Archive for the ‘RPG/Board Games’ Category

Thoughts on Agents of SMERSH and Albion’s Legacy

January 6, 2021

So I was off on vacation through the Christmas season, and managed to get in two other games that I’d been meaning to play for a while.

The first is “Agents of SMERSH”, which is a Cold War spy board game that cribs a lot from James Bond.  The basic concept is that you have to go around to various cities on the board and have encounters, which either give you abilities that you can call on if you make it to the final boss or that can be turned in to create other encounters that you can use to encounter the henchpersons of the evil mastermind and discover where his hideout is, so that you can then attack it and end the game.  If you don’t have enough of each type of token necessary based on the level of the villain-type track, you lose, and if you do, you win.  But when you place those tokens you don’t know what they are, although you know what you’d need.  So in my case, I thought I had enough and ended up being one short of the required number of the most basic token, and so lost the game, which was really, really annoying.  It would have been better if they had let you see the tokens or even had you place them on the board so that your win or loss wouldn’t be a surprise, especially since as you get to choose whether you put them in the pool or use them to generate information about the hideout you really do need to know if you have enough there before you trigger the final battle.

That being said, the encounter system works fairly well.  The characters move to a city, and then drawing a fate card there’s a fairly detailed system for deciding which encounter you get from a huge book of encounters.  Then you get a description of the encounter, and then either have to pass a skill check based on the skills you have, or if you have a specific bonus skill you might be able to pass the encounter automatically.  Then you get bonuses or penalties based on whether you succeed or fail.  The encounters are fairly descriptive and interesting and once you get into the habit of it they’re pretty easily to determine and look up.

One minor annoyance is that at the end of every turn — along with adding tokens and things from the villain — an airport is usually closed.  This adds busy work and makes it so that the longer the game goes on the more difficult it is to get around, while at the same time you will need to move around more as the things you need to encounter move around the board.  I don’t really think that this was necessary or adds that much to the game.

Still, the game was fun and it’s likely I’ll play it again sometime if I get the time.

The same can’t be said for “Albion’s Legacy”.  This game is essentially a King Arthur themed version of Arkham Horror, where you go to areas and have encounters, and have to battle enemies in order to achieve a set of objectives before time runs out.  The problem with the game, at least I found, is that it’s far too complicated — and that’s coming from someone who likes Arkham Horror — and the manual is way too limited and confusing to work with.  Unlike Arkham Horror, you don’t have fixed encounter areas, but instead have to build them on as hexes through exploration, which adds complexity.  You also can draw fate or encounter cards that place enemies, and named enemies spawn on specific hexes … which might not actually be in play yet, and the manual didn’t say what to do in that case.  And then you might have to combat enemies, and I failed the check, and then couldn’t figure out what should actually happen in that case.  That made the encounters less interesting as I was struggling to figure out the rules while playing.  I ended up not finishing that game as I got sick of struggling with the rulebook and the details.  I really think it would have done better to go with a more set game board like Arkham Horror and A Touch of Evil did, and then mapped the encounters into that.  I love the theme, but the game itself is too confusing for me to enjoy, at least until I actually learn how to play the game.

So those are the two board games I played over my vacation.  I have board games on my schedule and have done more with them in the past couple of months than I did in the previous couple of years, so we’ll see how that works out.

Thoughts on Scrabble, Mutant Revolution and Star Trek: Scene It!

December 23, 2020

So while I was on vacation in October, I actually managed to play a couple of board games that I had been trying to play for ages.  I had picked up X-Men:  Mutant Revolution a while ago but never played it, had had Star Trek:  Scene It! for years and never actually played it, and had played Scrabble once quite a while ago with a woman that I was somewhat dating at the time (and lost) but was reminded of it by the fact that Spencer and Toby play it in “Pretty Little Liars”, and so went out and bought myself a copy to try it out again.

Now, you might be wondering about the fact that I’m pretty much just talking about myself here.  Who else was I playing these games with?  And the answer is … no one.  I play games like these alone, with nobody else, but you know when I play board games alone, I prefer to be by myself.  What I generally do — and I do the same thing with turn-based strategy games like Disciples 2 — is play with multiple players, but players that are all me.  So, obviously, there’s no real purpose to secret information when I play these games [grin].  So that means that I prefer games where either the narrative of the game or the gameplay of the game is dominant.  Out of these games, the gameplay dominates in Scene It! and Scrabble, as the former is about the trivia and the questions asked about the various scenes and the latter is about making words from the letters you have and that are on the board.  Mutant Revolution is about the narrative, as you take on X-Men characters and have them face-off with villains that can produce a bit of a story, as well as some strategy.

So what did I think of the games?

