Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 17, 2016

If I hear the name "Warlords", I think of the PC game from 1989 and the games in the same series that followed it. But in fact "Warlords" is a pretty bad name for a video game, because there are so many different games using it. There is an arcade game of that name from the early 80's, World of Warcraft had the "Warlords of Draenor", and a search for "Warlords" on the iOS app store gives you a number of different hits, including a port of the 1989 PC game.

The game I want to talk about here is called "Warlords - Turn-Based Strategy" from Black Anvil. Which, as names go, is probably even worse than just Warlords. It isn't very snappy as a title, and as it turns out to not even be correct: The turn-based gameplay is tactical, not strategic. But apart from the bad title, the game is quite good. The core gameplay of Warlords is tactical turn-based battles on a hex map. There are different types of units which each are strong against some other unit type, and weak against another in a classical rock-paper-scissors system. And the hex maps have hexes of different heights, with units getting advantages when hitting downhill, as well as other terrain features like forests, swamps, or villages, each affecting the units on them. Which makes for pretty interesting short battles, designed to last just between 1 and 5 turns.

The strategic map around that is real-time based, not turn-based. You conquer provinces, but in fact you don't have an advantage from conquered provinces except for very few with features like the port or the merchant. While you don't play, some of the provinces get taken back by the orcs, while others get raided by bandits, so you end up fighting over the same province several times while expanding your map. That is not a bad thing, think of it like mobs respawning in a MMORPG, sometimes its helpful for farming xp and loot.

Each unit is collecting xp to gain rank. It also collects shards to get a promotion from 0-star up to 5-star, but those are much harder to get. In addition to that, ranks unlock rows of upgrade slots, each taking 4 upgrades that can be found as loot. Each upgrade strengthens the unit, and getting a full row gives an additional bonus. All in all, there are a *lot* of ways to make a unit stronger. The disadvantage is that it isn't always very obvious how strong or weak a unit is, but it keeps the game flowing.

You can play Warlords for free. Once ever 3 hours you get a free chest from a basic merchant ship in the harbor, once every 43 hours a free chest from a smuggler ship, which gives better stuff. You can get the same chests much faster if you spend money, but I feel as if that is optional and not strictly required. You might expand your territory faster if you spend money, but that isn't really all that much of an advantage. I haven't tried the PvP part, which thankfully is optional, so the game isn't really "pay2win".

Overall "Warlords - Turn-Based Strategy" is a nice little fantasy tactics game with continued unit improvement. I like it!

Friday, October 14, 2016
Total War

No, this is not a post about the second American Civil War starting on November 28th when enraged Trump supporters who have been told to go voting that day will discover that the election is already over and start a total war over this obvious election rigging by Clinton. No, it is about the news that Rome: Total War is getting a port to the iPad this fall, costing $9.99. I don't think that this is a good idea.

I have a strained relationship with the Total War series of PC games. On the one side I do like games that broadly fall under the 4X description, building up an empire from a small starting position by a mix of domestic advancements and conquest (and yes, I'm aware Civ6 is coming out later this month). On the other side the Total War series has always had a very, very bad AI; and I always found the real-time battles to be a bit fiddly with the controls and not really intuitive in the tactical decisions. The graphics of the real time battles are great (and I've even seen a TV show using the Rome: Total War graphics), but the gameplay of them I found not so much fun.

Somehow I doubt the situation will improve with a port to the iPad. The best one can hope for on the AI side is that it won't be dumbed down further for processor-power reasons, and we get the same sucky AI as the PC version. And the controls of the real time battles are likely to be problematic. There are some games on iOS, like Autumn Dynasty, which have real time battles using intuitive and fast touch screen controls. But they would be difficult to implement if you want to keep the Total War feature of being able to zoom into the action down to the individual soldier.

So right now I consider a wait and see approach: Even for 10 bucks I won't buy the game before I've read some in-depth reviews, e.g. on Pocket Tactics.

Monday, October 10, 2016
A political prediction

I predict that in the coming weeks more women will come forward and accuse Donald Trump of having sexually assaulted her back in <insert year here> causing a big media stir. I'm not saying that he did it, he might well be all talk. But the opportunity for somebody to grab some instant fame and maybe a fat settlement is unlikely to be missed, not in America. As his admission is already running on every news show (and some women already accused him), many people would instantly believe that any accusation of an actual sexual assault must be true. While many other people would instantly believe that any accusation must be false and engineered by Clinton.

