Category: Games

I write about games! I write a LOT about games! Everything I do about games is here, in this tab, in some way.

The Anticolonial Tiefling

With the recent rise of Freely Talking About Your D&D Character the internet has seen in what I’m going to assume is probably the fault of some extremely successful podcaster or whatever, I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about tieflings, and I want to present to you a take on tieflings I don’t see widely represented.

First things first: What’s a tiefling? It depends on the setting (as with all things), but the basics are that a tiefling is a type of human with a bit of demon blood. There are some creatures in most settings – most notably the Tannaruk and Fey’Ri in the Forgotten Realms that show that it’s specifically humans with a tinge of demonic blood in them. In some settings, the Tiefling are a bit like a rarity amongst humans – a Tiefling is born in a human line because a bit of the demonic influence in the family comes to the surface.

There’s often, in those settings, a similar type of creature that relates to celestial interference or elementals – the aasimar who bear a bit of the celestial, and the genasi with the elemental. And if you go down this rabbit hole you’ll find the Zenythri and the Chaond and all sorts of fun stuff, but Tieflings are the rockstars of this set. The Tieflings are the ones who you’ll often see alone, without the rest of the planar-cosmology-filling goofiness of the adjacent cultures.The Tiefling is almost obviously exciting, though. I mean, it’s a person with a demonic tinge to them, a little bit of the outsider, a little bit wild. It’s very appealing to an edgelord dork boy demographic, and certainly appealing to the monster-fucker genre of consumer, too. The tiefling, however, is also going to appeal to the fans of Hot Monsters as a voice of queerness, and that means you’re going to see a lot of people who are very happy to make leather-pants-wearing horned, tailed, spicy bisexual hot messes, and make their characters all about being a blatant metaphor for queerness. They’re a child born into a family that immediately recoils from them with horror, hides them away, and ostracizes them for their disruption of ‘the normal.’

This is very basic queer coding, after all.

I personally don’t like it? Partly because the nature of queerness is that you don’t get born with queer horns on your head. Your queerness is a part of your identity that isn’t branded on you from birth and most importantly, being queer isn’t bad. A demon child that has actual special powers as an emblem of queerness really gets on my nerves because it kind of isolates the idea of queerness as both defined by birth (which it’s not) and monstrous (which it isn’t).

Every time I bring this up, though, it’s inevitable that someone will explain to me, helpfully, that queerness and monsters in media are often linked, and often queer people will identify with monstrous characters. This is very helpful because it’s definitely not something I’m already talking about and am already extremely well-aware of.

I’m not trying to take away your fun!

I just have my own preference.

I’d like to lead you to this other idea, though.

Tieflings have special abilities. They have stuff other cultures can’t do. Claws and fangs, and a feeling of fire, a tail, horns, sometimes unique feats, whispers from the beyond, a secret from a demon patron, a whole host of things. The tiefling is, mechanically, set apart from the human culture. As to why, well, there’s no real hard proof of where they came from.

Sometimes there’s stories of wars with planar invaders, sometimes it’s more that tieflings are byproducts of long-gone old sins. I like the 4th Edition D&D idea best, though. It presents the Tieflings as having been once the dominant culture in the world, with a super-powered magical empire that they then messed up so badly they not only cast a culture-wide sudo rm -rf / but also did it in a way that left every other culture very aware of what they did. They were humans who collaborated with demons and it changed them from being humans, and then, mixed in amongst human culture, there are these people, these tieflings, who have some of that ancient demonic heritage and powers just there, in them.

To this story, the Tieflings are the children of an empire that is no more and what defines their place in their current culture is that everyone around them is very aware of their relationship to that culture.

In this case, the Tiefling are both victims of empire, adrift colonists with no culture of their own, and beneficiaries, with all the old power that resides at their fingertips waiting for the tieflings to go get it… but that same power can be measured in terms of the peril it can cause the world. You may be saving the world, by turning these tools of global domination against themselves, but doing so comes at a cost.

This, this to me is interesting. It connects you to something monstrous, something big and something that you have every reason to resent as an individual. It draws the player’s relationship to their own potential power not as the invigorating power of gayness but of a question of how to deconstruct a master’s house.

That’s a question that often requires you to look for the master’s hammers.

TableTop AI: Dark Souls, Part 1

Okay, no preamble, let’s talk about making Dark Souls monsters in a board game.

I haven’t got the Dark Souls board game and I don’t think that having it would actually be illuminating. I’m not trying to find out how the makers of Dark Souls would do a thing, I want to find out how I would approach a problem of representation.

That out of the way, here’s a puzzle.

How would I make a Dark Souls Monster in a game I can make?

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MGP – Confronting My Limits

Starting January 2016, I made a game or more a month for the whole year. I continued this until 2018, creating a corpus of 39 card or board games, including Looking For Group, Senpai Notice Me, and Dog Bear. Starting in 2019, I wanted to write about this experience, and advice I gained from doing it for you. Articles about the MGP are about that experience, the Monthly Game Project.

I’ve remarked, but not made explicitly clear, that the game-a-month plan had some problems. In the past I’ve talked about some general problems, like lead times and the awy the Pacific Ocean imposes itself between me and my goal of Making More Stuff. But rather than present that as my problem, I want to talk to you about your problem, if you want to try this same project.

