Friday, August 24, 2012

D&D Encounters: Web of the Spider Queen (and a short essay on the drow)

I'll admit it: I've never seen the appeal of the drow.

I've never found them particularly compelling or alluring. It's never made sense to me why so many D&D players are so fascinated by them. It's at least partially the fault of R.A. Salvatore, whose mediocre but prolific fiction thrust the drow into a spotlight in the late 1980s that they haven't relinquished since then.

And they've certainly made their mark on the game. Every group has their Drow Guy, who insists on playing a dark elf for every character, who has drow lore memorized, and who's approaching fluency in Undercommon. They've become an iconic villain of the game, nearly as notorious as the titular Dragons themselves. But the drow have become so ubiquitous, so overused--so mainstream, the hipster gamer in me wants to say--that they're not even interesting anymore.

We have a stridently matriarchal, capriciously evil, underground-dwelling, spider-worshiping society of dark elves with magical powers over light and darkness... and somehow, that's become cliche. Yet, a sizable and vocal population of D&D players continue to adore all things drow. So it was only a matter of time before we got the Drow Season of Encounters.

My Character

As a player, I have a mild dislike of the drow. What if, I decided, I made a character who well and truly despised the drow? Thus was born Molgar, Seer of the Deep, a svirfneblin druid whose tribe of peace-loving, fungus-eating deep gnomes was utterly destroyed by a band of drow raiders. The only survivors of the raid were Molgar and his trusty she-wolf Josephine, who escaped to the surface and vowed revenge against the drow.

Molgar ended up being one of those characters whose conception was much more interesting than his implementation. It was my "turn" to play in the leader role, so I went with the druid, a class I liked in 3rd Edition and hadn't gotten around to playing in 4th yet. Unfortunately, I didn't realize two things when I picked the druid class. First, the sentinel druid (the "leader build" of druid) really wants to be a striker, but because it's nominally a leader, it has a few heals and a few simple buffs. The result is a class that lacks a fully developed role in combat: not as good a healing leader as the cleric, not as good a tactical leader as the warlord, and not as good a damage-dealer as any striker.

Second, the sentinel druid is an Essentials build. I've realized over the last three or four seasons of Encounters that I do not like Essentials builds. They value simplicity over personalization and customization, and they don't let you do enough different interesting things in combat.

A third thing I realized as I played Molgar is that I'm not a fan of how the animal companion mechanics work. Josephang (as she was quickly and cleverly nicknamed by the rest of the party) was porcelain-fragile, and as soon as she went down in any given battle, my ability to both lead and strike suffered tremendously.

So, while Molgar had his moments, he was probably the last Essentials character I'll play. And out of all the leader-role classes I've played or seen played, none of them really match the cleric or warlord in terms of healing or tactical prowess.

The Season

Hopefully my anti-drow bias didn't subconsciously influence my opinion, but this wasn't one of the better Encounters seasons I've played. Drow showed up in literally every encounter but one. When the same enemies are part of every encounter, the same mechanics are part of every encounter, and they get stale. (If I never have to hear the phrase "he drops a cloud of darkness" again, that would be completely fine by me.)

Worse, nearly the entire season took place in the same subterranean tunnels, making this the least "interactive" season of Encounters I think I've played. As a player who values the "interaction" pillar of D&D nearly as much as the "exploration" pillar (and perhaps even more than the "combat" pillar), that came as a disappointment. Essentially, the season played out as
  • an extended dungeon crawl
  • in an organized-play system that already under-emphasizes roleplaying
  • within a version of D&D not exactly known for its attention to the out-of-combat game.
Dungeon crawls can be cool, if there's lots of interesting stuff to do in the dungeon--places to explore, decisions to make, creatures to encounter. Or they can be tedious when all the rooms look the same, and the same monster lurks behind every door.

Final Thoughts (and Outlook)

While neither the theme nor execution of this past season was terribly exciting, the season demonstrated an important silver lining about D&D (and any RPG, tabletop or computer): the party makes all the difference in the world. We have a surprisingly solid and coherent group of Encounters "regulars" at Eudemonia, and because it's Encounters, you never know who is going to show up. Maybe it's a couple of awesome eighth-graders. Maybe it's your girlfriend. But it makes for a fun, low-leverage game, and if your poor wolf dies in two hits this week, she'll be tearing into dudes again next week.

