Archive for December 25, 2013

The Problem With Summoning Part 1

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Summoning is a major part of Malifaux, but it comes with some unique issues. There are very few (if any) other table top war games where actively putting new models on the table plays such a major role. Generally, all of your actions are focused on removing the opposing models from the table. While summoning makes Malifaux all the more diverse and unique, it creates some issues which other similar games never need to worry about.

I mentioned in another post that AP should be viewed as a resource. In this view, the winner is the player who most efficiently turns his or her Action Points (AP) into Victory Points (VP). This makes actions which either remove opposing AP, or add friendly AP, very powerful. Removing opposing AP is the more common of the two, and is most easily seen in killing models. The vast majority of models in the game have the potential to remove opposing models from the table (or are specifically designed for that purpose).

Summoning friendly models is the logical opposite to killing enemy models. Both forms of action hinge on changing the AP differential between you and your opponent in your favor. If you’re only looking at the AP differential, there is very little difference between deleting an opposing model and creating another friendly model. So it would seem that, on the surface, these two strategies are inherently balanced. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

To remove an opposing model, you almost always need range and Line of Sight (LoS). This inherently implies that there is a positioning element, which allows your opponent to react to you; either through positioning (running away) or counter attacking (killing your stuff first). Additionally, the opponent will generally have an opportunity to resist (because actions that can kill opposing models almost always require an opposed duel of some kind). This further adds to the counter play.

Summoning, on the other hand, can be accomplished in a vacuum. There is nothing inherent about summoning which requires positioning or opposing models to pass duels, etc. You can just do it in a corner without worrying about what the opponent is doing. Imagine if Lady Justice could sit in a corner swinging her sword and cheating in high cards every so often while removing opposing models from the table. From an AP differential standpoint, unchecked summoning is just as powerful. And, in addition to being too powerful, mechanics which don’t encourage interaction are simply less fun and more frustrating.

Of course, I am only talking about how summoning plays inherently. There is nothing specific about its design which forces player interaction and positioning, but that’s precisely the sort of problem we go about solving when we design summoning mechanics. This is why summoning actions usually require another resource (such as a corpse or scrap marker) which lessens the power of the ability, adds a positioning element, and forces interaction as the best way to get those resources is for models to start dying. I don’t think any of our wave 1 summoners are too powerful (and their beta counterparts are shaping up), I’m simply noting what I look out for as a designer. There are a number of other creative solutions which I will talk about in a future article, but for now I’m just laying out the problem.

Habit

I think forming good habits is important. It’s why I write a blog every Monday and Wednesday (so far) without fail. It’s why I’m sitting here writing this one in spite of the fact that I really, really don’t want to.

It’s a busy week. Holidays are coming up, update tomorrow, and my wife is due anytime now and getting any help from medical professionals is virtually impossible over the holidays, which is frustrating. But here I sit, blogging away.

Letting good habits slide is easy. Often you have good reasons to do so…like the ones listed above. But once you have given yourself that permission, it becomes easier and easier. “Oh, I missed last week, what’s one more? The world didn’t end.” I’m not usually a fan of the slippery slope argument, but this is a time it really applies; at least to me.

And this can be true for anything: diet, exercise, painting, working, just being nice to people. Keeping up good habits when it’s fun and you want to do it is easy. It’s the rough patches which are really going to determine how you do things. And I want to keep this blog going, so here I am.

Malifaux Activation Order

Today’s post will be another that takes what we intuitively understand about Malifaux and breaks it down explicitly, along the same lines as the article on Viewing AP as a Resource.

Order of Operations In Malifaux

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Mastering activation order is one of the most important skills in Malifaux. However, it can be tricky to get right. Do you activate the model which is most likely to be killed if it waits until later in the turn? Or should you activate the model which is best able to kill an opposing piece before it activates? Maybe neither one is the answer and you should activate the model which is about to place a valuable scheme marker or put up a defensive aura.

In my experience there are four really pressing reasons to activate a model early:

1) To get one more activation before the model is killed.

2) To kill an enemy model before it can activate.

3) To buff friendly models or debuff enemy models that are yet to activate.

4) To score VP (either before the model is killed, or before the method of gaining VP is denied by the opponent).

Remember, winning the game is all about Victory Points (VP) so the best option is usually the one which grants VP in the most efficient way. This would make option four appear to be the most appealing and, while this is often true, it isn’t necessarily always the case. Action Point (AP) efficiency is incredibly important, so often activating a model which will be killed if it doesn’t activate soon enough can be the best choice. For me, the most important model to activate the soonest is usually going to be one which combines a few of these options.

