Pokémon Sun – Session by Session Review – Sessions 1 and 2

Pokémon Sun and Moon are now out and I was very happy to get a copy of Sun on the day of release. Professional reviewers likely had it before the release date so in the interest of getting this out quickly, I will review as I go, session by session. It might not give the best picture of the overall game, but hopefully will make up for it with a clear image of how it plays over time.

 

Session 1 – Phew that is a long introduction

I should start this by saying I am very familiar with the Pokémon adventure games, so I have a familiar issue with the opening hours of this game. Anyone who has played the previous generations will know what I am talking about. These games are designed for a wide range of ages and skill sets. It is great that the games make effort to allow accessibility for young and new players. But for us veterans, the tutorial sections of a new game is very much like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

 

It strikes me in this first session how much the developers have looked to grow the Pokemon experience. There seems to be much more in the way of story cut scenes. The game opens with a sequence involving one of the main character escaping some kind of lab. And the early sections pull away from the gameplay to show conversations and action in. It feels like there is less of the characters standing around talking at each other and more of the kind of acting we would see in animation and PC or console games.

Already this was looking to be one of the most immersive, original and detailed instalments of Pokémon. Alola is a beautiful place and is full of life. The people of Alola seem to have their own culture and mannerisms that seems a whole lot different to any of the previous regions. The place feels very natural, helped in large part by the move away from a square grid. Gone are the patches of wild grass growing is neat lines. Paths and patches of long grass flow more like they would in nature.

I followed the usual introduction and tutorials common to these games, frankly getting a little bored. It was a relief when I was let loose to explore the trainer school and have a few battles. Whilst the battles themselves have not changed much, they have made further improvements to the interface. Everything is laid out on the touch screen to be very clear. And the game now keeps track for you of any stat changes, which is helpful. Another useful feature, though I am not sure I appreciate it, is the indicator of move effectiveness. I enjoyed the puzzle in the past of working out which move was best to use against an opponent, memorizing types of Pokémon to best calculate which move would do the most damage. Sun and Moon somewhat takes all that away. Once you encounter a Pokémon for the second time, all your moves will show how effective they are. There is still much to consider to be the most efficient in battles, but by effectively giving us the answer to type match ups, it has taken away some of the challenge.

I also had a brief look at a couple of side features. One being the Care function, here you can feed your partner, pet it, and tidy it up after battle. I am not sure if there is a penalty for not drying off you Pokémon after a fight with a water type, or for not combing the fluff out of its fur, but they seem happy when you do. Then there is the Festival. At any time you can warp to the festival to meet other players, purchase items and services, or take part in battles. It is reminiscent of the Join Avenue feature in Black and White. There is not much to either feature, but they are sort of fun.

 

Session 2 – Just me and my Rowlett

My second night playing the Pokémon Sun showed more promise. After petting a Turos to clear a blocked road (They are really running out of ideas to segment areas now.) I moved along to areas with more gameplay. I found myself skim reading a lot still as characters insisted on showing me all the shops and services of the first big city, but I was given a bit more freedom to look for wild Pokémon and explore.

It was in the city that I had my first run in with Team Skull. Every generation has had a group of ne’er do wells to hamper your progress, and Team Skull are proving so far to be my least favourite. They rather annoying with their over the top patois and break dance swagger. I’ll leave it to the SJW’s to rant about cultural appropriations, these characters just look to me like white kids who listen to too much hip hop. Although annoying as they are, it somehow works. It is satisfying to beat such arrogant hooligan and see the wide-eyed shock that they were not able to back up their big words. I even took to messing with them in the dialogue options and their responses were amusing.

Another annoyance for me was the game’s inclusion of a lot of wild Pokémon from previous generations. I only encountered a handful of new creatures, otherwise I mostly encountered Rattatas, Drowseys, Wingulls and Ghastlys which I have been catching in games for years. The Alolan forms gave a bit of variety but I was still left craving something new. What was new did not appeal so I currently still have but a single ‘mon in my party. Good thing I like my starter, my Rowlett, now evolved to Dartrix is cute, strong and a lot of fun to travel with. I fear I will need to venture further to find any wild Pokémon I deem worthy to join the team.

 

After exploring the first routes, I came to the first trial of the game. Here is where the game introduces the biggest mechanic changes to the game. For a long time now, Pokémon games have followed the same formula for many years: Meet a professor, get a grass, fire or water starter and some running shoes, walk around, beat eight gyms, take down some organised criminals or terrorists despite looking like an eleven year old, catch the mascot from the game box and beat the elite four. Although much of that is still there so far, it is refreshing to see them try something new.

My first trial was to explore a cave and find and defeat several wild Pokémon, followed by a show down with a stronger find creature. In some ways it still felt like the gym battles of old, I will be intrigued to see how other trials differ. The next new feature was the concept of wild Pokémon calling for help. This can seem to happen in any wild encounter, basically it involves a Pokémon calling for back up, bringing a weaker ally to fight alongside it, effectively switching to a double battle mid fight. A nice addition.

Finally there is Z moves. It is like mega evolution for moves. They certainly look epic when used, but I am not sure it adds much to gameplay, essentially, once you set up to use a Z move, it is a button that makes a move hit harder, which begs the question why anyone would want to ever not press the button (well, I suppose if you wanted to catch a wild ‘mon and didn’t want to kill it). If anything, they are a bit long winded.

 

I may sound like I have been a bit down on parts of the game so far, but despite a few annoyances, I am enjoying it. I am still on the first island of Alola and found it a great place to explore, I have found a few option areas already, this could be the most expansive map in a Pokémon game yet.

Big credit goes to the designers of this game. Lots of effort has been put into making everything as smooth a process as possible. It’s the little changes that help, there were so many niggles in the past. Remember when you went to the PC in the pokemon centre and had to go SOMEONE’S PC then ORGANIZE BOXES, then the interface was a mess. Now if you want to swap out a Pokémon, you go to the PC and are straight into the boxes. Your party is on one side, the box on the other and you can drag and drop intuitively. Also when you tap any Pokémon, you get a quick view of its moves. It is changes like this that are ironing out the kinks in the games series’ once clunky interfaces.

 

 

Board Games are Totally Math! : Star Realms

Welcome to a long overdue edition of Board Games are Totally Math! Today I want to look at the numbers behind Star Realms., a two-player deck builder about building up your fleet of space stations and ships until you are strong enough to wipe out your opponent before they do the same to you. Currently sitting at a handsome 70th in the BGG board game list, this tiny box is a good contender for best ratio of quality design to expense.

So let’s head to the engineering section, and see how numbers power these beautiful star ships.

pic1903816_md

Fleet Building

Star Realms is undoubtedly a deck builder. You start with a weak deck, drawing trade ships and basic fighters. By the end you are throwing down huge warships and planet sized bases. It’s a great feeling, building your forces to that point, and is the practical definition of deck or pool building. But what is going on mathematically when we build a deck. Well quite simply, it is odds manipulation.

When you start a game, you have zero chance of doing any considerable damage, the most you can hope for combat wise is to draw two vipers for two damage. As you build your deck, you stack the odds in your favour to draw out more useful cards on any given turn. You could stack the deck with high damage cards, or carefully buy cards from a faction or with certain properties so that you have the best chance of pulling off devastating chains or combos.

I recently introduced a friend to Star Realms as he had had a bad experience with his first deck builder play through. His game club had asked him to play the Resident Evil deck builder and from the sounds of it, did a bad job of explaining how the concept of deck building worked. He asked them “Why do I have to get rid of my bullets, aren’t bullets useful?” and his teachers responded “You just do.”

