Saturday, June 30, 2012

Games I Like (Alex)

Greetings everyone, I’m getting a late start on this blog authorship but I’m very excited to take part and hopefully find some interesting gaming topics to dissect and evaluate.

I want to take a moment to thank Matt for inviting me to join him on this reflective journey of gaming. As a brief introspective on how I got to this point in gaming I would say I really turned the corner in 2003 with the sudden and explosive poker boom.

When ESPN began showing the 2003 World Series of Poker I certainly was one of the millions captivated with the game of Texas Hold’em. While I had plenty of fun and success playing online I became interested in other poker varieties. I was hopeful the peak of the poker expansion would embolden friends and other local opponents to diversify and try other games like Seven Card Stud Hi/Low and Lowball but thus it did not and I burnt out on poker as a whole. Nowadays I just enjoy the occasional home game.

A few years later I stumbled upon a website called of which you are likely familiar with. After trying out a number of gameway games that are widely available such as Blokus and Loot I ordered several more after reading the rules and reviews others had done on the games.

I’ve been fortunate to try a large selection of games and while a single category or genre doesn’t stick out I have seen a few trends in my taste of games. One of my very first experiences with the Michael Schacht’s China really made area control and network building mechanics stick out as particularly interesting. I find the player interaction and population redistribution of La Citta to be a prime example of the level of interaction I enjoy in games.

Imperial is one of my absolute favorite games initially due to the straightforward game play and the player driven chaos of a perfect information game. Over time in Imperial I’ve become less and less interested in the conflict between nations and the power to control nations and far more interested in the stock aspect of the game, after the first few turns you’ll rarely see me in control of a country and I am usually just diversifying my European portfolio.

Over the last few years I’ve been in and out of the hobby of game design. I’ve wavered in my passion for getting published one day but that is probably because I’m focused on designing the right game to bring to publishers. The experience has been priceless though and I hope to bring a slightly different perspective in reviewing games and examining their designs, in order to give the reader an idea about the origin of a mechanic or why everything in a game fits so particularly well.

I’ve got several articles on the way that I anticipate will provoke some new thoughts and ideas of some games that may have been overlooked or whose ideas could be implemented into an even better design. I hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am!

Monday, June 25, 2012

D&D Next: Thoughts on the first beta

This is the second in a series of posts about D&D Next, the forthcoming new set of rules for Dungeons and Dragons. In the first post, I discussed why I expect D&D Next to look a lot like Third Edition. Today's covers my take on the first set of beta rules.

The first D&D Next beta has been live for about a month, and while I haven't gotten a chance to fully playtest it yet, I have read through the rules a few times. Most of it clearly isn't in a finalized, playable form yet, but a few elements of the rules jumped out as particularly encouraging, worrisome, or simply intriguing.

Best rule change: Ability scores, skills, and saves

The six ability scores (Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) are a cornerstone of D&D, and it's tough to imagine any version of the game without them. In 3E and 4E, basically every number on a character sheet was derived, in part, from an ability score, but the emphasis was on the derived stats rather than the root scores. So there was often a sense of "shoehorning" a desired action into a skill: "I want to take a running jump across the chasm and grab onto the rope... is that Acrobatics or Athletics?" "I know you said you wanted to use Diplomacy on the nobles, but that came across as more of an Intimidate."

In D&D Next, or at least in this iteration of it, that shoehorning appears to be gone. There's no such thing as a "skill check" anymore, just an ability check; a skill is now a special attribute that might give small situational bonuses to ability checks or allow the use of certain skills for unusual applications. It becomes up to the players and DM to decide what abilities are "appropriate" to roll in a given check.

Saves are a curious part of D&D in that they've been a part of virtually every edition but did something completely different in each. Most recently, they were yet another derived stat representing reactive defenses in 3E and a much more narrow mechanism for ending ongoing effects in 4E. D&D Next (unsurprisingly) more closely mirrors the 3E approach, but instead of deriving a save from some of the ability score, saves exist in base form for every ability score. This instantly re-balances the ability scores--Dex and Con were far and away the two most "powerful" scores in 3E, not the least because they supported Reflex and Fortitude saves.

Both of these new rules have an interesting and subtle implication: unless ability scores grow substantially with level (which seems unlikely), skills and saves won't change substantially over a character's career either. That implies simpler math and a reduced sense of compartmentalizing the game based on level, two changes that have the game headed squarely in the right direction.

Best rule change, honorable mention: Hit dice

At first, I assumed the return of hit dice meant the return of rolling HP at every level, which would have been maddening. Hit dice used in that way suck. It's possibly the worst mechanic of any roleplaying game ever, randomness for the sake of randomness, and a surefire way to unbalance two otherwise identical characters. (Remember all the house rules for determining HP in 3E? There was a reason for them.)

