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


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


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.


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.


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.


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…

500 Words On Netrunner

Art by Alexandra Douglass

I find myself wondering: is this going to be a thing? I don’t mean Netrunner, that is most definitely a thing. It’s a thing I’ve fallen in love with all over again. I can’t remember why I stopped playing the new iteration of Richard Garfield’s cyberpunk asymmetrical card game of bluffs and gambles and deception and tactical thinking. I think it was due to a lack of local players. I don’t know.

I’m actually wondering if this 500-words-on-a-Friday thing I’ve done twice in a row now is going to be a thing. “Friday 500″? In lieu of full-length reviews? Time seems to be at a premium these days. I have things I’m planning for, work schedules to plow through, and other projects I’m trying to line up to get knocked down, but time always seems to slip through my fingers. I’m going to try and get back on track in a few ways in the next couple weeks so I’m not completely out of sorts when big changes start happening.

Anyway, back to Netrunner. What’s changed since the last time I rambled about it? Quite a bit. I mean, not mechanically – it’s the same game of one player establishing large monolithic constructs full of juicy information (or deadly traps) while the other player pokes said constructs to extract the information and generally undermine all of those carefully laid plans. And it’s still pretty damn fantastic. But now I’ve started going down the rabbit hole of Data Packs.

Let me explain. Instead of randomized booster packs, Fantasy Flight releases 60-card ‘Data Packs’ on a regular schedule. There are ‘cycles’ of packs, all related thematically, with six packs per cycle that release each month for six months. Between cycles are larger expansions that focus on two identities – one Corp, one Runner. The interesting thing about these expansions is that each of them contains 3 copies of every card. You normally only have to buy one Data Pack to get the card you want, and you’re certain to have enough to put into your next deck. It saves money in the long run and keeps the playing field nice and level. It also appeals to the part of my brain that loves putting decks together. The Core Set does not have the same distribution of cards, which is unfortunate, but I think another $30 for a second Core Set is a better investment than spending that much on a single card in Magic: the Gathering’s somewhat cutthroat second-hand market.

How good is this game? Quinns won’t shut up about it. His friend Leigh loves it. Communities and subreddits remain abuzz about it. The competitive scene is going strong.

This game is so good that my long-suffering wife, with a rather well-documented history of disliking games like Magic, plays it, and doesn’t hate it.

She’s even gone so far as to buy me a copy of Neuromancer to help maintain my dystopian cyberpunk-y mood.

It’s a good game, and you should definitely play it.

Tabletalk: Strategies in Twilight Imperium

The Strategy Cards, as compared to an ordinary Reference Paw.

The galaxy is a dangerous place, Your Excellency, and it is always changing. With the Lazax Empire gone and so many leaders vying for power, the situation is as mutable as the stars themselves as they wheel in their courses. If you mean to prevail, you need to draw back from the tactical view and see the galaxy as a whole. You need to plan around and ahead of your opponents. You need the right strategy.

Last week, we discussed the very basics of Twilight Imperium, in the form of Tactical and Transfer actions. But I also mentioned these large, trapezoidal cards that determine the order of play in a given round. These are Strategy cards, and they have a pretty large part to play as the game progresses. As previously discussed, you can activate your Strategy card when it’s your turn instead of taking a Tactical action or using an appropriate Action Card. It does not have to be the first thing you do in the round. It is also worth noting that you cannot pass your turn until after you’ve activated your Strategy for the round.

I’m going to go over the broad categories of each Strategy, and then highlight some specifics from the expansions. Note that most of these cards have primary and secondary abilities. While the primary ability usually applies entirely to the player using the Strategy, other players can use the Secondary ability, in clockwise order from the active player, usually by spending a Command Counter from their Strategy Allocation area.

What follows is a breakdown of all 8 Strategies, what they do, and how you can benefit from taking the card in question.

1 – Initiative/Leadership

In most circumstances, the biggest benefit to taking this Strategy card is that it allows you to go first in the round. In the base game, Initiative lets you claim the Speaker token, which means you also go first when choosing the Strategy next round. It also saves you Command Counters when executing secondary abilities on other player’s Strategy cards.

Leadership, on the other hand, grants its user new Command Counters. The secondary ability lets all players spend Influence to pick up more, including the active player.

2 – Diplomacy

There are times when words are more powerful than weapons. Diplomacy allows the player to ease some of the pressure they may be feeling from their opponents in a direct fashion that does not involve combat. The basic game lets the player force a peace between themselves an opponent for a round, and allows the other players to refresh previously exhausted systems. The expansion’s Diplomacy II instead allows the active player to establish a Demilitarized Zone for a round, marking a system so that NONE of their opponents can activate it. The card also allows for the peaceful annexation of an unoccupied system.

