Falling of the bike
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 November 2015, 3:08 am
I continue to play League of Angels - Fire Raiders on my iPad as a "whale". That is I am spending far more money than is reasonable for a mobile game, but far less than would make a visible dent in my disposable income. Having ascertained that there isn't any real danger of actual damage to my real life, I decided to be unreasonable as a kind of experiment. Not only am I experiencing the life of a Free2Play whale, I am also studying the game mechanics that push people into such spending.

Unlike other games where spending much money never tempted me, in League of Angels there is a rather clear advantage of spent money giving you access to more content. There are game activities like the island race which is only open to the server's top guilds, and of cause those guilds only hire the top players. As your level depends a lot on how much money you spend every day on additional stamina, the highest spenders are the highest ranked players. Play for free and you won't have access to certain parts of the game.

Another game mechanic that favors spending are the various PvP parts of the game. In the island race you can plunder other player's resources, but only if that player is weaker than you. So the top dogs are in least danger of getting plundered, while having maximum freedom to plunder others. The arenas work in a similar way: You have a limited number of attempts every day to improve your rank, but you lose rank when somebody stronger of lower rank attacks you. The best rewards are for the highest ranked players, which are those who spend the most money.

What I think drives the revenue for the game company very much is the fact that all of this creates a dynamic like riding a bike: If you stop pedaling, you'll fall off. The game mechanics and social dynamics punish taking a break: Most guilds will kick you out after a few days of inactivity, because players that don't contribute to the guild score every day are a dead weight; and as everybody is constantly becoming stronger, anybody taking a break will quickly lose rank and consequently get fewer rewards in the future, and less access to content. You can keep up with the Joneses with moderate spending every day, but you'll fall of the bike if you stop. This is a game that rewards you more for spending $10 every day than for single $100+ spending splurges.

Players don't need to be especially susceptible to "addictive" behavior for this to work. Wanting to be a top player and wanting to keep being so is a rather fundamental desire in many gamers. And that is good business: Why chase the few people whose specific weaknesses would allow you to milk them for thousands, if you can target a far larger number of people like me who can spend hundreds without worrying about it? Having said that, I don't plan on staying on this particular bike for much longer. I've pretty much seen all of the content of the game now, and like any game at some point even the most exclusive content becomes repetitive and boring. I don't know yet if one day I'll just stop abruptly, or whether I'll do a phase where I just switch to playing for free. But I'm pretty certain I won't be playing this any more come Christmas. Nor will I seek another game to become a whale in. It's an interesting experience once, but ultimately a bit silly, as most ways of spoiling yourself are.
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Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 05
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 October 2015, 3:45 pm
In the previous session infiltrated the fortress on Axis Island with a mission to open the sea gate and signal their fleet to invade. This session started with them close to the lighthouse in which the mechanism to open the sea gate is located. They got there with the help of a water breathing ritual, one of a bunch of ritual scrolls they had been provided with. Now frequently in role-playing games players hesitate to use one-shot consumable items, because you never know whether there isn't a better occasion to use them just ahead. But as in this case they had been told to return unused scrolls to the Royal Homeland Constabulary armory after the mission, this session was all about the use of ritual scrolls.

Approaching the lighthouse under water the constables were able to scout the defenses there, which consisted of 12 rebel enemies (4 different enemies of their level, 8 minions, but they didn't know that). Usually this group has a tendency to go for "Plan A", the frontal assault. But this time they decided that it would be better to open the sea gate first, and deal with the enemies later. In spite of this being a group with more social skills than physical skills, they managed to climb up from the water to the roof of the side building of the lighthouse. Not a small feat considering the climb consisted of 3 climbing checks and several group members had negative skill modifiers. But they used a silence ritual scroll to muffle the sound of people falling back into the water, and so climbing up from the water turned out to be an advantage. On the roof they used a passwall ritual scroll to get through the stone roof and jumped into the building where the sea gate mechanism was.

Now the fortress had been constructed by Danor, old enemy of Risur and relying on technology instead of magic. So the sea gate mechanism was operated by steam. Aria, the spirit medium, talked to the spirit of her dad, who knew about technology, because nobody else in the group does. So they figured out how to open the sea gate. But apart from being aware that brute force might well release the steam and shut the gate again, they couldn't find a way to sabotage the mechanism in the open position. And the opening sea gate made quite some noise, alerting the troops in and around the lighthouse.

Now the group was in a good position to defend the gate mechanism. But they somewhat complicated the situation by asking their main healer, Artus, to smash the window and cast the pyrotechnics ritual scroll in order to alert the fleet and start the invasion. Rituals aren't made to be cast in combat, even the simplest pyrotechnics ritual takes a minute, 10 combat rounds, to cast. This resulted in the healer being out for the fight, which made combat somewhat more exciting than expected.

The rebel patrolmen minions weren't much of a problem and dropped like flies. But the rebel mage got a storm cloud spell off that followed Eldion around. And the mage's pet drake turned invisible in the first round and then managed to bite Aria in the neck, poisoning her for 5 points of ongoing damage. Normally that isn't that bad, but Aria managed to fail 5 saving throws in a row. Even with Malicia the paladin healing her with laying on hands, Aria ended down to 1 hitpoint before she managed to succeed the saving throw. Meanwhile James Boffin, the tank, held the lower door of the building against the rebel soldier and investigator without taking a scratch. Only one encounter power of the investigator which didn't require an attack roll or allowed a saving throw forced James once to attack Eldion, bringing him down to 2 hitpoints. In the end the party managed to kill all enemies but without a main healer the fight had been tough.

As the fight had taken only 5 rounds, Artus completed the pyrotechnics ritual 30 seconds later and alerted their fleet. But also the rest of the rebel troops in the fortress, who came rushing along the sea wall towards the lighthouse to close the gate. The group will have to defend the sea gate mechanism for 10 minutes, but that will be for the next session.
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Just another virtual currency
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 October 2015, 6:11 am
Some stories about EVE Online have headlines like "Spaceships worth more than $200,000 destroyed in biggest virtual space battle ever", suggesting that a lot of real dollars have been lost. But of course what *was* destroyed was spaceships worth a certain amount of ISK, the virtual currency of EVE. Much of that worth was created by mining and other in-game activities, and not bought with real money. Virtual currencies that can be bought and/or sold for real money, or exchanged for things worth real money, walk a fine line between real and virtual currency.

Technically these are all virtual currencies. Most countries require special banking permits to allow a company to trade with real currencies. Game companies don't have that sort of permit, so if asked they would say that those currencies are all virtual. That also absolves them from any liability if any virtual currency is lost in a bug or when the servers shut down. Virtual property rights are still an exception, so in most cases you have no way of redress if your virtual currency disappears for some reason.

Especially easy to treat as virtual currency are the cases where you didn't spend real money on them. For example I have the equivalent of $400 in my WoW account in the form of gold and tokens, but I don't think of those as real money. I earned the gold by playing, and since the tokens were introduced I didn't spend any more real money on WoW. For me that is just a weird game design decisions (why should I and people like me who just happen to be interested in making WoW gold play for free, and not the others?), and not a real money issue.

In the other direction, games that want you to spend as much as possible on the game almost always try to disguise the real cost by using virtual currencies: You don't buy the sword of uberness for $9.99, you buy it for 1,000 diamonds that you can buy for $9.99. And then of course you get some diamonds for free for in-game activities, and diamond bonuses here, and rewards for spending diamonds there, and you end up thinking of diamonds as just another virtual currency. It is easier to spend money if you don't think of it as real money, but consider it a virtual currency.

