Tuesday 27 October 2015

Warframe: 2015 Review (PC)

A ninja-Jedi in a mech suit who fights space marines, robots and twisted alien infested?
Warframe has the sort of flashy, fun gameplay you'd expect from such a premise.  The "rule of cool" is very much the guiding design philosophy.

Slide and shoot.... 
(note a polearm, sniper rifle and a wrist laser are perfectly viable loadouts....)

What is it?
It's a 4-player co-op 3rd-person shooter/RPG where you team up with other "Tenno" (ninjas); slicing down hordes of foes in a combination of swordplay, parkour, and 'force' powers to complete a range of mission objectives.   Left for Dead in space, and with waaaay more customisation and cool toys. And you can fly around in space (and underwater) with winged jetpacks.  This is one of the most polished of the "free" games I've come across - it looks and plays like a AAA title.  It's faster paced than my usual style of game, but the over-the-shoulder camera, fluid and familiar controls and the co-op nature of gameplay make it easy to adapt to for us older gamers.

Deflect bullets like a Jedi....

....then slash apart your foes....

Is it really "free?"
It is one of the more benign of the "freemium" models.Whilst games like World of Tanks basically necessitates a monthly subscription to progress, and Mechwarrior blatantly appeals to rich "whales" with its "pay to win" vibe, Warframe can be played completely for free, by collecting and selling rare mods and weapon parts.  So yes, it is free.  That said, I recommend putting in a one-off $10, about a month in, which will set you up with enough warframe and weapons slots for a year.  A fair business model.

Will my computer run it?
A dual core, 2gig of RAM and a videocard of any sort. Basically, any computer less than 6-7 years old.  A very pretty game, well optimised with good 60fps framerate on my 5-year-old computer.

The view from the cockpit of your spaceship/home base is impressive...
Controls are the usual simple, familiar mouse+WASD shooter controls, with spacebar and Ctrl allowing a variety of parkour moves such as wall running, double jumps, and slides. You can shoot, slash and slide your way fluidly through levels, while casting space magic on your foes. The NPC AI is as dumb as dog poop, and "tougher foes" simply means more hitpoints to chew through - but no one cares. It's not that sort of game.  Casual. Accessible. Stylish. Not tactically complex. The depth comes in other areas.

Force Powers
Each frame has its own shield and hitpoint ratings, but most importantly each has four unique powers.  This could be things like casting lightning bolts, force shields, creating AoE whirlwinds, teleportation or flight. The warfame's array of powers give them all a distinct flavour.  I guess you could put them into RPG terms like "crowd control"  "healer"  "tank"  "dps"  "AoE"  "glass cannon" etc but given all share a common weapon pool, and you have to manually aim, slash and run like a FPS means the distinctions are a bit blurry.

...blast enemies with force powers....
Ranking Up & Mods
Weapons and warframes can "rank up" to level 30 and this happens pleasantly easily and quickly.  "Levelling" your frame/weapon is important as the level determines the sum of the "mods" you can place on it.

Weapon mods include damage boosts, elemental damage, faster attack speed - frame mods include shield and HP boosts as well as more efficient/improved use of force powers.  The mods can radically improve your frame as well as changing the focus of its playstyle, espescially with regard to your 'space magic' powers.

Min-maxing your frame is a fun quest, as you collect or trade mods, and decide how much to level them, in order to fit under the "cap" of your waframe level. I.e. a level 20 warframe can fit 20 "points" of mods, and a level 30 warframe can fit 30.  Capacity of your favourite frames can be doubled if you craft expensive "reactors" essentially expanding the maximum "cap" to 60.   If you end up with a surplus of rare mods, you can trade them for in-game currency to truly "play for free."  

In short - levelling weapons is easy and fun, and leads to deep customisation. The RPG-esque 'grind' lies elsewhere....

...Sometimes you stalk enemies....
Crafting - Weapons & Frames
There is a huge range of primary, secondary and melee weapons available all of which you can build from loot dropped by foes or by smashing open the ubiquitous crate.  Collecting the ingredients may be easy or hard, depending on the weapon and the rarity of materials it needs.  This is where the "grind" comes in.   If you have your heart set on a particular weapon, it can take ages of running particular types of mission to collect enough materials.  My 10c - don't "force" it - play casually, have fun with mates, and make stuff when you get the parts.  "Grinding" relentlessly to collect stuff - that way lies madness (or burnout). 

There is about 25 warframes, each with its own stats and its own unique four 'force' powers. Some warframes are easy to attain, some are exasperatingly difficult.  Most require repeating boss fights multiple times to collect all the parts. Some require you to complete quests.  Others require rare materials.

This is also where you need to spend really money to unlock "weapon slots" and "warframe slots" - though if you sell rare mods and gear on the player market you can play completely for free.  In addition, most items require real-world time to craft - 12-24 hours usually, with up to 72(!) for warframes.  This is another area where DE makes money as you can pay to "rush" the item and have instant gratification.

In short, making weapons and frames is where the exasperating grind comes in.  If you're a completionist who's "gotta collect them all" be prepared to spend a lot of game time grinding....

...other times, you just gotta flee!

Pets - Sentinels and Kubrows
Sentinels (drones that hover behind your shoulder) and Kubrow (alien attack dogs that roam around) are the "pets" which can assist you by doing things like collecting loot, cloaking you, performing AoE attacks, chasing down enemy targets, and simply providing extra firepower.  Kubrow are rather expensive to make and maintain and I don't really recommend them for newer players - Sentinels are cheaper and more user-friendly.