3 – Political/Assembly

Ah, politics. A process simultaneously more civilized and more vicious than warfare itself. In Twilight Imperium, there is a deck of Political Cards filled with agendas from bans on weapons research to dispensation of resources to another player. The basic Political Strategy lets the primary player manipulate the deck after they resolve the top card, as well as providing Action Cards and Command Counters. Assembly, on the other hand, offers the active player the choice of taking the Speaker token for themselves while naming another player to resolve an agenda, or resolving one of their own agendas while naming someone else as Speaker. This is also where players can refresh planets when using Assembly.

And then, there’s the option for Political Intrigue, which I will go into next week.

4 – Logistics/Production

Since the role of the Logistics card (providing Command Counters) is taken by the Leadership card in the expansion, we have Production instead. The active player gets to produce units at one of their space docks without activating the system. The secondary ability is similar, but limits production capacity. It’s a very straightforward Strategy.

5 – Trade

The base game of Twilight Imperium and each of its expansions all have different versions of this Strategy. In all three of them, players negotiate to exchange Trade Agreements, and collect Trade Goods from those agreements to supplement their resources. The base game is a bit harsh in that players using that card’s secondary ability must spend one of their precious Command Counters to get the goods. Shattered Empire does way with that portion of the card, and seems rather friendlier. Shards of the Throne includes Mercenaries in its Trade Strategy, and I’ll give a primer on who they are and how they work next week.

6 – Warfare

War in Twilight Imperium is all about Tactical Actions, moving your fleets and armies into position for the perfect strike. The basic Strategy card lets you take back one of your Command Counters used for a Tactical Action, allowing you to use it again elsewhere, while secondary players can move some of their smaller ships. Shattered Empire instead introduces us to the High Alert token, a far more visible way to get your point across. Placing a system on High Alert means all ships in that system get bonuses to movement and space combat. The token can move with the fleet at the player’s option, or it can remain there as a deterrent for any potential invaders. Secondarily, the improved Warfare Strategy lets players move ships, regardless of class but limited in number, without activating their destinations.

7 – Technology

This Strategy Card is how players expand the technological repertoire of their burgeoning empire. The card in Shattered Empire lets the primary player do so more quickly, while the secondary ability is cheaper for the other players. There is a simplified tech tree I’ll make available to you, courtesy of someone over at Board Game Geek. You may find it useful for planning purposes.

8 – Imperial/Bureaucracy

Twilight Imperium is won by its Objective Cards. Some of them are Public Objectives anyone can claim if they meet the requirements, while others are Preliminary or Secret Objectives specific to the individual player. The Imperial strategy lets the active player reveal one of the Public Objectives, then grants them free Victory Points, while the secondary abilities allow for the production of units. Bureaucracy, on the other hand, grants no free Victory Points but instead lets the active player manipulate the Public Objectives, and lets them score one if they can, something not normally possible before the end of the round. This allows for more flexible and, arguably, more fair play, while keeping up the pace of the game. Which is important when the game takes up your entire day.

With this knowledge, you are now prepared to play most of the game! All that remains is to break down some more specifics.

Next Week: Getting The Most Out Of Your Minions – Leaders, Representatives, and Mercenaries

Tabletalk: Tactical Actions in Twilight Imperium

Courtesy heidelbaer.de

Greetings, Your Excellency! You have been chosen to lead your people towards victory on the galactic stage. The Lazax Empire has been overthrown, and Mecatol Rex is yours for the taking. Perhaps. You must command vast armies, immense spacecraft, ambassadors, trade envoys, and the very industries of the planets of the former empire to defeat your noble rivals or, at the very least, beat them to the punch. Fortunately for you, I am here to help you. I am your humble tutor, and this is Twilight Imperium.

Twilight Imperium is an expansive board game, for between 3 and 8 players, that is best described as a space opera in a box. Each player assumes control of one of the races who were formerly a part of, or interested in usurping, the Lazax Empire. From your home system, in one of the galaxy’s corners, you will head out to achieve objectives, gather resources, build your forces, and defeat the other players. The first player to a designated amount of victory points is the winner! If you want to sit down with your friends and create your own science-fiction epic, vying for power and making backdoor deals to achieve your aims, this is the game for you. Just… put aside a day for it. Yes, an entire day. Maybe more than one if you have 8 players. But we’ll get back to the timeline later; let’s talk about how you play.

For this tutorial, we will use the Federation of Sol.