What helps is that the "whales" of Free2Play games are in reality just dwarf sperm whales, the smallest whales on Earth. To be considered a whale in Las Vegas you would need to gamble with hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to millions, while a typical Free2Play whale spends a few hundred dollars per month on the game. With 20% of US households having an annual income above $100,000, there are enough people around that can afford spending a few hundred dollars a month on games. People who can afford it will spend $10 on virtual currency as easily as giving a $10 tip in a restaurant. As long as the money is coming from the "disposable" part of the budget, it nearly is like a virtual currency, like play money.

Of course while many games stop rewarding you for spending after the first few hundred bucks, a few games are designed to be bottomless and can easily accommodate somebody spending thousands of dollars on them. The guys spending all his savings on a game makes for a good anecdotal story, but up to now there is no evidence of that happening all that often. Poor people are more at risk of losing their money in gambling than in gaming. That has to do with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the rewards of video games typically fulfill needs of esteem, which is already in the upper part of the pyramid. Status symbols are less important for people struggling to make rent.

So while lots of the stories trying to link games with huge amounts of lost money and resulting destitution are more sensationalist than reporting on a real and present danger, another argument is most certainly true: Spending hundreds of dollars on a game is bad value for money. By better selecting the games you play you can achieve the same entertainment value and the same feeling of achievement for much cheaper. While the currencies in question might be in between real and virtual, the rewards of games are all just virtual. Feel free to spend hundreds of dollars on virtual rewards, but be aware that the rewards aren't real, and any status acquired is limited to that game, or even just one server of that game.
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Short comment on the state of Magic Duels
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 October 2015, 12:07 pm
I have mentioned several times on this blog that while I was aware of Magic Duels having server and connection problems on the PC, I did not experience such problems on the iPad. Unfortunately I need to correct that now: I haven't been able to play Magic Duels on the iPad for over a week now, I just can't get a connection to the servers any more. As I haven't changed anything on my iPad, the problem must be server side.

What is it with WotC and computers that they are so reliably messing up the digitalization of their games?
Tobold's Blog

Gamer social networks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 October 2015, 9:02 am
I get about one mail per month announcing a new social network for gamers, and asking me to promote it. I never do, because I don't think they will ever work. The basic problem is one of critical mass: The budding gamer social networks have a few hundred to a couple of thousand members. Considering how many different games there are and how many millions of players some of these games have, such a small social network is simply of no use.

In social networks there is a huge first mover advantage. Facebook got millions of users because before Facebook there wasn't anything comparable. Later competitors only achieved critical mass if they offered something very different, or had an existing customer base like Google+ did. The basic attraction of creating a social network is you don't need to create content for it: The other people on the network *are* the content. But that means that if there aren't a large number of other people on the social network, that social network isn't very interesting. So it can't grow and get to the necessary size. A real dilemma.

To as far as people use MMORPGs as "social network", those considerations also apply to MMORPGs. WoW made the first mass market accessible game, and has benefited from that every since. Of course a MMORPG also has content, and lots of people play a game for the content and not for the social connection to other players. So there is still a chance that one day we'll see another multi-million player MMORPG, as long as it has far superior content than the existing games. I don't see one on the horizon.

If I were to design a "social network site for gamers", I would start by creating some content. That can be as stupid as a "gamer personality test" or similar stuff. If you manage to create something that goes viral, you'd have a chance to attract enough people to get past the first critical mass hurdle. A plain vanilla social network site for gamers with just an interface but no content at all has no chance to get there. People will just use existing social networks, forums, or game sites to connect to each other. It is easier to find another gamer on Reddit or Facebook than on a new social network site for gamers.
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Addiction vs. Fascination
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 October 2015, 2:43 am
Life is all about managing priorities. As a gamer sometimes a game becomes very important to us, and moves up quite high on our list of priorities. That can lead to other things that other people consider of higher priority to be neglected. Sometimes that is just a good night's sleep, but we might also neglect studies, work, or family. And then often the other people are starting to talk about "addiction". There are even clinics where parents can send their children to, to cure them of their "gaming addiction".

I think "addiction" is the wrong word. I would use the word "fascination" instead. One important difference is that fascination, by its very nature, doesn't last. We lose interest in that game that was so very important to us last month. We might then actively seek out another game to be passionate about, but it isn't as if we got fascinated by any game we try. And unlike an addiction our fascination with some game can easily be cured by simply not playing for a week, because we lose that fascination rather quickly. We come back from a holiday and find that we lost all interest in a game that was highly important to us before the holidays.

Of course losing that fascination was easier when games were mostly played on desktop computers and consoles. Mobile games are less easy to get away from. But until our phones and tablets get a lot more powerful, mobile games aren't quite as intricate and pretty as PC and console games. People do get hooked on Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga, but more easily if that phone or tablet is the first gaming platform they own. And many mobile games have game mechanics that prevent you from playing for hours, and if not your phone battery is making sure you don't.

The fascination that games have on us isn't necessarily inherent in the game itself. Frequently they are means for escapism, we play games because the real world around us is unpleasant or boring. Less than a third of people are really engaged in their work, people get bored with their marriage, and the safety of modern life means we are less often worried about really important things like our physical well-being. Games (or other non-essential hobbies and activities) become very important to us because there isn't really much competition for our attention. Of course than can be an illusion, and by neglecting real life we risk to lose stuff we took for granted. But in the majority of cases fascination with a game doesn't hit that level. We just need *something* to be passionate about, and the rest of our life might just have failed to provide that.
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Would you play a game that costs $10 a day?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 October 2015, 6:23 am
Cam set me a trap and recommended League of Angels to me. I think there are several different versions of that game, I am playing League of Angels - Fire Raiders on the iPad. When I started the game apparently I ended up on a new server, so I did rather well. At one point I was the 7th best player of the whole server in the arena. And I got invited into the top guild on the server. So the success got me really hooked, but there is a catch: League of Angels is the ultimate Pay2Win game.

What makes League of Angels interesting to pay is that there is a range of different activities and game modes, resulting in different rewards and different ways to make your team stronger. For example the main way to level up your player level is to spend stamina on normal and elite adventures. But of course stamina is limited. And you can buy more stamina for diamonds, which, you guessed it, can be bought for real money. The more money you spend, the higher your VIP level becomes, which gives you more possibilities to spend more diamonds on more rewards.

The most vicious money grab is the "events", where for a limited time of one to several days you get extra rewards for doing certain things. And usually doing those things involves spending money or diamonds. Who can resist the event that gives you double the diamonds for your money? And then of course there is another event that gives you more soulstones (which you need to summon and increase the star rating of heroes) if you spend those diamonds. It is all terribly well balanced with the ultimate goal of making you spend as much money as possible.

Unlike other games where you get the best exchange ratio if you buy the biggest amount of diamonds in one go, League of Angels is rather rewarding if you purchase every day. So I spent $10 on the day every day for the last week or so. That is unlikely to ruin my personal finances, but of course it isn't very wise behavior, and I already spent more money on this "free" game than I would buy a triple-A game for. And I'm not yet ready to stop. League of Angels is rather good at creating a sense of urgency and competitiveness. I feel I "need" to keep up with the Joneses, and that can't be done without a certain amount of spending.