My fears were completely allayed, though, upon seeing that new hit dice would be used to represent innate ability to heal. They're more organic than the bizarre "healing surge" mechanic in 4E but still accomplish the goal of reducing the party's need for a dedicated healer.

Worst rule change, facetious version: Electrum pieces

Electrum pieces (EP) were last part of D&D in Second Edition, meaning they haven't been part of the game at any point this century. They're an archaic monetary unit, apparently worth 5 silver or 1/2 gold, which is cute because electrum is an alloy of silver and gold. The real question: how does adding them back into the game make it more fun? Did someone at Wizards think it was much more satisfying to have 14 electrum than 10 silver and 2 gold?

Worst rule change, actual version: "Vancian" spellcasting

Spellcasting in old versions of D&D was divided into a number of mostly arbitrary "levels" (which, naturally, did not map to character level). It was confusing and inconsistent: the same spell might be 7th level for a druid (meaning he could cast it at 13th level) but 9th level for a wizard and sorcerer (who could then cast it at 17th and 18th level). A direct quote from the 4E design/development process was "that doesn't make any sense; why can't you cast 9th level spells at 9th level?" And among players, the opinions of so-called "Vancian" spellcasting (named in honor of author Jack Vance, whose fantasy works inspired the system) ranged from ambivalent to despised.

So who was in such a hurry to resurrect it? About the best anyone ever said about Vancian spellcasting was that it was D&D tradition and that you got used to it... but nobody really seemed enthusiastic about it. There's a bit of silver lining here: there now appear to be seven spell levels, not nine, which might cut down the complexity a bit; and most spellcasters can now do things at will, eliminating the "well, guess I'm useless for the rest of the day" problem that 3E wizards often ran into. But it's still unclear why we needed it back in the same in the first place.

Most intriguing new rule: Advantage and disadvantage

While looking at D&D Next through a 3E lens has proven insightful so far, here's a rule that came out of left field as much as it did from 4E. Briefly, if you have advantage on a check, you roll two dice and take the better one; if you have disadvantage, you roll two dice and take the worse. It's easy to trace its name--4E created the catch-all category of "combat advantage" to represent generic bonuses in combat--and even its provenance; a number of powers allow you to roll two dice and take the better result. But nowhere in D&D (at least in recent D&D) has a rule ever forced you to take the lower of two rolls.

When a roll is very likely to succeed anyway (say you only fail on a 1, or you're 95% to succeed), advantage makes failure vanishing unlikely (99.75% to succeed). When a roll is very likely to fail (needing a 20, or 5%), advantage only makes success a bit more likely (9.75%). It's in the middle where the big swings happen: advantage turns a coin flip into a 75% chance of success while disadvantage turns it into 25%. But it's easy to calculate probability and speculate; it'll be fascinating to see how the mechanic plays out in practice.

Two more things on (dis)advantage: it seems more loose than most mechanics in older editions, allowing the DM to rule broadly if advantage or disadvantage seems appropriate. And, like one of the developers pointed out, these conditions are easy to "retroactively" apply: if you forgot you had advantage on a given roll and failed it, just roll again!

Where did that rule go?: Flanking and positioning

Another mainstay of D&D has long been physical positioning on the battlefield, allowing maneuvers like flanking to gain combat advantage or performing attacks of opportunity if an enemy ran past you. One of the many emphases of Next is to eliminate the presumption that every battle will take place on a mat or with a physical illustration. It's a neat idea to again simplify battle, but it does eliminate a part of the game that plenty of games really enjoy. This first beta came with a caveat that certain rules and concepts were intentionally left out to see how their absence changed the complexion of the game. Of course, it remains to be seen how this game will play in practice, but getting rid of flanking, attacks of opportunity, and related tactical maneuvers does seem like it would change the complexion a lot.

Check back throughout the playtest for my reaction to each beta iteration, hopefully including some playtests of our own eventually. And ff anyone has gotten a chance to do a more legitimate playtest of this version, we'd love to hear about your game! Does my assessment fit with what you experienced?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

D&D Next: Divining Wizards' Angle

The big news in the tabletop roleplaying world lately has been the announcement and open beta of D&D Next, the "next version" or "next iteration" of D&D.  Deliberately not called "5th Edition," D&D Next is supposed to be the "edition-less edition" or the "edition that unites the editions".  One of the big themes in its development is trying to make fans of all versions of the game feel comfortable with and excited about it.  To accomplish that goal, Wizards unleashed a massive open playtest.  It's an especially savvy move on their part: it does give the fans some say in how the next version of their game develops, and it gives Wizards a boatload of free market research data.

Of course, it's completely transparent that Wizards really wants "unite the editions" to mean "get players who used to play older editions back playing our game".  Figuring out exactly which players they're targeting provides a fascinating lens to view the development of D&D Next through.