For example, maybe you have a model which will be killed if it does not activate as soon as possible, and that model is also in position to kill an enemy model before it activates (combining 1 and 2). Or maybe the model is in a position to score some VP which may not be available later while also taking an action to generate an aura which buffs the rest of your crew. Look at the board and remember that, once the game has started, all that matters is a model’s positional value. It doesn’t matter how many stones you spent on it or whether or not it’s your master. If it is in the most valuable position, it should be activated first. And, when possible, activate models which fall under more than one of the above categories.

Of course, activating as soon as possible isn’t always the best option in Malifaux. In fact, activating later in the turn can often reap some great benefits. On the message boards, the term “out activating” is often thrown about. What people mean by this is that their crew outnumbers the opposing crew, allowing their last few models to activate without the opponent responding.

In my opinion, there are three prime reasons to hold a model back and activate it last:

1) Activating last allows you to put the model into harm’s way and make its attacks without fear of opposing models activating afterwards and killing it (this is especially good on models which can move out of harm’s way after attacking).

2) Activating last allows you to score VP more easily (for example, placing Scheme Markers near an enemy Master after it has activated when you have the Spring the Trap scheme).

3) Activating last allows you to put some good buffs on the model before moving in and attacking.

Just like when deciding which model to activate first, you need to keep VP efficiency in mind. You may want to hold your master back so that it can attack safely, but if a 4 stone minion is in position to Spring the Trap, it may be the most valuable model you have. And, when you can hold a model back which fulfills more than one of these categories, that is usually a good choice.

It is also nice to see what your opponent does before committing your models. Don’t just look for the best opportunity; try to guess what he/she is doing. Anticipate what they may have planned after initiative is flipped on the next turn and use your late-turn activations accordingly. Does it look like your opponent is set to plant the last marker for Line in the Sand as soon as initiative is flipped? Can you stop it? At this point you are determining the flow of the game and that is very powerful: use it to your advantage.

Once again, this was probably a lot of stuff people already understand intuitively, but spelling it out can often help. Let me know if you found this useful.

The Project For Awesome

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The Project For Awesome (P4A) starts tomorrow and I thought it would be nice to make a little post here letting you guys know about it.

The Project For Awesome is a charity drive organized every year by the Vlogbrothers (our partners on the Evil Baby Orphanage game). The Project For Awesome lasts two days (December 17-18th) and, during this time, people upload Youtube videos talking about their favorite charities. Over the course of the project, the Vlogbrothers host a livestream with various Youtube celebrities and they have an Indiegogo page (it’s already up, link) where you can donate to the project.

At the end of the project, the community votes for their favorite charities and the money raised by the Indiegogo page goes to them.

It’s an incredibly fun time. I love watching the videos and listening to the livestream (last year I remember Wil Wheaton was on it for a bit). I also love tuning in late at night when the hosts are exhausted, sometimes that’s the most entertaining time. Plus there are lots of cool prizes on the Indiegogo campaign.

It’s amazing to me what people can do when they work together, and the Project For Awesome really demonstrates this. What started as a small fundraiser now takes over the front page of Youtube every year and, last year alone, raised $450,000. In addition to the money raised, the charities that don’t win still get a lot of exposure.

If you’ve never heard of it, I highly suggest checking it out.

Balancing Models In A Dual Faction Environment

Second edition has introduced a lot of cross over between factions; new mercenaries, new dual faction models, and new hiring rules. Not to mention the options that upgrades add. But, with all of the potential combinations, how do we maintain a balanced environment? I think, on the whole, most people agree second edition is a relatively well balanced game, so how did we do it?

I’ll get into a few specifics down below, but the most important thing is a shift in philosophy. The goal is not to create a balanced system by hammering down problems as they pop up like some infernal game of whack-a-mole; the goal is to create a system that is capable of correcting itself.

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Some people look at a game system as a machine that requires constant maintenance. But, over the years, you’ll end up with rubber bands holding the whole thing together and duct tape keeping the fender on. I see a game system as a living thing. My goal is to give it the tools it needs to survive and then let it correct itself.

So, when we go about balancing Malifaux with all of those models switching factions, everything needs to be looked at through that lens. Accept that the system is larger than you. Accept that you won’t catch everything. Trying out every single potential combination is simply impossible unless we want to beta test for years. Instead of worrying about the whole, we worry about the parts. A healthy system is created from the ground up, so first we want to make sure that models are balanced individually. Maybe, during the beta, nobody ended up testing a crew with Seamus, a Showgirl, Killjoy, and Taelor all together. However, even though that specific list wasn’t tested as a whole, so long as each of the models in it is balanced, we will probably be fine.

