Dungeons & Dragons, 4e and 5e and all that

I’ve played several sessions in a D&D Next…5th Edition…whatever game. As an avid 4th edition player, it’s been striking how different the two editions are, in tone as well as mechanics. Not better or worse, just different.

5e certainly feels more open, although I think some of that is just a matter of perception. I’m still using the same 2 or 3 powers in most encounters, but now I’m choosing them off a spell list, which gives me more freedom to adapt my abilities to the current situation. But, I’m still generally firing off a cantrip every turn and a healing spell when needed. On the other hand, 4e powers felt more unique and customized to my character; even at low levels, I might have a trick that changes the course of a fight, making my GM groan and struggle to work around my tactical play. 5e, thus far, hasn’t had those moments; even my most effective spells only nudge the tactical situation, not flip it. That’s both good and bad; combat is faster and more predictable, but has less moments of elation and satisfaction for either side.

Mostly, the difference I’ve found is that 5e is a game about grimy adventurers struggling to survive, and 4e is a game about superheroes. Specialization is big in 4e, and even at first level, a character can launch out of the gate with a +10 or more to their best skills, far outclassing other characters who haven’t focused in those areas. In 5e, for comparison, we’re 4th level now, and the difference between my specialized skills and others who are merely good in that area is only +3 or +4.

The big problem, which has been D&D’s problem for ages, is that the 20-sided die is just too big. When you’re rolling a result from 1 to 20, having a +3 bonus just isn’t enough to feel exceptional in an area. In our game, we frequently see the ‘specialist’ get an 8 while an amateur rolls a 19.

There are flaws to how 4e does it. The steady advancement (always adding 1/2 your level to everything you do) does mean that you can only really be challenged by enemies close to your level. Furthermore, a character can become skilled at even their weakest things, just by advancing, like a 18th level barbarian with a +9 to arcana, better than some 1st level wizards. On the other hand, 5e has the problem that grated on me in 3e – that, after a decade of adventuring and seeing hundreds of arcane spells and social interactions, an 18th level barbarian can still have a -1 to identify a spell, or talk their way past a guard. In a game where ‘experience points’ are the primary currency, it really seems to ignore the value of experience.

Ultimately, I find myself preferring 4e to 5e, and a big factor of that is just that I don’t feel a need to play 5e. I’ve already played in worlds and seen movies where grimy heroes grimly grope through the grime, and 5e doesn’t bring anything really new to the table. 4e is its own thing, certainly, but at least it’s different – I feel like there’s a reason to explore that system and that world, something that I’m not going to get with another fantasy system or setting.

Perhaps that’s what brought down D&D 4e the most, just having Dungeons and Dragons on the title. If it had been a separate game line, it wouldn’t have been as well recognized, but perhaps it would have seen more acceptance.

That new gamer moment

I think I created a new gamer family today. I had a lovely dinner with a friend’s extended family, and I was sitting at a table with a few people. They were talking about how they enjoyed games and always liked to bring a few games with them…like Uno and Jenga. After a few rounds of Jenga, I mentioned that I had a game in my bag, and brought out Incan Gold.

Incan Gold is nearly the simplest game I own, and that’s why I brought it. There is literally only one thing you do in the game: continue, or stop. And yet, as we started playing, it was like this family was seeing games anew for the first time – realizing that their decisions were important, that they could make an informed choice based on the probabilities of the deck, and that they wanted to pay attention to the other players around the table, because they would have an advantage if they could predict their decision.

We played six or seven rounds back-to-back. I don’t like to bash the common games too much, Uno and Monopoly and the like, but it’s just amazing how easy it is to be completely unaware of the modern board gaming hobby, even for a person who likes games. And it’s also amazing how just a taste of a game with some well-designed decision points, even a dead simple one like Incan Gold, can open your eyes to a whole world of great games.

Affordable Care Act

I saw a suggestion to share stories about the Affordable Care Act, as people may be searching the web during election season.

After I left Kabam, I couldn’t get reasonable insurance coverage. Anthem flat-out rejected me because I had been treated for depression, and wouldn’t even consider coverage until I had been symptom-free for ten years.

With the ACA, I’m able to afford my health insurance, and use it. I’ve seen a few doctors and specialists up here, and received answers to questions I’ve had for years. Some people might complain that their taxes are paying for my labs and questions, but the benefit of healthcare is that I’m able to live longer, work productively, and avoid major medical emergencies that actually do cost a lot.

There’s a political sign around Woodland that says “Keep your doctor, change your congressman.” Sorry, Dan Logue, you don’t get my vote.

As a general guideline, anyone who calls the Affordable Care Act ‘Obamacare’ probably isn’t getting my vote either. It’s just a clumsy attempt at a barb that’s gone too far.

RPGnet and toxic moderation

I’ve been on RPG.net a long time, since about 2001. I actually owe the message board a lot – when I was down in the dumps during my time in Japan, RPG.net was some of the only deep English conversation I could access, and I grabbed on to that.

It’s been…okay. Despite having over 6,000 posts there, I don’t think anyone would recognize my username. It feels like I’m posting anonymously every time, and the boards are ruled by a dozen or so notable posters…and that’s fine.

But, I think I’m done. I’ve been feeling increasingly anxious about posting there over the last few years, like I needed to watch my step and only say the safest things I could. I didn’t give it much thought, but after getting a moderator comment on a post yesterday, something clicked for me.

Now, going through some of the other comments around the internet, I’m realizing that RPG.net has become toxic. It’s not just me – I’m finding people all over the place complaining about the thin skin of the moderators, and their capricious nature of dropping week-long or permanent bans with barely any provocation. And I think that’s what I was noticing before – I kept seeing the moderators jumping into threads and whacking the posters, and I was thinking “Seriously? For that?

The post that tipped me over the edge was this – someone made a thread asking whether or not religious billboards bother you. I commented that they did bother me, because they reminded me that athiests are marginalized in America, and that I’ve often had to lie or walk on eggshells around Christians just to avoid a conflict. Of course, a moderator slaps me for not walking on eggshells around Christians.

Way to miss the entire point of the thread, guys, and to confirm that RPG.net is not a safe place for me. Your opinions on RPG.net are protected…as long as the moderators agree with them.

I was also struck, looking through their moderation forum, by this thread, where they seem to be gleefully recounting their stories of banning users with 20,000+ posts. http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?733780-Highest-and-Lowest-postcounts-of-the-permabanned There are a few names in there of people I recognized and respected, and this is the first time I’ve heard that they were on the moderators’ shit-list.

Will, in particular. The worst part is that RPG.net’s forum software is old and buggy, their search doesn’t work, and the moderators didn’t bother to make a thread about Will, so I can’t figure out why he was banned.

So, I think I’ll avoid RPG.net from now on. It is simply too dangerous to keep posting there when I have no idea what might set off the moderators and cause me to lose access to a decade-old account. I’m even worried that this blog post will find its way back to them and they’ll ban my account for something that’s not even on RPGnet. How messed up is that?


Update: WTF again. This guy gets a week-long ban for asking for clarification on a rule about how to talk to the moderators.


Shadow of Mordor and Next-Gen

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is making a splash in the gaming community, and its most innovative feature is certainly the Nemesis System, a web of social links and hierarchies between the orc enemies that means that nearly anything you do has a permanent effect on the future of your game.

Monolith has stated that the PS3/Xbox 360 versions will have a reduced Nemesis System compared to the PS4/Xbox One, because the older systems just can’t handle the computations there.

It’s interesting to me, because it reminds me of some conversations I’ve had about console advancement and graphics.

Somewhere around the later PS2 era, I think we hit the point where graphics got good enough. Now, this is a common statement with every jump in technology – “these graphics are the best ever! How will the next generation possibly top this?” I think we’ve been saying that since the SNES. Looking back, though, I think the PS2 was the console where things got good enough.

If you wanted players to explore a crusty, abandoned mall, or talk to an NPC who punctuated their words themselves with gestures and expressions, or oversee a battlefield choked with tanks, or battle a monster a hundred feet tall, you could do that. You had to make some compromises, and modern consoles can render those things better, but there were very few ideas where you just had to say “that’s impossible. We can’t offer that kind of environment or gameplay experience on this technology.”

Shadow of Mordor, however, is making that statement, and I’ve heard a few other mentions of advanced AI and better simulation on the newer hardware. These are games that aren’t just prettier; they literally could not be done until now.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see more middleware that’s based on AI and simulation, rather than graphics. In a few years, you’ll be dropping Monolith Nemesis into your open-world game just as easily as you might drop Havoc Physics into it. And just like Havoc Physics, it’s going to open up a lot of new gameplay experiences, and eventually become so ingrained in video games that it will just be expected, rather than novel. Nowadays, you expect two crates stacked on top of each other to fall and tumble realistically, even if it’s not a game about crate stacking. In the future, you’ll expect two enemies to interact and socialize realistically, even if it’s not a game about enemy hierarchies.

The Multi-Grind

Jacqi and I are playing Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate together on the PS4.

There’s actually a surprising amount of unique content; characters have their own storylines and campaigns that cross multiple stages. It’s more than just throwing a bunch of characters in a blender; someone at Koei, somehow, manages to actually care about their characters and mechanics enough to ensure each moment feels unique.

On the other hand, this game is pretty much throwing a bunch of characters in a blender. We’re unlocking characters as we go, but according to the wiki the total number available is 145. Each of those characters can be leveled up to 100, then reset to do it again, seven times. Everyone has multiple weapons with multiple stats, each of which can be customized and leveled up. Collect items, which have levels. And every officer has a social link to every other officer, based on how much they work together, and those social links unlock new stages and events.

It’s a massive grind, but somehow it works. I think part of that may be that there’s multiple independent grinds,  all happening at once – so while you’re focused on achieving one thing, you’re gaining bonuses elsewhere. You might spend an hour focused on increasing someone’s social link, but they’re also gaining levels as you go. Maybe you do a mission to gain levels, but you’re also earning gems to buy new weapons. Go hunting for items, and you’re earning growth points to level up.

This creates a cycle, where you might focus on one thing, get tired of it, and turn to another – and by doing so, you get to hit the ground running with a big reward from all the items, weapons, gems or growth points that you’ve saved up. Rather than making it so that getting tired of a grind means frustration, they’ve made it so that getting tired of a grind is actually a positive and rewarding experience!

Still, the Dynasty Warriors/Warriors Orochi games always make me thoughtful about the purpose of video games and games in general. They’re among the most visible examples of how pointless  our struggle is: you’ll fight for hundreds of hours to advance your generals, unlock their ultimate weapons and challenge the greatest battles of Dynasty Warriors 7, only  to throw all that progress out and start from scratch with Dynasty Warriors 8. And yet, as pointless as the struggle is, it sure feels rewarding!

D&D Basic Rules Review

Wizards of the Coast just put up the basic rules for D&D (5E, Next, etc.) for free. I’m going to skim over them and see what jumps out at me.



The book starts with a decent overview of what roleplaying is and how the game is played – nothing new here. One of the very first things you’ll read is an example of play, which is a great choice, as it immediately conveys what might be unique about playing a roleplaying game – the freedom to do whatever you want.

