Wednesday 15 August 2012

Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess, and you don't find out til too late that he's been playing with two queens all along

I’ve been somewhat remiss in posting about the card & board game exploits of our irregular (in many senses) gaming group. Over the past couple of years we’ve tackled a fair assortment of cardboard-based diversions, many covered during Murdering of Time, or in textual form at The Azadian and Power Armoured Beard. Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Dominion, Thunderstone, Small World, Battlestar Galactica, Ticket to Ride, amongst others, have been big hits, and last weekend featured a couple of new additions to The Shute Library.

Gloom, as seen on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, is a card game in which the objective is to make your family as miserable as possible, and then kill them off. Gloomy, eh? As well as making your own family unhappy, you can play cards on other families that make them more happy, although of course that makes their player unhappy. It’s something of an emotional rollercoaster… The cards are nicely done, being transparent, so they can be stacked up to cancel out or enhance previous effects. A lot of the fun is in the storytelling that players are encouraged (though not obligated) to do to explain precisely how the family member in question became Popular in Parliament, or was Devoured by Weasels. In our game there was a particularly action-packed park where, amongst other improbable happenings, a teddy bear (with a human brain) Found Love by the Lake (in the form of a swan, apparently), while a hapless explorer was Drowned by Ducks after being Pursued by Poodles. We had six players, using additional families from a couple of expansion packs (but not the extra rules, while we got used to things), and the only slight problem was that the game dragged a little. We used all five family members for each player, and cutting that down to four as the rules suggested for a four player game, or even three, would’ve probably been ideal; as it was it took too long to kill off an entire family, especially with action cards preventing several untimely demises.

Lords of Waterdeep is a Dungeons & Dragons boardgame without many dungeons, or indeed dragons. It’s about gaining power and influence in the city, mostly by collecting resources, then spending those resources to complete ‘quests’. To stick to the D&D theme the resources you collect are Fighters, Rogues, Mages and Clerics, but with a bit of a tweak to the fluff text they could just as well be Brick, Wood, Sheep and Wheat. You might pick up a few references to Elminster or Zhentil Keep or something if you’re into the Forgotten Realms, but there’s no need to have any D&D knowledge at all. Like many games it seemed confusing and overcomplicated when pressing out hundreds of cardboard tokens and first reading the rules, but it only took a couple of turns to get the hang of things, and it rattled along very nicely after that.

On a bit of a stroll around the forums of, I think I stumbled across the boardgame equivalent of the MMOG “theme park” vs “sandbox” debate: “German-style” vs “American-style” games. In neither argument do the terms have a concrete definition, more a series of characteristics; in neither argument is there a “right” answer, just personal preference, with many people perfectly happy to play games of, or with characteristics of, either or both types. Naturally, then, there’s no shortage of flamewars burrowing into deep semantic rabbit warrens as participants attempt to convince each other that their subjective personal opinion is The Truth. As The Economist put it, “arguing over what the difference is seems to be gamers’ second-favourite pastime.” Today’s xkcd is strangely aposite, fractal nesting of subcultures indeed.

It turns out I’m generally on the Eurogame side of the fence, particularly the element: “There is very little randomness or luck. Randomness that is there is mitigated by having the player decide what to do after a random event happens rather than before. Dice are rare, but not unheard of.” It’s something of a surprise; dice, for me, are inextricably linked to games, from early family games (Ludo, Monopoly etc.) through the polyhedral splendour of RPGs, but sure enough there’s a remarkable paucity of dice in the games I’ve enjoyed; Small World and Battlestar Galactica feature a little bit of rolling, Settles of Catan uses 2d6 per turn, but as a randomising element rather than resolving actions. On the other hand Blood Bowl decides almost everything with dice, and I didn’t get on with that at all, though I still haven’t tried it against a human opponent. Blood Bowl: Team Manager, though, a card game, was excellent. We tried Last Night on Earth once as well, a zombie boardgame. It didn’t help that, thanks to certain cards being played, two of us human players missed our first two turns, a pointlessly frustrating start that might’ve coloured my view of the rest of the game, but then there was all the rolling; roll a dice to see how far you move, roll dice to determine the outcome of fights, roll dice to see if more zombies turn up, yada yada. Not my cup of tea at all.

It’s not that I’ve suddenly become dice-phobic; Zombie Dice are great fun, and there’s something oddly satisfying about throwing a massive handful of dice to resolve a ludicrous short-range broadside in Uncharted Seas. I can certainly understand the arguments in their favour, the dramatic tension that dice rolls can bring, but for whatever reason I’ve enjoyed the diceless games more. It might retrospectively explain why I was more into the theory and fluff of RPGs and wargames than actually playing.