Let’s start with the one I’ve played the most:  Star Trek Scene It!.  This worked really, really well.  I took out each ship — it comes with the TOS Enterpreise, the TNG Enterprise, the Defiant, and Voyager — and played essentially each series against each other to see who would win.  There are a number of little games that you play as you go around the board — determined by what you roll on the die — and I really liked the “My Play” category since it usually shows you some kind of scene or image and you have to answer questions about it.  The best part of that is that you, well, often get to see scenes from the shows which was interesting itself.  The others were mostly trivia questions a la Trivial Pursuit but they were entertaining enough.  The worst — although not necessarily the least fun — for me as a solo player was obviously the “All Play” categories, because unless I couldn’t answer it — which did happen — there was no way for the current player/ship to lose by having someone else solve it first, so it felt a bit unfair.  This was the worst at the end, with the “All Play to Win” where if I could answer it the player won and ended the game, and if I couldn’t it got to the more interesting “Final Frontier” set of questions.  But since I could answer them a lot of the time, that mostly meant that “Final Frontier” rarely happened, despite it being far more fun than the All Play was.

The biggest issue with the game is that it’s really, really short.  It takes me an hour or less to play one game.  This wouldn’t be bad in and of itself, but that meant that in the time I had set aside to play the game I could play a number of games.  That itself is actually pretty good.  But the issue is that despite the fact that the disk randomizes each time it starts, there are a limited number of clips, and so after playing three or four games and then coming back to it a few days later I kept getting the same clips, sometimes with different questions and sometimes not.  This, then, was a bit boring as I saw questions and clips that I had seen something like the previous day, and my memory is pretty good so I definitely remembered it.  Because of this, I ultimately decided to put the game away for a few months between plays to avoid that issue, and after trying it again once recently it did work out much better.

I looked for other Scene It! games but couldn’t find anything still in print that I both wanted and could get directly from a retailer, so while I might keep looking around for them it doesn’t look like I’ll get a new one anytime soon.

Next, let me move on to Mutant Revolution.  I didn’t actually finish the game for this one, despite being interested in the game.  I was a bit rushed that day and it was dragging a bit, and so I decided that I had had enough game playing for the day.  But it was actually pretty fun.  The game contains the leader characters of various “schools” in Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm and Magneto, and you get characters given to you at random (and that you can purchase by auction as well) that you then use in encounters to try to gain points for your school, and if you get enough points that leader wins the Revolution.  There could be a bit more encounters and characters, but that would have worked for an expansion.  And there’s strategy involved, as often you get an encounter with a villain and they do move around the game board, and you have to choose the right character and move them properly to get shots in at the villain without getting knocked out (as that loses you points).  So there’s more to it than the simple game that it seemed like at first, which is probably also responsible for my being a bit burned out on it when I realized the mistakes my characters had been making.  Still, it was a good game and I likely will play it again at some point.

And, finally, Scrabble.  I’ve played it twice by now, and it is an interesting game to play.  I played it with two players that are me (but have different letters) and I managed to get around 200 points each time which … isn’t very good, actually.  But part of the reason for this — and the thing I didn’t realize when I played it the first time — is that there’s a lot of strategy involved in the game, deciding when and where to play your letters to maximize your points and block your opponent from maximizing their points.  I tend to play the game pretty straightforwardly in just trying to make words, and taking little advantage of the special squares. I’m starting to get better at it, though, but while it shows that while my vocabulary is pretty good, vocabulary alone is not what wins at Scrabble.  This one will cycle back onto my gaming table when I get a chance.

But I’m on vacation again, and so have other games lined up to play.  We’ll see how that works out.

Extra Credits on the Prisoner’s Dilemma

October 30, 2019

So, since I’ve been a bit busy lately, and since I had decided to check out some of the Extra Credits videos that I hadn’t been watching lately, I decided to comment on their video on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Now, I’ve talked about the Prisoner’s Dilemma in video games wrt “Virtue’s Last Reward”, which reveals a common error made in considering the Prisoner’s Dilemma: the idea that, somehow, the only rational choice is to betray the other person, and that’s what reason would demand, which always at least indirectly implies that we need something other than reason to settle these sorts of questions, which is a position that I find … dubious, to say the least.

In the video, though, they take an interesting, if seemingly somewhat confusing, tack in trying to explain it. They explain defecting as being the only choice that you won’t regret making no matter what the other person chooses. But since if the other person chooses defect and you choose defect you end up with a worse outcome than if you had both co-operated, that doesn’t seem to make sense. I think what they mean is this: no matter which option the other person chooses, the choice to defect leaves you better off than the choice to co-operate. If they defect, if you defect you get the medium length sentence, but if you co-operate you get the longest possible sentence. And if they co-operate, if you co-operate you get a short sentence, but if you defect you get to go completely free. So, looking at it strictly from the perspective of “What happens to me if they choose X?”, defecting always works out better for you.

