have with variance.

I like games that are different every time you play them. They add variety and make me want to play more. The thing is, though, that a deck of Magic has a level of variance that tends to be rather high. While this can be mitigated with good deck construction choices, the bottom line is that the resources you need to play the game – your land – are dispensed to you entirely at random. You could have everything necessary in your hand to make a clutch play or escape a tight situation, but you can’t do anything because your land has not deigned to show up yet. It sucks for me when it happens, and it sucks for my opponent, too. When my opponent gets screwed on their mana, I feel bad on their behalf, since it doesn’t feel like we’re playing the game on equal terms, and that’s not fun for anybody who wants to have fun playing. I mean, if you care only about winning, then yes, you want your opponent to have every disadvantage possible, but that to me is not very sporting. Call me old-fashioned.

Some people like this. They like the extra challenge it presents, and the fact that games are not predictable. That’s fine. I can understand that. I personally feel, however, that games like Hearthstone and Netrunner are spoiling me, since my resources are not tied to random chance.

We’ll talk more about that next week. For now… I don’t hate you, Magic, but to be honest, I don’t think you’re my favorite anymore. It’s not you, it’s me.


Tabletalk: Netrunner Basics

Cyberfeeder, by Gong Studios
Art by Gong Studios

I have been well and truly hooked by Android: Netrunner for a variety of reasons. The game is steeped in atmosphere and flavor, from the names of each player’s decks and hands to some truly stunning artwork. The second-hand market for individual cards is practically non-existent, making it a slightly more economical choice, even if the up-front investment can seem a touch daunting. And much like Hearthstone, it’s possible to build a deck just using the Core Set of the game that has a fighting chance, or will at least yield a good time.

The asymmetrical nature of the gameplay, however, can be off-putting for new players. I thought I would take a bit of time before diving into the nuances of the game’s different Corp and Runner factions to talk about how the two sides play, and give some tips to newer players, or players who have tried to play Netrunner before and for one reason or another ran into obstacles not generated by the board state.

Both the Corp and the Runner are trying to score Agendas. Only the Corp player has Agendas in their deck. The Runner must steal Agendas from the Corp before they can be installed and advanced. The Corp advances Agendas by installing them in remote servers, areas of the playing area to the side of their identity card (which represents their hand, or HQ), then spends credits one at a time to match the Agenda’s advancement requirement. The Runner can run on any server, be it one of the remotes created by the Corp, the Corp’s HQ, their R&D (or deck), or Archives (discard pile). The Corp can protect any of their servers with ICE, specialized software cards that are installed perpendicular and face down in front of the servers they protect. The Runner has means to break or circumvent this ICE, but it buys the Corp precious time to score their Agendas.

That’s the basic rundown; let’s get into some specifics.

If you are the Corp, you control all of the information.

The Runner has to keep their cards face-up on the table. From their Hardware to their Resources, you will always have a good idea of what could be coming at you. When you install a piece of ICE, it’s face-down, as are your Agendas, Assets, and Upgrades. The Runner has no idea how, when, or even if you’ll be paying the cost to rez (turn face-up) those cards. Knowing what you know, you can either push to beat the Runner before they get up to speed, or sit back and play a shell game, luring the Runner into traps or watching them bounce off of your ICE. Some of that comes from the choice you make in faction, but the confidence to follow through on your strategy comes from the fact that you know a lot more than the Runner does, at least in terms of board state information. Use that.

If you are the Runner, you should be running.

Running is the crux of the game and it should be done as much as is reasonable – and maybe some times when it isn’t. It’s how the Runner learns information, from the ICE the Corp has installed to the assets they’re trying to protect. It keeps the Corp player engaged and can lead to them interacting more, be it choosing different ICE or exploiting the Runner’s action in order to tag them or otherwise take action. But it’s also the only way the Runner can possibly win the game. The more the Runner runs, the better their chances of stealing an Agenda, and every run also has the potential to throw the Corp off-balance and derail their well-laid plans. Sure, you might end up getting tagged or taking some damage, but Netrunner is all about risk management.

