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 Tail of Spite

Back in 2018, Dinesh Vatvani, a python programmer, took a set of analytic tools to the BoardgameGeek top 100. I have said some mean things about BoardgameGeek in the past, like how it’s a site that ‘loves lists as much as it hates women’ or ‘looks like an android’s uterus’ or ‘has a community that are shockingly comfortable with being the worst kind of racists,’ but one thing it’s generally regarded as being pretty solid at is presenting to a general audience a lot of data about whether or not a game might be, in some vague way, ‘good.’ It’s got a ranking system, you see, and that ranking system – well, it’s a system. Systems are right, aren’t they? It’s like algorithms.

The hypothetical idea is that BoardgameGeek, by aggregating a large number of opinions, this analysis avoids having a ‘bias’ and is instead presenting a kind of objective data.

Now, obviously, this kind of analysis is going to be as biased as any self-selecting group, and Dinesh’s analysis seeks to tease out a number of different factors. The full article is definitely worth a read, but in this, he introduces something extremely interesting, which he dubs the Tail of Spite.

The Tail of Spite is the way that:

A curious feature of the graph above is the tail of games of low complexity and low ratings at the bottom left of the plot. This “tail of spite” consists of relatively old mass-appeal games. Every single game in the tail of spite was released pre-1980, with many being considerably older than that. The games that form the tail of spite are shown in the table below:

What fascinates me about this tail of spite is that these are games that, with some degree of objectivity, seem to be successful. Some of them aren’t even exploitative like Monopoly – I mean who owns Tic Tac Toe? Who’s getting rich off kids knowing how to make that game on their notepaper. No, these games are games with wide-spread mainstream appeal, that do their jobs, are largely not broken and rarely poorly produced, but they’re extremely well known. They are not so much rated as they are resented.

I think this idea, that of a ‘tail of spite’ is a useful one to have. Your biases won’t just express in over-rating the things you like – you will also be inclined towards being more harsh on things you have personal distaste for.

Anyway, Monopoly sucks.

 

Game Pile: Keen Dreams

Oh hey, a Game Pile about a Commander Keen game! We’ve done that before! Twice!

And right now, it’s amazingly actually timely, kind of, because unlike how I wrote about Wonder Boy 3 just in time for the announcement of the remake, I had this plan lined up just as Keen Dreams dropped on the Switch.

On the Switch.

What the hell?

Who was seeing that coming!?

Released in 1991 under the Softdisk label, Keen Dreams marked a turning point in Commander Keen design. The first Keens were made as an exercise in smooth scrolling video on a PC – an attempt to replicate the movement of Mario Bros kind of games, and which wound up being – you know what, just go read Masters of Doom by David Kushner (no relation to that one) and learn about the arc that takes from Commander Keen and Softdisk to literally the entire modern landscape dominated by team-based multiplayer shooter games. Suffice to say this is legitimately one of the stepping stones on that path.

If I was a fairer writer, I’d tak about Commander Keen 3: Keen Must Die!, and I guess, here, bonus Game Pile: Keen Must Die is an afterthought of a game and makes the moral weirdness I mentioned about Commander Keen 2 both front-and-centre and obvious. Like it’s pretty much impossible to finish Commander Keen 3 without shooting someone’s mum, which is pretty bleak as a story beat to put in a videogame.

Keen Dreams is a… decent game. It’s fine. It’s alright. It’s definitely weaker than Keen 4 and a little bit better than Keen 3. There’s less game here than you’d think, less spectacle, less fun exploration, and there was a point where this game was entirely available for free, but it’s certainly worth more than nothing.

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Making Fun: Years Later

Starting in November 2017, I decided that, with enough attempts made to explore methods of how, that I would start uploading videos to Youtube. I decided to build on my then-recently-finished Honours thesis as an experiment in seeing what I could create that could suit a rapid-fire fast-talking Youtube content form, and as a direct result, my first video series, Making Fun was made.

It’s been a bit over a full year now, and I thought I’d spend some time to look at these videos and see what I thought of them, what lessons I had learned, and what lessons I would recommend.

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Crokinole And Doing Just Enough

Few things are going to go  so well as to make broad, sweeping statements about what you can derive from a culture from observing its games. Roger Caillois offered that idea, and he was a shocking all-purpose super-racist, like a Voltron of racism, bolting together orientalism and exoticism and a kind of intellectual academia that formed The Head(lessness).