A better response would be to say that you are stacking the odds in your favour. When you can only draw five cards on your turn like in Star Realms, every Scout or Viper is a waste of space that could potentially be filled by something far better. Literally anything in the Star Realms deck is better to draw than the starting cards. So building your deck comes down to adding strong ships, weeding out the weak, and planning what you add so that they work best together.

Warring Factions in the stars. One might call it star… wars

One of the fun elements of the building of your deck is the factions. I have known people perfectly well buying ships from any old faction, but the factions are each tailored to differing strengths and weaknesses, thereby helping you to easily steer your deck towards attributes that match your tactics or play style. I think looking at the factions and their individual cards is going to yield the most interesting statistical analysis. But before we get to that, I want to indulge try something else. From a number of plays before I started looking at averages, I formed opinions on the factions from how it felt to use them.

This is, as unbiased by hindsight as I can manage. My pre-statistical thoughts on the factions. How will they compare to my conclusions after looking at the numbers.

  • Blob

A blunt implement. I got the impression that the Blob were intended to be an all-out attacking force, few special powers, lots of ally bonus combat, simply a swarm of attacking mindless creatures. In some ways the theming of this faction is just right, a very alien race that attacks in force and in numbers

  • Trade Federation

Well it’s right there in the name. They are good at trade. I felt like they were good for spending power, healing damage and offering good defence from their bases. Maybe a good starting faction so you can spend big on ships, but weak in combat for the end game. Most of their combat seems to come from scrapping cards.

  • Machine Cult

Great for scrapping cards. Good combat strength and some useful unusual powers. I felt like these cards were ones to pick the odd few from, just to be able to scrap the weaker cards, but with some good combat uses

  • Star Empire

Close to Blob for cheapest faction. Not very high powered in combat, but with a lot of ability to draw extra cards making it a great faction for pulling off big chains.

So how did I do?

I will put up my spreadsheet of the factions with averages and totals of all kinds of things. You can find it here.

What do the stats say about the factions, how close was I in my initial thoughts?

pic1794033_md

Blob

With cards having an average base combat value of 3.55 and a total of 71 combat across the faction, plus an extra 0.7 combat on average per card if there is an ally present. The Blob blows the other factions out of the water in terms of raw attack power. In cost, they are the cheapest overall in terms of average expense per card. They have the most 1 and 2 cost cards of all factions. The stats back up the idea of them being a swarming, horde or a faction. They have 8 cards that offer draw card abilities, but 6 of them require an ally. But in fact their combat from ally powers is actually the joint lowest with two other factions, with Star Empire having the most ally combat. Although they certainly do work together better than any other faction. Only 4 Blob cards have no ally power, lower than the others with 7 or 6.

One thing I did not pick up on is that their scrap abilities tend to favour trade, which, with their low cost, suggests to me that the Blob is intended as an early faction to be scrapped in favour of others later on since scrapping cards for trade would be less useful in the end game.

Trade Federation

Well no surprise the Trade Federation are good for making money. A total of 31 trade is on offer from the blue faction, meaning you may be fighting over them if you want to afford the big ships. As for healing (increasing authority) they aren’t just good. They are the only option available. Without Trade Fed ships, your authority can only go down.

I said it felt like they have good defensive bases. Which I am not so sure of, it is a balance really. They are far better than the blob with the lowest shield total and no outposts. Yet in terms of blocking power, the machine cult and Star Empire have a little more total shield strength than the Trade Feds and the two have only out outpost between them, meaning opposition cannot bypass the bases to deal direct damage. The Trade Feds have 4 outposts of the 7 bases on offer. Perhaps what makes the Trade Fed bases feel so good in defence is their heal abilities.

I think it is somewhat inaccurate to say most of their combat comes from scrapping. In reality, scrapping accounts for about a third of their available combat. With the right ships, there is some damage to be done, but in reality, they do not look like a strong endgame faction.

Machine Cult

Sure these guys are the scrap faction. In fact apart from two blob ships, there is nowhere else to go to scrap you cards. If you want to lose those weak starting cards, better get some reds. I felt like they had the most unusual powers, but really they have the least cards with unique powers. Only the stealth needle and mech world had powers I couldn’t otherwise fit onto my chart. And though they have the second lowest combat potential. There is some decent strength there, which in combination with their other abilities, makes the Machine Cult worth considering for the attack minded player.

Star Empire

I feel like I was way off here. Although they do have a number of cheap ships. They are not far off the average cost per ship, and in truth, they have the fewest 1 and 2 cost ships. Saying they were fairly weak Is inaccurate, in fact they have the second highest combat total, and this, paired with the abundance of draw card abilities, means they can be a formidable force in combat terms. The average base combat across all purchase cards is about 2.2. This means that effectively, whatever is in your deck, you can think of a draw 1 card ability on a ship as being worth 2.2 extra combat over time, in addition to any other benefits the drawn card might end up having. A strong ability, and why Star Empire are probably my favourite faction.

Another thing I didn’t mention is the ability to make your opponent discard a card. Only the Star Empire has this ability, and with enough of them in your deck, you can pretty much have your opponent playing with a permanent handicap of only drawing 4 cards per turn.

So there we go. Just a short one for Star Realms. As you can see from the length of time since the last article, I am struggling for time to make these. That and Star Realms didn’t turn out to have much in the way of statistically measureable gameplay. So much of the powers on these cards does not translate into number form very well.

But still, we can see from the spreadsheet some of the intention in the faction system. On the one hand, you want a bunch of the same faction in your deck to make the most use of the faction powers, but on the other, you cannot get all you need from one faction. I would suggest a balanced diet. Something like a food pyramid. With the factions that match your chosen tactic at the base, and a few cards from the others to get the abilities you need that your main factions cannot provide.

Trying to pin down the probabilities on a game that by definition has you, the player, manipulating and changing the odds constantly was perhaps an ambitious task. I thought about plotting a cost to power output graph as a whole and for each faction to see which cards but I think any value I placed on the differing powers would be arbitrary and not very informative. Then there is the fact that the currency in this game is somewhat volatile. There is no saving up for something better. You simply spend all the money you have available on that turn or you lose it. You can buy the explorers as a kind of savings plan but they are not a reliable way to save and you may never get the money back you put into them.

As always. Thanks for reading. I am working to do better so by all means let me know if something needs improving. I don’t feel this was as great as the previous articles I wrote, perhaps I should chose my subject better next time. On that note, any suggestions for games I should are appreciated. Next I might take a look at Pandemic the Cure. I have been playing this a ton recently and the probability of the dice rolls is key to how the game plays and how balanced it is. Click subscribe for a good chance of seeing Pandemic the Cure broken down, tabulated and analysed, and hopefully other games too at a much accelerated rate.

Board Games are Toally Math! Patchwork

Welcome to episode #2 or Board Games are Totally Math! The blog that uses mathematics and statistical analysis to pick apart great board game designs and give a glimpse into how they are made, and what decisions take them from good to great. The first addition was somewhat light on the numbers, so let’s fix that right now. Today, let’s unstitch Patchwork… (Get it, unstitch, patchwork, OK let’s begin)

 

Patchwork is a two-player game designed by Uwe Rosenberg. Take a look at the BGG recommendations forum, pick a thread at random that contains words like “two-player” or “couple game” and chances are someone has already suggested it. And with good reason, it is just that good. It’s a game where the casual gamers can compete with the more strategically minded without having to rely on the luck of dice rolls or card draws. Easily one of the best games in my collection, let’s take a look.

