Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 07, 2015
Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 04

In the previous session the musketeers of the Royal Homeland Constabulary traveled to Axis Island. Originally their role was to be a backup team for another team of infiltrators, but the first team got killed very early in the mission and the player group had to take over. This session began with them traversing an underwater tunnel and reaching a sea cave at the bottom of a mine.

The sea cave was 60 feet high, with the exit being 35 feet above sea level. A series of platforms and ladders was leading up, and right when the group entered and made light the avenger (with his 21 passive perception) noticed a shadow on one of the upper platforms moving towards the tunnel. The group left the water and started climbing up those ladders, when they were attacked by a Danorian mine foreman, who had an earth elemental and a shadow elemental as allies. The foreman was very excited and accused them of having killed his miners.

Now the combat wasn't designed to be epic, but in my opinion it was over too quick. I guess the adventure is optimized for 5 characters, and my player group has 6. I don't want fights to drag on forever, but 13 hit points for the shadow elemental was clearly too low. It isn't much use to have monsters with interesting abilities if those monsters die on turn 1 and never really get to use them. The earth elemental was doing better, but in the end the group prevailed with just some minor wounds. They knocked out the foreman using non-lethal damage and searched him. That resulted in them finding two gold icons (medallions) which were magic. A third gold icon was found in the sea cave in a white marble pillar. The icons had different symbols and affinities to different elements.

After reviving the foreman the constables questioned him. Risuri forces, apparently the duchess' men, had killed his team of miners and he was the only survivor. They asked him how to get out of the mine, and he boasted how in Danoran mines the exit was clearly indicated at each fork of a tunnel. They tried to convince him that they were friends, trying to give back the island to Danor, but that story (while true) didn't really convince the foreman. Curiously the group not only decided to let him go, but also returned one of the three gold icons to him, as its power to become insubstantial for one round didn't appear very powerful to them. Heroes giving away magic items was not something the adventure had foreseen as possibility, so it remains to be seen how important the golden icons become in the rest of the campaign.

Following the exit signs the musketeers left the mine and found themselves in the middle of Axis Island. A small mountain range separated them from their target, the only fortress of the island, so they could go either on the road around the mountain, or directly over the mountain. As that was only about a mile of distance and more discreet, they decided to take the direct route. On the way they encountered some of the strange phenomena Axis Island is known for: Flames erupting from the tops of trees, and a reality fluctuation that transported them for a few seconds to a different world with a purple sky and blue sun; that was the same phenomenon that had preceded the cave-in that had killed the first infiltrator team, but in this case it caused only a minor landslide. The group also encountered an iron golem, who apparently had lost his head in a battle and was staggering aimlessly through the forest. Aria the spirit medium heard thousands of spirit voices coming from the golem, and the oil trace that he left.

The group was in a very determined mode, and didn't investigate the strange phenomena or golden icons any further, but pressed on towards the fortress. They arrived at the fortress wall, which was only lightly guarded with a patrol passing every 10 minutes. As planned they got through the weak spot in the wall with the help of a passwall scroll. From there they sneaked through the outer fortress towards the harbor. They passed by a prison, but as that one was well guarded they abandoned a first idea to free the prisoners. By taking the shortest way they only had to make one stealth check, and only failed 2 checks, raising the alarm to mild level. With several characters in heavy armor and having negative stealth check modifiers, that was as good as they could hope for.

Arriving at the harbor they had a good view of the sea wall, which was guarded, and the lighthouse. Aria proposed using another water breathing scroll to get to the lighthouse discreetly under water, which is what they did. As it was getting late and the events at the lighthouse will require some time, we stopped the session there.


Monday, October 05, 2015
50 bucks

I visited Steam this weekend to look whether I might want to buy Heroes of Might & Magic 7. The game would have cost 50 bucks, so I checked reviews on Steam and Metacritic to see whether it was worth that amount of money. It turned out that the reviews were mixed. While some people liked the "old style" feel of HOMM3, a lot of others complained about the game being ugly and unfinished (e.g. the heroes talking with no animation), or encountered bugs. The game appears to be not very polished. Why would I spend 50 bucks on a not very polished game? If I want the HOMM3 experience, I can buy HOMM3 HD on the iPad for $9.99, or Royal Bounty HD for $4.99.