Caillois was so convinced that the destiny of cultures could be seen in the games they played that he dedicated a book to the task, a book that I have had gleeful fun making fun of lately but which also has some terms that we’ve kind of gotten very used to using, terms like ludic and paidic in terms of game design. His model of games as forms of engagement was to see them in terms of how people got involved with them and what that meant they got out of them, and then from that, to try and draw broad, elaborate strokes about what this meant for cultures that just happened to align with western Europeans and mostly French academics just being the best people, and clowns were evil.

Now I don’t think that you can’t draw some conclusions about cultures and their games, particularly in that when I think about Canada and games, the three that spring to mind are curling, crokinole, and ice hockey, and of those games, two require you to have a ready supply of ice in fairly large spaces. When a game can be played with commonly available stuff in common spaces, and doesn’t need a lot of speciality equipment, it becomes more likely that people will play it, and it can spread through a culture more readily. There isn’t a big curling scene here in Australia, a place that hasn’t had common ground ice in its capital cities or residential areas since those places ever existed. It’s kind of doable to look at Canadian games and think ‘the attributes of Canada as a physical space helps to encourage these games.’

It’s not like my opinions of games is coming from a space of serious expertise, either; Canada is a really big country, and those three games are trying to represent four hundred years of history across literally the second largest country in the world. The game of ear pulling has been played in Canada for literally three millenia and Ice Hockey is relatively recent by comparison.

Still, when I look at these three games, something that strikes me about them all that they have in common is that these three games are not about doing something to the limit of one’s ability. They’re all about, or have rules to encourage, you to do just enough.

This isn’t unique! After all, games like bowls and blackjack are also games about not doing too much but neither of those games are about dealing with the dynamic, slippery surface of ice, or the crokinole board and its skiddy polish.

Is there more to this? Is it a secret insight into Canadian culture?

Have I cracked some Cailloisian code?

No.

It’s just a coincidence. An interesting coincidence, but a coincidence.

But it’s fun, sometimes, to notice these things, and think about how you might do things differently.

Top Dog

Games are filled with opportunity for discovery. When you’re exploring a device with low stakes, you are in that time, playing with it – seeing the boundaries of what it allows. It is the play of a gear, more than the play of an actor. Play is how we find the limits of things.

Okay, rewind. A story. A story of a specific thing in a specific place.

Back in the day, in City of Heroes, when you first made a character, you’d complete a short little tutorial, and be dropped in front of the steps of the Atlas Statue in Atlas Park. It looked like this.

It’s a common thing for players to talk about, the first moment the got a flight-related travel power.  It was usually hover, but sometimes it was a jetpack. However you did it, when new players gained the ability to leave the ground, one of the most common things they’d do is use that power to fly up to the top of the Atlas Statue and look at what was there.

What was up there was an exploration badge.

These badges were a bit like achievements. You could put a badge on your character and it’d display under your name. More important than what this badge could do, though, is what this badge did.

When you explore, one of the most disappointing things to find is nothing. I have memories of struggling up mountains in World of Warcraft and New Vegas and finding blank textures and no reaction to my presence, a sign that I hadn’t actually achieved something difficult but just had done something the developers had never expected. That taught me to stop trying those things, to stick to the path, to give up on exploration and excitement. I turned the gear all the way in one direction, and the game didn’t react well to it, suggesting I never do that again.

In City of Heroes, you tried something, and the game found you when you got there, and said hey, yeah. This kind of thing works.

The Top Dog badge encouraged players from the earliest point to always look on top of things, around things, to think in terms of what counts as worth exploring. It was a good idea, and I think that it rewarded players for being playful with the world.

Game Pile: Braid

Braid, the 2008 videogame by Jonathan Blow, widely heralded as the first Xbox Arcade indie game and the dawn of a new era of artistic expression in videogames and the newly democratised marketplace, is in an uncited claim on its Wikipedia page, in contention as ‘one of the best videogames of all time,’ which suggests that this little indie game is very important and smart and deep, like other best videogames of all time on the wikipedia list, like Ninja Gaiden.

