Archive for the ‘RPG/Board Games’ Category

Video Games and Challenge vs Experience

March 23, 2016

So, last week I talked about games of all kinds and the distinction between a game as experience and a game as challenge. As I said there, video games have special issues with the challenge vs experience dichotomy, and it all comes down to the fact that, in a video game, we have the ability to save and replay sections of the game if we fail at a challenge, which you typically can’t do in other sorts of games.

Let’s look, then, at what happens in other types of games when you hit a challenge that you simply aren’t prepared for. In sports, you hit a team that’s too strong for you, or they spring a strategy on you that you weren’t prepared for and run up a big lead. In a board game, you get a string of bad luck or you don’t understand how to play the game and so end up behind, and perhaps even in an unwinnable situation. In all of these cases, you have two choices. Either you keep playing the game, or you simply quit completely and start over. Thus, either you stay in the experience — even if it isn’t one that you particularly enjoy — or else you end the experience entirely, and often go to do something else. Either way, the situation doesn’t drag you out of the experience only to reinsert you into it a few minutes later. hoping that you can pick up the experience as you go along.

Video games are different. If you hit a challenge, or something that leaves you in a tough situation, you can and are generally encouraged to restart from an existing save file and pick up from where you left off, preferably in a way that will let you get past whatever obstacle you encountered. Thus, a video game can present ending the game entirely as a speed bump on your way to the end of the game, as if the game ends you can just reload pretty much where you left off. Thus, a video game can present harsh challenges — and harsh consequences to failing the challenges — without forcing the player to pack up the game and move on to something else, or restarting the game entirely.

The problem is that from an experience standpoint, every time you actually die it drags you out of the experience, as you go through the cutscene that kills off your character(s), and then through the loading screen, and then back into the game where you left off, without having all of the preamble that got you caught up in the experience to start with. And even if you have to replay large portions of the game, some of the tricks that it used to drag you into the experience will be lost. There’s a reason why Shamus Young recommends that survival horror games might want to threaten death but never actually kill the player, in that being threatened with death is great and immersive and generates fear, but actually dying drags you out of the experience and ruins the fear the game is trying to generate.

So, with saves, video games can ramp up the challenge, even using — and over-using — DIAS-style gameplay. But if they do that, they break up the continuity of the experience, and thus make for a disjoint experience, where potentially just as you’re getting into the experience, you die and get yanked back into reality and get reminded that, yes, this is really just a game. Video games have a remarkable ability to get players to suspend disbelief, but overusing the challenge notion of games can ruin that, all unintentionally. Other games either keep going or end when the challenge becomes overwhelming. Video games are the only case where you can keep retrying and retrying, and thus have a disjoint experience based on how challenging the gameplay happens to be for you in those cases.

I think Bioware’s “Narrative” difficulty might be first step towards resolving this, where at that difficulty level the challenges are minimized in favour of maintaining the experience, while at the other end the focus is on challenge rather than on maintaining a continuous experience. If this catches on and games start doing more things to focus on one or the other, games might move from having this dichotomy as a unique problem to having this dichotomy be a unique benefit, as the same game can provide both without impeding the other.

Games: Challenge vs Experience

March 14, 2016

Games, all sorts of games, are inherently an interactive experience, which is what differentiates them from pretty much all other forms of media, entertainment, or art. Yes, you can have semi-interactive experiences with other works of art or media, but what makes game games, inherently, is this drive to interactivity. For the most part, whether it be a sport like soccer or hockey, a board game like Arkham Horror or Monopoly, or a video game like Persona 3 or Mass Effect, ultimately, at the end of the day, what makes the game itself is, in fact, what the participants bring to it. It’s not only either superficial appearance or deep meaning that the participant brings to the game, but ultimately the style and character of the game itself is determined by the participants … and by their goals, purposes and desires.