Archwing - by space and sea!
There are Gundam-style Archwing winged backpacks which allow you to fly in space or travel under water while wielding anime-esque swords and guns bigger than you are. This is a completely different game mode and while it adds welcome variety I found it to be less engaging than the usual game mode.

There's few problems in life that a well-aimed wrist laser can't fix...
To be honest this isn't great, though I admit I've only dabbled in it.  Whilst weapons are balanced separately for PvP there are constant complaints about unbalanced gear and the advantages of hosting the game.  Like Archwing mode, it adds a bit of variety if you are bored (it has unique mission types), but if you are looking for a dedicated PvP game look elsewhere, as Warframe shines best in its Left-for-Dead casual co-op with RPG elements niche.

The Bad
It's the two 'R's -  RNG and Repetition; and unsurprisingly one is linked to the other.
It's a great casual game, but easy to burn out on. I started a few years back, played it heavily, then quit for a year, in about this sequence:
"Heh, space ninjas - looks fun."
"Nice graphics - this is really good for a free game!"
"Wow - the mods is quite complicated - there's a lot of depth!"
"So many weapons and frames to try out and level up!"
<100 hours later>
"Must... grind... that... glowy rare ubersword"
"...damn RNG!  this is grindframe not Warframe!"

The Random Number Generator (RNG) means your chance of getting loot is totally random.  For example, a boss might drop one of three Warframe parts you need - the helmet, systems and chassis.  However there is no guarantee you will get them consecutively in three missions.  You might play a dozen missions and end up with 9 helmets, 3 systems and no chassis - and still be unable to craft the Warframe you want.  Each enemy loot drop is a random dice roll.  Which makes dedicated collecting or "farming" an item really exasperating as it is complete luck if/when you get the item you seek.  Hence the "repetition."

Repetition - well, quite often you will be replaying particular missions seeking a particular component/resource (thanks for nothing, RNG!) and whilst there is about 17 mission types having only 3 enemy races and a tendency to reuse ingame resources means things can start to get samey.
The game tries to mitigate repetition with random tilesets.  This means the maps are "jumbled up" every mission - you'll recognize the rooms but they'll be connected in different sequence. Like modular wargame terrain.   Whilst this is a good idea, it still won't take you long to see every room/location/graphic resource in the game a hundred times.  

Sliding into to dice up some twisted alien Infested

Planets & Missions & "Endgame"  Rant
Planets (of which there are about a dozen) are unlocked by defeating the boss at the previous planet.  Void missions (one-off missions that drop better/unique loot) can be tried if you find a Void Key on a normal mission. Each planet has 12-25 missions on it, of a range of mission types from assassinate, to sabotage, defence, to hacking and defending terminals and hostage rescue. The spy and rescue missions require sneaking and hacking security terminals to break in undetected for a change of pace compared to the usual frenetic slash-and-shoot combat.

MMO players always seem to seek a mythical "Endgame" where the game becomes somehow better and deeper and it a "payoff" for all your hard work once you're levelled up.  It's ridiculous.  The game itself should be fun.  If you are not enjoying yourself but keep playing in expectation it will somehow change and become "funner" and "pay off" all your "work" after 100 hours when you're all "levelled up"... that's just stupid.  

In Warframe it's very easy to level up your weapons and frames, though your mods take much longer to fully optimize.  The Void missions are tough (especially Tier 3/4) without friends, and the later planets (i.e. the tier 30+ ones) are tricky solo without levelled gear.  Better gear simply allows you to do more solo or contribute more to a team, and to progress further into harder missions.  So there is no mythical "endgame" (nor should there be) - you play the game cos you like it, not because you have to work for some mythical endgame where all the best content is kept.  If your game doesn't get good until the end, why bother with anything else?  If the endgame is cool, and the rest is an annoying, inferior, irrelevant timesink - why?

In short, there isn't really an "endgame" - nor should there be. 

 Stealth mode? After only rarely getting bugs, I got stuck in a wall twice the day before I wrote this review... 
It's still a Beta?
And it has been in beta since 2012! But honestly if you charge for a game, it's a product, not a test.  Beta is basically a cop out - an excuse for bugs. "But it's still in beta!" They say this with a straight face. If "beta" means "still in active development" then every MMO (or indeed every game receiving patches and updates) is in beta. But no one would claim World of Warcraft is in beta.  So no, Warframe has been out and charging money for 3 years - it is not a beta. 

So does it have bugs? Well, I've been stuck in a wall four times and under the floor three times - in a few hundred hours of play over two years - but they're the only "gamebreaking" issues I've had. I'd rate that as quite acceptable.   Also, the multiplayer has no dedicated servers and "host migration" - when the game swaps the hosting player mid-game - is quite annoying.  

+ Everything follows the "Rule of cool" - ninjas, robots, parkour, Jedi powers!
+ Fun, casual, accessible co-op - easy to pick up and play
+ Surprisingly deep customization/crafting
+ Very polished, great graphics - works on any computer
+ Good game for dad + sons/mums/daughters
+ Actually can be played for free unlike most "freemium" games

- Repetitious enemies and maps after a while
- Random loot drops = annoying when trying to get a particular weapon/frame/mod

Recommended:  Yes!  A casual but shiny co-op game of space ninjas that you can easily con the wife into playing, it is stylish slash-em-up fun that has unexpected depth in the crafting/modding aspect of the game.  Keep it casual, though, to avoid burnout.


Monday 26 October 2015

Underrated Fantasy Authors

These are not the "best" fantasy novels (most of the top authors are already recognized) though all of them are, obviously, worth your time to read.   I wouldn't claim they are all "unknown" either - just guys who are sitting a little below their rightful place in the pecking order.

