Tag Archives: Game

That which cannot be removed

Dungeons and Dragons has endured a number iterations over the years, and yet there are things which have remained exactly the same. With 5th edition now looming I am left wondering if there are any parts which will be able to survive the changes this time.

The one big thing which hasn’t changed is the stat stack. The big six are known for the comprehensive and familiar description. Likewise, the range of those numbers and the fact that 1  or 0 is the bad end of the spectrum and 18 and over is the good end. Classic base character archetypes — Fighter, Thief, Priest, and Wizard. Levels, experience points, hit points, Vancian magic, and saving throws.

So what if WotC were to mess with that list? What if the big six were replaced with something else? Or if you suddenly had stats measuring from 1 to 10 on each of those? Would it still be D&D?

Don’t misunderstand. D&D is as much a brand as it is a system but which built which?

I am almost willing to argue that the system made the brand what it is. When one says D&D you get a certain image in your mind that encompasses a specific experience which includes some of those things I mentioned before. They may vary slightly — anyone else remember the saving throws of “Bend Bars / Lift Gates” or that strength could have a percentage rider if you rolled up a 18 at character creation?

It certainly wasn’t the same D&D from before, but it was still D&D. The big six were still present, hit points and movement still mattered.

But the twist is this. Even without the big six or hit points or Vancian magic, you could make a decent dungeon crawl based game. With the D&D brand, it suddenly becomes a D&D game. WotC has already done this to a certain extent with both some of their D&D board games, but also with Gamma World.

The brand in those cases is more important than the actual system that it’s been applied to. It’s not that something new has been made with the old, but that the old system was dumped all together.

So I think that nothing is going to be off limits for the designers. Everything, including the old sacred cows mentioned above, is up for the metaphorical slaughter. With this Legend & Lore column by Monte, I think it indicates with the “you play what you want to play” line there are a number of changes in stock for us old timers. We are going to be surprised, very surprised, to see what has been done with D&D when 5th edition gets published.

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Play Test entry: Martian Sands

Friday nights is one of the regular game nights with friends Twiaz and Effulgent_Inara. They were nice enough to give Martian Sands a trial run. There were several good surprises and a lot of excellent feedback.

I was happiest with having the base mechanics validated. The move & explore with players making the map as they played was easy to pick up on and use. We also went through the entire deck of hexes. So I have room to increase that number and give the players a variety of terrains to experience.

Here are a few shots from that night:

Starting set up
The starting set up
A few turns in
A few turns into the game


Final board
All sectors deployed


There was a few weaknesses explored. The environment deck needs some work, especially since it is predicated on a version of the rules not used since I first thought it up. These cards, which are like the Mythos cards in Arkham Horror, are used to tweak the game world and give the players an additional challenge. The problem we ran into was that the cards all did the same thing, taking away from the players’ action pool. There is a lot of room for these cards to work in and it should be relatively easy to come up with a broader set of alterations to game play. I’m thinking this may take a couple of weeks to messing around with it to have a solid set to go back with.

Another weakness was not having the buildings and resources distributed well. We found problem during the endgame, when we looked at the win conditions. According to the rules, we needed two more buildings than I had indicated on the sectors. To resolve it, we decided to build wherever was available. For me, this means I need to go back over all of the sectors and look at to distribute it better. It is going to involve some math to make sure I have the right balance. Ideally, the players should be able to screw themselves if they’re not paying attention but it shouldn’t be so hard to strategize, only spending a few minutes every turn to plan. This should take about a week of evenings to get balanced properly.

But the best part was being able to play out the entire set of sectors. According to my notes this happened in round seven, most of the way through the game. I was afraid that 52 cards was too many for players to get through. I was shown that it could be too few. This can be fixed with a few additions, but those may come later. I want each game to be different, not just in where or how the sectors get played, but in that the players are treated to new sights the first three or four times they play. There seem to be two directions to test here. The first would be to set a limit on how many sectors can be put out each turn. The other would be to add more sectors to the play deck. I’m leaning towards the latter. Something else to check on the playtest trail.

A few other design notes:

The hex sectors are split up into different groups. They are currently labeled A,B, and C. The original idea was to use these as part of the environment card. Some event only affecting the B sectors and things like that. However, Tiwaz pointed out that this was also a way an explorer might prioritize or categorize the explored area, each designation indicating some sort of availability of resources or building sites. This makes a lot of sense, so here a few ideas that have been bouncing around my head since then.