This is true on both sides. The Corp asks, “is it safe to install this Agenda? Can I convince the Runner that it’s a trap? Should I stockpile credits instead?” The Runner asks, “can the Corp flatline me if I make another run and take more damage? Will I have enough time before he scores that Agenda? Is than an Agenda in the first place?”

The game is rife with player choices, informed decision-making, potential for storytelling, and great moments of interplay. If you tried it before but found the asymmetry daunting or a particular player uncooperative, I hope after reading these tips you’d consider trying again. I’m going to be talking about the factions in the weeks to come; you might find something you like in one of them that’ll convince you to give Netrunner a shot. The card catalog is growing, and player bases are becoming more established; now is a great time to get started.


Game Review: Hearthstone

One of the things Blizzard Entertainment does very well is presentation. World of Warcraft‘s visual style has aged rather gracefully, StarCraft 2 has remained consistent in its high-quality art and sound assets (if not necessarily the stories it is telling), and the technical alpha for Heroes of the Storm looks and sounds impressive, from everything I’ve seen. I will write more about that when I actually get into the game. My point is that, when I first discussed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, it already looked good and sounded good. It is now in wide release, and is even available on iPad, so now seems the right time to give it a full review.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone is a game that plays a great deal like Magic: the Gathering, and is both simple and free to play. In fact, there are characters within World of Warcraft that can be seen playing the game. In essence, it’s a pub or party game played by the denizens of Azeroth, either as a break from or a substitution for grander adventures. All sorts of Warcraft staples are present, from angry chickens to towering giants, and some legendary figures represent the player while others stride across the playing field. Or charge, in the case of some minions like Leeroy Jenkins.

In terms of development, little has changed between the production edition of Hearthstone and its closed beta. Some graphical glitches have been either addressed or smoothed over, cards work the way they’re intended more often than not, and Blizzard’s visual panache is as strong as ever. Its familiar characters, strong tactile design, and business model all make the game consistently appealing, and easy to pick up and play.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
The game presents constant strategic and tactical questions. Provided your draw is at least half-decent.

“Pick up and play” is even more apt now that the game is available on iPad mobile devices. The app is free to download, of course, and controls with the touch screen instead of a mouse. The translation of some functionality, such as dragging the mouse to a target, is replicated or replaced rather well, making the transition from the computer to the tablet very easy. The game does lag a bit here and there, though, so the implementation could probably use a few tweaks. Still, it makes it even easier to enter the game, say if you’re on a flight path in World of Warcraft or waiting in one of Blizzard’s many multiplayer queues.

Recently, “free to play” games have come under a great deal of scrutiny. Often, such games are powered financially by business models that often lend themselves to the description of “pay to win.” In essence, such games are presented in such a way that if one pays enough money, they can get clear advantages over other players and basically pay their way to the victory within the game. In spite of accusations of one class or another being overpowered, Hearthstone avoids the “pay to win” trap by being quite well balanced. It is entirely possible to go into Ranked play with a deck using only the cards one gets for joining the game the first time, without spending a single cent, and rise to the Legendary ranks of the game. Decks with Legendary cards might be more efficient or flashier in what they do, but you don’t have to spend any real money to be successful in Hearthstone, which is definitely a feather in its cap.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
Life totals aren’t everything. Warlocks know this better than most.

Hearthstone is a game I return to on an almost daily basis. It scratches the itch left by card games like Magic: the Gathering and Netrunner, does what it does with panache, and doesn’t take up a great deal of storage space on one’s shelf. It continues to be challenging months after my first game, delivers fantastic moments of fascinating turnarounds and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and seems to only be getting better. A new adventure mode has been announced, and the first ‘dungeon’ we’ll be facing to gain new cards is the necromantic stronghold of Naxxramas. I’m very curious to see what will happen next in this game, and if you are too, there’s never been a better time to check it out.


