Archive for September, 2013

BADLAND (iPhone Game Review)

BadlandBADLAND is a side-scrolling puzzle/platformer designed for the iPhone. That means simple controls on top of a powerful engine, beautiful graphics, and gameplay designed to be broken out into two-minute chunks. In a lot of ways, I appreciate that. I mean, I wouldn’t be playing it if I had to sit down for an hour at a time. But on the other hand, this makes me miss the more involved platformers of the past.

In fact, maybe “platformer” isn’t the best term for it, since your avatar floats through the air rather than jumping between surfaces. And it’s easier for me to appreciate when I don’t use the term. There is a lot of great stuff here. Frogmind has taken a very simple concept – tap to fly up and forward, do nothing to fall back down – and built almost every conceivable idea they could on it. There are power-ups that make you smaller, larger, bouncy, sticky and even change the flow of time. Some also give you “clones”, sometimes allowing dozens of your characters on the screen at once. This is necessary for some puzzles, since you may need to pick up items or flip switches in both a high and a low path, or trigger a deathtrap while other clones sneak through. It’s also fundamental to the scoring in the game, since you can keep replaying the level to see if you can save more clones next time. (Each level also has three missions, which include saving clones, but also picking up all the items, exploding all bombs, completing without needing a respawn, etc. Being a smartphone game, most of the gameplay comes from going back to old levels to try to do better.)

Badland 2The atmosphere is the most distinctive part of the game. Your character is a circular flying blob in an otherwise-unpopulated world. It appears to be an idyllic land that was turned into the dumping ground of a technological society. You have to maneuver around gears, buzzsaws, bombs, loose pipes, and more (though the main threat is often just keeping up with the scrolling screen). These foreground items are so iconic that they’re shown mainly in silhouette, while the background is defined by a beautiful color palette that changes as the levels progress.

Everything about BADLAND seems designed right. The rules are taught in-game. The difficulty curve is good. The puzzles and unique situations keep things varied and leave no idea undeveloped. It’s memorable, instantly recognizable, and easy to keep playing for just one more round. I like it, but feel like I should like it more than I do. It’s not really compelling. I’m not getting anywhere in the end or finding secrets, and when I put it down, it’s pretty easy to ignore for days at a time. But when I pick it back up, I always remember how fun it is.

Grade: B

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Looking Back at Dominion

I didn’t know if I could get it published, but if I could, my guess was, that at game stores there would be a shelf just for Dominion stuff. I did not anticipate that the shelf below it would be full of clones.

Now that the final Dominion expansion has shipped, it’s time for the post-mortems. Donald X. Vaccarino has posted his “secret history” (an updated version of something he wrote a while back) to Board Game Geek,  and it includes that wry comment on all the spin-offs that his game inspired.

I wrote my own complaint about the spin-offs two and a half years ago (unknowingly at the mid-point of Dominion’s life cycle). It’s continued to be a fairly popular article even now, so I definitely regret how quickly I dashed out that article. The basic point is still true, though: The quickest way to make a new deck-building game is to think of something to change about Dominion (usually the lack of monsters to fight) and then add it in. However, the people who do this seem to consistently miss the elegant design that makes Dominion work. In fact, the thing I found most interesting about Vaccarino’s article is how many of his discarded ideas seem to describe games that have come out since.

It had 500 unique cards, so just making a presentable prototype would be too much work, let alone balancing everything. And a game lasts four hours. So the audience would be somewhat narrow.

Vaccarino chose not to create Mage Knight years before Mage Knight was published.

Initially I thought there would be like a line of cards, and when you bought one we’d deal a replacement from a deck. That sounded bad though – too much of the game would rest on having a good card get turned over when it was your turn to go next.

Donald X. chose not to create Ascension years before Ascension was published.

While working on this game I realized that the math was too hard. You look at the first card in your hand. Deal 3 damage per level of bow skill. You look down at your Ranger. Bow level: 2. You multiply, that’s 6. Now remember that number and move on to the next card, a sword card for your Paladin. Figure out its total and add it and then move onto the next card. You’re looking back and forth and back and forth and remembering numbers.

Ok, that’s not exactly the same as Thunderstone’s math, but it’s the same fundamental problem. Donald X. recognized it from the start.

Things have changed since I wrote my older article. Though plenty of deck-builders still miss the point, we occasionally see ones that have an interesting variation on Dominion’s mechanics, and are able to modify the system to support it. We are even seeing some games that take deck-building in a completely different direction, proving that this mechanic can be a lot more than just clones of the first game. (To be fair, Mage Knight accomplishes this as well, despite my snark about it above. My complaints have more to do with the rest of the game, even though it implements deck-building well.)

For the most part, the future looks bright for deck-builders. I do have one major concern, though: Dominion would not be a popular game if it came out now. The twenty-five cards in the base set simply don’t provide much variety. It seemed like enough in 2008 because it was new to all of us, but now we need at least a few sets to keep the game varied and interesting. The economic reality is that releasing a box much bigger than Dominion wouldn’t work, though, so the new games still have to start off with just the basic components. That’s the main reason that Puzzle Strike isn’t getting the attention from me that it deserves, and it’s why my hopes about Trains are low despite the good buzz I’m hearing. Dominion got there first, and it pulled the ladder up after itself.