There’ll never be an end to the debate, though. Even Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are in on it, both trying to co-opt God to their side of the argument. Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice” suggests He is more of a Eurogamer, whereas Hawking counters with “Not only does God definitely play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” So I’m definitely not inviting Him round for a game of Blood Bowl.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Moving with superior velocity, achieving a more elevated altitude, raising an item of greater mass

“Hello sports fans! Welcome to this live coverage of the results of the bidding process for the inugral MMOlympics. I’m Clifford Prodger”

“And I’m Barry Bumgardener”

“Frequently. Now, as Olympic fever sweeps much of the world, it’s surprising that, until now, no MMOGs have been getting in on the act, perhaps with some sort of in-game tie-in event”

“Perhaps not *that* surprising, Clifford, as those Olympic types are really rather keen on their brand protection, backed up by the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995 (OSPA) to prevent unauthorised association with the games.”

“That’s true. Still, we…”

“In fact after consulting the Brand Protection document, I’m shocked by the flagrant manner in which many existing online entertainments are flouting the guidelines.”

“Yes, anyway, it…”

“The Olympic rings, for example, are quite clearly a protected symbol, and yet how many MMOGs unashamedly include rings as items of jewellery, hmmm?”

“That’s not really…”

“MORE DAMNING STILL! Listed expressions are: any two of the words in list A below OR any word in list A with one or more of the words in list B below:”

“I think we’re straying slightly from the…”

“LIST A: Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve. LIST B: London, medals, sponsors, summer, gold, silver, bronze. How many so-called massively multiplayer online GAMES (list A) feature items made of GOLD, SILVER or indeed BRONZE (list B), hmmm? Hmmm? ANSWER ME!”

“Why don’t you have a little sit down and a couple of dried frog pills, Barry, you’re frothing slightly there.”


“Partially. Now, in no way cashing in on any other event taking place, the International MMOlympic Committee…”

“International MMO-generic sporting event Committee, you mean?”

“Yes, yes, we’ll do a find-and-replace on the tape before its broadcast”

“We’re live, Clifford”

“All right, we’ll do find-and-replace on the brains of everyone watching. The International MMOlympic Committee have asked for bids to hold the inaugural MMOlympics, but as it’s such a massive undertaking, too much for any single game, the process is broken down on an event-by-event basis.”

“C’est vrai. That’s right.”

“Why the French, Barry?”

“Je ne sais pas, je viens juste à l’envie de tout dire en français d’abord, puis de le répéter en anglais. I don’t know, I just got the urge to say everything in French first, and then repeat it in English.”

“Probably the dried frog pills. Anyway, first up: the opening ceremony. What the Committee are really looking for here is spectacle, something with a real sense of scale, something that looks, as Oscar Wilde would say, batshit insane.”

“And the winner is… a troop of werewolves wearing top hats riding rockets accompanied by flying carpets, mammoths, trikes and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face dance. Yes, the opening ceremony will be held in Stormwind City, World of Warcraft.”

“On to the actual sporting events now. First up: Archery. Now the bidding was particularly fierce for this one, wasn’t it Barry?”

“It certainly was, Clifford, and it looks like the committee have hedged their bets slightly by awarding Archery to: All Of Them! Or, to be technically accurate, Almost All Of Them, Apart From A Few Of The Modern-Day Or Sci-Fi Ones, Though Even City Of Heroes Has Archery Powersets”

“And speaking of City of Heroes, there’s celebration from Paragon Studios as their superhero MMOG is awarded the Athletics”

“In keeping with the brand-protection-compliant non-infringing motto of the MMOlympics, ‘Moving with superior velocity, achieving a more elevated altitude, raising an item of greater mass’, it was the travel powers of City of Heroes that clinched it, particularly Super Speed and Super Jump. There’s some controversy over use of the Flight power, though, and whether it would result in a long jump distance of ‘infinity’ or ‘until the map runs out'”

“More good news for hero games now, as Gymnastics goes to: Champions Online. DC Universe Online pushed them hard, both games featuring Acrobatics as a travel power, but the versatility of Champions clinched it with Swinging, Jet Boots and Ice Sliding offering a variety of performance options.”

“It’s the Swimming next, and the committee have opted for Lord of the Rings Online, thanks to fond memories of time spent swimming around Lake Evendim with a strange sort of butterfly-esque porpoising movement for maximum speed. LotRO also secures Equestrianism; though plenty of games allow players to ride horses, it already has (sort of) show jumping in its festival races, so only needs the addition of a mounted /dance emote for the horse to stage the dressage as well.”