Again, I reserve the right to update this list as I think of new books tp include (I'd have 2800+ novels in my personal library so I can't think of every one offhand).

Paul Kearney (Monarchies of God, Sea Beggars, Macht)
One of the series has never been completed due to lack of a publisher, yet his books are all good and the *Monarchies of God series (1400s not-Islamic invasions with werewolves etc) is really interesting and has some great battle scenes. Recommended.

James Enge (Blood of Ambrose) 
This story of the life of Merlin's family (the Ambrosii) has an uncommon writing style - it reminds me of the fantasy books I read in the 70s, but with a modern voice.  Like hearing your grandad use modern slang.  It's catchy, interesting, and unique in its style and pacing. 

*Traitor's Blade (Sebastian de Castell)
This "Three Musketeers with Magic" is a swashbuckling romp that won't be underrated for long.   A new author who grabbed my attention instantly.  This is a good book, a fun book.  Highly recommended. One of the unexpected hits of the year.

*City of Stairs (Robert Jackson Bennett)
Another newcomer who grabbed my attention.  A highly original fantasy where a once-mighty city has lost its gods and is now just an outpost of its old colony.  Some memorable characters and a gripping plot premise.  Unusual in style.  A great mix of genres from spy thriller to fantasy. An author who deserves a wider audience.

Anything by Chris Wooding
Speaking of fun, Retribution Falls* is not strictly fantasy (more steampunk) but it is an awesome mashup of golems-airships-sky pirates-dogfights-demonologists. Pure fun. A steampunk Firefly if you will.  Whilst more workmanlike than genius, most of Wooding's other work is solid to good, such as the Weavers of Saramyr Asian fantasy series. 

Shadows of the Apt (Tchaikovsky)
He's only a workmanlike author but his world building is good. His fantasy human races have insect traits (spider kinden are schemers, ant kinden are telepaths, beetle kinden are industrious) and whilst it doesn't perhaps need to be dragged into a 10 book series like it has, it's a decent read. 

Chronicles of Prydian (Lloyd Alexander)
A kids book, not really "unknown" to its target audience, but I found the French-Revolution with magic fantasy much better than Narnia.  Not a bad "light read" as an adult. 

Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay
He's not exactly unknown, but underrated, sure.  Since his writing skill edges nearly all the authors on the "top 10" lists, I think he deserves to be in this category, and his work is definitely worth checking out. He often tends more towards historical fiction than fantasy.

Tales of the Kin - Doug Hulick
Another one of those gritty "fantasy crime" books which are flooding the market at the moment.  When the Lies of Locke Lamora gets all the plaudits, I feel this one is underrated in comparison. So that's why it's here.

*The Witcher (Sapkowski)
Certainly not underrated if you are Eastern European, where he is "the" GRR Martin/Tolkien.  But whenever I say "Witcher" all people know of is the PC game that derives from this series.  It suffers from some rather awful translation work, but is still good. I recommend the short collection of twisted gritty fairytales "The Last Wish"as a starting point.

The Darkness that Comes Before (Scott Bakker)
Sometimes more philosophical discourse than fantasy book, it overreaches itself at times. A bit too much navel gazing, but unique and interesting.  A different flavour of fantasy for the jaded palate, though I recommend it with caution - it's not for everyone. 

Low Town/*Those Above (Daniel Polanksy)
The Low Town series (about an ex-Imperial agent turned crime lord/drug dealer) was a bit grim and dank to wholeheartedly recommend.  A solid gritty-crime-fantasy though. I did re-read it though. But his new world introduced in the series which leads with the book Those Above looks to be great, and I predict he will climb into the "top 10" lists when it gets more traction.

Fallen Blade - Jon Courtney Grimwood
Mr Grimwood has always written good but unusual sci fi but he is a talented writer and I'm surprised his werewolves-vs-vampire assassins in Venice hasn't got more notice, given how it taps into a popular theme. 

Killer of Men* (Christian Cameron)
Technically historical fiction but with gritty fantasy nowdays the line is blurred. It's weird as his other work is laboured and poor in style, while the Killer of Men series are my favourite Greek historical novels.

Dagger & the Coin (Abraham) + Long Price Quartet series
Daniel Abraham is one of the American midwest clique and is probably the most talented writer.  His flaw - he's a bit slow to build the action. That said, he's far less famous than the others who are inferior writers, so I'd definitely tag him as underrated.

Brian Ruckley (The Free)
First books a bit derivative and long winded (I liked the American Indian Elves vs Vikings battles from the Godless World), but standalone The Free (mercenary company with magicians) will be appreciated especially by wargamers for its platoon-level gritty battles and balanced magic. 

Anything by KJ Parker
I'll nominate the standalone "Sharps"but all are similar in tone.   They are well written in a wry way, and are a lot better written than their modest fame suggests - perhaps because KJ Parker can be a bit grim in large doses (industrialisation, money and banality always triumph over gallantry and flair).

JV Jones (Sword of Shadows)
I remember being impressed with this series but they were published only sporadically (the series has yet to be completed with often 4-5 year gaps between books). Quite grim and gritty, but different and good compared to the "standard" gritty which has become the norm in fantasy. 

Django Wexler (Thousand Names)
The first book started poorly but improved as it went. The second shows solid improvement over the first.  I'm now actually really looking forward to book three. It's basically Napoleon-in-Egypt hunting demons, then a fantasy French Revolution.  A series to watch, which should definitely find a wider audience. 