What this allows for is, to my mind, a dichotomy that doesn’t exist outside of games: the distinction between challenge and between strict experience. TV shows, movies, books, visual art, music … all of these are pretty much about the experience you have while participating in or viewing/observing them. Even the interactivity and meanings in these fields are all there to supplement and provide an experience. And games themselves can be just about the experience, about playing the game without any real sense of challenge or a real test of skill. Think of an RPG video game that you play to experience the narrative, or a board game like Arkham Horror where the experience of the game is more vital than the fact that you play it, or an RPG game like Call of Cthulhu where the players pretty much expect, like the universe it is based on, that you will lose at the end, and that it’s how you get there that’s the fun of the game, or a pick up game of hockey where the end score doesn’t matter as much as getting to play a bit and have fun with your friends.

However, games have been more famously known for, in fact, being all about challenges and tests of skill. They’ve been all about one person, one group, one team proving their skill and their superior skill by challenging something and, ultimately, beating it. This doesn’t exist for the other things, the things that are primarily if not solely experience-based. There’s no sense in talking about “beating” a movie, or a TV show, or a painting, or an orchestral symphony. There’s no real way to compare one’s “skill” at experiencing these things, and what you get out of it is, really, what you get out of it. But with games, there traditionally has been the idea that their purpose is to go out and “win”, either by beating someone else or by beating the game itself. The idea of games as experience has been mostly ignored or, at least, designated to a secondary goal.

For sports, this seems to still be the case — despite the many people who play them “recreationally”, as a way to have some fun with friends without worrying too much about overcoming challenges — but for board games and video games the idea of them being more as a means to an experience is becoming more and more popular. The interactive nature of games, in general, allows for a different type of experience than can be provided by the other things that are primarily aimed at producing experiences. So, more and more, board games and especially video games have been aimed at providing experiences rather than merely providing challenges, or even providing challenges as a way to provide experiences. However, they haven’t lost the idea that challenges ought to be in there somewhere.

The issue with this is that providing challenges and providing experiences are, in fact, often in opposition. To really provide a challenge, it has to be possible for the player to lose, and so to learn that they need to increase their skills and abilities, try harder, practice more. But this takes you out of the experience, and encourages you to think of the game not as something you do for the experience, but as something you do to win, or improve. Even in sports, in a simple pick-up game you might be willing to try higher risk plays because if it fails and you either miss an opportunity or give one to your opponents, it doesn’t matter. If the game is on the line, you had better make the safe play that will more obviously help you win the game. But the higher risk plays add more to the experience than the lower risk ones. With board and video games, you act less like the character you are playing would act and more follow set strategies that give you the best chance of winning. But the experience of these games is best furthered by playing in character, not following a set of objectively highest probability plays. So due to their interactivity, games can provide both challenge and experience … but often simply can’t provide both at the same time, even if the same game — played with different mindsets — can provide one or the other.

In another post, I’ll talk about how video games specifically have issues with this dichotomy.

The New Rebellion …

November 11, 2015

So, everyone remembers my talking about this game, right, that I loved and was near the top of my favourite games list?

Well, guess what new board game comes out next year?

Yep, a Star Wars: Rebellion inspired game, even down to the name, but also seems to expand on it in a number of ways. The biggest difference is that the victory conditions are now radically different between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. The Empire still has the condition of destroying the Rebel HQ, while the Rebels no longer need to take and hold Coruscant to win the game. Instead, they need to inspire a galaxy-wide revolt. What this means, then, is that the military aspect of the game isn’t as important for the Rebels, which means that the game can give and leave them with a weaker military and be more thematic. It’ll be interesting to see how this actually plays out.

It also does the combat differently. In the original game, if you wanted to have a ground battle, you first had to destroy any ships and fighters in the space arena, blockade the planet, and then invade. Here, you first do one turn of the space battle, and then one turn of the ground battle, and then both sides get a chance to withdraw. If neither do, then you start over again. It’s actually closer to what we had in the actual movies, and so is again more thematic … if it works.