There’s a small warning sign in the list of chapters; chapter 1 is character creation, chapter 2 is how to play the game, and chapter 3 is all magic. I consider that troublesome because D&D has always had an issue with the spellcasters outshining the sword-swingers, and now the table of contents declares that magic is a full 1/3 of the game. We’ll see how that pans out in the actual chapter.

The basic dice mechanic is still 1d20, add modifiers, try to beat a DC number, round down if necessary. The newest thing here is advantage and disadvantage: if you have advantage, you can roll 2 dice and take the better; if you have disadvantage, roll 2 dice and take the worse. It’s a great idea, a simple mechanic that’ll cover a lot of situations.

Part 1: Creating a Character

Chapter 1: Step-by-Step Characters

I’m just going to note what I find new and different, rather than running through the whole system.

Ugh, Hit Points are back to being random, based on a die roll. I firmly believe that randomness has a place in play, but it has no place on the character sheet. Easily houseruled.

Instead of a weapon giving you a proficiency bonus, your class has a proficiency bonus that you can apply to a variety of things you’re proficient in, including attacks, spells, skills, and saving throws. I’ll have to look into that more; this could be a clever way to roll a lot of modifiers into one number.

Ability scores are suggested as 4d6, take the best three, and an array of pre-set scores is listed as an option, with point-buy as a variant. This is the opposite of 4e, where point-buy was standard, and 4d6 best three was an option. Again, I don’t think randomness belongs on the character sheet, but at least both options are presented.

For Ability scores, you still have a score and a resulting modifier, such that only even numbers really matter on your Ability scores. I’m a little disappointed there; it’s such an archaic system, I don’t know why you don’t just have a single number for each Ability, your total modifier, and be done with it.

The level chart goes from 1-20. There’s a note about tiers of play, but unlike 4E there don’t seem to be any special rules associated with the tiers. They’re just the design team saying “This is where things start to escalate.” I appreciate that.

Chapter 2: Races

The racial sections give a large amount of information about the race’s culture, attitudes, and religion before they give any mechanics or stat information. That’s a good shift, at least suggesting that character is more important than stats. However, I do find the descriptions a bit more constraining than 4E; they seem to declare things more directly (Dwarves love jewelry, dislike boats, and distrust elves) and thus suggest that a player create a ‘normal’ Dwarf, or at least have a good reason why they’re not like the rest of their race. Along those lines, races now have suggested alignments.

Races seem roughly as complex as 4E, maybe a bit more. It feels like a shift back to 3E and earlier, where races had a laundry list of modifiers and things to write down. But at least I haven’t found any of the overly-specific traits from before, stuff like +4 AC against Giants. The traits that are available are generally useful, and don’t depend on a specific enemy type.

Four races in this chapter: Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human.

Chapter 3: Classes

Four classes are listed in this chapter: Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard. They’re definitely presenting ‘classic’ D&D in these free rules.

I mentioned Hit Points being random earlier, but it looks like you can also take a fixed value at each level. The fixed value actually looks like a better option: it’s the average value of the die, rounded up, which means that it’s on average .5 HP higher per level than rolling. I’m guessing that WotC just did that to make the math clean, but I also like to imagine that they wanted to make it seem like D&D is going back to randomness, while actually making the fixed numbers a better choice.

The Cleric’s class table could have come straight out of 3E. A growing list of spell slots, an increasing proficiency bonus, and a class ability every level or two. Their main tricks are their spellcasting and their ability to turn undead, both of which improve at a good rate and don’t seem too complicated.

Clerics also get a neat option to call for divine intervention starting at 10th level, asking their deity to pull their fat out of the fire. It’s a nice option, an “oh crap” button for when the Cleric realizes things are going south, but not something to be used all the time.

The section on Divine Domains is a bit odd; it talks about how you’ll choose a domain that will guide your character’s growth, but only the Life domain is presented in these rules. I understand that these are just the basic rules, but come on, if you present something as an important choice, you’ve gotta give at least two options. Anyway, domains seem surprisingly important, granting special powers and upgrades throughout your entire adventuring career. It feels like a Life Cleric and a Knowledge Cleric will feel entirely different in play.

Fighters can choose from a number of offensive and defensive fighting styles, including one that allows the Fighter to give disadvantage to attacks they can intercept. They also have the unique ability to take a second wind, and to take an extra action once per encounter*.

*Note that I haven’t seen the word ‘encounter’ yet. But you can’t use the ability again until you rest, which is the same thing.

I should note that I’m already getting confused about the system behind this. They’ve mentioned using your action, your reaction, and the Fighter entry just mentioned an additional action and a bonus action. I’m not sure why they’re avoiding the language of move/minor/standard/immediate that’s been established, but maybe I’ll find out later.

Fighters have an archetype, just like a Cleric domain, and the same issue: they say this is an important choice, then show only one option.

At 5th level, Fighters can attack twice, three times at 11th level, four at 20th level. It looks like this will stack with their ability to take an extra action, so a Fighter could potentially surge forward and strike six times as soon as combat begins. Is that as good as what an 11th level spellcaster can do? We’ll see later.

Overall, I’m impressed with the Fighter: they hit hard, they hit often, they hit well, and they don’t fall down. Still, I haven’t seen a lot of options for the Fighter other than “I run forward and hit it as much as I can,” which is what’s always made them a little boring.

Rogues get four skills, while everyone else gets two. In 3E, I really disliked different classes getting different numbers of skills, but when it’s a unique thing to make a particular class the skill class, I’m fine with it. They also have the unique ability to apply their proficiency bonus to their use of thieves’ tools.

The description of Sneak Attack gives some insight into the combat system, and unfortunately, how convoluted the language has to be in order to avoid suggesting the use of a grid. “You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.” All this is saying is “You can Sneak Attack a flanked enemy.”

At 2nd level, Rogues get a free action every turn that they can use to run, evade, or hide. This is pretty cool; it’s a low-level ability that will make a Rogue feel completely different from a Fighter, dodging and weaving and evading.

Unlike the Cleric and Fighter, who got 2-3 abilities that improved as they leveled up, the Rogue’s class entry is a grab-bag of unique talents that seems cluttered. Expertise at 6th level, Evasion at 7th, etc. I think the Rogue’s player is most likely to have a sheet just covered with descriptions and rules for all their little tricks…but hey, if that doesn’t appeal to you, don’t play the Rogue.

Wizards, on the surface, seem pretty simple. They cast spells. Their abilities help them regain spells, cast spells better, cast bigger spells, and cast uniquely empowered spells.

Chapter 4: Personality and Background

Nothing dramatic here. The nine-alignment system is back (it never really went away in 4E, it was just set aside a bit). The other slightly new thing is Inspiration, which is just a way for the DM to reward you for roleplaying: you get a little token, and you can spend it later for advantage on a roll.

Backgrounds are significantly expanded; rather than just giving a +2 to some skill, they now give you proficiency in two skills, a new language, new equipment, and perhaps a special contact or unique feature. On the one hand, it’s cool that your background really shapes your character, especially at level 1. On the other hand, I find that stuff like this tends to pigeonhole characters. With these basic rules, your adventuring party will feature only Acolytes, Criminals, Folk Heroes, Sages, and Soldiers. Even if D&D expands this list to include 100 Backgrounds, that’s still forcing players to fit their character’s history into one of 100 pre-defined slots. Of course, you can always just write up a new background, but I think it’s important to judge a game system based on what they give you, rather than what you can fix on your own.

Chapter 5: Equipment

Armor is a little simplified. Using armor you’re not proficient in gives disadvantage to Strength and Dexterity checks. Heavy armor has a Strength requirment; if you’re below that Strength, you move 10 ft slower. Many pieces of armor give Disadvantage on Stealth checks.

Nothing too complicated on weapons. Crossbows and blowguns have the ‘Loading’ trait, which just means you can only make one attack per action, regardless of any other bonuses. But a heavy crossbow is a reasonable combat option now, if you don’t mind having your hands full. It was way too slow to use before.

There’s a section of miscellaneous items, which ends up being just a long list of special rules about how to use each item. A paragraph of rules on using Caltrops, Antitoxin, Healer’s Kits, Hunting Traps, etc. I feel like this kind of granularity slows the game down.

Lifestyle expenses remind me of Shadowrun; it’s a flat GP cost to reflect how well you live in the world. I wonder how many adventurers will live at the Poor or Squalid levels just to save a few GP.

Chapter 6: Customization Options

This chapter could be interesting. Let’s see.

…sadly not interesting, because it’s only a page long. Multiclassing can be freely done, as in 3rd Edition, but the rules are in the Player’s Handbook, not these simple rules.

Feats are also in the PHB, and changed in an interesting way. Whenever your character would be eligible to increase an Ability score due to gaining a level, they may forgo that improvement to take a Feat instead.

These Feats had better be amazing. Ability scores are the core of your character, and giving up an improvement there is pretty significant.

Part 2: Playing the Game

Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

The basic system is pretty familiar. Skills, however, work pretty differently. Rolling your basic Ability modifier is much more common now, and a character with a high Ability score will be pretty good with everything under that Ability. If you have proficiency in a skill, you can add your Proficiency Bonus, which starts at +2 and eventually reaches +6.

I’m a little conflicted here. I love the simplification of the system, and taking the emphasis away from the skill list and back to the character’s own abilities. On the other hand, the math just doesn’t work that way. Let’s take a Medium DC, 15. A average person succeeds 25% of the time. A character with a high Ability score, maybe 16, succeeds 40% of the time. And adding a +3 proficiency bonus makes it 55%. So a reasonably skilled, trained character will fail a moderate task 45% of the time, and will only succeed 30% more than your average joe.

I may be missing something about the system, but the problem here is just the d20. It’s too big, offers too much variance. I guess maybe the point here is that you should really try to get advantage on your roll before you do anything important.

Saving Throws are now based on each ability, so you’ll have Dexterity saving throws, Charisma saving throws, etc. Makes sense and I don’t know why they didn’t do it this way all along.

Chapter 8: Adventuring

Blah blah text I skipped a bunch. Rules for walking, holding your breath, making stuff and talking to people. Seems well-written, nothing revolutionary.

Chapter 9: Combat

The rules here seem similar to 3E and 4E, with a lot of the names changed, and no direct reference to miniatures or a battle map. Opportunity attacks are still here, and the trigger has been simplified yet again: now, you only get an opportunity attack when a creature leaves your reach. Ranged attacks don’t provoke opportunity attacks, but you have disadvantage on ranged attack rolls when you’re engaged with a hostile creature.

One thing I noticed, you can break up your movement, moving both before and after your action. Getting up from prone costs half your speed, so it’s not as debilitating as earlier editions.

Part 3: The Rules of Magic

Chapter 10: Spellcasting

We’re on page 78, about 2/3 of the way through this document.

Spellcasters have 0-level spells, Cantrips, that they can use as much as they want.

Some spells can be cast as a ritual, which takes much longer but doesn’t expend the spell. That makes it more reasonable for a Wizard to keep, say, Water Breathing and Knock memorized, and use them whenever there’s an appropriate obstacle. But that also makes it reasonable for the Wizard to use his spells all the time, marginalizing the Rogue or other non-caster classes.

…I say that, but I don’t actually see Knock or Water Breathing on this list, and in fact I see very few Ritual spells. So few, in fact, that there isn’t much point to the rule at all. I’m sure more Ritual spells will be released over time.