Underrated, not epic

Well there you go. Not necessarily the best fantasy you will ever read, but all decent, enjoyable books with authors which tend to slip under the radar.  I've resisted the urge to include a lot of newer fantasy authors (and there are a lot of those: fantasy is at the moment, at the cutting edge of literature compared to the tired crime/thriller genres, and sci fi which had its golden age decades ago.)  However the series tagged with a (*) are ones which I'd say deserve to be in everyone's library.

I hope you find something interesting and new in this list - if you want more detail, or you have a book/author that deserves to be here, toss it in the comments below.  

Overrated Fantasy Books

This is a counterpoint to my "recommended reading" lists and I may add to it as time goes by. E.g. I'm about to press "publish" and I recall LE Modesitt being pretty bad.... 

The Low-Hanging Fruit
It's like a fanfic written by a 14 year old. Wait a minute - that's exactly what it is!  Probably OK if you are also 14. Otherwise, avoid.  It amazes me how this made it onto shelves.  It's like his parents were publishers or something.....   But it got a movie?

Anything by Terry Goodkind
Not only it is terribly written, but it is inexplicably popular.  Probably by the same people who think Fifty Shades of Grey is fine literature.  It is drivel. Amateurish drivel. Popularity is not writing skill and Mr Goodkind, frankly, has none of the latter.  Well he is the master of "tell, don't show." The main character is a super warrior who is also a super wizard who is super intelligent and loves to get up on a soapbox. I'm not a women's libber by any stretch, but even I found the sex scenes awkward. 

Anything by Terry Brooks
If it wasn't for Terry Pratchett balancing things out, I'd think there was something in the name. He isn't awful like Goodkind, simply commercially successful and utterly devoid of imagination and any original ideas. It's like watching a rerun of a rerun.  Please, stop churning Shanarra books out. It's like a series of unoriginal RPG supplements that never ends.

The Desert Spear (Peter Brett)
I thought the series started promisingly, but by the second book, my goodness the characters became annoying.  Also, I find it ridiculous how random villagers suddenly turn into amazing demon-slaying heroes. I also dislike authors who write with an accent, y'all.

Alvin Maker (Orson Scott Card)
This is some sort of Mormon fantasy. Since I'm not a Mormon nor intend to read their literature, this misses the mark for me.  Preachy and dull.  A slur on the writer who did Ender's Game. (although some of the Ender sequels did hint to the depths to which Mr Card could sink.)

Anything by David Eddings
A McDonalds-style writer like Mr Brooks who churns books out by the score - only the MacDonalds nutirition information label is less cliche and more interesting.  I guess they aren't truly awful, (maybe OK for kids? I didn't mind them as a teen) it just offends me that such a poor writer should achieve such a level of success. I fear for humanity.

Anything by Piers Anthony
A panties-obsessed old pervert.  The panties of young, pubescent girls at that.  I wouldn't be surprised to discover he writes erotic fanfiction about kids TV programs or something equally disturbing. On the upside, at least he is honest about being in it for the money.

Anything by Raymond Feist besides Magician
The first book was quite good. The rest could simply be churned out by any ghostwriter. He evidently sold out to The Man rather early on.  I think most of the plots were copy+paste jobs.

Night Angel series
Cliches wrapped in cliches.  Orphan apprentices to master assassin, yadda yadda. Orphan gets super ninja magic powers.  I'd recommend it for teens but it's got swear words and sex and stuff to make it look like it was a gritty book meant for adults.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things - by Patrick Rothfuss
I've skewered this before, but it bears repeating. This is not a book, but a plotless, pointless vanity project that should (as per his original intention) never have been published.  Yes, the cover warned me I might not like it. (What writer does that?! - next time, Pat, listen to your inner voice) But I still feel robbed. I still expected a book.

A bit more contentious

The Black Company by Glenn Cook
It was one of the first gritty realistic "military" fantasies.  It's original, yes.  It's just not very good, and compares poorly to almost every successor/imitator. I've read more coherent SMS messages.

The Wheel of Time
It started really well - I enjoyed the first 4-5 books. Then I realised the series wasn't going anywhere.  The later books were filler. Huge books of filler, at that. New characters and plotlines were introduced and the story went nowhere.  A never-ending cash cow that was to be milked.  Apparently the series ended well (only after Robert Jordan died) but I'm too numbed to go back.  A good editor willing to cut through the crap would have helped. 

A Wizard from Earthsea
Quite boring to be honest. A lot of exposition as I recall.  World building was OK. Rather dated.

Malazan Book(s) of the Fallen
Boring.  He doesn't "baby his readers" but that's just an excuse for poor orientation.  It's like a homebrew wargames rules set. It makes sense in the author's head but the coherency does not always make its way onto the page.  I wasn't shocked to find that it is simply the author writing about a D&D roleplaying world he invented because that is exactly how it reads.  I'd excuse all this if it was actually interesting but it isn't.  Or if it he had amazing skills with prose (which he doesn't).  I'm amazed this series stretched for 10+ books. Probably because he conned his readers into thinking they were special snowflakes who "got" his deep and meaningful style.

Codex Alera
I sometimes secretly read my wife's Dresden Files collection (which seemed to improve as they went along), but surely Jim Butcher is not that awful a writer. Because Codex Alera is really awful.  I've tried to read it twice but given up and thrown the book into the corner of the room each time. Perhaps one more try, and thence into the bin. I recall a story that says Jim Butcher wrote it on a bet that you couldn't write a good story combining the Lost Legion and Pokemon.  Well Jim, you lost the bet, but props for trying - you're a cool guy.