This is the first lesson: balance models individually. We can’t balance the game by saying, “Well, Resser masters are weaker than those of other factions, so we can give them stronger minions.” (This is an example I am making up, by the way, Resser masters are fine). If we follow that line of thinking, what happens when other factions start hiring Resser minions? Similarly, we couldn’t say, “Arcanists have weak 4 stone options, so we can give them stronger 7 stone options.” (Again, making this up). This has the exact same issue. What happens when Arcanists can hire 4 stone models from other factions? What happens when that 7 stone model ends up elsewhere? Not to mention, this would probably just lead to Arcanist players spamming 7 stone models.

I’m not saying that the factions need to lose their identities; they all still have distinct areas of strength and weakness. Guild have more range options, Ressers have more summoning, Neverborn have more movement, etc. What I am saying is that each model in a faction needs to be balanced as an individual. If all of the parts are working, the crew you create from those parts should work as well.

Of course, this doesn’t cover everything. We’re all gamers; we’ve all seen what happens when there are two models/cards/whatever with rules that work individually but, when combined, create some stupid infinite loop or other silliness. How do we avoid that? Well, models which are capable of being broken like that tend to have some warning signs. As a designer, you need to learn to recognize those warning signs and work them out even if you haven’t found a specific model which causes a broken combo. Generally, anything which copies an action from another model can prove problematic, so we keep a very close eye on these abilities. That’s why they frequently restrict the use of copying abilities which mention a model by name or using triggers. Anything which adds suits can be problematic as it can result in unlimited triggers. Models with these abilities are usually closely watched (for example, the Daydream can add suits but, being the Dreamer’s totem, we know exactly which model he is adding suits to. Somer can add suits, but he can only do it to gremlins and pigs so we don’t need to balance all mercenaries around this ability, etc).

Finally, the last thing to watch is simple language. Anything which is too open ended can end up being a problem. Let me give you an example. Here is Shenlong’s Burn Like Fire action from the beta a week ago:

(1) Burn Like Fire (Ca 6 / TN: 10 / Rst: Wp / Rg: 6): Target enemy model suffers 1/2/3 damage. If the target has a Condition, this model may choose to gain that Condition.

Here is his Burn Like Fire action from this week:

(1) Burn Like Fire (Ca 6 / TN: 10 / Rst: Wp / Rg: 6): Target enemy model suffers 1/2/3 damage. End all instances of the Defensive, Focused, Fast, and Reactivate Conditions on the target. This model gains all Conditions ended in this way.

See the difference? This week’s version is much more restrictive, spelling out exactly which conditions he may gain. Now, did I find some broken combo involving this? No, but I acknowledge that there very well could be one I’m not seeing, if not now then in the future. Keeping the wording tight keeps the game healthy.

The other thing which you really need to watch is the number of debuffs available to a crew. Although watching the whole system is impossible, you can track how many models have an ability capable of debuffing (lowering the stats of other models around them) that may be taken outside of their native faction. If a crew ends up with too many of these models, it can make for an unfun game. This is why Montresor lost mercenary, and Iggy is being watched very closely.

If you follow all of these rules, you should have a relatively healthy system. But I mentioned earlier that I see a system as a living thing, and a living thing is going to need some tools to survive. The final piece of the puzzle is creating a few answers to potential problems which are available to absolutely everyone. This is where the mercenaries really shine. Each of the named mercenaries adds something unique which can be very useful from a meta perspective. Let’s have a look at them.

Johan, in addition to being an efficient model, has Rebel Yell which can remove conditions from a model. Conditions are a huge part of second edition, and it’s very possible that a player could run into a situation where they really need to get rid of some of them. Having a model available to every faction with this ability really helps level the playing field.

Taelor has Welcome To Malifaux (my personal favorite action that I designed in Wave 1, just as a side note) which gives her some good anti-summoning tech. Summoning is another big part of second edition and I think it’s necessary for all crews to have an answer to it. Keep in mind, this isn’t something we put in to answer a specific problem. We didn’t look at the meta and say, “Nicodem’s summoning is too powerful, so we’ll let everyone use Taelor. Problem solved!” That would be terrible design. However, we acknowledged that playing against a summoning crew can be a big shift in thought for people new to Malifaux (after all, most wargames only remove models from the table, they don’t come back on). And, in a small playgroup where a player may end up facing the same crew over and over again, it’s good to give that player an answer if they are getting frustrated. It’s also good from a tournament perspective if a player is familiar with the meta in their area; everyone always playing summoners? Pest control is on the way!