However, the core seems to be there. Planets give their resources on the basis of popular support, and characters are important to wooing systems to your side. The Rebels focus is on inciting rebellion and uprisings while the Empire’s is on conquest and subjugation. Empire at War was not the Star Wars: Rebellion replacement I was looking for, but this game just might.

Legendary …

October 20, 2014

I haven’t talked about board games in a while, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not playing them. I’m still playing and mostly modding Arkham Horror in PBF, and have just finished a Fury of Dracula game in PBF. Unfortunately, Battlestar Galactica games are moving pretty slowly, so I haven’t played one of those in a long time. But as it turns out, I’m not limited to playing games PBF. I’ve been playing “Legendary”, which is a Marvel-based deck-building game.

The essential theme in the original seems to be that you’re one of a number of SHIELD organizers or agents or officers, and you’re out to prevent some kind of villain plot. At the beginning of the game, you select a Mastermind, and then some villain groups for that villain to command, and then some heroes that you’ll have access to during the game. Each hero has nine cards that represent various actions or abilities, but that mainly boil down to two main types: attack strength and recruitment strength. Many of them also — or only — have special abilities that allow you to draw cards or do other things, or interact with other cards.

You start with a hand of SHIELD troopers and SHIELD agents. The former give you 1 attack strength, and the latter give you recruitment strength. Attack strength’s use is obvious: you use it to defeat the Mastermind and the villains that are spawned every turn. Recruitment strength is how you get abilities; five hero cards are laid out, and each have a cost that you need to pay to add it to your deck. You pay that cost with recruitment.

If you manage to defeat the Mastermind 4 times before the Mastermind fulfills their victory conditions, you win. As a team. And then the player with the highest amount of points is the overall winner.

Because this is mostly a fully co-operative game, you can play it solo, which is how I’ve been playing it. It captures the theme of the characters pretty well, and is relatively easy to set-up and tear down, and doesn’t take a long time to play. Thus, it’s been a go-to game for me when I sit down to play games. So much so that I’ve bought the expansions, and the Legendary: Villains and Legendary: Alien Encounters (where you play in the Alien universe) games, which are all compatible. So if you’ve ever wanted to see how the X-Men, say, would do against Aliens, this is your chance.

It’s done pretty well, and much better than the DC equivalent. If you like deck building games, it’s one of the simplest to play and understand out there, and is a lot of fun.

The Girl of Your Dreams …

July 8, 2012

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

I’m now stuck a little short of half-way, and The Old Republic is dominating my time. I do want to finish the game, though, so I might end up making an effort at it.

Although, I also just bought the second game, Skyrim and Saint’s Row the Third …

Running the Show …

October 3, 2011

So, I didn’t blog yesterday, mostly because I spent a lot of time working on two PBF board games that I inherited when the existing mod went away. I’ve moderated before, so I’m not a complete rookie at this, but for board games moderation is generally really important and also an awful lot of work. The main job of a moderator in a PBF board game is to maintain the hidden information so that the players can play as if they had a bunch of hidden cards in front of them that they can’t access until the time is right. For games that have this, it’s really important to not have the players do that themselves since they’ll always have the temptation to peek, and it would also encourage cheating. So the main role of the moderator is to basically keep a sometimes large list of information that the players can’t see until the time is right, and dole that information out as appropriate.

Keeping track of large amounts of information and making sure that you update everything so that you know what’s going on can take a lot of time, of course. And you, of course, don’t get to play in any way since you have privileged information. So it’s a lot of work for fairly limited gain.

What I’ve found — and this was the same when I played a Cylon Leader in a BSG PBF — is that when I’m not busy it’s not that bad. You can get involved in following the story of the game and working on adding flavour text and it’s fun. But when you’re busy, you don’t have the time to get involved. You just log in, move things along, update things, and log out. That’s not as much fun. Add to it that in many cases players are asking for you to do extra things and it starts to look like a lot of work for little actual gain. Which might be why moderators are often in demand for games.