For obligatory game-as-game-context, Braid is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer game with your classic runny-jumpy-climby, a beautiful hand-painted art style and puzzles that focus on an engine that can do endless, smooth rewinding of every game entity all at once. This has a lot of clever design in it, and thanks to the endless rewinding, you can design the whole game around really challenging puzzles knowing you can always reset them and try again.

It’s decent.

It’s fine.

It’s regularly quite cheap, and it definitely isn’t overpriced.

Spoilers for Braid, ahead.

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Blocking out a Card

Hey, here’s a thing I was working on in February. You may have seen it on twitter.

Here’s a cut link because this is going to show full images of cards and those things are loooong. Oh and pre-emptively, these cards have been munged by Twitter because I could not be hecked to re-export these progress shots.

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Form Informs Function

I’m looking at this game, Yamatai.

It’s this big, bulky beast of cardboard, a real classic Euro of dear god, there are how many bits? At its root, it’s a game of laying paths and fulfilling economic requirements. In fact, you can almost punctuate Yamatai as a sentence with a lot of asterisks – you place boats* on a map* to fulfill goals* that earn money* to build structures* to earn victory points*. And every single * indicates a place where the game has a specifically designed system meant to make that particular action more complicated.

If you remember me talking about alignment systems as plumbing, then this is the kind of game where you work with a lot of plumbing to make it work. It isn’t a bad idea, most games are simple systems rendered difficult by complications after all, Bernard Suits and the willing overcoming of optional difficulties and what not, but anyway, in this game, there are these tiles that determine special game actions you can take and how fancy your faction is regarded, known as Specialists. They look like this: This is how they actually look. They have these names. The rulebooks specify what they do, but never who they are, and while we can talk for a bit about mechanics informing character, it does feel a bit like a swizz to turn these people into these tiles that represent actions. These people aren’t reduced to what the can do, they’re reduced to one action only, which is good for a big and complicated game that already has too many bits going on.

Why are they people, though?

These could be machines, or flags, or they could be brokered trade details (and maybe even decorated to look like them) or faction histories or – there are lots of things these tiles could be. They’re not. They’re people. They’re named like they’re people.

To spin this around to one of my own designs, I’m working on this small game (at the moment – it’s probably long done by the time this goes up) where there are only eighteen cards, and they each represent parts of a plan. What’s tripping me up at the moment, though, is the challenge of what verb form to put the card names in.

I’m not trying to bag on Yamatai (here) for reducing Asian People To Objects (again, here). I’m thinking about the ways we talk about mechanical objects and their purposes. How we choose them. How to make them consistant.

Janet Murray once expanded Caillois’ model of gameplay with its agon and alea and mimicry and ilinx and described a form that Caillois hadn’t considered, of rhythmos. Her idea was that some forms of rules satisfaction came from making rules that worked cleanly together as rules, and that helped drive gameplay. This is a very real effect, and one that you’ll notice if you miss it.

And so, here I am, up late, worrying away, like a beaver at a twig, thinking about conjugation and the card-tile non-people of Yamatai.

MTG: Tiny Cube

Let’s assume you’re familiar with Cube.

Okay, no wait, let’s not assume. The basics of Cube is that it’s a pool of cards and you draft them and play Magic: The Gathering with what you’ve drafted. An in-depth discussion can be read here.

Now, let’s assume you’re familiar with Winston Drafting.

Wait, no, that’s a bad idea. Winston Drafting is the idea of a format for drafting cards between a small number of players – two or three is the usual numbers. You Winston draft by slowly generating piles that become more and more desireable. You can read an in-depth discussion about that here.

Now, let’s talk about Tiny Cube.

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Examining 3 Wishes

If you’re bothered by seeing designers scrutinise other designer’s designs explicitly to change them then you might want to check out now. I personally advocate for this practice very hard, since it’s both important to demistify the lie that games spring out of the aether, but I know that some people are both more precious and more sensitive to the idea of ‘idea theft.’ Since I put a ton of my design work out there on this blog, you can probably guess that I don’t have that same fear.

In the simplest sense, what I’m doing here is play. I am playing with this game, with its design. It is more akin to the play of a gear than to the play of an actor, but it is still play.

This is an examination of how a game can give you ideas for another game, it’s not about things the designers ‘should’ have done, or things that they should have presciently known better about.

Onward!

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MGP: Children’s Games

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.

Making games for kids is a challenge.