I do think there is a market for $50+ games. But I would expect such a game to be highly polished and very pretty, as well as being very good. If I don't mind shabby graphics and lack of polish, there are plenty of indie and mobile games out there which are significantly cheaper. Just because the company is big doesn't make their limited budget, half-baked games worth 50 bucks.

While checking out HOMM7 reviews I saw lots of other games. So in the end I spent my 50 bucks on a collection of 3 Steam games: Undertale, which has an unheard-of Metacritic score of 97, although that universal love appears to be based more on a gigantic in-joke than on gameplay; Cities Skylines (at half price), which is the Sim City that the last Sim City failed to be; and Heroes of Normandie, a computer adaptation of a board game I had seen and liked at the Brussels Games Festival. I'm pretty certain that those 3 games together will provide me with more hours of quality entertainment and fun than HOMM7 would have.

HOMM7 meanwhile is on my Steam wishlist. I might still buy it at a sale if I can get it for half the current price or less. Plus the bugs will be fixed by then, and there will be plenty of player-created maps available. I can only win by waiting this out.

Friday, October 02, 2015
Magic Duels status

I'm still regularly playing Magic Duels on my iPad. Today is the release date for the card version of the Zendikar expansion, but on Magic Duels that expansion is delayed. Well, I'm still one booster away from having every single card of the Origins set, so I don't mind getting the opportunity to stockpile some gold before Zendikar arrives.

On the iPad I never had serious server problems, but as far as I hear most of the technical issues of the game have been fixed by now. On the gameplay side I consider the biggest problem of the game to be the Deck Wizard, a program designed to build one of ten archetype decks from your collection. The Deck Wizard doesn't allow you to put any card you want into that archetype deck, even if the card would totally fit the theme; instead you always need to choose the "least bad" card among a selection of five cards. Now normally my advice would be to simply not use the Deck Wizard, but unfortunately the majority of the more-or-less-daily quests require you to play just such an archetype deck. Even with a full collection the Deck Wizard produces a seriously handicapped deck.

That creates two distinctively different play environments. The Deck Wizard decks notoriously lack creature removal, and so creatures are pretty much the way to go, and even auras end up being good cards. You don't win every game on easy difficulty with a Deck Wizard deck. But if you build a deck with the regular deck builder without any restrictions, and put in a good amount of creature removal, then "easy" becomes really easy, and you still get good win percentages on higher difficulty levels. And of course you can build a lot more different decks than the 10 archetypes.

The upshot of all that is that I play the quests with the archetype decks on easy for quick gold, and then switch to a freely built deck and higher difficulty levels to play for fun. And while I haven't looked into the cards of the Zendikar expansion at all yet, I am absolutely certain that for the free building part more cards means more choice, and that means more fun. For the quest part of the game it will very much depend on how the new expansion will change those quests. Will there be separated Origins and Zendikar quests? Will there be 10 new archetypes based on a mix of both expansions? I don't mind the idea of a simplified version of Magic for beginners with lots of creatures, but if in the end even the veterans need to grind that simplified version for a long time to earn gold, then it isn't much fun.

Thursday, October 01, 2015
Virtual non-property

Recently I tried to play one of my many Steam games in the evening, and the Steam servers were down. As this particular game needed some Steam network component, I couldn't even play in offline mode. Of course a lot of people work on keeping the servers at Steam up and running, and the problem didn't last long. But it was a poignant reminder that I do in fact not own many games any more, I just have licences to temporarily play them.

I get a lot more of those reminders when I play mobile games on my iPad instead of Steam games. It is now years ago that developers discovered that "games as a service" with always online requirement was a good copy protection, and started using that as a basic principle in the majority of games. But "games as a service" also means running cost. Now that there are 400,000 games in the app store, it happens more and more often that games that aren't rather new any more don't earn the company enough money any more to justify the continued expenditure for that service. And thus the game is officially pulled and shut down.