Each player, including you, will get one of these command cards. It’s a reference sheet, a repository for the various counters you’ll need, and a description of your race, its background, and its mentality. When the galaxy is mapped out, which is a mini-game in and of itself, one player will start the game with this, the Speaker token, indicating that they kick off the start of a round of Twilight Imperium: the Strategy Phase. Starting with the Speaker, each player chooses one of these eight overarching Strategies. I’ll go over them in detail in a future session, but all you need to know for now, is that the Strategy cards determine the order of play for the round. So, if you choose Initiative (or Leadership, if you’re playing with the expansions, which you should), you will go first in the round, even if you are not the Speaker. But regardless of where you are in the turn order… what do you do when it’s your turn?

Strategy Cards, as compared to an ordinary Reference Paw.

The answer is simple: one of four things. You can execute a Tactical action, Transfer forces between friendly systems, pull the trigger on your Strategy, play an Action card that designates you can play it ‘As an Action’, or you can pass. The round is over when all players have passed, and a new one begins. But let’s go back to that Tactical action, which is the beating heart of Twilight Imperium, the thing that keeps the game moving and slowly paints the galactic canvas, one brush-stroke of starlight at a time.

These are a few systems that could appear in your galaxy. Let’s say you have forces at Jord, your home system, and you want to move them to the Tiamat/Hercalore system. That takes a Tactical action. Take one of your Command tokens from the Command Pool area on your command card, and place it on your target system.


This is called ‘activating’ the system. You move your space forces first, possibly into a hail of defensive fire from Planetary Defense installations, and dealing with any combat in space. Then, you may move your forces from your fleet onto the planet, possibly with bombardment, and even more defensive fire, and engage in invasion combat. Once that’s done, you get any new planet cards you’ve acquired (face-down, so you can’t use them this round), your turn is over, and play proceeds. That’s a hostile system movement; how about if you have a friendly system to move to? Or build from?


It’s similar to hostile movement. You activate the system, move in your fleet and forces, and then, if you’ve controlled the system since last round, you can build a space dock there. If you already have a space dock, you can build other units here, up to a limit imposed by the industrial capacity of the planet the dock orbits.


To build, you have to exhaust (turn face down) systems with resources equal to the cost of whatever you’re building. In this example, we’re going to build two Cruisers at Jord. To pay for these Cruisers, each costing 2 resources, we first activate the system our Space Dock is in, and then exhaust Jord by turning it face-down. If Tiamat or Hercalor were ready, we could use them to build more ships or forces, but since we just got them this round, we can only exhaust Jord.

You can also do this as part of a Transfer action. Transfer actions are almost identical, but allow you to rearrange forces between two friendly systems, and build in one of them, but it consumes two of your command counters. And you need to keep that in mind, because you do not get these counters back. Not directly, anyway.

This implementation of tactical actions is part of what makes Twilight Imperium so brilliant. Downtime for the individual player is minimized. And even when it isn’t your turn, you’re going to want to see what your opponents are doing. Even if they’re light-years away from you, they might be building a fleet you’ll want to try and dilute, or guide your allies… if you have any… into attacking. You’re going to want to think two to three actions ahead, and time your movements as best you can, to obfuscate your true intent for as long as possible. For Twilight Imperium is much more than a game of moving plastic pieces and rolling dice.

Next Week: Strategies and You – What’s With The Trapezoids?

Ultimate Werewolf by Email

Courtesy Wallpapersfree

This past weekend I got to play Ultimate Werewolf with a large group. It was incredibly fun, and a thought occurred. Why does the fun have to stop because the event did?

This is a game of hidden roles. Most players are Villagers, but some of them are Werewolves, prowling by night to feed. Every day, the Villagers awaken to find another of their number brutally murdered, and pick one from among them to hang for the heinous crimes. The Villagers win if they kill all the Werewolves, but all the Werewolves have to do is survive until there aren’t enough Villagers to kill them off…

If this sounds interesting to you, take a look at this primer on all of the roles, and join this Google group. We’ll put games together from those who join, and conduct all of the game’s business via email. Be prepared for some harrowing nights and hectic, fear-fueled days…

Welcome to Ultimate Werewolf by email.

The “Real Game” Has Begun

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.

Derevi & the Bouncing Souls

Art by Michael Komarck

The new year has brought some new products with it, of course, and Wizards of the Coast has presented five new pre-constructed decks for the Commander imprint within Magic: the Gathering. These decks make bringing new people into the format long-called EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander) a lot easier. Each deck provides reprints of old favorite cards as well as new and exciting selections that work just fine outside of the format, while others feel exclusive to the unique situations presented by a singleton deck of 100 cards with one set aside.

Case in point: Derevi, Empyrial Tactician. Her ability is tied directly to the ‘command zone’, an area of play within the game that is neither the graveyard nor ‘exile’. Your Commander, or general or whatever you call them, begins play in this zone rather than your hand or deck, and is cast from this zone. Each time you cast the card, you must pay 2 extra mana for every circumstance that’s returned it to the zone. So, if an opponent kills it, or you sacrifice it, or if an ability would exile it, you send it to the command zone, and can bring it back, albeit needing to pay more for it. It creates a very real drawback to bringing your Commander into play every turn.

