Friday, January 17, 2020

Theros Beyond Death is here (not beyond death).... let's brew!

Murdered titles aside; Magic the Gathering's latest set, Theros Beyond Death, is here and available on Arena.  With a new set comes new deck brews.  I will state up front that I am a net decker in general (i.e. I copy decks of the Internet), but with new sets I'll happily take some of popular decks and see if I can slot some of the new cards in to brew up something a little fresher.

I tend towards aggressive decks on Arena since they are most often the least rare/mythic reliant.  I love more control oriented or tempo based decks, but my current Arena position does not allow for me to craft those decks.  With that in mind I first looked at the classic red aggro decks that are popular at the dawn of every set (aggro decks tend to do well early on as other decks are not yet refined).  I didn't find anything that drew my attention so I looked at white weenie decks and struck out there.

Then I stumbled onto folks playing with Nightmare Shepherd in mono-black decks focused on devotion win condition with Gray Merchant of Asphodel (affectionately known as Gary).  The core of the decks seemed to be the Cauldron Familiar/Witch's Oven sacrifice engine from the previous metagame featuring cards such as Ayara, First of Locthwain and Priest of Forgotten Gods to make the sacrifice and recursion of the cats pay off.

This got me thinking about what else would be fun to sacrifice to trigger Nightmare Shepherd and I immediately went looking for "enter the battlefield" effects and that brought me to one of my favorite cards from a previous discard deck; Yarok's Fenlurker.  Fenlurker was an upgrade to the previous use of Burgler Rat in discard decks as its an equal effect with an upside.  Fenlurkers upside looks even better now with Nightmare Shepherd and the devotion win condition with Gary.   A quick glance at various decklists on some websites confirmed I wasn't alone in this thinking.

Looking further I wanted to take the concepts here even further and started to look for other cards that supported the brewing theme around sacrificing and getting things back in return.  This brought me to Kaya's Ghostform which I had remembered from a few draft runs where I kept ending up with multiple copies of it.  It paid off in a few draft games so I threw it in here to help bring back more fodder for the sacrifice.

I filled the rest of my modest brew in with the curve from other mono-black devotion decks I am seeing online (the fill ins were pretty straight forward black staples; Knight of the Ebon Legion, Murderous Rider, etc).  

Here is what I landed on and hope to get around to crafting for Best of 1 play:

3 Priest of Forgotten Gods (RNA) 83
4 Kaya's Ghostform (WAR) 94
4 Knight of the Ebon Legion (M20) 105
3 Yarok's Fenlurker (M20) 123
2 Witch's Cottage (ELD) 249
4 Witch's Oven (ELD) 237
19 Swamp (ELD) 261
3 Ayara, First of Locthwain (ELD) 75
4 Cauldron Familiar (ELD) 81
3 Murderous Rider (ELD) 97
3 Castle Locthwain (ELD) 241
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel (THB) 99
4 Nightmare Shepherd (THB) 108

Unfortunately it will be a bit of time before I get to play it as I am planning to build my collection via draft and not spend wildcards at this time.  We'll see how the meta shapes up and if there is any competitive legs to mono-black devotion sacrifice.

Friday, January 03, 2020

New year; let's blog! Christmas board games

This was one of Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) ventures into unique games (the other attempt being Keyforge). Stealing FFGs blurb: "Every copy of Discover: Lands Unknown is unlike any other in the world. A mix of environments, storylines, characters, locations, items, and enemies have been engineered to tell a story unique to every copy of the game thanks to an algorithm that ensures no two copies are alike."

Whew! May 14th 2019... the last time I posted. Let's kick start the 2020 tires by posting to this web log.

First up; Christmas has come and gone and with it so has a slew of new board games to give a try. Here are some thoughts on a couple.

Discover: Lands Unknown critical consensus seems to be that Discover: Lands Unknown was a flop, but I found the game to be engaging and enjoyable while delivering on its core mechanic of a survival experience.

In my first game I lost a fight with a bull moose and watched from the sideline as my wife and oldest son survived onwards before starvation nabbed them both in the middle of the night. 

Better oriented in follow up plays we were more successful as a party of survivors.  Keeping supplies of food and fresh water are key; crafting flint to start fires is also a good idea.  Weapons are helpful, but combat (other than if required by your unique scenario) is better avoided (as evidenced by my scrap with a bull moose).

One aspect that I found interesting (but did not explore while playing with my family) was the potential for players competing with each other.  As far as I can tell there is no overt direction by the game that players should cooperate, but it does become apparent that survival is easier together.  With that said the game puts players in interesting positions to overtly (or covertly) compete with each other.  It could be as simple as the elected Tribal Leader moving a monster towards one player vs another or one of the players holding off on crafting a key item so the rest of the party can't get access to it.  In the Tribal Leader case it is an overt act and this can kick off a debate at the table of whether a change at Tribal Leader is warranted.  In the crafting case it is a covert action; other players do not know what project cards you may be holding and is easily played off as though you don't have resources to craft it yet.  I imagine in other scenarios there may be more of a drive for players to compete directly with each other and there is a "Scenario 5" that I believe is designed around replayability and meant to be the player vs player scenario.