Next season: Drow Season Part II. I will be playing an actual drow character for the first time in my D&D history.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

2012 Fantasy Olympics: Conclusion and Results (Part IV)

For the last two weeks of the 2012 Fantasy Olympics I’ve been sitting comfortably in the silver medal position. The national dominance of China with contributions from distance powerhouse nations Kenya and Ethiopia put my point advantage into a favorable position.

I don’t remember exactly when it started. My three time gold medal winning water polo selection Hungary was upset by Italy. Then Italy followed it up by knocking out my other medal favorite, Serbia. Ethiopia and Kenya came up with just one bronze medal in two distance events and my scoring gap closed to zero.

I woke up this morning in a three way race for the final two medal positions and the least favorable scoring prospects. The multinational effort of my 2012 fantasy campaign “Kenya beat me?” was in doubt. I watched this morning as Kenya missed out for gold in the Men’s Marathon and Ethiopia failed to medal entirely. But Serbia came back from a three goal deficit against Montenegro in the Bronze medal match of independent states and I realized I had I fighting chance in a thrilling final day of Olympics.

With the conclusion of the 2012 Olympic Games it is fitting to distinguish the top overall performances with medals of their own.

Our first recognition is for top performances in our International Draft, celebrating productive medal winning selections and finding those late round gems which bolster successful fantasy scoring. Top draft selections who greatly outperformed expectations included Japan, Italy, Czech Republic and the final draft pick of Croatia who outscored 21 of the 34 countries selected before it. The values indicate the total scoring amount in excess of the approximate value of the draft picks used to select each country.

International Draft:

Richard - 21.42

Angela - 16.96
Matt - 14.84

Our event schedule covered the full spectrum of the Olympic competitions, and 49 of 51 events were selected, recognizing the diversity. Our second recognition is to celebrate the top performers in identifying and selecting the optimal event choices which allowed for the greatest scoring potential. To put it simply this was measured by dividing each participant’s final score by their maximum possible score.

Event Selection:

Matt - 89.66%
Alex - 88.89%
Richard - 88.24%

Finally our top overall performances which often reflect the actual Olympics; the unpredictable podium appearances, unexpected breakout countries and shocking disappointments. Bringing together the importance of successful drafting and careful selection of events, participants avoided trap events and put themselves into great opportunities while making the right choices.

Overall Performance:

Richard - 86 pts
Matt - 81 pts
Alex - 67 pts

Angela - 64 pts

Jeff - 54 pts

Stephanie - 44 pts

Congratulations and thank you to all everyone for participating, it was my absolute pleasure to lead everyone in this experiment and hopefully we’ll do it all over again for Sochi in 2014. Maybe next time we should do official team names. The result for "Kenya beat me?" turned out to be resoundingly "Yes, yes we will". I suppose my redeem team in 2014 "There is Norway you can beat us again" may have a shot.

Monday, August 6, 2012

2012 Fantasy Olympics: Reflection and Analysis (Part III)

As we enter the second half of the Olympics and have been able to observe many of our favorite events with plenty left to come, it is time for a moment of reflection on how our Fantasy Olympics have unfolded. This is the crucial playtesting stage of game design where we break down what works, what doesn’t and what has been surprising outcome.

The Good: It’s Challenging

The Fantasy Olympics has two distinct phases each requiring a mixture research and risk assessment. Following the draft I had anticipated the event selection to be relatively straightforward with the occasional surprising results. I’ve tracked each participant’s maximum achievable score along with their actual score and created a simple metric called “Performance Index”. Right now the best performer through Day Eleven of the Olympics has achieved 88% of their maximum score with multiple people fluctuating in the 60 to 70 percent range.

