Thursday 26 January 2023

Oops There Goes Gravity

Not too many changes on the gaming front over the past few months; Desperadoes 3 fell by the wayside, but I looped around Deathloop to the end of the story. It’s a great premise, has a really strong design, and the story, mechanics, and puzzles kept me hooked in. It held my hand enough that my poor aged brain could cope with gaps between sessions when I might not remember exactly what I was supposed to be doing where (and when); I could see it being a satisfying challenge to have to keep extensive notes and work out everything without a handy mission journal and big orange map markers, but also tricky and/or frustrating to the point that I doubt I’d have bothered to see it through (at least not without downloading a walk through).

It feels rather Old School, playing a single player game from start to finish then moving on to something else. Less than optimal from the publisher’s perspective, I guess; there is a multiplayer mode, where you can take control of the game’s antagonist and hop into other players sessions, but it’s not for me. I don’t know if it has a strong player base but it feels like a slightly tacked on element to try and increase the longevity with unlocks and PvP, albeit entirely understandably considering the effort required to produce the game and popularity (and resulting sales) of e.g. the multiplayer mode of Mass Effect 3 or the longevity of other looter-shooters.

Elsewhere cards continue to be something of a theme. Monster Train, the roguelike deckbuilder from the same Humble Monthly bundle as Deathloop, is great for a quick run here and there, the combinations of the various factions offering different approaches to the game: sending out wave after wave of cheap minions whose deaths power up other units; spiky tanks damaging and debuffing the enemy when they get hit; powerful spells further boosted by trinkets and units. Combined with the usual card game variance of how you build a deck and what you draw it really mixes things up. I still play a bit of KARDS as well, but it’s been overtaken as my favoured PvP deckbuilder by Marvel Snap.

After its deceptively simple start there’s a lot going on in Marvel Snap. In a previous post I linked to a Twitter thread of the lead designer explaining why they don’t have mulligans and how they addressed player feedback about it, and there’s an interesting interview on Kotaku about the first three months. It’s a good point made there about the Marvel theme being a nice hook, even if not strictly relevant to most of the mechanics; the Second World War theme is the reason I started playing KARDS, then it’s the deeper gameplay that keeps you going. I might’ve tried a generic hero card game with Stabby Hands Guy but I doubt it would have acquired such a buzz and player base, even if the gameplay was excellent.

The complexity of Marvel Snap is introduced neatly as you unlock new cards. To start with it’s mostly Play Card With Biggest Numbers; then there are fairly straightforward abilities, like gaining extra power if you don’t play another card on the same location the next turn, that introduce a little more forward thinking. Then you get into mechanics with more synergy like moving, discarding and destroying; discarding your own cards usually isn’t great, leaving you less choices, but a few cards have beneficial effects when discarded. Some cards move cards, other cards benefit from being moved. Of course there’s the usual card game shenanigans where you have to cope with the cards you draw; in KARDS I have a deck that’s about one third tank units, most of the other cards focused on buffing those tanks, and I swear I’ve had matches where I haven’t drawn a single tank in the first ten cards more often than is statistically likely. With decks of just 12 cards in Marvel Snap I’ve never been quite that frustrated, you might not draw the exact card you were hoping for but with a little thought in deck construction it’s hard to end up with a totally useless hand. Unless…

The next layer of variance is the three locations you play over, with various random effects. Some tie in with card effects such as destroying or moving cards, assisting decks built around those, others stop certain abilities or trigger them twice, others really throw a spanner in the works by having players draw from each others decks or adding random cards to hands or the board. Between the locations and card abilities it can be quite involved working out exactly what will apply to which cards and when; “the last card I played moves the next card one location to the left, so I’ll play this here, that allows other cards to move to its location (the original one, not the final one), then it’ll end up there, so I play this other card there to buff it…” There are subtleties as well, such as the difference between not being able to play a card in a location (but still being able to move a card there) compared to not being able to add a card to a location (including movement). Setting everything up for a grand shift thinking it’s the former when actually it’s the latter is a mistake you only make once. As long as you’re the sort of person to learn from their mistakes; I still miss location or card effects that entirely ruin my grand plans every now and again.

I can’t be too cross about that, being entirely my fault and all; what can be more frustrating is when your plans are undone by a card played by your opponent. KARDS could be particularly bad for that, having a whole bunch of orders and countermeasures designed for locking down the other player, playing against certain decks (when they get the right draw) is just turn after turn of watching your units being pushed back to your hand, discarded, or otherwise nullified, no fun at all. Marvel Snap does have cards that adversely affect your opponent but not a huge number, and with all the other potential effects going on I’ve seldom found them to be rage-quittingly annoying. Speaking of quitting, the snap mechanic also takes some of the sting out of it. If you retreat from a game before the final round you lose a ranking point and the other player gains one; see it through to the end and it’s a two point gain/loss. Like the double cube of backgammon each player can also snap once, doubling the reward/penalty, so a double-snapped game played to the end is worth eight points. That means if you end up in a terrible situation either through dumb luck or your own dumb play you can retreat without a major hit to your rank. Bluffing is another option, snapping even if you have hopeless cards, but as the stakes are hardly life-and-death it’s not the trickiest decision to call what looks like a bluff.

If there is one issue I’m finding after a few months it’s lack of new cards, as PC Gamer observed. Without spending anything I’ve built up a decent collection, new cards are plentiful as you start building your Collection Level, but later it slows to a trickle; I haven’t picked up a new card that I’ve actually included in a deck for a while now. I can field a decent variety of decks with different specialities, but there are a few cards out there that would work very nicely that I can’t just go and acquire. It’s a tricky balance; one of the appeals of Marvel Snap is the relative simplicity of building decks so releasing too many cards spoils that, but of course you need to keep things fresh and interesting as well. It’s admirable that they don’t sell specific cards for silly money, but £90 for a stack of in-game currency to (visually) upgrade your cards with slim chances of acquiring new ones in the process doesn’t feel great. The £8.99 Season Pass is more tempting, one of the few ways of definitely getting a particular card, and I feel like I ought to contribute something for the time I’ve played. Overall the positives considerably outweigh the negatives for a nice, quick, snack-sized card battler that works very well on a mobile as well as desktop, even without new cards there’s plenty of variety in the battles.