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I like Lovecraft.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I like the idea of Rogue-like games. The last game I reviewed, Slay the Spire, is the first Rogue-like I’ve enjoyed, and it was card based.  So, when I saw a game on sale for early access, that was billed as a Lovecraftian, card based, Rogue-like, I pounced.

The game is both less and more than I’d hoped.  I’m still not even sure if I enjoy it… but that might be because it is tedious and maddening.  I die or go mad repeatedly, but still I return. Kind of like Lovecraft.

The format of the game is an odd mix. It is like one of those combination and creation games; try putting different things together and you’ll create more advanced concepts/items/etc.  Yet it also has sort of a Diner Dash feel to it: you are putting cards into timer slots to have them do their work/combine them. And then lastly it is a Rogue-like… I guess.  There are no levels, so that’s somewhat different from most.  But still, there are multiple resources that are all scarce.

The game starts quite simply. You have a single timer: work. Most of the various character backgrounds start with a job of some sort. As you go about your work, the narrative unfolds. The Time timer (hehe) starts, demanding periodic money to keep you fed.  You Study disturbing texts. Then, of course, the dreams start…

Not only are there activity timers that you put cards into, but many cards themselves have timers inside them.  When those timers run down, the cards either disappear or metamorphose into something else (usually worse).

Ultimately, your grand aim would be to found a successful cult, and achieve one form of ascension or other.  On the way, there are a number of ways to lose. Various activities have a chance to produce “Restlessness”, which, when it’s timer runs down turns into “Dread”.  Periodically, you will have bouts of despair, a timer that pops up and tries to vacuum up Dread cards. If it collects 3… you lose yourself in Despair.  The same sort of thing happens with “Fascination” cards, and a Visions timer. Lose touch with reality… and the game.  If you fail to keep enough money to feed yourself, the Time timer will spawn starvation and other things that consume your Health cards. If you  don’t have Health, you die.

Lastly, there are the Hunters.  Working for a shadowy branch of government, they latch onto your suspicious activities, and build a case against you. If they build enough evidence, they will come for either one of your minions, or for you if your minions are gone or occupied. If they take you, you lose, locked away in a secret prison.

In addition to the many ways to lose, you can also achieve Minor Victories. The ones I’ve encountered so far involve doing very well at your day job.  Get promoted to Superintendent of Police, achieve the comfortable life of a business man. Honestly, until I noticed a little note on one of them, I thought of them as losses! But I suppose they are victories in life, just not particularly epic ones.

I’m still playing the game, which is still in a state of flux.  I’ll post more updates as they come. For now, I can say that those who want to capture the relentless march of time towards almost certain doom… this is a game to try.

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This is a screenshot from about 5 minutes into the game.  As you can see, there are already 6 timers and 4 types of card.  By the 1 hour mark, the variety of cards will multiply considerably. The timers with empty boxes in their corners are looking for additional cards.  The magnet on the Time (hourglass) timer shows that it is going to vacuum up cards automatically.

 

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For ages, I’ve had a love hate relationship with Rogue-like games.  I love the concept: A dungeon crawler RPG where the levels are procedurally generated, so each run is slightly different; there are one or more limited resources, often life or food, that you need to find a steady supply of; and they’re tough enough that beating them requires a combination of skill plus at least a little luck.

Problem is, I haven’t actually liked any of the Rogue-likes I’ve tried. Certainly not enough to come anywhere near to beating them.  Some, like Nethack, were too fiddly, with random arcane facts that you needed to know.  Like what creatures to eat when, or what symbol to use your blessed scroll of Genocide on, or how to polypile.  Others simply didn’t have a game format I liked at all; Dungeon of the Endless was essentially a cross between tower defence and RTS, two of my least favourite genres. FTL was a modified RTS.  Lastly, some had user interfaces so opaque I simply couldn’t be bothered to learn how to play them. I never got out of the starting area for Cogmind (it may have been in development still, so that might be unfair).

Enter Slay the Spire, a game that marries the concept I love with a genre I love: the deck builder.   The player controls a character.  That character has a deck of cards, which they use to fight monsters as they travel through the dungeon.  As with many deck builders, like Dominion, this deck starts off with simple and low quality cards.  The character acquires further cards to tailor this deck as they work their way through the dungeon.  Alternately, they can also upgrade existing cards.

The character also collects gold, which is used to buy from shop keepers, as well as potions to heal themselves or harm enemies.  Lastly, the character can find relics.  These items can change the rules of the game.  For example, one relic says that you can remove a card from your deck whenever your character rests (important for getting rid of those inferior starting cards).  Others are two edged; there are a bunch of relics that increase the energy you receive every turn to play cards; however, they each have some drawback, like inability to collect gold, or potions.

It’s still in early access on Steam, so the game is still changing.  Currently, you only have to fight your way through 3 floors to “beat” the game.  Doing so unlocks “Ascension Mode”.  Each successive run on that mode is more difficult. There are currently 15 difficulty levels of Ascension that can be unlocked for each character (2 at the time of this writing).  It’s challenging enough that I’m only up to ascension run 2.

So, what is the game play like? Each room the character enters contains enemies, or a random encounter (with some choice for the player to make).  In a fight, the character plays attack card to hurt the enemy, and block card to build up shields to defend against that turn’s attacks (any leftover block goes away next turn).  There are buffs and debuffs on both side.  Some enemies will put inert cards into your deck (themed as wounds, or slime, or dazed), to mess with the flow of your deck.

The overall flow of the game in some ways closely mirrors other Rogue-likes;  the first few fights seem easy, but you find yourself quickly running out of life.  You need to overcome the low quality deck that you start off with.  There are three ways to do that: Find new cards from killing monsters, remove low quality cards from your deck, and upgrade cards to make them better.  Even after building a deck of good cards and acquiring relics, the player should always be careful; a single bad fight can put you into an unrecoverable position.