A — Highly desirable sectors. Most of them have the room and geologically stable ground to build multiple buildings and are home to several resources to take advantage of.

B — The second most desirable sectors, they share many of the same qualities as A sectors; Geological stability, and so forth, but do not have the same abundance of resources or building sites. Most B sectors allow for only one building to be constructed or for one resource to be utilized within its bounds.

C  sectors are hard to navigate due to difficult terrain. These sectors are primarily composed of drifting sands of unknown depths that have caused the robots to become stuck in sand pits. When exploring C sectors players need to roll to see if they become stuck and have to spend an extra action getting themselves unstuck.

D — These are unclassified sectors and often have anomalies associated with them. Anything can be found in a D sector, their contents are scattered and random. These are replaced with a special set of different sector cards when playing this game competitively.

With this sort of setup it becomes easier to adjust the difficulty of the game by adding in or removing certain sectors. But adding in that little complication can come later, after I’ve got the game in a stable, playable state.

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A bit of game commentary

For valentine’s day, I was gifted with Dead Space 2. It has been a fun trip so far, but I find myself getting tired of the story already. This is something which happens to me when playing video games a lot in the last few years. It’s not because the stories aren’t decently crafted or that the world created for the game doesn’t have depth or history. It’s because I can’t change it. I have no control over it. And given that these sorts of games are of the interactive sort, there is an expectation to have control over it.

That is a large part of why I continue to play traditional games, especially role playing games, in addition to video games. There is a level of input I can’t anywhere else. I may not have complete control over it, there are the GM and my fellow players, but together we are crafting it. Together. There isn’t any of that in video games these days despite the technological horsepower to do so.

Dead Space 2 has a wonderful atmosphere, a huge environment to explore and plenty to make you jump and shiver. Set in a orbiting space station cum megalopolis the designers went out of their way to make sure many details of humanity’s occupation are present in the game. The detritus and triumphs of life are everywhere. This was a vital place, something that was alive at one point. And that’s half of the horror. That world is now dying. The dead are littered everywhere and what is alive is attempting to kill you.

Which brings up my frustration with the game. Despite this expansive environment to explore, there is only one path through it. The avatar you’re given on this journey is wearing a space suit. It has rockets located in the legs. He is supposed to be an engineer. Yet your options for travel are severely constrained. See those boxes in your path? Forget about climbing over them! Go through this apartment that you can’t see anything in. Oh, your target is at the top floor of this open space? Forget about scaling the walls or using those rockets to get you up there. Follow this convoluted maze of elevators, rooms, and crawlspaces through the walls instead. Think there might be some way in from the outside? Think again! Blasting out the windows and letting the decompression take you away just ends the game.

Don’t think is argued from ignorance. I know that some of those elevators are stand-ins for load screens. That there is only so much RAM for textures and whatnot to be stuffed in. I know these things. This does not forgive the designers for having planned so singular a story experience that giving the player the ability to find their own way to the objective didn’t seem to have been considered. Part of the exploration of the game must also be the exploration of the possibilities of the game. Having only one path means you have only one possibility. And that is boring.

Speaking of which, I ended playing last night not because I was satisfied with my progress but because I got bored with it. Having traversed my way from a hospital to space-train to hypermall and finally into the belly of a corrupt church I found myself forced into set piece after set piece — achieving nothing and progressing neither the story nor the path. My avatar finally killed by yet another new monstrosity I had no taste to continue. I didn’t care to because there was nothing left to care for and no other path to explore.

I think video game designers need to go back and get some remedial GM training or pick up some of Robin Laws‘ work. If pick-a-path books can give me different ways of reaching the ending, why can’t video games?

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Gaming Needs a Critical Langauge

In the most general sense, Gaming needs to have a Critical Language. Not just for board games, but some theory to encompass all of it. RPGs, Video Games, and everything in between. Gaming has become complex, intricate, and more and more reliant on psychology that simple analysis is no longer sufficient. Genre categorization has become less useful thanks to the blending and mutations that have happened in the last few years. Classic and iconic forms have become so deeply embedded into games as to become unrecognizable to most eyes.

Gaming and Games deserve more. A deeper understanding of the whole. A way to communicate to both the player and designer where what part went right or wrong and how. In saying this, you confront the central problem of any such endeavor; Where does one begin?