Thomas Covenant
I think it was about internal struggles and symbolism.  I merely found it dull and depressing. Antiheroes are fine, but his was unlikeable and whiny/dull.  It was probably hot stuff back in the 70s but unlike crime fiction and perhaps sci fi), fantasy has actually progressed.  Take off the nostalgia goggles.  Also, I was convinced he used obscure words just to pad the novel without knowing what they meant (my teenage recollections - I may be wrong). Also, too much rape.

Step away from that sacred cow, and put down that cattle prod!

Lord of the Rings
Put down the pitchforks and torches, folks. Remember, I said overrated, not bad.  Tolkien is a terrific world builder and his world of Middle Earth inspired a genre.  But his plotting and characterisation are pretty nonexistent.  Lots of landscape descriptions, lots of walking. Heck, even the trees walked.  I'm going to commit heresy and suggest his work could do with a good edit.  As an influential feat of worldbuilding, sure? As a novel?  Meh.
(Actually I was just imagining a world without Tolkien. It might have made fantasy more interesting, actually)

Harry Potter
Again, I said overrated. It's quite OK, but not that good. Basically an Enid Blyton book but with a magical boarding school. It's simply not good enough for the hype/craze/waiting-in-line-overnight-to-purchase-a-book/movies etc etc. Not even remotely.  It's decent. But not the second coming.  It's not even the best fantasy book of its generation. I felt the series started well, but I think the editors were kinda sitting back by the end as the Potter cult gained momentum.  JK Rowling's publicist isn't overrated though.

Anything by Brandon Sanderson that isn't The Way of Kings
Until the The Way of Kings I had dismissed Brandon Sanderson as another wannabe churned out of the "author factory" (based in Arizona/Utah or somewhere in the American Midwest) where famous authors sponsor their proteges.  Everything else Brandon has done (mind, I haven't read his ending to the Wheel of Time) has been classed as "great, imaginative worldbuilding, very 'meh' writing skills."
Imaginative? Yes. Overrated? Absolutely.

A Game of Thrones
Perhaps this is because of all the hype from the TV shows? Nah. I was already getting tired of his tendency to wander off into irrelevant detail and longwindedness before the shows.  People always see this on my bookshelf and ask "should I read this?" and I answer "no, I wouldn't wish that on anyone, watch the show instead then read the book if you're dedicated."  I was a GRR Martin fan when he released his first ASoIaF books, but the shine has well and truly worn off.   I honestly think he is now "milking" it like Wheel of Time as book 4 and 5 kinda went nowhere.... is there even an overarching plot at all?

How dare you! You, sir, clearly do not have the comprehension nor literacy skills to grasp a masterwork of literature!

 Actually, I always wonder what qualifies a book critic.  If a critic, by definition, is "...a legless man who teaches running...." then I am as qualified as any!  As usual, feel free to agree/disagree, and add your 10c below. 

Game Design #57: Asymmetry

The Impossibility of Balance
A lot of effort goes into balancing armies and units so nothing is overpowered (OP) or underpowered.  "XY needs a nerf" is a the most common post title on PC gaming forums, and in the more competitive points-centric wargames.   Points systems by nature can never be perfectly balanced (even the mirror opposite armies of Chess aren't balanced - what's with that white army always having the first move, eh?) so why do so many games focus on what is essentially a futile pursuit?

War is Asymmetry
Any good historical general would always prefer a guaranteed victory by creating a favourably unbalanced situation.  "Get there fastest with the mostest."  And here we have wargames ignoring one of the key facets of warfare.

In EvE Online, a spaceship MMO where losing your ship means losing the hours spent crafting it - most of the effort goes into ensuring the battle is unbalanced as possible.   Players are more "careful" with their life when they can't simply respawn in 5 seconds and tend to set up asymmetrical fights in which they can lure an opponent into an unfavourable situation to be "ganked."

Asymmetry can't be stopped anyway....
In "balanced" points-based games, the asymetry is simply moved to a list building meta-game.  I.e. to stack your army with as many "flavour of the month" units which have a game impact far more than their points value; or come up with a scheme to cheaply neutralise your opponents' best units.   Despite both sides having a "balanced" 1000pt force, often it is evident who will win at the deployment phase before a dice is rolled in anger...

The aim of the game is asymmetry
Within even a supposedly balanced game, the aim is to make the game even more unbalanced and asymetrical as possible in your favour, as soon as possible. Knock out their units, maintain yours, angle for the best dice roll modifiers etc - that's how you win.

Balance is more fun!
Not necessarily.  I'd say there can be more fun in having lots of choices (decision points) in how you manage your forces.  For me, anyway, "not fun" is feeling you have no influence on the outcome and you might as well be playing Yahtzee with your expensive, carefully assembled miniatures.

Quite often I'll throw two armies on the table and offer the choice to my opponent, pointing out the one that is stronger.  Quite often they will pick the weaker side themselves, and I find asymmetry tends to make games more convivial and less intense - i.e. no one gloats when they know their opponent gave them the superior force.

There are more than a few boardgames and PC games which has asymmetry as a key feature - be it a PC game against hordes of AI enemies, or all players vs a dungeonmaster.  This thread was in fact inspired by my exploring co-operative wargames against "AI" controlled opponents.

Campaign games have a degree of asymmetry as sides lose forces or go into battle under strength - or "level up" at different rates.  You can lose a battle with outnumbered forces but "win" strategically or at least force a "draw" which is favourable for the underdog.  My experience with Frostgrave has shown limiting the turns can help stop the superior force from steadily and inevitably crushing their opponent by forcing them to take risks before time runs out.