Some spells require Concentration, which just means that you can’t cast another Concentration spell at the same time, and you might lose the spell if you take damage. Looks like Constitution will actually be an important stat for spellcasters.

And, ugh, spell lists. I hate this part of making a spellcaster – looking through the spell list, finding an interesting spell in the alphabetical list, trying to remember the details while looking at the other spells and trying to pick the ones that you like the most.

Plenty of save-or-die spells like Dominate Monster, Sleep, and Otto’s Irresistible Dance. It looks like spellcasters are going to dominate combat again, although there’s no monster listings in this document so I don’t really know.

The End!

Okay, that’s pretty much it. I glossed over some stuff, didn’t really read many of the spells, but I think I got the idea.

I like some of the simplifications they’ve done, such as for skills, and the advantage/disadvantage system. Fighters and Rogues have unique abilities and feel distinctive and ‘meaty’ – you get extra actions, extra attacks, bonuses to critical hits, and other significant, permanent effects at very early levels.

On the other hand, I feel like a lot of the frustrations of 3rd Edition and earlier are present, with no effort to acknowledge or respond to them. Weapon-users still take a back seat to spellcasters who can shut down an entire battle with a thought. Character sheets will have pages of notes on special abilities and special features of items.

I’m asking myself, would I rather run this or 4th Edition D&D? I’m not sure. 4E had a real emphasis on game balance and usability at the table, and the fact that this new D&D is trying to distance itself from those ideas is a concern. It does seem like it’ll flow better, and that everyone will have very unique characters and playstyles as early as level 2, but I’m worried that those playstyles will become less and less interesting as the spellcasters continue to level up.

Right now, I’m not feeling overly inclined to switch over to this new edition, but I don’t think I’d hesitate to join in a game that someone else was running.

Zero Escape 2: Virtue’s Last Reward

I just finished Virtue’s Last Reward, on the PS Vita. It’s hard to say I ‘played’ it, really – the game is a visual novel, and it takes the novel part seriously, with a few tidbits of gameplay sprinkled through a lot of non-interactive text.

That’s not to say it’s unsatisfying. The gameplay that is there comes in the form of ‘escape the room’ puzzles, where you’ve got a locked room and you need to use the items in the room to find a way to escape. These moments are challenging without being frustrating, and generally the puzzles aren’t exactly hard – they just require a pencil and paper or some intuition to figure out. That’s a rarity in modern games, and it was a welcome experience, to be taking notes about the weights of objects or transcribing a cipher by hand.

Anyway, let me tell you a bit about the story (which is probably 80% of the game) without spoiling it. I really enjoy game narratives that use the medium of video games in some way. That is to say – video games have been trying to be movies for a long time, with cinematic stories and big cutscenes. But I like it best when games tell their stories in a way that only games can. That might be storytelling through exploration, or making use of interactivity and branching possibilities, or something like The Stanley Parable or Bastion that subverts the idea of a narrator.

When you’re playing a game, and you get to a big decision, what do you do? Maybe you quick-save, make a decision, then try the other option. If you have strong willpower, you’ll play through your choice, but maybe you’ll start a new game later and try another path. Virtue’s Last Reward not only supports that kind of exploration of choices, but it’s a critical part of the story. You might encounter a password in one possible storyline that goes to a computer in another possible storyline, or confront people with information that you shouldn’t know yet.

It reminds me of a Star Trek episode, where Data is playing Sherlock Holmes in the holodeck. As soon as the simulation begins, he walks over to a seemingly random person, pulls the missing letters out of their coat, and declares them guilty. Because Data had already read the Holmes story, and he knew how it ended.

Virtue’s Last Reward also recognizes that it’s a video game in one other way: the main character has an excellent memory, which is important to the plot. He memorizes passwords instantly; at one point, he regurgitates a 25-digit number that he only saw once. This is a reflection of something we do when playing video games: when we find an important piece of complicated information, we write it down. Virtue’s Last Reward takes that out-of-game action of recording something for later and makes it an in-game action as well.

It’s hard to recommend, because there is a lot of long conversations and repetition. The game lets you quickly skip through text you’ve seen before, but you might find yourself listening to conversations that are almost the same, but not quite, and thus unskippable. For reference, I completed the entire story, all of its branches, in 27 hours.

Magic, CCGs, and ‘Mr. Suitcase’

Thinking about Magic: The Gathering today, I realized that there’s a clever mechanic to combat the ‘Mr. Suitcase’ problem, and it’s a mechanic which was one of the first to totally fail in Magic.

First, Mr. Suitcase: that’s the guy who comes to game night with a suitcase full of Magic cards. (It also comes from a simpler time, when a suitcase was an unimaginably large collection.) The guy with the decks filled with $40 rares and out-of-print promos.

So, the mechanic to fix that? Ante.

It used to be part of the core rules for Magic – not even a variant – that both players would put a random card from their deck up for ante. Win the game and the card is yours.

This deals with Mr. Suitcase in a few ways:

  • It balances decks across rarities. A deck filled with common cards may not be as powerful as a deck filled with rares, but you’re only going to lose a common if you lose the game. Winning one game out of 10 with a weak deck is still worth it if you score a good card from your victory.
  • It discourages the secondary market. If you pay $50 for a premium card, you might lose it in your next game.
  • It discourages decks built around one or two powerful cards, because there’s a chance that your core card will be pulled out of your deck before the game begins.
  • It creates an interesting opportunity for cards to interact with ante. There are cards like Contract from Below that give a massive benefit, but force you to ‘double down’ and add another card to your ante. Likewise, there are cards like Darkpact that allow you to remove your ante or replace it with a different card, but have no other effect. To some extent, this allows a beginner or a weak player to build a deck that is unlikely to win, but can avoid giving up valuable cards, while a skilled player can give themselves a handicap but claim extra cards if they win.

Those upsides are brought down by the massive downside that you risk losing your cards in every game. Once players started taking their collections seriously, ante was unacceptable.

I wonder if ante could be brought back in some form in a future game? It would make a very interesting long-form convention game; players would be given a deck at the start of the convention, and would play for ante throughout the con until the tournament on the final day.


There’s a routine I’ve seen before by Teller of Penn & Teller. He comes on stage, lights a cigarette, blows smoke, then puts the cigarette out. But then he turns around so you can see his other side and does the routine again, and you can see how he palms one cigarette, makes another appear out of thin air, fakes the lighter, and moves his props from pocket to pocket…an incredibly complex routine designed to look like a simple one.

Resogun is like that. It looks like a fairly routine and graphically standard shooter: you have a ship, enemies appear, you shoot them, eventually a boss appears and you defeat it.

Over time, you start to pay attention to the other things the game is telling you. There’s a lot of information presented on-screen, such as your boost status, overdrive status, multiplier, the location and status of any humans that have been released, and your progress through the level. The game doesn’t do a good job – or any job, really – attempting to explain its own mechanics and subsystems, and it’s up to you to figure out what the game is trying to tell you as it shouts ‘Keepers Detected’ and ‘Human Lost.’

Similarly, the graphics are more complex than they appear. Everything in the game is made up voxels – little boxes. When you destroy an enemy, they’ll shatter into bits, and those bits will fall, splash, and bounce on the floor of the level. Many enemies explode when they’re destroyed, and those explosions will destroy sections of buildings in the background, spraying bits everywhere. After a while, the background is pitted with craters, and the floor has been shredded. This has no gameplay impact, though, so it’s easy to miss it. If you can find a moment to pull your attention away from the wall of bullets being shot at you, you might realize that this simple-looking game is actually using quite a bit of the PS4’s power.

Ultimately, it turns out to be a risk/reward shooter – the more danger you put yourself in, the more points you’ll score. Take Boost, for example: the most basic use of Boost is for short bursts to escape a dangerous situation. If you use it that way, you’ll almost always have Boost available. If you want the most points, however, you’ll want to use Boost offensively, charging straight through enemies and continuing to boost until your meter is depleted. But then, once your Boost ends, you’ll be vulnerable for 5-10 seconds while the meter recharges.

Right now, I’d say that Resogun doesn’t feel quite as classic as Super Stardust HD did (the previous game from this team), but it’s definitely the strongest of the non-AAA titles that are available for the PS4 at launch. It’s free for PS Plus members at launch too, so go explode something!

Contrast PS4

Contrast is the Platonic ideal of the indie platformers that have followed in the wake of Portal. You know, the games that can be summarized as “A platformer/FPS/RTS, but with a special power!” And like many of those games, it executes its primary idea well, but is well behind the curve on everything else.

In Contrast, the twist is that your character can move up to a wall, then stand on shadows as if they were solid. You’ll do things like moving a spotlight into the right position so that it casts a shadow that looks like stairs, then shifting into the wall and climbing the shadow as if it were stairs.

When it works, it’s a cool effect. There are a few cutscenes where two characters will be talking in silhouette, and you’ll be moving across their shadows to get to the next area – perhaps riding up on a woman’s shoe as she lifts her leg, or running down a man’s arm as he scratches his head.

Sadly, though, pretty much everything else is lousy. The models are bad, the animation is nonexistent, the controls are slippery, the camera swings around too fast, the voice acting is amateurish, the writing is flat, and the story is only of moderate interest (despite frequent cutscenes that seem to be convinced that we’re watching the next great piece of cinema).

The shadow shifting is neat, but I feel like they missed the best effects. The coolest moments come from seeing a physical object, then using that physical object’s shadow to advance. For example, in an early scene, an overturned bicycle lies with its wheels spinning. By shifting into the shadow, you can ride the wheels (now huge, in shadow). It’s a good effect, because it gives a connection between the physical world and the real world. However, many of the scenes involve conversations between people who have no physical presence, and only exist in shadow. Without the physical object/shadow link, moving across shadows is just an exercise in platforming.

I will grant that there are a few good pieces of dialogue. I just finished a mission involving a puppet show. The puppet show was about three times longer than it needed to be, but there were some fun jokes in the middle. (And then the princess realized she needed to use the magic mushrooms to get high…er up!)

It’s worth checking out if you have a PS4, since it’s free with your one month trial of PS Plus. It’s not a very good demo for the PS4, though – in fact, it would even look a little dated on the PS2. Check out Echochrome 2 on the PS3 if you’re interested in more light/shadow gameplay.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag PS4

Jacqi’s playing through Assassin’s Creed IV on the PS4 right now. We’re not far enough in to speak on the gameplay or story (although she says that ship combat feels a lot better) but I can at least talk about the graphics and general experience, and how it compares to the earlier games in the series.

Overall, it’s not an amazing advance. AC4 is, at its heart, a PS3/360 game, and the models, animations, and art are all pretty close to what we’ve seen before. But there are some really nice textures and shading, and the draw distance is wonderful.

It’s not a bad start to this generation. The game is beautiful, and it’s only going to get better from here. It really continues the trend that I’ve been feeling from the PS4: right now, it’s a PS3 that works great. It’ll be a year or two before it truly finds an identity of its own.

Flower PS4

Flower, on the PS3, was a gorgeous, relaxing, and immersive experience. Flower on the PS4 is exactly the same, but with no compromises. The game runs at 60 FPS, and the draw distance is stunning. You can make out individual blades of grass on hills a quarter-mile away.

I hope that, if 4K TVs become the next big thing in a few years, they update Flower again. This is a game that just can’t get beautiful enough.

