Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More On Ironman

Sky commented on my post from Monday about thinking about doing an Ironman character as well but not wanting to be either a sissy or a big pig. It sounded like his gut feeling was that hunters were going to be the best by far at the challenge and that warriors were going to be terrible. Warriors have had weird rage scaling in the past and I'm not sure where they're at now but I imagine using a white or grey weapon would really cripple a warrior.

There is a webpage with all the stats for people who signed up for the challenge and I like crunching numbers so I figured it could be interesting to take a look at a few metrics to see how classes have actually fared thus far when played by people who are actively participating in the challenge to see who is actually lagging behind the pack. Note that it is possible to delete a dead character and start a new one with the same name so I'd imagine there are some low level characters that died and were subsequently replaced so they don't exist in the data anymore.

Class Number % of Total Best Living Best Dead 61-70 71-80 81-85 61+ %
Hunter 2856 40% 85 75 39 4 2 1.6%
Warlock 626 9% 65 78 5 1 1.0%
Rogue 321 4% 62 69 3 0.9%
Warrior 425 6% 50 68 2 0.5%
Paladin 969 13% 62 63 3 0.3%
Mage 483 7% 53 64 1 0.2%
Druid 826 11% 56 46 0.0%
Shaman 370 5% 38 43 0.0%
Priest 314 4% 58 47 0.0%

I decided to manually pull out the information above. The total number of each class in the database and the percentage of total. I found the highest level character of each class that are still alive and the highest level that was dead. I counted the number of people in each of the expansion level ranges since those feel like they should be real breakpoints. Finally I worked out how many of each class hit at least level 61 as a percentage of all characters of that class.

Hunters are clearly the best. Someone's actually managed to hit level 85 on an ironman hunter! 40% of all characters loaded into the challenge have been hunters. In terms of sheer number of players that hit at least 61 they have a massive lead but that should be expected when they have 40% of the total. As the last column shows, though, they are busting through that threshold at a better rate than any other class.

Warlock is the only other class to break through the 71 barrier. He made it all the way to 78 before dying which is actually the best of any dead character. Warlocks have the second best success rate as well. They aren't super popular with paladins and druids both clocking in more total characters.

Warrior actually doesn't seem to be doing too poorly. It's had a couple characters break the 61 mark and one even got as high as 68. Looking at the names (Ironpossible and Possibleiron) I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's the same guy who did both characters. I tried to armoury the second one but it's already a level 18 night elf priest.

I worry that the sample size for a lot of these are two small. Is warrior actually ok or is that one guy just godly at playing an undergeared warrior? Since it's just one guy there's also the possibility that he's found a way to skirt the rules without getting caught by the system. I'd like to think not, but the point is with just one guy doing well with warrior we can't have a lot of confidence. Contrast that with hunter which has had 45 characters break the level 61 barrier! We can be a lot more sure that a hunter can handle outlands content.

I feel bad for the shamans. Worst in both best living and best dead character. It's been a while since I've played a shaman and I know they made a lot of totem changes but I would have thought both totems and weapon enchants would be a big help to this sort of challenge.

Priests seem similarly bad and I can't even think of what a priest could have going for it. Without talents I'd think their heals would end up really inefficient and I don't know how they'd even kill anything. Shadow word pain and wand? Are there even white wands? (The answer is yes, as I looked up an armoury profile for a level 64 mage and he has on a ilvl 35 wand. Which does less damage than his staff.)

When I first heard of the challenge I was leaning towards trying it with a hunter. I've always liked hunters, my first character was a hunter, and they seemed like they were probably the best. Having someone actually complete the challenge on a hunter greatly diminishes that desire. I'd rather be the first person to get shaman to level 44 than the second to get hunter to 85! I was thinking that mage could actually be fun. Frost bolt to slow enemies and kite them around while getting mana back. Actually casting polymorph. I think if the challenge was to level up with no gear/talents I'd give that a shot. But doing it without dying? I don't know that I trust myself to play a mage safely enough to do it without dying... Rogue or hunter may actually be my only hope since I may well be too reckless to survive without vanish or feign death.