There’s this idea in media making (and a lot of other places) that gets brought up called agility. Agility is the measure of how quickly or how well you can do… things. It’s often used as  a shorthand for how quickly you can shift from doing one thing to doing another, different thing, or how quickly your thing can implement major changes. You might hear the term pivot get used.

I’ve remarked that making card games has a problem with prototyping. It’s just a mechanical concern; if you want to make a game like Magic: The Gathering, it’s not as simple as making a bunch of proxies; you kind of need some way to bulk create pieces to playtest with. Often that can make prototype printings, and that means that these games require a certain scale.

It’s very hard to get to that scale fast.

There are a bunch of games I’ve made that I couldn’t playtest at the scale, and I couldn’t prototype properly. Then, to hit the convention schedule, those games got rushed, and as a result, the games were… well, a bit weak. Just the truth of it: The games were a little worse than they should have been, which is a thing that I really regret now. Playtesting is hard, scope problems make it harder, and I flew real fast, real hard and sometimes it didn’t work.

That’s the problem: What’s the solution for you?

I have three suggestions.

  1. EMBRACE PRINT-AND-PLAY. Make your games for smaller spaces. Don’t think of bouquet card games, at least not for your first games. You can put a PDF out there in the world, made as simply as possible, which is just meant to give people a way to get the game pices working. You can do a lot with print-and-play – boards, sheets, cards, all that stuff. You might learn that ‘shuffling’ is hard, but you still get the basics of how a game works done. Players who make Print-and-Play are really good at knowing how much work they want to put in.
  2. BOOKLET SUPPLEMENTS. You’re one person, working small and experimenting with mechanics. Use existing systems and make single-page variants. Make booklet mods. Make a game that only needs to work for a little while, or maybe make a booklet mod for a board game – like I’ve joked about doing for Monopoly.
  3. MAKE THEM FREE. One of the games I’ve made that’s most successful in terms of distribution is Simon’s Schism. It’s also one of the games with the most feedback… and it’s also free. There’s a fear to missing out on sales for your free games, but you won’t make a lot of sales, and when you’re not charging people for your time, you don’t have to feel bad about making edits or updates to these games. This is your first period making games: Make a corpus of games that are more about showing people your work than it is about making money off them.

Game Pile: Portal 2

For anyone who doesn’t already know the vital statistics, Portal 2 is a first-person perspective puzzle game, the sequel to Portal, that was released in 2011, by People Valve Software Pays. Saying Valve Software made it is possibly overstating the role Valve Software, the organisation, has in things Valve does.

The game is centered around a non-speaking protagnist with a special tool that lets you create portals between two locations. It does this at range, so we call it a gun, because our brains and reference pool is pretty weird. These portals let you connect two points in space – and so much of the rest of the game is just built on exploring that idea. Puzzles become about how much freedom of movement you can get by folding two bits of reality together. It’s also fun because the human brain really isn’t built to deal with that kind of perceptual shift – it’s literally something our brains resist doing.

 

Filling in the rest of the space of the game is an evil AI that’s literally running you through the puzzles, as tests of your mental acumen, and the helpful AI that’s trying to keep you alive so you can escape. You’re followed not by bodies but by voices – old audio logs of a long-lost inventer, and the responses of your two AI companions. The game is stark and empty, but uses that emptiness to fill it with a dilapidated ending, and the story you get is made up of two fascinating parts: it tells you what came before the last story, and what comes after.

Taken as its own entity, Portal 2 is an enormous game, with a single-player campaign that’s very good, then a cooperative campaign that’s pretty good, and then an absolute massive amount of DLC and fan-made levels that range from pretty good to oh well. It’s a lot like Little Big Planet, where there’s some tailored content that sets a very high bar, and then a huge swell of player-driven content that tries to meet it.

You can get Portal 2 on Steam, and statistically, if you’re reading this, you probably already have it.

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Rulebook Template

Writing rules is very hard. I’ve remarked on this in the past, but a big part of what makes them hard can come in terms of forgetting to mention things. Earliest versions of The Botch didn’t include starting diamonds in the rules, which made the game extremely hard to play.

What I’ve taken to doing in recent designs is start with a Word Document that contains what I consider a solid working template. Anything that doesn’t fit in one of these parts, in this order, needs to be considered carefully:

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The Reunion: Setup Mechanic

Here’s the idea: Players sit down and assume the roles of actors reuniting after years apart, who used to work together on a successful, formulaic sitcom. After the sitcom, one member of the cast had a very successful career while everyone else did not – the ‘Star’ of the game.

The mechanic that sets this game up is that each player gets a card indicating their role and the degree of fame they have. Then, starting with the player with the highest value card, players close their eyes – meaning that the player with the highest value card has no idea about how anyone else’s career went, but everyone else can see the people who had more successful careers than they did.

This one-way information is meant to play into the game, because the sitcom was a mess behind the scenes. And the hopeful aim of the game is to create a short story, told in flashback, about what the sitcom was like, about what’d happened since, and about the kind of people they were, all told by the oblivious Star piecing together the narrative of what happened to a life that had nothing to do with them.

The obvious inspiration for The Reunion was Bojack Horseman, which has a lot to say about the way TV comedy gets made. The thing is, the stories of how TV series were made are all so full of extremely strange stories where so many things go wrong, where you can change or replace any given incident and you’d still have a distinct story.