Derevi has a way around that drawback.

Printed on her card is an ability that allows you to bring her directly from the command zone into play. Her base mana cost is cheaper than this ability, but I don’t think most players will be casting her as they normally would. Not only does the cost of her ability not increase every time she is killed or exiled, the ability can be used on an opponent’s turn. And, whenever she enters the battlefield, or one of your creatures does combat damage to a player, she taps or untaps another permanent card. This could be a land or artifact you need to produce mana, or a pesky thing on your opponent’s battlefield you need out of the way.

I really, really enjoy playing with enter the battlefield effects. There’s a very nasty trick you can play with Fiend Hunter that allows you to exile opposing creatures permanently. The synergy between Sun Titan and Eternal Witness is incredibly impressive. The deck comes off the shelf with a few cards to enable these things, such as Conjurer’s Closet and Mistmeadow Witch, but being a pre-constructed “jack of all trades” deck, needed some tweaking to really make the most of the mechanic.

For example, the deck did not have Sun Titan or Eternal Witness. When it come to ‘bouncing’ or ‘flickering’ cards to make the most of them, my old friend Venser, the Sojourner comes immediately to mind. Deadeye Navigator felt like a must-include, as its ability is cheaper than that of the Mistmeadow Witch and can be used to either trigger its partner or flicker itself to bond with something new. Acidic Slime and Fiend Hunter not quite enough recurring removal for the deck, so Terastodon and Sunblast Angel needed to go in. So it went until I had a deck I was comfortable with. You can see the complete deck list here.

It’s a blast to play. With no counterspells and little direct damage, the deck is not overtly aggressive and thus can play it quiet for a few turns, avoiding confrontation as much as possible. There are a few political cards that can incentive your opponents to fight one another more, or lead to negotiations (“Is that creature giving you trouble? How about I take control of it with Rubinia Soulsinger and you smash that guy’s face in?”). I think there are a couple cards I could cut but I’m not sure what it might be missing – perhaps a few more board clears like Terminus or Day of Judgment.

How does the deck look to you? Would you be willing to play it?

First Impressions: Retro Shooter Redux

Courtesy PC Gamer

Back in the day, graphical fidelity on PCs was not really up to rendering 3D environments within simulations. The best they could do back in the mid-90s was some polygons stacked together to make landscapes to fly over in jet simulators. However, clever folks at studios like Apogee and id Software could fool the eye with what was called “2-and-a-half D” to make corridors and courtyards seem like 3D environments. They then filled those corridors and courtyards with squishy Nazis and demons for us to shoot at in games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom respectively. The popularity of first-person shooters exploded, with follow-ups including the medieval-themed Heretic and Hexen and Duke Nukem 3D, back when Duke was still actually kind of funny.

This was long before concepts like “modern military” and “cover-based” would come to dominate the shooter scene. This was before shooters slowed down, when frenetic energy and sudden, panicked 180 swings with a rocket launcher was rewarded with gibbets of enemies and a slew of points instead of some distant would-be teammate calling you something offensive. Some shooters have tried to recapture this feeling – Painkiller springs to mind immediately – but to really come to grips with this difference in gaming, you have to go back to the classics, and that’s exactly what some studios have done.

I’m going to do full reviews of both Rise of the Triad and Shadow Warrior‘s remakes. I know they came out last year, and I know others have covered them. But I want more people to check them out. I want folks to realize that this sort of shooter can be a ton of fun, and you don’t need remote-control drone strikes, glitzy latest-console-generation graphics, or half-baked invasion-of-America-because-they’re-jealous-of-our-freedoms conspiracy theories to justify that fun. And I want to convey more fully the impression I get from playing these games.

And that impression is, Holy shit this is fun as hell!

Games are about having fun. They’re about distracting us from chores and deadlines and every other actual stressor in life. I may enjoy a relaxing round of daily quests or dungeon-delving in World of Warcraft, or a thought-provoking intense game of Hearthstone, but sometimes I just want to blow something the fuck up. I want the thrill of fully automatic weapons, the visceral appeal of a well-timed sword strike, the inherent cool factor of heat-seeking missiles fired from the hip, and a commanding officer I want to pound into oblivion for being a bit of a twat. These games fulfill those urges, and in ways that won’t get me arrested. You should check them out.