Besides the relatively simple case of me now being unable to play a game that I paid for, I also run in the far more complicated case of being unable to play a Free2Play game that I have spent money on. The very concept of "virtual property", paying for a sparkly pony or the like, is revealed as an illusion. Now personally I have spending limits on any individual game, I'm not spending more money on a "free" game than what I would have been willing to pay for it if it had come in a box. But for those often-discussed "whales" who spent a lot of money on virtual property in a game it must come as quite a shock to find out that they have in fact no property rights at all.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015
The 7th Continent

I am not a big fan of Kickstarter. If you consider it as an "investment", the safety mechanisms are worse than for collateralized subprime mortgages. If you consider it as a "prepurchase", it is simply a bad deal because you have to pay far too early, and wait far too long, if not forever. Having said that, the three Kickstarter projects I did back all did eventually deliver, albeit on average a year late. Where I least regret my purchases are the Kickstarter projects I backed for physical objects, because the objects I got that way now can't be bought anywhere; the Kickstarter project was a one-time deal.

So yesterday I backed another Kickstarter project to the tune of a hundred bucks. It is for a physical object again, a board game called The 7th Continent. The main reason I backed it is that I saw a prototype played at the Brussels Games Festival 2015, and it looked a lot of fun. It solves one of the problems of board games (who do I play with?) by being soloable. And it is of an exploration / adventure type where I played games of that type with my wife in the past and we had a lot of fun. Being huge it gets over the problem of you running into the same handful of events over and over. So it is everything that I am looking for in a board game today.

The Kickstarter project for the 7th continent was funded after 2 minutes and 38 seconds. The project still is less than a day old, and has collected over 5 times the required funding, having over 3,000 backers. It passed stretch goal #18 with #19 already rather close. With 2 to 10 additional cards per stretch goal, the initial 1000 cards of the larger explorer version (very few people went for the smaller, 700 card version) has already grown by 10%.

Now The 7th Continent probably will be available in specialized games stores at some point in time, so the one-time deal advantage presumably doesn't apply. But with all those Kickstarter-exclusive stretch goal cards I still feel I'll get something more than if I had waited for the game to come to shops.

On the other hand the planned delivery date is only in one year, and based on past experience might well only be in 2 years. Getting far more money than needed curiously has never helped any Kickstarter project to advance faster. Usually the project creators get dizzy from all the extra money and start expanding the scope, going for a much bigger and more complicated version of the project. And that then ends up being much slower, without necessarily being any better. Nevertheless, having seen the playable prototype, I'm rather confident that again I will eventually get this game delivered.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Windows 10 desktop gadgets

I had signed up for the free update from Windows 7 to Windows 10 months ago, and last weekend I finally got it. Download and installation went without a hitch. But what I lost was my desktop gadgets, which are showing things like the current time, the next appointment in my calendar, weather, mail in my inbox, and network bandwith usage. Now these gadgets were already "unsupported" in Windows 7, but now they were totally gone.

Instead Windows 10 proposes "live tiles" in the start menu. I fiddled around with those and managed to get some information of the the type I wanted in the start menu. But the live tiles are rather annoying: They don't appear to update all that often (a mail I had read and deleted still showed up on the mail tile 15 minutes later), and of course you need to open the start menu first to even see them. The Windows 10 desktop is completely static, with only icons and no updating information except for the little clock in the lower right corner. I have less current information on my Windows desktop than I have on my Android phone!

In the end I installed a program called 8gadgets and got my old gadgets back. Not a perfect solution as these are just legacy gadgets with no support whatever now. But until Microsoft realises that people might want to have useful information on their desktops, this is all I have.

Friday, September 25, 2015
Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 03

In the previous session the musketeers of the Royal Homeland Constabulary saved the king's life by preventing a sabotage act organized by the king's sister, Duchess Ethelyn of Shale. The next morning it was back to the usual paperwork. Two messages awaited them at the RHC headquarters: One formal memo from Lady Inspectress Margaret Saxby, head of the Flint branch of the RHC, telling constables not to talk to the press about the sabotage "for reasons of national security". The other an invitation to be interviewed by Bartholomew Pryce of the Pryce of Progress, a progressive newspaper. The constables decided to follow orders and refused the interview. The next day the Pryce of Progress had a nasty article about them being responsible for the death of an "innocent" docker protester. And the Flint Tribune had an interview with Margaret Saxby, telling all details, with her taking credit for everything.