The reason why this isn’t necessarily the only rational decision to make is that it isn’t rational to ignore readily available facts in making your decision, and here the relevant fact is that the other person is, presumably, as rational as you are, possesses all of the same facts, and so is going through the same thought process as you are. As soon as this is understood, then it becomes obvious that the other person is going to make the choice to defect as well. Therefore, the best possible case for you — going free — isn’t going to be attainable. So what you’d want is to make it so that instead of both people choosing defect, they both choose co-operate. The reasoning above in general should work to achieve that, as that’s the best option for both of you. The only thing that could trump that is the fear that the other person is either not going to do that reasoning, or might try to take advantage of you reasoning that out, and try to defect anyway. But since, again, the same reasoning applies all that will do is lead to the defect/defect outcome.

I argued this when arguing with people over issues with the Tragedy of the Commons wrt Objectivism. Everyone would, of course, like to cheat, but they know that if everyone cheats they’ll end up with an undesirable outcome. And if they conclude that what’s best for them is to cheat, then they have no reason to think that the same reasoning won’t apply to everyone else, and so that everyone else will also cheat. This leads to the undesirable outcome. Thus, pretty much everyone is going to want to sacrifice their ability to cheat to ensure that they don’t end up in that undesirable situation. That’s the rational thing to do. So it’s only irrationality that causes people to instead rush to cheat out as much as possible — ie profit-take — from the Commons instead of looking to find ways to enforce non-cheating.

Of course, the one issue with this is when you run into someone who doesn’t care about that negative outcome. Let’s imagine a group of people looking to go out to dinner, but who all have different preferences on where they want to go. In general, a compromise is always reached because everyone understands that if they can’t find a place that’s at last moderately acceptable to everyone, they aren’t going to go out to dinner, and so they don’t want to be too stubborn about their top choice because that will scuttle the entire event. But imagine that there’s someone in the group who doesn’t care about going out to dinner that much. If they can’t go to their preferred place, they’d rather not go. This gives them incredible power in the discussion, because due to their circumstances they don’t care about the negative consequences. Unless the rest decide to go without them, either the group will go to that person’s desired restaurant or they won’t go at all. So alternative forms of persuasion are needed. In my experience, commonly social pressure/guilt and the will of the majority are mustered — pretty much reflexively in any situation that even looks like it might turn into that sort of case — to push that person to compromise. In the discussions of Objectivism, I argued that you could also add incentives to do so. For example, in my example you could use the promise of a free dessert or, in fact, appeal to the fact that a compromise restaurant has superior desserts to get them to go along with the compromise. But the big issue you run into with the rational reasoning outlined above is someone for whom the rational choice really is to risk or take the negatives.

Which leads into the examples they used from games: someone in an online team game who racks up kills at the expense of the others, or someone who is a DPS character who demands heals when the tank needs them far more. The problem with the examples is that there is an additional factor here that isn’t present in the Prisoner’s Dilemma that makes their actions more irrational: a shared goal. In both of those examples, the base presumption here is that those players won’t win unless the team wins, and so all of their actions should be directed towards that. So players at that base level, all that should matter is that all the opponents get killed or that the boss ends up being defeated. If sacrificing kills will better achieve that shared goal, then the rational move would be to sacrifice those kills, and racking up kills at the expense of that goal would clearly be irrational behaviour.

Unless, of course, there’s an external reward for racking up kills.

And in a lot of games, there is. There are rewards and trophies for kills. Many games rank players in the match itself or award points on the basis of kills. Since these can impact rankings and the like, often there’s an incentive for players to act selfishly instead of co-operating with their teammates. And, in fact, in many cases the individual rewards can be so great that it trumps the team winning. A player does better racking up kills even if their team loses. In those cases, it’s clear that acting selfishly is the rational move.

We can see this in co-operative and semi-co-operative board games. Arkham Horror is a fully co-operative game. No points are given out to the best investigator. There isn’t even an MVP award. The points are awarded to the team itself, and no points are awarded if the team doesn’t win the game. So there’s no reason for one player to try to rack up monster kills or gate closings or hog the best items or whatever. If they do, it would only be for two reasons (other than irrational competition). The first is because they believe that their character having that will be best for the team to allow the team to win the game, either to ensure that their powerful character survives longer in the Final Battle or is better equipped for their function (monster hunting, gate running, and so on). The other is that they’re worried that they’ll be eliminated in the Final Battle and so bored, although the Final Battle is pretty quick so it’s not a reasonable stance to take. The only other reasons are irrational, and will only hurt the team and thus make them less likely to achieve their shared goal.

Battlestar Galactica is a hidden traitor game. There are two teams, one of which is human and one of which is Cylon. There’s roughly a 60% chance of staying human throughout the game and a 40% chance of being a Cylon. Whether a player is a human or a Cylon is hidden until the player decides to reveal (or it is revealed through various mechanisms), and a player can start the game as a Cylon or might “pick up Cylonness” at roughly the midpoint of the game. I was involved in a long debate on boardgamegeek with someone who said that a player who had a human card at the start should play selfishly, hoarding resources and titles and positioning themselves to be in the best position possible. This was objected to on the grounds that it looked suspicious: while he wanted to do that to put himself in a strong position once he knew that he was going to stay human, it was pointed out that those were the precise same moves that a Cylon would make as well. Which was a fair point given that one of his motivations for the move was, in fact, to be ready in case he turned Cylon at the midpoint. But since the Cylons are hidden, all that he was going to do was engender mistrust in all the other players. And that would at least make things less efficient — as they couldn’t trust that player to do anything until they were sure the player was human — and so hurt the overall team game. So to the extent that it hurt the team, it was seen as a poor strategy. And the alternative of playing selfishly before the midpoint and excessively generous afterwards would lead to an easy tell for Cylonness, and so wasn’t good for them anyway.