That’s enough for a first glance.  If you like card games or dungeon crawlers, I recommend giving this a try.  I’d like to give a thank you to Andrea Davis for pointing me at the game.

For those of you who have read my (infrequent) posts, you know that I’ve been dissatisfied with Hearthstone for quite a while. It emphasizes and chooses the aspects of CCGs I don’t like: Random collection to be able to build the decks you want, and Rarer is Better. I talked about this and other aspects of CCGs in this post.

So, needless to say, I have been looking for another game to play on my mobile device as I ride the bus or walk around.  Then, a couple of months ago, a Hearthstone streamer, Kripparian, talked about games he might play on his stream in addition to/instead of Hearthstone.  He mentioned Future Fight, which I hadn’t heard of.  He said it had a high skill cap, to the point where some people were hooking up console controllers to get better controls.  This sounded intriguing.

So, what is it? At its root, it’s a level based fighting game. You collect various Marvel characters, hero and villain alike.  You level them up, fighting your way through various levels of story mode, as well as other side missions.  There’s gear to collect and upgrade for each character.  There is also an oddly meta mechanic of comic cards, which you equip yourself, and grant extra abilities and bonuses to all your characters.

MFFSecretWars2

So, do I like it? Yes and no… and yes… and no. It’s definitely got some aspects I don’t like, and some aspects I find worrying.  Let’s cover the bad stuff first:

Repetitive game-play makes up the vast bulk of the game.

Yeah… the first time or two you play through the story mode levels it’s cool.  You see the story unfold, you get to see a new map (sometimes). Then you have to play that same level hundreds of more times.  To collect the materials to rank up your characters, biometrics in the game world, you must play the appropriate level again, and again, and again. There’s even a random element added where you might not find a biometric when you clear the level each time.  Basically, the annoying aspects of Diablo 2 and MMO grinding.

It’s almost small in comparison, but you also have to use each character quite a lot to level them up once you’ve increased their rank. (if that’s confusing, don’t worry about it).

…plus Super Gear Dependence

In addition to collecting biometrics, and leveling your characters… you also collect gear.  And the odds of finding a good piece of gear are infinitesimal… so you smush together hundreds and thousands of pieces of crappy gear to try to randomly roll good stuff.  The same goes with comic cards.

In each of these cases, you want to equip the highest rank gear: 6 stars.  To give you an idea of the magnitude I’ll give you the most common situation; you start with a 3 Star Obelisk (the custom gear); to go from 3 to 4 stars, you have to smash 20 1-star gears into it. Double that to go from 4 to 5. And double again to go from 5 to 6. (I think, my numbers might be a bit off, but the magnitude is right). That’s 1 + 20+40+80 = 141 pieces of gear you collected to roll one 6-Star Obelisk… which will probably suck. But don’t worry, you can smash two 6- stars together to re-roll one of them.

Cards are even worse: they combine at a 6:1 ratio.  So in the example above, you would need 6*6*5 = 180 1-star cards just to go from 3-star to 4-star with a single card. To make a single 6-star card takes 6^5 = 7,776 1-star cards.

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Pay to Win (P2W)

There are a lot of characters who are either impossible to get without paying or nearly so (grind for 6 months to get a single character).  The same is true of comic cards, special gear, etc.  To cap it off, the paywall characters tend to be stronger.  Uniforms for characters are cool too… but they also provide sometimes crushing advantages to the character.  They’re only purchasable with premium currency (crystals).  I’ve put about 20 bucks into the game to have a few cool things and pocket change for uniforms for my favourite characters. That’s all I plan to do, and if that becomes unfeasible, that may force me out.

The transactions and advertisements for them are everywhere in the game. I’ve definitely felt the temptation of  the micro-transaction, and for people with certain personality types, this game could be very dangerous to their bank account.

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Piss poor documentation

Kinda minor in comparison to the others, but it’s frustrating at times that you can’t simply get detailed skill descriptions.  Or a list of what characters work together as strikers (strikers are the heroes waiting in the wings to tag in, who occasionally jump in and hit your opponent a few times while they wait). As I said, minor, but annoying.

 

Okay… So that’s the bad… what’s the good? Why am I playing this?

 

 

The Theme

I love superheroes. And I love games that make an effort to connect the theme to the mechanics. Future fight does that pretty well.  Their animations are pretty good, with spiderman looking flippy, Gwenpool skipping around happily, Hulk… smashing. The abilities are loosely linked to abilities of the characters in stories. The storyline is simple, but it’s still cool to see a story unfolding before you.

 

Skill-Based

With the above P2W caveat taken into account, there’s still a fair amount of skill in the game.  As I mentioned, it’s a fighting game.  So, chaining together abilities to dodge enemy attacks, or negate them, or stun the enemy are the key to success.

 

Customisation

While acquiring and upgrading them is a grind, the different components in the game allow you to customise your characters quite a bit. From the look to the focus of the characters stats, you can tweak. Of course, some effects are OP, so it’s not quite as free as I’d like, but still pretty nifty.

(Moderately) Achievable Quests/endgame

This sort of falls under the skill bit, but also deserves its own heading.  Fighting against Thanos or Quicksilver is cool, since I know them from my moderate knowledge of comics.  And the fact that the fights are multi-stage is neat as well.  Heavier on the gear emphasis than I’d like, but you still need skill. Also skill or intelligent customisation of your character can get around some of that.

 

So what’s the verdict?

I’d say it’s a diverting game if you enjoy fighting games, RPGs (or at least semi-customisable characters) and super heroes.  If you don’t like any of those it’s probably not for you.  Also, I would say that, much like Star Wars The Old Republic, this game benefits hugely from spending a little bit of real money.  That unlocks enough extra in-game gold revenue to make the game not too restrictive.