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Meta Is Boring

I understand that not everyone partakes of media at the same pace. There are things that, for you, are brand new. Someone out there is experiencing, for the first time, a work that feels like Coyote Gospel, or their first time a webcomic literally leans on the panels of the comic. I know, no matter how much I may feel a thing, it doesn’t make it a universal rule. You are not, in any way, beholden to my tastes.

But god I find meta boring.

This shows up when you google image search ‘meta comic’ and ‘labelled for reuse.’ Bonus: The source explaining it is in Italian, so I have no idea about the context. The good news is, it doesn’t matter, because I’m recontextualising this work.

‘Meta’ is a memetic shorthand. It isn’t really about postmodern commentary, not really – the kind of people who ‘use meta’ are also the kind of people who dislike the word ‘postmodern’ or who dismiss the idea of postmodernism, often without necessarily understanding the term or its meaning. Meta is a particular kind of wisecracking too-cool, disaffection, and it’s often used in videogames and tabletop games as a sort of get-out clause for failures in their own fiction.

This isn’t to say I don’t like ‘very meta’ works. I after all, really enjoy Portal, which uses its deliberately puzzly structure to talk about how puzzle games work. Meta can be fun. What bothers me, though, is that there’s a lot of modern ‘meta’ work, especially in games, that cares more about using the meta-ness as a get-out clause for the fiction it wants to construct. Indie videogames are rife with videogames that want to draw your attention to the fact you’re playing a videogame…

And it’s so flipping boring.

If your world, if the story you’re telling me, isn’t interesting enough to keep my attention, maybe take it back to the workshop and go for another round or two? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, since I heard of the plot and structure of Glass, the movie, about how it’s a movie that’s mostly about being a screenwriter masquerading as a movie about being a supervillain.

Maybe the story doesn’t need to be clever, per se. Maybe you can learn a lot by making your story fun.

4th Edition’s Space Problem

Normally you’ll hear me be pretty positive about 4th Edition D&D. I’m a strident defender of the game, which is made easiest by a number of the complaints about the game being entirely fake. It’s easy to be a righteous defender of something against blatant lies.

Still, there are flaws with 4th Edition D&D, which shouldn’t be any kind of surprise and yet here we are. Let’s talk about one of them. Heck, let’s talk about a big problem, and it’s a problem that’s structural. It’s so structural it doesn’t even relate to a specific class, as much as it relates to the way that classes get made.

Classes take up too much space.

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Accent Bullshit

I’m a bit sore about accents.

One of the problems is that my accent is one of those ones that’s kind of definitively seen as a joke. You don’t hear an Australian accent, and when you do hear it, it is almost never done by an actual Australian. The most famous Australian actor in the world right now puts on an Olde English accent most of the time.

In part this conversation was spurred by Olly of PhilosophyTube, who is a perfectly fine chap and I don’t mean any disrepect by, but he recently did a video that was presented as a riff on ‘How I’d Fix [Franchise]’ videos, during which he did the whole thing in a very artificial American accent.

The purpose behind it was that this voice was both meant to be playing a character, and to help hook people into a way of viewing ‘the housing market’ as a thing that doesn’t actually do what it’s presented as doing. Plus it played within an existing Youtube genre of extremely tired, annoying fanfiction that’s just jam-packed full of extremely ordinary white guys. It was affect, right? That was the point. It wasn’t meant to sound good, so what’s the point?

The point is that the overwhelming thought I had, through the whole video, was not ‘Oh hey, clever use of the genre’ or ‘good point there, Olly me old chum, maybe we should eat the rich,’ but rather the much more constant ‘jesus christ this accent sucks.’

Which isn’t new, he’s done this before. He’s impersonated an Australian accent, For Hilarious Effect, which touches on one of my raw nerves.

I have some sympathy for voice actors on this front. After all, in the United States, the most common form of voice acting is the way that almost all news presenters adopt an identical locational affect – it’s really specific in fact. Numerous voice actors take on roles that aren’t true to their own backgrounds, and voice acting can be much more about projecting an affect that can communicate a lot through a very small amount of experience.

Plus, I don’t want to stand here and talk about this like it’s a form of cultural intrusion. That’s a much more chancy sphere, and the last thing the world needs is a white guy standing here telling other people how they should communicate. That’s super obnoxious (and part of why it angers me when Americans do it to me).