That being said, on the other side of the coin as a player I understand how important moderators are, and so I do try to offload things from them when I can and allow them to tweak a game for how they feel comfortable doing it. But board game moderators are like DMs, only more so. Both are there to make it so that the players can have fun, but moderators aren’t players themselves, while DMs at least generally get to engage themselves in the game by having it be their world that the players are playing in. I think that the best moderators are those that can manage to find some fun — say, in trying to predict moves or watching gleefully for upcoming issues — in being in the privileged position of knowing everything or running everything. I’m not quite there yet.

The Next Post …

August 23, 2011

So, after I make a post, WordPress often suggests some topics for my next post, some of which can be fairly funny (unintentionally). Like this one, which is mild:

Are there any skills you’ve picked up in the last year?

Well, I just picked up Fight and Lore … oh, wait, I guess you didn’t mean in Arkham Horror. Never mind then [grin].

Playing by the post …

August 3, 2011

So, most of my RPG or board gaming is done PbF (Play by Forum), mostly because my schedule is always odd enough that it’s hard for me to arrange days to play and I don’t have a lot of people to play games with in person. Right now, I’m playing three board games on the Board Game Geek forums (Battlestar Galactica, Arkham Asylum, and Android). I just finished GM’ing an Amber RPG game on Giants in the Playground (home of the quite well-done Order of the Stick webcomic). And now I’m looking for what to do next.

One of the nice things about playing on a forum or by post is that you can take the time to do your IC stuff really well. I’ve had a tendency to add tons of IC text to the board games that don’t support it directly, and that works out even more so in RPGs, as long as you aren’t rushed to provide your input. You can get more time to think and act IC. It also fits busy schedules better since you can post and then go away for a while, and come back when you aren’t busy. I tended to let a long time — sometimes too long — go between posts in the Amber game, but as long as the players and GM are comitted to keeping it going and all stick with roughly the same schedule — ie one player doesn’t run ahead of all the others and leaves them out because they post more — it can work really well.

It does have a downside, though, in that it seems that PbF and PbP games just out and die more often. If you get dedicated players, they can go quite well, but if you don’t you just end up losing players and GMs until the game dies.

I started with a PbP game that worked really well, and only one other game I was in other than the one I ran actually survived any length of time. All the others eventually died, even some that I really, really wanted to play (like a Mutants and Masterminds game based on the Persona series). I, lamentably, killed a Ravenloft game with a dispute with the DM that would probably have finished. Another game I’m in now is on life support, but I’m looking to get out of it since even though I like my character — an ex-pat of Karen Koenig from Shadow Hearts: Covenant — I don’t like the game.

Interestingly, the board games rarely die. The Android game almost did due to the moderator and one player leaving without a word, but we found people to take over and move on. I modded a BSG game that had a player ditch, but we found a replacement and moved on (although it would have died if we hadn’t).

I think that the game deaths are due to the casual nature of it, meaning that people can join too many games and become overcommitted and can forget about the game. This doesn’t happen as often with the board games because they generally move faster. Also, if the GM is committed and has a decent idea the game will last, but if they aren’t committed it will certainly die.

GM’ing an RPG is more fun than modding a board game, as you have more work modding and get less fun things out of it since you aren’t seeing your idea come to fruition. But mods generally stay because they committed strongly to it to start, and have to take on less to do it properly.

Right now, I’m not thinking of modding but am thinking of GM’ing again. I’d like to do something that hacks in Suikoden or Persona into Mutants and Masterminds … if I can figure out how to do it and can think of a story.

Breaking the ice …

May 23, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about a board game here, so today I’d like to talk about a game that I bought just the other day:  NHL Icebreaker.  Basically, this is a small little NHL hockey simulator that turns out to be surprisingly fun.

The mechanism is quite simply.  You get a deck of cards just like a regular deck of cards, with all the suits and values represented, from Aces to Jokers.  The cards also have special features.  At the top is listed a direction and a number of steps, which is used to determine how far you’ve moved the puck by skating or passing it.  Below that there’s a “Shooting” section that has a team listed beside it that’s filled with flavour text about how you’ve scored a goal, and below that is a goaltending section that also has a team beside it and is also filled with flavour text, this time about how you’ve saved a goal.  Below that is an “Icebreaker” action that’s a special action that can range from you taking a penalty (lose a card and have a faceoff) to your opponent taking an action to your moving directly into the shooting zone.

