Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cold Night, Warm Glow

As the warmth of the Christmas holiday fades and we march on towards the cold heart of winter, I am reminded of one of my favorite wintertime activities: playing a video game all night long.

As the winter chill settles in, some people might look forward to reading a good book, curled up next to a fire with a cup of warm cocoa. Nice I suppose. Others eagerly anticipate the opportunity to strap boards to their feet and see how fast they can fly down a mountain without hitting trees. Exciting, I’m sure.

For me, the best way to pass the long winter hours is to find a good, long video game and get lost within its digital world for hours on end. True this is something I might enjoy at any time of the year, but there’s something truly comforting about the warm glow of a screen, the bright colors of a fantastical world, and the raw excitement of lands beyond, that really rids the winter chill from my bones.

What's The Best Wintertime Game?
As I pondered this question, I realized it had a relatively simple answer: role-playing games. Role-playing games usually provide long hours of play in fun fantastical worlds. Question answered. Done. Goodnight, folks!

But then, will just any old role-playing game due to stave off the winter doldrums? With RPGs being so diverse lately, what exactly is it about RPGs that really makes playing them pass the wintertime to well? I concluded that games which entertain me for long winter hours need three important components.

A Beautiful World
Fallout 3 was a fun game, but it wasn’t perfectly suited to my wintertime desires. Its post-apocalyptic setting managed to be interesting often, but beautiful rarely. Now this winter I find myself uninterested in diving into Fallout New Vegas. Maybe I’ll it try out this spring. After the Christmas lights come down, the winter landscape can be pretty bleak here in the Northwest. Snow is a rare beauty. Most of the time its wet, dirty, and gray. I need a game that has a vibrant world, bursting with color that gives me a nice mental vacation from the gray and brown blah I will be seeing outside my door for the next few months.

Here is where Final Fantasy XIII has utterly failed me. It has wonderful, vibrant landscapes…that I entirely ignore. They are a wholly unconvincing mask dressing up the endless corridor that I am forced to run down in that game. To get really lost in a game world and to feel the chill of a January night fade from my perceptions, I need to have a world to explore. I need uncharted paths, interesting sights and rewards lurking around unmarked corners. This way I can ignore, for a bit, the drear outside my door and pretend to be somewhere else for while.

Clarity and Distraction
This one is harder to pin down. It's sort of an unknowable quality I will attempt to describe. To sustain long hours of play and keep me completely engaged, a game has to have the right rhythm. It has to suck me in right at the start, push me into a grand adventure, and then quickly open up and distract me from the quest in a delightful way.

I need areas to explore, but I always want to be clear exactly where I need to go once I’m ready to push forward with the story and see someplace new. I don’t want to be forced to ignore the main quest. I don’t want the whole story to shove off onto some random tangent. I want something fun and interesting in the world to invite me to go play, explore, and ignore the grand concerns of the main quest for awhile without making me feel bad that I’m holding off on saving the universe from its terrible plight.

Then I want that main quest to call back to me. To be reminding that there was an interesting question I needed to answer. To be assured that once I’ve exhausted my interest in my current whereabouts, all I need do is tackle the next main quest (which I should be able to find and accomplish with relative ease) and I will be greeted with a new area and new delights to see.

The Old Fav: Dragon Quest VIII
So which game do I rate the best for getting me through the winter months? The current reigning champion is Dragon Quest VIII. I opened up for exploration right from the start while having the simple goal of “get to that cave over there.” It had a ton of different areas, beautiful landscapes and funny characters. Mind you, I’m biased. It also the magical effect of distracting and calming my newborn daughter. For over 100 wintry hours it helped me forget my stress, have a break from fussing, and just enjoy a grand adventure.

The Current Hope: Fable III
Fable III. Colorful world, places to explore, funny characters and for once I’m going in with no crazy expectations. I haven’t seen any hype for the game. I don’t know what new feature of the game Peter Molyneux has said will change the face of gaming as we know it; so he has no power to disappoint me. The game’s designer possesses a legendary habit of overhyping his good games so that they couldn’t possibly meet anyone’s expectations. The first two Fables were both brilliant and disappointing. Still, my hope springs eternal and there’s not much else out these days for the RPG fan hoping to find a world of fun and beauty.