And, of course, Flower PS4 is free if you own Flower PS3.

Sound Shapes PS4

Sound Shapes on the PS4 is a solid port of Sound Shapes, which is a solid, enjoyable, and musical platformer.

There’s nothing revolutionary about the gameplay on PS4; you can swipe to change pages in the editor, and the sound of pickups will play through your controller, but it’s the same game.

It does send a nice message, though. First, that the PS4 is easy enough to develop for that indies can port their titles over pretty easily. Second, Sony continues to be an industry leader in cross-buy, and they’ll give you the PS4 version for free if you own the PS3 or Vita versions.

If we can’t have backwards compatibility, this is at least the right direction.

PlayStation 4 Controller

The first thing the Dual Shock 4 does, when you hold it in your hands, is to make the Dual Shock 3 feel cheap. The DS3 is a sandwich of hard plastic; the DS4 is all smooth curves, rubberized grips, matte finishes.

The strangest thing about the controller is certainly the removal of Start and Select. Start has become the Options button near the shoulder of the controller, and Select…well, what was Select really for, anyway? I think the most common use was bringing up the map, which seems like it’ll probably get mapped to the central touch pad for most games.

Speaking of the touch pad, it feels fine. Sound Shapes uses it to move through screens when in editor mode, which is fine, but not really exciting. I hear that Assassin’s Creed 4 uses it better, so I’m looking forward to that. It does seem to take up more space on the controller than I’d like, and gives the DS4 the impression of being wide, stretched out.

The onboard speaker sounds fine; not as good as the sound from my speaker system, certainly. It also starts out too loud – hold down the PS button to turn it down. When I was playing Resogun, I was sitting next to a few other people, and they didn’t realize the controller had an onboard speaker until I pointed it out. This is good – this means that the controller’s audio is directional, so only the person holding the controller can hear it well.

The light bar is cute, and unobtrusive. When you’re holding the controller in a normal gaming grip, the light bar is actually covered by the curve of the controller, so you’re not seeing the glare or reflection in your TV. But from experience, I know that when you want to do motion control, you’d naturally lift the controller up to about chest level – which would expose the light bar. Clever, Sony.

I’ve noticed that Sound Shapes uses the light bar – it pulses in time with the music, and flashes red when the player is killed. That’s cute…although like I said, the player holding the controller can’t actually see the light bar while using the controller. Maybe if you were playing in a small, pitch-black room, it’d add a cool lighting effect to the game.

There’s a few things I haven’t tried; the headphone jack on the bottom of the controller, which is sitting next to some kind of expansion port I don’t recognize. Altogether, I’m looking forward to playing games with this controller.

PlayStation 4 First Impressions

The PS4 is all hooked up and humming along nicely in our entertainment center, after resolving a few small issues. (Use the HDMI cable they provide you with in the box.) I cleared off a nice big shelf for the PS4, but it wasn’t necessary; the new box is about as small as the PS3 Slim beneath it.

And that, in a nutshell, summarizes my experience with the PS4 thus far: it doesn’t feel like a brand new console. Instead, it feels like a new model of the PS3, but one that works amazingly well. The world of video games has changed dramatically in the last 8 years since the PS3 was released, and that console has evolved and updated and stretched to do things that nobody knew they even wanted to do eight years ago. Now, the PS4 is Sony’s opportunity to update, put a coat of finish on the whole thing, and make a console that does what we want to do now really well, and hopefully is equally capable of doing whatever we want in the future.

Without going into elaborate detail on everything: the user interface is like the PS3’s, but it works great. It’s fast and snappy. When you press the power button, the console is ready to go in about a second. (That’s because it’s usually in standby, rather than fully powered off.) Downloads queue themselves more effectively, download in the background more seamlessly, and install themselves quietly. The controller feels good, the PS Vita link works great, even the PlayStation App for smartphones and tablets is a wonderful addition.

The PS App is worth mentioning, because that may be the most direct example of something that people wanted, Sony could never quite deliver during the PS3 era, but they nail it on launch day on the PS4. I don’t know if there’s anything in the PS4’s technology that makes that possible, or if Sony just finally decided to try. The App also has a cool feature that allows you to use your phone as a keyboard for the PS4, which means I can use Swype, which will be about a hundred times faster than the PS4’s hunt-and-peck virtual keyboard.

At this time, I don’t have any real complaints. The system hasn’t blown me away, but nobody really expected that. This console generation is an evolution, not a revolution. Perhaps I can ding it slightly by saying that the interface isn’t quite as intuitive as I want yet; I’m sure it’s just a holdover from the PS3, but there’s a few things that don’t seem to be where I want them to be. Online game data is under the Settings menu now, instead of under a Game menu on the PS3. Sharing settings for your profile are on your Profile page, not under a PSN heading. Little stuff like that.

Update: I just had an interesting moment. I was playing Sound Shapes, and the game crashed hard – going into an audio loop and freezing. I pressed the PS4 button to see if I could reset the console, and the PS4 user interface came up as if there was nothing wrong. I was able to smoothly close down Sound Shapes and restart the game. So that means that the user interface is somewhat compartmentalized from the games, able to keep running even if a game crashes. That’s kind of neat.

Update: I have one extremely tiny nitpick! The startup beep for the PS4 is exactly the same pitch as the PS3. I would have liked a slightly different sound, just as one more piece of feedback when I start up a console.

Unity 4.x Game AI Programming

Packt Publishing provided me with a copy of Unity 4.x Game AI Programming to review. While AI programming is a new field for me, the importance of AI programming is definitely very familiar. After watching videos of some of the new games for PS4 and Xbox One, it’s clear that ‘realism’ in the next generation of games will not be defined by polygons or particle effects, but by how characters move, interact, and engage with their world. Intelligent AI is a major part of that.

I’ll just be looking at the first sections of the book, and giving my thoughts as I go. To start with, at the preface/table of contents, I’m already impressed by the approach. There’s a good progression from the introduction of AI concepts, to simple state machines, to more complex state machines with an element of probability and uncertainty, and finally reaching complex characters that can navigate and make ‘decisions’ independent of being explicitly programmed to do so. There’s a chapter on building AI with sensors – that is to say, AI that have ‘eyes’ that ‘see’ and ‘ears’ that ‘hear,’ and make decisions based on what their senses tell them.

Getting into chapter 2, Finite State Machines, is where the code begins. It’s clear here that this is not primarily a book about the theory of AI design, but instead a more specific guide to implementing that design in Unity. There’s a lot of code, and a lot to be learned from the code, so you’ll really want to have a copy of Unity open in front of you and follow along.

Due to limited time, I only browsed through the rest of the book, but I have a good sense of its content: lots of learn-by-following code, bookended with some good discussion of AI concepts. This is definitely a hands-on learning experience, but I’m confident that after completing this book, the reader would have a good conceptual foundation for implementing better AI in their games. It’s still up to you to determine how you want to use that AI, and how it will help you create better games.

Get the book from Packt Publishing here: http://www.packtpub.com/unity-4-x-game-artificial-intelligence-programming/book

Strategy and Tactics

While listening to the Dice Tower podcast, one of the hosts made a point I found interesting. When playing a CCG, building your deck is strategy, while playing the game is tactics.

In terms of games, I define strategy as your overall plan for success in the game, while tactics is the moment-to-moment actions you take to fulfill your strategy.

Maybe my problem with deckbuilding is that I just don’t enjoy strategy – or that there’s too much strategy. When I look at a set of cards, I see hundreds of thousands of possible strategies, and I burn out long before I reduce that set down to one. But I really enjoy tactics – drawing a hand of cards, and figuring out how I’m going to play them in order to succeed.

I wonder if I can stretch this idea to cover other aspects of my gaming preferences? For example, bidding. Initial bidding is sort of like setting a strategy for the round; you’re making a statement about whether you intend to win handily, you might win, or you choose not to participate. I don’t find it very tactical, because it’s open-ended; my ability to bid is limited by the money I have in my pocket, but otherwise I can bid whatever I want, so I don’t feel like it qualifies as making efficient decisions with limited resources.

In contrast, a game like Ra, where you have three betting chips of specific values and you can only bet those values, feels very tactical. I don’t have infinite choices, I have four: to play one of my three chips, or choose not to play any.

This is good to learn; it’s always positive to learn more about my gaming style.


Standing in the shower, I thought about dimensions. In particular, I wanted to find a way to grasp the idea of the 4th dimension.

0 Dimensions

You’re a point. In fact, everything is a point. Congratulations! You’ve explored the farthest star, the deepest ocean, and seen everything there is to see – because it’s all here, and also you.

1 Dimension

I thought about two interesting relationships between 1 dimension and 0 dimensions:

a. Any expression of 0-dimensional location corresponds to an infinite number of locations in 1-dimensional space.

The only expression of 0-dimensional location is a point, and there are infinite points on a 1-dimensional line.

To a 0-dimensional universe, a 1-dimensional universe contains infinite resources and locations.

b. While traveling in 1 dimension, you can reach a 0-dimensional location via an infinite number of paths, while keeping the same projection on the 0-dimensional universe.

I’ll talk about that more in 2 dimensions, it’s more interesting there.

2 dimensions

a. Any expression of 1-dimensional location corresponds to an infinite number of locations in 2-dimensional space.

That is to say, if a 1-dimensional being referred to ‘the point that is 2 inches from here,’ a 2-dimensional being can find an infinite number of locations that match that criteria.

To a 1-dimensional universe, a 2-dimensional universe contains infinite resources and locations.

b. While traveling in 2 dimensions, you can reach a 1-dimensional location via an infinite number of paths, while keeping the same projection on the 1-dimensional universe.

Imagine two points on a line. A 1-dimensional being can only move between those points via a single route: a straight line. But a 2-dimensional being can leave the line, go up and down, spiral around, and finally come back down to the second point.

So when we meet up at the end point and compare notes, the 1-dimensional being says “That was 1 inch!” and the 2-dimensional being says “That was at least one inch, but also five feet, and a hundred million miles.”

3 dimensions

a. Any expression of 2-dimensional location corresponds to an infinite number of locations in 3-dimensional space.

If a 2-dimensional being referred to ‘the point that is 2 inches from here at 45 degrees*,’ a 3-dimensional being can find an infinite number of locations that match that criteria. You could go 45 degrees North and also climb straight up, or dive down.

*Assuming some kind of absolute reference point.

To a 2-dimensional universe, a 3-dimensional universe contains infinite resources and locations.

b. While traveling in 3 dimensions, you can reach a 2-dimensional location via an infinite number of paths, while keeping the same projection on the 2-dimensional universe.

4 dimensions

This is where it hopefully gets interesting, as we extrapolate further.

a. Any expression of 3-dimensional location corresponds to an infinite number of locations in 4-dimensional space.

If you face North, set your compass so that you are not gaining or losing elevation, then walk ten feet forward, you might find yourself in any one of an infinite number of distinct locations.

To a 3-dimensional universe, a 4-dimensional universe contains infinite resources and locations.

b. While traveling in 4 dimensions, you can reach a 3-dimensional location via an infinite number of paths, while keeping the same projection on the 3-dimensional universe.

If you watched the 3-dimensional shadow of a 4-dimensional traveler move 100 feet, they may have traveled 100 feet or a billion miles.