 

As always, I will assume familiarity with the game, so feel free to read the rules, watch a video guide or even find a copy and play a few games so you can follow along with us.

 

Patchwork is a lightly strategic game for two players about claiming patches of material to stitch together and make the best patchwork quilt. Hardly a theme to make the average board game geek salivate but this game delivers on gameplay so strongly that most shouldn’t mind. At its core, Patchwork is a game about spatial reasoning, fitting pieces on your board, finding the right shape to make a coherent whole. If you like Tetris (that’s just about everyone right) then it delivers on that same experience. But with a twist, whereas the Tetris God would often deem to screw you over with all the wrong pieces, that role falls to your opponent. There is always an engaging back and forth between the players of passive denial and forethought to get that crucial piece or deny your opponent what they need. The balance that Rosenburg achieved in this game is tremendous, as stated before, casual and strategically minded players can compete and most often not finish too far from each other. How does Uwe do it?

 

Balancing Act

One of the reasons I wanted to break down this game numerically is that it has puzzled me for a long time.  Generally games always finish with only a few pieces remaining and with no more than a dozen empty spaces on each player’s board at worst. Normally the winner is not apparent until the scores have been fully tallied, maybe one player had a fuller board, but not many buttons left, or vice a versa. And what’s more, a variety of tactics seem to be capable of winning the game.

 

To understand this balance, I have made a spreadsheet (which I will make available here) quantifying all the patch pieces in the game. I recorded their size in terms of squares, their cost in buttons and time, what income they provide and their overall footprint (a better explanation of the footprint to follow). Some interesting things happen when you start looking at some of the averages. For the purposes of this article I will work to one or two decimal places, full figures in the spreadsheet.

 

The end of a game of Patchwork is often for me, the most interesting and tactical part of the game. There is never that many pieces left at the end, meaning choice is restricted and players have to make do with and fight over what is left. Too many patch pieces in the game and these hard decisions would be lessened, too few and players would run out of pieces before they reached the end of the time track.

But that is easy to account for, there are two 9×9 boards to fill for a total of 162 spaces. The 33 patches have a total of 166 squares plus the 5 one square leather patches, players could in theory fill both boards and have 9 squares worth of patches to spare.

IMAG0014

Well that assumes they are playing perfectly, quite unlikely. So where would they end up on the time track if this was achieved? Surely they would run out of time or end short playing like this. Well we can look to the averages to get an idea. The average size of a patch is a little over 5 squares. So a full 9×9 board would average about 16.1 patches, which is just perfect for both players since there are 33 patches in total. On average, a patch will send the player forward 3.2 places. Multiply that with the average number of patches to fill a board, with the full numbers you get 51.7 spaces moved. And there are 52 space on the time tracker. Coincidence? I think not.

giphy.gif

What does this mean for our theoretical perfect average player? More than likely they are going to either limp over the finish line by a fair or fall just short. It gets even worse if we compensate for the leather patches (I considered them as taking up 2.5 spaces as an average, since most games players get either two or three leather patches). With the patches being accounted for, players should finish in around 50.1 time spaces, falling even further short of the finish line.

But that never happens, players never fall short of the end space, they never fill the board 100% either, which would only cause them to fall short of the finish line even more. Why then does it seem you can always make it to the final space of the time track?

 

Jumping Ahead

On your turn, you can jump ahead of your opponent on the time track and claim buttons to the value of the amount of spaces moved. I used to think this was a bonus move, something to help you out, or a tactical way to end your turn and get some extra buttons. Now I am starting to think this is actually a penalty. It makes sense, it is after all, the only option you have if you cannot afford, or fit on your board, any available patches. We know from looking at the averages that you can in theory fill the board in time, but more than a few hops ahead of your opponent and this would be impossible. You get extra money for jumping ahead, but each time you do limits the total number of purchases you can make.

Yup. I think my mind is made up. Jumping ahead is a penalty. It is a penalty for spending too much or not leaving yourself the room to place patches. There are some tactical uses for it, say if you want your opponent to buy something and put you in the right spot to buy that piece you need, but overall, it is a mostly negative move, with a few benefits. Like most of the choices in this game, it is a….

 

Trade off

This is something you may have intuited playing this game, but every choice you make has a lot of pro’s and con’s. It’s one of the things that makes this game so balanced. It is very hard to say what is the right and wrong decision at any given time, perhaps there is no wrong answer. There is good and bad to every choice, you just have to trust your judgement and do the best you can.

You can see it in nearly every patch you pick up.

IMAG0016

This one costs nothing and has a middling time cost, but it is big and bulky and awkwardly shaped. Particularly in the late game, it can be hard to place anywhere useful.

IMAG0015

This one has an income of three for only seven buttons, but it is small and has a big time cost.

 

I thought this game would lend itself well to analysing the patches statistically, but I think the balance is achieved through more than just raw numbers. There are some observations you can make. I decided to add together the button and time costs* of all the patches and if you group them into the patches with zero, one, two or three income. You see that they total costs do not deviate much within the groups.

 

*Since time in on the track can be exchanged for one button there would appear to be a 1:1 trade off in value between time spaces moved and the button currency, if you look at the three square patches they all add up to the same total, so I think it is safe to look at time and buttons as a total shared currency.

 

Gameplay Tip

It should go without saying that the patches that provide an income are best snapped up early, on average, they all take until you’ve passed three income buttons before they have paid for themselves. Didn’t need the numbers to know they are better the sooner you buy them, but towards the end of the game, particularly with three or fewer income buttons to pass, you maybe have to ask yourself if that three button patch is a great as it seems.

 

Rosenburg may have used some mathematics to calculate the costs for differing patches, but really there is more to each piece than their button and time costs and their income possibilities and size. You could possibly map those as some kind of three-dimensional graph, but I suspect it will not tell you a lot. The patches are also balanced on intangibles, like their overall footprint, or how awkward the shape is, or whether it is more than three squares long and wide so is useless once you get your 7×7 completed.

I took the averages of the three wide patches compared to the others and sure they cost a little more on average, but not much considering that they generally cover a bigger section of the player’s board and include three of the four patches with the maximum three button income.

There are just some elements of board games that cannot be designed and balanced entirely in a spread sheet. It is not a task that many designer will particularly enjoy, but I am certain Rosenburg went through a lot of design iteration and play testing to get the balance of the patches just right. I can only imagine how long that must have taken…

 

What’s on Offer?

Ever play the game where you start with a number (I used to start with 21), two players would take turns to subtract one, two or three from the number, whoever was able to subtract the last number to make the total zero was the winner. Kind of a silly game, one like noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe) that is fun when you are a kid, but you soon grow smart enough to break the game and it becomes boring. Soon you realise that the way to win is to give you opponent the number 4, that way whatever they subtract, you can subtract the remainder and win. Then you realise that if you give them 8 then you can be guaranteed to be able to give them 4 on the next turn, then 12, 16, 20. Pretty soon you can win every game – until your opponent figures it out too, then the winner is whoever goes first. Game broken, what else can we play.

 

It’s a bad game, but Patchwork borrows from it in an interesting way. The way you buy patches and move to that spot is much like subtracting from the number, there are times when you can see the ideal patch to fill that awkward space on your board, it is possible to position the wooden pawn so that you can be sure to get it. That is unless your opponent is trying to do the same…

I do wonder if this is why the game set up starts the wooden pawn in the space clockwise to the one two square piece. It can be really handy for patching a gap, and it is often fought over when I play in the fashion of the subtraction game. The way that the selection of patches changes throughout the game just adds another layer of depth and fun. There is a great feeling when you can position the wooden pawn just right to mess over your opponent, skipping the piece they want badly, putting them in front of three patches they cannot afford or forcing them to set you up for the next patch you want.