Oh Ye Seekers…
…of warmth and magic on a cold, winter’s night, leave a comment and let me know if there’s something you’ve played or are playing that staves off the frosty chill. Even if it’s not an RPG, I would love to know what games ease away the hours and keep you smiling through the long nights and freezing weather. Also, please check out our friends at Growing Up Games for their perspective on a game that’s fun to play for hours.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Spirit of Cooperative Games

In the spirit of the holiday season I wanted to approach the subject of cooperative games. Specifically, I wanted to talk about my favorite cooperative game. One stark realization came up, however, as I continued to ponder the issue of which co-op games I liked. It occurred to me that though I have enjoyed playing co-op games from time to time, they are actually kind of terrible.

Do I Even Like These Games?
Stating that co-op games suck seems strange to me because there are co-op games that I like. I like Lord of the Rings, Ghost Stories, Shadows Over Camelot, and even Castle Ravenloft a little bit. There are other fun co-op games as well, but do I actually like these games? Do I really? Actually, what I like is to play together with my friends, where we are all working together on the same side to solve problems and have fun. I love this so much, that I am willing to play mediocre and bad board games simply because they facilitate this basic experience. They don’t facilitate it all that well, but it’s better than nothing and better than jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles are boring.

Why Co-op Board Games Suck So Badly
The basic problem with any co-op board game is that it’s trying to use basic rules to create a manufactured opponent for the players. The game’s trying to simulate a real opponent like the bad guys in video games. Video game programmers can use thousands of lines of code all hidden from the player to make the bad guys react as though they were real opponents working against you. The illusion works pretty well.

A board game demands that the operational code for the forces of darkness be up front (because the players are going to have to track it themselves) and relatively simple (because the players are incapable of making thousands of computations per minute like a computer). This usually means you end up with a stupid opponent who is granted enough unfair advantages to make things challenging. Randomly occurring problems are thrown in to make the idiot less predictable. There is no illusion. The bad guys are just a set of game mechanics that are made obvious to everyone.

The Tried And True Solution
The classic solution to this co-op dilemma is to have one player actually take on the role of the antagonist. The game is entirely cooperative for everyone except for the one player who is in charge of presenting a challenge for the players and sometimes even actively trying to defeat them. This is how role-playing games like D&D handle it. This also how it is handled in Descent, Betrayal At The House On The Hill, Last Night On Earth, and lots of other games. It works well. It lets most of the players work together and presents them with a real thinking opponent. These games are more fun their purely co-op counterparts because they present the players with strategic challenges, not just stacked odds and random events. Of course, the problem is that they still aren’t entirely cooperative. Someone has to be the odd one out and at least one player is going to lose the game.

The Co-op That I Love
This is one area where video games just do it better. Co-op video games are generally better experiences than co-op board games. If I am entirely honest, I would say my favorite co-op game at the moment is Super Mario Bros Wii. It’s incredibly fun for four players to run around, bash into each other, help out, get in the way, grab power-ups, ride Yoshi, and gang up on the poor Koopa Kids. The levels are quick and entertaining to watch. It’s easy to have a large group of people just trade of play between levels. Super Mario Bros Wii has provided some of the best times I’ve had playing a game cooperatively with friends.

If I had to pick a board game, I’d cheat and pick Betrayal At The House On The Hill. This game starts out cooperatively, but at some point a random event forces one player to become the bad guy. One of about 50 scenarios is revealed and the players find out mid-game the plot of the story and which one of them is going to play the villain. Being the traitor can be a delightful bit of mayhem and the game moves fast enough that you really don’t get too upset if you lose. Betrayal has serious style and enough variety that it’s never the same story twice in a row. It’s a bit of cheat to call it co-op because one player ends up the bad guy, but it’s close enough to count in my book.

Keeping The Dream Alive
Just because video games handle the mechanics of cooperative gaming better than board games doesn’t mean I don’t still like co-op board games. There’s a magic to sitting around a table with friends that video games just don’t capture. Someday, perhaps, someone will find a way to make a board game that’s entirely cooperative, but still presents players with an interesting and adaptive challenge. Until then, I will continue to play and enjoy all the muddled missteps and honorable attempts. Despite their flaws, they remain entertaining because they are built upon an irrefutable truth: it is good to play together.

Happy Holidays everyone! This will be my last post until after Christmas. Please feel free to leave comments about your own co-op experiences. For a different take on the best cooperative games, check out our friends at Growing Up Gamers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Top 5 Games I Want To Play With My Kids

As a gamer dad, there is a long list of games that I love to play that I am looking forward to playing with my kids when they are old enough. Of course, there’s no telling for sure my kids will end up loving games as much as I do, but a dad can hope. So far my daughter seems to love games. Operation, Connect 4, Memory, Guess Who, and Candy Land are among her current favorites. I enjoy playing these games with her, but I also look forward to the day we can both enjoy games with a little complexity. Here’s my top 5.

