Category: Games

Working In Layers

Making card games in print-on-demand is mostly the task of making a large .pdf which shows every individual card, back-and-face, like a book. When I first started out – well, when I first started out, I let Fox do it, because it was super hard and I was embarassingly bothered by Scribus.

Scribus does suck, but I was more afraid of it than I should have been and that meant that I did as much work as I possibly could in some games like Murder Most Fowl, where while the card had a variable face, each was a whole image, crafted for each version of the card, then put manually into a file. This meant that that game’s file is very large and I was using graphical arts to handle layout stuff.

What’s that mean? Look, if you haven’t experienced it’s hard to explain, but it’s the difference between being able to easily move around bits of a design and replacing them quickly.

My first proper experiment in using Scribus to layer the components of a game was Good Cop, Bear Cop. Here’s an example card:

And here are the five layers that go into that card’s face.

What’s this mean? It means that if I do something redundant to a card I don’t need to edit twenty files in the .pdf – I can just replace the file showing that component and it works. This happened in Good Cop, Bear Cop: I was originally using these icons for two of the game elements:

Which I replaced with these:

Replacing these icons meant I edited three images that were otherwise transparent, then reloading Scribus.

MTG: Seasons Of Standard Bannings

Magic: The Gathering is a game with a long and storied history in a player base populated mostly by people who seem to be drawn to this game so they can tell other people how to do things better. During the history of Standard, there have been four major rounds of bannings, and, until this most recent I had this personal hypothesis about the impacts of these and what they told R&D about the way the game worked.

Round 0: THE DARK TIMES

I’m not going to lie to you, I barely understand early bannings. Things were the wild dang west. There was a format where ten cards from alpha, the original duals, were made legal, but only them. I don’t know this period well. Moving on.

Round 1: Combo Winter

Randy Buehler gives a fantastic rundown of the decks of this first great era of standard bannings, the time when Standard was A Thing long enough that bannings were themselves, A Thing. This period was known as Combo Winter, which was not the same thing as Black Summer or the Era Of Fruity Pebbles or the like. The impact of Urza’s Block and to a lesser extent, Tempest, on the various other formats like Extended was huge and all, but this is about Standard.

Standard having an era of Combo is noteworthy because combo is kind of one of the easiest things to develop against. Combo decks want to interact as minimally as possible, and if you can just have the time to grind through permutations or tested versions of decks you can head them off. You don’t make combo looking for your opponent to do a thing, you make combo looking for your opponent to not do things.

These three events, by the way, are compared to one another, but it needs to be said and re-said: None of the other eras were as bad as Combo Winter. Combo Winter was a period where you could actually lose on the first turn, or where you could functionally lose on the first turn. Combo Winter was when Wizards banned a card as an emergency. The closest we got to that ever since is when Mind’s Desire was restricted in Vintage before it was ever legal.

Round 2: The Year Of Aggro

Fast forward to Onslaught-Legions-Scourge Mirrodin-Darksteel Standard for the next bannings. Then Skullclamp got axed. Despite that, what followed along with that was a full year of Affinity aggro being the most widely played powerhouse deck in Standard. There’s some argument that Sarnia Affinity, a build popularised by Geordie Tait, was the best affinity deck pre-Darksteel, because it was basically a permission deck that just played double-lands until it could vomit a Broodstar  into your face, but it didn’t matter too much because Affinity aggro decks were good enough that ‘best’ was meaningless. Best builds of Affinity were negotiating winning the game on turn 2.3 as opposed to 2.4, so it didn’t really matter who was ‘best.’

This period is notable because Onslaught Goblins were also running around so you couldn’t even double down hard on your Affinity strategy. Kamigawa wasn’t going to help any either, because by that point the game had bled a lot of player base. Affinity decks were made mostly of commons and extremely expensive rares, meaning they weren’t a bad place to jump into this very awful tournament format, too! Affinity had power but it also had reach, and flexibility and resilience.

Aggro is harder to balance for than combo. It wants to interact. Blockers can gum up the ground. It fails to mass removal without resilience. It’s harder to be sure you haven’t done something like this.

Weirdly, Wizards have actually printed a bunch of much stronger creatures than were being printed back then, and relaxed on global control – but the relaxation of global control has made it so aggro decks are a little more prone to have to deal with blockers, and therefore, aggro decks don’t have to be so utterly cutthroat as they did back then to deal with things like Astral Slide.

Round 3: Control Summer

Cawblade is an interesting thing it is was the first truly oppressive control singular deck that deformed a standard environment. When there were 4-5 permission decks that could shut the game down and keep the environment miserable for all the things people tended to want to do, single decks like that didn’t stand out.

The issue of Cawblade wasn’t instantaneous loss of power. It wasn’t that it was capable of snapping the game out without you ever having a chance to do anything: It was that it was a control deck that could play like a prison, that could just answer everything, that was so powerful and had so many good options for answering anything.