I’ll go into more detail in the weeks ahead. I do need to talk about boring stuff like premises, plots, characters, all of that stuff. It’s what I do, after all. But for now: Holy shit they remade Shadow Warrior and Rise of the goddamn Triad and they look great and I’m laughing and it’s fast and fun and OH CRAP NOT-NAZIS ARE SHOOTING AT ME AAAAAAAAAAH

Guess Who’s Back?

Courtesy WoWHead and sorronia

After nearly three years, I’ve returned to Azeroth. I’m playing World of Warcraft again. And, to be honest, I think I’ve come back at a good time.

It can be difficult to convey story through the medium of video games in the best of circumstances. What I mean is, video games have the potential to tell a more involved, more personal story, since the player becomes a part of the story through their interactions. In an online multiplayer game, the challenges increase exponentially, as you don’t necessarily want players to change everything about your world. It’s probably for the best that some major characters never stay dead; you don’t want to leave yourself open to the possibility of town guards suddenly saying “All hail Emperor XXXYoloSwag”.

However, Mists of Pandaria has surprised me. I was fully prepared to be keenly aware of the contrivances inherent in a new landmass appearing out of nowhere and its people blithely becoming part of the world. However, from the start of its quest chains, I was shocked. The themes of the factional violence occurring in this new land have echoes of a cautionary tale on colonialism and its impact on a native population. The indigenous people of the continent are cautious yet curious about the newcomers, and the quests you undertake with the character Lorewalker Cho demonstrate that beautifully. You feel a creeping sense of dread as your faction militarizes some of the natives, and… well, I’ve probably already spoiled enough. Suffice it to say, this is the most involved I’ve felt with a story in an MMO in a long time.

I’m sure there are plenty of neckbeards shaking their fists at the rearrangement of talents and whatnot, but for my part, I don’t mind some systems getting streamlined and simplified. I used to be concerned that I’m “just another DPS” and get very frustrated at the prospect of dying in dungeons or raids. But it’s all part of learning and improving, and contributing damage is contributing, regardless of class or other utility. So I’m feeling better about that part of the game, too.

I have character and story ideas aplenty, but I have other responsibilities, and I want to get at least one character to max level before I do anything else. Somebody’s gold has got to pay for everything, after all.

I had a feeling I’d get pulled back when the Battle.net client started downloading updates for World of Warcraft after it installed Hearthstone. I’m glad that, so far, the game feels worth my time and my money. I’m cautiously optimistic about Warlords of Draenor, and I’m holding out hope that the dungeons and raids I have yet to see in Pandaria have enough challenge to keep me involved.

First Impressions: Hearthstone

A few years ago, Blizzard Entertainment tried their hands a trading card game version of World of Warcraft. I was into it, for a while, as were quite a few other fans. It coupled the familiar themes and powers of the MMO with excellent art and an interesting mechanic for getting cards into play that sought to reduce some of the problems inherent with a TCG’s necessary randomization. While I no longer play it, it seems to still be going, if the shelves at Target are to be believed. And now, Blizzard seems to be working on bringing that sort of turn-based strategic and collectible experience to their PC fanbase with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, currently in closed beta.

Courtesy f2p.com

The game behaves like most TCGs: you acquire a starter set of cards, assemble a deck, and do battle with other players. Every turn within a game session, you receive a mana crystal with which to cast spells or summon minions from your hand, ensuring you never get shorted on the resources necessary to play. The goal is to reduce your enemy’s hero to 0 health while keeping yours alive. There’s a hero for each of the nine basic character classes in World of Warcraft, from ancient legends like Malfurion and Gul’dan to relative newcomers like Valeera and Anduin. Each hero has some class-specific cards, and a general pool from which they can gather other minions. The game is certainly not rocking the boat when it comes to traditional aspects of TCGs, and as with most things, the devil is in the details.

There’s an astounding amount of detail in Hearthstone‘s art and sound design. The play areas themselves are interactive, every minion has a unique voice, opponents slam into one another with resounding cracks to the cheers of the onlooking crowd – it all leads to a greater sense of immersion. The minions’ abilities are varied quite nicely, opening up multiple avenues and playstyles as they are added to decks. Each hero has a power to which they always have access, meaning that a player is only rarely entirely out of options. There are two play modes: regular or Constructed, in which players assemble their decks from their personal collections before doing battle, and The Arena, where a brand new deck is constructed from a pool of random cards and runs are more limited. Both modes offer up rewards, as do Quests which are distributed once a day, most commonly in the form of gold which can be used to enter The Arena or buy ‘Expert’ packs of cards. And if you don’t need some of the cards you get, you can ‘Disenchant’ some, breaking them down into Dust which is then used to assemble different cards, from Common cards all the way up to Legendaries.