1.Dungeons and Dragons
This one I might actually be able to do sometime soon. My daughter has a very active imagination and you can run a simple game of D&D where the players don’t have to worry all that much about the rules. I love roleplaying games and I hope that my daughter will love them as well. She loves making up stories and playing pretend so it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

2. Cards
A repeat from my top 5 cheap games to play. Card games are a family tradition for me. If my daughter grows up without knowing how to shuffle cards, how to take a trick, or what a trump card means then I will have been a failure as a father. I’m not sure what game to start her out on though. War is probably the easiest game to introduce a kid to cards, but it has the slight problem of being an awful game that’s incredibly boring. I didn’t even like it as kid. If anyone out there knows a great card game for a 5 year old that isn’t War, please let me know in the comments.

3. Cooperative Video Games
This one is almost entirely selfish. Games like Super Mario Bros Wii, Castle Crashers, or even teamed up Smash Bros against the computer are lot of fun. However, I rarely ever play video games when friends are over. I am hopeful, however, that if my daughter likes video games enough, I will have a partner in crime that I can play Co-op games with. I have fond memories of playing basketball with my dad and other sports. For my turn at parenting, I would like to pass on my love of video games and look back on memories of many a monster defeated together.

4. Settlers of Catan
Now those of you paying attention to both blogs may note that over at Growing Up Gamers, Katie, who is my daughters age, has already played and reviewed Settlers of Catan. I have not yet tried to play Settlers with my daughter, but from playing other games with her I do not think she has enough focus for it yet. Settlers of Catan is one of the few games I can consistently get my wife to play and I am looking forward to introducing it to my daughter soon. A game we can play as a family together (and not one that we just play for my daughter) would be a wonderful thing indeed.

5. Pokemon
The card game, the video games, you name it. I am excited that my daughter seems to be getting into Pokemon. I have never played a Pokemon game. It’s not something I would ever try on my own. However, I’ve always thought they were kinda cool. This is the game I am probably most excited to try with her when she’s ready. Right now she’s definitely into Pokemon. If that continues, it will be fun to try out games that are both new and exciting to my daughter and to me. Part of the fun of being a parent is being able to get goofy and excited about things you want to like but are clearly for kids. The idea of having little monsters as pets that you get to train to fight is awesome, but Pokemon has always been a little cutesy for me. Seeing the little monsters through my daughters eyes, I am excited to let myself act like a little kid again…if only for the length of a few games.

I hope you enjoyed the list. Please comment and share the games you are hoping to play with your kids or stories of games you’ve already played with your kids. Also, please check out Growing Up Gamers and their Top 5 list.

A comprehensive survey of two online blogs (mine and theirs) has revealed that D&D is the #1 game people hope to play with their children.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Top 5 Cheap Games

This post will be entirely about board games. Video game prices can fluctuate widely depending on how you get a hold of them. There are thousands of freeware video games out there and if you're looking for them, 1up.com has an annually updated 101 free games on the web that you should check out.
Still, now that they are no longer printing Cheap Ass games anymore, what's a game to do for a bit of new fun when the budget is low. Here are my top 5 Cheap Games in no particular order. (In other words, they are my five favorite but #1 isn't necessarily my most favoritist one the bunch.)

1. Werewolf
Cost: Free
Players: 9 or more
Werewolf is a party game where a couple of players are werewolves eating the villagers and the rest of the people are villagers trying to lynch werewolves to stay alive. It is a game of deception and fun that I have played for many hours of enjoyment. One of these days I will do a write up of my version of the rules. Until then, here's a printable free set that looked alright.

2. The Great Dalmuti
Cost: $15
Players: 4-8 (but 6-8 is best).

The Great Dalmuti is a card game. The deck has 1 card of value 1, 2 cards of value 2, 3 cards of value 3 all they way up to 12 cards of value 12. Lower numbers beat higher numbers. All the cards are dealt out and players try to empty their hands. Each round plays until every person but one has emptied their hand. The first person to go out is the Dalmuti. The Dalmuti gets to pick the best chair in the room to sit in, gets a few bonus cards, and gets to act like a pompous ass and ask people to get him or her drinks. The person who didn't go out is the Greater Peon (or piss boy as we like to call it sometimes). This person has to shuffle cards, give good cards away and possibly run some errands for the Dalmuti. Round after round, people keep playing, status' change, people move to new chairs and go again. Its a simple mechanic that can go on for hours if people can let themselves have a little fun with it.