Scenarios (historical or not) can have inbuilt asymmetry - many players enjoy the challenge of playing as the underdog.  You can simply set victory conditions at different levels - or even set up the terrain/tactical situation to allow the weaker side a fighting chance.  The two sides may turn up at the battle with vastly differing goals. That's where "secondary objectives" and "hidden objectives" like in Malifaux can add fun. Or perhaps give the weaker side better intelligence and initiative or superior battlefield position.

Whilst I'm not saying to abandon attempt to balance games nor points systems are evil (in fact I am in favour of points systems to "help" balance - without accepting them as a perfect solution) - I think asymmetrical battles should play a bigger part in the already overlooked areas of scenario/mission design.  After all, how many historical battles were precisely balanced?

It's not an either/or situation.

Asymmetry (whether we acknowledge it or not) is a key factor of warfare both before (whether it is through meta gaming the points system) and during (as you attempt to quickly neutralize your opponent and gain battlefield superiority) the battle; so why not consider it in scenario and mission design in conjunction with "balanced" points systems?

Thursday 22 October 2015

Game Design #56: Solitaire Wargaming & NPC AI - Part 2

When I say this I really kinda mean "immediate reactions" (tactical) vs "overall plan" (strategic).

I think tactical AI ("what") is the easiest to do, through a reaction system - which are already common.  Tactical, short term decisions usually has a clear trigger (e.g. when you come into/act within LoS of enemy)  and triggers tend to have have commonsense solutions or responses according to the genre being played.

I.e. responses to receiving fire trigger set in WW2 might be to: duck back/move to cover/hit dirt, return fire or a combination of the two, made against/tied to the units training stat.   Or perhaps even (Japanese) to banzai charge headlong....

2HW already does tactical AI, and reaction-centric games like Infinity and Ambush Alley could easily be modified to do so. 

Strategic AI ("why") is harder to do.  This is where 2HW falls down a bit.  Once you move into contact (unless you are a "hero") you get locked into a cycle of tactical "AI" reactions.  However for the sake of a fully automated AI opponent, it does not answer the question WHY the unit chose to move around that particular corner into LoS.

Strategic AI - vs "bias"
Yet strategic AI is very important as when playing yourself: "bias" towards a particular army tends to be most evident when you plan ahead and execute long-term plans.  It's easy enough to put yourself in the shoes of a single soldier in a single moment of time and say "what would I logically do" - but what are his overall objectivesWhy did he get himself in the situation in the first place?

It's another reason IGOUGO is bad.  The ability to plan flawlessly ahead without interruption tends to emphasize any bias.   A turn broken up (and/or unpredictably) means you make short term tactical choices, logically, rather than "I sacrifice x to acheieve y". (...though this is a decision commanders would be called to make at times...)    It helps you to "live in the moment" and be in that soldier/unit shoes with less bias.

If you can move everything without interruption, your decision process is different to if you only get to move one unit then your opponent moves. If you don't know when you will "lose" the initiative, your decision making is different again.  The further you think ahead, the more bias can creep in.  An alternate-move game where players take turns activating units makes you "live in the moment" as it were, compared to IGOUGO.  A focus on micro over macro. "What is best for blue x, right now - rather than "how can I make red/blue win overall?"

Yet ignoring the macro doesn't work: after all, having red/blue "win overall" is the purpose of the game....

Strategic AI - the nut to crack
For me anyway, the main problem seems to be (#1) having a good strategic AI; and (#2) how it synergizes with tactical AI.  I.e. why are units moving to a particular spot or concentrating on a particular target; and how does this influence their immediate tactical reactions?

Making a decent tactical AI without a strategic element can be done easily enough, often by only slightly modifying the existing game if the game already has inbuilt reaction mechanics.  (I know 2HW has PEFs and stuff like that, but it is more unbalanced randomness that adds uncertainty to the game, rather than coherent, strategic AI).  That's why bug hunt "alien"-style games are easy to make AI for - cos there is no strategic AI needed besides general guidelines such as "charge towards the nearest guys and eat them." No further "why" is needed.  You don't have objectives to secure, acceptable casualties or morale to consider.  Neither is there a compelling need to outflank/outmaneuver foes.  There's just one overriding imperative: charge at them and gobble em up!

Well, that didn't help...
Sorry this does not offer any great solutions.  I just ask the questions!
I'm just trying to define the issues to I can start to look for solutions.  That said, I'll try to explore some concrete methods in later posts - but this will be handicapped by my lack of background knowledge in solo boardgames/cardgames.  

Monday 19 October 2015

Game Design #55: Solitaire Wargaming - Designing NPC "AI" - Part 1

First of all, I'd like to clarify what I'm talking about. This is not co-operative wargaming, which is becoming trendy through hybrid boardgames like Descent and Imperial Assault.  Whilst these games are co-op - with up to four players ganging up on a dungeonaster in charge of the "bad guys" - there's no "solo" element per se - the opposing force is controlled by a player, necessitating at least two players. 

What do you mean by "Solitaire Wargaming?"
But what I am interested in is solo gaming - where you can play solitaire against yourself, with the opposing army "NPC force" controlled by a mechanism (be it dice, cards or similar) - let's call it "AI." In short, in solitaire gaming you don't need an opponent, nor do you have to "play both sides" - the game takes care of the decisions of one army for you.

On the other hand there are games like Space Hulk - well, the NPCs spawn randomly and make a beeline for the nearest player.  Whilst the way the blips work add randomness, there isn't any real "AI" here, either.

So whilst solitaire wargames can be played co-operatively, not all co-operative games are solitaire. 

...and I mean "proper" solitaire wargaming...
It further annoys me that many indie games advertise "solo play" but include only the barest of mechanics.  A chart where you roll a d6 for each unit, and a 1-2 = attack, 3-4 = hold position, and 5-6 = fall back is not "AI" or a good solo play mechanism. It's just randomness. 