Cawblade was not a deck that won fast. It was just a deck that didn’t lose and took forever to do it. And as a control deck, it was the hardest to hit with bannings.

Round 4: Today

Hey, Standard’s been weird hasn’t it! It’s had a bunch of bannings! But at the same time, the bannings have been about disabling a number of decks, which is pretty weird. Particularly, Smuggler’s Copter was the most obvious one – it was nuked just for being everywhere and going in every deck.

I’m not going to restate things Wizards have said about these rounds of bannings. They’ve been in aid of diversity of the format, of making some cards good enough to play, but most interestingly to me, the decks they’ve hit have been mostly different types. There’s been a combo deck, a control deck with a potentially explosive win condition, a midrange tribal deck, and a control powerhouse finisher that was being played in a lot of decks.

None of these are good things to have to hit. Standard got bannings because Standard had problems.

But oh my god they are problems of a totally different scale as the ones in the past.

The Lesson

This represents an interesting set of ways to view balance, to view ways of balancing. First, make sure no player can do too much on their own. Then, make sure player interactions don’t pressure players into the fastest iteration, and your design isn’t being pushed to force players to go too fast for there to be any meaningful responses. Then, ensure that the game isn’t built to allow for too many useful responses, solutions to problems.

Game Pile: Nuclear Throne

With Sam and Max Hit The Road tucked away, I have to take a quick detour to describe a very different game, a game that is, nonetheless, very important to talking about the point-and-click adventure game, and more importantly, which provides useful context for its sequel episodes. But don’t worry, because the game we’re talking about here is Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, which is super great and I love it to bits because it’s super great, so this won’t take long.

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Invisible Jellyfish

I really like Cave Story. It’s one of my favourite games. It’s a great little platformer with some exploration elements to it. For a while there I thought of it as Metroid like because it used exploration as a mechanic – mostly you spent time looking around for things to take you forward. Some further thought has me wondering if I’m just mistaking something important about the game, and what got me wondering about it was the Invisible Jellyfish of Chaco’s House.

In Cave Story there comes a part of the game where you, on the way to somewhere, hit a door and a wall. Through the door, there’s a bunny named Chaco, who will tell you that to go onward, you need the juice of a jellyfish that’s back the way you came. If you’re like me you thought: What jellyfish? I didn’t pass any jellyfish. Maybe there’s a hidden thing back there I missed that the game now wants me to go back and look at.

Nope! You turn around and head back and now the space you were in is full of jellyfish!

Now, playwise this is a lot of fun! You’re now being conditioned to handle the area you just moved through in reverse, except now it has different things in it and needs different stuff and that’s super cool! It’s not a bad moment! But when you look at it, it made me wonder if exploration is really the thing that Cave Story was about.

Then I thought more about it and… largely, Cave Story is a pretty linear game but it has a nonlinear story. There are some diversions, some cul-de-sacs, some small things you can do on the way, and some priorities you can finish in other order, but the routes of the game always meet up at the same point. You still have to do most of the game’s events in the same a-b-c sequence, and you find them by moving away from the last thing towards the next thing.

Still love the game, but I was thinking about it wrong.

Bad Balance: Your Part In Failure

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Your Failure

You’ll find if you listen to any given D&D 3.5 player, they’ll usually have some memories of the things I talk about being total bupkis. I know I played alongside a cleric who wasn’t overpowered, and we had one game where the runaway behemoth was a telepath. As your friendly neighborhood min-maxer I had the game squealing under the heel of a bard, once. More often than anything else we’d see on the newsgroups players wondering about how they could play clerics well, because they thought their only job was standing by and healing, leading to an unfulfilling game of whack-a-mole. What’s more there are a lot of games where the wizard player felt worthless and ran away from goblins a lot with a terrible armour class. Once I heard the artificer dismissed as trash because a player could simply not imagine how to make it work.

This is one of the many ways D&D3.5 was unbalanced: It was entirely possible to play overpowered characters badly. Most of the characters who were busted were busted because of spells or magic items and that stuff was overwhelmingly available…

If you took it.

You could absolutely play a weak wizard! You could pick up the twenty totally worthless spells at every level, you could sink into the swamp of crap. You could take a level of sorcerer and a level of wizard, and then maybe level them up side by side and maybe you’d balance your stats and oh good god noooo.

You could be handed a high-octane chainsaw laser hammer and it was entirely reasonable for a new player, a player who had no reason to expect they were being given something totally broken, to sit down and tap nails in with the wrong end.

Innovelty

Recently, I was listening to the Ding and Dent podcast which decided to take a momentary sidetrack into the idea of innovation as its importance to games, and it got me angry enough to sit there and froth at my computer for a little bit and write a very angry, very foolish draft.