If you want to look at the way this sphere of media is fraught, in Downsizing there’s Hong Chau’s character Ngoc Lan Tran. Tran spoke in that movie with a really heavy Vietnamese accent and broken English – an accent she said she derived from her own family.It was something of a hot topic for people to complain about this accent and even flat-out call it racist, for her to have it. I’m not here to defend the movie or how the movie depicted it, but people were saying that the accent Hong Chau chose that evoked her own Vietnamese heritage was ‘wrong,’ and made her sound like a joke. People criticised the accent, and then they asked her about where she got it from.

That’s part of the problem with this sort of cultural imperialism: You’re made to feel your own voice is inherently non-serious. That you’re not a person, you’re a comedy prop.

You know we were going to get to this.

I hate Junkrat. I hate that Junkrat is meant to be Australian. I hate that he’s voiced by a Californian. I hate that other Australians love him. I hate how Overwatch treats Australia, because, boy howdy, is that some extremely racist stuff. But even if I didn’t hate all that, even if I didn’t hate who Junkrat is meant to be and what Junkrat is meant to be about, his accent would still suck.

And that means whenever I hear Junkrat talk, I don’t hear an Australian accent or a New Zealand accent. I hear an American, projecting to other Americans, an accent that’s meant to be about my part of the world. And all that time means every time I hear Junkrat talk, I’m pulled out of whatever fiction he’s meant to represent and just reminded that, oh yeah, this voice.

I personally feel that an accent is one of those things where we forgive you if you’re good enough. If I can’t tell your accent is fake, then it doesn’t matter that it’s fake. It’s basically diegetic, and that’s pretty interesting and weird.

Also, Olly’s like, on Patreon and Blizzard are one of the highest-paid gaming companies in the world. That’s a factor too.

 

MGP – The Mistake Of Chin Music

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.

When I made Chin Music, there were three basic things coming together. First, the idea was to try and make a game that wanted to be played quickly, but wasn’t real time. Real time rules can be challenging to make work, but the purpose of real-time play is usually some degree of tension. The idea that came together was of a game that evoked a fight, and which I could produce quickly and easily without calling on an artist.

Now, I want to make it clear if you think I’m rubbishing Chin Music. I love Chin Music. It’s one of my favourite games I’ve made. I like how it looks and I like how it plays. But there are two Chin Musics – a beta model that was printed, and a proper version that you can buy now.

The basic mechanic of Chin Music is a bit like Snap. You lay down cards with sound effects on them, and list the sound effects in a row of the stack so far. Then, when you messed up, players flipped the stack over, checked how powerful the gang of hooligans outside you’d antagonised, and then you won or lost points based on that. Players could see the back of other players’ cards, so you’d know generally how dangerous the gang would be. The real-time aspect of the game is that the longer you take on your turn, the harder it gets to remember the stack of cards. You want to pass the turn as fast as possible just as a function of memory.

Here’s the problem: That second mechanic sucks for a game that wants to move fast, and it jerks the whole game to a halt when you need to check it. The mechanic that replaced it was much simpler: When you mess up, another player can call you out for it, and if you did mess up, you shuffle those cards and put them into your own deck. This meant that there needed to be a few more cards, and that meant the card backs needed to be cleaned up, and then since the deck got a bit bigger, I could put the game into a cardboard tuckbox (technology we didn’t really embrace fully until 2018). Overall, this means that early versions of Chin Music are, while perfectly functional, really not as good as the final versions of it, and that bums me out.

But I still put the first version up for sale, in a rush, because I didn’t want to miss making ‘a game a month.’ This was a bad decision, because if I’d postponed it a week or two, nobody would have really noticed. I’d have gotten the first version, found the problem, been willing to address it then, and just delayed the game.

This is one of the ways the printing time kicked me in the butt. My first prototypes of this game were made with playing cards and I found the awkwardness of the scoring system was – in my mind – tied more to my handwriting and the cheapness of the prototype than the actual problem in the game.

I wanted to release a game a month, and since I was doing it without a plan or a contingency, and doing it without clearly defined boundaries of what did or did not count as a release, or any way to recover from mistakes, I now have stock of a kinda-bad version of a game I really like. Let that be a lesson for you: If you’re going to do a project like mine, give yourself defined limits and boundaries, and ways to recognise and handle failure.