Now, this central mechanic, where there’s a pyramid of knowledge, excites me because it’s a fun puzzle. One player has to start putting together four or five secrets from the things they can be told, while the other players are trying to tell their parts of a story without breaking character. At the same time, though, this isn’t guided – it’s not like Dog Bear where there’s someone in charge of the game who can be told to steer the game to an actual story point.

The really scary thing to me about this game idea is how do I keep it from getting Content Warningy? The whole point is to give players some reign to create, ideally something ridiculous and hyperbolic, but also with a dark twist as to what things were really like. And when you give people a set of prompts about the failures of a creative process, there’s always this part of me that worries people will take it to a really dark space.

In Dog Bear, there’s not just the Boss guiding the game who I can directly entrust with the authority to keep players from being assholes, but it’s also comically ridiculous, with its cyberetch and nanomachines. Not the same thing here. And now, these are the constraints that the design needs to overcome.

Game Pile: La-Mulana

One of the hackneyed games journalist points these days is to compare things to Dark Souls, which is usually done by people who want to evoke a comparison to a control scheme and fixed animations, and maybe some exploration. Who am I to fight a perfectly good trope, then?

Dark Souls is kind of like La-Mulana.

La-Mulana is a single-screen platformer puzzle adventure game where you explore an enormous ruin with a whip in your hand, using a retro computer and your wits to pick up upgrades, unlock routes, overcome monsters with increasing ease, and die. A lot.

An innovation Dark Souls brought to this formula of exploration and death was relatively convenient reloading, dispensing with a classic limited-slots save-game system. In La-Mulana, as a nod to pre-1990s computer technology, you can only save at specific key points, and this makes the game much less forgiving than the otherwise fluid Dark Souls. There’s also an ‘experience’ mechanic in Dark Souls, where you can spend resources to get better at dealing with the enemies you face, and every time you save the game, it refreshes your resources. Not so for La-Mulana.

For some context, as I go on: I’m not good at La-Mulana. I didn’t finish it. I’ve put a few hours of work – and it was work – into this game, and didn’t feel I was making any headway. Also, the person who gifted me this game is very good at this game.

You can get La-Mulana on Steam and GOG.

Up front, though, despite not liking this game, I want to say that La-Mulana is not a ‘bad game.’ It’s vast and there are people for whom its particular movement and mystery are exciting and interesting. There’s a ton, a ton of stuff going on, bosses are varied in a lot of different wild ways, there’s a deep lore, riddles and NPCs and a True Ultimate Boss that – I assume – rewards thorough exploration and mastery.

Really wasn’t for me, though.

So let’s talk about colonialism.

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Bad Design As A Swear Word

People like to talk about game design.

More and more these days game design feels a bit like being the kind of people who have strong opinions on coaches in sport. It’s one of those things where there seem to be some sort of generally-agreed upon field of good versus bad decisions, a sort of external commentary option. This is Good Design Because. This is Bad Design Because.

There’s a language we use here, and I’m not sure it’s helpful.

It’s not helpful because the more I hear it, the more and more often people with no clue about games who nonetheless think of themselves as experts, which for now we’ll shorthand as gamer, we hear these gamers talk about game’s design as if there is game design that is good and there is game design that is bad, and the more your work belongs in the first group, the good-er it is.

My favourite example of this is an infamous criticism of Dark Souls 2.

See, back in Dark Souls, there’s this point about how some sections of the world connect to other parts of the world in a way that kind of makes sense. In Dark Souls 2, this is less of a clearly communicated thing. Oh, both Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 make conventionally-disconnected, teleporting-based maps, it’s not like one does and the other doesn’t.

In Dark Souls 2 there’s a windmill that you climb, and at the top of the windmill there’s an elevator. This elevator takes you from the top of that windmill, up into what seems to be an underground cavern full of lava and with another big fortress inside it that you then have to fight your way through, to get up to another boss you fight in a lake of lava.

This is generally brought out as an example of bad design, where these two elements don’t connect in the same way as the first game did. Now there are a bunch of ways to address this, but the best response, in my opinion, is who cares.

Design is not a bar you fill.

Design is not a percentage that you attain, as you complete the level.

Design is a sequence of choices made within the existing constraints of the project to achieve an intended end. That intended end can change, the constraints can change, the whole project can change, but nonetheless, design is not about attainable end goals as it is about choices.

Evoking game like game is making bad design into a swear word.

It also means that you treat good design like an act of emulation. You’ll treat doing good design as a task of making something that’s like something else. It creates this sort of culture of nitpickery, this conception of design as traits, rather than design as choices.

I’ve covered this topic before – about two years ago, now. Same example, too – Dark Souls 2 elevator, even!

But this one has progress bars, and more than that, this one comes up because I think that while the habit is a problem, it belies a bigger problem underneath itself. It is not that it is bad design to do X is a simplistic phrase. It’s that we bring up bad design when we’re trying to attack an entity, when we’re trying to prove something about it. Many, many times, what we’re trying to say is I don’t like this, and masking that want under the cloak of it being bad design.

It’s not an unuseful shorthand. For example, I still think most of the Assassins Creed games are ‘badly designed,’ because their mechanics do not hold together well in a satisfying way, or connect well to the way those games try to tell their story. Yet many times, especially in tabletop games, we will hear those words spoken to try and argue about the inherent quality of a thing – rather than its aims or its outcomes or its consequences.

