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.

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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?

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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.

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.

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.

BGG 24 hours game contest – May 2015 – Knight at the Inn

Follow the links below for the components and rules to my BoardGameGeek.com 24 hour game contest entry for May 2015. If you want to know about my journey in board games so far and the development of this game, then read on.

Knight at the Inn Components

Knight at the Inn Rule Book

Getting into Board Gaming

As an aspiring game designer, I have really enjoyed diving head first into the world of board games, or more specifically the side of board games known as designer games or hobby games. I have enjoyed a lot of games over the years (although even back then I had to have my arm twisted to play Monopoly or Cluedo). I guess it was inevitable that once I had a taste of games beyond the mass market stuff found in high street toy shops, I would get hooked.

For me the game that started it was Talisman, I got myself invited to a game and had a blast, it was an experience like the western RPG videogames I enjoy but on cardboard. I began learning all I could about the hobby and before I knew it I was through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, in at the deep end and all the other clichés for getting deeply involved in something. After that my collection began to rapidly grow, I converted my girlfriend Gemma into a board-gamer as well and we have not looked back.

I think one of the things I like most about the hobby is transparency of the design in the final product. If you know where to look, there is every little obstructing the player from the designers decisions. The rules and all the components are all there for you to see and analyse in the box. And as a game designer I can’t help but try to deconstruct every element; why that number of cards? Why is that action worth that many points? Why are those dice results special and not another combination? Which makes it all the more impressive when it all comes together to make an interesting, well balanced and fun game. So having established that I have been suitably inspired, it’s my turn…

BoardGameGeek May 2015 24 hour game contest

– My Entry – Knight at the Inn

Playing Knight at the Inn

Playing Knight at the Inn

I had attempted a game or two before, and have had dozens of designs in my head. But never had I gotten past the prototype phase. So the 24 hour contest was looking like it would be a great challenge and a good incentive to get over that hump. I was a little unhappy with the theme being “Knight” I was struggling to come up with a concept that didn’t revolve around killing things with swords (I don’t like to go for the obvious choice). Inspiration struck thinking about chess pieces and knights marching across a medieval countryside. What formed in my mind was an abstract strategy game about knights returning home and staying the night at inns along the road home. And being a big Game of Thrones fan, I thought about the way that main characters traveling across the land would always end up in the same tavern.

I quickly put together a pen and paper prototype and tried It out with Gemma. I wanted it to be a tactical game of maneuvering your knights across the board whilst blocking your opponent. So I made sure there was limited space at the inns for tactical blocking and covering of pieces. And I tried to give the pieces variable abilities to allow them differing roles in gameplay for players to discover. The lone knight as an easy to move but vulnerable pieces ideal for dashing about and pinning threatening opponent pieces, the King is a difficult to move piece but can be a strong tool to muscle your way though and block pieces.

After the first play though, we realised we had had a great time. Sure new rules were implemented on the fly but it was fun, we could see clearly where we could move, who we could block, where would leave us exposed. The tension seemed to really build towards the end, just when you thought you had a handle on it and could run away with it, your opponent would get a foot hold. A happy accident of the design, that as you got more pieces to the end space, you became more vulnerable to being pinned down or blocked. Most games we have played seemed to come down to the last few pieces. I felt I was onto something good when after one play, we immediately wanted to set it up again and go another round.

Development we pretty well but I made a mistake of starting my project a few hours before I had to be in bed for work early the next day.I spent about 4 hours setting up the basic rule book and pieces before I had to call it a night. I may not have stuck strictly too the rules, but three days later all I needed to do was make some pretty pictures for the pieces and finish up the rules before making my final presentation.

Going Forward

I have had a bunch of plays of this game with Gemma. But I think the next step would definitely be to have some others play it. See whether it merits further development, I have my concerns about it and things that I like, but it’s hard to say what direction I should be taking those elements right now. So far I haven’t gotten much feedback form other people, so I will have to start going after play testers some more. That or I will just move onto the next project. One thing I know is that the rules need a little clean up.