“On to Cycling; a bit trickier, bicycles being rather less common than horses in MMOGs, but the hi-tech approach of the British team that’s aroused some suspicion must surely lead eventually to hover-speeder-bikes, so step forward Star Wars: The Old Republic, helped by the fact that the cycling helmets are already suitable for Sith Lords.”

“Guns might not be quite as prevalent in the genre as bows, but there were still a lot of options for the Shooting. The committee felt that tab-targeting and AoE fire was a bit like cheating, though, ruling out bids from The Secret World and the superhero MMOs, amongst others. World of Tanks was a strong contender, but the vehicles had an unfortunate habit of demolishing the rifle range, so in the end they’ve opted for another game where you actually need to aim your weapon: Fallen Earth. There could be a shift in the future, though, as the possibility of laser guns being used in competition means that phaser shooting from Star Trek Online will also be in as a demonstration event.”

“Now Barry, one of the more popular events is the Beach Volleyball”

“You’re certainly a big fan, aren’t you Clifford?”

“Who isn’t, Barry? It needs great strength and endurance to run and jump on energy-sapping sand, so the competitors are supremely fit. Really fit. Supremely fit and toned. Lithe, toned, fit bodies, glistening with a supremely sheen of toned sweat, lithe…”

“Here, I think you might need these dried frog pills. Anyway, get your mind out of the gutter Clifford, there’s far more to the sport than the stereotypical ogling of scantily clad ladies.”

“They let *ladies* play now? Whatever next. Of course you’re right, though, Barry, which is why the MMOlympic Beach Volleyball will be held in TERA, although there was a strong showing from the spellcasting classes of Guild Wars 2

“‘Showing’ being the operative word, eh? Eh?”

“I rather think you’ll find ‘plinth’ is the operative word, actually. A slight pause now, as we wait for the committee to announce the venue for Sailing”

“Now, Clifford, I’ve got a theory for this one. I reckon they’ll opt for The Secret World

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Barry, but… there’s no sailing in The Secret World, is there? I mean Kingsmouth is a fishing port, but you don’t actually go out sailing at all.”

“Aaaah! You’re thinking too literally, Clifford. Watching a sailing race, you see, is very confusing; there are boats everywhere, heading in different directions as they try and make best use of the wind, to the untrained eye it looks like complete chaos, but to an insider, one with secret knowledge, the scene resolves itself, as in television coverage when they project arcane lines and geometries to show who is actually leading, and that’s a lot like the Dragon society in The Secret World, seeing order in chaos, aaaaaaahhhhh! Aaaahhhh!”

“No, not ‘aaaahhh’, Barry, the committee have opted for Pirates of the Burning Sea. Because you sail in it. With wind direction and everything.”

“How unimaginative. Mind you, note for the actual Olympics: a couple of 12 pound bow chasers per yacht would definitely make things more exciting.”

Pirates of the Burning Sea also put a bid in for Fencing, pointing out that one of the fighting styles in the game actually is ‘fencing’, but the committee took a dim view of the additional use of flintlock pistols. From a packed field of All Of Them, Even The Modern Day And Sci-Fi Ones, they’ve opted for Age of Conan, as it at least tried to be a bit different with its directions of attack and blocking.”

“On to the Diving. Several candidates here, but the committee felt that the title of “AHHHHHHH” in Warhammer: Age of Reckoning was a nice touch, and a bit of a consolation prize for unsuccessful competitors.”

“A bit of a grab-bag now, as the committee have decided to combine Boxing, Judo, Taekwondo and Wrestling into a sort of Mixed Martial Art free-for-all contested by Monks from Dungeons and Dragons Online, Martial Arts Scrappers from City of Heroes, and pretty much anyone else, so long as they don’t equip a weapon or cast a spell. Outside interference from party members or henchmen will be closely monitored.”

“And to round it all off, another grab-bag of ‘Sports ending in -ball’, to be represented by the Huttball warzone in Star Wars: The Old Republic

“It’s not a perfect match, of course, Barry, with all that aggression and violence”

“You’re quite right, Clifford, Handball had to be toned down rather for an online equivalent”

“That was a very humorous confounding of my expectations”

“Toned. Well that’s the end of the major sporting events, the committee are just going through a few of the unsuccessful bids. They were very impressed by the Mechwarrior Online proposal to stage every sport using precisely re-created digital versions of the current Olympic stadiums and venues, but with all the human competitors replaced by 20 metre tall 100 ton Atlas Battlemechs, but felt the logistics might be too much for a single game. If the Athletics had been split into sub-events then the multiple soul options in Rift would have stood it in good stead for the heptathlon and decathlon, and the committee did concede that jumping between systems in EVE Online was, indeed, quite a long jump. The original Guild Wars application had to be turned down, though, as it turned out they thought it said non-jump, not long jump. Final Fantasy XI were going to submit an application for the marathon, but didn’t get it in in time as they were stuck in a boss fight.”