We need to get better at being honest about what we like and why. And we need to learn to respect it when someone tells us what they like and why.

Emergence Vs Progression

We talk a lot about games using inexact language. Genre terms are some of the worst – I’ve talked about how awkward our framework is. Sometimes we describe games based on their mechanics, their country of origin, other games they remind us of, the camera position, and even a few games get named based on the creator. It’s not a good system.

That said, let’s put out some Game Studies language that may be useful, maybe.

In half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul, Dutch Games Studies academic and renowned speller-of-videogames-as-two-words describes a whole range of stuff. It’s a good book, it’s got a lot of stuff in it, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, because that’s how academic books go.

In this book, though, he describes the idea of games of progression and games of emergence. Juul describes games of progression as functionally being about games where a player moves through a sequence of events one after the other. A common metaphor for this kind of game you’ll hear is a route. The simplest version of this could be mapped as something a bit like this:


That’s not to say that they’re strictly linear. You can make a game of progression that has varied sequences of routes that meet up, or even ones that go off in different directions.

The point with a game of progression is that by design they’re structured. Players in games of Progression have every reason to expect predictable responses, and a linear flow. That’s not to say you can’t go backwards in this kind of game’s spaces or anything – it’s that the game has a sequence of expected events the player moves through.

The other kind of game is known as a game of emergence. These games are built instead around rules that react and interrelate. Games of emergence set rules, and then let the play experience put those rules in contrast with one another. A good example of this is Minecraft, where the vastness of the worlds it generates and the things within them that connect to one another are mostly made out of very small sets of rules.

There is a corollary: There’s a common thing called emergent behaviour, where players engaging with a game use things in unexpected ways. This isn’t what games of emergence are about.

A good example of this is how in Quake, levels were designed with large open high areas that you had to reach through circuitous routes, and the explosive force of a rocket was made to let you knock enemies around and to give the weapon impact. Combine the two, and the ability to shoot a rocket at your feet and throw yourself into the air becomes a way to circumvent barriers in the level, to short-cut through parts of the game.

If the Quake levels hadn’t been designed with their bigger areas and overlooks, then rocket jumping wouldn’t be a useful emergent behaviour. If the rocket hadn’t been designed with the knockback it had, it wouldn’t be useful for short-cutting around the level. These are all just parts of the game, that never were planned to work alongside one another, and once players got their hands on them, they found the interaction and created something new.

As with all game models, it’s important to remember that these two things aren’t really as simple as they look. While you can point to (for example) World End Economica and see it as a linear game of progression, and SimCity as a game of emergence, games move between these zones hazily. One might be tempted to call Bloodborne or Dark Souls games of emergence because of their nonlinear structure and extremely flexible semi-random combat system, but one can also consider most games in the Soulsborne mould as a sequence of levels. You may do them in a different order, but the progression through each area is absolutely a path from a beginning to an end.

Juul’s short-cut for identifying the games is to look for a FAQ for the game. If the FAQ describes a sequence of things to do, it’s probably a game of progression; if the FAQ describes a list of strategies, it’s probably a game of emergence.

Gamebooks: An Introduction

This has been sitting in my draft folder, with the subject line “Are Gamebooks Games”, since November 2017, and I haven’t deleted it because I don’t know why not. I’m normally pretty quick about clearing things out of my draft box that I’m not going to get to.

I know that this question came up somewhere – someone, probably on reddit, getting mad about whether or not gamebooks belonged on a game subreddit of some variety. Odds are good, I mean, someone on reddit annoyed me. The question persists, though, I think in part because to me, I feel like gamebooks are really underserved as a type of game design, and I kept wanting to come back and deliver a fullthroated defense of gamebooks.

When you find nobody’s attacking your idea, though, it gets a little harder to defend them because you look like you’re trying to feel more important than you are. I don’t want to be that sillyboots, and so the draft has languished, unchanged, as I try to wonder just who was taking pot-shots at gamebooks?

Then again, did I need an excuse to talk about gamebooks?

For those of you who aren’t familiar, gamebooks are a type of book that’s an adventure game. Of sorts. The technology core to these books is that you number entries of story, and at the end of each entry, it tells you where to go to see the next section. This lets the story go in different directions, right?

If you turn to the left, turn to 83

If you turn to the right, turn to 16

This is a really cool little bit of technology, a sort of basic engine that you see in books like Choose Your Own Adventure, a long-running series that mostly focuses on a simple story where the reader is the protagonist. The more complex Fighting Fantasy gamebook series works on a more classic adventure formula, with dice and dungeons to roll your way through, and the chance to just plain out die.

These Fighting Fantasy games were kind of the standard template that were mostly successful. Lots of people played them and they sort of set the rules for how gamebooks got made. They’re not the whole of it, but they were so much ‘the way these games worked’ that even games that wanted a different style of mechanics, like the Sonic the Hedgehog and Lemmings gamebooks,

One of the things that really surprises me about this is how the gamebook technology went relatively underexplored. There were quite a few Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that added some tools – Creature of Havoc, for example, had a neat thing you could do on entries to translate language, which meant if you learned to speak, you could go through a whole different game. One or two of the games added stats – like the Evil stat in one or two of the games to keep you from overusing magic. Night Dragon had a Dread stat that meant the longer you took to get to the Night Dragon, the stronger it was. I even wrote about the spellbook mechanic in the Sorcery! series.

