Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday Gaming Deals 2013

Video Game Deals video game deals (limited quantity, new deals cycling on all day/weekend)
Some of my personal picks:
EVE Online The Second Decade collector's edition (price reduced starting at 4:10p PST today)
Starcraft 2 Heart of the Swarm (price reduced starting at 8:10p PST today)
For those of you with Skylander-obsessed kids: buy 2, get 1 free Skylanders SWAP force characters

Steam Autumn Sale
General Steam sale rules:
1. Don't buy a game until the last day of the sale unless it is on a daily sale
2. Flash sales are often repeated
3. Don't hesitate to buy a daily deal as the available keys can run out
4. The best deals are usually repeated the last day of the sale

Board Game Deals still has their buy one, get one half off deal for board games.  See my previous post on the sales and my recommendations.

Target also has buy one, get one half off on their board games (slightly different selection than Amazon).

Cool Stuff Inc is running some good deals on board, card, and miniature games.\

Miniature Market started their sale yesterday and had some really great deals (like Netrunner data packs for $7), but it appears a ton of their stock is sold out already.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Android: Netrunner is an amazing game

I am a huge fan of card games (one of my favorites of all time being The Spoils TCG).  I've played Magic the Gathering on and off since the 1990s in both physical and digital forms.  I've tended to prefer board games with cards more than those with dice.  There is just something soothing about holding a hand of cards and battling wits with an opponent.  Android: Netrunner itches all the recesses of my mind and is one of the most amazing card games I have ever played.

First, this is not your 1990s Netrunner; I am here to talk about Fantasy Flight Games re-release and reworking of Netrunner under the title Android: Netrunner.  Aside from theme, borrowed names, and a few core mechanics (corp vs runner), the two games can be separated from each other.  For all intents and purposes when I am referring to Netrunner, I am referring to Android: Netrunner.

The core of Netrunner themed by a runner hacking the servers of a big corporation.  This is brought to the game mat through asymmetrical game play where one player plays the role of runner and the other player plays the role of corporation.  The corporation figures out ways of protecting their valuable servers via cards known as ICE while the runner figures out ways to break through that ICE (via icebreakers) to loot and plunder the wonderful rewards within.  Alongside the main icebreaker vs ICE there is a slew of card types that have immediate or triggered effects.  Cards are played through the use of "clicks" and paid for via the payment of "credits".  The end goal is to collect 7 agenda points; which are scored after being advanced by the corporation or stolen by the runner via various means.  An alternate victory condition is for the corporation to be run out of cards or for the runner to be dealt more damage than they have cards in hand (known as flat-lining).

What really sets Netrunner apart, in my opinion, is the play of the corporation.  The corporation primarily plays their cards face down to the game table.  Playing a card is know as installing.  ICE is installed face down in front of servers to protect them from "runs" (aka hacking attempts).  Agendas, assets, and upgrades are installed face down in the servers themselves.  The cards remain face down, generally, until the runner attempts to access them (either through a run or card effect).  ICE and most assets and upgrades have a "rez" cost that the corporation must pay to flip the card face up and reap its benefits.

The corporation is not forced into "rezzing" a card leading to a critical aspect of the game: bluffing.  The potential for the corporation to bluff a runner is there and many a Netrunner game has been lost to a bad decision.  At the same time, just like in Poker, a bluff is still only hiding an end result that can be broken down to a mathematical probability.  A good runner is going to be able to look at their cards in hand and in play and know when the odds are in their favor.  Between experienced players, bluffing does not play as big of a role as it does for new players learning the game, but the simple fact of having a bluff as a physical representation (face down cards) on the board is an amazing piece of the puzzle for this game.

By description it would seem that the game is tilted towards the corporation player, but that is anything but the truth.  The game, in my experience, slightly favors the runner as the idea of playing offensively is more natural and the defensive nature of the corporation is something harder to learn and execute.  The runner could always stumble into victory while the corporation will only find victory through appropriate planning.

The runner also has advantages in their favor, first being that they receive 4 clicks per turn to the 3 clicks of the corporation's turn (the corporation is allowed to draw a card for free every turn though as a compromise).  Clicks are actions that can be taken during a turn.  Secondly, the runner can "trash" corporation cards for a set cost after accessing them which allows the runner to really negatively impact the corporations play.  Lastly, the runner does not need to spend actions each turn advancing agendas to score the related points.  The runner simply needs to access an agenda played by the corporation to steal it and thus receive it's allocated agenda points towards their victory total (7 are needed to win).