So they have a point when they say that, in general, to trump the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to provide some sort of punishment for defecting. However, if everyone was rational then simply removing external incentives to selfish behaviour would also work. We can indeed all see that co-operating will lead to a better outcome for us … when it actually does. The problem is that in too many cases it is indeed possible for us to cheat and win.

Thanks, Shamus!

February 20, 2019

So, Shamus Young made two posts talking about Alpha Star’s attempts to create an AI that can play Starcraft II, and how it managed to beat human players and then where a human player exploited a tendency in it to beat it. There was a lot of discussions about that in the comments, and that made me want to do AI again after it being a … few years since my last attempt. And, of course, I clearly have lots of time to spare and no other projects that I want to look at that I could be doing instead of that. Thanks, Shamus!

Anyway, I went out and bought some books on the subject, two of which are detailed books about how to do AI in general and how to do Deep Learning in Python (the last is a technical book on Deep Learning that I would have already started reading except that it starts with Linear Algebra, which is not something I want to review while watching curling …). So I have that to get to, but in pondering it and reading the comments another idea percolated in me.

The AI there focuses a lot on neural nets, as far as I can tell. Now, neural nets have been around for ages, and have waxed and waned in their popularity for AI due to their rather well-known weaknesses (I’ll talk more about that in general in a later post). But one thing that kept coming up, especially when the exploit was revealed was “Can’t you just explain to it or make a rule in it to deal with that exploit?” And the answer is that you can’t really do that with neural nets, because they don’t explicitly encode rules and don’t really have an “Explain this to me” interface. What you can do is train them on various training sets until they get the right answers, and what often makes them appealing is that they can come to right answers that you can’t figure out the reasoning behind, which makes them look smarter even though they can’t figure out the reasoning behind them either. So, perhaps, they can be very intuitive but they cannot learn by someone carefully explaining the situation to them.

But inference engines, in theory, can.

There’s also a potential issue with using a game like Starcraft II for this, because as people have pointed out the intelligent parts of it — the strategy — can get swamped by simple speed of movement or, in the vernacular, “clicking”. As is the case in curling, the best strategy in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t make the shots, and in this case while you’re working out that grand strategy someone who builds units faster and maneuvers them better will wipe you out. A Zerg rush isn’t a particularly good strategy, but if you build them fast enough and can adjust their attack faster than your opponent can you might win, even if your opponent is a better strategist than you are. In short, Starcraft II privileges tactical reasoning over broad strategic reasoning, and while tactical reasoning is important — and arguably even more so in an actual battlefield situation — broad strategic reasoning seems more intelligent … especially when some of those tactical considerations are just how quickly you can get orders to your units.

So what we’d want, if we really wanted intelligence, is a game where you have lots of time to think about it and reason out situations. There’s a reason that chess is or at least was the paradigm for artificial intelligence (with Go recently making waves). But that game can be solved by look-ahead algorithms, and look-ahead algorithms are a form of reasoning that humans can really use because we just can’t remember that much (although it has been said that chess grandmasters do, in fact, employ a greater look-ahead strategy than most people are capable of. And now I want to start playing chess again and learning how to play it better, in my obviously copious spare time). There’s also an issue that it and Go are fairly static games (as far as I can tell because I’m not a Go expert) and so things proceed pretty orderly from move to move, and so aren’t very chaotic or diverse.

Which got me thinking about the board games I have that have chaotic or random elements to them, like Battlestar Galactica or Arkham Horror. These games let you develop grand strategies, but are generally random enough that those grand strategies won’t necessarily work and you have to adjust on the fly to new situations. They’re also games that have set rules and strategies that you can explain to someone … or to an AI. So my general musings led me to a desire to build an inference engine type system that could play one of those sorts of games but that I could explain what the system did wrong to it, and see how things go. Ideally, I could have multiple agents running and explain more or less to them and see how they work out. But the main components are games where you have set overall strategies that the agents can start with, and yet the agent also has to react to situations that call for deviations, and most importantly will try to predict the actions of other players so that it can hopefully learn to adjust that when they don’t do what is expected.