Germany this year did two two things that demonstrate a bit of the problem: They passed a "no means no" rape law which says that verbal-only non-consent is enough to constitute rape. And they fined a beauty pageant / celebrity €24,000 for falsely having accused two men of rape. In a way both of these are very modern. Many law systems still require physical resistance from a woman in case of sexual assault. That feels very much like putting a burden on the victim, but is probably mostly due to very pragmatic reasons: Without signs of physical violence and no witnesses, how do you prove verbal non-consent in a sexual assault case? What about the principle of assumption of innocence? The large majority of actual sexual assault cases go unreported, but creating "false positives" can't be the solution to that. "Hey, many men get away with sexual assault, so let's put a few innocent men in prison on false charges to make up for that!". I don't think so. So any law designed to protect women against sexual assault must also come with sufficient legal protection for men against false accusations.

In the political arena the problem is not so much the difficulty of proving sexual assault, but the impossibility of proving sexual assault *didn't* happen. The Clintons have no possible answer to a 20-year old accusation of an alleged 40-year old rape. The Donald, who doesn't have an answer to easy questions like "what is your plan for healthcare", is unlikely to have a better answer to accusations of sexual assault. All this accusations might be true, or they might be all be just a huge <left|right> -wing conspiracy. How will we ever be able to tell?

Malicious difficulty

With a few exceptions, playing a computer game requires at least some degree of skill. The skill required might be very low, but to be actually a *game* and not an interactive story there has to be some sort of decision-making or timing of button-presses involved that makes some sort of difference to the outcome. Whether a game is difficult or easy depends on the details: How precisely do you need to aim to hit your target? How much time do you have to hit the right button? How many moves do you have to solve that puzzle?

And because that difficulty is variable, it is very common to find games that start out easy and get more and more difficult by varying those parameters: Your responses need to be more precise, you get less time, you get less moves, there are more obstacles. So far, so good. But it is easy to realize that this difficulty is somewhat arbitrary: The basic process of playing Tetris remains the same regardless of how fast the pieces fall, but the speed of the falling pieces compared to the player's reaction time determines how difficult a particular level is. That is even more evident if you look at role-playing games or games that use the role-playing element of characters having gear and statistics: Whether a fight against a particular monster is easy or difficult depends on your gear and stats, often far more than it depends on your ability to press the right button quick enough.

In an age of Free2Play games, that difficulty can be used by the developers in malicious ways: The game starts out easy enough, but quickly becomes more and more difficult to a point where it becomes nearly impossible. And then you get an offer to pay real money for virtual power, which would make the game easier again. That is pretty much regardless of the type of game: Role-playing games sell you epic gear that makes fights easier, while puzzle games sell you bonus moves and other gadgets that solve the puzzle faster.

Most people only complain if these games are PvP, and paying for power is considered to be Pay2Win. But frankly the problem can be even worse in some PvE games, which after a short time become nearly unplayable if you didn't pay for some added power. Because the pay wall is somewhat flexible and at least to some degree depends on player skill, it is somewhat less evident; and players don't complain because others might respond to their complaint by telling them that they suck at that game. That doesn't mean that this isn't a problem. Because in PvE games the developers have a much higher control about the difficulty, it is easier to constantly make the game more and more difficult until the players either give up or pay up. The in-app purchases of bonuses that are described as optional quickly become mandatory, and in some cases skill plays such a small role in determining outcome that even the most skillful need to pay to play.

I much prefer the greater honesty of having a very visible paywall in a game. Hey, you can play until level X for free, but then you need to pay to unlock the rest of the game. Trying to achieve the same by maliciously increasing the difficulty beyond what is justified by game design is just dirty tricks.

Thursday, October 06, 2016
The revolt against political correctness

Many of the thoughts that go through the head of a normal person every day are not politically correct. The evolutionary older parts of our brains are hard-wired to lust for members of the opposite sex and to mistrust strangers that don't look like us. So being constantly told by some finger-wagging world-improver that our thoughts are sexist and racist isn't very nice to begin with. And at some point that interdiction impinges on our political freedom: What if you believe that two wrongs don't make a right are are against so-called "affirmative action", the preferential treatment of minorities in order to compensate for previous discrimination? You certainly can't say that without being painted as a sexist / racist. And the same political correctness prevents any rational discussion of very real political problems like immigration.