So it’s been a few years since I posted about games, (or even in general). I certainly haven’t stopped playing them.  My time has been more proscribed than in some times in the past. Consequently, I have played a lot of games that I can “fit in” during or between other activities. Hearthstone is definitely one of those. I can play it while I cook. I can play it while I walk to and from work.
So, how is Hearthstone these days? Well, right off the bat let me acknowledge that Hearthstone will never be as good or satisfying a game as some other CCGs that I play or have played.  This is for the simple reason that there is no interaction with your opponent on their turn.  Strategy can never be as deep, nor tactics as varied, as in a game like Magic: The Gathering (MtG) or Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (VtES).  But until technology advances just a little more, every digital implementation I’ve seen that tries for Magic’s level of interaction ends up feeling a little clunky.  So for now, Hearthstone is the best we’ve got without awkward interfaces (which can be as frustrating or more so than awkward game design).

So, Hearthstone is the best (that I’ve played in recent years).  How good is the best these days? Well… not very.  The past three expansions each have had a more stagnant and toxic metagame than the one before.  Why?  There are several reasons. Some quite simple. Some rather more complicated.  Some have been talked about extensively by streamers.  Others have either been mentioned in passing, or dismissed as trivial.  So what are all these problems?  Let’s enumerate them, then drill down for more detail:

  • The Jade mechanic, particularly as implemented in Druid is oppressive.
  • Aggro decks are getting faster and faster, often killing their prey by turn 5 or 6.
  • Control decks that can actually survive those aggro decks are getting more brutal.  If they survive past turn 6 or 7… they win.
  • Gadgetzan Auctioneer continues to spawn aberrant decks that dominate the metagame. This is currently related to jade druid… but this has been going on for a long long time, so it gets its own bullet.
  • The number of cards that are potentially game winning have increased dramatically. And not in a good way…
  • The deck prospects for a F2P or low money player are worse than ever before. There is not a single top tier deck that would qualify as “low budget” these days.

Jade

Let’s start with the first point I listed:  Jade Druid. I listed it first, because it’s probably the most noticeable.  First a tiny bit of background. Two expansions ago, Blizzard released the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan.  There were three “gangs” in the expansion, represented by a bunch of class specific cards, as well as something new: cards that could be used by three different classes.  Each gang had a different mechanic as its theme.   There was the “I only have 1 of each card in my deck, but I get special abilities because of it” gang.  There was the “I buff cards while they’re still in my hand” gang.  And then there was the Jade golem gang, which summoned jade golems of incrementally increasing power; the first was a 1/1, the 2nd a 2/2, and so on ad infinitum. It became quickly apparent that the themes were not at all equal in power. The Hand buff was terrible in warrior and hunter, and decent in paladin.  The one of a kind gang was good when it first came out, but the next expansion, one of the two most powerful “one of a kind” triggered cards rotated out of the format!  So the decks became far less reliable.

Jade was simple, and brutal.  The least strong jade class, rogue, was still “okay”.  Shaman was quite powerful, though usually with Jade as a auxiliary package to boost the power of an aggro strategy.  Druid… was a juggernaut. The jade cards for druid included a 1 cost spell, Jade Idol, that either makes a golem, or shuffles 3 copies of itself into the deck! So with a little optimization, Jade Druid ended up as a deck that is almost as fast as many aggro decks, due to Innervate + mana ramp effects.  In the control match, Jade druid crushes, because they just have to mana ramp and draw cards till they have a Gadgetzan Auctioneer, then cycle 4 or 5 jade cards in a single turn.  Then, even if the control deck clears the board, the unlimited supply of Jade Idols (plus the 2nd Auctioneer) can quickly run over any defenses. The only way to beat Jade Druid, is to do it quickly.

Aggro

This brings us to our next point: while Jade druid has almost a 60% win rate (this is pretty crazy, considering that includes everybody, skilled or not)… the aggro decks that have evolved as the only hope to beat it are also crushing.  Aggro shaman, aggro druid, pirate warrior.  All of these decks output a crazy amount of damage.  Aggro shaman and aggro druid can easily kill you on turn 5, unless you wipe their board completely… and then that buys you ONE extra turn while they re-flood the board. Aggro warrior is a (tiny) bit slower… but has the advantage that it’s damage is split between its minions and it’s weapons.  If they clear your board, your weapon still clocks them in the dome.  If they play a creature that destroys your weapon, your minions swarm them.

Why is this a problem?  It heavily limits the sort of decks that can be played.  By extension it is stifling creativity.  If you have a cool idea for a deck, but it’s mid range or heavier, scrap it.  You won’t get to play half the time.  Why is that?  In the past, mid range decks were the answer to aggro in Hearthstone.  They had enough tempo tools to deal with aggro, while being a little weaker against control since they diluted their late game.  That’s not the case anymore. If you spend your turn doing something mid range like killing one of an aggro druid’s creatures while developing one of your own, their turn will look like: develop another weenie or two, buff, buff, kill your creature and go face for 1/3 of your life.  So, to survive you either have to go full control with tons of taunts/board wipes/heals. Or you have to join aggro, and put in the pirate+ Patches package AND early game removal AND some random weenies. At which point you end up being a crappier aggro deck that sometimes draws all their late game cards early and loses.

My reason for pointing this out, even though Druid is so dominant, is to understand that even if Jade disappeared tomorrow, the metagame has far more deep seated problems. Which brings us to:

Control

What sorts of decks can survive against the sheer weight of damage that I described above?  Control decks.  But not just any control decks.  Control Hunter still isn’t a thing, no matter how much Blizzard tries to make it so.  Control rogue is something I’ve tried to make work for a while; my most successful uses a hybrid of C’Thun and N’zoth tactics, which is janky as hell… and it mainly works against other control decks.