Now, other than picking a game to try to implement this way — Battlestar Galactica’s traitor mechanism is a bit much to start with, while Arkham Horror being co-operative means that you don’t have to predict other players much — the problem for me is that, well, I’m pretty sure that this sort of stuff has been done before. I’m not doing anything that unique other than with the games I’m choosing. So, if I did some research, I’d find all of these and get a leg up on doing it, at least. But a quick search on books didn’t give me anything for that specifically, a search of Google will make it difficult to sort the dreck from the good stuff, and the more up-front research I try to do the less actual work I’ll be doing, and I want to do some work. Simple research is just plain boring to me when I’m doing it as a hobby. So my choices are to reinvent the wheel or else spend lots of time looking for things that might not be there or might not be what I want.

So, I’ll have to see.

Anyway, thanks Shamus for adding more things to my already overflowing list of things I want to do!

Should I Boycott Ideological Entertainment?

January 17, 2019

So I’ve been talking a bit about ideologically infused entertainment this week, talking about Doctor Who becoming Social Justice Oriented and a bit about how the Persona games, in general, aren’t. Recently, I came across a post at Vox Populi talking about Marvel inserting a drag queen into its comic with reactions to this, especially in the comments, calling for boycotting Marvel. This raises the question: you’ve found that either a new work that you were considering buying or an existing series is or has become ideologically infused, and in particular to an ideology that you aren’t in agreement with (whether that’s Left, Right, Front, Back or whatever). What should you do? Should you boycott it?

The first thing to think about is whether or not it really is ideologically infused. If you just look at this specific Marvel example, that’s not really enough to conclude that it’s ideologically infused. Drag queens as characters aren’t uncommon. After all, Persona 5 includes one and we wouldn’t call that game ideologically infused. The important thing to remember is that while the notion that all media is ideologically infused (or political) is just plain wrong, creators have their own views and biases and sometimes, no matter how careful they are, those views will bleed through. Just because a work expresses positively an idea you dislike or denigrates an idea you like doesn’t mean that it’s pushing that as an ideology. It just might be a creator unconsciously including an idea that they hold that you don’t. It doesn’t seem to be reasonable to stop consuming an entertainment media because they happen to hold different ideas than you do, or at least that’s not reasonable for me.

Now, people will protest that in the Marvel example they’ve done plenty to prove that they are, in general, ideologically infused, which isn’t an unfair complaint. So, what do you do then? Well, what we need to consider here is that the worst ideologically infused works are essentially deliberate propaganda: they are works designed to present a specific view and encourage you to adopt it. And what I think, for me, is that I shouldn’t boycott propaganda works for being propaganda works, but instead should judge them just like I’d judge any other work of entertainment: Are they entertaining or not? If I’m being entertained by them regardless, then I don’t see any reason to stop consuming them. And if I’m not being entertained by them, then the boycott problem solves itself.

I have two main justifications for this:

1) Most works that are deliberately ideologically infused aren’t very entertaining anyway. So the very worst of the lot will solve themselves anyway.

2) If I recognize that something is just propaganda, it’s not likely to impact my actual thinking. In fact, once I recognize the views that it’s trying to promote, I’m actually quite likely to spend my time arguing against them rather than giving in. So there seems little risk of the propaganda having its intended effect on me, so I can indeed treat it like any other form of entertainment.

Now, the objection will arise here that if I and others still buy it, then the companies will continue to produce it. If we don’t like ideologically infused media — and I don’t — then the only way to make people stop producing it is to vote with our dollars and not support those attempts. For me, my counter is that if it’s entertaining, then it is fulfilling the purpose of entertaining, and so is worth my dollars. I don’t feel the need to vote with my dollars for things other than “entertaining” when it comes to my entertainment.

But this is one of those things that is actually subjective. If you don’t like something that a company does and want to stop giving it your money, knock yourself out. We all have our own desires and principles and lines we won’t cross. For me, though, when it comes to entertainment, my line is entertaining. I don’t want to put more thought than that into my entertainment. If you do, then that’s fine, but you don’t really have an argument saying that I shouldn’t.

If I have to put too much effort into filtering my entertainment media, then all I’m going to do is retreat to the things I already have and already like. Ultimately, this is what will kill ideologically infused media. The more work buying entertainment media and being entertained becomes, the more people will find other ways to be entertained … and ideological infusion of entertainment media always adds more work, both in buying it and consuming it.

DLC and Expansions …

December 5, 2018

So, last week, a question was answered on Shamus Young’s Diecast. The question was this:

Dear Diecast,

I have read Shamus’ columns regarding the EA, lootboxes, marketing and the state of the gaming industry in general. I found his takes to be collected and insightful in an realm that I think is often fraught with misunderstanding. What I would like to ask the diecast is whether they have paid much attention to Paradox Interactive games and their policy of neverending DLC.

As you likely know, Paradox publishes and develops Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Stellaris, and Hearts of Iron. As a simple example of their business policy, look at Crusader Kings II. CK2 was released in 2012 and as of this writing has just short of $300 worth of DLC and a new large expansion is planned to be release this coming week, nearly seven years since its original release. This seems like it creates a weird situation for buyers; if you’re buying the game today, you’re not going to want to buy all the DLC and you might feel like you’re being cheated having all these features locked behind paywalls (about half the characters are unplayable without two of the DLCs). That said, I bought CK2 at release and really enjoyed it and playing the game today without DLC is really a more expansive game than it was at release.