My only complaints for the game were that initial set up takes longer than I'd like and there is some hunt and pecking in the rule book. Also the "quick reference" sheet that is the most helpful rules reference is on the back of the scenario sheet which was not obvious at first.  In later play throughs all that we needed was that quick reference.  And good news is that once everything is sorted and the players better understand the reason for the setup it goes much faster.

I suppose the more we play the game we may exhaust the two scenarios that came with the game, but I suspect by the time we get there we will be done with the game and personally I find it interesting that we could get a used copy that would deliver a brand new and unique adventure (even though many reviews note there is not that much difference form one copy to the next even if the components are different).

The second game gifted over the holidays was Photosynthesis.  This has been on my list for a while.  As an avid gardener the aesthetic of this game spoke to me.  The green, orange,yellow, and blue of the trees looks great on the table.

The game falls into the "easy to learn, hard to master" category.  Other than punching a lot of cardboard set up is a breeze.  The game plays quickly as well and boils down to a simple loop of "plant seeds, grow trees, collect points, THROW SHADE".

That last bit about throwing shade is where the "hard to master" part comes in.  Players really have to think in three dimensions and future planning is well rewarded.  Where trees are planted, when they are planted, and what stage you are going to grow them to while the sun rotates around the board offers an amazing array of choice. 

Do you want to shade your opponent out or take that fully developed tree off the board to score the points?  You could grow that tree, but now it shades your other tree for two turns which will leave you a point short to score a bigger tree.... BUT in three turns it will shade out your opponent for the next four turns!

The game plays fast (excepting the chess-level thinkers out there) and has won an immediate place in our family's rotation of games.

Warmachine High Command

This is one from the bargain bin at our local Ollies (#olliesarmy represent!).  High Command is a card drafting game set in the Iron Kingdoms setting of Warmachine.  I would best describe it as a drafting version of Smash Up for folks that want the Warhammer 40k aesthetic instead (yes I said Warhammer damn it!).

Players pick a cross selection of cards to play (like picking two factions in Smash Up) and then slowly draft them into your discard deck so you can eventually shuffle them back into your draw pile to get and play.  There are also war casters that sit on the sideline waiting to be rushed in for a single glorious predictable turn before being removed from the game.

Characters and war casters are deployed to locations (just like Smash Up) eventually waiting for one side to out muscle the other and claim the location as a prize (just like Smash Up). 

As you may be able to suss out by the snarky review I was not impressed by the game.  The cards are a mess.  The text is tiny, iconography is horrible, and over all plays is a slog. The best part is the random end to the game which can occur at any moment once the game progresses to the "stage 3" event cards that represent the turns.  Do I have one turn?  Two?  Who knows!  Throw in locations that benefit a specific faction only (and it sure is likely will be your opponents) and its lovely.

The good news is my oldest son likes loves the game and the second core set Faith and Fortune was only a few bucks as well at the good ole Ollies so I'll be enjoying this one for a while apparently.  I hope he never reads this blog...

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Casualties of War!

Just caught one of the cards in the most recent Magic: The Gathering sets was "Casualties of War".  This flooded my memory banks with the time spent organizing and helping steer the formation of the "Casualties" guild for Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). 

The original idea was to call the guild "Casualties of WAR" (CoW) but that was eventually shortened to just "Casualties".  The concept being we were a group of mostly "casual" players coming from other games to WAR.  Casual from the perspective of "CoW is a casual by force of Real-Life guild" as noted when we were a featured guild of the week on TenTonHammer.

At the time this was a big deal in my virtual life.  The guild featured a who's who of the MMO blogging world at the time and I was right there in the middle of it.  We had grandiose proclamations in our guild charter (too which I cannot find a copy unfortunately) and plans to become THE REAL DEAL of guilds. 

In the long run the guild fell apart.  WAR was NOT the game we had all hoped and that quickly resulted in actual casualties of WAR... ha. 

Anyways; always fun when something brings back fond memories of gaming past. Maybe I need to queue this up as a "Games Made Me" post... hmmm.

Enjoy a couple recruiting pictures I had put together for the Casualties guild.  This is some of my finest work!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Player 3 has joined the game!

A little late to the blog but my second son has joined the game world as of Jan 18th!  For the astute observers; yes that is 9+ years since player number two (i.e. my first son).

I probably should say "player 4" as my wife counts but couldn't find an applicable image!

Monday, January 07, 2019

What's wrong with Artifact?

It is no secret that Valve's new game, Artifact, is struggling; down from a peak player count of 60k at launch to just a bit over 5k a month later (a 90% drop).  The question is why? What's wrong with the game? 

Prior to the launch of the game the big areas of contention were around the business model; you have to buy the game, you have to buy tickets to play in prize modes, and there is a market to buy/sell cards.  The leading argument is that in a free-2-play world no one wants to pay up and thus Artifact is struggling. However, I would like to posit that maybe there is a different reason.  Maybe Artifact isn't any fun.