The one big drawback to the runner is that their hand of cards is their life total in the game.  Run out of cards and take one more damage and the game is over, victory going to the corporation regardless of the state of agenda points scored.  This is a great mechanic which forces the runner to hold back cards and again opens up the bluff mechanic between the two sides.  Could the corporation player be holding a card that will do one meat damage and thus bring the game to an end if the runner chooses to end the turn with zero cards in hand?

To further cement Netrunner as an amazing game it also allows deckbuilding via a living card game (LCG) model.  LCGs, contrary to booster-pack games such as MtG, release sets of cards on a regular basis.  In each set is a complete play set of every card in that release.  There is no rarity or chase cards to worry about.  If a player wants to play a deck, all they need to do is buy the appropriate "data packs" that contain the cards they want.  Gone are the days of having 50 copies of that single common card while having only 1 of the rare.  In Netrunner all a player will ever need is sold in each data pack release.  Data packs average in cost about $10 to $15 and are released about every 3 months.  There is phenomenal value in the LCG model and at the end of the day the core set is plenty to start out with and try some of the deckbuilding without having to invest anything else.

Now there are a couple areas I think the game could improve.  First of all, the card layout and use of symbols needs work.  It is hard, at first, to differentiate cards or determine values such as influence for use in deckbuilding.  The card design appears to be artistic in nature more than driven by the need to present information.  This makes for some stunning visuals on cards, but can lead to some agonizing card pile searches looking for a card of a certain faction or value that is not easily visible.  Secondly, some of the terms used to describe aspects of the game are a bit hard to grasp at first.  For example: the runner's hand is known as their grip, but the corporations hand is known as the HQ.  While players adjust to these terms after playing the game, I am not sure what, if anything, is gained by calling a players hand (just one example) by another name.

Over all, Netrunner is a phenomenal game and quickly is rocketing up my chart of favorite card games.  It is not for everyone, but for the core gamer out there seeking a challenging and competitive card game there is nothing finer than Netrunner currently.  Add in the LCG model and it is friendly to the wallet.  If you are interested in the game, the core set is currently on sale for $29 on Amazon.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Board Games: Buy one, get one 50% off is running an amazing pre-Black Friday deal on dozens of popular board games: buy one and get one half off.

There are some great games on sale.  Here are a few of my picks for games worth getting.

Ticket to Ride


The Resistance

Castle Panic

The Settlers of Catan


Dixit Journey

Apples to Apples

There are also some add on packs (aka DLC of the board game world) for some popular games:

Munchkin Zombies 2 Armed and Dangerous
Munchkin 7 Cheat With Both Hands
Munchkin Clerical Errors

Battles Of Westeros: Wardens Of The North

Tannhauser Single Figure Packs: Gorgei

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Solforge:OREIAN JUSTICAR incoming to shake up the meta

The meta in Solforge currently is centered on the Savant cycle cards (Flamehaper, Darkshaper, Lifeshaper, Steelshaper), but a nerf was already incoming for the cycle in the next patch. Beyond the Savants, the meta was looking to be shaped by powerful cards such as Zimus the Undying and Everflame Phoenix who rely heavily on being able to come back on the battlefield. They both are very hard cards to deal with, especially Zimus which has very few reliable counters that can keep it off the board. Queue the Oreian Justicar; a beefy Aloyin card that causes any creature entering the field to lose massive amounts of attack power if they were not played from your opponents hand. Have a 14/7 level 3 Zimus coming back on the field? It is now a 4/7 with a level 3 Justicar in play.

This is a great for Solforge and indicates that developer Stoneblade Entertainment (SBE) is on the right path for balance. This is very much a "counter the overpowered with a direct counter" instead of an outright nerf (though there are still situations like the Savant cycle which clearly scream the need for NERF, but thats OK for a pre-release product). The Justicar is an exciting card and I think will push the Steelforged Avatar decks up a notch to the cream of the crop of meta decks. However, Justicar can be splashed in many different decks to be effective and can even be used in a deck it is specifically meant to counter which offers players wielding powerful Zombie themed decks that rely on reappearing creatures an excellent counter in a mirror match.

Well done SBE, well done.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Judged: Guild Wars 2

Better late than never. Right? Right? Tap tap… is this thing on. Ok, there we go.

After a few restarts, I’ve reached level 80 in Guild Wars 2. (pause for applause)

This push was with an Asuran Guardian and in less than 40 hours /played I was level 80. (pause for applause)

I enjoyed my trip to 80. Leveling in GW2 is a simple process. Every action a player takes, from harvesting to crafting to killing to exploring, results in experience that contributes towards leveling. Each zone is broken down into “hearts” and dynamic events that also result in experience bonuses when completed. Zones scale players to the level of zone allowing players to play in any level zone they choose. In combination this makes leveling in Guild Wars 2 very easy and players can feel rewarded, experience-wise, for everything they do no matter where they do it.