500 Words On Bigby Wolf

Courtesy Telltale Games

When it comes to game design, I understand that it’s difficult to craft an experience that’s unique to every player. If all goes well, your game is going to be played by more people than you can imagine. When it comes to video games, you’re likely to have a protagonist and, if they’re not silent, they’ll have a personality. The challenge comes in when you cast that personality in such a way that it can be altered by things the player chooses to have the say or do. What motivates these choices? How do other characters react? And what impact will these choices have on the future?

Case in point: Bigby Wolf, from Telltale’s Fables adaptation, The Wolf Among Us. I just finished my first play of Episode 3, “A Crooked Mile”, and while this definitely feels like both a more substantial episode than the previous one and the right sort of complication the tale needed to maintain steam, something is bothering me. Bigby, as given in the beginning, is a somewhat gruff character. He’s not given to social graces for the most part, is viewed with either fear or distrust by most, and has a reputation of letting his temper get the best of him. I like this as a backstory, but not necessarily as a rule. Bigby now lives in a world of skyscrapers and concrete, a very different forest than that of his past. Would he really be so obstinate as to not change?

For my part, I think he would not only need to change, but he’d want to. Wolves are territorial, and Fabletown is Bigby’s beat. He’s been through enough to understand that he can’t just huff and puff his way through his situations. He has people he admires and others he wants to make amends towards, to ensure the past does not repeat himself. This guides the choices I make throughout the game.

What bothers me is that these choices do not feel entirely significant.

While the messages that tell me certain characters will remember things I say or do remain effective, it still feels like certain conclusions are foregone, if not inevitable. As much as I am allowed to choose my path both through the game’s branches and as dialog continues, all roads tend to converge in the same way. The story being told is by no means bad, but my impact upon it, both as a player and as Bigby, has yet to feel truly substantial, save for one or two fairly big decisions.

I still dig The Wolf Among Us enough to see it through to the end. The art direction, music, voice acting, and overall storytelling remains exemplary. The Bigby I am playing, however, does not feel terribly distinct from how he might be played by another individual. This is a complex character with deep emotions and individual, variable motivations. He can, and should, have modes of behavior and operation other than just huffing, and puffing, and blowing your house down.


From the Vault: The Video Game Singularity

I’m on my way to Boston for PAX East this morning. While I make my way through several states on what are certain to be lovely roads, have a look at my thoughts on the lines between video game developers and video game players, and what might happen if they get blurred.


X-Box Kitten

I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.

The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.

Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?

Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.

From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.

Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.

That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”

Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.

The question is: should they exercise it?

Let me put it another way:

Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?

I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.

As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.

We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.

I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.


Tabletalk: Let’s Tell A Story

Courtesy Bully Pulpit Games

As someone who writes tales about people who don’t actually exist, the process of telling stories fascinates me. While working alone allows me to be the final arbiter of what does and does not happen, some of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had come not from a word processing document, but from other books and dice. The methods and weight of rules might vary, but the experience is always unique.

Some games are built specifically to emphasize their story and characters more than anything else. Fiasco and Shock: are my two go-to examples of tabletop games firmly in story mode, while Maschine Zeit and Farewell to Fear maintain some more traditional dice-rolling rulesets not to define gameplay, but to reinforce storytelling. The emphasis in these games is on who the players’ characters are, not necessarily what they do.

On the flip side are games like Dungeons & Dragons and any of the titles within the World of Darkness universe. The ‘background’ portion of a given player’s character sheet is entirely optional, and the emphasis is on the stats depicted on the front. These games are built to generate epic moments, memorable feats of daring-do, and nail-biting suspense as the dice roll.