I donno. I think I am going to give it a spin and I think I'll probably end up starting a shaman since they've done the worst so far. Assuming I can make a character with doctor or dr in the name, anyway!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Today's post is only tangentially related to gaming but I think it could really interest some people who may be reading. (I found out about this program from an article linked on Facebook by Mike Turian and I wouldn't know him if not for my Planeswalker Points posts a few months ago.) The program is called MITx and the basic idea is that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is planning on putting out free online versions of some of their courses. There will be video clips from lectures, excerpts from text books, and automatically marked assignments and exams. Passing the course won't get you any closer to a degree but can get you a certification stating you took the course and passed.

Personally I miss being in school. I was never really big on actually attending class since I've found I learn best from books and have a real aversion to talking to people so I never really asked questions in classes anyway. I like actually being in a course though. Having someone who knows something plan out what they think is important to learn is useful. Knowing what book to read, and what sections are important, and having a schedule to get it done are all really important.

I've often thought about taking night/weekend classes somewhere and regularly browse the 'continuing education' things that come in the mail from various Toronto based universities but I've never found a course I was actually interested in taking. I hated electives/'bird courses' when I was in school and the continuing education stuff all seems to be even simpler than those or are business courses which don't really appeal to me. It makes me think what sort of course I would want to take... Statistical modeling, quantum physics, psychology, robotics...

It turns out MITx is launching it's pilot class on the 5th of March. They're starting with 6.002X which is one of the starting electrical engineering courses. Maybe not my first choice but certainly something interesting. They make it sound complicated with all kinds of US based prerequisites. Part of me worries that I don't know enough about magnetism to follow along. Part of me worries that I already know everything covered in the course from CS256 and the electronics class I took in high school. But CS256 was one of my favourite classes and I hope if the pilot is a success they'll bring further courses along this chain to the program later. I'm pretty psyched about the class. I've already enrolled and am considering buying the textbook to more easily follow along. And since it's free and there's no penalty for failure I figure it can't hurt to sign up and give it a shot.

Sound interesting? Check out the webpage and enrol before it starts next week!

Monday, February 27, 2012


Recently I've been thinking I should stop 'following' Tobold's blog. I hate it when someone is wrong on the internet and I've found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the assumptions he makes about the way some people play games. I wish I had better things to do with my time than get annoyed on the internet...

And then he comes out with an informative post like this one about playing World of Warcraft in 'Ironman' mode and it makes me happy I'm still reading. I doubt I'd have stumbled across something like this on my own but now that it's been pointed out to me I'm very intrigued.

The basic idea is you start a new character at level 1 and play the game without putting on magical gear, without taking a specialization, without professions, without enchantments or glyphs or potions. You never group, you never do dungeons, you never participate in pvp.  You don't use any of the ways to speed up leveling like recruit a friend or being in a high level guild. And perhaps most importantly you never die.

Now, I love challenges (as evidenced by playing with only one thief in Final Fantasy). For the most part I do them for the fun of doing them. But in this case there's actually a leaderboard and such built for the challenge. They're pulling data out of the armory to check and see if people are 'cheating' or not. It's obviously not perfect (I would imagine you could get buffs, for example, and make sure to toggle them off before you log out and never get caught) but it does a pretty good job. Hearing about this makes me want to take Blizzard up on their 7 days free offer and give it a spin. If I did, what would I want to play? There are a few different metrics to look at, I think, in order to figure out which class would have the best chance of success.