People do get fed up with political correctness. In the past that expressed itself mostly in the number of fans that politically incorrect people like Jeremy Clarkson had. But more and more the revolt against political correctness is now reaching the voting booth. The Brexit, Donald Trump, or the rise of anti-immigrant parties all over Europe are very clear signs that people are fed up with being told what they can and cannot say or think.

And this is where the danger lies: The political correctness brigade isn't using very well differentiated tools. They use the exact same sense of moral superiority and the same arsenal of condemnation against the game developer who failed to use a colored face in his video game and against the politician who would deport millions of immigrants. Those are not the same degree of danger, but by treating them the same way, the political correctness brigade is actually pushing together very normal people with extreme right-wing nutters.

In a world with millions of refugees on the move we need a rational political debate on the problems and possible solutions. And that isn't possible without letting people express their natural fears and then addressing those fears. And the same is true about gender issues. If you condemn everybody who wants to have that discussion as sexist and racist, you're only driving them into the camp of the real sexists and racists. If the Brexit does great damage to both ordinary Britons and many vulnerable immigrants to the UK, that is on you, political correctness brigade! If Trump gets elected, that is on you too!

Friday, September 30, 2016
Frost mage - take two

My main character in Legion is my fury warrior, who just got his "Battlelord" title from finishing his class campaign. He is doing some world quests every day, but not all of them. I got 4 out of 5 pillars of creation already, with the 5th not being patched in yet. And I'm not a huge fan of grinding reputation, or doing dungeons and raids. Which means that my main doesn't occupy me 100% of my time any more. So what to play next?

I couldn't find really good data which classes and specs are really good for Legion leveling. A Google search revealed some opinion pieces, but of course they all disagree. And while playing Draenor a lot resulted in me coming into the expansion with 6 level 100 characters, that doesn't cover all possible classes, and I don't want to level yet another toon to 100. I have a paladin, warlock, mage, priest, druid, and a freshly minted demon hunter. My guess, after my experience with the warrior, would be that the pally would be quite good for solo leveling, but then I might want to change style. So after some indecision I decided to try my frost mage again.

I had tried to play the frost mage right at the start of Legion, but had gone with bad advice on talent choices and pretty much gimped him into a glass cannon that died at the first sign of trouble. Now I have chosen talents with a focus on survivability instead of on raid dps, the mage was already working much better. And then I decided to use my piles of gold to buy something else than just WoW tokens and spent 100k on BoE epics (which weren't commonly available in the AH at the start of Legion). With those instead of the pre-patch invasion gear the frost mage now pretty much rocks. He doesn't even have to kite all the time, being able to withstand being hit for a while. The ice block self-healing is great, and most of the time the mobs don't even manage to kill my water elemental while I'm regaining health. The damage output is better than that of my warrior, so I'm killing mobs faster. And as the mage has both teleports and access to the mobility toys my warrior earned (Emerald Winds, Skyhorn Kite), traveling is also very fast. So right now I'm quite happy with my choice. I assume that some of the advantage of epic gear will diminish with level, but right now I'm confident I can get the mage to the world quests stage.

The mage also gives me the opportunity to play around with different professions. I'm not happy with the way Blizzard handles professions: In every expansion different professions become useful, while previously useful ones become useless. While I had the good idea to retrain mining up with my warrior before Legion hit, I'm not really happy with the blacksmithing profession that goes with that. Between world quests and class armor I already have quite good armor, and the best freshly crafted armor is worse than that. I would need to craft tons of armor, use the bugged Obliterum Forge to turn it into obliterum, and then use quite a lot of obliterum just to make one piece of crafted armor better than what world quests give me. On the mage I had tailoring and inscription. I already dropped tailoring in favor of herbalism, because herb prices are so high that I don't want to fuel my inscription with bought herbs. But the more I look at it, the more I start to wonder if I shouldn't ditch inscription in favor of alchemy. With Legion having eliminated glyphs that actually do something not cosmetical, I'm not sure inscription is still of any use.