 

The 7×7 Token

I have puzzled over the 7×7 bonus. I am not a fan of game mechanics that let the person in the lead get an even bigger lead. It would seem that way on the surface, but I think there is more to it than that. I don’t think the first to get a 7×7 block is necessarily “in the lead”. In fact getting the 7×7 block can be a hindrance, once you make the 7×7 square, you will have only a narrow border on two to four sides of your board, this can severely limit the patches available to you, pretty much all the three square wide patches will be impossible to place.

I think the token is an incentive for having a neat and orderly pattern rather than being the quickest, after all, the game is not a race, you both reach the end in the same number of spaces. On a side note, it is probably one of the few things that could be considered thematic, a patchwork quilt with irregular edges is better than a quilt full of holes. It is also another competitive element, there often comes a point in the game when both players realise how close they are to the 7×7 shape and suddenly you are in a battle to get there first.

I think it is an encouragement to play in a certain way, maybe compensation for when you cannot fit the larger pieces on your board but your opponent can still buy them.  It is however, one of the few aspects of the game’s design that I am dubious about. I would feel better about it if I could remember any time when it had actually helped the lower scoring player catch up. I feel like the winner of the game is usually the one with the 7×7 token, and usually they could have won without it. Makes sense, the neater your board the better you are likely to do, and with the patches bought and placed more densely  you will surely get more income from passing the buttons on the time track.

It seems as though, more often than not it just makes the winner of the game win by even more, which has the odd quality of being both useless, and feeling unfair to the loser. It may be interesting to play without the token to see how it affects the game. Or maybe just use is as a tie breaker.

This may be more like anecdotal evidence than objective observation, I really ought to get some final score data rather than going on my gut. If any of you readers keep track of your scores and who got the 7×7 token I would love to take a look. Or just tell me your experience with this feature.

 

Sewing It All Up

I hope this gave you an insight into the design of this game. I know it has helped me appreciate Rosenburg’s work on this game more. For me, looking at the game in detail, it is like seeing a beautiful work of art or watching a movie with a plot that just blows you away. I get that same feeling of jealous admiration, this game makes me think “damn you, how can you be so brilliant at game design.” Which is a great source of inspiration and motivation. But it also illustrates how simple the answer is, hard work and persistence. I guarantee you that the first 33 patches Rosenburg cut out of card were not the same ones you get in the box. Designing a great game means designing way more content then you need, throwing out what doesn’t work and refining the rest through playtesting and tweaking and repeating until you get something that delivers the experience you want.

Really the numbers are only half the story here. I suspect if you could quantify and map a graph of cost against reward for each patch it would fit a normal distribution. It’s what makes the puzzle of filling your board so engaging. There is no clear “right” solution, a patch that is great for you may be useless to your opponent. The game makes you adapt and rethink your tactics on every turn. And for a game that from the outside looks like multiplayer solitaire, there is a lot of player interaction.

 

Let me know your thoughts and what have you in the comments. Suggestions for games to study next are welcome. I’m thinking Ticket to Ride might be fun to look at. It makes me think back to A-Level maths and having to calculate shortest routes or fewest node hops. Won’t that be fun…

Ways Pokemon GO could be a catalyst for change.

EDIT: Some days have past since I wrote this. not all is the same today as it was then,  for a start it is officially out in the UK so don’t go correcting me on that, also, some of my enthusiasm is lost, sure I like it, still play it and still think this could make for a shift in game design and it will be influential for years to come. But, I am maybe seeing some of the cracks, and in some ways, getting a bit burned out on all the hype. but read on anyway, I’m sure there’s is still something to be gained from doing so.I may be writing soon about what I think needs to change or not change to make Pokemon GO an even better game.

 

Pokemon GO has been released to the wild and the response has been staggering. It is such a cut down pokemon experience compared to the main games, so much of the complexity is removed. Catching is reduced to walking around and making a flicking gesture, battles are little more than swiping and tapping. But there is a depth beyond the simple mechanics and a core emphasis on what pokemon has always been about, collecting.

The game has not been officially release in the UK, but even in my small town, you can see trainers everywhere. Groups of players wander the streets, the familiar map can be seen on phone screens in parks, shops or on the bus. The components of this game are nothing new; collectibles, GPS integration, Augmented reality. But the combination of those with the exposure of a popular brand has caused them the game explode into the public consciousness. As a game designer and Pokemon fan, I find the phenomenon fascinating to observe and be a part of.

Time will tell how much of an impact the game will have in the long run, but so far I am seeing a lot of potential ways to many aspects of game design, culture and modern life. Overselling it maybe, I am looking at this in terms of potential change. Things may change for good ill, what’s important is that game designers think what behaviour their games are responsible, but also acknowledge that our players are responsible for their own actions.

 

Changes for video games as a whole

 

  1. Local online play

This is exciting but also a little scary. Online play has been a fun way to meet and interact with people with similar interests from all over the globe. There are countless stories of online gamers making lifelong friends, even relationships, and should you meet anyone online who you have a bad time with, it is usually as simple as electing to block or mute them to be rid of the nuisance player.

Wisely Pokemon GO does not allow you to locate any other player or directly interact with them, it could be a dangerous technology if you could track down other players, suddenly trolling players with your OP Dragonite could be a health hazard. That is not to say that pokemon is not leading to real world face to face interactions. I have already met and spoken to strangers playing the game on two occasions having only been playing for a few days. I had pleasant friendly experiences, but with the way the game draws people to similar areas, I can understand why people might be concerned.

I think the potential to meet and interact with people playing the same game as you in a local area is great, but then I am a big boy, I haven’t much fear so strangers. I would certainly not want to let children or other vulnerable persons venture off unattended. This is one of those areas where unfortunately common sense and self-preservation is needed from players. Supervise your children when they play, don’t go anywhere restricted or dangerous, be aware of your surroundings, that kind of thing.

There has already been one reported case of criminals using the game to lie in wait to rob players in an area with a rare Pokemon. It highlights the issue around a game that is played “in the real world” but I cannot see the tactic catching on. The kind of criminal acts that spread are the smart effective ones, I don’t think the robbers thought it through very well. You can take your pick of any one these days and have a good chance getting a decent phone if you mug them, why use a game to try and lure people with phones. Also you can only do it once or twice, before long the crimes will be reported and police will know where to find the criminals. The men who tried this tactic were caught, not surprising really.

Yep, I think we will see a lot more of this kind of local online play. There are a lot of possibilities for this kind of mechanic. There will be copycats, no doubt, as with many elements from this game. The successful ones will be those who take it as inspiration and a point to innovate from, rather than simply copy.

 

  1. Merging virtual worlds with physical worlds

A big buzz word (two words…) from this game is Augmented Reality or AR for short. Basically it means imposing virtual assets on the real world. Pokemon GO does this by allowing you (if your camera has a gyroscope) to see the pokemon you wish to catch in an image from your phone’s camera as though the critter was there in real life. It’s a fun feature and a bit gimmicky but I think it will give exposure to the idea.

There is a lot more that games can do with this technology and I am excited to see where it goes.

It’s not new tech of course, it and its close cousin Alternate Reality have been around for a while. The idea of a game world leaking out into reality are exciting concepts to me. Alternate reality games already have a history of sending people away from their computer screens to find clues to intricate puzzles. Merging this idea with elements like augmented reality and geo caching could make for great experiences.