Despite these innovations, they were still built around the very basic narrative of a single character progressing linearly through an adventure like a rollercoaster ride. Some manage to make some exploration, some mazelike structures, so there was something there.

Now, if you’re experienced with Twine, you know a couple of games like this. And twine games can do things like remember, store variables, do random things, and that’s true. But there are other things a physical book can do that Twine has a hard time doing.

I’m thinking on this puzzle, at the moment. I can see the idea that you can make a gamebook that’s about a story of a place; or a book that produces a diagnosis at the end; or a gamebook which is designed to create based on what you do when you play it, or a book that deliberately obscures information from you in ways you have to decipher yourself.

The other thing is, mostly, these gamebooks aren’t actually really coherent stories? They’re mostly sequences of interruptions; you open a door, you enter a room, you find the thing in that room. Sometimes you decide whether or not to open a chest of treasure. Sometimes you don’t. There are games of dice, but few games of (for example) cards.

Gamebooks are a wonderful little artifact, a niche interest, but with print on demand, and more room for more voices, I wonder what we – not just me, but you too – could do with things like light novel gamebooks.

Game Pile: Risk of Rain

Risk of Rain is a platform game where you play an alien dropped on a planet. It has procedurally generated levels, a huge variety of characters, and a core, highly rewarding gameplay loop. The game modes can be customised with a bunch of unlockable buffs called ‘artifacts’ that reward you exploring each level you get into. Each level has boss monsters of a particularly large scope, and the game’s difficulty ramps up on a timer. Time spent exploring will typically reward you with more stuff, but more stuff makes the eventual waves of enemies that spawn towards the end of the level harder.

The game has playable characters that eat enemies and gain powers, it has rolling and tumbling movement, it has ranged attackers and melee attackers, and despite playing it for a few years now, I haven’t even managed to plumb its full depths. It’s an excellent, responsive, fast game, whose biggest problem is probably a steep difficulty curve and its camera positions you somewhere around low earth orbit, making the delightful chunky pixel art kinda tiny.

Risk of Rain is really good! It’s a good game, and I like it a lot, and I recommend that you check it out. It’s on sale regularly and it’s not expensive when it’s not on sale.  You can get it on Humble or Steam, and the developers are making a sequel, called helpfully, Risk of Rain 2.

And that’s it as a game review. I mean, you don’t need that much space to know this game is pretty damn cool.

There’s more to say, right? There’s always more to say.

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MTG: Tapping Out

I’m not going to write regularly about Magic: the Gathering this year.

There are a few reasons for it, but the basic one is that it’s neither easy nor fun any more.

When I started writing articles about Magic: The Gathering the plan was that since I was playing Standard, Modern and Commander, I’d just post the deck I played that week, give it a little twist, and move on, or maybe talk about new sets when they came out. This would build on my old work on Starcity Games under the heading Tact or Friction. I think about that column from time to time – a year spent writing, for money, about Magic to an audience of thousands. I think about it because I think it was such a colossal, embarassing waste.

I wanted, in my heart of hearts, to make the kind of content that FNM-fan Magic players could enjoy. Things that could help the new players step up, avoid the pitfalls of chasing expensive junk rares. I thought I could talk to the design of the game (and in many ways, I was right, a fact I hold to my heart as tight as I can in these moments of despair), and I wanted to try and make the game better and more fun in the ways that I thought it could be. And as justified as I was, I’ll still always be that guy who submitted a spiteful, angry ill-thought out screed and it got paid for.

I know I could do better now.

I wanted to work on Magic: The Gathering content, which has three basic forms that are easy to work with, using my new direction of not being a total asshole. First, there’s talking about a deck, or a deck piece. The second is responding to new releases, doing things like set reviews. The third is to respond to current events, things like big public events, like when I wrote about the data release problem two years ago.

Well, the big events thing ran into a problem in that there wasn’t a lot of happy news around Magic: The Gathering to respond to. People I liked left the company, which was a bummer. The story went directions I didn’t enjoy. There was a boycott of worlds, moments of commentators being total dicks about things, at least one sexual harrassment scandal, and the classic reddit spiral of ‘jackasses saying the same wrong stuff about the game.’  There was an endless maw of news, but it was always spiteful, and tired, and ignorant.

As far as releases go, they were dreadfully uninspiring. I literally forgot to do a set review for Hour of Devastation, back in 2017 and my review of Ixalan was so negative that I actually revised it to be nicer to the set because I know people worked hard on it. I just skipped the set reviews since – I found myself not wanting to say much that was nice about Rivals of Ixalan, which reflected in my ‘set review.’ I barely bothered for the remaining sets of the year – Core Set 2019, I mean jeeze.

Oh, and of course, there’s the importance of Nicol Bolas. I don’t care about Nicol Bolas, I don’t like Nicol Bolas. He’s not a compelling villain (to me), and the way he’s brought in to be behind everything feels like a DM’s pet NPC (to me). He’s had something like six cards in the past two years and every time we get a New, Different Nicol Bolas, he’s eating the space that could be used by something I care about. We could be exploring new mysteries or building new villains or just dealing with something other than more of Nicol Bolas’ plans, but seems that no. No, it’s much better that we keep going back to the well of an omnipresent, eternally important character whose defining trait is well I already thought of that like you’re playing lets-pretend with a little kid.