And then, there are those games with what I’d like to call ‘emergent storytelling’. Quite a few board games try to work atmosphere and elements of storytelling into their gameplay, like Pandemic, Elder Sign, or Escape!, but the nature of these games’ mechanics tend to get in the way of actually telling a story. Boss Monster and Seasons, on the other hand, give players enough breathing room to give their on-the-table representatives a bit more personality. Between turns, you may decide that your adorable forest-dwelling bunny wizard is actually bent on world domination, or that your towering and malevolent gorgon dungeon master actually wants to flip her dungeon so she can go on a long-awaited vacation. The towns built in Suburbia can’t help but take on some personality (“Why is that high school right next to a slaughterhouse?”). And the excellent Battlestar Galactica has you not only taking on familiar faces, but pitting them against one another in new ways as you try to determine who among you is a Cylon even as you struggle to survive. There’s nothing quite like throwing the Admiral in his (or her) own brig just on a gut feeling your character has. Finally, there are those who would advise you not to play Twilight Imperium with role-players. If a gamer take the honor of their race seriously, there may be a major grudge that plays out over the game’s many hours if you do something like occupy one of their systems or assassinate one of their councilors. Who says politics is boring?

What games do you feel cater more towards storytelling? What emergent gameplay do you enjoy the most?


From the Vault: Gratuitous Failure, 80s Style

Courtesy Devolver Games

You know it’s a rough day when a post doesn’t go up until the evening. Oof. Anyway, here’s a bit I wrote about failure. Probably appropriate! My actual review of Hotline Miami can be found here.


I’ve been writing a lot about failure lately. This is partially because I believe that we do learn more from our failures from our successes, and also because I know there are folks out there who like to know they’re not alone in the struggles they’re encountering. I am, admittedly, one of them. I continue to maintain that the important part is not the failures, but rather our reaction to them; does failure prevent us from moving forward, or inspire us to redouble our efforts? I often find a microcosm of this frustration and determination in video games, especially uncompromising ones like Hotline Miami.

For those of you unaware of the game, here’s a quick overview. It’s the 80s, an era infused with bright neon colors and oversaturated sound, and you are cast as a nameless individual taking job offers from your answering machine. They sound innocuous enough: babysitting, taking out the trash, and so on. But it’s all code for killing. You’re a contract killer and you walk into house after house, punching and bludgeoning and shooting your way to victory. You do so while wearing a rubber animal mask, just one of many indications that whoever you are, you aren’t right in the head.

What sets Hotline Miami apart from other games is the overall feel and timbre of the gameplay. You enter the homes of your targets from a top-down perspective, something not often seen in modern games, and everything is pixelated and vibrant in color, rather than rendered in 3D and drenched in modern, realistic palettes. This is probably a good thing given the level of brutality on display. People, human beings, are punched hard, have their bones broken, get their skulls smashed repeatedly against hard floors, and are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and sliced to death. They even get savaged by dogs. And more often than not, this will be happening to you, since you’re not going to get it right the first time. You’re going to fail.

Much like Super Meat Boy, the appeal of this game comes from the challenges it presents the player. Without hints, without cheats, without even a clear indication of how the player should proceed, the game sets up the pieces and lets the player have at it. I think this is part of the reason that the graphics look the way they do: the violence is not the point. Oh, it’s visceral to be certain, but reduced to this fidelity it verges more on goofy than disturbing. The true meat of the game is in its challenges, not in blood and bone and bullets. It doesn’t teach players to shoot people with different skin; it teaches them to keep trying even after you fail over and over and over again.

The message of Hotline Miami is not one regarding violence or madness or the 80s being even more fucked up than we remember. Those are just the trappings, the rails on which the story hums along. Within that story, through its mechanics, the game’s message becomes more clear: You’re going to fail. Keep trying anyway. Bludgeon the challenge the way you bludgeon that mook with a shotgun. Sooner or later, you’ll get it right, and it will feel awesome when you do.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I’m okay with turning a few pixelated faces to paste to get that awesome feeling. And I know I’ll get it in other areas, too.


Tabletalk: Your Table’s Real Estate

Courtesy Theology of Games
Courtesy Theology of Games

Space at your common table, be it in your dining room, den, or boudoir, is precious. It needs to be used wisely when it comes to entertaining. You need room for everyone to sit and be comfortable. Room for refreshments is always welcome. Games that occupy the table should make good use of whatever remaining real estate their is, holding the attention of your guests and keeping them involved and interacting. This is one of many reasons why Monopoly sucks – most of its board is full of negative space.