3. Mancala
Cost: Free (Though you can buy an actual board for $10-20
Players: 2

Mancala is an ancient and classic board game. They sell sets of it all over the place and they are usually pretty cheap. That said, I once made a Mancala board for free in less than 10 minutes by digging 12 holes in the dirt and gathering 40 little gravel sized rocks. Mancala is a game where players pick up stones from a bin and redistribute them around in a circle, capturing 1 stone every time they get to put one in there scoring bin. The person with the most stones at the end wins. There are few more rules than that, but overall it is very simple, highly strategic, and fairly entertaining even after multiple play throughs.

4. Magic The Gathering
Cost: About $20
Players: 2+

Now this one probably sounds crazy. As a collectible card game, Magic can cost you hundred and hundreds of dollars over the course of a year if you try to buy a fair chunk of cards from each new set. So why call this a cheap game? Well, your personal lack of self-restraint isn't the issue here. We're just talking how much it costs to actually start having some fun. Magic has a Deck Builders Toolkit for around $20 that will easily let you build a couple of decks and start playing. There are Duels of the Plainswalker sets for about $25 that will give you some really decently matched decks to play. Also, there are many game stores that will sell single commons for around $.o5 a piece and I've seen lands from $.01 to around $.10. So 24 land ($2.40) and 46 hand picked commons ($2.30) means that for around $20 you could easily build 4 decks to play with your friends. They won't be the most powerful decks ever but they will probably be evenly matched and still fun to play. Magic the Gathering can become an expensive habit if you're not careful. However, it's still incredibly cheap to jump in and play one of the best games ever made.

5. Cards
Cost: $1 (you can be pay more, but most dollar stores carry a deck)
Players: Highly variable depending on the game.

This may seem ridiculous to mention, but I think many gamers overlook it when searching for something new to play. A standard deck of playing cards is the greatest piece of gaming equipment ever invented. It has access to thousands of games. Way more than any Playstation or Xbox. The rules for most cards games can be easily found online and there is a large variety of different types of card games to try. My personal favorite card games are: Hearts, Oh Hell, 500, Poker, Red/Black, and Bullshit.

Please leaves a comment and let me know what cheap games you love to play. My friends at Growing Up Gamers should be posting on this topic as well if you want to check out their perspective.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Playing The Game Your Way

One of my favorite things to do in any kind of game is to find my own way to play it. In board games, this usually comes in the form of a house rule or an unspoken code of etiquette. In video games this usually involves finding a bug, an exploit or just deciding to achieve goals not stated in the game.

Why Bend The Rules?
Finding new ways to play a game not only keeps the game feeling fresh, it's empowering. There is a real sense of accomplishment when you design a house rule that makes a game more fun or find an exploit that makes a difficult section of a game much easier. In video games, choosing a goal for yourself can also be a way to add challenge without getting frustrated.

For Example, Mario Games
When playing any of the 3D Mario games, I usually challenge myself to see where I can triple jump or long jump to without hopping along the guided path. It makes the game harder, but more satisfying when I beat a level. If it ever gets too frustrating, I can simply stop playing that way. The game isn't making things hard on me, I am. As a result, I tend to train myself to make difficult jumps early on when it's easier. It has the added effect of making the harder levels towards the end not such a daunting challenge.

Final Fantasy Tactics Multiplayer
This was one of my all time favorite instances of changing a game and playing it the way my friends and I wanted to play. The original Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation was not a multiplayer game. While some Final Fantasy games allowed a second player to sort of lamely control a character or two in battle with a second controller, FF Tactics did not even include this option. However, FF Tactics did have turn based, tactical battle system where you controlled 5 characters at once (a main character and then 4 other random class based characters).

The most fun I've ever had playing that game was playing it 4 player with my friends. We each decided on one of the random characters in the party to be "ours." We passed the controller around so that we could each make a move for our character. When it came time to level up, we each leveled up our character how we saw fit. We coordinated our classes to compliment each other. We discussed group tactics on the battlefield. We decided by committee what the main character should do and how he should develop. It was an incredibly satisfying way to play and more effective than playing by myself. When I played the game the first time by myself, I barely beat the last boss after a long and grueling battle. When we we played as a group we beat the last boss before he actually got to hit any of us.