It started off on July 28th which was also the first day of events. By selecting a different event, I missed out on China's historic gold medal in the Women's 400 Individual Medley. I couldn't believe I had done insufficient research and missed out on a prime early scoring opportunity until I realized it was previously unforeseeable when the news starts covering just how unexpected it was. Two other participants made similar decisions leading all three of us to miss out on the gold medal efforts of our countries.

The Bad: There are still some balancing issues

I have a favorite quote about tennis great and Olympian Roger Federer:
[In the modern game], you're either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist or a hard court specialist ... or you're Roger Federer. - Jimmy Connors 
In Fantasy Olympics the USA is like Roger Federer. China is probably fellow Olympian Novak Djokovic but the point is they are both really good at winning in the Olympics. We looked at solutions in Part II of this series and while we didn't completely solve the problem we did mitigate it and through this first trial of Fantasy Olympics we can see what we need to do.

In future Fantasy Olympics the best solution would be remove more events with strong history of the USA or China winning a medal and replace them with more cycling events or do a better assessment of events and include more events that would add value to smaller Olympic countries.

The Surprising: How much it improves the fantasy viewing experience

Let me give you a common fantasy football situation. You're watching a Monday Night game between the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Ravens. You have Packer's QB Aaron Rodgers along with the Raven's Defense while your opponent holds a hefty lead and only has Packer's WR Greg Jennings left to play. To complicate it further, you're a Baltimore Raven's Fan.

Fantasy Olympics is it simplifies all of this, as you just don't have those conflicting games and its just as engaging. I'm constantly invested in events I'm not involved in and rooting against countries simply because the person with those countries is winning considerably overall.

The Good: It flows seamlessly

Two of our primary goals was simplicity over all else and to allow people to invest as much or as little time as they wanted to. Probably 80-90% of the strategy is completed with the draft and after that its all about research and risk assessment. So far 32 of 33 events have been selected, the only exemption being passed over by several participants for a equally enticing option that turned out to be less favorable. But that is of course part of the thrill, you make the selection and watch the result. It only takes a few moments a day to participate.
The Bad: Scoring isn't very manageable

Some of the strategy in Fantasy Olympics involved drafting complementary countries who would allow additional scoring opportunities or insurance in picking certain types of events. Having a roster full of strong track and field countries like Jamaica or Ethiopia would likely create a deficit until the Athletics events begin in the second half of the Olympics. This isn't really a large drawback but if you've ever participated in a 12 person fantasy football league there's a good chance only 4 were participating at the end. Fantasy Olympics just requires avid Olympic fans who won't give up after a poor first week performance.

Our Draft Order
 The Surprising: It's engaging

If you're reading at this point you understand I love the Olympics. I love the sportsmanship of countries coming together on the biggest stage. I love learning about unfamiliar countries and how big a particular sport is in their country. But what I love most is finding a few new sports every Olympics that I've never seen before and becoming at least for a few days a dedicated follower.

After drafting Hungary and Serbia primarily for their Water Polo and Team Handball prowess I became invested in each game in the group stages. Hungary's Men's Water Polo team has won nine Gold medals in the Olympic games, including each of the last three. I was shocked when they started out 0-2 in the five match preliminary group round. I sweated each of their remaining three games for them to get into the quarterfinals. The best part is this is happening in a dozen sports at the same time. It is like having a strike shortened regular season condensed into a week and then skipping ahead to the playoffs. It's all the best parts.

Next week we'll have all the final statistics to look through and we'll analyze all the best performances. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August Board Game of the Month: Kingdom Builder

This month's Game of the Month also happens to be the Spiel des Jahres winner for 2012. It's estimated that the Spiel des Jahres winner can expect to increase its sales by several hundred thousand, and it seems to have worked in my case: when Alan walked into Games of Berkeley to buy Bohnanza, I went with him and walked out with Kingdom Builder simply because of the award.

Style and Gameplay

Kingdom Builder is a classic spatial, territory control game played on a randomly generated map with thousands of possible configurations. The basic goal of the game is to place settlements on tiles in such a way that they earn you the most points, and one of the game's most intriguing mechanics is its scoring system; every game features three randomly selected "goals" that decide how the game is going to be scored. There are elements of Go and Othello in the game's tile placement, and it resembles Civilization and other "settlement" games in that there are some special tiles that are especially advantageous to settle adjacent to. Between the randomness of the board and the 120 different ways the scoring can sort out, it's virtually guaranteed you'll never play the same game of Kingdom Builder twice.