On the plus side League of Angels has so much different stuff to do that the game is really keeping me occupied for hours until I run out of the various daily attempts and resources. So it is not as if I am not getting any entertainment value out of my daily $10. Which of course raises the question whether there is a need for "luxury" games. People spend crazy amounts of money on other hobbies (or other bad habits), so why not on games? $10 per day for a game is probably healthier than $10 per day for smokes, and probably better value per entertainment hour than a $5,000 annual golf club membership. The payment model doesn't have to be Pay2Win, I could imagine luxury niche MMORPGs with a $300 a month subscription fee. If gaming isn't for kids any more, then why shouldn't it have pricing options for adults?
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Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 04
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 October 2015, 5:26 am
In the previous session the musketeers of the Royal Homeland Constabulary traveled to Axis Island. Originally their role was to be a backup team for another team of infiltrators, but the first team got killed very early in the mission and the player group had to take over. This session began with them traversing an underwater tunnel and reaching a sea cave at the bottom of a mine.

The sea cave was 60 feet high, with the exit being 35 feet above sea level. A series of platforms and ladders was leading up, and right when the group entered and made light the avenger (with his 21 passive perception) noticed a shadow on one of the upper platforms moving towards the tunnel. The group left the water and started climbing up those ladders, when they were attacked by a Danorian mine foreman, who had an earth elemental and a shadow elemental as allies. The foreman was very excited and accused them of having killed his miners.

Now the combat wasn't designed to be epic, but in my opinion it was over too quick. I guess the adventure is optimized for 5 characters, and my player group has 6. I don't want fights to drag on forever, but 13 hit points for the shadow elemental was clearly too low. It isn't much use to have monsters with interesting abilities if those monsters die on turn 1 and never really get to use them. The earth elemental was doing better, but in the end the group prevailed with just some minor wounds. They knocked out the foreman using non-lethal damage and searched him. That resulted in them finding two gold icons (medallions) which were magic. A third gold icon was found in the sea cave in a white marble pillar. The icons had different symbols and affinities to different elements.

After reviving the foreman the constables questioned him. Risuri forces, apparently the duchess' men, had killed his team of miners and he was the only survivor. They asked him how to get out of the mine, and he boasted how in Danoran mines the exit was clearly indicated at each fork of a tunnel. They tried to convince him that they were friends, trying to give back the island to Danor, but that story (while true) didn't really convince the foreman. Curiously the group not only decided to let him go, but also returned one of the three gold icons to him, as its power to become insubstantial for one round didn't appear very powerful to them. Heroes giving away magic items was not something the adventure had foreseen as possibility, so it remains to be seen how important the golden icons become in the rest of the campaign.

Following the exit signs the musketeers left the mine and found themselves in the middle of Axis Island. A small mountain range separated them from their target, the only fortress of the island, so they could go either on the road around the mountain, or directly over the mountain. As that was only about a mile of distance and more discreet, they decided to take the direct route. On the way they encountered some of the strange phenomena Axis Island is known for: Flames erupting from the tops of trees, and a reality fluctuation that transported them for a few seconds to a different world with a purple sky and blue sun; that was the same phenomenon that had preceded the cave-in that had killed the first infiltrator team, but in this case it caused only a minor landslide. The group also encountered an iron golem, who apparently had lost his head in a battle and was staggering aimlessly through the forest. Aria the spirit medium heard thousands of spirit voices coming from the golem, and the oil trace that he left.

The group was in a very determined mode, and didn't investigate the strange phenomena or golden icons any further, but pressed on towards the fortress. They arrived at the fortress wall, which was only lightly guarded with a patrol passing every 10 minutes. As planned they got through the weak spot in the wall with the help of a passwall scroll. From there they sneaked through the outer fortress towards the harbor. They passed by a prison, but as that one was well guarded they abandoned a first idea to free the prisoners. By taking the shortest way they only had to make one stealth check, and only failed 2 checks, raising the alarm to mild level. With several characters in heavy armor and having negative stealth check modifiers, that was as good as they could hope for.

Arriving at the harbor they had a good view of the sea wall, which was guarded, and the lighthouse. Aria proposed using another water breathing scroll to get to the lighthouse discreetly under water, which is what they did. As it was getting late and the events at the lighthouse will require some time, we stopped the session there.
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50 bucks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 October 2015, 10:31 am
I visited Steam this weekend to look whether I might want to buy Heroes of Might & Magic 7. The game would have cost 50 bucks, so I checked reviews on Steam and Metacritic to see whether it was worth that amount of money. It turned out that the reviews were mixed. While some people liked the "old style" feel of HOMM3, a lot of others complained about the game being ugly and unfinished (e.g. the heroes talking with no animation), or encountered bugs. The game appears to be not very polished. Why would I spend 50 bucks on a not very polished game? If I want the HOMM3 experience, I can buy HOMM3 HD on the iPad for $9.99, or Royal Bounty HD for $4.99.

I do think there is a market for $50+ games. But I would expect such a game to be highly polished and very pretty, as well as being very good. If I don't mind shabby graphics and lack of polish, there are plenty of indie and mobile games out there which are significantly cheaper. Just because the company is big doesn't make their limited budget, half-baked games worth 50 bucks.

While checking out HOMM7 reviews I saw lots of other games. So in the end I spent my 50 bucks on a collection of 3 Steam games: Undertale, which has an unheard-of Metacritic score of 97, although that universal love appears to be based more on a gigantic in-joke than on gameplay; Cities Skylines (at half price), which is the Sim City that the last Sim City failed to be; and Heroes of Normandie, a computer adaptation of a board game I had seen and liked at the Brussels Games Festival. I'm pretty certain that those 3 games together will provide me with more hours of quality entertainment and fun than HOMM7 would have.

HOMM7 meanwhile is on my Steam wishlist. I might still buy it at a sale if I can get it for half the current price or less. Plus the bugs will be fixed by then, and there will be plenty of player-created maps available. I can only win by waiting this out.
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Magic Duels status
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 October 2015, 5:20 am
I'm still regularly playing Magic Duels on my iPad. Today is the release date for the card version of the Zendikar expansion, but on Magic Duels that expansion is delayed. Well, I'm still one booster away from having every single card of the Origins set, so I don't mind getting the opportunity to stockpile some gold before Zendikar arrives.

On the iPad I never had serious server problems, but as far as I hear most of the technical issues of the game have been fixed by now. On the gameplay side I consider the biggest problem of the game to be the Deck Wizard, a program designed to build one of ten archetype decks from your collection. The Deck Wizard doesn't allow you to put any card you want into that archetype deck, even if the card would totally fit the theme; instead you always need to choose the "least bad" card among a selection of five cards. Now normally my advice would be to simply not use the Deck Wizard, but unfortunately the majority of the more-or-less-daily quests require you to play just such an archetype deck. Even with a full collection the Deck Wizard produces a seriously handicapped deck.

That creates two distinctively different play environments. The Deck Wizard decks notoriously lack creature removal, and so creatures are pretty much the way to go, and even auras end up being good cards. You don't win every game on easy difficulty with a Deck Wizard deck. But if you build a deck with the regular deck builder without any restrictions, and put in a good amount of creature removal, then "easy" becomes really easy, and you still get good win percentages on higher difficulty levels. And of course you can build a lot more different decks than the 10 archetypes.