Surely, there are groups of players who are stuck somewhere in the 20th century, who still play various expressions of 1st and 2nd Edition. It's safe to say that these aren't the gamers Wizards is looking for. It's nearly impossible to say how many of these gamers exist, but it's conventional wisdom that there aren't many of them--and from personal experience, you need to hang around a local gaming scene for an especially long time before anyone seriously brings up playing 1st or 2nd Edition. And even more to the point, if they haven't taken the plunge and switched to either 3rd or 4th Edition by this point, it's unlikely they'll be lining up to switch to a new game.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the 4th Edition players, who it's probably assumed will naturally switch over to Next without much hesitation. It's a good assumption for a couple of reasons. First, 4th Edition players already play the version of D&D that's arguably the most different of any of the versions out there, so they're relatively likely to accept changes to their game in the interest of a more fun, consistent gaming experience. Second, while 4th Edition is played and enjoyed by many thousands of people, its fans have never been the sort of fervently defend it and therefore seem like they'd be more accepting of switching to a new system.

That leaves one category of players, ones who do fervently defend their system and have proven to be less accepting of switching to a new one: 3rd-Edition people. Some are still playing "vanilla" 3E; probably more are playing Pathfinder, a licensed derivative. Pathfinder fans are disproportionately likely to be apologists, readily reminding you that Pathfinder has now surpassed 4E in terms of sales and has a more vibrant organized play scene. It's a big group of gamers, one that until three or four years ago played on the cutting edge of D&D but were turned off by some of 4th Edition's bigger revisions.

I won't go as far as saying that D&D Next is a ploy to get Pathfinder advocates and 3E adherents back into the fold. But those are the most natural segments of gamers for Wizards to try to appeal to with the new set of rules. And it explains why a lot of the mechanics in D&D Next might have a very 3rd-Edition feel. Some of that distinctly 3E feel is already present in the playtest rules; check back for a first-glance reaction to the first beta.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Makes a Euro-Game?

"Euro" game is a term that gets thrown around a lot without much of a definition.  Frequent board gamers probably have an intuition about what the label means, though Euro games can be a bit like the "alternative rock" or "pornography" of the gaming world: you know one when you see one, but it's almost impossible to give a precise definition of them.

Before I try, a little on their history.  Euro games are so-called because they originated in Germany, and sometimes you'll hear them referred to as "German-style" board games for that reason.  Even today, many prominent game designers are German and board game competitions are held in Germany.  But the scene is no longer strictly German, or even strictly European, so maybe "Euro-style" is a better term for it.

Whatever term you prefer, there's no one definition that encompasses every Euro game, and it's even possible for informed board gamers to disagree on whether a particular game is Euro-style or not.  Common examples include Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride (both considered "gateway" Euro games), Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, and Agricola; virtually everyone agrees that these are Euro games, but what do they all have in common?  Here are some representative traits, roughly arranged from most to least characteristic of a Euro game.

Deliberate balance of strategy and chance.  Perhaps more than anything else, a careful combination of skill and luck is a hallmark of a Euro game.  So-called "American-style" board games often require relatively less skill intensity and have fewer optimization decisions to make than Euro games; "roll the dice" and "draw a card and do what it says" are mechanics familiar to most gamers that rarely appear in Euro-style games.  On the other hand, "classic strategy" games like Chess and Go are so purely skill-intensive that their outcome is often determined solely by the skill of the players.  Euro games occupy a sort of middle ground that makes every game intriguing in a way that other classes of board games can't be.

No player elimination (and the occasional re-balancing to avoid it).  In Monopoly, if you're bankrupt and own no property, you lose.  In Risk, if you lose all your territories, you're out of the game--and who hasn't sat through the immensely frustrating two hours that follow one single bad turn in the worst position at the start of Risk?  While it's possible to get so far behind that you have no practical shot at winning, virtually no Euro games contain mechanics for players to be actually removed from the same.  In fact, some swing the other direction: Power Grid, for instance, is a Euro-style territory control game (with a few tenuous similarities to Risk), that gives players who control the least territory the chance to buy the cheapest resources.

Separate win conditions and end-game conditions.  In both American-style board games and classic strategy games, the victory condition is strongly coupled to the end of the game.  In Clue, the game ends when one player successfully accuses the murderer, and the player who made the accusation is the winner.  In Chess, the game ends when one player forces the other player's king into checkmate, and the player who forced the checkmate is the winner.  In contrast, Euro games tend to last a set number of turns or end when a specific condition is met that's not necessarily the victory condition.  For example, a hypothetical Euro-style murder mystery game might end after someone successfully accused the murderer, but the winner would be the person who accumulated the most victory points along the way, not necessarily the person who made the accusation.  A Euro-style territory control game might end after six turns, and the person who controlled the most territory then would win.