(Three-dimensional shadows are a neat concept, too. This assumes a 4-dimensional source of light which creates a three-dimensional projection of a 4-dimensional being.)


I actually got to thinking about this while playing a 2D fighting game. I was trying to think of how a 3D fighting game would work, where the 3rd dimension wasn’t depth.

Kickstarter Report

I’ve backed a few Kickstarters – about a dozen. I thought it’d be interesting to view them as a snapshot of Kickstarter today.


Unexploded Cow: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cheapassgames/unexploded-cow-from-cheapass-games

Flash Point: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2012515236/flash-point-2nd-story-urban-structures-and-ff-figu

The Lost Dutchman: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crashgames/legend-of-the-lost-dutchman

All three games arrived pretty much on-time and as promised. I found The Lost Dutchman a little amateurish, but it still did everything it claimed in the Kickstarter.

None of these were the company’s first release. Crash Games, Cheapass Games, and Indie Boards & Cards all have a few releases under their belt, so there was very little risk in backing them.

In Progress

The Red Dragon Inn 4: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/slugfestgames/the-red-dragon-inn-4

SlugFest has made plenty of games, so there’s no risk in this one. In fact, it may be a little too un-risky, as I know there’s some backlash about companies using Kickstarter as a glorified pre-order system. (I don’t begrudge SlugFest for it; they’re playing by Kickstarter’s rules.)

Adventures on the Tabletop: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/moviemaker/adventures-on-the-tabletop-a-board-game-design-doc

According to his profile, Douglas Morse has made a number of films. I admit that I don’t have total confidence in this one getting delivered on time (I just have that feeling that the creator may be inclined to bite off more than he can chew), but if I get just a half-hour of good, insightful board gaming conversation out of the project, it’ll be worth my pledge.

Completed: High Confidence

Flash Point – Extreme Danger: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2012515236/flash-point-fire-rescue-extreme-danger

Indie Boards & Cards already delivered on Flash Point, so I doubt the expansion will present a problem. I do feel like they went a little overboard with their stretch goals, but the stretch goals are just tokens; they really just add up to one small sheet of cardboard per backer.

Anamanaguchi – Endless Fantasy Album: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dreamhax/anamanaguchi-make-endless-fantasy-more-than-album

The album is already done; the Kickstarter is just to help promote and distribute it.

Deluxe Exalted 3rd Edition: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/200664283/deluxe-exalted-3rd-edition

I wasn’t entirely happy with the structure and price on this one, and I’m holding out judgement on the quality of the new edition, but I think they’ll complete the book and deliver it fairly close to their estimated date. This isn’t White Wolf’s first Kickstarter or release.

Completed: Some Doubts

Shadowrun Returns: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1613260297/shadowrun-returns

Shadowrun Returns has put out some good gameplay footage, and the direction they’re going looks really good. On the other hand, though, the project funded over a year ago. If they’re just now putting up some basic mockups of characters walking around and interacting with the world, it’s a little worrisome, especially since they’ve blown past their January 2013 estimated release. I don’t doubt that this game will be released eventually – I just worry that it’ll end up like Duke Nukem Forever, getting pushed out after five years of development hell, and we’ll all have moved on already.

Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/redthread/dreamfall-chapters-the-longest-journey

I don’t have the highest confidence in this one; it seems like they have a huge project in front of them, and I’m not sure 1.5 million is enough to make the game they want to make. Like Shadowrun Returns, I’m confident that this game will eventually come out; I’m just worried that it’ll end up being pushed out the door unpolished after exceeding their time and budget.

I shouldn’t complain too much yet; their suggested release date is November 2014, so they have at least that long to prove themselves. …now that I think about it, that’s kind of crazy. I put up $20 up front for a game that I’m certainly not going to see for two years, and probably longer. Well, that’s Kickstarter.

Completed: Looking Bad

Code Hero http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/primerist/code-hero-a-game-that-teaches-you-to-make-games-he

Oh, Code Hero, you’re such a disaster. Their alpha demo was really promising and incredibly innovative, but since then there have been very few updates, lots of backers fighting for information, threats of lawsuits, and no sign of the game.

This will be an interesting one to watch. Unlike the other games, where I’m confident they’ll be released eventually, it’s entirely possible that the Code Hero situation will end with a lawsuit and the collapse of Primer Labs.

I guess I’ll just wait and see. I may be out $13, but that price is almost worth it for a front-row seat at the carnival.

Phystix: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mutantminds/phystix-tm-a-game-of-skill-strategy-and-balance

I have a lot of empathy for Mutant Minds, the Phystix creators. The guy doing this project is exactly like me: he needed a Kickstarter to buy a machine to produce his product, the Kickstarter was very successful, he ran into a bunch of problems and production got slowed down, and he’s very stressed about it and wanting to make things right.

The difference is that I pulled through and actually finished my Kickstarter project, whereas I don’t think he’s shipped any at all. (I’m in the ‘Early Bird’ backer group that was supposed to have their product by Christmas 2012.)

I really feel for this guy, but I’m starting to think he should throw in the towel. There’s a point in a Kickstarter where you have to throw your hands up and realize that it’s going to cost you more to finish the project than it would cost to just give up and move on. I would almost feel bad at this point to receive my Phystix, because I know that my $35 pledge will have cost him $70 or more to create and ship.

A New Free-To-Play Model

I dislike the Free-To-Play trend. I believe that a microtransaction-based revenue model always weakens the game that it’s attached to.

Without going into my dislike too much: I got to thinking about how I’d go about creating a Free-To-Play game where the microtransactions would not be as negative to the game.

1) No set prices.

The price of each item changes dynamically, based on the demand for that item. As long as you pay 1/2 the current average price, you can get the item.

This circumvents all of the “X is overpriced!” threads that pop up in the forums of every F2P game. The community prices each item based on how valuable it is to them; more appealing things become more expensive, and less appealing things cheaper.

2) You get benefits for meeting and exceeding the current average price.

If you’re buying a new character, you might get a costume for meeting the current average price, and two costumes for paying twice the current average. If you’re buying a power, you might get one free rank in the power for meeting the current average, and two free ranks for doubling it.

Also, this is retroactive. If the average price ever drops down to what you paid, you get the bonus item for free. And you always have the option to pay the difference between what you originally paid and the current average in order to get the bonus item. (In short: no matter what you pay, you are never screwed because of it.)

This is, of course, inspired by the Humble Indie Bundle, which lets you pay anything you want but gives you extra games if you beat the current average. I’ve seen the charts, and this ‘beat the average’ system has been tremendously successful for them. I think it would translate well into the F2P arena.

3) Don’t charge for redoing character creation.

Making people pay to change their name, or change their character’s appearance or gender, is just petty.

I’m not talking about buying new haircuts, races, or armor appearances. I’m just talking about the choices that the player originally had in character creation. Don’t charge me $5 just because, at level 15, I decide that my character’s nose really should have been bigger.

Again, this is the no-screwing policy. If I had a choice, and it has no mechanical effect on the game, then let me be free to go back and try the other choice. (I’m okay with charging for a respec. Changing your skills is a choice with a mechanical effect. But see #4 below.)

4) No consumables.

My hypothetical game will have no items that are consumed when used. Every single cent you pay into the game translates into a permanent unlock or upgrade for your character.

In other words, you won’t buy a respec token, but you might buy the ability to respect your character once every three months. If you pay a little more, you can change that so that you can respec once every month, then every week, then every day, then every hour.

You won’t buy super healing potions that are discarded when used, but you might buy a healing potion that can only be used once a week, with upgrades making it available more often.

The point is that you are not buying consumable items; you’re buying permanent upgrades to your account.

5) Lifetime loyalty rewards instead of discounting massive up-front purchases.

Almost every F2P game gives you a massive discount if you buy a huge amount of virtual currency up front. As a cautious gamer, though, that scares me away – I want to get the best value for my money, but I’m just not ready to drop $200 on a ‘free’ game.

Instead, I’d offer a loyalty reward. Once you’ve spent $100, you get 5% off all your future currency purchases. $250 gets you 10% off, up to maybe a maximum of 50% off. But you’re free to spend whatever you want at any time – we won’t distinguish between five $20 purchases and one $100 purchase.

It’s inspired by the discounts on CoolStuffInc, which gives a steadily increasing discount on board and card games as you spend more money with their company. I’m finding myself drawn by their loyalty program to spend more with them, because I know that not only am I getting a small discount on my current purchase, but I’m unlocking bigger discounts on future purchases. (It doesn’t hurt that CSI already has the best prices I can find online.)


So, that’s my system: a system where nothing can be overpriced or underpriced, where your dollars are never wasted, and where players are encouraged to spend more than the average price for an item without being forced to do so. I think it would be pretty successful.

Humble Bundles

Another Humble Indie Bundle went live today. I’ve been wanting to play Hotline Miami, so this was a great opportunity to get it for a low price, AND a bunch of other indie games.

I do wonder if this is really helping the developers, though. At this point, the Humble Bundle sales are so reliable, I know that any indie game that really interests me will show up there in 9-12 months. (In Hotline Miami’s case, it’s only been 7 months since release.) It’s getting easier to resist buying games new, because I know that I’ll be able to get it for a song later, and I’ll still be able to participate in the conversation, since many others will be getting the game at the same time.

I guess time will tell. They have all the data, so if the Humble Bundle sales become unprofitable for developers, they’ll stop doing them.

Mechanics I Dislike

While out with Sam and Cliff, they reminded me that I’m on the record for having a pretty negative reaction to gambling mechanics in games.

It got me thinking, and now I have a few mechanics I’d like to talk about. For me, personally, these mechanics almost always detract from the game unnecessarily. I do give some examples of games that are exceptions to my dislike, however.

Let’s begin!

Petty Memorization

I dislike it when games instruct me to keep my victory points or other cards face-down after I’ve earned them.

I’m not talking about games where hidden information and memorization can be the entire heart of the game, like Fury of Dracula. Instead, I’m talking about games like Small World, where you earn victory points openly, but then keep the values of your tokens face-down.

Any game mechanic that can be circumvented by a notepad and a pencil is a sloppy one. I understand the reason this mechanic exists – game designers want to keep us engaged, mentally keeping track of everyone’s score, and also avoid kingmaker problems by making it unclear who’s winning.

But unless there’s some randomness and uncertainty to the hidden information, this is just petty and punishing for players who want to just play the game instead of committing everything their opponents do to memory. I like to be able to get up from a game, use the bathroom, and get a soda without needing to mentally repeat “Sam has 3, Greg has 5, Erin has 4” over and over in my head.

A game weakened by this mechanic: Glory to Rome. In Glory to Rome, cards move around the table face-up, and get placed in different parts of your play mat for everyone to see. However, if you place a card in your Vault, it goes face-down. It’s not a secret; you have to openly announce which cards you’re putting away. But it mars the elegance and thoughtful strategy of the game to have that one piece of information hidden.

A game that overcomes this weakness: Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. The number of Corruption tokens you earn during a game is kept hidden. However, the only reason the tokens matter is that the player who has the most tokens at the end automatically loses the game. This lets me choose my involvement in the hidden information – if I don’t want to worry about it, all I have to do is make sure I am less corrupt than at least one other player. If I do want to worry about it, then it’s my choice to try to follow and track everyone’s tokens.