Gaming is a complex social activity which stands directly next to story-telling and like it, is probably one of the most basic forms of human interaction. Through games friends and families bond. Through games societies and cultures are expressed and challenged. In board games we find depths of strategy and maps of imaginary worlds to explore. Through RPGs we find the ability to explore our own psychologies and the safety to see if there’s not something else we’d like to be. But mostly we do such things because they’re supposed to be fun. We want some entertainment and respite from our everyday lives.

In this, I think we hit upon the first question that has to be satisfied in any analysis of a game: Was it fun to play?

That’s only the beginning. There is so much more to explore.

Part of having a good critical framework is that it gives you different ways to look at the subject. This means having meaningful categories which help in clarifying and inform about said subject. With games and gaming there are a thousand ways to examine them.  There are games which which rely on cards, ones which rely on dice, some that do both, and many which use neither. Games can use no random elements, games can use only random elements. What is meaningful in all of those differences? Which ones are useful?

And that’s only for a small subset of gaming. Video games are a different sort of game. Those games don’t always necessitate the same sort of interactions and have an entirely different basis of control. Likewise, RPGs have their own conventions and genres which require a separate analysis. None of this gets us any closer to the goal, however.

This leaves me with the impression that whatever happens, creating a critical theory, language, and framework is going to take a good amount of time and no small amount of effort. It is not a small thing, this.

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Legend of the Five Rings, 4th Edition Review

I want to like this edition but I keep finding things about it which draw my attention away from the good parts. Let me be blunt. There is a lot to like about the system. Roll and Keep is intuitive and it gives the player a degree of control over the outcome of things which is sorely missing from many others. The designers went out of their way to give more material than their previous efforts and did their utmost to make as much of it easily playable. And the amount of setting given in this book should give anyone willing to read through it ideas aplenty for their own campaign. Yet in spite of all of this wonderful work, I keep getting tripped up by the few metaphorical runs in the rug.

The following review is broken down into three major sections. Character, Skills, and System representing a brief dive into those areas. I will be concentrating mostly on the changes with respect to the Third Edition rules and an overall impression from the material presented in the book. I have not yet had a chance to run or otherwise use the system but have done several[1] simulated dice rolls with a computer dice program.


Character Creation remains unchanged, which is both good and bad. It is good in that those already familiar with it will be able to jump right in to trying out the new, redesigned Clans and Schools. It is bad in that L5R characters tend to be even more cookie-cutter at the start than any other game I have thus far encountered. Thematically, this fits in well. Rokugani culture is not the Western culture of the Individual. Vary too far outside of what is expected, you may end up like the fence post and pounded on until you do fit in.

In any case, the schools of each clan are what you would expect and don’t vary much from Third Edition. As for the claim that has been repeated by the designers that these Schools and Clans represent an “Iconic” version of them. I am not so certain. Iconic to my mind would mean to stray a bit from having the same set of schools for each Clan or possibly changing out the current schools for something from the Advanced list which deeply embraces the “concept” of the Clan stated succinctly only a few pages before the rules start. If the Crane are so good at diplomacy and intrigue then why is there only one Courtier school available? And why does it lack the charismatic oomph the Clan is famous for?

Advanced schools and alternate paths are an interesting addition but after having examined them I am left wondering what the point was. The Advanced Schools strike me as only half-completed and could have easily been turned into another full school to be included with the rest in the Clans section. Alternate paths seem more like a scattering of ideas which didn’t fit in with anything else and that the designers didn’t want to throw away. Would it have been too much to see these ideas congealed into full blown Schools and placed with the Clans? As it stands, it leaves me with the impression that this was a halfhearted effort to bring some choice to an otherwise dull character system.

Finally, would it be too much to ask for a graphic walk through of character creation or an example of a finished character? There may be caveats that character creation depends on the campaign but having a completed character from each of the character schools (Bushi, Courtier, and Shugenja) would certainly help smooth out many of the conceptual hiccups that those who are unfamiliar with L5R and Rokugan are inevitably going to have.


Skills have undergone a reworking of their core mechanics. Skill Emphasis and Mastery have been changed to remove many static bonus to rolls. Also gone are the Insight bonus given for reaching the higher ranks. In a more positive vein, characters are no longer dinged for having only a single rank in a skill. Buying a skill Emphasis now gives you the ability to re-roll 1s once per skill check instead of adding the rank of the skill to the roll. More about how this impacts the game statically below. Masteries vary but have been standardized to occur at ranks 3,5 and 7. However, their usefulness to characters is questionable at best. Overall, the change to skill rolls is a step to a previous editions. There is little reason for players to invest in their character’s skills beyond buying the initial rank and possibly an Emphsis, if they have the experience to spend. Instead, it appears that players are supposed to be hoarding the experience earned to spend on raising Rings, which now have the greatest impact on all parts of the game.