  • Scaling - Normally you want skills that scale well with your stats. Here where you're not going to get any stats at all from any source you want skills that just have high base numbers. I don't know how WoW has managed to keep things balanced recently but thinking back to the past things like hunter pets and mage pyroblast/arcane missiles are things that started off huge but didn't scale properly to be good at end game. You're going to want the starting off huge here!
  • Emergency Buttons - If you die once you're done so having ways to escape from a deadly situation is really important. You don't want a random elite patrolling on top of you and wiping you out! Hunters seem to be kings here with feign death, disengage, traps, slows, and a pet. Warlocks have a worse pet, healthstone, and some ok crowd control. Rogues get vanish, blind, and sprint. Mages get blink, frost nova, and invis. Druids get a bad sprint? Paladins might have bubble/hearth? Warriors get to die...
  • Sustainability - How many fights can you go without having to eat/drink to full? I have a big fear that someone like a mage is going to see this number actually fall below 1. Your mana pool is going to be so small and your spells are going to do so little damage that I really wonder if you'll be able to kill a single monster. On the flip side you have the hunter which doesn't use mana and which has a pet to absorb hits. 
  • Gear Availability - You're allowed to wear white and grey items. Is there a good enough distribution of weapons in particular as you level up to stay geared? Rogues for example use energy and have a lot of  great cooldowns but if you can't find a weapon for a large level span you probably have no hope.

The WoWIronman site has stats for what other people have been trying and how successful they've been so far. Hunters are the only class currently alive beyond level 65. Only one non-hunter has made it beyond 70 (a warlock that died at level 78). Almost 10% of all characters that have tried the challenge have been night elf hunters (night elves get a second feign death type ability). Hunters feel like the strictly best option to me since they seem likely to be the best at scaling, emergencies, and sustainability. Assuming they have decent weapons (a quick search shows a gap between level 20 and 60 which might be rough) they should do fine. So if my goal is to have the best chance at making it far then hunter seems obvious. But maybe I'd be happier doing something harder and aiming for the best of that class instead of trying to make it all the way to 85? The highest level dead rogue is only 69, for example.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

StarCraft II Winter Arena Conclusion

The final day at the MLG Winter Arena was pretty amazing. They were down to the final six players at the start of the day and there were some pretty fantastic games in the last few matches. The winner's bracket finals came down to Huk against MarineKing so I was pretty happy. Huk had played very well the last two days but seemed to have lost something today as he quickly got steamrollered by MarineKing. This knocked Huk down to the loser's bracket finals where he played against DongRaeGu who the commentators were saying is probably the best player in the world right now. (He made the GSL finals right before flying to New York for this event.) He also quickly steamrollered Huk which set up the final of MKP vs DRG. MarineKing won the first game and was in a good position to win the tournament if he could win either of the next two games. He didn't which meant they'd end up playing a best of 7 with DongRaeGu already up 2-1. MarineKing then pulled off three wins in a row including a great bunker rush in game 5 followed by an incredibly timed late game push in game 6. Definitely a fantastic match and I'm particularly happy about the outcome. Now that I've spoiled the ending for you you should consider watching the VODs when they become available to the public in a week or so.

The MLG guys were saying the Winter Arena was a huge success and they're planning on having two more during the Spring season. On the down side the finals were practically unwatchable at one point. The main stream actually crashed during the third game of the finals so we (Tmiv came over to watch the last couple matches) ended up missing the critical part of the game which was a little annoying. They ended up fixing it such that we were able to watch on 480P most of the time after that and a little bit on 720P but I still wish they could have managed to set it up such that we could have watched on 1080P the whole time. On the plus side they seemed to have fixed their log in issues as I only had to log in once all day and it worked on all the streams. (Well, I had to log in a second time after I refreshed my browser during the crash but that's not too unexpected.)

I actually blew out my download limit with all the streaming of games I've done this month (16G alone between Friday and Saturday) so if I'm going to tune in again in the future I should probably look into getting a better internet setup...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Minor MLG Frustrations

I'm spending the weekend watching the MLG StarCraft II Winter Arena and there have been some pretty spectacular games so far. Base trades, worker all-ins, dark templars, motherships... Huk and MarineKing remain undefeated which is pretty sweet. Idra lost his first two matches and is eliminated. Oh well. I've always hated Zerg anyway!

The games have been great and the commentators have been on the ball (Tumba is really starting to grow on me). I can't complain about any of that at all. I do have some complaints about the technical setup. Some are minor things but others are so frustration to make me think I won't want to buy a pass for the next one if they're not fixed.