The Game Tinkerer – King of Tokyo AI Opponents

The Game Tinkerer – Because no game is ever finished

This is the first in a series of articles I have been meaning to write about modifying games. Be it video games or board games, sometimes the base game is just not enough. It could be a good game I want more of, or a bad game that needs fixing, or just using the constraints of the game to stretch it as far as it will go. I hope to make a few of these articles, covering topics such as house rules, alternate ways to play, video game challenge runs and maybe some game mods.

House Rules – King of Tokyo AI opponents

Today I will be outlining the AI rules I use in King of Tokyo when I want more people to play against. Great if you want a solo variant or just more monsters to fight against.

Hamsters don't make good opponents, they can't sit still long enough

Hamsters don’t make good opponents, they can’t sit still long enough

I have had King of Tokyo for some time now but have struggled to get it out to play with more than three people. Trouble is, as great as this game is, it get better the more people you have. Sure you can pull it out for a party or a gaming meet up but the rest of the week if you live alone or with your partner (like me), it is gonna stay on the shelf. So I developed a way to play against automated opponents. With some simple rules you can have games against some fairly competitive AI players. I have used these rules to play solo and with my girlfriend in three and four player matches and had a good time.

As deep as King of Tokyo is, essentially you only have a few decisions to make; which dice to keep and which to re-roll, whether or not to buy that card you can afford, and whether or not to yield Tokyo when attacked. My rules randomly determine each of these decisions in a way that feels like playing a human opponent, a slightly dumb, very aggressive human, but any more complex and it would be a pain to implement.

AI rules

Rolling and Re-Rolling the Dice

The dice are, despite the re-rolling mechanic, a very random element of this game, so the following rule set will usually simulate a convincing imitation of a human players dice choices.

Each of the three rolls work in much the same way. Rolling the dice, determining the “useless” dice for re-rolling and keeping the good dice. I class the dice faces are numbers and symbols (heart, energy or attack)

“Useless” dice are defined:

  • Any symbols that cannot be used, for example an AI monster will discard hearts if it has full health or cannot attack or collect energy.
  • Any numbers that are impossible to get three of a kind with. e.g. There are two threes but the other dice are already being kept for another purpose.
  • Any single number not repeated (the AI monster doesn’t take risks)
  • Any pair of numbers of lower value than another pair.
  • Attack symbols when the monster is below 4 health and outside of Tokyo

Using this method the AI will generally collect energy, attack monsters, heal when necessary, play less aggressively when near death and try for victory points when a pair or triple is number is rolled.

Buying Cards

Check the number of energy cubes the AI has, if it is enough to buy a card, roll a dice to decide whether or not to purchase it.

If the monster can only afford one card, role a dice, if it lands on an energy or attack symbol buy that card. If more than one card can be bought, do the following:

  1. Role a dice until you get a number, going from left to right (or top to bootom, however you have your three cards arranged) the number on the dice is the starting card.
  2. If the monster can afford the card, roll a dice the same as rolling to buy a single card, otherwise, skip to the next card.
  3. Carry on in this fashion until all cards are bought or skipped, if a new card comes out which the monster can buy, roll for it at the end.
  4. If the monster can afford all three but buys none, it is considdered that it does not want any, in that case, providing it has 5 energy or more, pay 2 energy to scrap cards and draw new ones. Roll to buy any new cards as normal.

Yielding Tokyo

AI monsters will yield Tokyo or not according to their health

8 or more Do not Yield Tokyo.

7 – 5 Roll one dice, if it is a symbol, yield Tokyo.

4 Roll one dice, only stay in Tokyo if it is an attack.

3 or less Yield Tokyo

Using Cards

Some cards can be used at times of the players choice, so assume that the AI monster bought the card to use it. The AI should choose to use card abilities at any point that benefits them, messed with someone else, and won’t hinder themselves.

Golden Rule

The AI will do anything that a human trying to win the game would obviously do.