The successful control decks are the ones with a ton of board clears, combined with strong single target removal for priority targets. Let’s call this Heavy(tm) Control.  The main classes that have had this consistently are Priest, Warrior, Shaman, and Mage.  We’ll just look at one to see the problems these control decks can cause, when they’re too strong.  Control priest is at the top of the heap.  The removal in priest has always been insane.  Between Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death, they have 4 cards that answer anything but 4 power creatures. The base priest class has access to holy nova, which is so so, at 5 mana for 2 damage to everything, and Auchenai Soul Priest + Circle of healing, which is amazing at 4 mana for 4 damage to everything! The amazing thing is that priest has gotten so much better board clears that Auchenai+ circle doesn’t see much play. For years they had Lightbomb, and when that rotated out, they were given Dragonfire potion.

“Alright, so Heavy(tm) Control has the tools to maybe deal with the ravening hordes of aggro you mentioned before.  What’s the problem?”  Well, I’m glad you asked!  Well, when you can reliably and efficiently remove (for some value, X of reliable, this is after all a random card game) every minion that your opponent plays within a turn or two of them playing them, you create a problem.  The problem is that minions are what do most of the work in Hearthstone.  So if you’re opponent can’t have any minions he doesn’t get to play the game.  This isn’t fun, and it stifles creativity. Consequently, the thing that really seems to determine if heavy control is stifling the metagame is how much it gets played.  This in turn is determined by whether the Heavy Control classes have dangerous and efficient payloads to back up their oppressive board control. If they do, the decks are dangerous and oppressive to the metagame.  If they don’t, the decks are pointless and annoying, but don’t ultimately win a lot, and die away till the next sea change.

So here we have come to the crux of the problems:  The classes all have core cards that never go away… and those core cards create some bad dynamics.  Let us return to the example of Priest. Within priest’s core cards, the makings of a strong, bordering on oppressive removal package.  They have two of the most efficient single target removal spells in the game: the cheapest (tied with Paladin) board clear combo and decent aoe otherwise.  In expansions where they have good late game threats, they are strong. In expansions where they get better board clear they become stifling. In expansions where they have both they become stifling and strong, which means they affect the metagame and start killing creativity and fun.  Blizzard should be aiming for Strong, but not stifling.  Instead, they consistently “print” cards for these classes that are more controlling.  And in a sense, this is necessary because of the Aggro problem I mentioned before… but in a more real sense that’s like bringing in foxes to deal with your rabbit problem.  They may eat the rabbits if they can catch them… but they’re going to eat a whole lot more of your chickens.

This sort of brings this arc of the discussion to a close.  Now I’ll start talking about the power of specific cards.

Gadgetzan Auctioneer

Holy crap.  They nerfed the cost of the card a number of years ago… but it’s effect is so powerful that it didn’t matter.  The card is only really powerful in Rogue and Druid due to their free or cheap spells… but it is so powerful, it is game warping.  Some version of Miracle Rogue has been in and out of the competitive spotlight since the beginning.  In some periods (notably the current one), Druid uses is as well.  Even before the current focus of people’s rage came out, Ultimate Infestation, Jade druid was dominating the metagame with Auctioneer.

It is predictable.  Card draw in Hearthstone, much as in MtG, is a precious resource.  So, a single card that lets you draw 4 or 5 cards in a single turn is enormously powerful.  That Auctioneer is also a 4/4 creature and so demands non-trivial effort to remove it to prevent it drawing another 4-5 cards the next turn… well, the results speak for themselves.  Any time playing a bunch of cheap spells and redrawing can give you a big advantage, Auctioneer comes back. The fact that it only features in the decks it does is a testament to Blizzards restraint at printing low cost spammable spells. But that restraint is a product of the limits that Auctioneer has placed on the design space.  When, as in the case of Jade Idol, Blizzard steps over the line, the results are immediately visible.

Auctioneer should have been retired to the Hall of Fame.  It still can be. It boggles my mind that they retired Conceal, worried about combos with it… but left Auctioneer, that combos with everything… including Conceal.  It would be one of the steps necessary to help bring the game system to a place where cards can be developed and new decks played without feeling like you’re wasting your time.  Because that amount of card draw is too strong.

And I think that’s enough space donated to one card, so let’s talk about:

All the other overpowered cards

I was watching a video by Reynad ( a Hearthstone streamer) recently, and a thing he said struck a chord with me. “Games where Innervate is drawn feel so different from games where Innervate is not drawn.”

Innervate is really obvious.  It stands out because you find yourself facing a Turn 1 Vicious Fledgling, or a Turn 2 Bittertide Hydra.  But Innervate is not unique.  Over the past few expansions, the number of cards that have been printed that heavily swing the chances of winning, has increased drastically.

Hearthstone is nice, in that there are a bunch of places that collect data on hundreds of thousands of games played, and whether certain cards got played. HS Replay is one. Let’s take Patches the Pirate as an example.  The stats show that if you have Patches in your deck, and you don’t play him (i.e. you pull him directly onto the field using his special ability) your chance to Win the game increases by 12%! That’s huge. Playing (or in this case, triggering using one of several other pirates in your deck) a single card gives that big a jump in power.

But patches isn’t unique.  A lot of what gives ALL the dominant decks their power are a bunch of super cards.  For instance, even if you clear aggro druids first big board, They can refill their board instantly using Living Mana.  And then they can do it again if you re-clear. Murloc paladin can increase it’s murloc synergy heavily if they play Vilefin Inquisitor, changing their hero power to generate Murlocs, so when they play their Murloc Warleader and Gentle Megasaur, the number of buffed murlocs is higher. And they can finish off their opponents or clear their big minions with a well placed Sun Keepr Tarim. Similarly, after surviving the early game using spells they generated with Shadow Visions, clearing the mid game board with their Dragonfire potion, the priest can transition to their late game direct damage strategy playing Shadowreaper Anduin, which also clears all the big creatures at the same time.