The upshot of all that is that I play the quests with the archetype decks on easy for quick gold, and then switch to a freely built deck and higher difficulty levels to play for fun. And while I haven't looked into the cards of the Zendikar expansion at all yet, I am absolutely certain that for the free building part more cards means more choice, and that means more fun. For the quest part of the game it will very much depend on how the new expansion will change those quests. Will there be separated Origins and Zendikar quests? Will there be 10 new archetypes based on a mix of both expansions? I don't mind the idea of a simplified version of Magic for beginners with lots of creatures, but if in the end even the veterans need to grind that simplified version for a long time to earn gold, then it isn't much fun.
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Virtual non-property
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 October 2015, 10:28 am
Recently I tried to play one of my many Steam games in the evening, and the Steam servers were down. As this particular game needed some Steam network component, I couldn't even play in offline mode. Of course a lot of people work on keeping the servers at Steam up and running, and the problem didn't last long. But it was a poignant reminder that I do in fact not own many games any more, I just have licences to temporarily play them.

I get a lot more of those reminders when I play mobile games on my iPad instead of Steam games. It is now years ago that developers discovered that "games as a service" with always online requirement was a good copy protection, and started using that as a basic principle in the majority of games. But "games as a service" also means running cost. Now that there are 400,000 games in the app store, it happens more and more often that games that aren't rather new any more don't earn the company enough money any more to justify the continued expenditure for that service. And thus the game is officially pulled and shut down.

Besides the relatively simple case of me now being unable to play a game that I paid for, I also run in the far more complicated case of being unable to play a Free2Play game that I have spent money on. The very concept of "virtual property", paying for a sparkly pony or the like, is revealed as an illusion. Now personally I have spending limits on any individual game, I'm not spending more money on a "free" game than what I would have been willing to pay for it if it had come in a box. But for those often-discussed "whales" who spent a lot of money on virtual property in a game it must come as quite a shock to find out that they have in fact no property rights at all.
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The 7th Continent
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 September 2015, 12:58 pm
I am not a big fan of Kickstarter. If you consider it as an "investment", the safety mechanisms are worse than for collateralized subprime mortgages. If you consider it as a "prepurchase", it is simply a bad deal because you have to pay far too early, and wait far too long, if not forever. Having said that, the three Kickstarter projects I did back all did eventually deliver, albeit on average a year late. Where I least regret my purchases are the Kickstarter projects I backed for physical objects, because the objects I got that way now can't be bought anywhere; the Kickstarter project was a one-time deal.

So yesterday I backed another Kickstarter project to the tune of a hundred bucks. It is for a physical object again, a board game called The 7th Continent. The main reason I backed it is that I saw a prototype played at the Brussels Games Festival 2015, and it looked a lot of fun. It solves one of the problems of board games (who do I play with?) by being soloable. And it is of an exploration / adventure type where I played games of that type with my wife in the past and we had a lot of fun. Being huge it gets over the problem of you running into the same handful of events over and over. So it is everything that I am looking for in a board game today.

The Kickstarter project for the 7th continent was funded after 2 minutes and 38 seconds. The project still is less than a day old, and has collected over 5 times the required funding, having over 3,000 backers. It passed stretch goal #18 with #19 already rather close. With 2 to 10 additional cards per stretch goal, the initial 1000 cards of the larger explorer version (very few people went for the smaller, 700 card version) has already grown by 10%.

Now The 7th Continent probably will be available in specialized games stores at some point in time, so the one-time deal advantage presumably doesn't apply. But with all those Kickstarter-exclusive stretch goal cards I still feel I'll get something more than if I had waited for the game to come to shops.

On the other hand the planned delivery date is only in one year, and based on past experience might well only be in 2 years. Getting far more money than needed curiously has never helped any Kickstarter project to advance faster. Usually the project creators get dizzy from all the extra money and start expanding the scope, going for a much bigger and more complicated version of the project. And that then ends up being much slower, without necessarily being any better. Nevertheless, having seen the playable prototype, I'm rather confident that again I will eventually get this game delivered.
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Windows 10 desktop gadgets
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 September 2015, 1:51 am
I had signed up for the free update from Windows 7 to Windows 10 months ago, and last weekend I finally got it. Download and installation went without a hitch. But what I lost was my desktop gadgets, which are showing things like the current time, the next appointment in my calendar, weather, mail in my inbox, and network bandwith usage. Now these gadgets were already "unsupported" in Windows 7, but now they were totally gone.

Instead Windows 10 proposes "live tiles" in the start menu. I fiddled around with those and managed to get some information of the the type I wanted in the start menu. But the live tiles are rather annoying: They don't appear to update all that often (a mail I had read and deleted still showed up on the mail tile 15 minutes later), and of course you need to open the start menu first to even see them. The Windows 10 desktop is completely static, with only icons and no updating information except for the little clock in the lower right corner. I have less current information on my Windows desktop than I have on my Android phone!

In the end I installed a program called 8gadgets and got my old gadgets back. Not a perfect solution as these are just legacy gadgets with no support whatever now. But until Microsoft realises that people might want to have useful information on their desktops, this is all I have.
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Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 03
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 September 2015, 5:28 am
In the previous session the musketeers of the Royal Homeland Constabulary saved the king's life by preventing a sabotage act organized by the king's sister, Duchess Ethelyn of Shale. The next morning it was back to the usual paperwork. Two messages awaited them at the RHC headquarters: One formal memo from Lady Inspectress Margaret Saxby, head of the Flint branch of the RHC, telling constables not to talk to the press about the sabotage "for reasons of national security". The other an invitation to be interviewed by Bartholomew Pryce of the Pryce of Progress, a progressive newspaper. The constables decided to follow orders and refused the interview. The next day the Pryce of Progress had a nasty article about them being responsible for the death of an "innocent" docker protester. And the Flint Tribune had an interview with Margaret Saxby, telling all details, with her taking credit for everything.

A week later the constables are called into the office of their direct superior, Stover Delft. There they meet Lya Jierre, Minister of Outsiders of Danor, and niece of the sovereign of Danor. Lya presents them with a puzzle to test their intelligence, which they only solve partially. Still satisfied with that, Lya tells them of the current situation: The duchess has fled Risur and taken Axis Island, the closest island to Risur in the Yerasol Archipelago. The archipelago has been the location of four wars between Risur and Danor, and now the actions of the duchess threaten to start a fifth one, while her brother the king is trying to make peace with Danor. So King Aodhan has agreed to Lya's demand that Risuri forces take back Axis Island from the duchess, and then hand the island back to Danor by sundown 3 days from now.

The musketeers are part of that mission, as they are the only ones having fought the duchess' troops before. They are tasked with giving backup to another RHC team of infiltrators, who will take point in sneaking onto the island through a sea cave, getting from there to the fortress, and opening the fortress's sea gate to let the Risuri armada in. Being familiar with the duchess, the PCs are tasked to interrogate the duchess once the fortress has fallen. Lya also asks them to save her cousin, Nathan Jierre, who has been taken prisoner by the duchess. After Lya leaves, Stover Delft tells them that he doesn't trust the Danorans, and would like the musketeers to keep an eye open on Axis Island for anything unusual.

At this point in the story the players receive a bunch of scrolls for the mission and a "stipend" of 728 gold worth of magic items. That is the system of the Zeitgeist campaign which replaces pseudo-randomly "found" magic items with a level-dependent stipend for players to select their own magic items with. I think the system isn't bad, but I need to handle it differently in the future: In the middle of a session it completely breaks immersion and distracts the players enormously from the story. It would be better to announce the stipend in advance and let them choose their magic items between sessions.