I defended Valve's approach to Artifact with a pay-up-front and pay-to-play model.  I still defend it.  I dropped $50 into Steam to spend on Artifact and early on I paid in happily for cards I wanted and tickets/packs I needed for game modes.  This was on top of paying $20 for the game to begin with!  As there are free modes for folks to play in the "buy an event ticket to enter" modes were just another option.  An option, in my opinion, that brought serious competition as no one was buying in without something on the line.  Combine that with the skill-heavy game that Artifact is and you have a recipe for a desirable competitive experience.

However, what I hadn't calculated in my early splurge of spending is that Artifact is, at it's core, not much fun to play. 

Cards represent actions and units within the game, but much of the rest is set up through the magic of a computer.  A paper version of this game would never exist. The sheer amount of random elements would bog a physical iteration of the game down to the point it would be unplayable and I have a hunch that any card game I wouldn't want to play in the real world is a card game I wouldn't want to play digitally.

A game of Artifact starts by a random placement of key cards on the battlefield.  Your three starting heroes are placed, at random, in a starting lane.  They are joined by randomly assigned creeps.  Your opponents heroes and creeps join the battlefield in the same random manner.  Then each hero and creep has a chance to randomly decide the direction of their attack if they are not opposite an opponents creep or hero.  Following this you are dealt a random hand of cards and a toss up on who goes first. 

The first act a player takes in a game is triage which I've found to put me immediately on edge. I had little say in getting to this stage outside of showing up with a deck.  There is no mulligan for the cards I drew and more importantly to me there is no mulligan to redo initial hero placement.  In most card games there are no cards that start on the board and the most random element is your starting hand which in most games allow for a mulligan to get a chance at a more favorable start.  Artifact is basically starting the players on turn six of any other card game with no chance of influencing how the game state was derived.

The game is only possible via the magic of a computer.  A paper version of this game would never exist. The sheer amount of random elements JUST TO START THE GAME would bog a physical iteration of the game down to the point it would be unplayable.  If this was a physical game it is very likely the game starts with a blank board state and the players drive each step of set up.  There is no reason not to take this approach in a digital game.  I cannot emphasize how NOT FUN it is to watch a game play itself before turning it back over to you as the player.

This would be recoverable if the game beyond the random set up offered some excitement, but the turns beyond that initial set up are equally sprinkled with randomness.  But at least in subsequent turns the player gets to decide the lane placement for heroes joining the fight!  Well excpet its still a random placement within the actual lane.  It may be a game winning drop into an open spot or it may be a flop into a death trap. 

The crazy thing is the random elements really don't feel game breaking or game deciding.  There is a ton of opportunity for player skill and it delivers a neat puzzle each turn which fires the thinking side of the brain. 

Unfortunately the options for solutions to those puzzles are not that interesting.  Item card (assuming you get past the random shop options); little impact when played and have to activate it later.  Modify a hero with a couple stat points?  That's anti-climatic.  Play a creep to fill a spot and watch it randomly decide a direction to attack (hope it was the one you wanted).  That creep may be useful.  Activate an ability on a hero that likely does nothing. 

About the only cards of substance are spells and only in the few cases where they actually have impact.  The majority are of little impact to play (like literally just change the direction of an attacker... which was randomly assigned in the first place).  The ones that are fun to play are pretty much no fun for your opponent and thus are what some may call "overpowered".  Take Annihilation for example; wipes an entire lane of all heroes and creeps,  That's fun!  Because once its not your turn you have no counter-play opportunity.  You just sit back and take whatever your opponent plays and if Annihilation was the play THEN THAT'S WHAT YOU GET.

No, I don't want to argue for "counter spell" in Artifact, but I do want to argue that there should be just as many fun and interesting options to react to the "overpowered" spells as there is in casting them in the first place.  Artifact is an asynchronous game with players passing turns back and forth with no interaction whatsoever with your opponents turn.  That is fine, but if the most boring of items, hero, or creature abilities are going to require two turns to realize and thus allow for maneuvers to get out of the way then the game-ending spells should also allow for some creative game play rather than just taking it up the butt each turn against mono-Blue decks.

Ultimately what I am trying to drive towards here is that Artifact is NOT fun because it never feels like you are in control of playing the game.  You are at best watching a series of events unfold and pulling some levers to control each scene.  Playing a card on a hope and dream it does what it is supposed to isn't much fun.  Sure; getting counter-spelled in other card games isn't any fun but at least I know what my cards will do if they make the table. 

Also most other digital card games represent things as cards.  Artifact can't even do that.  Cards turn into little flying discs if they are improvements and cards that are hero items disappear into little boxes on the hero cards they are played on.  Is it too much too ask to show cards as cards?

I hate that I don't find any fun in Artifact.  I've struggled this entire post not to mention another digital card game I am having a blast with even though it suffers from serious drawbacks in a digital best-of-1 game format.  I hate to compare the two but the game I am referring to delivers a very complex and synchronous gameplay experience in a clean digital package while Artifact totally avoids players interrupting each other's turns.  Throw in what feels like an eternity for a timer for your opponent to make a decision and I'd just as easily fall asleep as I would finish a game of Artifact at this point.

I am very worried that Valve will try the free 2 play route which won't address any of the less fun parts of the game which will do nothing more than speed the death of the game.   Valve; I never expected Artifact to be boring and no fun to play.  Please fix.

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