However, with the ease of leveling and being rewarded based on their actual level in any zone, the system erodes the motivation to explore the world. Once I hit Kessex Hills and Harathi Highlands I was completing events in chains and gaining 3-4 levels per play session. Plus the current live event, Tower of Nightmares, was centered in Kessex Hills which meant that the frequency with which the events in the zone completed was increased exponentially. At one point I was literally just running from spot to spot and collecting enough experience for 25% of a single level. It seemed crazy at the time that I would move away from that gravy train of experience since the leveling curve in GW2 is flat.

I leveled to 70+ by playing in the aforementioned zones which are meant only for level 15-35 players. In terms of world completion I only hit 19%. This is all possible because of the level down mechanic which balances the player’s level (and thus reduces their inherent strength) to match the content in the zone, but it continues to provide rewards consistent with the player’s actual level as the content is evenly matched by the downgraded player level. This was a refreshing mechanic considering how most MMOGs like GW2 are designed the complete opposite and aim to punish players that don’t play in the zones that are on the cutting edge of their level range.

Yet, even though I was generously rewarded for doing what I wanted, I found myself feeling cheated once I hit 80 and I started exploring many of the zones I had not visited during leveling. There were so many events and story lines I had missed and at level 80 the progression goes from vertical to horizontal so there was little incentive for me to go and visit.

Experience is still worth gaining as each level of experience after 80 generates a skill point (which in turn can be turned into skill unlocks or converted to other rewards). However, experience gain is not a driving force at level 80 and outside of gaining karma from unfinished hearts or going for world completion I found nothing to push me towards investigating the 80% of the world I had yet to visit.

And looking further into the horizontal progression model of level 80 GW2 I quickly realized that the “path of least resistance” was the dominant theme. This pushed me further away from visiting the higher level zones as I found out about min/max things such as the Queensland champion trains. Basically, one of the most efficient gold and karma gaining methods is for level 80 players to just repeatedly complete the event chains in the level 1-15 zone (this is possible because, again, the level down mechanic balances power levels while maintaining the level appropriate rewards regardless of zone level). This simply was not appealing to me even though I’ve been known now and again to get my farm on in many an MMOG.

Some experienced GW2 players may try to point out that it is actually dungeons where the real “time vs reward” battle is won and I would probably not argue with them. However, for my tastes, I found the dungeons in GW2 to be Boring with a capital B. For the most part dungeons come down to one mechanic and one mechanic only: damage per second. DPS is king in GW2. Group healing and tanking are replaced by individual player mechanics. Every class has its own self-heal and group-based heals are weak and ineffective in dungeons. Tanking is non-existent as damage mitigation is all reliant on dodging by each player individually.

On top of this the damage-focused combat, the dungeons have been min/maxed to the extreme and outside of the occasional group looking to complete the story modes, players are looking at speed runs aimed at knocking the dungeons out quickly for maximum gain. That means even further min/max to the damage per second making everyone, regardless of class, shooting for the same exact berserker based equipment. It is just a terrible model and depletes dungeons of any sense of awe or adventure. They are simply a numbers game.

Unfortunately the poor dungeons just highlight the underlying problem with GW2: the combat system. It is fun when playing solo and makes complete sense one on one versus a creature or another player. In fact, avoiding other players for the majority of my leveling (outside of the Kessex Hills events), was the key to me lasting until level 80 this time around because once more than a couple players show up the combat breaks down and becomes devoid of feedback to the players. The sheer number of times I’ve randomly died in a group of players without a single clue as to what was about to or actually hit me is insane. Throw in champion boss enemies that are all just about standing around and beating on them and you may as well just throw the action combat out the window because it’s pointless in a game meant for players to play together. I didn’t even bother to mention the completely insane over use of area of effect skills and spells.

Fortunately World vs World vs World saves everything. Right? The Wuv d Wuv, the WuvWuv, the WvWvW, the promise of Guild Wars 2! Wrong. It’s crap. It’s so crap that I hate to even waste time typing about it. The combat problems from PvE are simply multiplied out tenfold as even more players are crowded into even smaller areas where even more AoE can be dropped. Defense? Impossible. WvW is all about zerging from point A to B to C and hoping your zerg doesn’t meet a bigger zerg that will wipe it out. It’s more efficient to let a capture point be lost than it is to attempt and defend it. Even if a good defense is put up, the doors to the keep are going to fall in a couple minutes and the keep’s champion even faster. There is no hope for a smaller defensive force to prevail. If you aren’t in the zerg you are just wasting your time.