Game Pile: DoraKone

DoraKone is a stretch goal kickstarter game that came out in December 2018. When I say it’s a stretch goal, it’s literally a throw-in made for the kickstarter of another, different game, by Apple Cider games. You follow a protagonist named Dulce as she plays an ARG Phone game for exactly one summer, and the people she meets because of it.

This game is an unabashedly self-indulgent, short, easy and breezy little game. There’s no ‘suddenly, you are dead’ in any of the routes I played through, and the game you get is pretty much just Cute Lesbians Start Dating, culminating in a big grand kiss graphic for your trouble. There’s multiple endings and conversation choices, you know, all the classical Visual Novel stuff.

DoraKone is beautiful, just breathtakingly good looking as a visual novel goes. If you’re very familiar with how Renpy works, you know what to expect – the game never busts out a surprising mini game or asks you to do anything I’d consider ‘challenging.’ In the landscape of the modern English Language Visual Novel it’s a very pure, very approachable little nugget of Lesbians.

You can get DoraKone on itch.io for the low low price of No Dollars.

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Battlemind Woes

At the time this post goes up, I will have already played this year’s Weekend D&D game. If things went as I expected, I’d have played a Battlemind, modelled on Gilgamesh from Fate: Grand Order, in that he’s a reckless garbage boy, a property-rights-confused wanna-be Hero of the Sands of a half-Gerudo.

This has meant looking at the class the Battlemind at some length, and let me tell ya, it ain’t great.

For those of you not familiar with 4th Edition D&D, here’s the basics: The Battlemind is a defender class, meaning that in combat, it wants to spend its time forcing enemies to prioritise it – it’s a form of control. The defender wants to make enemy actions as fruitless as possible by making those actions directing attacks at someone who can best handle it, and does this by being the toughest person on the field and then making it hard for enemies to attack other people.

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Examining Murder Of Crows

If you’re bothered by seeing designers scrutinise other designer’s designs explicitly to change them then you might want to check out now. I personally advocate for this practice very hard, since it’s both important to demistify the lie that games spring out of the aether, but I know that some people are both more precious and more sensitive to the idea of ‘idea theft.’ Since I put a ton of my design work out there on this blog, you can probably guess that I don’t have that same fear.

In the simplest sense, what I’m doing here is play. I am playing with this game, with its design. It is more akin to the play of a gear than to the play of an actor, but it is still play.

On the other hand, I’ve spoken to one of these designers, Eduardo Baraf, he’s a lovely guy and I don’t want to make him feel bad. This is an examination of how to make a different game idea out of one of his ideas, it’s not about things he ‘should’ have done, or things that he should have presciently known better about.

Onward!

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Vastaanan, Hero Of The Desert!

It’s D&D weekend! It’s a weekend where we play a single D&D game, with friends who we don’t get to see except once a year! It’s great! It’s fun! It’s 4th edition D&D, and as I write this, it’s still in the future. As you read it, it should be happening, for me, like, right now, The continuity of this potential game is a bit weird, and that’s appropriate, because, in the interest of getting a good, solid hit-the-ground-running game setting, Fox decided to run her weekend-long sword-and-sorcery adventure in The Legend of Zelda.

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Game Pile: Hustle Cat

Hustle Cat is a 2016 Visual Novel by Date Nighto, which might normally get put in the ‘otome’ game category, except it’s kind of deliberately not using that particular trope set. The story follows Avery Grey, a pronouns-of-your-choice (they for this review) human form that, as seems to be a trend so far, interrupts their life of Not Doing Anything at home by getting a job at a cat cafe. This cafe is staffed entirely by painfully cute people, and you wind up smooching one of them (or dead, or worse).

Did I say dead? Don’t worry about it.

As with most games of its type, talking about plot specifics would involve digging into narrative spoilers, which I’m normally happy to do, but in the case of a Visual Novel is pretty much the content you turned up for.

You can get Hustle Cat on itch.io and Steam. It’s a more expensive title here in Australia – $30, and the US price is $20. This puts it in the higher price bracket of visual novels, comparable to a Danganronpa game, which have voice acting, animation and mini-games. Without those other ‘game’ bits to recommend them, Hustle Cat offers itself to you as a very pure experience of here are hot characters, you can smooch them.