A Noble Pursuit
I think there is often a reluctance to start making house rules to board games and modern video games are getting better and better at leading players down a set path. It's important to remember that no one that designed the game you are playing was thinking about you and your friends. The designers don't know you. If a game you like has a few rules that just grate on your nerves a bit, change the rules. If a video game you are playing gets a bit stale, see what you can think of to spice it up or challenge yourself. You know what you enjoy, the designers were just guessing at it. Try out your ideas and your friends ideas to add some fun to a game. Games can be more fun for everyone when you take a chance, and play your own way.

Feel free to share house rules and game tweaks you have enjoyed. And check out my friends at Growing Up Gamers as they discuss an intricate twist on Magic the Gathering that sounds like lots of fun.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Great RPG Settings: Mage the Ascension

In yet another partner blog with Growing Up Gamers, we are discussing our favorite role-playing game settings. It took me awhile to mill it over, but Mage the Ascension ekes out the win.

What Is Mage?

Mage uses the storyteller system from White Wolf games and its setting is a part of their World of Darkness. It takes place in the modern world but in a version of our world where werewolves, vampires, fairy folk, and mages exist in the shadows just beyond the perception of most normal people. White Wolf, the company that made Mage, also made Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf the Apocalypse, and Changeling the subtitle I don't remember right now. Presumably all of these fantastical creatures exist in the same world, but the games were independent enough that you usually played Mage without really dealing with all the other crazy critters.

Who Do You Play?
Basically, in Mage, you play an awakened person. You were a regular Joe or Jane walking around living a life when suddenly you awakened into a world much different than you knew. In this world, you discovered you could shape reality through force of will alone. However, when you push reality to its limits, there are forces that push back. One is the Technocracy. A super technological shadow government type of organization that wants to shape reality around the demands of technology. The Technocracy is basically a super-evil, fantastical big brother conspiracy.

The other force that pushes back is reality itself. The sleepers (that's what the game calls people who aren't awakened...sort of like Muggles for you Harry Potter fans) have a certain view of reality. Mages can make slight alteration to that reality without causing too much trouble. However, when they make big changes, the combined consciousness of the sleepers pushes back in the form of paradox that can undo the mages effects and undo the mage as well if he is not careful.

Mage Makes Magic Fun
Part of what makes Mage so fun is that there are no set spells. You put points into different ways you can alter reality. You might be able to alter the patterns of life or manipulate time or the forces of nature for example. However, instead of casting a polymorph spell or a fireball, you the player describe the effect you are trying to create and then roll dice to see if it worked. It allows for a truly magical feeling of freedom and creativity as you get to decide exactly how you would like to alter the reality around you.

Fantastical Reality Is The Best of Both Worlds
The greatest reason I love mage is that it presents a fantastical modern reality that's fun to play with. Fantastical reality settings are rich and entertaining because they can draw from all the bountiful detail that the real world provides, but then color over the worlds more common parts with a veneer of magic and phantasm. Fantastical realities have become very popular lately. Harry Potter, Lost, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Heroes are all examples of popular movies or shows that layered fantasy or sci-fi on top of the regular modern world.

When playing mage, I have the most fun when I take pieces of the real world and weave them into my character's crazy story. For example, it is true that right before they made it big, the bassist for the grudge band Alice in Chains left the band due to creative differences. The last time I played, I played that bassist. In my version, he didn't leave the band because of creative differences. He left because he had awakened as a mage and used hit musical talents to go fight evil beyond the ken of normal men.

For another exciting setting to play around with, check out Growing Up Gamers take on the fantastical world of the Iron Kingdoms!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Favorite Board Game Mechanic: Negotiation

In another topic shared between myself and the fine folk at Growing Up Gamers, I am tackling the subject of favorite board game mechanic. The problem is, a good game is more than the sum of it's mechanical parts and no single mechanic really stands out as better than another. It just takes so much more than one specific mechanic to make a board game good, and just because a particular kind of rule works for one game does not mean that it will work in other games.

So where does that leave me answering this question? It leaves me with negotiation.

What is Negotiation?
Call it bluffing, negotiation, table talk, whatever you will. It's not precisely a game mechanic. Most games that have negotiation don't have a rule that says "and now you negotiate." At best they might call it something else like trading or allying. However, in some games a players ability to talk and negotiate with other players is a very important part of the game. These moments don't happen by accident.