  • There are 5 streams going at once and they have a neat little webpage set up which lets you switch between streams and lay out any number of them at one time. This lets you figure out which stream has a game going on and swap to it. It's a pretty great concept. I can sit in my chair away from the computer with my wireless mouse and 'channel surf'. Unfortunately they haven't done a good job with authentication. I should have to log in one time and be good to go. Instead I have to log in to each stream individually. And it seems to time out my log in, so I've had to keep logging in over and over again. I probably had to log in 30 times last night. And because I want to watch on my big tv and sit in a non-computer chair I wasn't near my keyboard and had to keep getting up to type in my info. 
  • Enter changes between streams even when filling in a log-in form. So I'd be trying to log in and hit enter which works in every log in window ever. Except this one, which switches which stream I'm watching.
  • They've done a bad job of normalizing the volume levels of the streams. I need to crank up the volume on the first two streams. But each time I switch streams it resets back to default so I'm constantly having to adjust the volume.
  • They offer 1080P resolution but don't seem to have the bandwidth to actually provide it. I get big lag spikes when using it. So I switched to 720P which worked great last night but also is lagging today. So now I'm down to 480P. Which still lets me see what's going on but isn't quite as crisp and awesome. I don't know if it's irrational or not but I feel like if I'm paying I should be able to watch in the higher definitions.

Friday, February 24, 2012

StarCraft II Winter Arena Starting!

I spend a lot of time playing games but today and for the weekend I'm going to spend a lot of time watching games. I bought a pass for the Winter Arena and hooked my computer up to the big screen tv. I find watching to be more exciting when I'm rooting for someone so I need to pick who I want to win. Huk is from Canada and plays my favourite race (Protoss) so he's my first choice for sure. After that I want to cheer for MarineKing because of how awesome he played at a previous MLG event when Reddit flew him in and he put on a show with wacky builds. And then I'm going to cheer for Idra to cover the Zerg option.

Let's rock!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

League of Legends: Tryndamere Hatred

There are a couple things which unfortunately seem to be true in general of people who play online games: they hate to lose and they refuse to take personal responsibility for a loss. Illusory superiority strikes again! Most people are going to think they're better than average at the game. They think they should be winning (as an example) 75% of their games but they actually only win 50% since the matchmaking system does a decent job. How do they account for the 25% of games where they feel they 'should' have won but actually lost? They lash out at the other players! Someone else on their team must have played terribly. They're a feeder, or a 'noob', or they picked the wrong champion. They bought the wrong items. They didn't put enough wards down. Eventually if your rating gets low enough you end up in 'Elo Hell' and actually get paired up with teammates who routinely quit the game.

I've taken the brunt of my fair share of these attacks. I have bad games from time to time and can make an easy target for vitriol. Especially when I play Warwick and build the manamune item which no one seems to believe is a reasonable choice. If we lose and I have manamune I'll get yelled at. Interestingly if we win and I have manamune the other team will use it as fodder for their attacks against each other. How could you lose to manamune Warwick?!?

Recently I've started playing the Tryndamere champion. I've been slotted into the solo top role on my fledgling ranked team so I've been trying to diversify my options for solo top heroes. In the IEM event I watched a few weeks ago Tryndamere was sometimes banned and completely dominated one game and I already owned him so why not give him another shot? I read some guides on how to play him, picked one that matched my tendencies (do everything possible to try to secure a kill when you're level 2 and they're level 1 with the goal of snowballing) and have been doing reasonable with it. I win some, I lose some. I kill people a lot. I forget to turn on my ultimate and die. (It prevents him from dying for 5 seconds which could give you enough time to kill them, or run away, or some combination of the two.)

One thing I wasn't prepared for was how much hatred was going to get flung my way. Apparently people have a very low opinion on the skill needed to play Tryndamere perfectly. If I die a couple times early my teammates will inevitably start insulting me. 'How are you dying with Tryndamere?' 'What kind of noob gets 5 deaths on Trynd?' What really surprised me was what would happen when I did well. The other team would start with the insults, as expected... Only they wouldn't be insulting the person I was killing. No, they'd be insulting me! 'Noob has to play Trynd to win.' 'Play a champ that takes skill.' 'Stop being such a tryhard Tryn!'