Some folk like Visual Novels because being a fan of Visual Novels is cheap. There’s a bunch of good free ones, there’s a few that are good and cheap, and there are some – very few – that actually crest into this space. For me, the VN has always been an entity of the affordable, and that means part of me recoils at paying that much for it. What if I don’t like it? the fear creeps in the back of my mind. Visual Novels, more than other games don’t have much to engage you except characters and story, and that means that this not-small purchase has to live or die on whether or not those are good.

With that in mind, I’d like to tell you why Hustle Cat is really good.

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Project: You All Meet In An Inn

The Pitch: You’re playing a quest-giver at a local tavern, trying to make sure you hand your quests to the idiots most likely to succeed at it. You’re not the only one, though, and all the other players are vying to lure these adventurers on their particular quests, like a sort of ambulatory workboard. You need to pull together adventurers, earn coin to incentivise more parties, and hopefully get your own ends met by the end of the game.

Details

You get a bunch of cards known as Quest Cards. Those Quest cards have some flavour on them, and then a set of symbols indicating what they need to be completed, and maybe have marks on them indicating things they ban (like maybe the quest to seduce the necromancer bans all ‘holy’ characters).

Those quest symbols are also on the Adventurers cards. These cards indicate the kind of thing they can do, and have a card back indicating if that adventurer is amenable to questing alone, in a pair, or as a full party.  They’re arranged in a grid of three rows, like so.

When you use a quest card, the adventurer (or adventurers) head out, and sit on that quest until … some timer. Not sure. Whatever. It’s a turn-based game. When they finish the quest, they return to the bottom of the deck they came from, and you get some fraction of the rewards and quest objectives. You can spend the reward money (hey, you think quest-givers are giving you everything your work earns them) to add to other quests, which means other adventurers are more likely to get them.

This whole game is modelled on Splendour; the grid arrangement, and the sort of economy of opportunities. There may be something like Splendour’s investments, too – maybe some of your quests make all your quests later easier because you have a reputation to uphold.

Needs

This game is going to need art. Since I now have a fund of sorts from Patreon I’ve been considering comissioning a bunch of adventurer art, of characters hanging around in an inn, but there’s an added challenge here: I don’t think I have it in me to design some 100+ characters, let alone give them enough to be meaningfully personable without using things like templates.

This has me considering maybe running a kickstarter with a cheap tier that’s just ‘we make your OC into a card and you get a nice high-quality copy of the art.’ I dunno.

At this point the volume of cards has me wondering if it needs to be a tight small-box 120 card game (as I make on Drivethrucards) or if this wants to graduate to be the next big thing as a small-box game that comes with tokens and markers.

If you think this sounds cool, if you think you’d want to chip in for art of your character, or if you’d back it on kickstarter, encourage me, dangit. I don’t know what I should be doing.

Smooching In Non-Smoochy Games

I play tabletop RPGs, and I tend to play them with a flavour of a sort of high-impact pulp fantasy. These are stories inspired in no small part by anime, mostly anime that are themselves inspired by the JRPG genre.

Now, JRPGs are character-driven; they tend not to want to represent a sort of agnostic world. Most western RPGs, and most tabletop RPGs that like that feel, are trying to present a world that simply is the way it always was – your characters, your people don’t matter that much to the world until you start engaging with it. This means that it tends to be more common to see games and settings where characters have their own lives that they want to get back to, and that means that it’s not so common to see characters you can romance.

The tabletop games we tend to play then are games which work in the opposite genre; the plot is in some ways structured around our characters; we’re known by important characters, or locations have some reason to resonate with our characters. My Paladin, for example, will almost always go out of his way to free a slave or punish a torturer, which may sound like it’s basic Paladinning, but in his case it’s definitely above and beyond, and it comes from a personal place.

I also really like smooching in plots.

I like that sort of general non-specific characters-romancing-characters. It’s just something I really like in a plot. On the other hand, I am also super shy, so I don’t often actually get to do romances – certainly not anywhere prominent. In some cases, I have elaborate headcanons about my characters and the NPCs they wound up smooching, just, you know, in private and it’s not anything anyone else has to deal with.

Now, it’s not a shock that many other gamers are awkward, and when you hear the phrase romanced an NPC odds are good you have a flashing warning sign in your mind going oh God no please no.

I just wanted to share my general ideas about how to handle this, as a player who wants to romance characters, both player and nonplayer.