Games Can Encourage or Hinder Negotiation
Even though negotiation is rarely stated directly in the rules, games has ways of providing opportunities for table talk to have an important impact on the game. It occurs in Monopoly when people trade properties and sometimes when they have to pay rent. It occurs in war games when one player begins to attack another. It occurs in Settlers of Catan when people trade resources, move the robber, and even when they build roads. Games encourage negotiation when they do one of two things. First, if a game makes players need something from their fellow players to be successful, players will negotiate. Second, if a player can choose attack or hinder one but not all of his or her opponents, players will negotiate. That second one is particularly key. Two player battle games almost never have negotiation and battle games with three or more players often have negotiation. Take Magic the Gathering for example.

Magic the Gathering...for example

If you are playing Magic one on one, there is no reason to negotiate. Your goal is to defeat your opponent and your opponent's goal is to defeat you. You will each choose the moves that you think will put you in as little risk as possible while hurting your opponent as much as possible.

When playing magic with 3 or more players, negotiation is required. You still need to defeat everyone else, but no one person is strong enough to take on all of the other players at the same time. Part of your strategy must be to convince your opponents to attack each other once in a while. You opponents, in turn, have an incentive to consider what you say because they need to convince you to attack someone besides them. In essence, though only one player can win, all players need the help of their opponents to actually be successful in the game.

Why Negotiation Is So Good
This is what I like about negotiation. It steps outside of the strict rules of the game and encourages players to get creative...and conniving. It encourages social interaction and can be very empowering for the players that are successful at it. Furthermore, it's a skill that works the same way across all games that have it. While most games have strategies that are particular to the specific mechanics of the game, building a good argument is pretty much the same no matter where you are doing it.

A game can be very good without allowing much negotiation. Dominion, for example, is a game that I love that goes out of its way to avoid negotiation. Still, the moments in a game where you get the needed resources, ward off impending danger, or steer your way toward victory through little more than wit and charisma alone are some of my favorite moments in gaming.

For fun discussion of good game mechanics, check out Growing Up Gamers for another take on the topic.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Sister Blog Joins the Cause

My family of friends over at the Newnham household have started their own blog about games called Growing Up Gamers. A fun blog where their entire family will share differnet perspectives on gaming. To encourage us all to actually write and produce content, we are challenging each other to write on similar topics on similar days. Blog entries that have a counterpart in their blog I will mark with a (GUG) and try to include a link to their post. Today is the first shared topic and the topic is…Awesome Video Game Moment. Enjoy.

Awesome Video Game Moment: Deus Ex

The Game
Deus Ex is a first person shooter/RPG set in a dystopian cyberpunk future. You play an agent that works for a fairly shady government agency. There are lots of story choices in the game primarily revolving around whether you want to be a good little agent and follow orders or whether you’d rather ultimately go against your current employer’s seemingly immoral objectives.

The Moment
Your character is in an airplane hangar talking to a suspected terrorist who knows something about your brother. Your partner shows up and demands that you kill the man on the spot. The man is badly hurt but continues to talk and your partner continues to tell you to kill him. The only options the game is really indicating are that you can wait for your partner to finish him off or kill the guy yourself. I didn’t like either option. In a fit of frustration at the bloodthirsty AI partner, I decided to shoot my partner instead. I didn’t expect the game to even register this action. If it did, I assumed it would just have her make an irritated remark about watching where I shoot. Instead, she promptly dropped dead. I had spared the dying man enough time to finish his story and got to learn something more about my brother.

The Awesome
I loved this moment because it was the first time (and really one of the few times ever) that I felt like I went off the game’s script, but the designers let me do it anyway. Clearly I wasn’t actually off script. It wasn’t a bug in the game. The designers had clearly programmed the possibility of her getting shot in that moment. In fact, it’s a bit of trickery because if you try to kill her at any other point she does just make an annoyed response about watching where you fire. However, in this moment, I was fully engaged and believing that I had just made a real choice. Not selected an option that the game had given me, but a true, from the gut choice and the game world had reacted appropriately. It was also the first time a game really let me decide to keep or remove a character from the story line.