It also never changes. Board games that I’m finding myself thoroughly enjoying have gameplay that varies from session to session. When a galaxy in Twilight Imperium is created by the players around the table, it is going to be completely different from any scenario setup or previous galaxy, adding another element to the strange brew that makes it fun to devote eight hours to a single game. Quantum is similar in that the ‘board’ is mutable and can be altered or changed drastically to change up the experience. Games like Mage Knight, Archipelago, and Escape: The Curse of the Temple take it one step further by making their boards what would be called ‘procedurally generated': the board is revealed and assembled as you play, guaranteeing a fresh experience every time.

Other games like to decentralize the action. Galaxy Trucker may have a central board to track everyone’s position in the convoy, but all of the real action happens on the players’ individual boards, as meteors and laser blasts render your cobbled-together space truck back into the shoddy spare parts you used to build it in the first place. Suburbia gives each player their own space to build their SimCity-esque metropolis, with its bank and goals in a central location. Seasons may have a calendar in the center of the table and a single, shared scoreboard, but players will be interacting with their own decks, tokens, dice, and boards to manage the careers of their chosen adorable aspiring forest-wizards.

While board games continue to provide new and interesting ways to make the most of your table’s real estate, card games remain some of the most economical entertainment to grace that same area. While deck-builders like Dominion and Eminent Domain centralize the pool of cards players have to choose from in constructing their decks, Boss Monster takes the route of games above that sees players focused on individual areas just as much as the center of the table. Chez Geek and Munchkin encourage players to keep track of both their own area and those of other players as competition for victory becomes more and more rapid and cut-throat. Finally, hidden role games like Bang!, One-Night Ultimate Werewolf, The Resistance: Avalon, and Coup bring the eyes of the players up from the table and into those of the other players, the game play arguably more about bluffing, gambits, and deductive reasoning than any information provided at the center of the table.

Just to reiterate a point made earlier in this post, Monopoly sucks. Its gameplay never changes and its board consumes too much real estate on the table. Many games make better use of the space, even with similarly sized central boards; Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, SmallWorld, Lords of Waterdeep, and Battlestar Galactica are all examples of recent games that require a good chunk of your table’s space but make the most of it by varying gameplay elements, getting players involved and interacting, offering challenges or emergent narrative, and so on. It’s these things that make the game I’ve mentioned well worth the space on your table (and your shelves), and will more than likely bring people back for more, time and again.


From the Vault: Moderation in Geekdom

Reposting this as it is still relevant today.


Courtesy CCP
If this is the most important thing in the world to you, it’s time to have a talk.

I’ve said in the last couple days that I am either in love with or obsessed with Enforcing. I don’t take that sentiment lightly. As rewarding as the experience was, as wonderful as making so many new friends makes me feel, as affirming as it might have been to be helpful, useful, and enduring throughout the weekend, it would be unhealthy of me to make it the entire focus of my life. Geeks have a tendency to obsess, something I know through some experiences I am loath to repeat.

Don’t misunderstand me, enthusiasm is a good thing. I’m quite enthusiastic about Enforcing, as well as writing, gaming and game design, movies, music, and so on. Enthusiasm is what keeps people interested in their passions and their arts, that helps them endure the drudgery of the day so they can experience what they enjoy later. Enthusiasm is not the enemy, and should even be encouraged, as being dispassionate is just as unhealthy as being obsessed.

In fact, obsession with one thing can lead to a lack of passion or interest in other things, which are arguably more important. As much as you might think your World of Warcraft guild’s raid schedule might be, you do still have to do your homework, laundry, or other household chores. You can’t flit all over the country for conventions and hangouts when that money should be used for medical procedures, care of your family, or paying the bills. You might think that being in a teleconference with your corporate cohorts in EVE Online is the most important thing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth if your wife and kids are feeling neglected and marginalized while that’s going on.