As much as I like Hearthstone, I recognize it has some flaws. There’s very little to do on an opponent’s turn. There are ‘secrets’ which are cards that activate on certain triggers from an opponent, but only a few classes have them and they’re not that difficult to deal with. A couple classes feel a little unbalanced (looking at you, Priests) and it can be difficult to assemble an effective ‘theme’ deck. There are some glitches here and there, but the game is still in beta and that’s par for the course. Finally, the game can be a bit stingy with its in-game currency and rewards, and while the nature of its systems keep it from being a ‘pay-to-win’ style game outwardly, I feel like higher quest rewards or more Dust from the Arena would be better incentives to keep playing.

That said, Hearthstone is a rock-solid implementation of a good premise for an extension of one of Blizzard’s longest-running franchises. I am enjoying the beta, and continue to sneak matches in around writing sessions and bouts with longer games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft. It scratches the Magic: the Gathering itch quite well and, flawed as it is in places, I’m curious and eager to see how it behaves in its final form.

Let’s Get Together

A sample setup of Archipelago. Sort of.

I’m finding more and more that the games that I truly enjoy playing with other people aren’t necessarily straight-up competitions. Oh, I still enjoy a good game of Magic, don’t get me wrong. And Blizzard’s collectible game Hearthstone scratches that particular itch while having a purchase system that makes you want to buy packs to both explore and collect, not just to “buy power” as you can in other free-to-play games. But with JayCon approaching, I figured I’d gather up the games I plan on taking which might get played, and I noticed that all of them have at least some level of cooperation.

Both Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Elder Sign are fully cooperative, with players rolling dice together to overcome the obstacles presented by the game. Elder Sign is perhaps best described (if somewhat derogatorily) as “Arkham-themed Yahtzee”. Players are investigators in an old museum whose exhibits are making it easier for some sort of horrific elder god to awaken. The investigators must gather the mystical signs and defeat monsters to prevent the end of the world. There is a ticking clock, and investigators have limited amounts of stamina and sanity. Escape, on the other hand, is a game played in real time. Instead of taking it in turns to explore the temple, battle its curses, and unearth its treasures while looking for the exit, players move and act as fast as they can roll their dice. The game comes with a soundtrack, which both provides atmosphere and audio cues as to when players must race for the safe room before losing one of their dice permanently. It’s a great, intense little burst of fun and adventure that only takes ten minutes to play, and it’s even fun to take on solo.

I’m sure some people are tired of me going on about The Resistance: Avalon and Battlestar Galactica, cooperative games with hidden threats. Player cooperation is not so much encouraged as demanded, and the fact that one or more players are intentionally deceiving the others adds an entirely new wrinkle to the gameplay. It’s entirely possible that two completely different levels of cooperation are going on simultaneously, all without direct communication, and that makes for a great time with friends who you may end up resenting because they were so good at fooling you. But perhaps the game I’m most eager to play (or play more of, I tried it out Tuesday night) is Archipelago.

I don’t have enough experience with the game to write up a full review, but the game is fantastic. It takes a series of various game mechanics – player bidding, worker placement, card drafting, and so on – and chains them together into a rotating arrangement of ever-evolving depth and complexity. From a relatively simple starting point, just a couple of turns in, the game explodes with choices and challenges. Each turn sees a problem on the islands that must be overcome through a combined effort of everyone involved… but not everyone has to participate. In addition to all of its other systems, Archipelago gives each player a personal, private objective. This could be as simple as having the most money or building the most churches, but it could also be supporting the natives in a war for independence. The fact that the players do not know what each other’s objectives are, and can interpret the actions of an obstinate player in multiple ways, lends even more depth and nuance to a game that is already keeping several plates spinning at once. I’m very curious to see how the game players with more than two players, especially if one is aggressive and ambitious, or if one is manipulative and keen to whatever fears may be sweeping the islands at any given moment.

Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to this weekend. Be it rolling dice, dealing cards, or buying local beef to export pineapples to Europe, it’s going to be a great time at the tables.

First Impressions: The Wolf Among Us

Telltale Games has a lot going for them. Their Poker Night games demonstrate some pretty solid design choices, while The Walking Dead is one of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had gaming in recent memory. Adventure games, to me, remain a charming and underrated way of combining gameplay with story, ensuring our actions and choices define the outcome of what’s happening in front of us. I was looking forward to trying out The Wolf Among Us, and recently finished its first episode, “Faith”.

Courtesy Telltale Games

The Wolf Among Us introduces us to the world of Fables. A series of graphic novels from DC’s always-interesting Vertigo studios, Fables are literally fairy tale characters who live in our world. Having emigrated from their original settings, these legendary characters do their best to live among normal humans, with the less than human-appearing ones needing magical spells to pass as everyday people. They live in their own little corner of New York City, dubbed ‘Fabletown’, and order is kept thanks to an unlikely sheriff in the form of Bigby Wolf. He’s our protagonist, but he’s not much of a hero.