Over the course of the last year, Standard has been an environment about waiting for it to change. Dominaria was full of promise, but mostly spent its time reminding me how bad Magic used to be. Ixalan promised an exciting new place and insight into Vraska, but no, that’s just another Bolas plot. Guilds of Ravnica promised to return to beloved guilds and plane, but no, turns out that’s also a Bolas plot and also the guilds I liked look awful.

The past two years of Magic: The Gathering have been very much Not For Me, even as I appreciate and am glad to see the new technological developments and improvements the designers have had access to. I genuinely find that exciting. But the environments they’re creating and the ensuing play experience has just not appealed to me, and it has slowly but steadily driven the kind of content I can make, leading to things like the pet cards (which I really liked doing) and the Kamigawa revamp (which was fun, but exhausting).

I’m going to keep playing the game. It’s still a great game. But it’s a game I don’t want to play every week. It’s not a game whose content churn is pleasing to me, nor do I want to be part of.

Decemberween: Ettin, Moreso

If you were here last year, which I’m getting a strong feeling you were, you might have seen me talking about Ettin. Ettin is a good egg, and this year he and I both got started on an adventure of Using Patreon To Finance Stuff.

Ettin is what I consider stubbornly imaginative. When you give Ettin a blank slate, he’s a little stymied. If he gets to set all the scope, it can be hard to get the spark to push against something and get going. This is why he’s good at writing within other people’s creative spaces, and why he’s good at writing ridiculous premises. You may find yourself thinking those things can’t work, and that’s when Ettin’s imagination kicks in and goes hell I’ll show you.

This means that throughout this year, each month, Ettin has taken two poll options, which usually are chosen by people who actively are trying to annoy him, and stitches them together into some kind of game concept space. Sometimes it’s a whole game – you’re not usually getting a dense mechanical engine as much as you’re getting an idea palette that you can use to inform the flavour of that kind of game that you were already going to run. It’s system agnostic, usually.  The other thing is… Ettin’s really good at that. Most of these logos convey the idea behind them, and usually that idea is itself interesting enough that you know whether or not you like it.

You should check out his Patreon. He’s cool, he makes wonderfully silly ideas, and if you try and torment him it will only make him stronger.

Decemberween: abad1dea

Last year, I wrote about abad1dea, and this year I wrote about her perspective informing her books. I’d like to just go on about why my friend is really cool –

so I will.

abad1dea is one of those people with a huge wealth of expertise outside of mine. She’s not a card game or board game person, and her love of videogames is for a period and strata of games conspicuously different to mine. I learn a lot listening to her, about not just things that mattered to Americans, but about things that mattered to her.

She’s interested in very specific technical system problems of videogames – the way glitches work rather than just how to get glitches to happen. That’s stuff that can sometimes involve extremely complex computer science, and it’s not just that she understands it, but she understands how to talk about it in common language.

And boy, is that something that computer nerds are awful about.

It feels like every day or so whenever abad1dea talks about anything technical on twitter, someone is there to smarmily ‘correct’ her. It’s alway commafucking too – the kind of more-precise-than-thou unhelpful idiocy that assumes the speaker knows what she should have said, because they know what she should have meant, which inevitably, they don’t, because they’re not listening to her.

Being a woman on the internet, especially a visibly competent one, sucks.

It sucks especially because I’m not in that field of expertise and sometimes when she explains something, it’ll immediately click to me what she’s saying, and then I’ll watch her descend into ‘kindly rack off’ conversations with people who insist that it would be better if her statement had been more obtuse and less useful. That annoys me because it’s bad communication, but it’s definitely not my place to wade in.

abad1dea has focused on her music composing this year, and I’d like to share a link to her soundcloud here. Check it out!

MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 5: Betrayers of Kamigawa

Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.

Goodness me, this project took some time. The opening documents you’ve read so far have all been done, weeks, no, almost months in advance, but as I sit here and pen this, it’s only two weeks before it goes up – and my goodness it has been a time to get this project finished.

First, let’s introduce you to the cards, and then we’ll talk some afterwards.

Continue reading

Decemberween: Lucy Morris

Odds are good you might have seen this tweet, if you’re around my circles.

The woman behind it isn’t just a game developer, though. Lucy is an artist, a podcaster, a streamer, event organiser and games educator, and this year she’s been spending time building up her twitch following over at Party Shark.

Talking about a streamer is always tricky because like, mostly, streamers are just people and you just interact with them? But for the particular kind of content Fox and I wanted at several times this year, someone who was available during Australian evenings, actively moderated the chat, and wanted to include the audience in the experience, Lucy’s been a wonderful creator to watch.

I’d like to recommend her Vods of the Witchers 1-3, where you can get a solid experience of the whole game without having to play them, as filtered through a squawky New Zealander who knows a lot about user interface and design.

Game Pile: 2018 in Review

One full year of game reviews down, with 51 articles written, refined, processed and posted. If the actual size of The Game Pile as it relates to my Steam library has been of concern to you, well, this year marks the point where the Completed category on my Steam Library has sharply overtaken the Uncategorized. I’m at 294 completed games, 275 uncompleted.

Still, it has been a whole year. What’s changed? What’s improved? Continue reading

Decemberween: Calvin and Dee

Uh oh so

So uhhh

One of my friends turns out to kind of be a movie star?

A little bit?