Getting The Moment Back
I think this is a type of moment that lots of games should strive to achieve. It’s tempting to let the player know explicitly every option that is available. The fear, of course, is that if you don’t, a large portion of players may never even see certain content. Still, it is worth endeavoring to achieve at least a few moments in your game where real, meaningful story options are available even though the game doesn’t list them clearly amongst your options. If a game manages to get players to choose these unlisted options, it means the designers have succeeded in something really wonderful. They made the player just feel that the course of action was the right thing to do. The design of the game was elegant enough to trick the player restrained to the rules of the game world into believing they were actually in a world where they possessed true freedom of choice.

GUG Perspective --> Check out our friends at Growing Up Gamers who tackle this topic with more of a personal, family touch. Please share you thoughts and comments on both blogs.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Civilization Revolution: A Very Late Review

Civilization Revolution (or Civ Rev) is one of the best strategy video games I have ever played. It has been out for a couple of years now I believe and it is available for the Xbox, PS3 and the Nintendo DS. Like civilization games before it, Civ Rev has the player pick a civilization and raise that civilization out of ancient times all the way to the modern era. Unlike other Civilization games, Civ Rev lets you do it in a matter of a few hours.

Even though I have owned Civ Rev since it came out, I still play it from time to time. Every match has exploration, combat, city development, tech development and randomized terrain to keep things interesting. There are sixteen different civilizations each with their own special powers and iconic leader. In addition to adding variety, this allows for some very amusing situations. I particularly enjoy the notion of playing as “ancient” Americans,and I absolutely love it every time Gandhi informs me that my civilization must be destroyed.

Civ Rev strikes the perfect balance between depth and approachability. On the lowest difficulty, a novice player can be successful on the very first match and get a good feel for the game. However, Civ Rev has enough variety that I have enjoyed playing it for hundreds of hours. My only real gripe with the game is that while it offers you four ways to win (Domination, Cultural, Scientific, or Economic) I have found a single strategy that seems to work the absolute best regardless of which way I want to win. This is a small complaint, however, since it still took me many hours of play to devise my strategy and still requires skill and thought to implement it successfully.

For anyone that’s a fan of strategy games or just enjoys games that you build and explore, I highly recommend you pick up Civilization Revolution. It’s one of the best games available on any console.

**SPOILERS** MY Civ Rev Strategy **SPOILERS**
I highly recommend that you DON’T read this section unless you’ve played Civ Rev for awhile and are just looking for some advice on how to win on the higher difficulties. If you haven’t played much Civ Rev yet, this won’t make any sense and might ruin the fun of early exploration and discovery with the game. Try to find your own strategies first. Then, if you get frustrated, try this. This what I do to win Civ Rev. (Please note, I don’t play online competitive. This is strictly a method for defeating the computer at any difficulty level).

At The Start
Put both workers on production until you have made 2 Warriors. This will take 5 turns. Then put both workers on food. Do not ever take them off food again for the rest of the game. Population is the most important asset to a city and you want it to grow steadily for the entire game.

What to do with your Warriors
Explore. Always offer to be peaceful with other civilizations. Your goal is to get a feel for the land around you and pick up enough bonuses from Barbarians and villages that you get an early game advantage. Hopefully, you will also get at least 100 gold from exploration so that you get a free settler.

Early City Growth
As your city gains population, always put each new worker on sea square to earn tech (not gold). Do not put anyone on production after you have your initial warriors. Only put workers on production once all of the tech earning squares are filled.

Early Tech
Tech is the key to winning the game. You need to get ahead in tech and stay ahead so that you can earn the very helpful bonuses that come with discovering teach first. Using this strategy you will lose out on being the first to build some of the early tech. That’s okay. However, you want to be gaining those bonuses by the 3rd or 4th tier at the latest.

Your early goal is to get to Mathematics first. Mathematics gives you Catapults and these will be the best attacking units in the game for the majority of the game.

The First Kill
If you have a lot of space to yourself, you can avoid this for quite a while. However, if you have a nearby neighbor, you need to kill them as soon as you get catapults. As soon as you’ve got a Catapult Army (3 Catapults joined together) walk them towards your nearest enemy. Make sure you guard them with a defensive army. Destroy the enemy cities and wipe them off the board (or at least clear them well out of your area). Now put some defensive units at some good choke points to section off your area and stop fighting.