A cynic could say that Paradox should have released a “finished” game back in 2012, but I personally am always satisfied with their updates and am happy to pay for them to keep them coming (for CK2 and Stellaris, anyway). What’s your take on all this? Are there some perspectives I’m missing?

Thanks,
Mark

And there’s some discussion of this as well in the comments. I’m not going to address their answers. Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about how the things that Paradox is doing seem to be more like the old school term of “expansions” than the modern term of “DLC”, and that not acknowledging that difference is what is causing some of the cynical reaction that Mark references above.

In the old days, we didn’t have anything like DLC — because most people couldn’t reasonably download content for the most part — but instead games were expanded. The game would be released, it would get its initial sales, and then if things were going good enough a year or so later you might get a separate package released for sale that expanded the original game. It would add minor features, fix some bugs or annoyances or balance, and add some items that they thought would be cool. For RPGs, what you’d generally get is a new add-on quest or set of quests or adventure. For strategy games, you’d generally get new races, units and scenarios. But a couple of key things were always true about these. First, they would never be “Day 1” expansions; it would always take some time for an expansion to be produced. Second, they were never simply cosmetic changes; they always had to add something significant to the game because they had to be sold to customers physically.

DLC’s bad reputation, on the other hand, starts from the fact that those key things are not true. DLC can quite often be offered at release or very shortly afterwards, and also can often be nothing more than simple cosmetic changes that they could have released with the game itself. Sure, DLC can be cheaper than expansions, but it can also be less impressive than expansions as well. And while in general the base game had to be complete enough to play — as its popularity would have to justify releasing an expansion in the first place — out of the box, it is possible that a game could be made that isn’t complete without either Day 1 DLC or even later DLC, because of how easy DLC is to get and how much DLC is expected for any game. Sure, the base game always needs to be entertaining enough on its own to get people to be willing to purchase it, but you can leave significant features out that you know your players will want and promise that it will show up later in DLC. That didn’t work so well for expansions as players were not likely to be willing to wait that long.

So, from the above CK2 adding a new expansion seven years after it was released is definitely an expansion and not DLC, and no one can say that they should have provided it at launch because it’s both clearly too much work and is likely something that they didn’t really know anyone would want when the game was launched, with it only being after getting comments from real players or seeing how other expansions went that it seemed like a good idea. But lumping it in with DLC allows the question of whether or not it should have been release at launch. So we need to distinguish things that are expansions from the smaller things that many people think of when they hear the word “DLC”.

Now, on expansions themselves, again in general these are things that can make the base game better but aren’t actually required for it. We can see this play out in another field: board games. The board games Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica both had a large number of expansions. If you wanted to break into playing them and didn’t have any, you were or would actually be looking at spending much more money than you would currently spend on CK2. But while each of the expansions adding interesting mechanics, if all you bought was the base game you’d still not only get a complete game, but a pretty good sense of the experience that made the games popular in the first place. In fact, it is usually recommended that new players buy the base games and maybe one or two other expansions — Dunwich Horror is a big one that is recommended for Arkham Horror because it introduces injuries and madnesses which can improve the experience — to see if they like it first before making the monetary commitment to buying all the others (which I personally did not do for Arkham Horror, but then purchasing Kingsport is responsible for me actually liking the game in the first place so it worked out). And on top of that some players won’t want to get or want to play some expansions because they don’t like the mechanics. Pegasus and Kingsport are expansions that many players won’t play for Battlestar Galactica and Arkham Horror respectively, while I personally don’t care for Battlestar Galactica’s Exodus expansion very much and so try to avoid playing with it. The combination of the base game being playable — if, perhaps, too easy once players become experienced with it — and the expansions not appealing to everyone can limit the amount of investment someone has to make to play the game, at least until they know if it’s a game they’ll enjoy. Package sales can help with this as well.

I’ve never played CK2, but from what Mark said the base game is playable and enjoyable out of the box, so it seems to be doing that part right. The fact that half of the characters — whatever those are — are presumably in the game but not playable without extra DLC would be a bit worrying, as it would be including things in the base game that you need an expansion to really experience, which then puts pressure on you to buy at least those DLC, and makes it far less friendly to someone who wants to play a complete game without adding expansions. Good expansions add interesting things but aren’t things that you’d notice are missing while playing the base game if you haven’t already played the expansions. So it sounds like they’re on the right track, at least, and so shouldn’t be criticized just because today we call expanisons DLC. There’s a difference between at least the typical cases, and we need to recognize that so that we can encourage expansion behaviour while discouraging “Day 1 DLC” behaviour and things like lootboxes.