For example, I played a game where all monsters had 3 or less health, and the AI monsters kept trying to buy a card that would deal 3 damage to all monsters thus ending the game without a winner. I didn’t allow it, sure there would be some sadistic player who might find it fun to screw the game like this but it is not something I would encourage.

Also the AI are trying to win, so if there is a card they can afford that would win the game for them, they should buy it at the first opportunity without rolling the dice. It’s not fun to have to make yourself lose like this, in fact I have made the AI ignore the cards in situations like these and gone on to won, but I know deep down that I lost, I just wanted to play a little more.

So there it is. Give it a go. Feel free to comment if you enjoyed the rules or had any suggestions to make the rules better.

Watch_Dogs – Game Review and Breakdown

If you are wanting a review of Watch Dogs then this will suffice, but it is more of a breakdown of the game from a game designer point of view, so bear in mind that I may talk about specifics in the game that may be considered SPOILERS. I have been following the game design lectures here and making a design analysis of a game is the homework. This was my first attempt and although enjoyed making somewhat like a review, I think I can do better on the analysis department having read the brief again. so lets begin.

It's great fun to use the profiler, especially if you are an Archer fan

A world where no ones private data is safe, especially not from you

Watch Dogs is a game where you play the complex Aiden Pierce, a gifted computer hacker, driver and marksman. Essentially it is an open world action game with diverse gameplay elements from combat, puzzle solving, driving, stealth and evasion, but the theme and narrative of the game add a deeper level of meaning to the gameplay.

In Short

Positives

  • Strong Theme an narrative reinforced by the mechanics
  • Original gameplay features
  • Thought provoking theme that is highly relevant to modern life
  • A sense of power over adversity in slow plan and execute phases or in higher paced reactionary situations
  • A variety of tools for a wide array of scenarios, none of which seem redundent
  • Attention to detail bring the setting to life making all AI characters seem more human

Negatives

  • Cheating enemy AI
  • Too difficult to correct mistakes in stealth sections
  • Next to no use for the money you collect
  • Easy to find dominant strategies that can take the challenge out of gameplay

In summary – The morality of the narrative flits between good and bad in this title, but as far as the gameplay is concerned, the good far out weighs the bad. Enough to recommend this game to anyone who likes their open world, action, adventure or stealth games to assume a little intelligence of the player.

The mother of all smartphones - Apple could learn a few things from this game

Immersion is kept at all times, you don’t pause and check a menu, you just open the app you need on your phone

Game Design Breakdown – For me the game elicited conflicting emotions in me, especially regarding my opinion of the main character Aiden Pierce. A lot of games involving physical conflict exhibit a black and white mentality to good and evil. Most often the enemy is purely represented as evil and the hero is the shining example of good who overcomes evil (There are many other ways of depicting good and evil, in the Grand Theft Auto series, almost no one is depicted as being a good person). Aiden Pierce inhabits a grey area between the two. He is neither hero nor anti-hero or villain. On the one hand he is known as a vigilante in the games Chicago city setting, stopping and hunting down criminals and the main story line follows his exploits trying to protect his family from a criminal conspiracy. However, Aiden is also a criminal in his own right, he steals from civilians, has illegal access to city infrastructure technology and is willing to kill a large number of people (not all of them particularly deserving of death) to protect his family. As a player I shared in his anger and hatred of the enemy as well as his guilt for some of the extreme actions he takes. A good example of the emotional conflict elicited by the game was the human trafficking plot. Aiden infiltrates an auction of sex slaves, the half naked girls are paraded on stage and some are shown sobbing or terrified, you can even hack the phones of the patrons to see their foul thought processes. You then meet the vile man responsible for the auction. It felt heroic in the game to save the women and bring the police to arrest the people involved. Afterwards you are informed that some slipped away and finding them becomes a side quest. Most of the men from the auction are clearly bad people and you feel good about incriminating them, one however, remarkably was able to make me feel some sympathy for him (not enough to let him go free of course), the side quest requires you find the auction patrons and hack their phones to find evidence on them and you get a brief snippet of their thoughts following the police investigation, this one man is found in a graveyard, he appears to be texting his wife, he apologises for his actions, saying he was trying to fill the hole left when she died, then instead of a reply, the phone sends back a delivery failed message. I felt sadness and sympathy for the man despite my hatred for those who would commit the same crime.