“And in terms of infrastructure, the MMOlympic Village is to be provided by EverQuest 2 and Wildstar housing.”

“That just leaves the vital job of security, no less important for online games than real world sports.”

“You’re not wrong, Barry, and after studying the sterling work done by G4S for the London Olympics, only one company could offer similarly stringent online security: SOE.”

“Or, in breaking news, Blizzard”

“That’s strangely topical, didn’t news of the hack happen the day after this post?”

“It certainly did, Clifford, which is why this segment was edited in afterwards.”



Tuesday 7 August 2012

Oh death, where is thy sting?

I had been having some trouble, I can admit that much; I wouldn’t say that my dungeon run in Dungeons & Dragons Online was a nightmare, but I had been struggling through somewhat, with each fight having to be a careful pull and kite in order to maximise my time spent actually playing the game, rather than sitting around licking my wounds.

It’s all part of my holding pattern while I wait for Guild Wars 2 to arrive: I dabble solo in this game and that, not really finding the enthusiasm to play any single game with the traditional idolatrous fervour of the MMO addict. We’re on the taxiway with Air ArenaNet now, and the air of anticipation means that I can’t concentrate on anything – sometimes snapping alert as though from a daze, whereupon I find myself staring blankly at a half-finished inflight magazine which I don’t remember opening, let alone reading. Soon the engines of anticipation will build to full power, the excitement and tension palpable, the thrumming power of that passion, held in check, causing the cabin of the community to vibrate. The allotted take-off window arrives, and with the flip of a switch… release. A roar of exultation follows, our craft swiftly gathering momentum in its eager urgency, then with a swell and a sigh we launch, soaring onward to the peregrine climes of Tyria.

In the meantime, I really am an irascible git with respect to my gaming patience, to the point that I’m actually spending most of my time reading.

Nevertheless, I did, at some point, find myself struggling through a dungeon in DDO. It so happened that I reached a point where I could no longer progress without aid: a lever needed to be operated while another person would run through a series of gates. Having come quite far, I decided to purchase a hireling and complete my otherwise solo sortie with a little help. Being a melee sort, I decided to grab a cleric hireling, and that’s when I was reminded by just how much healing changes the game.

Just like that, my character became an irrepressible and immortal being. Where before I was tentative and circumspect, I was now transformed into a hooligan – there are those who would think themselves hooligans, but they would be compelled to stare agape at my antics and call out ‘Steady on there old chap, have a care!’. I was suddenly pulling whole groups of skeletons, pulling additional groups of skeletons, pulling the sisters of those groups of skeletons. It was carnage, at the end of which I would stand panting in the midst of a bone pile that would make Razorfen Downs blush, and my health bar would still be reading ‘Don’t know what all the fuss is about’. That was just for starters, then… then I got blasé. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I do know that by the end of it I was running back and forth naked through a series of traps, dragging a train of skeletons behind me, while I sang U Can’t Touch This. I do remember riding a clay golem. And trying to goose a fire elemental with a stick of dynamite. If we stopped to rest but briefly, I would imagine I was calmly sitting in the camp fire, stirring the embers with my feet and watching my health bar drop and rise, drop and rise.

I’m curious to see how Guild Wars 2’s healing works — whether support classes and group healing will become the essential crutch that they are in other MMOs, or if ArenaNet will find a way to balance encounters such that they are required only in the direst of situations. That’s what I hope for, not for a removal of healing altogether, but a return to it being a tactical decision, an occasional counter to an enemy’s pressed attack, rather than a vital constant where defeat is ensured if it ever goes away. GW2 certainly seems to have less emphasis on healing, and the downed mechanic makes death less of a certainty once that health bar has dropped to zero.

It’s somewhat sad that abundant healing enables our characters to achieve so much, yet restricts them so much the more if it is then ever absent. With GW2 I’m hoping to find a freer form of gameplay, although never so free as yee-hawing naked on a bucking golem through the impotent defensive lines of the minions of darkness, I grant you.