 

  1. Merging Physical worlds with virtual worlds

The inverse of putting game elements into the physical world is the way Pokemon incorporates the outside world with that in the game. Looking at the game map, you will no doubt see pokestops and gyms, mostly they are related to physical landmarks, some of which I was scarcely aware existed in the town I have lived in for decades. I can only imagine the coding it took to procedurally get accurate GPS data, names and photos of all the landmarks in my town, then consider that this has been done for landmarks all over the world.

The main problem is that it is procedural and as such, does not always understand the context of the landmarks in the real world. Near me is a Royal Mail building, the whole site is restricted to employees of the building. Yet in the middle is a pokemon gym. I have skirted the fence a number of times but cannot get close enough to challenge the gym. And yet there are several pokemon guarding the gym. So maybe people working there play the game, or perhaps players trespassed in order to get access to the gym. Regardless, there are already stories of gym locations causing problems for people (like the café that put up a sign banning pokemon trainers unless they make a purchase). A change we may see is in how such cases are treated, how long before Niantic get angry letters asking them to relocate in game items

Could laws be made to regulate this? If you own a property, do you also own its GPS co-ordinates and how they are used in virtual worlds?

On a more positive note, this is another interesting avenue for games to explore. Pokemon GO uses real locations in a very simplistic way, finding gyms in local landmarks and Pokemon near their natural habitat. Games can do more with this, imagine if a mobile RPG generated taverns at bars and cafes, or if you had to claim bounties at a police station or heal up at your local doctor’s surgery. What if fields were random encounter zones and rare items grew on real life trees. There is a lot you could do with the real world to incorporate it into a game.

 

Changes in Lifestyle

 

  1. Childhood Obesity – or any Obesity

In the old days, if you wanted to trick a child into doing something healthy you lied to them; eat your spinach and you will get strong like Popeye, eat your carrots and you will see in the dark. It seems that by design or accident, Pokemon GO has found a way to incentivise going for a walk. Ignoring the implications of children now wandering the streets with their noses in phones, the increase in physical activity amongst players is surely a good thing. There have been games that have led to exercise in the past (Dance Dance Revolution, anything with motion controls, Rock Band/Guitar Hero drums) and maybe this will be more than a passing trend like the rest.

I wouldn’t be surprised if governments and educators start to take notice of games and their ability to adjust behaviour. As designers, we should always take time to think about what behaviour we want to encourage, and what we might be inadvertently promoting. World of Warcraft incentivised sitting infront of your PC for long periods so effectively that they had to make sleeping an in game bonus. Much research is being done into the gamification of learning, healthy eating and other things (In China’s case, the gamification of being a model citizen). One of the biggest problems is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Just because you make a game that will benefit children, doesn’t mean they will want to play it, and forcing them to play it will unlikely yield beneficial results.

Perhaps game companies will take it upon themselves to include gamification like this, or maybe government bodies will approach them to try and include it. One thing is for sure, any time we make a game that has consequences away from the screen, we need to think about what behaviour we are encouraging. Pokemon GO encourages walking, and that is good, it also encourages to some degree, going to unfamiliar parts of town with your mobile phone on display, not looking where you are going, and in some cases, going to places you don’t belong.

 

  1. How we play on our phones

This game has certainly changed some of my habits on phone use. I have since getting it, started thinking about that larger data plan I have been putting off, also that wrist strap that came with the box. I even at one point wondered how much it would be worth it to upgrade to a phone with a gyroscope so I can use the AR feature.

More generally I think this will serve to show that mobile games can fill a bigger market space then what they do now, which is for most games, the niche of killing a few minutes between other activities. With people going on specific pokemon catching outings, then perhaps developers will see that with the right experience, mobile games can be an activity in their own right, not just a diversion.

There is also potential for mobile games to be something better suited to socialising in person. Phones have long been seen as the death of conversation. Yet here is a game that is being played as a group activity. There is no real in game incentive to playing as such, but it is all the same. I have come across a couple of groups of people going on specific outings together to catch pokemon. Groups can cover larger areas and weed out rare pokemon, or work together to lock out gyms.

I imagine as more features are added the potential for Pokemon GO to be a locally social game will increase. So far it is reminiscent of the days of meeting in the school yard to trade pokemon via link cables. In a time where local multiplayer games are a dying breed, I hope this game helps keep it alive.

 

Cultural Shifts

  1. Perception of gamers

This was changing way before this, but still, it is maybe another step on the road to gaming becoming as acceptable socially as reading a book. Sure these says geekdom is almost and aspiration and even the people who think gaming is childish probably have a game on their phone they like to play.

One of the criticisms of gamers has been that they are shut-ins, well it’s hard to argue that with gamers wandering the streets. I say that but that’s not really how perceptions will change. I think part of the stigma of gaming is that people assume the stereotype of decades ago, of the overweight pimply recluse being the typical gamer, is still the case. I think a lot of people don’t realise that the average person on the street is probably a gamer to one degree or another. Gaming has been hidden in bedrooms for a long time. Seeing it out in the wild will perhaps change people’s perceptions, some non-gamers may start to realise it is in fact them who are in the minority.

 

  1. A new scapegoat

This will only happen if it does become a huge, next big thing. There always seems to be something that parents want to point to in order to explain why their child or children as a whole did not turn out the way they wanted them too. In recent years the scape goat has been violent games, online games, mobile phones and internet porn. Now maybe it is time for AR to have its turn as the whipping boy.

Sandbox Open World Games – Getting from A to B and how to make it enjoyable

 

There have been free roaming games for a long time, games with a so called “open world” where you can choose the order in which you explore and go at your own pace, but often they are still worlds that exist purely for the purpose of the progression of narrative or gameplay. The first memory I have of a game where the world was a game unto itself was Grant Theft Auto. In the original top down game, you had an objective and could follow the story, but most of my time was spent try playing around in city, finding fancy cars to sell at the docks or just drive around fast, or going the biggest crime I could before getting killed. It was the definition of a sandbox, an open area with few limits within it and the freedom to enjoy it in whatever way you can think of using the game’s mechanics.

GTA is perhaps one of the most influential game series of all time, so many games have looked to emulate the open living worlds that GTA has created, especially after GTA3 was a huge success. It was a promise of what games could do once they stepped into the 3D realm. At the heart of the game was this living city, with countless citizens, distinct districts, a crazy parody of the American dream. The missions and story were simply scenarios played out on the city streets using the game’s toolbox of weapon and vehicles. Many games, great and terrible, have copied this formula over the years. I am going to take a closer look at the design choices of a few, specifically the design choices that determine getting around

There are many factors that lead to a good or bad sandbox game, but here I will be looking at transport, picking out some examples of how it has been done well or not so well. Better from one place to another can be a big part of these games, how it is implemented can make traversal a tedious chore or a non-event. When done well, travelling can be a fun ride, a calm wind-down from action, or a change to build character and world fiction.