One striking aspect of the game is its tiny rulebook. There are basically three rules in Kingdom builder: you place three settlements per turn, settlements must be on terrain matching a random card you draw, and settlements must be adjacent to existing settlements if possible. Over the course of the game, you can acquire special actions that allow you to break those rules--for instance, by placing an additional settlement or by allowing you to move a settlement to a non-adjacent tile. The "special actions" vary with the board, so every game features a practically unique set of those as well.

Most of Kingdom Builder's variability is in its setup and decided before the game even starts, but there's some variance in the game as well, which comes from the terrain cards. Those present one of the biggest optimization decisions in the game: you can choose either to use one or more of your "special actions" and keep the same terrain card, or forgo using them to draw a new one. If you're "stuck" in an unfavorable part of the map, it's sometimes advantageous not to use any special abilities so you can "escape" in the next turn.

In principle, the game moves very quickly, because each player is often locked into a small set of possible actions based on where they're already settled and what terrain they're allowed to settle on that turn. The special actions slow things down a bit simply because you have more options, and games with fewer players tend to move more slowly because players have access to relatively larger areas of the board.

Analysis and Anecdotes

The very best thing about Kingdom Builder is its variable setup, especially its completely random approach to how each game will be scored. It's tough to think of another board game that doesn't have a constant scoring mechanic, and that feature alone probably does the most for the game's replayability. Aside from merely adding up points differently, games that have different goals are going to have different strategic feels. For instance, a game where the goal is to make large settlements in all four corners of the board is going to play much differently than one where the goal is to create isolated settlements along the grid's obliques.

Although the terrain card deck can seem frustratingly random--especially if you draw the same type of terrain card several times in a row--it's entirely your choice whether you want to draw a new card or if you're comfortable playing your special actions and maintaining your current spot on the board. We've only played a handful of games, but it seems like the way to go is to build up your options over the course of the first few turns, taking new terrain cards every time. Then, once you've built enough of an "engine," it doesn't matter what terrain card you have because you're able to exploit synergies among your special actions.

Kingdom Builder's balance seems pretty good with the sole exception of the "Paddock" special action. It lets you break basically all the rules of the game, allowing you to tunnel through unsettlable tiles and settle on tiles not adjacent to your own settlements, regardless of the terrain they're on. We've only encountered Paddock once, and it seemed like it was ludicrously unfair, though our data set is admittedly small.

One last thing about Kingdom Builder that board game veterans will notice is its designer, Donald X. Vaccarino, the man behind the Dominion dynasty. At Ludi Berkeley, we're particularly interested in similar dynamics and mechanics across apparently dissimilar games, so this one was particularly intriguing to analyze with respect to its cousin Dominion. Clearly, they're very different games that don't at all resemble each other aesthetically, but the theme of "no two games are going to play the same way even though you're using the same rules" is obvious in both.

Overall Impressions

A big selling point of Kingdom Builder ought to be its ease of play, and it mostly delivers, especially in its speedy setup and end-game scoring. In a group of gamers less inclined to analyze every decision and attempt to optimize every element of every turn, the game probably does move along as quickly as it's supposed to. And I suppose it's not really Kingdom Builder's fault that a group of engineering grad students is naturally going to do exactly that.

Kingdom Builder is very easy to learn, even for people who aren't already into "Euro-games," but there's enough replayability to satisfy even experienced gamers for a long time. The part of the game I'm least enthusiastic about is its flavor--it might have the most bland name of any board game I've played, and but for its Spiel des Jahres, I probably wouldn't have thought to be interested in it. And I wish its scoring goals and special actions were slightly more thematic; it's easy to reduce everything in the game to its base mechanics. Luckily, those base mechanics are really fun, and it's not hard to see why Kingdom Builder was honored as the best game of the past year.

2-4 players, 60+ minutes, $60 at a game shop or $42 on Amazon.