Friday 3 August 2012

Egotism, n: Doing the New York Times crossword puzzle with a pen

(BBBC Spoiler Warning: this post contains light spoilers for the Dead Air mission of The Secret World)

There’s an excellent example of an investigation mission early in The Secret World where you need to repair a radio mast. Examining a plate reveals the mast’s model number and website of the manufacturer ( Looking up the model number on the site reveals “… provisional repairs can be carried out without recourse to specialized parts and labour. Primary components: brackets, anchors, antennas, lightning arrestors. Provisional repair materials: household adhesives, conductors and amplifiers.” It might as well say “Have you played an MMO before? Just go and click on anything that looks clickable”, but y’know, it’s a nice touch. Having taped a bunch of random bits of metal to the mast it starts working again, and strange beeps start emerging… Is it malfunctioning? Is it tuned to a radio station broadcasting the very cutting edge of monotonic electro jazz fusion funk? No, obviously it’s Morse code, I was just trying to build tension there.

At this point you have two options: you could jot down the dots and dashes, find the Morse alphabet and manually decode the message, or you could download an app, hold a smartphone up to the speakers and have it do that hard work. Or you could just Google the solution, of course, so three options. Or find a friend who knows Morse code, four options… OK, *amongst* your options are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and a smartphone app. I downloaded “Morse Code Reader”, cranked up the headphone volume, held the phone up, and as glowing green letters started appearing on the screen spelling out a message I thought “that’s rather nifty”.

For me the various elements were pitched about spot-on, interesting and diverting without being frustrating. Another mission, The Kingsmouth Code, was a *smidge* on the esoteric side in a couple of places; never the full head-scratching madness of adventure game logic, but at a couple of points I’d deduced some elements of a clue and needed a little nudge to put everything together (hurrah for Dulfy and some great guides that give hints as well as spoiler-tagged solutions).

Last night I was investigating one of the new missions added in the latest patch with Kris, and after some fun collaborative puzzle solving on voice chat (“A series of letters and numbers, what could it be? Co-ordinates? A numeric substitution cipher of some sort? Let’s run around randomly and see if there’s something to click on!”) we found a van, and the headlights started blinking in (presumably) Morse code. Without an app to decode the message, though, the prospect of trying to manually decode the flashing didn’t appeal at all, so it was straight off to Google for the solution. Of course not every player owns a smartphone, or would necessarily want to bother to download a Morse code app, but for me the audio version was a nifty puzzle, the visual version was some tedium to be avoided. Some players doubtless solved The Kingsmouth Code in seconds, while simultaneously doing cryptic crosswords in both The Times and The Telegraph, others probably didn’t even pause to read the in-game text before hitting Google to find out where to go and what to click next, it must be difficult to pitch things for such a wide audience.

I got into codes and ciphers early with The KnowHow Book of Spycraft, simple things like pigpen, then later the work at Bletchley Park in World War II was the perfect combination of military and technological history to fire my interest. Simon Singh’s The Code Book contained a £10,000 Cipher Challenge, I had a crack at it, and was pretty chuffed to solve some of the early ciphers with a bit of coding, like a program to calculate letter frequencies for various possible keyword lengths of a Vigenère cipher, but gave up on the later, really rather tough stages. A bit of deciphering in The Secret World could be fun, but again very difficult to pitch; Fez included a particularly challenging puzzle that’s interesting to read about, but it sounded pretty frustrating to be involved with.

There is nothing new under the sun, though; Richard Bartle wrote an interesting post looking at some puzzles from MUD1, including a link to an article on the pros and cons from 1985. There’s even a few unsolved puzzles, or at least solved puzzles where the derivation has been lost; I presume the pronunciation question is based on the heteronyms of Polish (nationality) and polish (make something shiny), but as there are other five letter heteronyms it’s the sort of pub quiz question that causes fights in the car park, even if the “block capitals” part implies case is crucial…

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Take Courage! Whatever you decide to do, it will probably be the wrong thing.


I like the original on the left because I based her on Isabela from Dragon Age 2.

I like the one on the right because I think she looks more like a classic Norn, such as Jora[1]

But which one should I play as my Chesney Hawkes? My ‘not going to re-roll, sticking to my guns, this is it, final answer, no alts until I hit the level cap’?

There’s only one way to find out!


[1] I still need to tweak the mouth somewhat, so it doesn’t look as though her greatest enemy was not Jormag but an industrial class collagen injection machine.

[2] Or have a vote. Or roll a dice. Or see which one turns up first in my dreams wearing a wetsuit full of jelly—I’ve said too much.