Masteries also feel restrained in what little bonuses they grant. Many give a token 1k0 bonus, usually at rank 3 or 5. None give any free raises and only a few grant a 0k1 bonus at 7. A couple, exactly two, give an insight bonus. Otherwise, that’s it. Mechanically, this leaves the skills lacking a bite and conceptually hollow. Take the Defense skill, for instance. The rank 7 mastery gives the character the ability to use a simple action while maintaining their defensive stance. Except it can’t be used for an attack. It seems to me that this is less a reward for dedication to the skill and more like an afterthought. If a character gets so good at defending, or looking like they’re defending that it creates the opportunity to attack I fail to see any reason for not letting them do so. I’m not saying that it has to be free of a mechanical penalty, but to specifically call out specifically useful actions as being verboten, as this system does often, it does something to the player’s mentality. I think it makes them want the obvious use more and forces them to seek ways to get around the arbitrariness of the rules.

Worse, I think it causes the careful, thoughtful GM to question the rules they were handed. Forcing them to spend time retooling things which they shouldn’t have to deal with.

After using a computer dice roller to check some statistical calculations, I can’t say I’m happy with where players now stand. The lack of flat bonuses related to the Emphasizes resulted in many more failures than with. What’s even worse is that players are going to be guessing at their effectiveness. Without the flat bonus, you’re tied directly to the whims of the dice — no matter how much or how little the skill has been trained. The distinct lack of predictability strikes me as odd. Having characters who have bothered to train a skill and yet can’t know with any certainty that they are going to be successful? It’s not a good place to be as a GM. In my experience it make players less likely to engage in the sorts of risky behavior needed for heroics, or more likely to lie their way through encounters, or both.

If flat bonuses and free raises were a particular issue, and I’m not convinced that they were, then wouldn’t it have been easier to say that only X amount of bonus or N free raises apply to any given roll? As it stands, the bonuses were arbitrary and making a further arbitrary cutoff doesn’t require an extraordinary leap in logic or justification, the way taking them away does. The flat emphasis bonus also fueled a reason to invest in skills, making them a useful experience sink and gave players another way in which to make their characters unique. The insight bonus at rank 5 gave players a good bang for their experience buck.

The change in fourth edition doesn’t provide this same motivation. If anything, all it tells players to buy as many rank one skills as needed and save the rest to boost rings as fast as they can.

Were I to start a campaign today, I would have to fall back to the previous edition’s rules. This is not to say that 3rd edition skill rules were perfect but they achieved a good balance in the game. There was a motivation for raising them to the higher ranks and gave real reason for investing in more than a token Emphasis. They also gave players an alternate path to advancing their characters’ Insight rank. Despite its faults, that system felt more real and far more intuitive than the new one does. If this is the way to fixing some of the abuses that players used, I remain wholly unconvinced that it is a good, working solution.


Stances provides one of the more interesting aspects of this new version. You get five to chose from, each with a different set of bonuses granted for their use and a couple have restrictions. However, as with the skill Masteries, some of the bonuses seem stingy. For instance the Full Defense stance only gives half of Defense/Reflexes roll to TN to be hit and is pretty much the only thing that character gets to do. Actions have also been tweaked and now come in the standard RPG flavors: Complex, Simple, and Move. Rounds give you a single complex action or two simple with whatever free actions. This doesn’t mean you’re out of luck if what you want to do isn’t already defined in the rules. There are a few maneuvers to pick from which can be executed with additional raises, including another attack. But these come at a steep cost in raises. Again this idea that there were too many free raises or flat bonuses seems to have raised its ugly head.

The dice get a minor reworking as well. As with previous editions, only ten dice are ever used and that for ever 2 dice rolled beyond the first ten, you get to keep an extra. For example 12k4 is turned into 10k5. What is new however is when you already have 10 kept dice, you instead get a bonus of 2 to the roll for every 2 dice kept or rolled beyond the first ten. 12k10 turns into 10k10+2 and 12k14 turns into 10k10+6.


The good: If you liked the previous versions of the L5R system, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this edition as well. Characters can be easily converted as most of the same game is present from previous versions. The roll and keep system, the Clans both great and small, and their respective schools that you’ve had access to before are all there. Casting and spells have gotten a much needed upgrade in ease of use and focus. Combat is given additional depth with the new Stances.