What inspired this train of thought?
I was playing the free FPS-RPG PC Game Warframe  (whose cyborg-Jedi-space-ninjas vs power armour marines, robots/mechs and infested alien critters is as glorious mashup of "cool stuff" in sci fi as Malifaux is to steampunk - I'll do an article on the game itself sometime) .  The game is co-operative, with up to 4 human players with flashy, super-cool weapons and kit decimating hordes of NPC (i.e. computer-controlled AI) foes.

The game has immense customisation for modifying gear and weapons, and I was wondering how this could be simplified to be added to a skirmish wargame campaign.  Then I wondered how easy it would be to straight-out convert Warframe to being a skirmish wargame, using my own homebrew rules. But central to the concept of Warframe is co-operative play.  Making one player the dungeon-master (Descent-style) would be the easy way....  ...but Warframe AI is pretty dumb, yet the game is still fun.   How easy would it be to model the (dumb, simple) AI from a PC game, into a wargame?

Ok, bearing in mind I know next to nothing about PC AI, here are my observations and rough classifications.  I'm going to use my own terminology here.

This is an event that triggers a change of state or behaviourE.g. spotting you, being fired upon, hearing a suspicious noise, being hit by gunfire.

"Game State"
This is the current "status" of the NPC. In Warframe, there are about three basic states:

Default = Condition green. Oblivious, either standing around or following a preset patrol route.

Alert/Searching = Condition yellow. Triggered by a noise (gunfire). Resets to default after x amount of time without further triggers.

Combat = Condition red.  Triggered by enemies in vision arc or being hit by gunfire or melee.  Resets to yellow after x amount of time with no enemies in LoS of self or any allies.

Depending on the game state or trigger, the NPC can perform different behaviours or actions. 
This may vary depending on the type of unit or trigger. 

Default behaviours = stand still or walk in pre-set pattern

Alert/Search behaviours = pivot to face, then move towards source of noise for x amount of time

Combat behaviours = depends on type of unit.
 A melee-centric unit will make a bee-line for the closest foe and get stuck in.  A missile-centric unit will move to the nearest cover and shoot.
 If engaged in close combat, a melee unit will strike back, whilst a missile-centric unit will hit back once then attempt to break away to establish range to shoot at.   Furthermore, missile units may move up or fall back - I presume to attempt to maintain an optimum distance; though I'm not sure exactly what triggers this* (While playing, I'm mostly backflipping off walls while dual-wielding katanas and occasionally throwing lighting bolts from my fingers, so give me a break, OK)

This sketch of the Warframe "AI" loop might help - this was the notes I made myself while playing
 (click to enlarge).
I was thinking this would be rather easy to build into a reaction system, such as that used by Infinity (or better still, my d10 Infinity+SoBH homebrew mashup).
I.e. melee enemies "react" by charging towards you. Missile enemies "react" by moving to cover and shooting.  
 In fact, Infinity already does this with "Impetuous" type  troops - they automatically move towards their foes and you have to spend orders from your order pool to restrain them. 

Whats that elephant doing in the corner?  .....Hello there, Two Hour Wargames

This is the one inevitably mentioned when people ask for co-operative or solo play wargames.
Whilst regular readers would be aware I am not particularly fond of 2HW games in general (terrible rules layout/editing, ill-advised devotion to d6s, odd mechanics, and tendency for their fanboys to act like hipster indie music fans - you know, the ones who extol the rubbish local bands no one has ever heard of?)...     .....one of the reasons is a lack of decision points. Whilst I'm a fan of realistic friction and not allowing players total control and precision: I think 2HW errs in taking too many decisions away from the player and automating them.

But for our "AI" - automated decisions are exactly what we are looking for.  

Note: For the sake of this section, I am referring to the older 2HW versions which I have complete rulebooks for, rather than the "newer" CR 2015 system.  

2HW uses an "AI" method which is roll 2d6 against a "REP" level (skill/training) whenever a certain event triggers it.  This test occurs as soon as units first gain line-of-sight to each other, and if they do stuff like shoot at each other.

1. If both dice succeed, the mini can perform the optimal action.
2.If one dice succeeds, the mini can perform a sub-optimal action.
3. If both dice fail, a 'bad thing' or negative action happens.

So there is actually three different responses possible, allowing for a wide range of actions/behaviours; and the likelihood of a favourable outcome is dependent on the unit's skill/training (aka REP).

Furthermore, a different trigger (came into sight of enemy -vs- was shot at  -vs- was charged) may elicit different responses.  These different responses are listed on a series of tables.

Furthermore, different troop types might use different response tables.
Different units will act differently. Not just be humans with different stat lines.

Do you want to know more? The newest Chain Reaction 2015 mechanics are free from 2HW or (less messing around->) DriveThruRPG/WargameVault.  It's a bit more streamlined, but still gives you a good feel for the interplay between triggers and the unit actions that result.

I found it interesting that....
Warframe had triggers (A) which lead to game states (B) i.e. default/searching/combat which then had their own actions/beaviours (C) such as shooting, taking cover, and charging to melee .

Whereas 5150 had triggers (A) that lead directly to actions/behaviours (C) such a shooting, taking cover, and charging to melee - bypassing the (B) step. 

I'm not sure exactly of the implications of this.  5150 cuts out a step, but Warframe organises it more neatly?

As you can see in this older 5150 edition, each trigger - e.g. "In Sight"  "Received Fire" "Being Charged" etc is linked directly to the possible responses/actions in the same box...  Each race would have their own page like this, listing their own unique responses to the triggers...