This is definitely personal taste, but deckbuilding in CCGs drives me crazy, and often makes it so that I can’t enjoy the game. If I play a CCG and lose, it’s because I didn’t build my deck right; if I play a CCG and win, it’s because my opponent didn’t build their deck right. Either way, I can’t take any real satisfaction in my victory.

This is why I only play Magic with pre-constructed decks.

A common thread for me is that I don’t like being forced to play one game to play another. In this instance, I don’t like being forced to play the deckbuilding game in order to play the main card-strategy game.

A game weakened by this mechanic: Android: Netrunner. Netrunner has a really interesting system involving bluffs and counterplays between the corporation and the runner. But it works best when both sides have some idea of the cards in the other player’s deck. Now that the game has seen a few expansions, we’re starting to see the degenerate combos that plague CCGs, and I find myself really wishing that the core set had been a standalone, non-expandable product.

A game that overcomes this weakness: Any drafting mechanic, where you aren’t in total control of what cards you have available, helps a lot. I have no problems with trying to make the best deck possible out of suboptimal resources. I just don’t like being asked to make the best deck possible, period.

Tacked-On Hidden Roles

I’m just going to start talking about my example, which is Bang. Bang has an interesting card play mechanic, and then some unnecessary hidden roles. You might be out to kill everyone, out to protect the sheriff, or something else.

Bang doesn’t use these hidden roles well. There’s no method built into the game to gain information on other players, and too few ways for players to distinguish themselves through their behavior. Generally, I find that my best strategy, regardless of who I’m playing, is just to turtle up, let the other players kill themselves, and hope that I happen to fulfill my victory condition.

A game which overcomes this weakness: Shadow Hunters. This game has a Hermit square, which allows you to draw a card with a question and pass it to another player. Based on whether or not the card damages them, you gain some information about their hidden role. There are other cards which force players to take damage or heal damage depending on who they are, which means that during every round of the game, I am gaining some tidbit of information about who is who.

Bidding and Gambling

I’ve never understood bidding, and I hate Poker. It feels like another instance where I am not allowed to play the game that I sat down to play. I sit down for an interesting game of card probabilities, but then I have to play this weird sub-game where I try to place a numerical value on how I feel about those probabilities.

Personally, I find that bidding is a mechanic that’s just used to cover up that Poker and other games like it just aren’t much fun without the bidding element. If your primary gameplay mechanic isn’t interesting without putting money on the line, you don’t have a game.

A game weakened by this mechanic: Poker, as mentioned above. Also, Android: Netrunner is introducing a few cards where both players bid 0, 1, or 2 credits, and I really dislike it. I play Netrunner to play “Hacker trashes the evil corporation,” not “Guess how many tokens I’m holding.”

A game that overcomes this weakness: Ra. Everyone has a set of tokens with fixed values. When you win an auction, you place your token on the board and take the token that was on the board previously, so the value of the tokens you have changes constantly. Since you only have three values to bid with, I find it much easier to judge the value of the tiles before make and make a good decision.

Shock Evolution

I just played through Bioshock, after finishing Bioshock Infinite a few days ago. I also played through System Shock 2 a long time ago, probably 15 years by now.

It’s interesting to see how the series has become tighter and more combat-focused over time, in a way that mirrors the progression of the gaming industry as a whole. System Shock 2 had a detailed character progression system, and a full inventory system with degrading weapons. Bioshock had moderate character progression – eventually allowing you to carry 18 upgrades – and three types of ammunition per weapon, but no inventory system. Bioshock Infinite reduces the upgrades to four items at a time, allows you to carry two weapons at a time, and does not have various ammo types.

You could say that this is the ‘dumbing down’ of the hobby, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing, necessarily. We’re just learning to make our game designs tighter, more focused – and by doing so, leave ourselves with more room for unique fun. The combat in Bioshock Infinite felt great. By removing ammunition types and item complexity, it allows them to introduce more scenario complexity, such as the skylines.

I’ve heard it said that a person can only really remember and manage about seven things at once. In order to add cool new features to your gameplay, you have to remove something, too.

I wonder how much further we’ll go in this direction, how much more we’ll streamline and tighten the gameplay. I feel like we might start seeing more shooters play with some of the things that shooters have taken for granted, such as limited ammunition and reloading.

Let’s take limited ammo, for example. We’ve been scrounging for bullets since Wolfenstein 3D. But does limiting our ammunition really make the game better? In a really well-tuned combat system, I should want to switch from the machine gun to the shotgun at close range, because one is more suitable than the other. I shouldn’t need to be forced into switching weapons because I ran out of ammo – nor should I be prevented from using my combat options because I don’t have the appropriate ammunition.

If we are going to have limited ammo, let’s look at Doom as an example. The weapons that use the harder-to-find ammunition are incredibly powerful, room-clearing monstrosities, including the legendary BFG-9000. In Doom, choosing which of your limited resources to use in a fight is an important choice.

In contrast, in Halo, all of the weapons have their strengths and weaknesses, and there’s no uber-weapon. It’s in the game’s best interests to promote using a variety of weapons, because variety is fun, but running out of ammo is an artificial way to force the player to use varied weapons. Instead, I’d want to see enemies who can recognize the weapon you’re using, and try to exploit its weaknesses. If the player uses nothing but the assault rifle, then enemies try to rush into close range and move quickly so the player can’t get a bead on them. The player would then switch to a close-range weapon; not because they were forced to, but because they are making an intelligent tactical decision in response to their situation.

I’m just rambling. I’m not suggesting we need to tear all of the restrictions out of all of our games – I’m just saying that there are always opportunities to reconsider the things that we take for granted in a game genre. Take Bionic Commando, for example – a platformer with no jump button.

I’ve often said that Sega Sports Tennis 2K2 is the best fighting game I’ve played, and I mean it. I’d love to see a fighting game adopt the rhythm of a good tennis rally. The strategy in a tennis game is not to keep attacking your opponent, ticking off chunks of their life bar until you knock them out. Instead, you’re manipulating them; making them spend more effort to chase down the ball that you’re expending to return it, and then forcing them into making a critical mistake that you can punish. The lack of a life bar also means that the outcome of a point is never final until the point is actually scored; a player can be taking a beating, but manage to recover and regain control of the match.

I suppose the fighting game equivalent might be for the two characters to share one life bar, more like a tug-of-war. You don’t need to do X damage to your opponent to win; you need to do X damage more than them, and push the balance of the match in your favor until you win. A match might be over in 15 seconds, or it might take 15 minutes as the players jostle back and forth, both sides getting hits in but neither one truly gaining the upper hand.

I think I went off topic! To summarize, the *shock series is great, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the next one.

Lunar: Harmony of Silver Star

13 hours, 23 minutes.

According to the game, that’s how long I played Lunar: Harmony of Silver Star before the big plot twist, when your quest truly begins. The main villain isn’t even introduced until you’ve played for twice as long as your average FPS campaign mode these days.

That might sound like a complaint, that I’m calling the game meandering and long-winded, but it’s actually a huge compliment. Lunar excels by its realistic characters, and by allowing their adventure to progress naturally. When the adventure finally does begin, it feels less like exposition, and more like a natural continuation of the events that have occurred.

At the beginning of the game, nobody comes to you and declares “You are the chosen one, you must save us all!” Instead, it’s just a friend who wants to go check out a local cave. That childhood exploration ends up sending you away from Burg, across the ocean to Meribia. The people you meet in that city lead you back to Vane, and your explorations in Vane slowly uncover secrets and conspiracies. But ultimately it all just feels like an extension of that childhood adventure, at least until that big plot twist 13 hours in.

The first Lunar game is really a one-of-a-kind experience, and that’s been recognized over the years by an unprecedented four remakes. The game has been remade completely, from the ground up, for the Sega CD, Saturn/Playstation, Game Boy Advance, and Sony PSP. Each time, the game is completely overhauled from the ground up, but the characters and story events remain the same.

For comparison, Final Fantasy 1 has been completely remade three times – for Famicom, Playstation, and PSP. (Although those three versions have been released on about a dozen different platforms.)

I’ve gotten way ahead of myself, though. What is Lunar: Harmony of Silver Star?

It’s a JRPG. Nothing fancy about it. You’ll fight monsters, use spells, equip items, and level up. Although the combat system is fast and satisfying (more on that below) it’s really just there to hold the story together.

As alluded to above, the PSP version, Lunar: Harmony of Silver Star is a remake of Lunar: Silver Star Story for Playstation, which is a remake of Lunar: The Silver Star for Sega CD. Harmony of Silver Star brings new graphics with a hand-drawn feel, where every screen seems to be custom-made instead of being built out of tiles. Animations are beautiful, with broad flourishes and a number of unique animations for each character.

Gameplay-wise, the biggest change from the Sega CD version is that your exploration and adventure are streamlined. Exploring the overworld is done by simply pointing to the location you want to travel to, rather than manually walking across the map and engaging in random encounters. Dungeons are considerably smaller, with less dead ends and difficult-to-find switches. RPG purists may decry these as the ‘dumbing down’ of the game, but there’s still plenty of combat and exploration – these changes just make sure you’re fighting and exploring, instead of getting stuck for six months in Lann because you didn’t stumble across the secret door and GameFAQs hadn’t been invented yet. (Bitter? Me? Nooo!)

Combat, as mentioned, is fast and satisfying. Lunar has always had a cool combat system. Characters and monsters start out facing each other, like in older Final Fantasies, but they can move across the battlefield and reposition themselves. You can force enemies to attack your melee fighters, and move your spellcasters further back so that your foes waste their turns trying to reach them. Ultimately, you don’t have that much control, but it’s refreshing to have positioning be important in a turn-based RPG.

The other small innovation for Harmony of Silver Star is a super meter. As each character fights, they build up a super bar, and when it’s full, they can unleash some ultimate attack or super defense. You won’t use these abilities often, so I wouldn’t say that it alters the gameplay much, but it’s nice to have a quick ‘I win’ button for when the fights start to get tedious.

Beyond that, the story points are exactly the same as Silver Star Story, with the exception of a small prologue at the start of the game wherein you play through the adventures of the previous Four Heroes. Honestly, this prologue feels a little out of place. Instead of starting the game off with meeting the main character, you’ll start with about a half-hour of speech and exposition from a boss you don’t know and four characters you don’t know.

The prologue manages to give away too much for new players (if you don’t already know the big plot twists of the game) while simultaneously not adding enough for existing players. I think it would have been better served either being accessible as a separate option from the main menu, or maybe coming in the middle of your adventure. (The group is given a memory crystal, or linked to the mind of one of the Four Heroes, or [deleted] shows you the past with his final breath, something like that.)

At this point, I’ll jump straight to the finish and say that Lunar: Harmony of Silver Star is a must-play. That’s a bold statement, but it’s simply one of the greatest stories ever told in the video game format. It’s a must-play in the sense that Macbeth is a must-read, or Citizen Kane is a must-see. It may not knock your socks off, and it may not be everyone’s favorite, but it really should be a part of our shared vocabulary of games.

If you don’t have a PSP or Vita, track down a copy for the Playstation, Saturn, Sega CD, or GBA. They’re all fairly rare, and also somewhat aged. I do think that Harmony is the way to go now: it’s attractive, modern, streamlined, but still plays it safe enough that it doesn’t betray the Lunar legacy.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I just finished XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rushed through it in just a few days.