 

What is not on the list

Well anything where you have no reason not use the ever present fast travel feature. Oddly, even though this feature is present in so many games, I often find that manual travel is often the preferred method, it can depend on a lot more factors than just “which is quicker“. For example I found myself walking a lot more in Skyrim than I did in Oblivion, perhaps it was the fact that Cyrodil looked a bit too much like the UK Peak District country side I grew up in, or maybe the fact that so many more random encounters occurred in Skyrim. But basically I only included travel that had some interest to it by itself. I also have tried to avoid more linear open worlds (is that a contradiction?). for example, I included Arkham City for its open city streets you can explore, by Arkham Asylum was left out as you are mostly following corridors along set paths are much more restricted in the order you can explore areas

 

GTA (3 onwards) – cruising with the roof down and the stereo up

It should be tedious right? You just drive from one place to the other. Yet it is such an essential part of a GTA game. You can fast travel in GTA, but it is discouraged; you need to flag a taxi, then wait to be driven where you are going, or pay to skip the ride. Yet most of the time I find myself driving all the way across the map. It is just a fun part of the experience, you get to listen to the always entertaining radio, the songs are always well chosen, and then there are the hilarious adverts and presenter segments, you can even listen to talk radio if you like. Then there is the pick and mix car selection. GTA always have fun cars to choose from, and if you bust up your ride or see something you’d like better, it is easy to get out and rob something new. The whole appeal of GTA is the lack of consequence, most people would never dream of stealing a car, but in GTA we don’t think twice about beating up the driver of a car because it is a nicer colour than the one we have. The cities in GTA are a character all by themselves, it’d be a shame to fast travel and miss out on the billboards and random run-ins with the games’ citizens.

 

Assassin’s Creed – Parkour paradise

From horse power to man power. A lot of games owe a lot to Ubisoft’s long (free) running franchise. And Assassin’s Creed owes a lot to parkour. The philosophy of freerunning is to get from one point in a city to another in as straight a line as possible, in real life it takes years of practice, but in the world of Assassins and Templars, it is as easy as holding RT and up on the left analogue stick. Sure there are times when it glitches and gets stuck, but the freerunning engine lets you fluidly climb, vault and leapt across some of the most iconic and culturally significant cities in history. Some of the most fun you can have in AC is just getting to your next mission objective as fast as you can without touching the ground. Infact that is maybe why the beggars were so annoying in the first game. It’s was not so much “the floor is lava” as “the floor is full of gits that block your way and ask you for money”

 

Arkham City – I’m Batman

More than anything. I feel the design mantra of the Arkham games is to deliver on the Batman fantasy. There is nothing worse in a superhero game than being a powerful being, who is somehow killed by a lowly guard with a pistol. The Akham games understand this, enemies surround you, but you pound them into the snow without a care, toying with them even, because you are Batman. And how else would batman get around than zip lining up gothic skyscrapers and gliding around like a demon bat, surveying the land for the next unlucky villain to be pounced upon from on high. Akham Origins introduced the Batwing, but it was still more fun grapnel gliding across the map.

 

Morrowind – before there were walking simulators

There were times when travel in Morrowind seemed like a chore, fast travel would be so much – faster. So why was it engaging to walk everywhere and catch the fantasy equivalent of a bus? Well it’s the amazing world Bethesda built. Sure it is great in later games to be able to get a quest, warp straight to the location and get to business, bit what Morrowind did was ensure you get the most out of its world. Travel in ES3 requires interaction with the world and knowledge of it. The map included in the game is for more than just decorating your bedroom. You need it to plan your journeys. You got to know the silt strider locations and which guilds had a teleporter. You had to learn the location of temples and just were you needed to be to get the best out of intervention spells. And when you went somewhere new, you didn’t just walk a straight line to an objective marker, you asked around for directions and looked for signposts. Morrowind made you a part of its world and it is thanks to excluding fast travel.

Later games still have an element of hiking to new locations, but nothing like Morrowind. Skyrim added interest to walk by its use of random encounters, particularly with dragons. Even the most routing walk to the shops could be made into an epic battle. One of my most memorable moments in Skyrim was the first time I went to the Throat of the World. Half way up the path I was chatting to a pilgrim when we finished talking, he turned abruptly, and drew is dagger. Suddenly a dragon rose into view right before us. My pilgrim friend and I fought off the dragon as his hovered off the edge of the mountain. It was such a perfect and effective moment that the second time I played the game, I wondered where the dragon was, it wasn’t a set piece, just a random event on my journey.

 

Prototype/Crackdown/Saints Row IV – He can leap tall buildings

I grouped these together as they serve the same purpose of super hero fantasy fulfilment. Who wouldn’t want to get around the way Superman or Goku do? It make traversal so simple, there is no waiting for a load screen or for public transport to arrive, and you don’t need to find or buy a vehicle that will likely get lost, abandoned or blown up after five minutes. Just leap into the sky, run like lightning, scale a building or glide through the air. Quick easy and fulfilling, and it gives you a nice opportunity to get a birds-eye look at the city and easily detour for collectibles or whatever.

 

Driver San Francisco – Outer body experiences

This game truly must win points for originality. You can mentally leave your body, go floating around the city and find another host body to inhabit, so long as they are driving a car. Remember the Driver games where you could get out your car and shoot people, remember how bad those sections were. Much better that Driver SF concentrates squarely on the driving.

There is no disconnect between the game theme and its fast travel and its core mechanic. It is all one and the same. You can use the mind shift mechanic to skip into a nearby car or use it to skip all the way across the map. I am not the biggest driving game fan, but this one is just too much fun not to appreciate it. And if you don’t wanna use the mind shift, it is still a very well built driving simulator if you would rather cruise over the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Honourable Mentions and Worst Offenders

Just Cause 2 (not played the new one, soprry) is a bit of both, so is Farcry 3 and 4. They have some great fun aspects, the grappling hook of Just cause 2 is a great tool, but is a bit to clunky to make traversal more than a chore, it is not helped buy the absurd size of the map. Even with a high powered jet, it can takes minutes to get anywhere. If not for the fun factor of zip lining about and the variety of location, Just Cause would not get a mention. Farcry’s wingsuit is good fun, but if you have ever lived somewhere hilly, then you will know that getting down is fine, it’s the getting up a hill that sucks.

Burnout Paradise is one I came close to including. Doing stunts and finding shortcuts is great fun, but at the end of the day, you are just commuting.

I don’t think it counts as a sandbox, but Dark Souls (the original) makes traversal engaging. You fight for every inch of newly discovered ground, and when you find a shortcut or unlock an elevator, it feels like a massive reward. Lordran is tough, but with persistence, you can conquer it.

Shadow of Colossus. I love this game. Riding across a desolate land on a horse guided by a magic sword, it is a great experience, but it is problematic. Just gets a little annoying since the sword points you places as the crow flies, but you often get lost when there is a big obstacle in your way like a mountain.

 

Finally. Can I make a plea, for less games like Rise of the Tomb Raider in terms of travelling? I do like this game and the one before it. But for a game about exploration, it makes exploring such torture. Invisible walls are an annoyance to many a gamer, but they are needed, you will only ever be able to make a game so big, so you will need boundaries. But then to have them in the middle of the map is inexcusable. Also you can really tell that they were running out of ways to bar off areas of the map as you progress. There are walls you can climb with a pickaxe if they are mottled and rough, but you cannot just scrabble up a tumbled down pile of debris, and then there are special walls of soft wood that are immune to pickaxe but can be climbed with special arrows capable of supporting an adult human’s weight. There are wooden barricades that can only be shot with bullets, and some that need fire, some that need to be pulled down with a rope arrow,  then others that are a little tougher and need explosives. Then there are brambles that, so far as I could tell, were immune to any kind of fire, explosive or blade. This kind of segmenting of the game world is silly, breaks immersion and little better than having green doors unlock with the green key.

Board Games are Totally Math! Forbidden Island

Welcome to Board Games are Totally Math! This series of will be an exercise in game design analysis for myself, and hopefully interesting for others. Board games are great to pick apart as a student of game design as the mechanics are all out there for you to see, and with the right mind-set you can work out all the probabilities and calculations that make a game work, and that is exactly what I intend to do.