I could go down the Top tier decks one by one, but the picture is the same; they are all loaded down with cards that, if you were to leave them out, would dramatically decrease the win rate of the deck.  And oddly enough, almost all of those cards are Epics or Legendaries.  More crucially, the power cards in decks are now Epics and Legendaries that are either class specific or, in the case of the Murloc synergies, only playable in a murloc deck.

So really my last point is two-folded:

  1. There are far too many cards that are being put out where if you draw them, you are at a heavy advantage (Shadowreaper Anduin increases your chance of winning from 52.1 to 62.5%, which is a increase of 20% of your wins).  This means the games feel more random.  It’s not a nice feeling to have your opponent play Raza the Unchained on Turn 5, and Anduin on Turn 8, when priest has no card draw.  For anyone with a statistics background, you know it’s not that likely to draw both (there’s only one each since they’re legendary) in your first 11 cards, especially since they’re expensive enough that you probably won’t keep them in a mulligan.
  2. The power cards that are swinging the game so much are, as I mentioned, expensive.  In my last post about Hearthstone, I believe I took heart in the fact that, while not terrible interesting, a F2P player could put together one of the top tier deck relatively cheaply.  That is no longer the case.  The control decks are made of masses of Rares, epics and Legendaries.  Even the aggro decks are quite expensive.  Take aggro druid, which might be the cheapest: It has Patches the pirate, 2 Living Mana and 2 Bittertide Hydras.  That’s 1 legendary and 4 Epics.  Almost every other deck has far more.  Also as I mentioned, with the exception of Patches, most of the power cards are deck specific.  I’m honestly not sure why they went out of their way to remove Sylvanus and Ragnaros.  They were seeing a lot of play because those were the only legendaries some people had crafted.

 

The Takeaway

Well, the ultimate message is that the Hearthstone metagame is a mess that kills creativity (if you like winning).  There are a number of underlying causes, some as old as the game itself, others introduced in the past few expansions. In the time it’s taken me to write this post, blizzard announced a handful of nerfs.  Innervate will now only produce one mana.  I’m not sure how this will turn out. It will hurt aggro druid far more than Jade. Heck, jade might still keep it in the deck, it will just make their crazy jade auctioneer turn happen one turn later.

Regardless of the outcome of these cosmetic nerfs, I think the systemic imbalances are far more deep seated.  The game will continue to be broken.

Kazandibi literally means the “bottom of the pot”. It’s a mild pudding that then has the bottom caramelized.  It ends up being like a flan, but no egg.  It’s served rolled up with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Just a note:  This is one of the tougher Turkish desserts to make.  It took me about 5 tries before I got it “right” according to Selen.  The texture and the caramelizing are tricky.  But don’t despair;  it is worth the trouble.

Ingredients and materials:

4 disposable aluminum pans, roughly 10″x 13″ (2 will be re-usable after)

1 pot, preferably non-stick

1 a silicone whisk or wooden stirring spoon

2 pot holders that might get a bit singed

1 liter of whole milk (you can use 2%, but honestly the whole milk adds a lot of creaminess)

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup rice flour

1/3 cup corn starch

1 tsp vanilla extract

roughly 1/8 of a stick of butter

 

Pre-Cooking Steps:

  1. Grease 2 of the pans.  get a decent layer of butter on the entire bottom, and extend it up the side about 1/2 “
  2. Sprinkle the powdered sugar evenly over the butter in the two pans.
  3. Fill the other 2 pans roughly halfway with cold water and set them someplace out-of-the-way.

 

Cooking:

  1. Pour the milk into the pot, and set the flame between medium and high.
  2. Add the vanilla.
  3. Add the sugar, and use the whisk to dissolve it in the milk.
  4. Gradually add the rice flour and corn starch, using the whisk to break up any lumps.
  5. Continue to stir, to keep the consistency even.
  6. When the mixture starts to thicken, continue to stir for about 30 seconds.  Note: this is one of the delicate parts, as the mixture not only thickens quickly, but will continue to thicken after you turn off the flame.
  7. Turn off the flame, and immediately divide the mixture between the two greased, sugared pans.  spread it, so it forms an even layer.  It should end up being about half an inch thick or so.

 

Caramelizing:

  1. Disconnect your smoke alarm.  The following part will make a lot of smoke.  If you’re doing it right, your kitchen will smell like it’s on fire… but with a slightly sweet edge to it.
  2. Turn your flame to high.
  3. Using two pot holders, hold the pan directly over the flame.  I divide the pan into 6 sectors in my head: 4 corners and 2 middle sections.  For each of the segments, I generally count 30 Mississippis (you can count hippopotamus if you like instead).  Then move on to holding the next section over the burner.  The edges should show a bit brown, and you may have brown bubble up through any cracks.  This is the other part which took some getting used to.  There will be a lot of smoke.  Don’t panic.  This is normal.
  4. Take the pan and sit it in one of the cold water pans you prepared earlier.  It should look something like this:
    kazandibiPan
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the second pan.

 

After they cools down, put the pans in the fridge to chill.  I’d recommend waiting at least a few hours to serve.

 

Serving:

Cut the kazandibi in 4 sections, short ways across the pan.  Roll each section lightly and place it on a plate.   Or cut it in quarters and just flip it caramel side up.  Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon over it to finish.

Here’s a section just flipped:

KazandibiServed

 

Enjoy!