The musketeers then take the fastest RHC ship, the Impossible, to get to Axis Island, a voyage that takes them two days. On board they meet the team of infiltration specialists from the RHC, who will take point in this mission. At 9 pm on day 2, just 21 hours before they have to hand over the island back to Danor, the Impossible reaches the sea cave. Scrolls of water breathing are used on everybody, and the infiltrators go first, trailing a rope behind them. The plan is for them to secure the sea cave behind the underwater tunnel, and give a signal with the rope for the PCs to follow. But things go wrong: After 2 minutes there is a strange vibration and the rope goes slack. Eldion decides to immediately check out what is going on, and the others follow. They find that part of the ceiling of the underwater tunnel caved in, killing most of the infiltrators and crushing the leg of the only survivor, Burton the goblin. The survivor is able to tell them that there was something strange going on, the infiltrators found themselves for a second in a completely different environment: A swamp with yellow frogs, with a blue sun in a purple sky. Then they were back in the tunnel, and the ceiling collapsed on them. The group frees Burton, but his leg is beyond simple healing magic, so they bring him back to the ship.

So the musketeers have become the point team and must do the mission alone. The underwater tunnel is still navigable, and they traverse it carefully, keeping a good distance between them. They arrive at the sea cave, which is said to be connected to a Danorian mine, and we stop the session there.
Tobold's Blog

Shop Heroes
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 September 2015, 3:45 am
Napoleon is said to have called England a nation of shopkeepers, presumably in contrast to warrior nations. But while there are a lot of games in which you can play a warrior, there are a lot less games in which you can keep a shop. Recettear comes to ming. Of course some MMORPGs like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies enabled you to open a shop, but it is far more frequent that you're playing the hero instead of the shopkeeper. Recently the Apple app store featured Shop Heroes, so I went and tried it out. It turns out that keeping shop is more fun than you might think.

The basic gameplay of Shop Heroes is that you have a shop with workstations and resource bins. The resource bins create basic resources over time, and with the right workers hired and the right workstation you can transform those resources into weapon, armor, and other typical fantasy game equipment. Heroes come to your shop and buy things. Sometimes they ask for the stuff you already have in your inventory, sometimes they want something you need to craft first. There is also a system of "hearts", which you can spend to persuade your customers to pay more for an item, or to buy something else, and which goes up if you sell them what they want.

Curiously the heroes never equip the gear you sell them. Instead you can equip them with gear and send them out adventuring. They will earn xp and levels from that, and bring back rare resources for crafting. Crafting has a huge "tech tree", where crafting basic items often enough unlocks blueprints for higher level items. So over time everything levels up: The heroes, their gear, the items you can craft, the workers, even the workstations and other furniture.

In addition there is a city shared by 4+ players in an absolutely brilliant system: The buildings in the city level up in function of what the players invested in them. But your investments remain yours: If you quit a city or get kicked out by the major, you take your investment with you and contribute it to the next city you join. The sum of the investment of all players determines the level of buildings, and that unlocks heroes, workers, new resources, and gives various bonuses.

Shop Heroes runs on iOS, Android, and Facebook. You can link the iOS and Android versions to Facebook and run your same shop on different platforms if you want. The game is free, but of course you can spend real money on buying gems, and gems can speed up a lot of things, or get you additional slots for workers, crafting, or quests. In general I found the monetization scheme unobtrusive, except for one case: When you send out heroes on quests, there is a chance that a piece of their gear will break, and then the game is very pushy about offering you to repair that item for gems. But you can ignore that, let the gear break, and craft a new piece. Quests also can give you chests, and it is rarely that you find a key for those chests, so you might be tempted to unlock the chests for gems. I did buy the starter package for $5 which came with various additional slots, and found that to be good value for money. I wouldn't go overboard with buying gems and using them for everything, it doesn't really make the game more fun.

Overall I like Shop Heroes as a resource and time management game. You constantly need to make decisions, like whether you craft just what your customers demand, or whether you produce a lot of one specific item to unlock better versions. As crafting or quests frequently take minutes to finish once you have reached a certain level, it isn't a game which takes your full attention for hours; but it is quite fun if you just play it occasionally, or in parallel to watching TV. Recommended!
Tobold's Blog

iOS 9
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 September 2015, 4:13 am
Lately I've been playing two games on my iPad which frequently have server connection problems: Magic Duels and Fifa Ultimate Team 15. That is annoying by itself, but the problem is clearly on the side of the server. Now I just updated my iPad to iOS 9 and the problem has become one of the operating system: A server problem on either of these games now causes the application to crash to desktop. Which makes retrying to get a connection a lot harder.

In short, up to now I'm not terribly impressed by iOS 9.
Tobold's Blog

The future of garrisons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 September 2015, 6:25 am
In World of Warcraft I finished building up my 5th garrison to all buildings having level 3, including the shipyard. Yay! Only that the exercise felt kind of futile, since it has become very clear that the garrison as player housing was only temporary and the next expansion will have something else. While the next expansion is still a year or so in the future, we already know that there is no more major new content added to this expansion. And so I'm kind of looking at all things with a regard on what progress I can make that is transferable to the next expansion, and what stuff becomes obsolete.

So for example having 5 characters at level 100 is a good thing for the next expansion, as that gives me plenty of options which classes to play. I'll also certainly have over a million gold and a bunch of WoW tokens in stock for the next expansion. As most of that gold comes from garrisons, I certainly don't regret to have build so many of them. But what parts of the garrison might still be useful once Legion hits?

Most buildings in the garrison clearly won't be of any use in Legion: The barracks, stable, pet menagerie, etc., all clearly state that the bonuses they give only apply to Draenor zones. Many others produce resources or crafted goods which will become worthless in the next expansion. Yes, I can craft epics and upgrade them to up to iLvl 715, but I guess that in the first zone of Legion green drops will have an iLvl of 750 or so. I could still vendor those epics, but the pithy sum that gives clearly isn't worth the effort.

Of the follower missions a good number will become equally useless. I already don't use the xp mission any more on most of my characters, and of the missions giving other rewards, many rewards like Apexis crystals or epics will have become obsolete. This most important exception to that is missions giving gold. Gold is always useful, even if price levels generally go up from one expansion to the next. Blizzard has already nerfed gold missions somewhat, and it is totally possible that they will nerf them some more in order to prevent gold mission farming to continue into Legion.

One possible use of the garrison in the future might be for teleportation: Assuming we keep the garrison hearthstone, it will be possible in Legion to use the garrison portal to Ashran and the city portals from there to quickly get to any old world city. On the other hand the third incarnation of Dalaran probably will also have portals everywhere, and everybody might have set his main hearthstone to Dalaran.

So overall I think it is completely likely that garrisons in Legion will be as little used as the Pandaria farms were used in Warlords of Draenor. I just hope that the replacement player housing, the guild halls, don't feel much less like a home. Overall I liked garrison, and their main drawback is that they are maybe *too* useful. As player housing goes, that is hard to beat.
Tobold's Blog

Getting the word out
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 September 2015, 4:17 am
There was a long discussion recently on this blog about whether game companies that pay some publication or YouTuber to report about their game would expect that this coverage was positive, basically buying a good review. I think the discussion somewhat mixed up two very different cases, which I would like to separate:

One case is big, triple-A games. This is really big business, and those games not only cost millions to make, they also have an advertising budget of millions. Gaming is now sufficiently mainstream that you can find huge ads for a game on New York's Times Square or painted all over a bus, and not just in specialized gaming publications. Which means that the game company can assume everybody has heard about the game in question, and then it becomes a problem of persuading people to choose this particular game among a large range of other choices. For triple-A games, review scores are important, and there is an interest in promoting positive coverage and in some cases even trying to suppress negative coverage.