The bad: Uniformity right down to the bonuses given in each school. A quicker attack at rank 3 or 4 for the Bushi. A 5k0 bonus for the Courtiers at rank 5. The exact same list of spells, varied only by element choice. At least the Phoenix gets to pick theirs. There can be such a thing as too much balance and this system blows past that point and heads for a whole new level. Beneath the veneer of flavor text, the Clans and Schools are the same with a lack of rulesy crunch.

The ugly: The new skills rules means that unless your players are good liars, they’re going to be failing more than they did with 3rd. Expect to see a lot of Rank 1 skills once players figure out the statistics don’t change that much with higher ranks and that experience cost to insight ratio is not good at all. With the greater weight put on primary attributes characters are going to look greatly alike and be equally effective no matter the Clan and School.

[1] Methodology: Assumed an “average” roll of 6k3 in both 3rd and 4th editions with an emphasis. Rolled this 15 times. It is of no surprise that 3rd edition rules produced higher totals, a higher average, and a higher median value. What is of particular interest is that of the 12 times that a 1 got rerolled under 4th edition rules, the total was increased only twice. In both times, it was increased by 1 — an 8 was replaced by a 9 and a 5 was replaced with a 6. In no cases did the 4th edition re-roll push the total past a 5 point TN marks. This is opposed to 3rd edition +3 bonus which did push the roll total over a 5 point mark 11 of 15 times. In fact, 6 of the 15 rolls under 4th edition rules came up 1 point short of a 5 point mark. This new re-rolling of 1s may reduce catastrophic failures but it also has the effect of reducing totals.

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My friend Josh Wehner earlier this week posted a review of the new card game Dominion, something I was hoping to get to. He has been kind enough to expound on his original review and provide this strategy guide for this excellent game.

It’s hard to talk about strategy for Dominion in the abstract. Unlike most games, a lot changes between sessions, and even small changes in the pool of available cards amount to big changes in strategy. On the other hand, most players start out with the set of cards recommended for new players, the set of cards under “First Game” in the booklet. This is also the set of cards typically used in demos, so let’s treat that as standard, and then talk a little about where things vary when you swap in the other cards.

Begin at the end

There are two ways that a game of Dominion can end. Most games, especially most games using the standard set, end with the exhaustion of the Provinces (8 coins; 6 Victory Points). To win games, you’ll want to have bought as many of these big, expensive Victory cards as possible. And to make those purchases, you’ll want to tune your deck so that you are able to consistently spend 8 coins on that purchase. In pursuit of the lofty Province, you’ll be looking for big coins, aided by Actions that help you draw extra cards.

However, a game also ends when any three non-Province piles are exhausted. This is a little harder to do in the standard game, but I’ve seen it done. Here, your goal is make multiple buys every turn, ideally buying the same cards round after round until those piles are finished. So, look for cards like Woodcutter that give you more than one Buy each turn. Keep an eye out for cards like Workshop which let you gain a card without buying it. Since you need Action cards to make additional Buys, you should also pick up a few +Action cards, like Village. Market is a great all-in-one purchase here since it gives +Action, +Buy, and coin too. But don’t spread your choices too thin. You need to deplete three piles to end the game, so focus on as few cards as possible.

Any way it goes, don’t forget to buy more Victory Points! Try to keep a running tally of the Victory Points in each player’s deck. It may sound obvious, but remember that you don’t want to end the game if you’re behind in points. While you’re at it, you should be paying attention to the kinds of purchases your opponents are making, looking for clues as to their strategies, and be ready to adapt—if they’re trying to run down three piles, it’s best not to help them!

Your first two hands

There’s a trick to figuring out your first two hands of Dominion because you end up with one of two possible sets of hands. You’ll either have 5 coins in your first hand, giving 2 coins in the second, or 3 coins then 4. This happens because there are 3 Estates and 7 Coppers drawn in hands of 5 cards. So when you pick up your cards you can plan your first two purchases because you know what you’ll be drawing next turn.

So, you’re staring at your first hand. You’ve surveyed the available cards. What do you buy?

If I drew the 5 coin / 2 coin hand, I’d go with a Mine over a Market. The Market is a little slow in the early part of the game, and the Mine is better the earlier you buy it. It’s too early to buy an Estate as it will clog your hand with dead weight. However the Cellar is a really great card. It turns the junk cards in your hand into new cards, and because it gives you another Action, you can still play an Action if you draw one.