Hans can snipe upgrades off of models. Now, he is definitely the most controversial of the models listed so far. People seem to be worried about his ability to remove upgrades from masters (since upgrades are usually a big part of a master’s playstle). While this is a valid concern, we were aware of it when designing Hans, and Leader models can mitigate this ability by discarding cards. I have never personally seen a Leader have an upgrade removed by Hans unless they felt the cards were more valuable (in which case, they weren’t too attached to the upgrade anyway). People are more worried about the idea than about how it actually functions. However, perception is important, and with Hans filling this role, I have no intention of adding more models with this capability. Alright, controversy out of the way, Hans plays a role just as important as Johan and Taelor. Upgrades are a big part of second edition, and it’s good to have an answer to them to shake up the meta a little bit. Hans was never designed to take upgrades off of Masters; he was designed to take upgrades off of enforcers and henchmen (and he’s good at it). Like the other two, Hans isn’t an answer to a specific problem. However, if a player finds themselves facing an opponent who takes the same list over and over again, he can be used to shake things up. Sick of your friend always taking Decaying Aura on Bete Noire? Hans is your man.

That’s all I have for right now. Just remember the goal. The goal is not to create a machine and keep it running forever, the goal is to create a living thing that takes care of itself.

Community Part One

What is a community?

Is it just a group of people who are similar in some way?

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To a certain extent, I suppose. But there’s more to it than that.

What is it that brings them together? Shared activities?

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Shared values?

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Any of those things could bring people together. But, at the end of the day, I’m not certain that the reason matters much. At least not all the time. Whether it’s a church, a club, a school, or a group of people who hang out and paint tiny plastic soldiers all day; what really matters is that people are drawn together. Whatever excuses we use or hobbies we choose, it’s the people that matter.

That’s an easy rule to forget when we have our heads in stats and rules debates all day. But I think that the beauty of this hobby is in the people we meet and friendships we make. Pushing people away and being rude and nasty over a rule, or edition change or whatever else is just plain dumb. Don’t get so caught up in the excuse we use to get together that you start to lose sight of why the hobby has any value at all.

Anyway, that was my brief thought for the day. And you probably noticed that this is part one. Part two will be about running a community, but that’s for a day when I have more time.

Swimming Against The Tide

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Comparing two models can be tricky, because when you do it, you need to consider everything the model can do and not just a single ability. It’s human nature to pick the two things which are most alike and compare them side by side; however, this is dangerous from a game design stand point.

This has been cropping up with Leveticus in comparison to the hanged. The Hanged has an action (Whispers From Beyond) which is very similar to the Unnatural Wasting action on Leveticus’s Pariah of Iron upgrade, except The Hanged doesn’t need to make a damage flip where Leveticus does. This led to a number of people requesting this action get a buff just because it wasn’t as good as the one on The Hanged. So, I posted this in the Leveticus thread:

I’m not worried about Whispers From Beyond on The Hanged. The Hanged being able to do something better than Leveticus does not make Leveticus worse. Nekima has a weak melee damage of 4, but that doesn’t invalidate Lilith as a melee piece. At the end of the day Leveticus gets one more AP to use the Action, has a longer range, and has a higher Ca with the opportunity to cast it on a +. Also he tends to be able to last longer to get more use out of it. Of course, all of this is academic, because I am not concerned with comparing Pariah of Iron with the Hanged; I’m concerned with comparing Pariah of Iron with Pariah of Bone.

Comparing models is difficult, because a single aspect of the model can’t be cherry picked and compared to something else, the model needs to be considered as a whole. But that’s not how people tend to operate.

At the end of the day, a good model can have a bad ability; it doesn’t make the model any worse, it just won’t come up that much. However, sometimes when a good model has a situational ability, that causes people to lower their perception of the model as a whole. It’s an unfortunate quirk of human nature, but since we tend to design games for humans, adhering to human nature is pretty important.

A good example of this was the Hunter ability on Samael Hopkins in the wave 1 beta. Hunter allowed Samael to ignore cover while within 6″ of his target. This is situational enough, but he also had Visions of Flame which was a better ability so long as the target had burning. However, Hunter may have come into play every once in a while. Because Hunter wasn’t very appealing, people got stuck on that and under valued Samael as a whole. All sorts of replacement abilities were suggested (which would have made him broken, since the rest of him was perfectly fine). Ultimately, I just removed Hunter and didn’t replace it with anything. Once the sub-par ability was removed, people focused on the better aspects of the model and I haven’t heard a single complaint about him being under powered, despite the fact that he is technically a smidge less powerful than when he had Hunter.