A week later the constables are called into the office of their direct superior, Stover Delft. There they meet Lya Jierre, Minister of Outsiders of Danor, and niece of the sovereign of Danor. Lya presents them with a puzzle to test their intelligence, which they only solve partially. Still satisfied with that, Lya tells them of the current situation: The duchess has fled Risur and taken Axis Island, the closest island to Risur in the Yerasol Archipelago. The archipelago has been the location of four wars between Risur and Danor, and now the actions of the duchess threaten to start a fifth one, while her brother the king is trying to make peace with Danor. So King Aodhan has agreed to Lya's demand that Risuri forces take back Axis Island from the duchess, and then hand the island back to Danor by sundown 3 days from now.

The musketeers are part of that mission, as they are the only ones having fought the duchess' troops before. They are tasked with giving backup to another RHC team of infiltrators, who will take point in sneaking onto the island through a sea cave, getting from there to the fortress, and opening the fortress's sea gate to let the Risuri armada in. Being familiar with the duchess, the PCs are tasked to interrogate the duchess once the fortress has fallen. Lya also asks them to save her cousin, Nathan Jierre, who has been taken prisoner by the duchess. After Lya leaves, Stover Delft tells them that he doesn't trust the Danorans, and would like the musketeers to keep an eye open on Axis Island for anything unusual.

At this point in the story the players receive a bunch of scrolls for the mission and a "stipend" of 728 gold worth of magic items. That is the system of the Zeitgeist campaign which replaces pseudo-randomly "found" magic items with a level-dependent stipend for players to select their own magic items with. I think the system isn't bad, but I need to handle it differently in the future: In the middle of a session it completely breaks immersion and distracts the players enormously from the story. It would be better to announce the stipend in advance and let them choose their magic items between sessions.

The musketeers then take the fastest RHC ship, the Impossible, to get to Axis Island, a voyage that takes them two days. On board they meet the team of infiltration specialists from the RHC, who will take point in this mission. At 9 pm on day 2, just 21 hours before they have to hand over the island back to Danor, the Impossible reaches the sea cave. Scrolls of water breathing are used on everybody, and the infiltrators go first, trailing a rope behind them. The plan is for them to secure the sea cave behind the underwater tunnel, and give a signal with the rope for the PCs to follow. But things go wrong: After 2 minutes there is a strange vibration and the rope goes slack. Eldion decides to immediately check out what is going on, and the others follow. They find that part of the ceiling of the underwater tunnel caved in, killing most of the infiltrators and crushing the leg of the only survivor, Burton the goblin. The survivor is able to tell them that there was something strange going on, the infiltrators found themselves for a second in a completely different environment: A swamp with yellow frogs, with a blue sun in a purple sky. Then they were back in the tunnel, and the ceiling collapsed on them. The group frees Burton, but his leg is beyond simple healing magic, so they bring him back to the ship.

So the musketeers have become the point team and must do the mission alone. The underwater tunnel is still navigable, and they traverse it carefully, keeping a good distance between them. They arrive at the sea cave, which is said to be connected to a Danorian mine, and we stop the session there.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Shop Heroes

Napoleon is said to have called England a nation of shopkeepers, presumably in contrast to warrior nations. But while there are a lot of games in which you can play a warrior, there are a lot less games in which you can keep a shop. Recettear comes to ming. Of course some MMORPGs like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies enabled you to open a shop, but it is far more frequent that you're playing the hero instead of the shopkeeper. Recently the Apple app store featured Shop Heroes, so I went and tried it out. It turns out that keeping shop is more fun than you might think.

The basic gameplay of Shop Heroes is that you have a shop with workstations and resource bins. The resource bins create basic resources over time, and with the right workers hired and the right workstation you can transform those resources into weapon, armor, and other typical fantasy game equipment. Heroes come to your shop and buy things. Sometimes they ask for the stuff you already have in your inventory, sometimes they want something you need to craft first. There is also a system of "hearts", which you can spend to persuade your customers to pay more for an item, or to buy something else, and which goes up if you sell them what they want.

Curiously the heroes never equip the gear you sell them. Instead you can equip them with gear and send them out adventuring. They will earn xp and levels from that, and bring back rare resources for crafting. Crafting has a huge "tech tree", where crafting basic items often enough unlocks blueprints for higher level items. So over time everything levels up: The heroes, their gear, the items you can craft, the workers, even the workstations and other furniture.