In fact, in the past, he’s played the villain most often. As the Big Bad Wolf, he’s gone after and devoured pigs and little girls alike. However, that was the past. The character we see in The Wolf Among Us is much more reserved and far less malevolent, though he still has a surly attitude and is more than capable of beating down someone trying to put a hurt on him. He’s trying to make things better, for himself and for Fabletown, so he tries not to ‘wolf out’ or abuse people. He’s complex and magnetic, a great lens for us to experience Fabletown through, and like all Fables, he’s very hard to kill – this is, after all, a character that once has his stomach filled with rocks before he was thrown into a river. And yet, The Wolf Among Us is something of a murder mystery, meaning Bigby must use skills other than his ability to punch people really hard.

The combat in The Wolf Among Us is an improvement over that in The Walking Dead. Movement keys prompt dodging, the mouse helps Bigby use the environment or strike key portions of an opponent, so on and so forth. Prompts from the environment are also improved. If I had a complaint about the game, it’d be that the on-screen prompts from the environment make puzzles a bit too easy to solve. I’m not sure if you can turn this feature off or not – I’ll just have to play again to find out!

‘Faith’ is a great start to this new series of Telltale episodes. Fabletown is full of great characters, who both maintain the aspects that made them timeless and present them in a new, modern way that smacks of a noir classic. I’m a sucker for the blending of genres in general, and this particular mix is right up my alley. I’m very much looking forward to coming episodes. The Wolf Among Us offers a ‘season pass’ on Steam for all five of its episodes, and you can get individual ones on the console of your choice. It’s definitely worth your time to check out.

The Creeps

HAL 9000

Slasher movies and torture porn will always have their place at Halloween and in the hearts and minds of horror fans. For me, effective and lasting horror does not necessarily have anything to do with buckets of blood or how stomach-turning the visuals are. Sometimes, the most penetrating stories of terror have less to do with what we see, and more to do with what we don’t; less about the delivery of lines, more about what’s left unsaid.

In terms of visuals, one of the most effective and haunting horror games I’ve ever played is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A little indie gem from a few years back, Amnesia remains a game I have yet to finish. Some horror games like to throw their monsters directly at you in as loud and visceral a way possible, but Amnesia plays things with more subtlety. With no means to defend yourself, a limited amount of lighting in a game defined by darkness and shadows, and the addition of a sanity meter that makes things even more difficult if we’re alone in the dark for too long, when monsters appear (or don’t, but you know they’re there) it’s best to just run and hide. It’s frighteningly easy to lose track of where you’re going and what your goal for the moment is when you hear a moan or a scraping sound and you pretty much crap yourself in terror. The sensations created just through sound design and good use of the environment are, in a word, creepy.

Endermen in MineCraft also qualify. Dark-skinned creatures that appear in dark areas, Endermen are unique in that they won’t attack you right away. They’ll blink around with their teleportation powers, move blocks here and there, and stare at you. If you stare back, though… that’s when they become hostile. They scream. And they teleport directly behind you to attack you. Quite creepy.

Sometimes, though, the visuals and triggering mechanisms aren’t what stick in our minds as something that creeps us out. Sometimes, a person or object can appear completely normal, yet project that aura of vague discomfort that’s impossible to shake. This happens a lot when a character appears normal, but talks and acts in a way that hints that they’re not quite human, and perhaps only learned about humanity from reading a pamphlet or taking a correspondence course. The Observers in Fringe apply, especially September in the first season. The G-Man from Half-Life also springs to mind – courteous, polite, well-articulated, but… there’s definitely something wrong with him.

Stanley Kubrick is one of the best film directors to convey this sense of unease. Many of his shots in The Shining and A Clockwork Orange are off-putting in their framing, length, and presentation, even if the conversations within could be considered entirely mundane. But for me, one of the creepiest things he’s ever brought to life is the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faceless antagonists range from Doctor Who’s Daleks with their stilted, loud voices and monstrous appearances concealed by armored throwbacks to low-budget sci-fi, to Michael Meyers and his silent, towering, knife-wielding menace. But HAL is unique. He’s not overtly malevolent, nor is he outwardly psychopathic. He is a computer. He is a construct of logic and reason. His actions, given his programming, make sense, when you think about it. And he never raises his voice, never swears, never even speaks ill of those he wrongs. This calm, even manner of speaking coupled with the unblinking gaze of his multiple cameras and the amount of control he exerts over the crew of the spacecraft Discovery make him one of the creepiest characters ever created.

What’s creepy for you? Who’s your favorite creepy antagonist?