 

Today I am looking at Forbidden Island. This game by Matt Leacock is a firm favourite of mine and has cemented itself in my house as a go-to couple game. It’s a game about uncovering treasures from a mystical island as it sinks beneath your feet. You really get the feeling playing this game that the land is sinking beneath you, it delivers on that “Oh my god we are all going to die” panic feeling that co-op games do so well, and it gives you a great sense of relief and accomplishment when you succeed. That is all thanks to the Leacock’s excellent design, so let’s pick it apart and see how he did it.

 

I will assume some familiarity with the game in these articles, so feel free to watch a video rule guide, read the rules or play a game before continuing if you need to.

 

That sinking feeling

Forbidden Island features a simple yet smart system for handling the automated actions of the island as it sinks. This is key to the tension of the game. The mechanics make it clear from the start, the island will sink and you cannot stop it. All the players can do is delay the sinking long enough to get the loot and escape.

Maybe you think, surely there is a way to play well enough to save everything. Well no. look at the initial set up, six tiles are flooded to start with, the first player could if perfectly positioned shore up three of those tiles, and if the right cards were dealt then players could shore up another two with sandbag cards, but that still leaves one vulnerable tile, a tile that could be sunk at the flood phase of the first turn if a waters rise card is dealt. Only the engineer character has any chance of keeping all tiles 100% safe. To me the message to the player is clear, prioritise what you need to secure and hope that what sinks is something that won’t hurt you too badly.

The entire gameplay is centred on the player’s decision making of what to save and what to sacrifice, so how do the numbers achieve this? There are 24 island tiles, one (Fool’s Landing) which players must protect at all cost, and four pairs of treasure tiles which can end the game if both of one pair are lost. Also there may be tiles needed to easily traverse the island, though not essential, they can make things harder if lost.

At the start if the game, players can feel pretty safe, after all, when a flood card is drawn you have a fairly low probability of flooding or sinking a necessary card (7 in 24, not bad right). But the game actively adjusts the odds in your favour. Maybe you lose a tile, that card is removed from the flood deck, the chances of getting a card you don’t want are now higher (now 7 in 23 chance of losing something important, lose another one and it’s 7 in 22, and so on). Players can see the island getting smaller and smaller, reinforcing the fact that you really ought to shore up those essential tiles.

IMAG0011

Not what we had hoped for

There is an ebb and flow (no pun intended) to the management of tiles. When a tile is lost, then there is an increase in the odds of the next tile to go being something you sorely need. On the other hand, there are times when you can turn the odds in your favour, when you locate a treasure, suddenly the two tiles you needed for it are fair game to be allowed to sink, or maybe players identify an area that is not needed for traversal and can be abandoned. Sure this concentrates dangerous cards in the flood deck, but it can be used to get a respite and concentrate on the tiles you need the most.

 

Treasure Hunting

For me, getting a full set of treasures is one of the trickiest aspects of the game. It is affected strongly by the player count and the hand limit of five cards.

Getting the set of four matching treasures would be easy, except for the hand limit. Since you can only have only have five cards in your hand at any one point, it leads to agonising decisions on what to discard when you have too many. This is where the rule in the book that allows you to look through the discards becomes useful. Discard one treasure card from a set, and you can still complete it by the time the treasure deck runs out, discard a second treasure from that deck, and you will need to go through the deck again to complete the set. Or perhaps you decide to discard a sandbag or helicopter, you have to think, would that be more useful later on? Might I need the sandbag to save a tile? Will I find another helicopter to escape the island before it sinks?

This decision making, in my opinion only gets harder with more players. It takes up a lot of actions to pass cards to other players, and who gets what card from the deck is an area where luck can really make a difference.

Regardless of good or bad luck, to win the game, you are usually going to need to go through the treasure deck at least twice. Maybe the first trip through the deck you get one or two full sets, but you would need immense luck and co-ordination to acquire all four sets on the first pass, inevitably you will come to a point here you need to discard more than one of a certain set and thus, need to make a second trip through the deck inevitable. Which leads me to the next topic.

 

Escape in the nick of time

Generally, the game always provides a tight finish, where you are running around to grab the last treasure and leave the island as the last few pieces are disappearing. If that doesn’t happen, our usual response is to play again on a higher difficulty. I would definitely recommend playing the harder levels as you get familiar with the game. The easiest level is a tutorial really, it’s no challenge for an experienced group.

So how does the game balance the ending? Even with an easy win, the island is crumbling around you as you flee. Well the trick is in the design of the treasure deck. Since you will most likely need to go through the deck twice, possibly a third time for that last elusive card, it means you will draw the three waters rise cards twice at least. Now take a look at the water level marker. Starting on the easiest setting there are nine marks above it, so once the third waters rise card appears from the third run through the deck, the players lose the game. On the highest difficulty, the game must be completed before the final waters rise card is drawn from the second pass through the deck.

IMAG0005

One more and we are doomed

It is good that the completion of the treasure collecting should coincide with the game over point on the water tracker. It puts a natural turn limit on the game meaning you can’t just hang around forever, it also mean that by the time you have all or most of the treasure cards you need, the water marker is so high that you are drawing five flood cards and sinking tiles all over the place.

 

Gameplay tip

The deck is designed to end the game one way or another sometime between the end of the second run through the deck and the end of the third, depending on difficulty level. We know how long the first run through the deck will last, there are 28 cards and each player gets two to start with and two at the end of each turn, so the first deck will last between 10 and 12 turns depending on player count.

Turns = (28 – (2 x player count)) / 2

But the subsequent passes through the deck are not so predictable. Depending on how many cards are still held by players, the treasure deck can be very short in deed, this is more noticeable as the player count rises. The fewer cards discarded, the smaller the deck will be when shuffled, but there will still be three waters rise cards in there. So the tip I would advise, play aggressively, get those treasures collected and cashed in before the first deck runs out. The more you can discard before the shuffle, the longer you will get before the waters rise cards end the game.

 

Player count

I’ve touched on this already, but maybe there is more to be said. I mentioned before this is a favourite couple game for me and my girlfriend. It just works well with two, there is less to worry about with card sets being distributed over multiple players. With two, you can pretty much aim to complete one set each on the first run through the treasure deck and then one more each to finish the game. And when the treasure cards are dealt, there is a 50/50 chance that the cards you need will fall to you and not your partner. Yet with more players, you can end up with cards all over the place, a lot more actions are expended trying to get cards to the right person.

Sure it is extra challenge, which can be great, but seeing as a lot of our gaming friends are quite casual, it just means the game is a little too weighty at times for our group with higher player counts. But being objective, I do look at the mechanics and think this is a vastly harder game with three and especially four players. There are a number of mechanics that escalate the difficulty rapidly.

  1. Smaller treasure deck – With more people holding cards, you will run through the deck quicker and hit waters rising cards more frequently.
  2. More dispersal of treasure cards – Be prepared to do a lot of card trading
  3. Longer downtime – If you have the full set of the final treasure and you cannot make it to the right tile on your turn, then everyone has much longer to keep things afloat before you can claim the treasure.

Gameplay Tip

The only real advantage in more players is that you have access to more player abilities and can spread the treasure card sets out between more people. MAKE SURE YOU MAKE USE OF THIS. Funnily we often joke how useless the navigator and messenger are, but in higher player counts they have more use, especially the messenger. The messenger doesn’t even need to go for full sets of treasures, they can use their ability to distribute all of their cards to those who need them the most.