Monday, September 26, 2016
Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 11

In the previous session the constables of the Royal Homeland Constabulary of Risur managed to save a witness and the evidence from overwhelming forces trying to destroy them. That earned them level 4, which we handled between sessions. I prefer level-ups to just happen, not to play time needed for training, because that frequently clashes with the story timing. So in this session the group interviewed the witness, Dr. Wolfgang von Recklinghausen, and examined the evidence that the dying Nilasa had given him (stolen from the Danoran consulate).

It quickly became clear that the doctor wasn't really involved in what was going on, other than having tried to aid the dying Nilasa and having been passed the evidence she stole. But he had later encountered the shadow man that had given the group some trouble at several occasions, and wounded him with his rapier. That had left a trace of a black oil on his weapon, which he knew to be witchoil. Witchoil is an evil substance able to capture souls of the dying, and when loaded with such souls can be used to fuel dark magic. The constables decided to let the doctor go.

The documents from the Danoran consulate were reports from the Danoran head of security, Julian LeBrix. He had been investigating items disappearing and being smuggled out from factories in Flint which were Danoran-owned. The items were frequently large, for example thick steel plates, and taken together suggested some large construction project, like a battleship. During that investigation Julian also discovered flasks of witchoil hidden in some factories (where industrial accidents produced lots of soul for it to capture). But after reporting that to his superiors, his investigation was shut down. Using the ritual to detect planar energy the constables visited the factories in the report, talked their way in, and found flasks of hidden witchoil.

On their way to the RHC headquarters the constables had already overheard people talking about the skyseer Nevard Sechim planning a public announcement on Dawn Square the next day in the afternoon, telling the population of Flint of the visions he had when he visited Cauldron Hill (with the help of the constables). The next morning, at their status meeting with their boss they didn't mention that they had encountered Gale, the eco-terrorist they were supposed to hunt, but reported on finding the doctor and his evidence. Their boss, Stover Delft also had gotten word of the skyseer's announcement, and asked the group to provide security.

So the group visited Dawn Square the morning before the event, still using their ritual of detect planar energy. That made them find a warehouse with a strong source of energy from the Shadowfell. The source turned out to be a witchoil-powered golem, who attacked the group while a group of technicians in the back of the warehouse was trying to destroy evidence of their activities there. Some group members went and killed the technicians to save some of the evidence, while the others battled the golem. The golem hit hard, but not very precise; but he did spray some witchoil on the people battling him in close combat, which gave a nasty aura that damaged the person touched as well as the people around him. With a group full of close combat specialists that was quite nasty, although they managed to counter it in part with a wall of light from Eldion, the invoker.

After the fight the group discovered that the technicians apparently had modified jaguars (the cats, not the cars) by replacing their hearts with withoil tanks protected by steel plates. But the jaguars were gone already. And in the floor of the warehouse was an iron ring which they could identify as being usable in a ritual to move to the Shadowfell plane. The technicians in the warehouse had been half in the Shadowplane and half in the prime material plane, so one by one they just faded into the Shadowfell. Even the one they had kept alive was gone, so they couldn't interrogate him. With that we ended this session.


Sunday, September 18, 2016
Not very alt-friendly

As I wasn't playing every day, it took me until this weekend to hit the new level cap, 110, in World of Warcraft Legion. Now normally an expansion has about half a dozen zones, and getting to the level cap only takes the quest of about half of them. I basically finished Azsuna and Highmountain, doing all story-line quests there. Which normally would be great to then play an alt through the other half of the zones. But not so in Legion: To unlock world quests you need to be friendly in all zones, and that means playing the story line quests in all zones. Every alt you want to play and use for world quests will then also have to play all story line quests in all zones again. Uggggghhhhh!

As I mentioned previously, you can't use alts to just run missions, as you only get the resources for missions from playing. And without playing a lot, you can't even use your alt for crafting, because the crafting recipes are unlocked by leveling up and doing quests. There is no such thing as an "alt" in Legion, you just can have several main characters if you have endless amounts of time and don't mind the repetition.