So, how do players compete?  Well, each player is given a hand of cards from this deck, just like in a normal card game.  Then, they play cards mostly one at a time against each other.  The highest card wins, and the puck moves based on the skate/pass directions at the top of the card.  The goal is to move the puck into the “shooting zone” of your opponent, and then the next play determines the results of the shot on goal, whether that is a save or a goal.  When a hand runs out — and at some other times — the hand is redrawn, and when the deck runs out, that’s the end of one period.  Just like in hockey, you play three periods and potentially overtime and a shootout.

There are some special squares and circumstances, however:

– Beige/goldenish squares are called “Icebreakers”.  If the puck stops here after a movement, the next card is drawn from the deck and its Icebreaker text is applied.

– There are four breakaway squares around centre ice.  Stopping in one of these squares means that you move directly to the shooting zone.

– Each player chooses a team to represent them.  If the card you play in the shooting zone has your team written beside the appropriate action, it trumps all cards and you automatically “win” that round, either getting a goal or making a save.  In case of a tie, highest card still wins.

I played it with the solo version yesterday, playing as the Ottawa Senators against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and won 6 – 3.  In the solo version, the player only draws two cards and can’t refresh their hand until they’ve played both.  Each round is the player playing a card and then drawing the top card from the deck to be the card of their opponent.  Everything else works the same.

The game was remarkably fun, and quick.  It took me no longer than an hour to play, and there was a fair bit of up-and-down play in the game.  It was a close game until the third period when I went on a run and blew the game wide open.  The only issue is that penalties don’t matter much in this version; you can’t actually penalize the game opponent and the player doesn’t hold enough cards for it to usually matter.  The other thing I did that might not be in the rules is that when you have a path that moves diagonally and it hits the boards — ie it can’t move sideways anymore — I played it that the puck basically gets stuck along the boards and you aren’t moving anymore.

The game was very inexpensive but is quite a bit of fun.  I’m glad I bought it and it might actually get some play, especially since its solo version allows for a bit of strategy while allowing it to be played solo.

‘Rica, I’m Comin’ Home …

January 27, 2011

So, one of my hobbies has been writing song parodies, so I thought I’d start putting some of my old ones up here, and any new ones that I put together.

I came up with this one while playing the Battlestar Galactica board game by PBF.  I like to get into character when playing that game, and for a time I played as Gaius Baltar and really got into it.  In the game I wrote this for, I was actually a hidden Cylon, and used this as my send-off when they finally executed me and sent me to that goo bath in the sky.  A literal goo bath in the sky, if you know the series:

Times have changed and times are strange
Here I come but I ain’t the same
‘Rica, I’m comin home
Times gone by, seems to me
They could have been better friends to me
‘Rica, I’m comin home

They took me in and they drove me out
But you have me hypnotized, yeah
Lost and found and turned around
By the fire in your eyes

You made me cry, you told me lies
But I can’t bear to stay behind
‘Rica, I’m comin home
It could be right, it could be wrong
But hurts so bad it’s been so long
‘Rica, I’m comin home

Selfish ones now they’re all alone
The rise before the fall, yeah
But I’m gonna make them soldier on
They’re just gonna get it all

I’ve seen your face a hundred times
Everyday we’ve been apart
I don’t care about the sunshine, yeah
‘Cause ‘Rica, ‘Rica, I’m comin home
I’m comin home
I’m comin home

They took me in and they drove me out
But you have me hypnotized, yeah
Lost and found and turned around
By the fire in your eyes

I’ve seen your face a thousand times
Everyday we’ve been apart
I don’t care about the sunshine, yeah
‘Cause ‘Rica, ‘Rica, I’m comin home
I’m comin home
I’m comin home