In addition there is a city shared by 4+ players in an absolutely brilliant system: The buildings in the city level up in function of what the players invested in them. But your investments remain yours: If you quit a city or get kicked out by the major, you take your investment with you and contribute it to the next city you join. The sum of the investment of all players determines the level of buildings, and that unlocks heroes, workers, new resources, and gives various bonuses.

Shop Heroes runs on iOS, Android, and Facebook. You can link the iOS and Android versions to Facebook and run your same shop on different platforms if you want. The game is free, but of course you can spend real money on buying gems, and gems can speed up a lot of things, or get you additional slots for workers, crafting, or quests. In general I found the monetization scheme unobtrusive, except for one case: When you send out heroes on quests, there is a chance that a piece of their gear will break, and then the game is very pushy about offering you to repair that item for gems. But you can ignore that, let the gear break, and craft a new piece. Quests also can give you chests, and it is rarely that you find a key for those chests, so you might be tempted to unlock the chests for gems. I did buy the starter package for $5 which came with various additional slots, and found that to be good value for money. I wouldn't go overboard with buying gems and using them for everything, it doesn't really make the game more fun.

Overall I like Shop Heroes as a resource and time management game. You constantly need to make decisions, like whether you craft just what your customers demand, or whether you produce a lot of one specific item to unlock better versions. As crafting or quests frequently take minutes to finish once you have reached a certain level, it isn't a game which takes your full attention for hours; but it is quite fun if you just play it occasionally, or in parallel to watching TV. Recommended!

Friday, September 18, 2015
iOS 9

Lately I've been playing two games on my iPad which frequently have server connection problems: Magic Duels and Fifa Ultimate Team 15. That is annoying by itself, but the problem is clearly on the side of the server. Now I just updated my iPad to iOS 9 and the problem has become one of the operating system: A server problem on either of these games now causes the application to crash to desktop. Which makes retrying to get a connection a lot harder.

In short, up to now I'm not terribly impressed by iOS 9.

Thursday, September 17, 2015
The future of garrisons

In World of Warcraft I finished building up my 5th garrison to all buildings having level 3, including the shipyard. Yay! Only that the exercise felt kind of futile, since it has become very clear that the garrison as player housing was only temporary and the next expansion will have something else. While the next expansion is still a year or so in the future, we already know that there is no more major new content added to this expansion. And so I'm kind of looking at all things with a regard on what progress I can make that is transferable to the next expansion, and what stuff becomes obsolete.

So for example having 5 characters at level 100 is a good thing for the next expansion, as that gives me plenty of options which classes to play. I'll also certainly have over a million gold and a bunch of WoW tokens in stock for the next expansion. As most of that gold comes from garrisons, I certainly don't regret to have build so many of them. But what parts of the garrison might still be useful once Legion hits?

Most buildings in the garrison clearly won't be of any use in Legion: The barracks, stable, pet menagerie, etc., all clearly state that the bonuses they give only apply to Draenor zones. Many others produce resources or crafted goods which will become worthless in the next expansion. Yes, I can craft epics and upgrade them to up to iLvl 715, but I guess that in the first zone of Legion green drops will have an iLvl of 750 or so. I could still vendor those epics, but the pithy sum that gives clearly isn't worth the effort.

Of the follower missions a good number will become equally useless. I already don't use the xp mission any more on most of my characters, and of the missions giving other rewards, many rewards like Apexis crystals or epics will have become obsolete. This most important exception to that is missions giving gold. Gold is always useful, even if price levels generally go up from one expansion to the next. Blizzard has already nerfed gold missions somewhat, and it is totally possible that they will nerf them some more in order to prevent gold mission farming to continue into Legion.

One possible use of the garrison in the future might be for teleportation: Assuming we keep the garrison hearthstone, it will be possible in Legion to use the garrison portal to Ashran and the city portals from there to quickly get to any old world city. On the other hand the third incarnation of Dalaran probably will also have portals everywhere, and everybody might have set his main hearthstone to Dalaran.