 

I hope that gave an insight to this elegantly designed game. This was I think a gentle with which to start this series. Not very maths intensive, as I said the probabilities change on the fly throughout the game so much it would be pointless to quantify them.

As always, share your thoughts below, and like and subscribe if you want to see more like this. I am considering a few games from my collection or that I am familiar enough with to try next. Front runners for the next edition of board games are totally math are Ticket to Ride, Star Realms, Alhambra or Patchwork. Good scope for some statistical analysis there. Suggestions are welcome for future games to pick apart.

Thanks for reading.

Fallout 3 – Good Samaritan -Fire Ants & Powdered Wigs

After the events of Big Town, I headed back to Megaton. The place was becoming familiar and even starting to feel like home. After I helped defuse the bomb lying in the centre of town, I was given the keys to a house as thanks. Unfortunately I got the sheriff killed in the process. Some people will commit any sin to get what they want, I may need to settle debts with that Mr Burke one day. I did some odd jobs around Megaton, mostly helping a young lady with research for a survival guide. Seems a bit naïve to me, the wastes throw up all kinds of hazards, it would have to be a comprehensive book that could help people survive in this world. Still it could help someone. Research for one chapter took me to an old Super Duper Mart. The shelves had long since been picked clean and now seemed to be a den for a gang of raiders. It sickens me how easily I dealt with them. But when they are trying to take your life, you have little choice but to fight, and fight to kill. Just as well. Clearly they had set up their base to lure in people hoping to find food and then ambush them. Outside I ran into a young boy, all alone in the wastes. He was crying and pleading for my help, which I offered, and helping him was probably the first undeniably positive thing I have done since leaving the vaults.

The boy’s town had been ransacked by fire breathing ants. Deadly. But with the Shotgun I picked up from the raiders, they were easily dealt with. Only trouble is, ants don’t drop ammunition when they die. By the end of it I had cleared the monsters out, rescued a scientist and saved the queen so that he could continue his potentially lifesaving research. All very good, but not I had no ammunition, my guns were useless, all I had was a pair of spiked knuckles and my trusty baseball bat. But my work was not complete, the young lad still needed a home, he’s couldn’t very well survive on his own in that ghost town, ants or not. He said he had an aunt in Rivet city, a floating fortress converted to a settlement a mile or so down the river. Looked like I had some walking to do.

I passed the burnt out ruins of DC, making my way to an aunt who might not even be alive, explosion billowed clouds into the air and bullets ripped through the air in every direction. Whatever was left of the nation’s capital, a lot of people were fighting and dying over it. I thought it best to keep my distance. I swam the rest of the way, trying to stay out of sight. I would have to deal with the radiation poisoning later, a bullet through the skull is a lot harder to cure. I passed the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Now more memorial to the world that once was than the people they were named for. Soaking wet and shivering, I reached Rivet City. Once a great war machine, now a refuge from the violence of the world around it, and what better protection. Inside the people had made a nice settlement for themselves, there was a market, bars and even a church. It was a great comfort to be able to attend a service again, all that was missing was a confessional. I sound located the young boy’s aunt. She was more than willing to look after him now his father was gone, before long they were reunited and getting on with their lives. Even out here in the savage wastelands, good deeds can make a difference to people’s lives.

I stayed in Rivet City for a while, resting and talking to the people. One fellow named Abraham Washington had set up a museum dedicated to the pre-war Capitol. It was long before he was asking for my help. What he was after though, was no less than the declaration of independence. A frivolous task to risk one’s life on, but I could see how valuable the preservation work was. If man was ever to drag itself out of the brutal survivalism it had descended into, then we would need to remember the culture of the past. I set off towards the war zone that once was the mall. I moved as fast as I could, the old subway system was some shelter from the battle raging over head, but held its own problems, giant mole rats, raiders, and wild ghouls would have been enough of a problem without getting lost in the winding labyrinth of concrete corridors. When finally I made it to the mall, I was immediately running for my life. Chased by a pack of dogs, super mutants battling humans in silver grey power armour, great mushroom clouds belching fire into the sky. I ran for a nearby building, it looked appealing as the human figure standing guard outside appeared to be the only thing not shooting at me. I got closer and saw the figure was a female, and a ghoul at that, I did my best not to look disgusted by her blackened eyes and half melted-off face.

“Damn tourist. You must be crazy running around out here.” I didn’t have an argument for that, I surely was crazy. Dodging gunfire to look for a 500 year old piece of paper. But I could say the same about her, loitering outside in the middle of such a battle. I went inside, looking for respite from the chaos outside. The interior was once a museum of some kind, I went through the doors under the big skull to find a thriving ghoul community. To see such tortured bodies, I would almost think the Lord had truly abandoned us, but they seemed happy enough in their little community. We are all sent afflictions to test us. The locals looked upon me with suspicion, but where happy enough to accept me into their home. Most seemed happy to have a “Smoothskin around who didn’t immediate scream and run to grab the pitchforks and torches.” I rested briefly and tended to my wounds before heading outside, once more into the breach.

It was a straight run along the mall to the national archives. Thankfully the big front doors were open, and there were no more monsters immediately inside. I crept past a large hall when I heard a whisper.

“Psst! Get over here if you want to live, just watch out for the mines.”

A young lady was dug in behind sandbags and landmines. Introductions would have to wait, no sooner was I behind the barricades with her then were attacked by a band of super mutants. The lady was a mean shot with her gun, and the landmines did their jobs. For my part, I was still weak and injured from the journey there, I mostly hid behind some rubble and lobbed frag grenades into the doorway from where the attackers were immerging. When the inhuman screams stopped and the smoke settled, the lady was able to introduce herself as Sydney. She had apparently been sent on the same fool’s errand as had I. It seemed Abraham had given her up for dead, but she had been merely pinned down, unable to escape. We shook hands, deciding we each would need the other to retrieve the declaration and get out alive. Sydney had found a way to open an elevator in the floor of the rotunda. The lift seemed barely intact but it carried us safely down into the bowels of the building. At least we could be sure there were no mutants down here. But of course nothing is easy. The archives basement was filled with security robots, but I found a laser riffle that seemed to take care of them easily enough. The one exception being a heavily armour plated Mister Gutsy. Sprinting through the corridors we made it to a stairwell, it spiralled upwards and thankfully posed a problem for the robots tracking. From atop the gangway we peppered it with gunfire until it spluttered and collapsed. We were through the worst but Sydney was injured, I was down to my last stimpak, but she needed it more, I would just have to hope there were no more hazards. We reached a strongroom where Sydney was convinces the declaration lay. Inside, was a pair of dormant turrets and a securiton robot, wearing a wig. The droid introduced himself as Button Gwint one of the signatories of the declaration, and seemed to believe intently that he was who he said. He also seemed to think he was still at war with the British. We humoured him and played along with his story. He would have had us make a journey to retrieve some ink, to prove our worthiness before we could take the declaration.

“Sure. We’ll get it for you.” Sydney said giving me a wink. We found cover and opened fire on poor robot. On another day I might have felt guilty about this, but we had come too far, and after all, it’s just a robot. Gwint went down easy, but the turrets came to life. If not for their aged state and slow aim speed we may have been in trouble. We both made it through the skirmish unharmed. All that was left was to scavenge Gwint for the codes to the safe, grab the declaration of independence and run like hell for Rivet City. If Abraham was surprised to see me, he was downright flabbergasted to see Sydney. We took our reward and a well-earned rest. A priceless piece of American history had been retrieved and I had rescued a soul given up for dead. I was starting to feel good about myself.