Fortunately ‘recently’ means mid August because I try to write ahead on this blog these days, and that meant I had time to cool down and relax on the stance and come back to it to talk about my problem with the position.

So here’s the thing with innovation. For something to be innovative, it needs to be, in contrast to other examples in its type, different in a new way to overcome a challenge. The problem with describing things as innovative is that it inherently positions the speaker as an authority on what is a meaningful contrast.

The thing most people mean when they say innovative is novelty. They mean this does something in a way I hadn’t considered. Why does this give me a bee in my bonnet, though?

Because games are so broad, so wide, happening across so many languages and so many markets right now, the idea that any given thing is innovative means that the games that the speaker understands must be the ‘normal’ that exists. That a reviewer – usually of big box board games from four or five publishers – has a lens that encompasses all the games that are worth considering and therefore, what is new to them in that space is innovative.

This is an important thing to consider!

I prefer instead to talk about novelty – which is to say, this is news to me – because it avoids unintentionally positioning the speaker as an authority, and it helps push back against the idea that the small core of games being examined by reviewers are the general landscape of games.

MTG – Balancing Beatsticks

Magic The Gathering is what we in the dank academia call a ludic game1.. There’s not a lot of room for entirely non-system play, not a lot of room to give things an individually boundless creativity.  There’s some creativity in deck building, but it’s not boundless. You have to put in the cards that already exist, for example, and those cards have to be put in with some limitations and to work, they need to be put in in certain proportions and you wind up being fed into a system.

This isn’t a criticism, by the way. Just a basic analysis. This is just something of how the game works.

During spoiler season we saw Sky Terror printed. There was some concern about how pushed that was, about if that was too much for 2 mana, and there was some talk about its impact in limited. It’s actually super interesting to me, to learn how gold cards shape your early picks – it’s the difference between 3 slots and 11 slots in your mana base, I learned.

Anyway, this prompted something of a conversation about how powerful this card was, while a certain body of people, myself included, responded with… big deal. It’s a flier and it has menace. From that, I wrote – mostly – the following explanation.

In Magic, not all evasion abilities are equal. In fact, some evasion abilities, when they start to interact with one another, are pretty weirdly weak. Sometimes this is obvious, like giving a creature with flying reach, or giving a creature with fear intimidate. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little subtler. Lemme tell you about Coldsnap.

Back in Coldsnap, there was this card, Phobian Phantasm, which was a FEAR FLIER. It cost 3 for a 3/3 and it had cumulative upkeep and people thought it would be really strong, because it’d be able to fly and not be blocked and it hit for 3. This was the first impression of myself and others2..

The problem is, fear means nothing on a creature that already flies. Most fliers aren’t getting blocked anyway, because the things that can block it are your opponents’ fliers and most of them don’t want to block because they are also turning sideways. When it comes to the way constructed works out, evasive creatures rarely get involved in creature combat, because they don’t tend to have a lot of varieties of bodies, and combat tricks aren’t commonly played (because they’re not so valuable when people rarely get into combat!). You can usually look at evasive creatures and know whether or not they’re going to get blocked at all. Now, this isn’t always true; sometimes a format will feature something that can gum up the air like say, Hornet Queen, but that’s not the norm.

The reason you tend to kill these creatures by combat in limited, of course, is because you don’t have reliable access to removal, and the removal you have is sometimes truly terribad. R&D have almost made a game of designing bad removal spells just to see who still runs them, and boy, turns out they still do.

The thing with this card looking so pushed (and it is pushed, by the way, just not in the scary way it may seem), is that we’re very much conditioned to think of cards as being generally made as a formulation; that every card is about as good as that card can be. This is something that drove me batty until I internalised it whenever Wizards printed a 4/4 for 5, like say, Game-Trail Changeling .

A menace flier may look impressive but it’s not going to get blocked anyway. In constructed, it’ll get abraded or shocked or pulsed or planked or whatever, because that’s what spot removal is for – wiping out individual things that are trying to carry the game, and a 2/2 creature needs to live for four or five turns to make a big difference on its own. It’s why constructed creatures tend to either be capable of swarming out cheaply, rebuilding after a clean-up, or closing the game on their own in a few short hits. You’ll notice rarely do people bother with 7/Xs in constructed if they can get a 6/X that does the same job cheaper, or a 5/X, because the only real virtue the 7/x has is punching through 7-toughness blockers… which are also suitably rare.

This is one of the magic tricks of design; for most intents and purposes, a number of creatures have invisible or meaningless text on them that still makes them feel interesting, still changes the nature of the game while they’re being played, and it’s very interesting seeing the way they influence the game.


1. The alternative term that’s meant to represent games with more individually creative elements is paidic, by the way.

2. I at least kept my reservations about the card because I hated fear and thought it was bad design.3.

3. A thought that was totally vindicated, mind you.

Perry’s Lock

Hey, I can use this blog for any old bullheck I like, why not use it for this.