The Continuing Tech Strategy
There are a variety of ways to get to all sorts of tech, but here are the main teach to go grab.
· Literacy: Gives science bonus for being there first and you will need courthouses to do well.
· Engineering: Gives +1 bonus to production in each city for first discovery
· Invention: Gives a free great person for first discovery and Leonardo’s Workshop is key.
· Steam Power: Good for exploration, finding Atlantis, and Naval Support for invasions.
· Railroad: Gives +2 production in each city for first discovery. Very Helpful.
· Combustion: Tanks are one of the two best units in the game and very fast.
· Automobile: Artillery Units are the other best unit in the game. Guard them with tanks.

Tech To Avoid
Do not bother getting the following tech.
· Bronze and Iron Working: Pick up Bronze Working on the cheap later in the game if you need defensive units and you haven’t gotten to something better yet. Iron Working and Legionnaires are for chumps like the computer. Use Catapults.
· Ceremonial Burial and Religion: Temples are really important later but this tech will automatically back fill once you get to a certain point. You don’t really need Temples early on.
· Currency and Banking: Not needed early on and you will earn these for free once you get your money to certain levels which you will accomplish by being a mad tech building fool who gets bonus money after researching tech.
· Navigation: Wait for Steam Power.
· Feudalism: Knights are for chumps. They are just slightly more mobile Catapults that cost more.
· Everything on the Upper 5 Tiers that isn’t Mentioned Above: Your goal is to get to Combustion and Automobile. Everything else is a useless distraction.

And Now For The Win
If you’ve been making smart moves and staying ahead in tech growth, your Tanks and Artillery will pretty much destroy anything your enemies can muster. If Leonardo’s Workshop is still available, build it now to upgrade your catapults into artillery. (Actually, preferably, you’re your construction of this wonder so that it complete just a few turns after you’ve discovered automobile technology. Additionally, you should have really good production from Iron Mines and production bonuses from getting Engineering and Railroads.

Now you get to make a decision. You can slog across the board and wipe everyone out, or you can post tank/artillery combos at strategic defensive points.

For a domination, obviously you choose the first option and you go kill everyone. It won’t take long at this point. Your artillery units will easily destroy even groups of Riflemen.

If you don’t want a domination victory, you just use the artillery units to defend against any army foolish enough to approach and use your superior production to build the things you need for different victory types.

For tech, You should already be the tech lead so you can just keep plugging away and win the tech victory.

For culture, start building temples and wonders. The Magna Carta and Shakespeare’s theatre are some important Wonders to get. You will quickly begin to attract great people and flip nearby cities.

For economic victory, keep your main city or two plugging away at tech. Every time you discover a new tech it will also give you some money from whatever science production wasn’t needed for the tech. Switch every other city to gold production. Build markets and banks and watch the money roll in.

Final Notes
Here are few other important details.

Cities: Build exactly 2. Your initial city, and the one you get with your free Settler (which you receive for earning 100 gold). That’s it. That’s all you need. You’ll get a few more cities to play with from your initial Catapult rampage as well.

Government: Democracy. This isn’t even a discussion. All other governments give a cute, kinda helpful, bonus. However, +50% science/gold production is the absolute best bonus to be had. Period.

Troop Building: I build 2 warriors. Then I build a catapult army or two and defensive armies to back them up. Then I will build 1 or 2 tank armies when they become available and use Leonardo’s Workshop to upgrade my Catapult armies into 2 Artillery Armies. If often don’t build any more troops than that. I get 1 free Cruiser as bonus for being first to Steam Power and 1 free Battleship from being the first to Steel tech. I don’t ever build a galley though it’s fun when you get one for free from a Barbarian village.

Troop Abilities: Give troops Blitz whenever you can. If that’s not an option, give them Infiltration or March. If you have to choose between Guerrilla or Medic, curse the game for giving you useless choices. Defensive unit abilities aren’t that important. If you are using your Catapults and Artillery correctly, you should rarely need to defend.

And that's about it. Full production to two warriors then full workers to population. Each new worker to goes to tech. Head as fast as you can towards Combustion and Automobile making sure you are first to Engineering and Railroad along the way. Then decide how you want to win. It can seem pretty straight forward once you get familiar with this strategy, but the computer will usually present you with enough surprises and curve balls to make it interesting. The main challenge comes from avoiding combat until you get your catapults up and running. I hope this advice helps any players who still struggle to win a victory on Deity level difficulty.

Delay Of Goal Due Weather

A quick update. While Cool Factor 5 is pretty close to being ready for a playtest, I am pushing back my own deadline by one week. Some people I would like to be a part of the playtest were a little busy this week and I’ve been under the weather all week.

Next weekend is my birthday weekend and I will playtest my game them.