To be fair, Tryndamere is one of the champions with the best scaling in the game. A fully equipped Tryndamere does a scary amount of damage and can pretty much ignore defensive items what with his ultimate preventing him from dying and all. He can be dealt with by smart opponents (get multiple copies of the exhaust summoner spell, for example) but against your average mediocre team? Pretty much unstoppable late game if he has a lot of items. Getting to that point isn't trivial, but the average player who whines about things isn't going to notice the ways to keep him down early. They're just going to see the end result of a farmed Tyndamere and cry about it.

I've decided I don't actually care about people yelling at me if I'm doing well or poorly. I'm going to keep playing the way I want to play (while sometimes stepping back to see if I could be doing something better) and if people have a problem with it they can rant as much as they want. I was just surprised to get insulted for doing well.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Few Acres of Snow: Combat

Ok, so now we know how to go around expanding on the board, building more cities, adding cards to our deck, and scoring points. That's all well and good but what if we want to punch the other person in the face? Successfully invading the enemy capital is one of the victory conditions, after all, and doing so completely ignores all those fancy points scored through expanding. How does that work?

Starting a fight is very similar to expanding into an empty space on the board. You need to have a card for an adjacent spot on the board and you need to have a card for the appropriate mode of transportation. Those two cards get discarded as normal. On top of them you need a third card with military strength on it. This card gets set aside into a 'fighting' zone and won't get back into your deck until the fight resolves. Military strength is indicated by a crossed musket icon. (Also, coastal cities can be attacked by ships so either player can play a card with a ship icon as though it were 1 strength.) The siege artillery card on the right here has 3 of them, for example. Once a fight has been started each player can then use an action to add another card with military strength to the fight. The absolute amount of strength added doesn't matter; it's the relative difference between the two which counts. There's a track on the board representing this 'tug of war' strength difference.

A fight ends if when you start your turn the tug of war marker indicates that you've won the fight. If you're the attacker this means you have at least 2 more strength than your opponent. If you're the defender this means you have at least 1 more strength than your opponent. When a fight ends the loser has to destroy a non-location card (if any) from the fight then the rest of the cards played by both sides go to the discard piles. In addition if the attacker won the fight they can immediately settle the location as a free action. If the location has a settler symbol on it then they need to play a settler card to do so. Otherwise they can take it for free.

On top of needing a smaller difference to win a fight the defender has a couple other advantages as well. Every city has 1 military strength by default. Some of the cities have additional strength shown on the board. The two British capitals (Boston and New York) have 1 bonus strength each. The starting French cities Louisbourg and Montreal also have 1 bonus strength each and the French capital (Quebec) has two bonus strength. Furthermore if you plan ahead you can build a fort in a city which blocks all raids and gives an extra 2 military strength to the city. Finally the same fortification card can be used as a military strength but only on defense.

The defender has a couple disadvantages. The first is while the fight is taking place the location card for that city becomes unplayable. Having a dead card in your deck is pretty bad. The second is that you don't get to choose when the fight happens so you need to be constantly prepared to defend yourself lest you get blown up.

Each side has access to one card with 3 strength, a few cards with 2 strength, and some cards with 1 strength. One of those cards, the military leader, doesn't take an action to play. As such the most a player can possibly throw into a fight on a single turn is 6. (Their 3, a 2, and the free 1.) Even if someone happens to draw a hand full of military strength they can only play 2 cards into a fight per turn which tends to give their opponent time to draw more military cards too. So while it is certainly possible for someone to get blitzed out in a single attack it turns out with proper planning (using the reserve to store a couple of military cards should your opponent happen to have a deck with lots of military cards in it) you tend to be able to avoid instantly losing. Most fights seem to go the distance where both players get enough time to eventually put every card they want into the fight. As such fights frequently come down to who has managed to get the most total strength into their deck. Military cards are rather expensive so this tends to be the person with the better money engine but sometimes both players actually get to buy all their military cards. Who wins then?