I’m not saying don’t have fun. I’m not saying gaming is the enemy. That’s the sort of knee-jerk reactionary rhetoric you’ll get from some supposed news outlets and sensationalist narrow-minded pundits masquerading as journalists. I am not a journalist. I’m just another geek, and I know from experience that geekdom that becomes obsession leads to broken homes, shattered dreams, fractured hearts, and even damaged minds. I’ve spent the better part of ten years coming back from one of the worst blows dealt to me in my entire life, and it came from my own brainpan, my own neglect, my own obsessions. I’m saying, my friends, that we must be mindful of what draws us in and lights our fires. It’s good to be warmed and illuminated by those flames, but if you don’t manage that fire, it will consume you.

Take the time to get your life right. Sort things out and make sure you’re not losing anything crucial by pouring yourself into something insignificant. That purple loot, those enemy ships, your favorite star or the latest episode or the next event or release – none of it matters, in the end, if it costs you friends, family, or sanity. And even if you think you’re fine, take a moment to look at those around you, at your spouse or children or co-workers or close friends. It only takes a moment, but it can change, or save, your entire life.


Why Take This Matters

Courtesy Take This

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.

Some of the earliest, most indelible memories some of my generation has when it comes to video games involve taking a sword from an old man who just spoke those fateful words. “It’s dangerous to go alone.” The world is going to try and kill you. Monsters prowl in the shadows, ready to destroy your body and devour your dreams. Perils you won’t see coming are fully prepared to swallow you whole. You need to defend yourself. You must be prepared to combat your challenges and overcome your obstacles. “Take this.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but this wasn’t just advice that applied to the world of Hyrule. It applies to our world, too.

We may not have to deal with the extant threats in many video games, but the world is still going to try and kill you, spiritually if not physically. I’m not talking about religion specifically, but rather in terms of the human spirit. The singular and the extraordinary are far, far too often pushed and held down by society at large, and it’s easy to fall into a pattern of conformity and ‘normal’ behavior, just to get by. But not everyone can pull off acting ‘normal’. For some, it’s a daily challenge, and some days, it’s an hourly one.

I’ve both faced this struggle myself, and done my utmost to help others cope with it. It’s easy to think, in our darkest hours, that we’re facing these challenges alone. And it’s dangerous to go alone.

The fact is, however, that we are not.

Take This is, according to their site, “a charitable organization founded to increase awareness, education and empathy for those suffering from emotional issues, their families and greater institutions with the goal to eradicate the stigma of mental illness.” While not exclusively dealing with the gaming community, the founders work within that community, as journalists and organizers, and so focus a great deal of their outreach to gamers, through sharing stories via their website and holding panels at events like PAX.

I’m a little lucky, when you get right down to it. I share my stories all the time. I have some skill at articulating myself and the means to do it. I let myself take the time to breathe, to contemplate, and to share. Not everybody is so lucky. Not everybody feels they have a safe place to unburden themselves of the pain and anxiety and uncertainty and loneliness they feel.

And the fact is, everybody should have that.

That’s why Take This matters. They’re just getting started, and I want to see them grow. Their first PAX Prime panel last year was a great success, as was their first ever at PAX East 2014, and they’re returning to Boston next month (PAX East 2014, Arachnid Theater, Friday 12:30 PM, BE THERE). Their site is full of stories that have needed to be heard, they’re going to be looking to grow as much as possible, and they can’t do it alone. None of us should be alone in this fight. Our chances of survival are much greater if we face our challenges together.

The world is a dangerous and cold place. Emotions and mental imbalance can topple even the best of ideas when the world gets involved. It’s dangerous to go alone.

But you don’t have to be alone.

Take this.


Tabletalk: Winning in Twilight Imperium

http://spmti.weebly.com/planets.html

We’ve come a long way, Your Excellency. You’ve become acquainted with the galaxy surrounding the ruined throne-world of Mecatol Rex, you’ve learned how to command your fleets and transfer forces between systems, you’re familiar with a variety of strategies, and you know how to issue commands to your Leaders, give referendums to your Representatives, and hire Mercenaries. But all of these are mere building blocks on your path to victory – how do you walk that path?