  • Read the Room. Lots of people at the table may not be interested in watching your character flirt with another character or an NPC. It may be that they really do like watching the cool or funny or entertaining bits and you can play those out. Remember in these situations, romance is often a thing that makes you the centerpiece of attention, and in those times you’re not just satisfying yourself, you’re entertaining the group. And also be respectful of their time in general, and themes they don’t wanna see happening.
  • Make it Convenient. Don’t interrupt important things for your romantic thing. Ask your DM or the other player if you can work out a conversation later. This ties into the first thing. If you can’t think of the cool line or the perfect moment, then just say ‘I’ll work it out later’ or maybe even ‘I said something cool, let’s move on.’ This may be less satisfying than perfection, but you don’t want to make everyone wait for you to workshop your flirts.
  • Avoid The Rules. Know what kills a romantic conversation real fast? Looking up rules in a book. If you want to try something that would work for a scene, if it’s not going to get you game mechanical advantages, just pitch it to the DM in terms of it works for the scene. Maybe your character does zippo tricks or helps someone walk along a lovely mossy log – ask your DM if you can just skip dice rolls and avoid talking about Acrobatics or Tumble checks at that point.

This isn’t to say this is a system that Gets You The NPC or PC you have your heart set on. These are just the rules I use to make sure that when I play romantic moments in games, I’m doing it in a respectful way that keeps other players from being bored or bothered.

Game Pile: The Blind Griffin

The Blind Griffin is a NanoReNo game from 2015, an otome game set in a fantasic version of 1920s America, made by Asphodel Quartet. The story follows ????, a nameable protagonist as she follows magical signs that pull her towards a convenient job at a speakeasy called The Blind Griffin. There, she gets a job as a bartender, meets a trio of boys as well as some lovely ladies, and gets to spend a few months learning about magic, history, love, and whether or not she wants to smooch someone.

Telling you about deep specifics in this game would be a bit tricky, because it really is quite short. Like, action movie short. Like, an episode of a drama short. You could probably blur through your first playthrough in an hour if you weren’t taking notes like I was and then replay it again doing different things in half that time. With that in mind, you’re not going to get a lot of spoilery stuff in this review – there just isn’t the time.

You can get The Blind Griffin for free on itch.io, and it’s definitely worth the time to play through. There’s no need to be particularly specific about it – this is a good little game.

But now, let’s talk about form.

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Cancon 2019 – Aftermath!

Okay, that’s CanCon over!

The short story is we went to Cancon this weekend, and there, we sold games and bookmarks and postcards and other neat things and we stayed in a nice dorm with our friend, and we all had a Pretty Good Weekend and came home. We ate some pizza, we played some games, we talked to people and we had a bunch of fun. Then we came home.

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A Good F**king Idea

For christmas last year, my sister got me a copy of F**k, the game. On the most surface level, this game isn’t one that interested me – it’s basically a party game, in that particular character of a game where you don’t have to pay much attention and it’s not super important how well you play. Plus, a plain white box with stark san-serif fonts always makes me think of Cards Against Humanity, a game I definitely don’t want. This meant I never really investigated F**k.

When I got the game, I did a quick investigation, and in a game designer way, it wasn’t actually very hard to put it together. The game is a stroop effect engine, and then includes a bit of spice in the form of Snap-like mechanics. You have cards you’re trying to get rid of, and getting rid of them involves not making mistakes – then the cards try to make you make mistakes.

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I Like: Game Study Study Buddies

I travel around a lot, and that means a lot of my time I can’t read. Bus trips of 40-80 minutes are extremely difficult times because I have to conserve battery power on my phone while trying to not waste that time. If I had physical copies of books it might be a bit easier, but I don’t for most of them.

Enter Game Study Study Buddies, by Cameron Kunzelman and Michael Lutz. This podcast is a long-form treatment of academic game study books, and when I’m travelling it’s one of the things I can do that feels meaningfully productive for both easing me into a text or reconsidering one. They only do an episode a month, which is a bummer but it’s really interesting stuff if you’re interested in academic consideration of game studies.

The books they focus on are definitely biased towards videogame culture, except when they go back and do the Grand Olde Texts like Man, Play, Games. But that’s okay, because that’s what most of the people around me are interested in.

I like this podcast and I even sponsor it on Patreon. You might like it and want to check it out just for interest’s sake.