Well, the French have 1 siege artillery, 4 regular infantry (worth 2 each), 3 militia, a military leader, a coureurs de bois, Montreal, and Quebec. If the fight is at sea (and I can count on one hand the number of fights in 99 games finished that didn't take place at sea) they can also potentially include Port Royal, Halifax, Louisbourg, and their single ships card. On defense they could also have 1 normal fortification and 2 neutral fortification cards.

How about the British? They have 1 siege artillery, 7 regular infantry, 3 militia, a military leader, a rangers, Boston, and New York. At sea they also have New Haven, Norfolk, Port Royal, Halifax, and two ships cards. On defense they have 1 normal fortification and 2 neutral fortification cards.

It should be pretty apparent that the British have a huge advantage here. They have 3 extra regulars and potentially 2 more ships. Note that some of those ships overlap (they can't both own Halifax or Port Royal) but even in a worst case scenario the British have as many ships as the French. They basically can't lose a fight on defense with all their cards and are guaranteed to win on offense unless the French manage to fortify in advance and buy both neutral fortification cards. The British just have inevitability on their side. Their deck costs a lot more (the French pay 21 for their 4 regulars and the British have to pay 49 for their 7) but their money engine is easier to put together so it tends to come out ok for them.

One things to point out is that the British path to Quebec involves conquering spaces with ships on them. This means it's actually easier for the British to win future fights once they start winning fights. Especially since the loser of a fight loses a card on defense! Your deck started with at least 3 more strength than your opponent and they lost a card. You gained a card with a ship on it. And they lose access to the card for the next space you attack. This tends to make for snowballing attacks. It works the other way, too. If the French get started attacking and the British don't properly defend then they'll get snowballed too.

How do you defend? Well, you need to match them military card purchase for military card purchase. Since the attacker only needs 3 more strength in their deck to win every fight it only really takes 2 regular infantry to win the game. If your opponent buys one you might be ok but if they buy a second one and you don't respond you just lose. There is one other way to fight back which is via ambushes which will be covered in the next post.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

StarCraft II Campaign

I mentioned yesterday that I haven't actually played StarCraft II in an awfully long time. I decided to change that fact today and figured the best way to do so would be to play the campaign again. I'm playing on brutal and just did the third mission where the zerg swarm your little base and you have to hold out for 20 minutes. I did a pretty terrible job of defending myself and the final push easily swarmed me. I remembered Sthenno talking about running away buildings in the hopes of lasting out the timer and figured I'd give that a shot after my army was destroyed. Up went the command center and I flew it into the corner as mutalisks came in to try to finish it off. It was a race against the clock and it the race was won, barely, by the clock. My command center had 25 health left when the timer ticked down so I ended up winning the mission handily.

The last time I played the campaign I did a bio heavy focus (which I'm pretty sure is just the best) so I'm going to try something different this time. I don't remember when you get actual air units but I think I'm going to focus on those if I can get them soon enough.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Winter StarCraft 2 Arena

For the last 3 weeks MLG has been streaming a series of qualification games leading up to a big live event this weekend. They're paying to fly the 32 qualifiers in to New York which seemed pretty cool. Especially when you consider a good chunk of these players will be coming from Korea! I've been watching the games and have been enjoying myself. 6-pool all-ins! Cannon rushes! Mothership+Archon insanity! I haven't actually played SC2 in many months but I still enjoy watching the games. I have a MLG membership so I was expecting to get to watch the finals this weekend when I heard a bit of a bombshell on one of the streams...

The arena is going Pay Per View. The standard MLG membership is good for high quality streams of their big championship events but the arena is something new and falls outside the standard membership. My first reaction was of annoyance. But then I thought about it a bit more and probably part of the reason they're charging individually for this event is that they're paying to fly all these guys in from all over the world. They're apparently going to stream every single game live with 5 streams going at once. They're bringing in a lot of the top commentators. And maybe they're even testing the waters to see how much the community cares about 'eSports'.