It’s excellent! I still ran into some situations, though, where I felt like I was manipulating the game, rather than fighting a battle. A good example is the last fight; my whole squad got wiped out except for one man, but I still beat the final boss by running and abusing a low-damage indirect fire attack. If you know how the AI will react, you can do anything.

I took some screenshots of my stats screens. It looks like I bull-rushed the game; I finished in 249 days, compared to a worldwide average of 345.

I played on Normal Ironman. After listening to some podcasts about XCOM, and playing a lot of FTL, I think Ironman is really how it’s meant to be played. I only regretted it once, when a pathfinding bug caused my best sniper to attempt to grapple to the top of a building, swing wildly sideways, and land, through a wall, on the lower floor of another building nearby. In the midst of an alien swarm, of course.

I’m surprised I made it to victory; at one point, a disastrous assault left me with one surviving soldier and no resources. I was pretty much playing just to see what the ‘game over’ screen looked like, but over the next few missions I built my squad back up, earned some promotions, upgraded my gear, and took the fight back to them.

It’s really got a satisfying progression; going from ‘what the hell is that? My weapons barely make a dent!’ to reaction-killing those same enemies before they even get a turn. It’s sad, though – I know that I’ll never have that first playthrough again. I’ll never have that sense of wonderment, not knowing what my enemies can do, not knowing what technology I’ll unlock next.

I’m hoping that they’ll do a major DLC pack. They already have one pack with a few missions, but I want new enemies, new technologies, new paths, new unknowns. Do the Terror from the Deep – and force me to manage both my land-based efforts and the undersea threat.


Friends (PS Vita)

If it has an icon, I plan to review it. Here’s what I think about the Friends List on the PS Vita.

Like everything else on the system, it’s an app, which means you have to deliberately select it and open the list – it’s not on the main interface, like the PS3. With the PS3, I tend to glance over at the Friends List when I start up the system, just to see if anyone is playing anything interesting. It’s not so smooth on the Vita.

The list itself is pretty nice, and strangely has much more functionality than the PS3. On the Vita, you can set a background for how you appear on the Friends List. It’s just a little piece of art, like a second avatar.

Touching someone’s name quickly brings up a screen with a nice interface. You can check out their friends list (I believe this can be set to private), view what they’ve been playing, and compare your trophies. The list also gives you a ‘gamer match’ based on Near, a sort of location-based friend-finding app for the Vita, although I’m not sure how that match is determined. (More on that when I review Near.) Finally, there’s a option to view your Shared Play History. I’m not sure what that is, so I went to the manual to learn more.

From the manual, I learned that Shared Play History keeps a record of any games you’ve played with this friend. You can also jump directly into multiplayer with a friend if they’re playing a game.

Altogether, the Vita Friends List has a lot of functionality that I’d like to see ported over to the PS3. If it were a little quicker to check if my friends are on, instead of needing to deliberately load up the Friends application, it’d be a lot more useful. I’d recommend that Vita owners check out this app and read the manual – it might be more useful to you than it first appears.

Uncharted: The Board Game

I’m not usually one to buy a game just because of its license, but when I heard that Uncharted had a board game – and that it wasn’t terrible – I decided to give it a try. So far, I’ve played two 2-player games with my wife and one solitaire game to get a feel for how the game works.

First off – yes, it’s a game! With licensed games, that’s not something you can take for granted. Uncharted: The Board Game has rules that work, interesting decisions to make, and a meaningful endgame. You can definitely play this game.

Rules and Gameplay

The primary mechanic of Uncharted is one that I enjoy: your cards are also your currency. In order to play a card, you must discard a number of cards from your hand. Inexpensive or defense cards may cost 0 cards, while the most expensive card is Jump, which costs 6 cards from your hand. (Jump will pay for itself quickly, though – it allows you to draw two cards each time you use it!)

Each turn, a player takes two actions. These actions could be playing a card to their play area, using a card in their play area, discarding a card directly from their hand, or attacking an enemy (which is just a fancy way to use a card in their play area). Players continue taking turns until every player has passed; at that point, the enemies on the table attack, everyone can refresh the cards they’ve used, and a new round begins.

During a turn, there’s never any shortage of decisions to be made. The real strength of Uncharted’s system is the versatility of each card: at any time, any card in your hand could be used in three ways:

  1. You could play the card to your play area, paying its cost.
  2. You could use the card as part of the cost for playing another card.
  3. You could discard the card directly from your hand to gain a bonus based on its color. For example, discarding a blue card allows you to gain two life.

Once a card is on the table, you still have a decision about what to do with it. You can use the text of a card, which causes it to ‘rest.’ It’s the same as tapping/bowing/exhausting (the card cannot be used again until the next round). When the enemies attack, however, each non-resting card you have can absorb one point of the enemy’s attack. So you may choose not to use all of your card abilities in order to gain some extra defense.

Gameplay Observations

While playing the game, I found that combos are really the order of the day, particularly cards that allow you to re-ready cards that are exhausted. The game is designed to accelerate; once a card is played down to the table, your opponents can’t destroy it, so your combo opportunities will naturally grow. In addition, most characters have a special ability that kicks in once their life drops to a certain point. (I often wished I could find a way to kill myself faster!)

The other key to the game is card advantage. There are many ways to spend your cards, but only a few ways to draw them. Getting some more cards down that allow you to draw additional cards will pay off in the long run.

The game isn’t really a take-that style game, but there are a few ways to mess with your opponents, damage them, or play cards from their hands. For the most part, I found that it’s more advantageous to aggressively play in your own area, rather than try to mess with your opponents’ areas. That might change in a 3 or 4-player game.


The theme of Uncharted is surprisingly strong in the board game. The four major pillars of Uncharted gameplay are present: gun combat (red), traversal (blue), treasure hunting (yellow), and character interaction (green). Some of the links might seem a little weak (horseback riding lets you draw a card?) but they’re consistent.

The only thing that’s really missing for me is the overall plot structure of Uncharted. The games are very formulaic: Nathan Drake goes searching for a treasure, barely stays one step ahead of a bad guy, finds the treasure, realizes that the treasure must remain buried, and defeats the bad guy who wants to unbury the treasure.

You don’t get that in the board game; there’s no concept of a cursed treasure, or fighting to prevent something from being discovered. The way I’ve been justifying it is to imagine the board game as representing the adventures that Drake and company are having between the big video games; the treasure hunts that actually work out, but only yield small rewards. From there, you can justify most of the interactions: Drake vs. Sully is a race to show off as the best treasure hunter, Tenzin vs. Elena has Tenzin trying to hide treasures while Elena tries to put them on TV, and Drake vs. Lazarevic is the plot of Uncharted 2.


Based on the art, you can definitely tell when the game was made. The characters and enemies are all from Uncharted 2, but the box cover and some of the card art uses the marketing images from Uncharted 3. I’d happily buy an expansion that draws more from Uncharted 1, 3, and Golden Abyss.

The game feels a little cheap. It’s a subtle thing, but the cards are just a little too light (and not linen-finished), the tokens just a little too small, the rulebook’s paper just a little too cheap. The art is often still images from the games that don’t quite hold up in isolation, often with a lazy edge glow around them. Uncharted definitely has the feel of a game that’s aimed for the mass-market.

The upside of that is that it actually is cheap; you can get a copy of Uncharted: The Board Game off Amazon for less than $25.

Other Thoughts

A unique aspect of the game that I really appreciate is the number of variants offered in the rulebook. There are minor variants, such as modifying the card decks for an easier or harder game, as well as major variants such as a deathmatch mode and a survival mode. I think that it shows the designer’s confidence in the game system, that it can stretch a bit to cover different gameplay styles without breaking.

All in all, I think Uncharted: The Board Game is a solid purchase. The mechanics are fresh, neither a retheme of an existing game nor a clone of a common game mechanic. The theme is strong without being overwhelming, and uses the Uncharted license without becoming inaccessible to non-fans. There are enough cards included to provide strong replayability, with different strategies each game.

You may or may not love the game, but it’s definitely a game, and that’s more than I could have hoped for out of a mainstream-leaning board game based on a video game.

Welcome Park

The PS Vita has no shortage of interfaces, including front and rear touchscreens, front and rear cameras, tilt controls, GPS, and more. As an introduction to many of these features, Vita systems come with Welcome Park installed, a collection of simple minigames and applications designed to introduce you to the Vita.

Sound Loop

Sound Loop is a simple music sequencer. As a music track plays in the background, a circle of light expands on a 4-count beat. By touching the Vita’s screen and making a noise into the microphone, that noise will repeat every 4 beats. Record a few different sounds, and it’ll start to sound like music!

A few other sounds are available by tapping the rear touch pad or tilting the system.

Sound Loop shows a basic potential for the Vita to be used as a musical instrument. Nearly the entire surface of the device can react to touch, as well as reacting to movement, sound, or light. I don’t know if any official support for the Vita as a musical instrument exists yet, but Sound Loop doesn’t go far enough with the concept. It’ll only hold your interest for a minute or so before you’ve exhausted all it has to offer.

Skate Axis

This minigame introduces tilt. By tilting the Vita, you move a skateboarder left and right, and dodge bouncing balls. Giving the system a shake makes the skateboarder jump.

That’s pretty much it. The best thing to say about Skate Axis is that the tilt feels nice and responsive. There’s no delay between tilting the system and seeing the skateboarder move.

Snap + Slide

Using the Vita’s camera, you can take a picture, then turn that picture into a slide puzzle. There are a few different puzzle formats and difficulties.

I hate slide puzzles (why are they in every game?), but the Vita implementation is good; the camera image is sharp, and the touch controls are precise.

Hello Face

They might as well call this one ‘take a picture of a light socket.’

Theoretically, you’re supposed to take a picture of something that looks like a face. The Vita will then make that face talk to you! In practice, it’s pretty hard to find something that the Vita will accept. It doesn’t like real faces, drawings of faces, or faces in the middle of other stuff. The only thing that works reliably is taking a picture of a light socket.

It’s too bad! My friends and I love to mess around with stuff, putting eyes on staplers and making them go rawr, that kind of thing. It’d be cool if the Vita could bring those things to life, but it is not meant to be.

Digit Chase

Digit Chase includes three stages, each focusing on a different type of touch. In the first, you’ll tap on numbers in order. In the second, you’ll swipe to rotate a table, then swipe to peel numbers away. In the third, you’ll tap the rear touchpad to launch balls at numbers.

The first stage is really the standout activity of Welcome Park. Tapping on numbers in order is a good mix of mental agility and physical speed. As the game progresses, more tricks are introduced, such as needing to tap a number twice to clear it, or having to touch two or three spots at the same time. It’s fun to go as fast as you can, and see what fails first – your mind or your fingers.

Extra Stuff

Welcome Park features a few trophies for exploring the various tutorials. I’m still working on the Digit Chase trophy for finishing the entire course in one minute or less. However, I know I’m not going to finish all the trophies, because there’s no way I’m speed-solving those slide puzzles.

Additionally, the main screen itself is kind of fun. The minigames are represented as spheres, floating around a central globe. You can flick the spheres around the globe, and they crash off each other with a satisfying glass ‘tink.’ I like the little moments of interactivity like this.