So overall I think it is completely likely that garrisons in Legion will be as little used as the Pandaria farms were used in Warlords of Draenor. I just hope that the replacement player housing, the guild halls, don't feel much less like a home. Overall I liked garrison, and their main drawback is that they are maybe *too* useful. As player housing goes, that is hard to beat.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Getting the word out

There was a long discussion recently on this blog about whether game companies that pay some publication or YouTuber to report about their game would expect that this coverage was positive, basically buying a good review. I think the discussion somewhat mixed up two very different cases, which I would like to separate:

One case is big, triple-A games. This is really big business, and those games not only cost millions to make, they also have an advertising budget of millions. Gaming is now sufficiently mainstream that you can find huge ads for a game on New York's Times Square or painted all over a bus, and not just in specialized gaming publications. Which means that the game company can assume everybody has heard about the game in question, and then it becomes a problem of persuading people to choose this particular game among a large range of other choices. For triple-A games, review scores are important, and there is an interest in promoting positive coverage and in some cases even trying to suppress negative coverage.

The other case is everybody else, the much larger number of much smaller games. That can be established game studios bringing out yet another medium-budget game of a series, or indie studios launching a completely new game. In that case while of course a high review score on Metacritic is nice, the primary problem is that most potential customers haven't even heard of the game and are unaware that the game exists. Paying $20,000 to $30,000 to a YouTuber with several million of followers is not primarily about positive coverage, it is about coverage, period.

That is especially noticeable when the developers make a deliberately controversial game, like the JFK shooting simulator or Hatred. In such a case the hope is that negative coverage is better than no coverage at all. Hatred ended up getting a Metacritic score of 42 not because it was controversial, but because it was simple a rather bad and boring shooter game. Without the controversy, nobody would have even noticed the game. They'd rather have somebody like TotalBiscuit condemning their game in front of 2 million viewers instead of him not talking about the game at all.

From my point of view as a consumer, I can see the problem. I went from not being able to play all the games in my Steam library to not even being aware any more of every major PC video game release. Especially as I like games like turn-based tactical or strategy games, which aren't often the kind that get advertising at a bus stop. And while it's already bad on the PC, I am completely lost regarding iPad games, where I play a more or less random selection and have no idea which are the best games on the platform. It doesn't help that if you google for the "top 10 best iOS games" and look up 10 different sources, you'll get 100 different games with no game mentioned twice.

The more games we get, and that appears to be a rising flood, the more important simple awareness becomes. If millions of people are aware that a game exists, chances are that some among them decide to buy the game because of their specific niche interest, even if the game doesn't have a great review score. I bet among the games you are currently playing there are a few which have a not so good review score on Metacritic, but you like them anyway. And that problem of awareness means advertising that rather targets basic visibility than great praise.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Fantasy world coming alive

In a pen & paper roleplaying game usually the players play their characters, and the DM plays the rest of the world. "The world" sounds like a huge job, but frequently it isn't: The world is really a huge blank slate, which springs in existence only where observed by the players. And there it is often spontaneously populated by a jumble of generic fantasy tropes. Your group is looking for a blacksmith? Sure! He's a dwarf, loves gold, and speaks with a Scottish accent. The world can be generic because it is only the backdrop of an adventure which most of the time could play in just about any fantasy world.

The Zeitgeist campaign I just started is very different. Basically there is a campaign story and the whole world has been designed around that campaign story. It is a one-shot world, it only serves this one campaign and isn't designed as a backdrop for different campaigns or collections of adventures. On the one side that is great, because it is a lot more interesting than those fantasy tropes. On the other side it means that this time playing the world actually *is* a huge job. I had to read and re-read hundreds of pages of campaign guides and adventures to understand how the world is operating and what is going on in order for me to tell that to the players.

Now, after the first adventure has properly started and we already had a rather epic battle aboard an exploding steamship, I am starting to become comfortable with that job of playing the world. The world is starting to come alive in my head. While thinking about the start of the next session I was able to turn half a phrase of text from the adventure into an idea of a short scene that fits perfectly into this world and gives the players a real choice of actions with predictable consequences. I've completely prepared the first adventure, already read the second adventure once and started preparing stuff for that, and generally am feeling up to the task. I just hope that this all translates into a great experience for my players as well, as this campaign is asking more role-playing of them than previous ones.



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