However, if your one of your opponents buys a Militia, use your 2 coin hand to buy a Moat. While Moat isn’t quite as good on it’s own, often causing you to draw Actions you can’t play, it’s better than Cellar if the other players are trying to attack your hand. It’s not just that Moat protects you from the Attack, it’s that Cellar just doesn’t work as well with only three cards in your hand.

If you drew the 3 coin / 4 coin hand, you’ve a wide range of options. First-time players tend to make two mistakes on their first buys: ignoring Treasure and avoiding over-paying. Those 10 Action cards make for very tempting targets, but Silver is often a better buy for 3 coins than all the rest. Beginning players tend to see Woodcutter as being strictly better than Silver—it costs the same, provides the same number of coins, and an extra Buy. It’s like you get that +1 Buy for free! But remember that you only get one action each turn. Whenever you draw two Woodcutters in one hand, the extra one is dead weight; Silver can always be spent.

The other common rookie mistake is buying something you don’t really want because you’re afraid of over-spending. A card that costs more isn’t necessarily better. Keep your larger strategy in mind and don’t buy something that doesn’t fit. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with spending 4 coins on a 3 coin card like Silver, Woodcutter, or Village. The combination of cards in your deck is what matters most. Look for cards that go well together even if you over-pay.

So buy a Silver with your 3 coins. If you’re aiming for the Provinces, this will help you quickly build up to 8 coin hands. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for yet, or you want to see what other players are going to do, Silver is a flexible, low-commitment addition to your deck. If, on the other hand, you’re going for the “deplete 3 piles” strategy, a Woodcutter does accelerate your buys and brings along enough coins for an Estate all on his own.

With a 4 coin hand, I’d buy a Smithy if I was using my 3 coin hand for Silver, as it increases the odds that I can draw that extra money in subsequent turns. If I’d bought a Woodcutter for 3 coins, then I’d buy a Village now. Villages make your Action cards better as it gives you 2 extra Actions after you play it, and +1 Card means the Village replaces itself in your hand.

Later turns

If you’re pursuing Provinces you’re trying to build a deck that consistently generates a 8 coin hand. One reliable way to get there is to buy Silver and Gold, but you should diversify a little. Mine lets you trade up one Treasure card for a more valuable Treasure. Smithy draws more cards, getting you closer to 8 coins. Militia slows your opponents down, while you grab more Provinces. You need to maintain a balance of cards in your deck. It’s best to buy Treasure and Actions in the early part of the game and gradually shift to buying more Victory cards as the game moves on.

Alternatively, if you’re trying to deplete three piles, use Woodcutter’s coins and extra Buy to purchase an Estate, while using your own coins to buy additional Woodcutters and Villages. Like the Province strategy you also need to maintain balance, but it’s important for you to end the game before your Province-hungry opponents ramp up to bigger Victory cards. The cards you want, Estate, Village, and Woodcutter, aren’t expensive, and you can still make progress with as little as two Copper in your hand. This strategy depends on speed, so keep on your toes and the game will be over before you opponents know whats hit them.

Whichever route you pursue, remember that it’s easier to fix problems early on, when your deck is small, and you cycle through it more often. The cards you buy in the first third of the game will be played over and over again; the cards you buy later won’t show up as much. If you buy a Moat to defend against your opponent’s Militia, you can’t actually use it until you shuffle it into your deck. It’s best if you can react to your opponents’ purchases, rather than their plays. Buy a Moat when they buy a Militia, instead of waiting until they use it against you.

Other cards

Some of the other Kingdom Cards offer support for strategies you already know, but others offer whole new strategies themselves. Here are some highlights from the base set—if you want to figure the strategies out for yourself, turn away!

Witch puts Curse cards, worth -1 Victory Point into your opponents’ decks and lets you draw extra cards, too. Because Witch gives you +Cards without +Actions, you’ll want to look for +Actions cards like Village or Festival, which you can use to play more Witches each turn. Witch-heavy games can be brutish, with lots of counter-attacks, so pick up a few Moats. Remember that the number of Curse cards must be adjusted to the number of players during setup and that Curses count towards the “any 3 piles” condition that ends the game!