From the Vault: Death & Consequences

Dayjob demands have put me way behind in several ways. As I struggle to recover & catch up, here’s an entry from last year that I feel is still relevant.

Courtesy Firaxis Games
One of these soldiers is likely to die.

There’s just something about a game, or story, that doesn’t pull its punches.

I get a feeling for that something when I play FTL or the new XCOM. A ship exploding under my intrepid crew or a favorite soldier getting their face melted off by plasma fire carries a bit of an emotional wallop. I’m tempted to keep the autosave feature of XCOM turned off to heighten that feeling and maintain the game’s edge. And that edge comes from choices having consequences, and those consequences sticking.

When games present their players with choice, the experience is improved when those choices mean something later on. One of the strengths of the Mass Effect series was that who you spared and who you left to rot does come back in one way or another, even if it doesn’t play too much into the overall story. While the consequences of those choices only really mattered in a minor sense, it felt like they mattered, at least to me.

In the aforementioned games, the choices really do matter, and a wrong choice means death. It’s not telegraphed or presented in story terms, either; they’re the little incidental gaming choices we make, like having a soldier cover a civilian’s retreat, or picking one class of weapon over another, or choosing the destination for your vessel. It is nearly impossible to predict which choices will lead to total victory and which will lead to bloody doom. That is what makes these games challenging and fun to play.

Similarly, some of the best stories out there have characters who make choices that lead to either their deaths or the deaths of others. It happens to men and women in command all the time, sure, but others are simply doing what they feel is right or trying to protect someone or something they love. George RR Martin, Jim Butcher, and Chuck Wendig have all done this – a character we like makes a decision, does all they can to back that decision up, and it explodes in their face. Someone close to them gets hurt or killed, and their own life may come close to ending before the story’s done. It’s tragic, it’s harrowing, and it’s great storytelling.

Make your character’s choices matter. Make those deaths mean something.

Don’t Call It A Comeback

Courtesy Blizzard
Probes aren’t just adorable – they’re essential.

There are really only two games I’d consider playing competitively on a regular basis. I don’t think I have the skills to play a first-person shooter anything but casually in multiplayer, and while I used to play CounterStrike in university, I can’t see myself devoting the time necessary to the game now, let alone coughing up money every year for the latest iteration of the best “spunk-gargle-weewee” game around. I’m also not one for fighting games like Street Fighter; again, I’m much more casual with that sort of game, and Divekick is more my speed with that sort of thing. The two games I look towards as a true test of my skills and that engage me enough to drive me to improve constantly are Magic and Starcraft. While I still want to return to Legacy in Magic, Standard will be more economical, but that’s a post for another time. Even more economical is StarCraft 2 - unlike Warhammer or Warmachine, there’s no miniatures to buy or paint, and no need to find a table big enough to play on. The only investment required is time. And lean tissue in the brain.

Getting back into StarCraft 2 after a long break isn’t easy for anybody. Heart of the Swarm has hit since I last played on the ladder, and that may have changed things up drastically. My only recourse is to change with them, and that means starting over again, from scratch, to build myself back up into a better gamer. What I like about StarCraft as opposed to say, Magic, is that the random element is minimized and, on higher levels of play, non-existent. It’s entirely skill and strategy. But before I can get anywhere near that level, I have to get my bare bones basics nailed down. And that means mechanics. That means making workers.

Building workers is pretty much the foundation of any future play. It’s the fuel that runs a player’s engine in StarCraft. It’s the mana of Magic, the production certs of Axis & Allies, the planetary resources of Twilight Imperium. I can’t spend any time worrying about build orders or army composition counters or even the meta-game at large. Not yet, at least. As much as I love to tie my strategic and tactical gameplay into a greater philosophy or Sun-Tzu or something, there’s a reason soldiers start at boot camp and aren’t just shipped into combat. Eren in Attack on Titan doesn’t strap on the Three-Dimensional Maneuver Gear and get right to titan-slaying without some serious training. That’s the way it has to be for me, as well.

So I’ve looked up some notes on the changes to the game, watched some videos by Filter, and started drilling against the AI. Not to practice tactics, not to ensure wins, not to nail down build orders. I’m just making workers and basic units, focusing on the workers. So far, Terran and Protoss are going fine. Zerg, I’m struggling with. But I’ll get there. And when I do, at that point I’ll jump on the ladder and start fighting live opponents. Though ‘fighting’ may be a bit of a stretch, as all I’m likely to do is bunch up all of my basic dudes and lob them at the enemy with no real tactics involved.

Then again, I don’t think many people at Bronze level will know what to do when 50 Marines or 30 Zealots or 40 Roaches come knocking at their door en masse 10 minutes into a game. I guess we’ll see once I have my benchmarks nailed down.