I think I'm going to give it a look this weekend and see. I have hopes that they'll end up with a lower number of people watching (while still actually making more money by charging $20 a pop) which will result in improved stream quality. But I haven't had any complaints about previous MLG major event streams so I don't know how much that will actually matter...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Final Fantasy IV: Bahamut

Yesterday I finally pulled off my first death in this playthrough of Final Fantasy IV. I remember Bahamut being a real jerk and having to collect all the loot from his dungeon and then leave coming back later to kill him after really twinking up in the final dungeon. Everything else that I remembered being hard has been easy this time around so I just walked up and started punching him like he was a joke. He did his countdown and then hit my whole team for two to four times their maximum health. KABOOM! I actually don't think I'm going to bother killing him at all. My current plan is just to enter the final dungeon and see if I can win.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Few Acres of Snow: Colonizing

The game A Few Acres of Snow is played out on a map of the eastern seaboard of North America circa ~1700. The British start with the red circles/squares on the map and the French start with the blue circles/squares on the map. If you zoom in you can see that all of these spaces and many of the neutral spaces have a little hexagon beside them with a number in it. These are how many victory points owning that location is worth at the end of the game. If you have a cube there you get that number of points. If you have a disk there you get twice that number of points. Today I'm going to look at how you expand your empire, why you might want to expand your empire, potential side effects to doing so, and how the unbalanced nature of the map comes into play.

Click for an enlarged picture if you haven't played!

First of all, how do you expand your empire? Well, to put a cube down in an empty spot on the board you need 3 or 4 things: to own an adjacent city, to have that city card in your hand, to have the connecting mode of transportation in your hand, and possibly to have a settler in your hand. What do I mean? Well, take a look at the New York card here. It connects to Albany via bateaux and to Philadelphia, New Haven, and Boston via ship. If you look at the map above you'll see all of those spaces have a picture of a pilgrim in the city box. That means you also need a settler to take them. So if you wanted to put a cube in Albany you would need to, in one action, play the New York card, a card with bateaux on it, and a card with a settler on it. You need 3 distinct cards to do so (New York has a settler on it but can't be used for that purpose here since you're using it as the first card).

How about to upgrade a cube into a disk? To do that you need to play the city card you want to upgrade and a settler card. Note you can only upgrade to a disk in a location worth points. (This is relevant because one of the game end conditions is using all of your disks.)

Now, why would you want to expand you empire? You score points based on the numbers listed on the board. You get to add the location card to your deck when you take a city. You also can get closer to your opponent which opens up possibilities for attacking or raiding. It also opens up two of the game end conditions: running out of cubes and running out of disks. Note that you get the cube back when you upgrade to a disk so if you're trying to rush to game end you'll generally want to upgrade a lot of stuff or nothing at all.

How about potential drawbacks? The biggest one is that you have to take the city card and they're all bad. Ok, bad may be a stretch, but they're pretty much all strictly inferior to your starting cards. Look at New York! It has all sorts of uses. Compare it to Kennebec, shown on the right, which is a literal blank. Now, no other location card is quite that bad but they do all pale in comparison to the power and flexibility of New York. As anyone who play a lot of deck building games will tell you a bigger deck is generally a worse deck. You end up drawing your best cards less frequently because of the length of time between reshuffles. In A Few Acres of Snow that problem is magnified since you don't discard your hand at end of turn. If you add Kennebec to your deck you're stuck with it in your hand turn after turn. You can spend one of your two actions to discard it but it's just going to come back again after you reshuffle. Another problem is that location cards can actually get turned off. You can only use a location card if you still own the location on the board, and if it isn't under attack, and if you can trace a line of supply between your capital and the city. This makes location cards potentially quite vulnerable. One of Andrew's favourite strategies is to somehow destroy the French cube in Trois Rivieres. This shuts down every single card from a city on the west of the board. You can't use those cards as furs for trader. You can't expand out of them. All you can do is discard them futilely. You can turn them all back on by expanding back to the spot but it often takes too long to build the right hand in order to do so, especially if you don't have a lot of cash saved up. Finally while getting closer to the opponent can open up your attacks and raids it does the same for your opponent. If your deck isn't well positioned to fight on those fronts then you could just be throwing points to your opponent.