Overall, Welcome Park is worth a minute of your time as a tech demo, but not much more than that. Check out Frobisher Says! for a more amusing way to learn about your PS Vita system.

PS Vita

Like many others, I purchased a PS Vita on Black Friday, when Amazon had their absurdly amazing deal. I’ve been very pleased with the system – everything about it ranges from elegant to mind-boggling.

As a long-time PS3 owner and PS Plus subscriber, I have a large backlog of PS Vita compatible games. Within a day of turning on the system, I loaded nearly 100 games onto the device, from PS Vita freebies to PSP games, to PS1 classics as PS Minis. Pretty much anything with a PS.

I’m going to start going through the various games, applications, and features of the Vita, and saying a few words about each. Partially this is just to force myself to look at all the stuff on the Vita – it has icons I haven’t pressed and functions I haven’t even discovered yet!

Cheapass and Trademark

I’ve been worrying about trademark on my game accessories for a little while, but I was reminded of something that makes me feel a little better. Cheapass Games used to sell a game called “Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond,” but later re-released it as “James Ernest’s Totally Renamed Spy Game,” obviously after a little trademark issue.

In a way, it’s nice to see that even established companies can run afoul of trademark, and also to see that Cheapass survived and even kept publishing the game design under a different name. Not every legal conflict has to end in one side being sued into the ground.

Quick PAX Report

Tues-Wed: PAX Dev

I’m not supposed to share too many details, so here’s a very quick summary of what I did.

Defense Grid 2 Kickstarter: Wow, a lot of people want to run a Kickstarter. They seem to have had a good challenge and a good outcome.

Cards Against Humanity: I played a game at lunch Wednesday, and a few times later during the convention. It never failed; I could sit down at a table and make friends instantly with CAH. Kind of like Zombie Dice two years ago, it’s great to have a game that everyone’s playing.

Creative Destruction: When working with a property, become an expert, and make sure anything you create has a clear lineage back to the canon. These guys really seem to love the property they’re working with, and it’s sad that so many games don’t take the same care

Tabletop Goes Digital: As long as the game can work in a digital space, having a digital version of a tabletop game always helps sales of both the tabletop and digital versions.

Something from Nothing: This game design workshop was nothing new for me, but more practice is always helpful. Probably the most interesting part was how quickly you’d see the microcosm of design in a short session. And that half the time spent being in a group is just getting the group to make a quick decision

Running a Successful Kickstarter: These panels on Kickstarter only really underscore all the mistakes I made while running mine, but also all the leeway I was able to get. Even with a really confusing KS, I got about 400% funding. I think the idea is still king, even when it seems like KS will give anyone big stacks of money.
Lessons from TableTop: Talked about how to make a game which would be good for the show TableTop. I think it was a little misleading; the panel was really about how to make a game with maximum fun in a reasonable play time. Probably the central point was, make your game look fun. You want a passerby (or YouTube viewer) to be interested in what’s going on.

Something from Nothing Part II: Our design crashed and burned, but I think that in doing so, we learned more than other groups. We tore out everything that didn’t work, kept the one or two things that did, then started playing with a different set of mechanics. That’s great game design work, even if it was disappointing to end up with an unplayable pile of cards at the end.

Social Games Roundtable: It was nice to talk to other developers, and share some of what I’ve learned. I found that other developers don’t really understand social games, and are eager to bandy the term about whenever possible. Chat window? Social game! Share on FB? Social game! Players can view replays? Social game! True, it’s all ‘social,’ but without a working definition, it was hard to keep a Social Games Roundtable on track.

The Secret Mechanisms: People are more predictable than we like to believe, and understanding past behavior can really give a lot of insight into how we can make people interested in our games – not by manipulating them, but by understanding what makes humans feel pleasure, and designing games that bring pleasure.

Overall: PAX Dev was a great experience. I felt like I was part of an intimate group, able to learn about everybody and have meaningful discussions that I can’t get at GDC or PAX due to their size. My only concern is, how long can it last? It might be worth flying up just for PAX Dev next year, as long as I can avoid paying for a hotel

Thursday night, I played some board games. Won a game of Power Grid, then played Cthulhu Dice and Zombie Dice. And Carcassonne, too. Really nice to talk to gamers and feel their excitement for PAX…while, at the same time, having nothing else to do, so it’s not like we felt rushed to get out and go to freeplay, or a panel, or the expo hall, or anything.

PAX Prime: Friday-Sunday

Keynote with Ted Price: Make stuff. Do stuff. Make a game. Can’t argue with that.

Hmm…attended some other panels, but nothing really new that I need to share.

Harassment and Bullying in Online Games: I spoke to the panelists afterwards, and agreed that any solution needs to start with a technical basis. At Kabam, I don’t think we had nearly enough technology or data to act and eliminate our biggest bullies.

PAX Prime was well-organized, lots of great stuff to do, but…well, I’m just feeling like I don’t really do conventions. I’ve felt this way before with other conventions. I generally don’t care about the Expo Hall*, I don’t really connect with other attendees, I know most of the information conveyed at panels, and I can understand that a community exists without needing to see it all gathered in one place.

I still attend conventions, but I’m starting to wonder why. Maybe it’s good that I’m transitioning into a gaming business; I don’t think I’d mind too much if I spent all day in the exhibit hall, letting the convention come to me instead of going to it.

I think I’d enjoy it more with a group. I’ve never gone to a convention with a group – I mean, we had 6 or 7 of us at GenCon SoCal one year, but the UFS players spent all con at those tables, so I was still wandering the halls alone

*Expo Hall Full Review:
– The games you’ve been reading about on Kotaku are still coming out.
– There are some indie games you’ve never heard of. If they’re good, you’ll hear about them soon.
– Peripheral companies like Chessex, Geek Chic, and Gunnar still exist.

Really, do you expect any surprises? Okay, I can think of one surprise: when Gearbox put together a Duke Nukem Forever booth without telling anyone. Still, that hit the internet within minutes, so it’s not like any attendees really got the cutting edge of videogame news by rushing into the expo hall.

I should look into one of these ‘online conventions.’ They might appeal to me, but I don’t know of any that really feel legitimate. An online convention needs some high-profile guests, some advertisers and product announcements, and a schedule of events, I think. Most of the ‘online conventions’ I’ve seen are more like a bunch of people agreeing to be in a chat room at the same time. (Know a good online convention? I’d love to be proven wrong!)

Android: Netrunner

I tried a demo of Android: Netrunner at Fantasy Flight Games’s room today.

The asymmetry is great. The corporation and the runner have different goals and actions, and they really do feel like they’re playing by different rules.

The biggest shortcoming I saw was that the game could use more new-player assistance. Since both sides play by different rules, I often needed to ask the corporation player for clarification on what information I had, what his cards meant, and what keywords meant. The game could use a keyword cheat sheet too, including a couple of icons that are not intuitive at all. Finally, some summary of the different strategies available would be great; for example, knowing that the corporation can punish card peeking with ambushes, or the interplay between traces and links, or the strategies involved in holding onto, revealing, and trashing cards. I felt like I worried a lot more than I needed to, just because I didn’t know what the corporation could do to me.

Overall, though, I really liked it. It had good mechanics and a good theme. I don’t think I’ll be picking it up, though, only because it’s a two-player game, and I have enough of those. If I want a two-player duel, I’ll play Memoir ’44, or any number of other games I already have. I could see a lot of fun in two players trying to streamline their corporations and counter each other’s decks, but unless you have another enthusiastic player interested in doing some hardcore deckbuilding, I don’t think the game offers enough that my current library doesn’t.

Is that a fair review? To say that it’s a great game, but it’s not a game I need to own?


PAX Dev was a really fun event. It only had something like 300 attendees, so it was very small and intimate. Definitely a good way to prepare for PAX, and more useful information than I usually get from GDC, I thought. I hope it continues, but I don’t want it to become much bigger; I think becoming a second GDC would be the wrong direction. Rather, I want it to be something where professionals gather to say “Yeah, we’re coming to PAX. Let’s hang out and talk shop a bit beforehand.”

I’m somewhat mixed on the number of students or hopefuls that were there. It’s like, I feel like we could have more in-depth conversations if everyone there had some industry experience. On the other hand, most of the qualifications that would excluse students would also exclude me. And it’s not like the students are a problem or anything, most of them are awesome, but…

Well, maybe it’s like PAX itself. It’s supposed to be the consumer-level show, by the gamers, for the gamers, but companies keep increasing their presence and pushing it into a bigger spectacle, like an E3. Similarly, PAX Dev is supposed to be by developers for developers, but risks becoming a networking/job-hunting event.

Oh well. I’m just rambling on about it. It was very rewarding, and I’d totally recommend it next year.

It’s also been very rewarding to have the Lyris Laser Studio pieces on me at PAX For the first time, I feel like I’m attending the show as a part of the industry, making a contribution to gaming as a whole. I feel more legitimate now than when I was a major community manager on a top-rated social game, and it’s great to have something concrete to show off. This is what I do. I make these. I’m proud of it.


When I mention ‘painting’ or ‘coloring’ for my pieces, what I’ll actually be doing is applying wood stain to them. I experimented with many different techniques, and stain gave the most vibrant color, and also the most readable.

I keep ten standard colors in stock. If you want a special color, I can do that, but you’ll have to pay a bit more to cover the extra purchase. I can use any color from the Minwax Water Based Wood Stain line. http://www.minwax.com/wood-products/stains-color-guide/











A Note about Smokiness (Uncolored Pieces)

The heat from the laser creates a smoky look on each piece, leaving a darker border around any cut or engraved parts. It usually looks nice, but if it ever troubles you, just polish the surface with Goof-Off or a similar stain remover, and the smokiness will vanish.

On colored pieces, the smokiness will already be covered in stain and won’t be visible.

Exalted 3rd Edition

It looks like a third edition of the Exalted RPG has been announced! I’m a long-time fan of Exalted, but I’m a little skeptical.

Exalted has an incredibly broad setting, but it’s limited in time – unlike White Wolf’s metaplot-heavy games, Exalted’s default setting is a particular moment in time. What this meant for 2nd Edition was that most of the fluff and setting information was the same as 1st Edition, just rearranged. And it looks like that trend will continue with 3rd Edition; another book on items, another book about Dragon-Blooded, another book about the Realm.

But I really hope it’s good! I could use a fresh dose of the inspiration that Exalted gives me. They say they’re playtesting it heavily, and I believe them somewhat – a while back, they put some serious effort into debugging 2nd Edition, and they actually did a meaningful job…although the patches took the form of a massive document that wasn’t really feasible to use in play.

Well, I’m sure I’ll pick up the corebook, and I’ll be able to tell quickly if they’ve got their act together.

Kickstarter Post 4: Let’s do this thing

The Kickstarter just ticked over – 30 days to go. Time to start promoting this for real.


They say that you have the best chance for success if your Kickstarter is 30 days or less – it gives a sense of urgency. I figured I’d launch a little early, work out some of the rough spots, then start promoting when I’m 30 days out. I’m glad I waited, there were definitely some rough spots to handle.

Right now I’m making some Dominion tokens. After that, it’s time to make the rounds, line up a bunch of sites, and put my message out there.

Or at least queue up my message. I’m thinking that making my posts in the morning will get them more visibility.

Here we go!