The other case is everybody else, the much larger number of much smaller games. That can be established game studios bringing out yet another medium-budget game of a series, or indie studios launching a completely new game. In that case while of course a high review score on Metacritic is nice, the primary problem is that most potential customers haven't even heard of the game and are unaware that the game exists. Paying $20,000 to $30,000 to a YouTuber with several million of followers is not primarily about positive coverage, it is about coverage, period.

That is especially noticeable when the developers make a deliberately controversial game, like the JFK shooting simulator or Hatred. In such a case the hope is that negative coverage is better than no coverage at all. Hatred ended up getting a Metacritic score of 42 not because it was controversial, but because it was simple a rather bad and boring shooter game. Without the controversy, nobody would have even noticed the game. They'd rather have somebody like TotalBiscuit condemning their game in front of 2 million viewers instead of him not talking about the game at all.

From my point of view as a consumer, I can see the problem. I went from not being able to play all the games in my Steam library to not even being aware any more of every major PC video game release. Especially as I like games like turn-based tactical or strategy games, which aren't often the kind that get advertising at a bus stop. And while it's already bad on the PC, I am completely lost regarding iPad games, where I play a more or less random selection and have no idea which are the best games on the platform. It doesn't help that if you google for the "top 10 best iOS games" and look up 10 different sources, you'll get 100 different games with no game mentioned twice.

The more games we get, and that appears to be a rising flood, the more important simple awareness becomes. If millions of people are aware that a game exists, chances are that some among them decide to buy the game because of their specific niche interest, even if the game doesn't have a great review score. I bet among the games you are currently playing there are a few which have a not so good review score on Metacritic, but you like them anyway. And that problem of awareness means advertising that rather targets basic visibility than great praise.
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Fantasy world coming alive
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 September 2015, 2:26 am
In a pen & paper roleplaying game usually the players play their characters, and the DM plays the rest of the world. "The world" sounds like a huge job, but frequently it isn't: The world is really a huge blank slate, which springs in existence only where observed by the players. And there it is often spontaneously populated by a jumble of generic fantasy tropes. Your group is looking for a blacksmith? Sure! He's a dwarf, loves gold, and speaks with a Scottish accent. The world can be generic because it is only the backdrop of an adventure which most of the time could play in just about any fantasy world.

The Zeitgeist campaign I just started is very different. Basically there is a campaign story and the whole world has been designed around that campaign story. It is a one-shot world, it only serves this one campaign and isn't designed as a backdrop for different campaigns or collections of adventures. On the one side that is great, because it is a lot more interesting than those fantasy tropes. On the other side it means that this time playing the world actually *is* a huge job. I had to read and re-read hundreds of pages of campaign guides and adventures to understand how the world is operating and what is going on in order for me to tell that to the players.

Now, after the first adventure has properly started and we already had a rather epic battle aboard an exploding steamship, I am starting to become comfortable with that job of playing the world. The world is starting to come alive in my head. While thinking about the start of the next session I was able to turn half a phrase of text from the adventure into an idea of a short scene that fits perfectly into this world and gives the players a real choice of actions with predictable consequences. I've completely prepared the first adventure, already read the second adventure once and started preparing stuff for that, and generally am feeling up to the task. I just hope that this all translates into a great experience for my players as well, as this campaign is asking more role-playing of them than previous ones.
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Reviewing games on YouTube
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 September 2015, 9:58 am
From time to time on this blog I post my opinion about some game. That sort of post might or might not have the word "review" somewhere in the title or text. I might have the word "recommended" at the end, but never a review score or anything similar. But most importantly I'm not getting paid $30,000 to write such reviews. Most of the time I received absolutely nothing, and even had to buy the game myself. Over the 12 years that I am doing this I received a handful of free "review copies", and in each of these cases I stated that in the post.

Personally I prefer to express myself in written form instead of speaking into a camera. The result is slower, but better thought through, because it is so much easier to edit writing. But I certainly can see the attraction of watching your game reviews on YouTube, especially if you can see the gameplay as well as hearing what the reviewer thinks about it. I can understand why especially a younger audience would rather watch a funny guy reviewing a video game on YouTube than reading a blogger's much dryer review of the same game. I understand while some of these channels have millions of viewers, compared to blogs having at best thousands of readers.

But when I hear some YouTuber writing to developers demanding $22,000 for a review, I am starting to believe that something has seriously gone wrong. The sum of all the worst accusations of corruption leveled against all video game review writers during Gamergate was just a fraction of the sums that appear to be common now on YouTube. And there are contracts between game companies and YouTubers which are definitively unethical, by deliberately hiding the fact that these are paid promotions, or by obliging the reviewer to refrain from saying certain things.

I do think that there are sufficient methods for popular YouTubers to make money via advertising and the like without having to resort to effectively blackmailing developers into payments, or disguising paid promotions as honest reviews. But with the current situation of there being far too many games out there struggling for a piece of the consumers gaming money, I'm afraid that we'll hear far more stories of shady dealings on YouTube for some time to come.
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Second opinion: Magic Duels
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 September 2015, 5:05 am
I was reading Ravious' opinion about Magic Duels on Kill Ten Rats, and found it far more negative than my own experience with the game. I still think it is one of the better incarnations of Magic the Gathering in a virtual format. So I'd like to address his points of concern and give my differing opinion on them:

"Easy AI has ridiculous answers to the deck I am forced to build.": There is a lot of complexity to this complaint. Magic Duels has quests, most of which require you to use the deckbuilding wizard, which doesn't give you full freedom to build decks, and thus often ends up with sub-optimal builds. And Magic the Gathering is, and has always been in all forms, a game with certain rock-paper-scissors elements: Certain decks work extremely well against certain other decks, but get crushed by yet another type of deck. So all together that means that yes, you can build a deck with deckbuilding wizard to do a quest, and then lose against the AI on easy difficulty because the opponents deck was just built with plenty of answers to the threats you put into your deck. But you can just as well play on medium and have an easy victory, because it just happens that your deck is the rock and the AI has the scissors. Note that Magic also has a certain degree of randomness, so you can always win or lose just because of what lands you or your opponent drew. Personally I find it good that I don't have a 100% win chance against the AI on easy. But I'm winning far more games than I lose at that difficulty level, so for me there isn't really a problem here. Furthermore I would like to point out that of course you can build a deck freely without the deckbuilding wizard and earn gold outside the quests. The game becomes a lot less limited if you don't limit yourself to doing quests.

"The “curated” meta where someone decided not all cards from the Origins set should go in to the game allows for cards like Nimbus Wings (1W aura for creature to gain flying and +1/+2) to become monsters.": Magic the Gathering in physical card form or as MtG:Online allows the player to put 4 cards of the same name in a deck. Magic Duels allows 4 if the card is common, 3 if uncommon, 2 if rare, and just 1 if legendary. That has consequences: Combinations of rares into a complicated engine work a lot less well, because you can't put 4 of each rare you want for the engine in your deck. With complicated engines being out, creatures (and creature enchantments) become the main way to win a game. Magic Duels in its current form is easier than real Magic, but also considerably cheaper, as you don't need to buy so many cards to get all those rares. Personally I think that is of more advantage than disadvantage. You don't copy "net decks" for Magic Duels, it is a separate format in which different cards are strong, and you need to account for that when building your own decks.