Victory in Twilight Imperium is not necessarily contingent on having the most planets, beating an opponent into stardust, or even acquiring the most Trade Goods (currency that can be used for production or influence). Victory comes in the form of Objectives. Players are competing to be the first to achieve a certain number of Victory Points. The means to earn those Victory Points are dicated by cards that define different Objectives. Some are Public, and some are Secret.

Public Objectives are made available to all players throughout the game, one at a time. These vary from having a certain number of Technologies and spending Influence, to occupying systems or even Mecatol Rex. At the end of each game round, any player can claim one of the available Public Objectives. A player who takes the appropriate Strategy can also claim one, giving them an edge in Victory Points. Temporarily, at least.

Secret Objectives (and their smaller cousins Preliminary Objectives, available in the expansions), on the other hand, are dealt to each player at the start of the game. These are worth more points than the starting Public Objectives, but are more focused and harder to obtain. Often they will bring players into direct conflict. Like Public Objectives, they must be claimed at the end of the round. Finally, it is worth noting that neither Public nor Secret Objectives can be scored if the player’s Home System is occupied by another player.

There are other ways to acquire Victory Points, be they ancient artifacts or unique finds uncovered on distant suns, but for the most part, the Objectives are what you want to aim for. Watch for them when they appear, and plan your strategies accordingly. Best of luck, Your Excellency!

You’re going to need it.


An Open Letter to Online Gaming Fans

Dear Mr. or Ms. Online Gamer:

I’m writing to express my disappointment in your behavior towards games journalists and reviewers. How you behave within your games is your business; if I object to how people are treated within a game, chances are I won’t play that game, unless I find it really compelling on its own or several friends of mine play. However, how you behave outside of games is something that needs to be addressed, especially when it comes to people trying to inform and protect you.

Let me be perfectly clear. Yes, games journalists and some very fortunate reviewers do, in fact, get paid. They get paid to report on games, to discuss them and inform you of their merits and flaws. And 95-99% of games have both: few and far between are truly peerless games like Portal or true ludonarrative abortions like Ride to Hell: Retribution.

The crux of this letter is, however, the following:

Video game journalists are not paid by video game companies to write particular reviews.

There are a lot of reasons a particular feature is not mentioned in a review. The review could have been rushed. It could have been based on an early build of the game. The feature in question, for example the number of maps in the game or the available customization options, might not have factored into the reviewer’s reasoning and therefore was excluded from the review. You know what none of these things indicate? Greased palms.

Roger Ebert never got a payout from MGM for a positive review of a film. Rolling Stone doesn’t get sacks of cash from record companies or bands to talk up a particular album. Amazon reviewers aren’t given gift cards for five star reviews. I could go on.

Games journalists do have privileged positions. Nobody would deny that. Press passes and junkets do exist, and in some instances, companies will hold events or parties to try and ingratiate themselves. That’s part of business. But direct payouts between companies and journalists rarely, if ever, happens. And when these incidents do occur, any journalist worth their ink would scoff at the offer and stick to their wordy guns. I think you can look at the back history of any games journalist out there to see evidence of said journalist’s integrity.

I’ve had the privilege of working with a few of the people in this industry. I can tell you first hand that they work hard. They often have to work uphill against public opinion to discuss the truth. And as much as fat sacks of industry cash would make paying their bills easier, the ones I know wouldn’t take it. Their dedication isn’t to making money. Their dedication is to the truth, and to you, the video gamer at home, and whether or not your cash is going to be well-spent on a particular game.

Shame on you. Shame on your inflammatory words and questions of journalistic integrity. Stop being blinded by your loyalty to a particular game, and look at the situation objectively. Remove your inflated ego from the equation and realize that not everyone is going to share your opinion. There are other, more positive ways to get the attention you are clearly seeking, and all you do when you accuse an establish games journalist of this sort of unscrupulous behavior is come off looking like an absolute prat at best, and a bullying cretin at worst.

You can do better than that. And you should.

Best wishes, etc.