A modest level of abstraction and a narrative to describe it.  Classic strategy games tend to be very minimal and abstract.  There's no narrative to go along with Go.  On the other hand, some war simulation games supply narratives of individual battles that the game is supposed to stick to.  Euro-game narratives tend to be a lot less definite and just a little whimsical; the resource management game Last Will has the players assume the roles of nephews of a recently deceased man who are trying to outspend each other.  Lacking the narrative of farming, Agricola becomes a game about colored cubes and cardboard; with it, you're raising animals and growing crops.

Moderately complex rules with very simple game pieces.  If you've played a Euro game, you might have marveled at the dozen-page rulebook that invariably accompanies it.  Because a lot of these games--at least at first--came from Europe, they needed a way to bring the game into another language without completely revamping the game.  As a result, the pieces tend to be as simple as a set of Ikea directions, mostly pictures and numbers, and that design style has become representative of the genre.

Descriptive sub-genres.  Because gamers love categorizing things, they're not just Euro games!  They're "deck-building" or "territory control" or "resource management" or any number of other monikers.

If most or all of those describe the game you've been playing, you might be playing a Euro game!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Games I Like (Matt)

As I mentioned in the introduction, my taste in gaming these days mostly comes in three flavors: board games, roleplaying games, and video games.

Board gaming is the sort I find myself doing most often.  I tend to play a lot of so-called "Euro" style games--we'll call Pandemic, Dominion, La Citta, and 7 Wonders a representative (but certainly not exhaustive!) list.  I prefer games that reward adapting a strategy to changing game states rather than ones that insist you develop a strategy at the beginning and ride it as far as it will take you, so I'll probably always prefer Race for the Galaxy over Agricola.  (I also tend to prefer games that play in 1 hour rather than 3.)  Outside of Euro-land, I'm a fan of trivia and word games of all sorts.  Wits and Wagers, Scrabble, and Scattergories are a few favorites, and I will beat you at Taboo.

I've been playing roleplaying games since about 2000, when I started Dungeons and Dragons right when its 3rd Edition was released.  Since then, I've played about a dozen incarnations of and variations on D&D as well as a few other RPGs.  Right now, I'm a regular at a local game shop's D&D Encounters (4th Edition) game, and I play in a couple of Burning Wheel games as well.  I'm also interested in the next version of D&D, and I'll be blogging some of the beta test process over the next few months.

Finally, I don't play nearly as many video games as I did ten or fifteen years ago, but I'm still a somewhat frequent video gamer.  The video games I do play tend to be huge console or computer RPGs (think the Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect games), or quick, multiplayer-friendly games along the lines of Mario Kart.  I'm not a huge shooter fan, which might explain my recent ambivalence toward the video gaming scene, but I still follow the gaming news at least a little.

One big gap in my gaming preferences is card games.  I've played Magic: the Gathering a total of four times in my life (and generally enjoyed it, but never really got into it), and I know exactly zero about poker.  That sort of thing will be the province of my co-authors, but look for a healthy amount of board game and roleplaying game coverage from me.

Welcome to Ludi Berkeley!

I've started a blog about gaming!

Before this, I'd been blogging in a personal blog, Isoceleria, for several years.  It started as a catch-all blog for random personal observations and opinions with exactly two rules: it was not allowed to devolve into a forum for personal drama, a la the Livejournals and Xangas that were popular during high school, and any opinions expressed were not to be of the political sort.  Eventually, Isoceleria became mostly about reviews of various media (books, TV, music, games, etc.) and the occasional personal narrative.

The frustrating thing about a personal catch-all blog, though, is that it's not necessarily about anything.  After seeing friends and family develop actual audiences for their blogs (like my mom's CraftyCat, about cross stitch and other crafts; or my girlfriend's Dynastea, about, yes, tea), I decided to try my hand at writing a blog that was legitimately about something.  I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley, studying chemical engineering; when I'm not killing bacteria with plasma, you can sometimes find me hiking, going to concerts, or eating crazy ethnic food.

But more often than anything else, you can find me playing games.  These days, it tends to be a lot of board games, in particular the "Euro" style ones, with a healthy portion of roleplaying games and a handful of video games thrown in for good measure.  And through all the hours I've spend gaming over the last few years, it's often occurred to me how often it would make compelling blogging: hilarious anecdotes, reviews, strategic dilemmas, ideas for new mechanics.

I plan to include most or all of that in this blog, on a level that can be understood regardless of if you're intimately familiar with a given game or have never even heard of it.  I'll also bring on some fellow gamers to contribute: Alex Harkey, who got me interested in Euro gaming in the first place and has designed some awesome mechanics of his own; and Josh Howe, who is responsible for organizing a lot of the gaming I do now and is fresh off a run doing some gaming blogging of his own, a column on Magic: the Gathering.

Look for a series of introductory posts explaining what sort of games we're into, followed by a hopefully regular series of posts about the games we're playing at the moment.  Hopefully it'll be entertaining and enlightening!