I hope that other “Dominion clones” can overcome this. If nothing else, Vaccarino has mentioned that he’d like to make separate stand-alone games someday that do things like monster-flghting right. I’d hate for him to be a victim of his past game’s success.

Despite that concern, though, I’m a lot happier with the state of deck-building games than I was in 2011. It took some time, but other designers seem to understand what makes this mechanic work. I was sad when I first heard that Dominion expansions had a planned completion date, but it feels appropriate now that the day is here. I still have a great game with a ton of variety to return to, and I’m excited to see what everyone comes up with next.

Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be (Book Review)

To Be Or Not To Be cover

Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be

To Be Or Not To Be is one of the strangest projects I’ve seen lately: A choose-your-own-adventure version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s an interesting but also ridiculous idea, and the author plays up this idea with plenty of absurd humor.

Just a year ago, I gave the original Hamlet a weak recommendation, saying that the language and title character were fascinating, but the plot and other characters were poor. This puts me in an interesting position with To Be Or Not To Be, since it’s entirely re-written with new prose. Author Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics fame is a very intelligent man, but he’s known more for writing dialog like “I am tripping all the balls” than philosophical soliloquies. Admittedly, North is good at that style. He’s arguably even the Shakespeare of faux-dumb AWESOMESPEAK, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his style is a natural replacement for Shakespeare.

While this new book loses a lot of the original’s language, it adds a lot of humor. Weird situations, modern humor, literary humor, and random factoids all show up throughout the book. There’s even a choose-your-own-adventure Chess game stuck in the middle. (Not to mention that the play-within-a-play of the original has been replaced by a gamebook-within-a-gamebook. And it fleshes out some parts of the story, like why Polonius would want to hide behind a curtain.) I bought this expecting a lot of laughter and not much literary value, even given my interest in gamebooks as an untapped art source, so I can’t say that that surprised me.

I was surprised, though, by the interesting points that North makes throughout its retelling of the original story. This offers a lot of choice, even letting you play as other characters or setting off to become a pirate, but it also marks the “canonical” choices with cute little skull icons in case you want to play through the Shakespeare version of the story. Usually I feel like the only person willing to point out that Hamlet is filled with flat characters and stupid decisions, so it’s a relief to see North poke fun at the same things. The book actually makes fun of you for doing ridiculous things, and gives you plenty of chances to kill the King easily instead of moping around for weeks and acting crazy. It even berates you for sticking to the original’s misogynistic treatment of Ophelia. Though this version’s depiction of Ophelia (an ass-kicking, liberated woman scientist) is not supported by the real text at all, its point is well-made. In fact, although I wasn’t expecting much from this as a story, I found the canonical walk-through to be very satisfying. It guides the reader along a predictable path, but also gives them enough agency that they feel responsible for their decisions. It examines the story by making the reader an active part of the experience, and that calls attention to things we’d otherwise ignore.

However, there are many other plot branches through the book. I have to say that most of them undermine the point that the main path makes about the ridiculousness of Shakespeare’s writing. This book can let you play Hamlet’s dead father and give up vengeance for marine biology, or lead an army of ghosts against an alien invasion in the future. With options like that, it’s difficult to complain about the holes in Shakespeare’s version.

I should also mention the Kickstarter campaign that funded this book. For the most part, I try to rate this separate from a campaign that you can no longer choose to join, but it’s pretty difficult to separate my appreciation for this from the Kickstarter in general. This was the campaign that made me realize how valuable it can be just to join a community with the creator being backed, and I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth out of the project updates even before the book arrived. I also ended up with a multipronged bookmark designed to hold different places in a branching story and a small “prequel” adventure called Poor Yorick. (The bookmark is cool but impractical to use, and the book has as simple a structure as it’s possible to find in a choose-your-own-adventure, but it certainly is funny.) But some of the bonuses from the Kickstarter did make it into this book. It is huge, with over 700 pages, and color illustrations at each ending provided by a Who’s-Who of webcomic artists. Yes, the two-page spread at each ending (one picture plus a “THE END” page) does eat up many of those 700 pages, but it’s still a lot of story. Usually, I feel compelled to read through every path of a book like this. In this case, I got my fill long before I’d finished it all, and I look forward to coming back from time to time so I can page through to new surprises.

So is To Be Or Not To Be worth it? Well, first of all, it provides a great reason to read Hamlet in this modern age. You’ll understand a lot more of the jokes that way, and gain an appreciation for why people say you should read the classics in order to get modern references. Beyond that, though, I also recommend this book. Yes, it’s a flawed treatment of a flawed story, and so it only gets halfway to the brilliant deconstruction it teases us with. But it’s a humor book in the “court jester” style, able to speak truths that the intelligentsia often ignore because they’re couched in dumb jokes, and it also provides as much funny Shakespeare gamebook content as you’ll ever want. This is a good deal.

Grade: B

 

Dominion: Guilds (Game Review)

Dominion: Guilds box

Dominion: Guilds

After an amazing five years, the time of Dominion has ended. Designer Donald X. Vaccarino insists that Guilds is the last planned expansion. Whether or not that really remains true, the game will definitely feel different now that there are no longer new cards being added every six months.