Infinity and "Semi-solitaire" Gaming
Whilst not "co-operative", as I already mentioned, the impetuous troops have an interesting mechanic. Again, what is cool is they actually act differently to other troops, instead of just having +1 shooting or -1 defence etc. They make a beeline for enemies (without doing sensible things like using cover) unless you spend one of your order pool.  So they have a default behaviour which you can spend resources to alter.

I think the last sentence has interesting implications for the role of a "dungeonmaster" style GM.  In fact, imagine a game that runs by itself solo, but you have the option to have a guy from another table walk over and change x amount of default AI decisons/behaviour.   But then you could do the same to him.  Aka "semi-solitaire" - not quite competitive, but a mutually-agreed chance to mess with other players. 

Well, that's a big enough wall of text.  I'll explore it further and look at some practical examples in Part 2.

Disclaimer:  I have played little to no solo boardgames nor card games nor do I plan to (not enough shiny toys!). If you have thoughts for these areas and the implications for solo wargames feel free to comment below, link to a blog, or start a thread in our google group. 

Why do you always uses videogame analogies/examples? Like it or not, videogames have vastly outgrown their wargame/boardgame cousins, and are far more familiar to a wider audience.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Weird Wild West, Basing Dilemmas, Painting Purity vs Climbing the Lead Mountain

Weird West
Small warbands hunting for magic stones in a ruined city - sound familiar?  No, it's not Mordhiem, but MalifauxMalifaux steals cheerfully from so many games and genres (weird west, gothic horror, steampunk, fantasy) it becomes (sort of) original.
Demons     Zombie hookers   Zombie dogs    Gunslingers    Man-machine Hybrids    Possessed Puppets Ninjas    Ghosts    Clockwork Spiders   Frankenstein   Samurai Chicks   Golems  Gremlins  
 ....Their 'kitchen-sink' approach inspired me.

Why not dig out all my Steampunk/Wild West minis (or ones that fit the period) and see what I have?
The answer: I had quite a lot.  Pictured is a little under half my collection.  The rest is unpainted.

I discovered quite a few models suitable for the Weird West...
(In this pic you can see the downside to using a sand table - the marks made by the bases in the sand)

To Base or not to Base:  Slotta 25mm vs 30mm Lipped Bases
I much prefer the Warmachine-style lipped bases, which both frame the base and mini nicely, and give you a good place to grip the mini when moving it.  But many game systems use the standard 25mm slotta popularized by Games Workshop. 

25mm Slotta
Lord of the Rings
Warhammer 40K
Infinity the Game
Perry Historicals
Empress moderns
SAGA Vikings (WGF, Gripping Beast)
French-Indian Wars (Warlord Games)

Empire of the Dead (West Wind)

Basically, any "realistic" scaled models which stand 25-28mm.  I'm using Perry historicals and LOTR models together for "gritty" fantasy.  Any models used in historical games which fight in "ranks" are also kept slotta size so they can fit in my War of the Ring movement trays, as well as any modern/sci fi.

Black Scorpion make my favourite western minis - but good luck getting the heroic 32mm+ models to match up to normal 28mm historicals....

30mm Lipped Base
Secrets of the Third Reich
Black Scorpion (pirates, wild west)
Artizan Designs Pulp

Heroic models which stand 30-32mm+.    This means I have "two" fantasy basing standards, but the chunky Warmachine models were never going to work with LOTR stuff (which is more like 25mm) and fits far better alongside Malifaux heroes or the big Black Scorpion models.   In short, any heroic-scale pulp/fantasy/steampunk minis.

My only concern is that there are some monsters (such as GW demons, or werewolves) which can work in both basing scales.  Anyway, having finally bitten the bullet, I started to rummage through the lead mountain and either paint or rebase old models at an impressive clip.

Bonus points if you can identify which models come from which manufacturer....

A gang of female gunslingers and swordswomen defend a demon attack on the church.... again, there are models from at least 3 manufacturers in play...

A bunch of townsfolk defend the saloon front....
While some lizard-hounds* corner a bunch of roughnecks around the back....
(*are they some sort of OOP Chaos/Dark Elf model?)

If you do a job, do it properly...
 ... or is half a loaf is better than no bread? 
I've been very quickly painting models (barebones basecoat + wash) as well as rebasing old paint-jobs.  My aim is to simply get models out of boxes and blister packs and onto the table.  I'm cringing somewhat at the paint-jobs, but I'm eroding the unpainted lead mountain at an impressive clip - I figure I can go back and highlight/detail/touch up them at a later stage. 

This approach neatly encapsulates my philosophy:

1. It's never OK to field unpainted models - it shows a disregard for your opponent

(if your opponent also has unpainted models, you may as well both give up miniature gaming and take up boardgaming)

2. Paintjobs do not have to be amazing, as long as you "tried" (aka any paintjob is better than none)

I did a post on "naked miniatures" years back, which also has some amusing responses in the comments where someone simultaneously attempted to accuse me of being an elitist paint nazi forcing others to paint at an impossibly high standard (reading comprehension much?) at the same time as claiming bare metal models are better....

I rather like these creepy "grave ticks" (Heresy Minatures) which are being taken on by the local undertaker and some undead-hunting "Death Marshalls."

Test Your Knowledge:  DilemMa or DilemNa - which is the correct spelling? I always find it interesting how the wrong way feels right, yet there is no dictionary that ever spells it that way.  It's a bit like the use of the words fUrther and fArther. In Australia at least, we always use the former word for both meanings - which are both rather different.