Tabletalk: Minions in Twilight Imperium


Pictured: The Admiral (top), General (center left), Agent (center right), Scientist (bottom left), and Diplomat (bottom right).

You may think, Your Excellency, that taking control of the galaxy is a lonely prospect. Looking at your home system and the expanse of space spreading out towards the throne world, huge fleets floating silently in the void, environmental hazards callously standing between you and your goals – it can be rather daunting. Thankfully, you aren’t as alone as you seem. You can and will have assistance, even if you have to pay for it.

Twilight Imperium provides options for several ‘minions’, as I like to call them. Not military units per se, they are supplemental facets of your bid for dominance. The systems they add to the game are rather straightforward, but can take a bit of explaining, so let’s begin.

Leaders

Each race can include three ‘Leaders’, luminaries of your people that help you in various ways. Like your Ground Forces and PDS units, Leaders are always considered either on a planet or being carried by a ship. However, a Leader can be transported by any kind of ship, and never counts towards the ship’s capacity. Leaders are powerful, but fragile: they can be captured or killed if their transporting ship is destroyed in a Space Battle, or if an Invasion Combat in which they’re involved fails. Captured leaders can be ransomed and sometimes executed, provided you are unable to rescue them. Let’s leave out the particulars of such operations for now, and learn about the five different types.

Scientists increase technology discounts provided by planets, add to the build capacity of nearby Space Docks, and add to the defenses of a planet their own, preventing bombardment from War Suns.

Diplomats delay incoming invasions and allow fleets (with permission) to pass through enemy space.

Generals allow re-rolls during Invasion Combat, make bombardment much more difficult, and give a bonus to defending Ground Forces.

Admirals give the ship they’re on one extra die, increase the movement of a Dreadnaught they occupy, and prevents defenders from retreating (unless they also have an Admiral).

Agents help invading Ground Forces avoid enemy PDS fire, allow you to take over enemy Space Docks and PDS units, and can be sacrificed to take the role of a ‘Sabotage’ Action Card, preventing an opponent’s Action Card from happening.

Representatives

When the Assembly is called, instead of voting on referendums yourself, you can send a Representative. You are, after all, a very busy potential potentate. At the start of the game, you will get three Representative cards. Each one adds a number of votes and sometimes have special abilities, like gaining you extra Trade Goods or forcing someone to vote a certain way. Most of them are Counselors, but some are either Spies or Bodyguards.

At the Assembly, each player chooses one Representative and sends them in face-down. Starting with the Speaker and going around clockwise, any Spies that were sent are revealed and their abilities resolved first. If the target of a Spy is a Bodyguard, it may also resolve an ability as a result of being targeted. After all Spies are resolved, non-Spies are revealed in the same way. Players can then offer one another Promissary Notes before voting occurs. These are special, binding agreements that may help a player get what they want out of the Assembly. Either way, if a Representative is assassinated or otherwise killed (by a suicide bomber, for example), he or she is removed from the game entirely. Bodyguards cannot be assassinated, but can die by other means.

Mercenaries

Attracted to money and opportunity, Mercenaries are available for hire to anyone activating the Trade III Strategy card. When executing the primary ability of Trade, the active player looks at the top two cards of the deck of available Mercenaries, chooses one, and returns the other to the bottom of the deck. Each Mercenary card has a corresponding token, with one side for Space and the other for Ground. The active player places his new hire Ground-side up on any friendly planet. Mercenaries can switch between Ground and Space during a Tactical or Transfer actions, as well as specifically from Space to Ground during Invasion Combat.

While they can add to your forces and abilities, Mercenaries cannot hold planets on their own. Any planet robbed of its Ground Forces reverts to neutral even if the Mercenary survives. Some Mercenaries have Evasion, allowing them to live longer in combat. However, if your Mercenary is killed, both the card and the token are removed from the game.

We’ve looked at the core concepts of Twilight Imperium‘s Tactical Actions, the different Strategic options, and now we’ve covered Leaders, Representatives, and Mercenaries. The biggest outstanding question remains:

How do you win the game? Read on…