Board Game Culture Missing Link …

December 9, 2016

So, I recently came across a post at the Mary Sue about 3 ways to make gaming culture safer. Note that this is referring to board game culture, not video game culture, although in general it might be hard to tell. At any rate, she starts from an example from 2003 — so, 13 years ago — to show how things are bad now:

In 2003, I was hired as the second woman ever to work for Games Workshop Canada’s retail division. It was a short but very formative stint, a summer job that fostered my deep passion for the tabletop community—and colored my view of it.

I went through the training, learning about the company’s mission (total world domination), the unadvertised policy on shoplifting (prosecute to the fullest extent of the law) and every day lived the ten commandments of retail (ironically enough, modelled after the shopping experience of UK bodycare company The Body Shop.)

Despite all this training, I was unprepared to handle the stalking and harassment I sustained that summer from a particularly unrelentless customer. He would follow me and (without invitation) join me on my lunch break as I sat in the mall food court, follow me to my car when I was done my shift, and inquire when I was working next.

His obsession culminated into him coming into the store one day, and pulling out a camcorder with which he used to record me as I ran a pair of kids through an intro game of Warhammer 40K. The whole thing.

Discombobulated, I hid in the back room, explained to a coworker what was happening, and waited until he came back to tell me it was safe.

I take from that incident a recognition that there are blind spots in our community. If a multi-million dollar, publicly traded company doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy in their training handbook for staff, what’s the chance my Friendly Local Game Store does?

Okay, so even before getting into her actual solutions, there are a number of things to say here:

1) As described, this was a case of actual stalking, and so should have been referred to the police, not to the store’s harassment policy.

2) A small store in general doesn’t need a harassment policy beyond “Don’t tick each other off”, letting the store manager or owner to decide what’s reasonable and what isn’t. About the only other things that might need to be followed are legal requirements … but then the employees would be covered by the law. Sure, having to appeal to the law isn’t ideal, but it at least adds protection. If a store has 5 employees, what in the world is a harassment policy supposed to do that the manager simply resolving disputes won’t?

3) What would the store’s harassment policy, if it had one, have to do with anything here? The stalker was a customer, and harassment policies generally apply to employees. You certainly can’t apply the traditional penalties for harassment — up to and including termination of employment — to a customer. She’d be trying to apply the wrong solution here.

4) All you need when dealing with customers is essentially a policy that says that if you tick off our employees enough, you’ll be barred from the store. And that’s about all you can do here. And it looks like that’s what actually happened here, once she made the problem clear to her co-workers.

So somehow she took away from that incident a recognition that something was required that, well, wouldn’t have actually changed anything.

And we can see this carry on as she talks about her proposed solutions, which I’ll go through one by one. As I do so, keep in mind the problem that she’s trying to solve and think about whether doing that would have any impact or in any way solve that problem.

Normalize the presence of women, people of color, and other minorities in games and in gaming spaces.

Um, is she asserting that the stalking incident happened because she was a minority woman and somehow seen to be exotic? Okay, she talks a lot about “seeing women as prizes”, and board games contributing to that attitude, which arguably might be what happened with her stalker, but that wouldn’t include talking about other minorities, and wouldn’t include “normalizing” them, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s only if the stalking was perpetrated in some way by her being seen as different and exotic — particularly as a Latino — that trying to normalize representations — which she talks about — would help at all … but since in the United States that group is still in the minority, it’s not going to help. And even if you got — in terms of actual players — a 50-50 split male-female, that likely won’t help her getting hit on. It just might not happen as often. Which then leads into her last point about this solution:

And if you’re a gamer, engage with gamers who would be minorities in the gaming community as gamers, not as minorities. I’m always elated to talk about my favorite games or 40K army, and less so about my ethnic heritage. Sure, I’m happy to talk about some awesome depictions of women in gaming, not so much whether or not I’m single or if I have a female relative I could introduce you to. If you witness that kind of behavior, intervene and say, “Dude, how does that matter? Let’s play some games.” It helps remind everyone within earshot that we’re all gamers.

This will carry on into the next two solutions, but board gaming in particular is not just about playing games. It’s also a social activity. And as a social activity, people will do and will expect to do social things. Social things do, in fact, include asking questions about parts of a person’s personal life — sometimes asking if someone is single is, in fact, just curiosity and sometimes just comes up in discussion –, asking someone out, or trying to set them up or get them to set you up with friends. Romantic relationships are a big part of people’s lives, and in a social setting it’s one that will come up over and over again. Also, if someone is proud of and clearly reflects their ethnic heritage, people are going to be curious about it. I’ve had co-workers ask me about my last name, what origin it is, if I speak Polish, and so on and so forth … and I’m pretty much Canadian through and through. This will only come up more in social situations.

If we say that all that matters is playing games and remove the social aspect, board gaming will lose at least one of the big benefits it has … and the only big benefit it has if we exclude RPGs from the discussion. Given that she says this earlier:

Further, what’s the chance that other gamers have encountered gamers like me, and have an understanding of what my day-to-day life is like, and why gaming as an escape is so important to me?

She surely will want to understand and maintain the social aspects that are often an important part of what board gaming is to other people, too.