So, Hearthstone has been out for a while now.  I haven’t been playing it for the whole time, but I recently picked it up again and logged some hours playing over the last few weeks.  I had previously had the impression that the game might be “pay to win”.  With more experience, and having watched streams for a couple of weeks, I can now say this is both true and false.  Most good decks that I see have multiple legendary and epic rarity cards.  This doesn’t put them out of reach of a F2P player forever, but certainly unless you get lucky with your draws from your arena winning packs, it will be months or more before you can build even one.  However, there are a  couple of competitive decks that don’t require quite as much investment of time or money:

First up, the “Zoo” Warlock:  It’s called zoo because it’s almost exclusively creatures, and there isn’t a single creature theme.  It’s all the best, most aggressive, cheap creatures currently around.  This deck contains 4 rares, tops.  No epics, no legendaries.  This is what I’ve been playing lately.

Second, Hunter decks:  There are a few variants.  Some do run legendaries and epics.  The core, great cards are either common or rare, though.  At least one of these cards will be nerfed in the near future, so it’s possible that F2P hunter will drop in viability.

A caveat about the above:  The decks I’m talking about technically include more than the number of rares, etc.  This is due to the Naxxramas expansion that was released.  By beating the single player quests for the Undead Necropolis, a player can unlock “rares” and “legendaries”.  As it is considerably easier to farm the gold to unlock a Naxx wing than to even farm a single Epic, I’m not counting those.

So, does this mean the game is good?  Well yah, I’d say it’s a good game.  Is it going to hold my interest in the long-term?  That’s tough to say, still.  I would say the game still suffers from a paucity of deck options, regardless of your card collection.  I see the same few decks, with small variants, in every top-level game I watch.  Hearthstone is still in its infancy, in my opinion.  The card pool is nowhere near what I would expect from even the first set of a CCG.  Time will tell whether they can add cards to fill out the pool, without unbalancing the game.

 

Edit:  In few days I took poking away at this post, the metagame has changed once again.  Blizzard nerfed one card that hunters used pretty heavily.  It doesn’t look like hunters are crippled, but they are certainly more in line with other classes now.  What does that mean for your low-budget, or free players?  Well, I think it pushes the bar up a bit.  The card that was nerfed was a common, so it is likely that any competitive hunter deck will have a higher reliance than before on rares and above.  Zoo lock still looks viable though.  It’s certainly interesting to see how quickly the scenery can change in an online CCG.

 

So what’s the upshot?  Well, if you just want to play around and have fun for free, I think you can. You’ll either play arena, or work your way up to a certain rank and hover there.  If you like being competitive, you may have to spend a lot of time, or a moderate amount (for a CCG) of money to reach top end ranks.

So, last week I talked about the general form and theme of Smite.  This week I think I’ll talk about the various game options.

 

In terms of MOBAs, the only one I’ve played  is LoL.  LoL is fun.  I haven’t played it much in the last few weeks, since I’ve been both busy and trying out Smite, but one thing it doesn’t have is a variety of games.  They have started introducing fun alternate scenarios, but they’re still pretty rare.  Smite has a different, wacky scenario every day.  They re-use them sometimes, but still, it’s kinda cool.  Honestly, though, it’s not the oddball scenarios that make a MOBA.  A MOBA is an online team sport, so playing on the same field isn’t really a drawback.

 

For it’s core maps, Smite has 5 main ones.

Conquest:  This is a standard 5v5 MOBA map.  3 lanes, each defended by towers and phoenixes (the equivalent of inhibitors in LoL, but able to fight back).  A jungle with monsters in between, to provide gold, buffs, and cover to gank (surprise attack) your foes.  Beat down the enemy towers and phoenixes, and destroy the Titan in their base.  I feel like it’s a bit more labyrinthine than the LoL jungle, but that may be because I haven’t adjusted to playing in 3-D yet.

3v3 Joust:  A 3 player map.  This features a single lane, with patches of jungle to either side.  So far, this is what I’ve played the most.  I am enjoying it far more than LoL’s 3v3 map, Twisted Treeline(TT).  I think TT felt a bit too large for a 3 player team.  This, while small-ish, still provides some counter play through the side jungles.

Assualt:  Smite’s version of ARAM (All Random At Mid).  It’s a single lane.  Every player gets assigned a random god to play, though you can trade among your team.  I’m still sort of undecided about this one.  On the one hand, it accomplishes its purpose:  toss everybody a random character and have them duke it out in one long team fight.  On the other hand, it doesn’t have the bushes that the LoL version has.  This means there is absolutely no chance of surprise attacks.  On the third hand (hrm, anatomically improbable, but whatever), those bushes in LoL tend to favor the stronger team anyway, since they can take possession of them and not be dislodged.  So… yeah.  It’s different.  I have fun with it.  Still not sure which I like better.

Arena: This 5v5.  As the name suggests, it’s in a round arena.  There are some walls and pillars to dodge around.  Also a few neutral monsters to kill for buffs.  This is most comparable to “dominion” mode in LoL.  You want to reduce your opponents to zero points.  You do so by either killing their gods, killing their minions, or escorting your own minions from the portal at your end of the arena to their portal. Killing blows (on gods, minions, or monsters) give you points that eventually spawn a siege tower.  If you can escort that giant minion to the enemy portal, it will take a big chunk out of their points.  With what essentially amounts to a running team fight, even more so than Assault, I feel this mode favors burst champions, especially those with either range, or a solid gap closer.  Seems like a solid format, though not one that really plays to my strengths.