Not really, but not not?

Calvin Wong Tze Loon, or, to me, ‘Calvin,’ is a writer, board game enthusiast, journalist and… in the movie Crazy Rich Asians? Which is pretty odd as a thing to just, you know, have happen in the middle of a year when you didn’t know it was coming. Oh hey, look, there’s the news, and wait why is Calvin sharing this.

But the glitz and glamour of… whoever made the movie aside, though, Calvin and his partner Dee are two very impotant people in the space of tabletop games, games journalism and games culture. They love what they love, but they’re also willing to hate what they hate. But unlike your typical game reviewer who wears those feelings out loud, the things they love are games and the things they hate are fucking racism.

I know full well I don’t have great sources in Malysia for anything. Between a language gap and a contextual hole, there’s a ton of stuff I simply don’t know and can’t get. And that means that when I find someone who is both of a place and willing to talk about it, I want to hear what that means.

This year, with Netrunner announcing its conclusion, Dee and Calvin spoke at length about how much they loved the game. They spoke not about ‘loving the community’ because anyone could do that, they talked about a vision of a future that wasn’t absent of people like them, a future that recognised a world of culture, that drew in everyone all over in the cyberpunk dystopia.

They’re also annoyingly hard to convince they need like official sites or places for their own stuff. But oh well, step by step.

Decemberween: Echoes in the Dark

Last year one of my earliest Decemberween entries was the work of my friend Leastwise, aka Erik, aka Big Scrumples Downtown*. If you don’t want to click that link (and well, hey, who has the time), I talked about how we met playing The Secret World and more specifically, in its player-driven roleplay fiction space. Leasty showed in this case that he had both an appreciation for weaving the mystical with the real, and a historical leftist perspective that was a little more conducive to recognising just how much of our world’s bastardry was directly connected to extremely bastard people getting what they wanted, and how many interesting stories there were in a history that wasn’t written by the winners.

Leasty and I bemoaned how The Secret World didn’t really have an audience interested in our kind of storytelling and roleplaying, and while I went about my business here, Leastie was doing something about it.

Leastwise made a Blades in the Dark hack, called Echoes in the Dark. It’s a system, it has lore, and it’s designed to focus on desperate efforts in desperate times, but instead of the fixation on how that’s traumatic and breaks you, Echoes in the Dark wants to focus on how small groups of individuals against impossible forces can still make change, make things good, and lift together.

The principle borrows from the urban fantasy origin of The Secret World; you have these large conspiracies with their competing interests. They’re much like the factions of Blades, but instead of a dozen small groups of potentially varied character, these conspiracies are large and powerful but fractured into their many groups.

I think Leastie’s idea is great and I want you to check it out if that sounds interesting to you at all.


* Nobody calls him this

Game Pile: Axiom Verge

Alright, look.

This game, Axiom Verge, is a Metroidvania. Do you know what that term means? Do you know that term in a way that makes you use it instead of the term ‘exploration platformer?’ Okay, cool, good. If you don’t, there’s this great genre of interesting platform games and I’ve covered a few of them in the past; particularly, I really like Shantae, if you can handle a game that’s pretty horny and Cave Story, if you can handle a game that’s pretty hard.

I’m not saying that Axiom Verge is a bad game by bringing up these other, more approachable games. Axiom Verge is really pretty damn good. But as a game it feels to me that you probably need to have experience playing a Metroid game specifically to get your head around the way this game handles its spaces, enemies and resources. You want to know how videogames can glitch, about how things can fail in a way that games largely don’t do any more, except when it’s done deliberately. And you want to know how big a world can be, how to remember seeing things you can’t quite make work yet. It’s not even assumed knowledge – it’s just that Axiom Verge builds in a genre like few games I’ve ever played.

Axiom Verge is, as a game, a game for people who like Metroid games, and I feel like it’s pitched at the kind of player who can appreciate what this game does differently. It feels like a game that wants literacy in what it’s doing, because it can’t explain itself to you the same way other games in the genre do.

So, there’s your Videogame Review spiel. Axiom Verge is a videogame/10, I’ve mentioned Super Metroid and maybe implied that the game has enemies and resources and such. You can go buy it here, if you want to.

Okay?

Now then.

Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading

MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 3: Legendary

Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.

We’ve talked about the structural problems of Kamigawa 1.0, but just to recap, the whole set is about six conflicting factions – five mono-coloured groups against the five-coloured omnishambles that is the Spirit faction. With that problem ‘examined’ last time, it’s time to attack the next structural problem: Legendary.

Continue reading

Decemberween: Desert Bus

This year, I contributed a print-on-demand game, The Pipesm’n Conspiracy, to the Desert Bus for Hope 2018 event. I’ve shared some pictures of this game, both in development and once it was finalised.

The game was made over the course of a month, and printed at Gamecrafter, then sent to the LRR folks. I have never handled a copy of this game, but I’ve tested a prototype I made myself.

It was made into a silent auction, where it it raised a thousand dollars for Child’s Play, with a bid of $987.65. This obviously blows my mind and I’ve spent the intervening time processing the feelings as a result. I’m confused, I’m stunned, I’m honestly ashamed – because I know the work that went in to getting that stuff in place.

To tell you the story, briefly, of how this happened; I made the game, in my home, on cards and in GIMP. I then exported the files and sent those to The Gamecrafter, and had them print and send them to Vancouver, to my friend Hazel.  At this point, expected delivery was within the week, but something went wrong, and instead they were delayed on the way to her.