I can certainly see why Blizzard would design the game like that. It forces people to play more if they want to use other characters, and more play means more subscription. But it kind of puts a damper on my usual "trade alts" strategy. Anyway, the way auction house prices are now I might be better off with gathering alts than with trade alts. Especially mining, which many people gave up due to it becoming obsolete with a Warlords of Draenor garrison mine, is now a huge money-maker. Felslate sells for 75+ gold on my server. I haven't really found good crafting recipes that make a lot of money, with the materials being so expensive.

Monday, September 12, 2016
Order resources

Last week I was actively playing WoW every day, and started to wonder about order resources: I seemed to earn far more of them than I was spending. Was that how the resource economy was supposed to work?

This week I got at least part of an answer. I am traveling, no PC, just an iPad. And so I'm using the Legion companion app to send my followers out for missions. But those cost resources, and I'm not earning any. I'll probably run out before I get home again. Still not sure if the resource economy is planned that way, but at least there is some balance between earning and spending order resources.

Saturday, September 10, 2016
Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 10

In the previous session the constables of the Royal Homeland Constabulary had paid a local crime lord, Lorcan Kell, to hand over an important witness to their case, Dr. Wolfgang von Recklinghausen. As promised, Kell's men led them to the abandoned cave church in which the doctor was hiding, got their friends out who were guarding him, and even kindly disabled the traps in the place. So the group went in, advancing slowly and carefully, until they found the doctor. With some diplomacy they persuaded the doctor that they were real police, because he was afraid of "the monster" coming after him. By his description the monster clearly was the same shadowy man that had caused the group some trouble already, and who had killed Nilasa. The doctor then gave them the documents that the dying Nilasa had entrusted him with, mostly reports of the Danoran security chief Justin Brix about strange things going on in Danoran-owned factories in Flint. The accounts of materials going missing fit with Gale's information from the previous session which had told them that somebody was smuggling material into the parallel shadow realm Bleak Gate and was building something large there, presumably some sort of war machine or ship.

The paladin, who had stayed near the tunnel which was the only obvious way into the church, then noticed that a mage had appeared outside and through magic barred the entrance with steel bars. But a group of people then ran right through those steel bars into the church. They were trapped, and under attack. Well, or they would have been. The player of Aria the sorceress is famous in the group for always being the first one who wants to flee, always looking how to stay behind cover even if that cover is his group mates. So the fight hadn't even started yet when Aria was already climbing up the chimney of the kitchen, looking for a way out. While the others started fighting, Aria got out, tied a rope to a tree upstairs and came back down, their escape route secured.

The people attacking were two rogues, two mages, and the shadow man himself. As the shadow man was insubstantial, he only took half damage from everything. And he had abilities to go into stealth mode in combat, running around not just invisible but completely undetectable. So he got a few good hits in, and so did the rogues. For some reason I was rolling a lot of 20s (and a lot of misses), so the mobs did some serious damage. But then Eldion hit the shadow man with radiant damage, which stopped him from being insubstantial. It also dissolved his shadow skin, revealing raw muscles and flesh of a human without skin. Some hits later the shadow man was bloodied, which triggered an escape ability with teleport he had, and he ran away. The group quickly killed the rogues and intimidated the two wounded mages into surrendering.

Merian then went in the tunnel towards the barred entrance. But outside there were over a dozen more enemies, with the rogues shooting him with their pistols through the bars. So the way through the chimney that Aria had already secured was the obvious way to disappear. They climbed out there and didn't turn back when somebody called into the tunnel for them to negotiate. We ended that session there.

So I didn't get to do the negotiation, where the group would have had the opportunity to trade their lives by handing over the doctor and the documents. Sometimes having an escape artist in the group can save them from having to make difficult decisions.


Thursday, September 08, 2016
World of Warcraft Legion companion app

I'm playing World of Warcraft on my iPad. Well, not the whole game. But the Legion class hall, like the Warlords of Draenor garrison it replaces, has a mini-game in which you send out followers to do missions. As these missions take several hours of real time to complete, that mini-game resembles similar gameplay of some mobile games. And it is best played on a mobile device, because many people due to work and school can't play World of Warcraft every 4 hours for 5 minutes, while on a mobile device that is much more feasible. So Blizzard this week launched the Legion companion app, which allows you to do just that, on Android or iOS devices. The app also allows you to do research in you class hall, hire troops, and apparently there is some world quest feature available at character level 110.