There are many example of this kind of thought provoking morality in the game. Often it is used to emphasise the games theme of issues surrounding privacy and surveillance, and exploration of vengeance and justice weighed against their cost. The game, especially during Aidens more introspective moments and his dealing with innocents like his family ask questions of the viewer. Is it OK to pursue justice for terrible crimes if it means hurting a lot more people in the process? Can your good deeds as a vigilante make up for your past crimes? Can anything you do “fix” the injustice of a murdered child. The insights into what is monitored in the city and the public propaganda broadcasts by the hacker group DedSec made me think about the issues surrounding privacy in the digital age and how it applies to the real world.

The gameplay does a good job of giving a sense that you can overcome great physical strength using intelligence, sure there are times when skills like shooting and driving are needed, and they are often exciting, however for me I found the most engagement in using my intelligence to overcome obstacles, Aiden can be killed by gunfire as easily as any enemy, but is always greatly outnumbered. The combat, and particularly the stealth combat sections are more like puzzles to be solved. There is a great sense of achievement when you can defeat enemies and manipulate them using the hacking tools at your disposal, often without ever putting yourself in harms way.

If only real hacking was as easy as pointing your phone and holding a button and not hours sat at a keyboard.

Aiden has the skills to make trained professional police officers and hardened mobsters look like bumbling 1980’s cartoon villains

The hacking mechanics are very interesting, they can be used in low tempo scenarios, where you as a player can carefully plan out and execute your tactics, or they can be used in more vigorous scenes, this particularly works in car chases when you can use traffic blockers, spikes and traffic lights to take down or evade your enemy. When say for example you manage to cause a perusing car to crash into road blockers, the game slows down and pans to show the crash, the effect is satisfying and makes you feel smart for having executed it.

The puzzles and gameplay scenarios are quite varied, they kept me interested as the game does a great job of mixing up the challenges, you have a range of abilities at your disposal and all of them will be needed throughout the game. The challenge comes from identifying the nature of each problem, assessing the best strategy and the pay off is executing it successfully.

The game is strong overall. It is well produced, original and I found it enjoyable throughout. I am hard pressed to point out any flaws in particular. The driving and shooting sections might have felt somewhat similar to a lot of open world games on the market, but the game adds enough extra tools to make it feel much more unique. For me one of the biggest drawbacks was the AI which felt unfair at times. The stealth sections were very strong but became almost impossible to salvage if a mistake is made. Much of the time, once you mess up, a stealth section will become almost irrecoverably a shooting section. And in these circumstances, the AI feels like it is cheating, if a guard spots you, even if you kill him quietly before he can say anything, all the other guards seem to psychically know where you are. Effective hiding places are hard to come by in a fire fight, I found when I was caught, that it was best to restart the section or fight. The AI often feels like it is cheating, from helicopters that can recognise you through the roof of any vehicle, to criminals that seem to be suspicious of you and you alone in a city populated by millions. The other major flaw that I noticed was the fact that at times you are almost given too many tools to deal with the challenges in the game, there are a lot of dominant strategies to be found that defuse otherwise difficult tasks. Another negative is the fact that money serves very little purpose, I found myself habitually hacking peoples accounts for their money (even whilst chasing down muggers which felt somewhat hypocritical) but the only things to spend money on were guns and ammo, but I was able to afford the best weapons very early on and I never bought a single bullet the whole time I played, what I scavenged from enemies was plenty. Before long I had a huge fortune and nothing to do with it. The also meant that I lacked the motivation to complete the many fixer contract side missions, as they reward you with only money and some of the contracts I found kind of annoying as they often had needlessly strict restrictions and tasks that seemed to serve no reasonable purpose like moving a number of cars a mile or two down the road in a small amount of time, as though any criminal would pay thousands of dollars for such a task.