"The daily quests aren’t really daily because of server issues, and players roll for craps with the server anyway on seeing if they will get the gold from the completed quest.": Actually it says nowhere that the quests are daily. As far as I know it is intended that you get a new quest only every second day. On the plus side the quests accumulate, so after 6 days you have 3 quests waiting for you, which is nice for weekend players. Magic Duels does have server issues, but those depend a *lot* on the platform on which you are playing. On the iPad, once I am connected, I never had the problem of winning a game and then not getting it counted because of connection loss to the server. There appear to be far bigger server problems on the PC version of the game.

"I hope that there is a Hail Mary patch for this game, and I am looking forward to when Battle for Zendikar gets added.": The server issues especially of the PC version need to be fixed for this game to get anywhere, obviously. I don't expect a patch to change much on the gameplay side of things. I am looking forward to the Zendikar expansion, and it will be interesting to see how they are going to handle the format: Will the new quests require you to build Zendikar-only decks, or can you mix cards from different expansion, which opens up a lot more possibilities?

Overall I think that Magic Duels (not regarding the PC server issues) is pretty close to the best we could have hoped for as a virtual version of Magic the Gathering which is accessible to a broader audience than the card game or the much more cut-throat MtGO version. You can reasonably play for free, and even if you decide to buy cards, that doesn't break your bank like the other versions do. You can't build every deck you can build with the other versions, but that removes some layers of complexity which would be rather daunting for new players. In order to compete with a much simpler game like Hearthstone, Magic Duels is rather well done attempt.
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Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 02
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 September 2015, 5:31 am
In the previous session the group as members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary provided security for the launch of the first Risuri-built steam warship, the RNS Coaltongue. Having successfully dealt with some troublesome dockers, they were invited to provide further security on the ship, which was to make a short maiden voyage with the king and invited guests. So this session started with a tour of the ship. I had gone the expensive route of printing the map of the ship on two posters to 1" scale, and had an NPC, petty officer Elian Aughtbrook, give them a guided tour to be sure that they knew all the details of how the ship operated. They met a guard, Divianne Athel, at the ship's magazine, telling them how the firedust (powder) for the cannons was protected by wreaths enchanted daily with a fire resistance ritual. And they met the young engineer Fitzcairn Luckshore in the engine room, where he was shoveling firegems into the furnace with two rather more solidly built and older colleagues.

Via Elian Aughtbrook they also organized, as requested, a room for the sister of the king, Duchess Ethelyn of Shale, to nap in. That caused some discussion, as the players with some degree of meta-gaming concluded that this special request meant that the king's sister was in special danger; so they weren't sure to what degree they were supposed to guard just the king, or his sister as well, or the whole ship. In the end they tried to cover everything, but of course the ship was rather huge and patrolling it every quarter of an hour with just 2 people didn't turn up anything suspicious.

Apart from the king complaining about indigestion, which he said was probably caused by some local archfey wanting to let him know their displeasure about the use of technology, nothing much happened during the next hour. The band assembled, ready to play the royal anthem accompanied by fireworks, and after that a speech by the king was planned. At that point the group's boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft approached them with a task: The duchess hadn't returned from her nap, and there was some concern that she might try to embarrass the king by being absent during his speech. So the constables were charged to give her an "escort of honor" and make sure she was present for the speech.

In spite of their earlier concerns regarding the safety of the duchess, the group decided that it would be sufficient if 4 of them went to provide that escort, while the 2 others remained on the top deck in case something happened there. The duchess' room was two decks below, in the back of the berth deck. The 4 constables went there and knocked on the door, and got a response from the duchess' handmaiden, Sokana. She opened the door just a bit and said the duchess was still sleeping. At that moment two things happened: The band on the top deck began playing the royal anthem at full blast, and near the duchess' cabin another door opened. Out came the halfling chef they had observed earlier with a tray of chocolates, but now he was wielding a short sword, and the green substance smeared on that sword didn't look like chocolate. Combat ensued, with the halfling assassin enjoying surprise over most of the group. Sokana wasn't surprised, pulled out a rod, yelled "an assassin, protect the duchess!" and went forward towards where the assassin was facing Merian the avenger, and Aria the sorceress.

Now I played this encounter as written, using the stats given, although I had a nagging feeling that the assassin was a bit underpowered with his 22 hit points. This turned out to be very much the case: The assassin landed a nasty poisoned blow on Aria, who couldn't act that turn due to surprise. But Merian, who stood right next to Aria, hit the halfling with a strong attack for 14 points, and Eldion the, who had likewise succeeded his surprise roll, finished him off with another strong hit. End of round one it looked as if the combat was already over.

At that point the real surprise was revealed: Sokana cast a whirlwind spell attacking Aria and Merian, which as a secondary effect teleported her past them. She then proceeded to summon 3 fire sprites as a minor action, and moved further towards the ladder to the engine room. Artus the ardent, standing at the duchess' cabin door, decided to check what was going on there and opened the door. The bed was empty (remember the empty bed in the vision last session?), the duchess had apparently left through the porthole and was seen outside riding a leviathan into the sea, fleeing the scene. Something was afoot, and the duchess and her people turned out to be the enemies here.

Now the group had to manage several things: Pursue Sokana, stop the fire sprites who were going for the powder magazine, alarm their two remaining colleagues on the top deck, and find out what the enemies were up to. Fortunately for them Sokana's whirlwind spell had missed both targets. And Merian the avenger was uniquely equipped with powers to pursue a single enemy. Sokana managed to summon more fire sprites, get down to the engine room, throw an enchanted fire ritual wand into the furnace and rusting shut the furnace door, but Merian was always right behind her, dealing serious damage. Aria also followed, and being a spirit medium received a message from the spirit of her dead father who is watching over her: Her father was a technologist and could tell her that the furnace was unusually overloaded with firegems (the "coal" of this world), and with the added heat from the fire wand the boiler would surely explode at some point. He was even able to calculate how much time they had to stop this, so there was a countdown until the boiler would explode and kill the whole group. Fun!

Meanwhile Eldion had gone and warned James and Malicia, the two group members on the top deck. Together with Artus they killed all the fire sprites, before they did any damage to the powder magazine, and then went down to the engine room. The guard of the powder room was found dead, apparently killed earlier by the assassin, and in the engine room the young engineer had been killed by his two burlier colleagues who were in on the sabotage and had bashed his head in with a shovel. The two engineers were busy sabotaging the pressure relief valves, and Sokana retreated towards them, blocking Merian's way with a wall of fire. Like a good musketeer Merian drew his musket and shot Sokana through that fire wall, killing her. She had succeeded in all her sabotaging objectives, but never did much serious damage to the group otherwise.

The furnace was hot enough to give fire damage to people standing close, but Aria had some fire resistance due to her dragon origin as sorceress. And unlike a weakly mage the sorceress had rather high stats in force, and was trained in athletics, so she was able with a lucky roll to break open the furnace door. She also found some tongs and managed to remove the fire wand from the furnace, which slowed the reaction down considerably (and doubled the number of turns remaining on the countdown). Meanwhile the other group members went after the two engineers and after a short combat killed these last enemies. Aiding each other they succeeded after a few attempts to unblock the safety valves, further adding time to the countdown.

Now the scenario has several different methods to completely stop the boiler from exploding. The group went for the not very spectacular but effective way of having Aria with her fire resistance shovel the firegems out of the furnace into metal buckets, with the others emptying those bucket through portholes upstairs into the sea. The group did also during this time warn the king about what was going on, but did so discreetly and said an evacuation wasn't necessary. The king's principal minister Harkover Lee called over the tiefling engineer Geoff Masarde, who had built the ship, who as tiefling also had fire resistance and could help Aria shoveling hot firegems. That way the reaction was stopped long before the countdown reached zero, and the ship was saved. On the list of possible outcomes from critical failure to critical success this was a critical success, because not only was the ship and king saved, but there wasn't even an interruption to the festivities.