Blizzard apparently has a new approach of adapting World of Warcraft to modern gaming habits. During Warlords of Draenor people asked for an app like that, but only ever got an app where you could manually set timers to remind you when your missions were done. The Legion companion app allows you to actually send followers on missions, complete missions, and the next time you log into the main game the rewards will be in your inventory. Also this week Blizzard introduced a new feature where you can stream your gameplay live onto social networks. Not something I'm personally going to use, but I can see that there is demand for such a feature.

The new app encouraged me to try to at least level my frost mage to level 101 to get access to those missions. Unfortunately that proves to be a rather tedious slog. With polymorph not working on many mobs, and freeze effects breaking immediately, the frost mage is quickly overwhelmed when fighting more than one mob at a time. And in Legion single mobs have become a rarity, most monsters now come in groups and added involuntary pulls are very common. Sometimes I just have to try to kill one mob of a group, blink away and leave combat using invisibility to then come back and deal with the now smaller group before respawn. I was wondering if switching to another spec would improve things, but I already chose the frost artifact and it'll be several levels before I get the next one. I hear people complaining that ranged dps are better than melee dps in Legion group content, but for leveling my fury warrior is far, far better than my mage.

Sunday, September 04, 2016
World of Warcraft Legion

However much I might have enjoyed dungeons and raids in the past, these days I play World of Warcraft as a casual solo player, mostly questing and crafting. And from that point of view I must say that Legion is a very good expansion: The storytelling is much improved, the questing is completely non-linear, and the crafting is better integrated in the leveling gameplay.

On the story side there are now much scenarios, events, and cut scenes amidst the old "kill ten foozles" questing. One big source of that is the stories surrounding your class hall, which replaces the garrison. And while the garrison quests were the same for all characters, which really got onto your nerves after a couple of alts, the class hall story and quest is completely different for each class, which provides much better replayability.

That has been made possible by new technology which automatically adjusts the level of quests and mobs to your level in most of the new zones. Which means that you don't need to look where the level-appropriate content is, you can play anywhere. And when I say anywhere, I mean anywhere (except the one fixed level 110 zone): Even the zones itself aren't linear any more; you can travel around until you find a spot you like, find the local "breadcrumb" quest that leads you to the local quest hub, and start questing. You aren't required to do quest hubs in a particular order any more, although if going out on your own is too scary for you the game will still lead you from one quest hub to the next.

The reason I was traveling around and quested in different zones instead of finishing one is the new crafting system: Most of the recipes are now earned from quests and rare mobs. You can't just sit in front of the AH, buy materials, and craft your way to the top any more. You need to play the questing / leveling game in order to craft. While that might annoy some people, on the plus side the crafted stuff is of better quality. My warrior is wearing the armor he crafted. Even the food buffs are good, I have a recipe for a food that gives 1000% faster out of combat regeneration, which is nice for questing.

Talking of my warrior, I went into Legion with the intention of playing my frost mage as my main. But Blizzard has once again redone all the powers and talents, and reduced the number of buttons you press. For my frost mage that resulted in much less possibility to kite mobs around. Polymorph doesn't work on most monsters any more. And the Legion zones have far more monsters coming at you in groups. So shortly after acquiring my artifact weapon (which included a boss fight I had to read up on after several failed attempts to manage it) I gave up on my frost mage and went back to my usual main, the fury warrior. That turned out to be an excellent idea, because while the frost mage sucks in Legion, the fury warrior has become much better than before. His whirlwind doesn't cost rage any more, so it is "free" (except for the global cooldown), and with the right talents it hits as hard as the single-target abilities. So my fury warrior has become an absolute AOE monster, surviving even large groups of enemies without problem. I haven't tried the other classes / specs yet, but I assume that shadow priests still suck, so maybe I'll play the balance druid after the warrior.

Overall I'm enjoying myself very much in Legion. Having said that, I don't think there is much more than 3 months of content in there, even with alts. I'm not interested in organised group play any more, and the old problem remains that without that the game more or less ends at the level cap. I'm sure there will be some way to grind better gear through daily quests or their equivalent later, but why should I? So right now I'm concentrating on having fun with leveling, and don't plan for the future.


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