Create and enforce policies around bullying and harassment, and empower the community you serve to enforce them.

Now, her stalker was a customer of the store she was working at. He was not actually playing in any games she or anyone else was moderating when he was stalking her. How in the world would this do anything to address that problem? She might want to argue that if he was in a gaming group and if restrictions on behaviour were put in place, then he would have learned not to act that way but a) he might not have acted that way in a specific gaming group and b) just because gaming groups enforced standards inside the group doesn’t mean that people will act according to those standards outside of that gaming group. So this would do nothing, in general, to address the example she gives that all decent gamers want addressed and stopped.

Moreover, her view of this is problematic:

Addressing harassment isn’t remotely like a criminal trial. If you articulate clearly the expectations of behavior within your space and someone doesn’t adhere to them, you can remove them. If a business can terminate an individual for not being “the right fit,” so too can you. Consider it a preemptive measure that prevents something from escalating to the point where it may require the involvement of legal authorities. Nobody wants that on their conscience.

First, this contradicts her point above about things just being about the games, unless the behaviour is anything that distracts or detracts from the gaming and nothing more. Second, if one is playing with a group of friends, these formal rules aren’t required, and if one isn’t, then the rules need to be fair and fairly applied. This might indeed mean, then, that if someone says some of the things that she doesn’t like the GM or DM might decide that she’s the one causing the disruption if she complains about it. It’s clear that she assumes that the behavioural rules will just be what she wants, and that then given that people who violate the rules will be kicked out of the group. But different groups may see things differently, and if she advocates for this sort of idea she might find herself the “victim” of these policies.

Now, I agree that if someone doesn’t fit in with the expected behaviour of a gaming group, then that person ought to leave the group. But unless the person is disruptive in general, that choice should be theirs. So if, for example, someone finds themselves in a gaming group that’s generally pretty ribald and they don’t like that, the choice should be theirs as to whether they want to put that aside and keep playing the games, or instead for them to find another group that suits them better. I get the impression that she’d want the GM and DM to eliminate that and kick out anyone who doesn’t agree.

(Note: People will protest here that I’m not addressing explicitly sexist and racist groups. I counter that sometimes what is sexist and racist is subjective, and also that the same rules apply: all of those who are bothered enough by that should leave the group and find/form another one. If most people are bothered by it, the group will collapse and those people won’t be able to join others unless they tamp that down. And, of course, any deliberate sexism and racism aimed at bothering other players is out of bounds in any group, on the basis that no group can survive if members of the group keep trying to hurt other players, which would apply to accusations of sexism and racism, too, if done deliberately to tweak the noses of other players.)

Recognize that treating everyone equitably isn’t just treating everyone the same.

Again, what does this have to do with her stalker? They pretty much should have treated him like they treated any other case: he’s annoying an employee, and should be told to stop.

If you’re facilitating late-night gaming, do you have people who can safely escort gamers to their cars at the end of the night? Not all gamers need that support, but those that do, really do.

But is it the job of a GM/DM to explicitly arrange that for others? If people want or need that, shouldn’t they take responsibility for that? Sure, they can ask the GM/DM to help them arrange it, but what does she expect the GM/DM to do here, beyond asking others in the group that they trust to do it if someone asks?

Similarly, having a zero-tolerance policy for sexist, racist, homophobic or ableist slurs doesn’t affect or benefit everyone equally, but it certainly does make the table a lot more equal.

But should we have a “zero-tolerance policy” for this at all? If someone screws up, they’re out? And is she excluding slurs aimed at white, cis men here?

Again, board gaming is also a social activity, not some kind of formal academic conference. You ought not solve social problems with formal policies. If someone constantly uses terms that offend or hurt someone, the right answer is not “kick them out”, but is instead to talk to them, let them know that it’s a problem, and let them address that. This is especially the case when whether or not something is a slur is often subjective (see the discussion in this recent comment thread at Twenty Sided Tale for an example).

We ought not tailor groups so that only white, cis, straight men can feel comfortable, but we ought not tailor groups to people who are not that group either. We need to see ourselves more as individuals and handle things through normal social channels rather than try to impose policies. After all, if anyone doesn’t like a particular group dynamic, they can always leave and find a new one. And if you argue that I’m missing how important games are to her, let me point out that games might well be that important to the people she wants kicked out, too.

So, her suggestions wouldn’t do anything to address the problem she uses as the example of why there are problems to be addressed, and are bad ideas besides. This, then, is a prime example of a really pernicious form of argumentation: find a problem that people agree is bad and needs to be stopped, and then insist that all sorts of unrelated solutions need to be implemented to solve that problem. If one is not careful, one can be swept up in the zeal to solve the problem and then accept that these solutions — that are mostly just what the person who is complaining about the problem wants to be the case — are necessary to solve the problem. At the end of it all, you end up with a bunch of things that aren’t good and aren’t necessary, and the worst case is that you end up with all of those things and the original problem still existing.

Which is pretty much what we’d end up with if we followed these suggestions.

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.