Siege:  This is a new map that they’re testing.  It’s a 4v4 map, a sort of cross between Conquest and Arena.  There are 2 lanes, with a giant jungle in the middle.  Much like conquest, your goal is to break towers and destroy the enemy base.  Like arena, though, killing minions, monsters or gods lets you eventually spawn a siege minion.  These giants are great at destroying objectives, but weak against gods, so escorting them is a priority.  Adding yet more difference to the flavor, jungle monsters add the most to building a siege minion.  In fact, there is a giant monster in the middle of the jungle that spawn you a minion when you kill it!  This monster, as well as the added emphasis on killing jungle monsters make jungling, if not a strategy in itself, certainly something your opponents need to worry about for more than just ganks.

 

So, that’s all for this week.  More to come soon.

I recently stumbled across a new Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA).    I was searching for images of Sun Wukong, from the Chinese classic novel Journey to the West, and Google images popped up a picture from a site about something called Smite.  The banner ads looked kinda dinky,but I checked it out, and the product was definitely not dinky at all.

First of all, the designers of Smite have decided to use existing myths and legends.  I heartily approve.  The world is full of rich stories and characters, developed over hundreds and thousands of years.  This could serve a dual purpose of engaging people with the game and also educating them about diverse cultures.  My fondest learning memories from my childhood are from well crafted games that made good use of background material.  So, you may have Sun Wukong, Zeus, Bastet, Thor, and Quetzalcoatl on a team (Actually, much like other MOBAs they are always expanding their character list.  They haven’t done Quetzalcoatl yet.)

So what design challenges did the Smite developers face?  First of all, they have to adapt mythological characters to a combat game.  Let’s go back to the character I originally found the game through: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.  In the story, he was hatched from a magical stone.  They reflected this by giving him a passive ability that makes him harder to kill when his life drops.  Later in the story, The Monkey King studies with a great Taoist master, and gains magical powers to transform himself, clone himself, and transform into many different forms.  This corresponds to one ability that allows Sun Wukong to transform into a bull, a tiger, or an eagle to either attack or retreat.  He also gained the ability to fly on clouds, which is his ultimate ability: he jumps up on a cloud, leaving a clone of himself to fight.  Lastly, Monkey stole a magical iron staff from a dragon (Ao Kuang, another god in this game), which can shrink or expand at will.  His 2 melee attacks involve this weapon. This creativity in adapting existing myths to a game world is admirable.  It isn’t always perfect, of course;  this is the second attempt they made at Sun Wukong.  The first was far more monkey themed.  His attacks were with monkeys, or in a monkey style.  This really didn’t match the literature.  While he is a monkey, Sun Wukong is primarily a chaotic elemental being, born of earth, and his fighting is more magical martial arts than animal instinct.  After they reworked him, he fits much better.

So, I haven’t said anything about the game play.  Well, I haven’t played it for long (a few times over the last couple of weeks).  I’m enjoying it right now.  Due to its 3rd person perspective ( as opposed to the isometric view favored by other MOBAs), the fights feel more like MMO arena battles.  The strategies are still MOBA though.  Push lanes (or not), pick off enemies, exploit weaknesses, take the towers.  One big difference from League of Legends(LoL) is that ALL of the objectives can fight back.  The inhibitors from LoL are replaced with phoenixes.  And the nexus is a giant Titan.  So assaulting the enemy base takes on the flavor of a raid boss.  It reminds me of back in vanilla WoW, when world bosses would spawn.  Often, you would have a guild from one faction attempting to kill, say, Azuregos.  Then a guild from the other faction would come and attack the first guild.  It became a balancing act of trying to fight the boss, and trying to not die to the enemy guild.  Fun times.

Another interesting feature Smite has is “Mastery Levels”.  Basically, every time you play a god, you get some experience with that god.  For the most part, this is purely decorative.  If you get mastery level I with a god, you can use the “golden skin” when playing with that god.  If you reach level X with a god, you get their “legendary skin”.  However, your overall Mastery level, or how many gods you’ve gotten to at least level I, determines whether you can play in League games (ranked matches).  I think that’s a nice system for ensuring that players don’t jump too far into the deep end, while still allowing anyone who wants to compete to do so, in time.

So, I’ll continue to try the game, and I think I’ll decide in the next week whether to buy the “Ultimate God Pack” for 30 buck… which gives you all the gods they have made or will ever make.  If I decide to keep playing, that will certainly come in handy.

This was originally going to be a Facebook post, but it was getting pretty long, so I figured I’d put it in here.  This came out of a discussion of the balance between different “clans” in the Vampire:The Eternal Struggle CCG (VTES).  For those of you that don’t play the game, it is far more involved that most other CCGs, taking up to 2 hours, and seating 4 or 5 players.  Consequently, discussions of game balance often get sidetracked (in my opinion), by comments of “but we don’t have enough data”.  This is my response to one such comment, and a (hopefully) helpful way for experienced players to think about complex systems:
I agree there isn’t enough empirical data to draw concrete conclusions. I think that there honestly CAN’T be enough, given the complexity of the system and the time constraints (the human lifetime). Think about it: there are all the possible decks, all the possible tournament sizes (and qualities), all the individual player styles. What I think we CAN hope for, and indeed I think we have, is enough data to interpolate a decently accurate power curve.
More informally, here’s some guidelines to help discuss power levels:

  1. What is the “best case” performance of a deck? i.e. your prey is either an idiot, didn’t pack any answers to your deck, or didn’t draw any. And you drew a bomb hand.
  2. What’s the “good case”? Sort of like #1, but you didn’t draw the best hand.
  3. What’s the “middling case” (i don’t want to use the word average, since that brings us back to hard numbers, as opposed to estimates and principles). i.e. your opponent has some answers, but only sometimes.
  4. What’s the “bad case” for the deck? i.e. your opponent’s deck trumps yours. You may succeed at a little of what you do, but not often.
  5. The “worst case” is kind of like #1, but in the other direction. Not only does you opponent’s deck have a lot of answers to you, but you draw crap.

Now, as you said, we don’t have enough data to firmly analyze all these, but there are some logical and some mathematical principles we can use.