Human nature is an awkward thing to work around sometimes, but fighting against is is like swimming against the tide. Human nature wins.

 

Common Themes In Young Adult Fiction

I was responding to a comment on my post about the Hunger Games and I realized that I could probably expand it out into its own post.

I think there are a few elements which some of the really popular works of young adult fiction have in common. Of course, I have to point out, this is just my opinion and this isn’t my area of expertise. But I noticed some similarities and thought it would be worth sharing them.

1) People Are Sorted Into Groups With Distinct Traits

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This is very clear in Harry Potter where the children are literally sorted. Gryffindor if they’re courageous, Ravenclaw if they’re intellectual, etc, etc. Each house comes with a set of distinct traits which help to define the people in it.

The Hunger Games also has an element of this, although it’s a bit less pronounced. Each district provides something else to the Capital, and people from those districts tend to have specific talents; District 3 runs the power plant so Wiress and Beetee are good with technology, District 4 does the fishing so Finnick is good with a trident, etc, etc. Although this is significantly less important in the Hunger Games than in Harry Potter, it is definitely present and Katniss mentions the skills the children from each district might bring to the games.

I think that this is a theme in very popular young adult fiction because it brings out a number of elements which teenagers can relate to. After all, fitting in is sort of the defining challenge for most people in high school. Without distinct groups, there is nothing to fit in to. Being a part of something is important to most people, and the easiest way to define yourself as “in” is to define someone else as “out.”

Additionally, it helps to define the characters by giving them something to rally against. Katniss mentions that kids from her district were always at a disadvantage because they had no useful combat skills, but she breaks the mold with her ability to hunt. Harry Potter was sorted into Gryffindor, but he can talk to snakes and there is always the question of whether he should have been in Slytherin. Having characters which break the mold and express their individuality is a lot easier when there is a mold to break.

Defining yourself and your own abilities is a large part of growing up, and I think that reading about the characters as they literally try to figure out where they belong is something which can make these books even more relatable to their audience.

And let’s be honest, Harry Potter personality quizzes are fun. (Ravenclaw, bitches! …I feel the strange urge to throw a gang sign now.)

2) The Adults Know What Is Going On But Don’t Help

Young adult fiction should be about the trials and tribulations of…young adults. No argument here, but it seems the adults do always know (generally) what is going on, but they never step in or help. Like they’re just watching from a pedestal.

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In Harry Potter, the adults know about the danger Harry is in, but you never see them running around getting chased by a Basilisk (well, not much). In the Hunger Games this is even more pronounced, with the adults literally watching the action on TV.

I think that this is a very important aspect because the lack of adult intervention allows the characters to fight their own battles. But, I think it also mirrors the experience of many teenagers. When you’re in high school and you’re being bullied and you’re drowning in homework and you’re trying to figure out your place in the world, the adults in your life aren’t going to step in and handle those problems for you. Teachers may see kids being bullied but be unable/unwilling to stop it. Both the ever-presence and general impotence/apathy of most adults is something most teenagers can probably relate to very well, and fiction which contains that element may be more appealing.

3) A Contained Environment

Hogwarts

In Harry Potter, most of the action takes place in the school, Hogwarts. Hogwarts is an environment with very well defined rules and locations which the characters explore. The Hunger Games takes place in an arena which the characters can’t leave, with adults outside controlling every aspect of it.

I think that this mimics the experience of most teenagers, going to school in the day and coming home at night. Every aspect of the lives is controlled and regulated by adults (well, at least the adults try, anyway). Sure, most high schools don’t release genetically engineered attack dogs on their students, but their rules and regulations can be (or seem) draconian. Having a well defined, well regulated environment which is controlled (at least partially) by those ever-present adult overseers who never seem to help much makes these stories all the more relatable.

Of course, I could be completely off. And I’m talking about the more mainstream fiction which kids choose to read (yeah, Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies contain none of these, but I’m not sure if it counts when kids have to read them to write an essay), and which become wildly popular. There are always exceptions (both in teenagers with varying tastes, and young adult fiction which takes off without this) but these are just a few things I noticed. Also, I want to note that this isn’t a criticism of young adult fiction. I like it very much. I can’t wait to pick up Divergent and see if any of these hold true (and, you know, enjoy reading it).