Now I’m just angry as I type about the aspects I don’t like about Guild Wars 2. I could continue on and break down the Trading Post that makes ZERO logical sense related to the game or I could bash the completely one-dimensional crafting system but that would just grind my gears even further. In conclusion the same things that caused me to stop playing GW2 the first few times around are the same reasons that I’ve stopped playing it again after finally reaching level 80 with a character. The “action combat” makes combat feel floaty and unpredictable. Horizontal progression is just a clever way of saying grind. The use of AoE is completely out of control.

The game is absolutely gorgeous from a world design perspective, but it does nothing to encourage the exploration of or use of that world on a regular basis. Over all, the concepts of GW2 are great on paper but they are all poor in execution. I would love, and would pay handsomely, to play the game that GW2 was on paper before it launched.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The 3 MMOs you should NOT have paid attention to and the 2 NEW games TO pay attention to

In a follow up to my post from May 2012, I wanted to point out the three MMOs that you probably really didn't need to pay any attention to.

First up there was Dominus which actually had shuttered its doors prior to me even posting it's name in my 2012 post.  This was clearly a game that didn't need any attention paid to it.

The next was Salem which closed its doors in June of 2013 before ever getting to a launch phase.  Amazing ideas wrapped up in a pretty terrible game.  Please look the other way.

Lastly there was The Otherlands based on Tad Williams' novels of the same name.  This is still kicking around in Closed Beta and still has all the premise that it had last year.  However, Wildstar has pretty much come along to promise almost all the same features in a much more promising package.  I still am interested in The Otherlands, but doubt it will swing many heads it's direction when (and if) it ever launches.

Basically I suck at picking niche games that will make it big (though I still maintain I was an early adopter and fan of Minecraft before it exploded).  Instead I should probably focus my time on games that have broken out of that initial phase of skepticism and have begun proving themselves on the market.  So I present to you faithful reader the two games you should probably get up to speed on if you are not already.

Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone

If you have followed the gaming media over the past couple of weeks it would have been hard to miss the news coming out of BlizzCon 2013.  Not only was another World of Warcraft expansion announced, but Blizzard also put on display two of it's more niche titles: Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is a digital card game that has exploded exponentially since it's initial announcement.  The BlizzCon tournament was streamed to more than 100,000 peak concurrent watchers.  The game is only in early beta and is taking the digital card game scene by storm.  It absolutely puts to shame the focus on digital card games such as Solforge and Hex that were the Kickstarter darlings of this genre.  Hearthstone is poised to dominate and dominate quickly.  The Blizzard polish is present and the "easy to play, hard to master" mantra is on target.

Heroes of the Storm (HotS) is Blizzard's take on the MOBA genre.  They went back into the hopper with Blizzard DotA and out comes HotS which at first glance looks to be an amazing overhaul of a genre that has been, in my opinion, completely stale and unwilling to change.  League of Legends took a tiny step forward out of the hardcore insanity of what the original Defense of the Ancients was while DOTA2 from Valve copied it wholesale.  HotS is a giant leap from both.

The immediate draw to HotS is that it destroys the "learning wall" that is present in other MOBA games.  The game looks immediately approachable and understandable for the casual gamer.  Matches are on smaller maps with clear goals.  Different maps offer different ways to victory with some pretty neat graphical displays such as a ghost ship firing it's cannons to down one of the two sides defenses.

However, just as with Hearthstone, there is a very clear "easy to play, hard to master" vibe going on.  The Heroes all seemed simple enough to play without deep concerns about certain Heroes serving no purpose in a casual game.  At the same time there appears to be higher-level tactical decisions to be made.  Items and shops are gone in favor of decision trees after leveling up.

The presentation of the game also looks to be friendly and has the classic Blizzard polish.  The game is not even in a true beta form and it is being displayed and shoutcast live at BlizzCon.  This is classic Blizzard. This is why their games are amazing and leaders in their respective genres.  I've often said that World of Warcraft has spoiled me.  I have not played a game outside Minecraft, let alone an MMO, since World of Warcraft that can grab me within minutes.  I suspect both Hearthstone and HotS will be immediately familiar once my fingers set down on WASD.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

WAR, finally free 2 play

WAR is finally going free 2 play.  Unfortunately it is only until the game will be shutdown come December.
"To give Warhammer Online a proper sendoff we are opening the game to anyone free of charge that has or had an account in good standing starting October 31st, 2013," said the Warhammer team in an announcement on Friday.
I don't have much to comment on at this point.  I will probably have more to say once the game shuts it's doors for the final time.