  • A)The bigger the deck, the more likely probability clumps are: i.e. bad draws. This affects everything, but is especially #1 and #5.
  • B)Related, how good is the deck at what it’s trying to do? This is kinda vague, but basically if you need 5 cards to do your big bleed you will be much less likely to draw all those cards at once than the deck that only needs 3 cards. You’ll also need a much larger deck to accomplish the same pool damage, which points back to A.  I will talk about this using the terms effective, cost and efficient.  Effectiveness is the magnitude of the effect: e.g. bleed of 3 vs bleed of 6.  Cost is how many resources you had to allocate to the task: e.g.  How many card slots, how much blood/pool does it cost.  Efficiency is the ratio of effect to cost. (and yes, ratio is a loose term when you’re talking about a mixed set of resources).
  • C)How many “answers” are there to a deck, and how effective/efficient are they?  These are 3 different things that are all linked.  How many answers will affect how many different clans have access to them. How effective/efficient those answers are will affect how many decks actually choose to play with the cards they have access to.  An example of such a decision is Lost in Translation vs. Deflection.  All decks have access to Lost in Translation (it has no requirements), while only decks with Dominate have access to Deflection. They both redirect a bleed to another person, completely negating an attack on you. When it comes to cost though, Deflection costs 1 blood, while Lost costs 2.  Also, Deflection can be played on anyone, while Lost can only affect younger Vampires.  So, between reduced effectiveness, and higher cost, Lost is far less efficient.  Consequently, it is unsurprising that almost any deck with access to Dominate runs Deflection, while only a small subset of the decks that could theoretically play Lost actually do so.
    So when evaluating the strength of a deck, looking at commonly played answers and seeing how many of them hurt you is good.
  • D)  All of these things are aimed at the goal of figuring out how likely #1-5 are.  When trying to design a winning deck, you are trying to skew that curve towards Numbers 1-3.  Likewise, when trying to evaluate the system from a design perspective, you should look at a range of possible decks from a clan, and compare their performance to some benchmark decks, against other benchmark decks.

All of these may sound like common sense, but it’s important to go down the list and enumerate your strengths, your weaknesses, and how likely each of those is.  Decks don’t exist in a vacuum.  While the ultimate goal of playing is to have fun, the structure of that is trying to win the game.  So if the decks a clan can put forth are too far down the power curve from the successful decks, that’s an indication that they’re not competitive, and should probably be shelved until new cards are released or existing ones are modified.

The latest offering from Blizzard is an online CCG.  It’s themed from the Warcraft universe. Let’s go down the elements and see how it measures up:

Appearance:  Top notch.  As usual, Blizzard made a really professional and pretty product.  While you can’t re-arrange cards in your had, you can move the cards on the screen to cast them (or change your mind part way through the drag+ drop and put them back in your hand).  The cards are played on a sandy arena floor.  Surrounding this are a variety of settings, randomly chosen for each match.  There’s a jungle theme, a siege theme, and a town theme.  Each one is somewhat interactive, which gives you something to do while your opponent is thinking about his move.  For example, the siege theme has a catapult and a pile of rocks for you to play with if you’re bored.  Finding out what elements are clickable is a fun little process. As for the cards, the art is well executed, in the style of World of Warcraft, but possibly a bit cartoonier.  No complaints here.

Game Mechanics: Nothing too complicated.  The object of the game is to reduce your opponent to zero life.  Cards cost mana to play.  All your mana crystals recharge at the beginning of your turn.  You gain one mana crystal per turn, up to a maximum of 10.  You are playing a deck for a character class from WoW.  Some cards can go in any deck, others are class specific.  There are three types of cards: Creatures, Spells, and Weapons.  

Creatures are the staple of the game, and the main way to win.  Each creature will have an attack value, a health value, and possibly one or more special abilities.  Any turn after the turn you summon a creature, you may attack with it, choosing either the opposing player, or one of his creatures as a target.  Creatures with taunt are especially good defenders, as they force the opponent to attack them instead of you, thus protecting your health pool.  Some creatures have a battlecry special ability, which is a one time effect that happens when the creature is first summoned.    In essence, such creatures incorporate a spell as well.

Which brings us to spells.  Spells range from utility effects, like card draw, and buffing creatures, to offensive spells that deal damage to creatures or players, to defensive spells, which provide a shield, or healing.  For the most part, spells will have to take a supporting role to creatures, when it comes to defeating your opponent.  Still, with few exceptions, spells, especially spells that allow you to control the board (e.g. creature removal, debuffs, etc) play a key role in most decks.

Weapons are a small addendum, but can be useful for those classes that can use them.  Since creatures are your chief way to kill your opponent, you’d like to keep yours alive.  So, instead of sending them in to kill you opponent’s creatures you can attack them yourself.  The drawback is that the creature gets to hit you back, unlike offensive spells.  The advantage is that weapons have durability, which is how many times you can attack with it before it breaks.  So each weapon is like multiple offensive spells in one card, usually for a very affordable mana cost.

Game Balance:  Ah, there’s the rub.  Now let’s be clear:  I understand this game is in beta, so I won’t be talking about specific card or class balance issues, since those should probably work out by the time the game hits release.  What I will talk about is their card balance philosophy.  If you’re read my blog before, you may remember this article about how CCGs should be designed and balanced.  I won’t go over all of it right now.  Suffice to say, Hearthstone is currently looking like a “pay to win” game.  While there are plenty of good common spells, there are also numerous examples of rare or epic creatures that are just better than the same cost of lower rarity creatures.  If the game releases like this, I predict problems not too far down the line.

So overall, I’d say it’s a fun enough game, in Beta, with no money on the line.  If they don’t fix their rare to power problem, I don’t know.

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