The group received the personal thanks of the king, who was visibly shaken by the news that his own sister had betrayed him and tried to kill him. He feared there could now be a civil war in Risur. The king then gave his speech, in which he explained the situation to the guests, publicly thanked the constables and announced that after four wars with Danor he would now seek peace with them, convening a peace conference in a year to come, and planning to marry a Danoran lady of high birth. With this successful outcome we ended the session.
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Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 September 2015, 2:35 am
When Sid Meier said that a good game is a series of interesting decisions, he was producing a lot of turn-based games for which this is particularly true. In real-time games the player can get into the flow of just taking care of the execution and still be engaged. A turn-based game constantly disengages the player while he has to wait for the other players to make their move. So it becomes important that when its the player's turn again, he has something interesting to decide.

Armello is doing this very well, as it is a virtual fantasy strategy board game. You don't just decide on a strategy at one point in time and then spend the next hundred turns executing it. Every turn the situation has at least slightly changed and you will have to decide on your move accordingly. And you don't get hundreds of turns anyway: In Armello the king has been infected by rot, and is losing 1 health every two turns. As he only has 9 health at the start of the game, that gives a natural limit to the number of turns the players have to either cure the king, depose him, or become the new king after the king's death by prestige.

In every turn you draw cards if you don't already hold as many cards as you have wit in your hand, and then move over a very small hex map around the world. On that map you can capture settlements for a gold income, explore dungeons for random rewards, visit stone circles to heal, or just pass over different sorts of terrain. In the middle of the map is the palace, which you don't enter until you try for one of the victory conditions near the end of the game. As the map is small, you constantly run into the other heroes (Armello is a game for 4 players, but 3 of them can be AI), the king's guards, and the banes. That is an opportunity for combat, as combat gives you the prestige you need for the default prestige victory condition.

Combat is done by rolling dice with symbols on it. Sword symbols count as an attack, shield symbols as a defense, and the other symbols as either attack, defense, or nothing at all, depending on circumstances. And yes, that means that there is a strong random element to combat, although characters with a higher fight score get more dice and thus have a distinctive advantage. Before rolling the dice you can also "burn" the cards in your hand to get specific results on a die. That not only makes combat a bit more predictable, but is also a great opportunity to discard cards you didn't want to play anyway.

The cards which you draw every turn unless your hand is full are of three sorts: Equipment, which you can then transfer to your inventory for a cost in gold, spells which you can cast for magic, and trickery cards which can be used for various effects, usually to hinder other heroes. The overall effect of the various ways to hinder other players is that the three victory conditions which require you to cure or beat the king in some way are very, very hard to reach. Most games thus end with the default victory condition of declaring the player with the highest prestige the winner. That in turn makes the more fight-oriented heroes like the wolf clan members more likely to win than the other classes. This minor imbalance is the only point of criticism I have on Armello. Each turn *is* full of interesting decisions, and while each game is relatively short, you'll often want to start the next one right after it and try a different way. There is also a system where your victories unlock different starting bonuses for your next games.

Besides the excellent gameplay, Armello is also a very charming game. The characters are anthropomorphic animals, the king is of course the lion, and the different character classes are represented by different animals. Everything is nicely animated and the whole world looks just great.

Overall I can only recommend Armello. In view of the low price tag of $20, you don't even have to wait for a Steam sale in order to be able to afford it. :)

Tobold's Blog

Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 September 2015, 5:26 am
Golfers are known to wear funny trousers and Amazon has quite a selection of books with jokes about golfers. Any hobby has its particular customs which, from the outside, look somewhat funny. Golfers apparently don't mind all that much, and are in fact the prime customers of those books of golfer jokes. That relaxed attitude to a bit of ridicule unfortunately isn't shared by video gamers.

American television host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently made a joke about gamers. Or rather he made jokes about the new Youtube game streaming service. The core of that joke was that he can't see why you would watch somebody else play a video game instead of playing the game yourself. And he has a point there: It is a very specific behavior which looks funny to the outside world. Making a harmless joke about extrapolating that to people who watch people watching people watch video games didn't really hurt anybody. But of course gamers didn't see it like that, providing Jimmy Kimmel with a far more harmful opportunity to read out the various death threats he received from gamers because of his initial joke.

Gamers are establishing themselves as one of those extremist fringe groups that you only need to lightly poke to get a huge reaction of outrage from. And already several TV comedians have discovered that. The *reaction* of gamers to just about anything tends to be so completely blown out of proportion that it provides endless perfect material for comedy. Somebody playing a video game isn't inherently funny, not funnier than somebody watching TV, and the activity is so mainstream now that it only allows for mild humor. But somebody overreacting, foaming at the mouth because of some mild criticism or joke is incredibly funny. Even Jimmy Kimmel would be stunned if he knew that those death threats were in fact *not* sent by "12-year old boys", as he thinks, but by grown men. There is a greater than zero probability that one of the offended gamers will do something stupid like sending a SWAT team to Jimmy Kimmel's house, or calling in a bomb threat on his plane (such stuff happened before), providing Jimmy with even more comedy material.

Public ridicule is impossible to beat. It is a war that gamers just can't win. The only way to deal with ridicule is to ignore it. As some gamers aren't very likely to do that, they'll be inviting even more ridicule, painting the rest of us in a bad light. That's a shame.
Tobold's Blog

Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 September 2015, 5:26 am
Golfers are known to wear funny trousers and Amazon has quite a selection of books with jokes about golfers. Any hobby has its particular customs which, from the outside, look somewhat funny. Golfers apparently don't mind all that much, and are in fact the prime customers of those books of golfer jokes. That relaxed attitude to a bit of ridicule unfortunately isn't shared by video gamers.

American television host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently made a joke about gamers. Or rather he made jokes about the new Youtube game streaming service. The core of that joke was that he can't see why you would watch somebody else play a video game instead of playing the game yourself. And he has a point there: It is a very specific behavior which looks funny to the outside world. Making a harmless joke about extrapolating that to people who watch people watching people watch video games didn't really hurt anybody. But of course gamers didn't see it like that, providing Jimmy Kimmel with a far more harmful opportunity to read out the various death threats he received from gamers because of his initial joke.

Gamers are establishing themselves as one of those extremist fringe groups that you only need to lightly poke to get a huge reaction of outrage from. And already several TV comedians have discovered that. The *reaction* of gamers to just about anything tends to be so completely blown out of proportion that it provides endless perfect material for comedy. Somebody playing a video game isn't inherently funny, not funnier than somebody watching TV, and the activity is so mainstream now that it only allows for mild humor. But somebody overreacting, foaming at the mouth because of some mild criticism or joke is incredibly funny. Even Jimmy Kimmel would be stunned if he knew that those death threats were in fact *not* sent by "12-year old boys", as he thinks, but by grown men. There is a greater than zero probability that one of the offended gamers will do something stupid like sending a SWAT team to Jimmy Kimmel's house, or calling in a bomb threat on his plane (such stuff happened before), providing Jimmy with even more comedy material.

Public ridicule is impossible to beat. It is a war that gamers just can't win. The only way to deal with ridicule is to ignore it. As some gamers aren't very likely to do that, they'll be inviting even more ridicule, painting the rest of us in a bad light. That's a shame.
Tobold's Blog

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