I ran this D&D campaign called All The King’s Men, when I was a younger man with different pets and worse hair. The premise of the game was that in the great City-State Coalition of the Symeiran Empire, there were three orders of church knights, each compliant with one of the three law-chaos alignment axes. Lawful knights, neutral knights, chaotic knights. In this party of six, three players were knights, and three of the other players were the direct contact and friend of one of the knights. Three adventuring pairs.

The lawful knight of this group, Kyrie, had her offsider, a luvable cawkney thief called Perry, short for Peregrine. Perry was chipper and playful and had a luverly accent and Perry was great. I loved Perry to bits. Great dynamic with the other players, and also, the player is a great min-maxer. Now this is 3.5 D&D with a lot of homebrew content, alongside people who love to optimise buuuut aren’t as good at it as Perry’s player was. Perry, rather than be a dick about it, therefore dedicated himself to find the things nobody in the party did and do it excellently.

In the first major arc of the campaign, a door was locked before them, and the party were losing time chasing the person who’d locked it behind them. Perry then popped his knuckles and said hold my beer, before sitting down and cracking that lock with a truly grotesque skill check in the fifties. Bear in mind this was at level six or so! He pops this DC 15 lock with a skill check enough to do it as a free action, stepped through, and once the party were in, locked it behind him to keep others from pursuing.

Okay.

Fast forward a year and change and eleven levels, and the party have returned to this same site, to find it taken over by vampire nobility. The familiar zone they ran through at a dead run, chasing someone was now a sieged path they had to work through, a dungeon crawl, full of decadence and dangerous vampires. The party stopped at a door, and Perry, who by now is basically a Time Ninja or something, looked at it and said ‘well, I’ll check it.’

‘It’s locked.’

‘Oh, okay, like a magical lock?’

‘Not far as you can tell.’

‘Okay, I’ll just Open Locks on it-‘

‘Roll.’

‘I have a huge bonus, seriously?’

‘Yeah, there’s a chance you can fail.’

Perry’s player gives me a look, as he picks up his d20 and rolls poorly. A fairly low roll – a 4 or so. But he’s been so good at things so far that he’s convinced there’s no mundane lock that can actually impede him. A moment, – ‘Forty eight.’ I check the notes and…

‘Nope.’

‘What?!’

‘I said nope.’

Who the fuck locked this door?

YOU DID.

(He took ten and got the lock just fine, if you were worried.)

Game Pile: Sam & Max Hit The Road

Okay, so straight up, Sam and Max Hit The Road is one of my favourite games. It’s a point-and-click adventure game with some frustratingly obtuse puzzles. I don’t know if I can even recommend it as a game per se because the times I struggled with the solutions to its ridiculously obtuse view of the world are all so far in the past that I can’t imagine how anyone would solve them. Some of the puzzle solutions are positively arcane.

When you boil down a lot of point-and-click adventure games, they have one problem: Use key on door. In fact, sometimes games that tried to do something different (like Future War and Full Throttle) were criticised for the involvement of those other elements. In Sam and Max Hit The Road, there’s a handful of, y’know, bits and stuff designed to introduce other puzzles and problems, but none of the game is too hard once you grasp the thread of the game’s weird poke-it-and-see methodology.

So, right, as a game: It’s good, but it’s of its time. The GOG release brings automatic saves and windowed play and those are nice modern conveniences. Okay? Play it with a walkthrough nearby but don’t follow the walkthrough directly. Just use it when you’ve poked everything to laugh at the responses you find, but not to remain stranded in a narrative point for a while. I like it, I think it’s good, it’s cheap and it’s really funny.

And hey.

Now.

Let’s do the heck out of talking about Sam and Max Hit The Road.

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Bad Balance: Free Power

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Free Power!

A thing you’ll find in most games is there’s an opportunity cost to adding things to your character. Magic items occupy this space in D&D where there are slots, clearly recognising that there’s a good reason to limit the number of belts you wear, especially when those belts do magical things. Thing is, the item system isn’t the only place that came up.

In most games there’s an opportunity cost. Every choice you make is an option. In 3.5 D&D there were a surprising number of times when there were no such choices. If you were aiming for a prestige class at level 6 onwards, your first five levels could sometimes look like utter nonsense – fighter 2, barbarian 2, ranger 1, for example, would give you a grotesque fort save, a handful of benefits and lose you a single point of reflex and will, which was just not a reasonable trade. If you were building a wizard, prestige classes themselves could look ridiculous, as you cherry-picked the opening benefits of four or five of them because none of them had a meaningful late game reward.

When you give players an option for something, you need to make it so that they’re giving something up if they take it. Not that every option is punishing – that’s its own bad idea – but that every option is a choice, and choices should be meaningful.