Chapel doesn’t look like much, but it’s one of my favorite cards in the game. Most players avoid Chapel like the plague it seems to be: who’d want to Trash so many cards? The secret to Chapel is that it lets you get rid of worthless cards even as you add better cards to replace them. You’ll have a smaller deck, but it’ll be the cream of the crop, every hand full of Gold. Start by buying Silver and Chapel, then use Chapel to Trash your Coppers and Estates, and keep buying Silver. Soon, you’ll be throwing the Silver away as you buy Gold. A few Gold, in a small deck, makes for fast Provinces.

It’s hard to stop Chapel when it gets going, but you have a few options. One of the best is the Thief, which steals Treasure from your opponents’ decks. Because Chapel has so little cheap Copper, the Thief is more likely to snag their Gold, and because they have such a small deck, the loss of treasure hits especially hard.

Gardens are an antidote and a strategy unto themselves. These are worth 1 Victory Point per 10 cards in your deck. So, if you have 50 cards in your deck, each Garden becomes a discount Duchy. Gardens asks you to build a deck around it, ending the game with a giant pile of cards. Look for cards, like Woodcutter, that grant extra buys, and use every extra buy you gain. (Remember, Coppers cost 0 coins!) Look for cards, like Workshop, that help you pick up as many Gardens as you can. Gardens even turns Curse cards to your advantage.

Remember to re-evaluate cards and strategies as the available card pool changes. It’s a little tricky to win by depleting piles with the standard card pool, but it gets easier when more +Buy cards are available. You might completely dismiss a card like the Village, until you see it putting multiple Witches into play every turn!

The first expansion, Intrigue, is available now, and adds a whole new batch of Kingdom Cards. Many of the cards from Intrigue offer you a choice every time you play them, or combine aspects previously assumed to be separate, like a Victory cards that’s also a Treasure. The second expansion, Seaside, is expected to start shipping in October.

For more information on Dominion and it’s expansions check out the Dominion page at BoardGameGeek. You can even play Dominion online at BrettSpielWelt.

Analyzing Games

Part I: Past Models and Principals

Games and game design are expressive and creative activities which should be placed alongside film, literature, and painting as artistic endeavors. Few people recognize them as such. One thing which seems to keeps games and gaming from being generally accepted as art is that it lacks a critical theory or language. This is not to say that there have not been attempts to do so. This is a brief look at one.

One of the first and arguably the best known is the famous GNS. GNS stands for Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist. These are labels used to identify the major divisions of game design under this theory. According to Wikipedia, the theory was first named in 1997 and is based upon the “Threefold Model” that arose from discussions in the rec.games.frp.advocacy newsgroup. It was further developed by Ron Moore and others on his Indie Games development site, The Forge.

Ron, realizing some of the flaws in the GNS system eventually moved on and formed a new design theory he called “The Big Model”. It is largely concerned with modeling game design in a hierarchical structure and attempts to unify many of the disparate elements which go into the experience of playing an RPG, focusing attention on those parts the designer most desires to bring to the fore.

Both of these theories have their flaws and a number of detractors.

The GNS framework of game design types provides some categorical structure but its usefulness is undermined in that many popular systems are split across its categories. For instance, D&D has a large Simulationist component aside the obvious Gamist portion. Legend of the Five Rings can be classified as somewhere between Gamist and Narritivist because of its heavy reliance on players’ description of actions. About the only pure games according to the GNS method are Simulationist types such as GURPS. This raises questions of its usefulness. Since GNS does not provide a clear classification of gaming systems then analysis can become muddled and confused. Not a desirable artifact when attempting to create a systemic method of analysis.

GNS also lacks a critical language. While Ron Edwards and others have developed and published a sort of glossary it is not restricted to GNS and includes a wide range of lexicon created in the quest for better RPG design.

The Big Model, since it was built on GNS, shares many of these same flaws and is criticized in other ways. Most of the valid criticism is centered on the big assumption of the model. Which is, everyone participating has the same ideas and desires as to the outcome of the story being played through. A demonstrably large flaw considering the prevalence of players known as “griefers” and “munchkins”, both of whom seem to have more fun as individuals and often at the expense of the groups’ experience.

Game design, especially for RPGs, is not an easy task. The designer is asked to examine many different aspects of human interaction and come up with a system that allows everyone taking part a chance at having fun. Analysis of those ephemeral parts which go into the experience and fun is even harder. It should be of no surprise that the first major theories of RPG design have serious flaws.  But, and this is the important part, these represent the first steps towards that much needed critical theory. It started the conversation, one that in future entries I will continue.

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