That means they arrived at Hazel’s place late. Hazel is in Vancouver, which for the Munchlaxen amongst you is basically the next city over from Victoria, its destination.

Hazel received the games, then bagged them as per Desert Bus requests. Then, with the deadline ticking down, as we fumbled through the records for address information, we did our best to find our shipping options that would get it to the right place at the right time. We almost got it right, but I want to shout out to Hazel here – she was willing to personally get on the ferry right there and detective work her way to the right location to hand the game over to people personally to make sure it got there on time.

She didn’t have to do that, as we got her the address, but I messed up on the information, and that meant the prize got there but wasn’t labelled for Desert Bus and went into general Mail Time.

What happened after that point was, thanks to encouragement on the Discord when my prize wasn’t showing up on the Desert Bus page, I contacted the Prize people, who then – while they were very busy– went digging through packages for my mislabelled one, found it, put it on the website, put it on the schedule, and that’s how it got to happen.

I feel awful about putting people out like this.

I want to thank Hazel so much for her part in this – she did nothing wrong, she executed on the information I gave her perfectly. She gave me tracking information which was invaluable for getting the right package. I also want to thank the hard work of Fugi (Foo-Jee) and Ashley Turner (and anyone who helped her, who I cannot name by name), in getting the prize into the pool. Everyone involved was doing other stuff, they were busy, and I made everything a bit harder, and a bit more complicated. I’m so embarassed by this messup and I’m sorry that it went the way it did.

I’ve been trying to approach LoadingReadyRun with my games for a while; you might remember the ridiculous way I got excited when they opened some of my games on Mail Time last year. Except thanks to a cock-up on my end, they arrived without boxes and therefore, without rulebooks, a point of unprofessionalism that also hugely embarasses me. I don’t like twitch chat very much, so I feel very bad being this person @-ing people on twitter like I’m an exciteable fan going oo oo Mr Stark, Mr Lauder, please pay attention to me!

Desert Bus is an amazing charity that does things that matter to me a lot; it aims to be inclusive and respectful and indulgent, which is what I want out of my games. This year they passed the $5,000,000 lifetime earning mark, brought in dozens of amazing people, and in a tiny way, in the tiniest of ways, I was part of that. Not only was I part of that, but people involved in that worked to keep my contribution from falling away. They didn’t need my thing to raise that money, they didn’t need it. They could have kept it for next year, or told me sorry, you messed up, or sorry, we’re too busy.

They could have and they didn’t.

I feel ashamed that it’s necessary, but I am so, so grateful to the people who spent their time and effort in such an incredibly busy time to make something like that happen, to let me and Hazel be part of this.

Desert Bus is wonderful and good and as much as I hate the way I lose a week of my life just paying attention to this stream, I am so blessed by the work and actions of the people involved to be included in it.

Thank you, Desert Bus.

MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 2: The Kami War

Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.

When you want to dismantle a set and fix it, it seems to me you should want to get down as close as possible to the basics of what went into that set. Strip it down, examine the central principles, and see what you can do to fix them. You need to find the things that made the set feel the way it did without, hopefully, carrying forwards the things that made it feel bad. Which means that you want to represent the same general factional struggle and strife, you want things to broadly still have the same boxes they can land in and in Kamigawa that means addressing the big flavour underpinning the whole thing:

The Kami War. Continue reading

Decemberween: Big Stevie Dee

First up hand on heart, I like Steve Dee‘s games. That’s a weird thing to disclose, because it’s normally the other way around. They’re not the kind of games I play, but I have bought some of them, because I like having them and they have good mechanical ideas that I can use for my own projects. That doesn’t reflect on my opinion of him as a person, though.

There’s this idea I have as a game developer that I want to hear from people who have something going on other than games development. Games Development As Identity is kind of how you wind up with these small, insular groupings of games that feel similar, even if they have huge or small budgets. There are lots of Games Developers who got into Games Development by being Games Developers.

Steve Dee came to my house this year, and he spoke to me about dogs.

He spoke to me about dogs, because he was here to give us lessons in understanding and helping our dog. Elli, who is a beautiful but somewhat silly dog. And in one afternoon, Steve was not only able to explain to me behaviour from our dog that bore out as true, but he was able to do it in a way that made sense to me.

That’s an under-appreciated skill in game design. You’re trying to communicate a way things work to people through rules, through game play. Steve has it, but crucially, Steve works at it.

Game Pile: Blades in the Dark

It took a lot to get me out of 4ed D&D.

I’ve been playing D&D 4th edition since 2008. Our playgroup has a two-DMs policy, so the DM doesn’t have to wear out only ever playing; so we have two campaigns running side by side. This year, I sat down in the heat of a summer night with my friends, pulled out some printed sheets, and asked if we could give Blades in the Dark a try.

I’ve been running this game now for a year. My players’ crew, the Six Towers Station, a gang of daring smugglers, who I sometime tease for their lack of interest in smuggling. They have pulled off bank heists, woken up in a shipping container, relocated the bodies of ghostly lesbians, sold a soul in bits to the eletrical grid, created the myth of a refugee goddess, and ensnared in their web of crime a tanner’s and an undertaker’s.

I planned exactly none of this.

Continue reading