This is a solid expansion, though it doesn’t feel as momentous as I’d like the final one to be. The original plan was originally to save Dark Ages until the end, and I think that would have been a good idea. Not only was it great, but it felt game-changing and added the most new cards of any Dominion game. Guilds, on the other hand, is one of the half-size expansions, and because the game’s variety comes from all the combinations of cards, these ones with twelve new card types feel like they have a quarter of the new material that the twenty-six-card expansions do.

This one is definitely good for expert players, though, which is appropriate for the last expansion. The two themes are Coin tokens, which you can save to spend as money in a future round, and cards that let you “overpay” when you buy them in return for a benefit. Previously, you had to spend money on the turn you earned it, and one of the trickiest things for new players to learn was that the best card for your deck wasn’t always the most expensive one. Now, players are also faced with the opposite question: Is the best card for your deck one that you should give up your savings for? If you have several coins saved up and multiple buys, this isn’t an easy question.

Dominion: Guilds Cards

The theme doesn’t feel very strong, since there have been cards featuring different professions in every set. As always, though, there are fun new cards. Soothsayer is a good twist on the classic Witch: It gives the owner a Gold and the other players an extra card draw, which helps alleviate the impact of all the Cursing that goes on in Witch games. And the Advisor is like the old Envoy promo card, but adding the balance and strategy that that card lacked. However, the best thing about Guilds is that it changes a fundamental part of the game, but it still feels natural and easy to teach to new players. This adds variety and new strategies, but it doesn’t feel like the game is any harder to learn. Strangely, this makes the expansion feel both refreshing and less essential.

This may not be one of the most memorable Dominion expansions, but it definitely continues the game’s winning streak. In a hobby filled with constant changes, it’s amazing that Dominion managed to remain one of my favorite games through all that time. Of course, it did that partly with those expansions that constantly added novelty. Guilds is a satisfying close to this era.

Grade: B

 

Redshirts and the Hugo

Redshirts cover

John Scalzi – Redshirts

Well, yesterday we learned that John Scalzi’s Redshirts has won the Hugo Award for best novel. I’ve read more than twenty books so far this year, and that was definitely the worst one. (In fact, it’s tied for the second-worst book since I started my blog, only beating out an artless ode to fascism.) I knew when I wrote my review that I was going against popular opinion, but it still baffles me how much some people like it. The people I’ve discussed it with generally found it light and amusing, and say they liked it because they also liked Star Trek. Fair enough – those elements were enough to get me through the first 75 pages or so, but even the people who enjoyed it don’t seem to be describing a Hugo-worthy novel.

If you’re curious, I stand by the complaints in my review. Scalzi tries for metatextual jokes about Sci-Fi characters who know they’re surrounded by “bad” science, which is fine. But their own science and logic, used in situations where the “bad” science shouldn’t take effect, are even less sensible! The main point of the story is supposed to be clever reactions to a weird situation, but every reaction is predicated on something that felt wrong. The character development, pacing, and tone are all poor, as are the rushed ending and its awkward “codas” that don’t feel like appropriate follow-ups to the story.

But I don’t mind the Hugo Award too much. I knew Redshirts was likely to win it, so I’d already dealt with that. The thing that really shocked me is that Patrick Nielsen Hayden won a Hugo in the editing category. As far as I know, the award doesn’t specify which book or books factored into the award. But I doubt it’s a coincidence that he won at the same time as one of the books he edited. And while I generally have a lot of respect for him and think he deserves his multiple Hugo wins, I still feel like Redshirts should have disqualified him this particular year. Most of my biggest complaints about the book were logical errors that should have been fixable given the flexible science that the book had available. I feel like a good editor should have been able to catch them. (For example, “If your characters are going to do this thing, cut out the conversation a few scenes earlier in which they decide it’s impossible.”) This book literally made me wonder whether John Scalzi had decided to start working without an editor. For the book and the editor to both win awards both seems wrong.

Let’s hope for better results next year.

Update: I worry that I may have sounded too harsh in my post. So let me clarify.

I am a big fan of Scalzi’s blog. I also think he has done great things for the SF community, both as president of the SFWA and through his personal quests to educate aspiring writers. He’s willing to make personal stands on issues even when they cost him readers. Basically, I’m a huge fan of just about everything BUT his professional writing. Usually, I just shrug my shoulders and accept that it’s not for me. But Redshirts seemed especially bad, enough so that I’m still perplexed by its reception.

Similarly, though I can’t say I pay as much attention to Hayden, I love what his company does and what I see of him as a person when I’m pointed to his blog or Twitter. I’m glad he’s won Hugos before. I just think this year’s Hugo is connected to Redshirts, and I can’t agree with that.

I still suspect this is some sort of Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Like I said at the start of this article, all the people I’ve heard from who liked this book seemed to find it light and enjoyable. No one makes it sound like a Hugo contender. I get the impression that a lot of voters just said “He sells well, he has a big fanbase, and he’s won Hugos before. This book wasn’t bad. I guess he gets another one.”