How about differences between the two factions? The French have the easiest time expanding of the two. There's a big pool of locations along the great lakes which can be easily taken by the French. There are a lot of points available over there and only Detroit requires a settler. Everything is connected by just bateaux and practically every single card you can pick up by doing so has both a fur and a bateaux on it. This means you don't hurt your money engine very badly by picking them up since you maintain a high fur density in your deck and it also means you're not scrambling to build an expanding hand. Your furthest west location card and practically any other location card is good enough. Going in other directions is harder. Nova Scotia has a couple good places with points but they require ships and settlers to take which are harder for the French to put together. They can also head inland towards New England but that has the problem that the first few spaces aren't worth any points at all. Also the cards tend to be worse as they don't all have both a fur and a bateaux. France has real problems with developing into disks. There deck has one settler in it at the start of the game and their unique deck has no more settlers in it. There are two neutral settler cards available for purchase @7 gold each. France actually only has 8 more disks to put on the board and can develop out in a real short amount of time if they manage to buy both neutral settlers and not get killed in the process.

Britain in the other hand starts with 4 settlers in their 7 card deck. They can buy a 5 gold settler from their own deck along with the two neutral settlers. Disking up is not a problem at all for Britain, though they do need to put 10 more into play to end the game. Actually expanding, on the other hand, is trickier. The problem is they're very ship heavy in terms of transportation symbols but there aren't many places to actually go by ship. Nova Scotia is the big one but if you want to head inland you need to start using bateaux of which they have only one to start. And their card pool only contains two more which are feasible to take. (There are a few more on location cards very deep in the opposing territory. You could get to them but I don't think you can plan on doing so very reliably.) One of these is an empire card you buy for 0 gold but is just a bateaux. The other is on the Albany card which itself requires a bateaux to take. On top of that there's even a connection in the British empire that requires a wagon. There is one card in the game which has a wagon on it (Philadelphia) and one connection that uses it (Cumberland to Fort Duquesne). Also a lot of the places Britain wants to go have settler icons. They have settlers to spare so it doesn't really make things harder but it can cause delays as you try to build up the right 3 card combo to expand where you want to go. Also using 3 cards in your first action means you only have 2 cards for your second action which means no big merchant action. Though with a lot of these location cards not having ships or money on them your money engine is taking a huge hit regardless...

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Few Acres of Snow: Cash Money

Money is used in A Few Acres of Snow for a wide variety of purposes. Primarily it is used to purchase new non-location cards for your deck but it is also used to pay the costs to play some cards, to retrieve cards from your reserve, and to discard extra cards. I'll go into the details of those actions later; today is to look at the mechanisms behind making money.

Note that money doesn't actually do anything in and of itself. It can't be readily converted into victory points like in Dominion. All of the interactive strategies (military cards and ambush/raiding cards) require a fair amount of money to get up and running. Even the non-interactive plan of just building towns can be boosted by some extra cash. So while building up a large money supply isn't going to win you the game by itself it really feels like any winning strategy is going to need access to money in order to function properly.

Money is interesting in this game by virtue of the fact that it accumulates. Money you make in one turn can be spent in future turns and isn't wasted like it would be in Dominion. This means you can focus your early turns on making money and then later in the game spend your nest egg on whatever strategy you've decided to implement. Just make sure your opponent doesn't sneak out a victory on you in the meantime!

At any rate, how do we make money? There are five ways to get money in the game: starting money, the money action, merchanting, trading, and piracy.

Starting money: The French start with 5 gold. The British start with 12 gold. This seems unbalanced but the French deck starts with a regular infantry in it which costs 7 gold for the British player to purchase so it's fairer than it seems. In fact I think the British are at a disadvantage since on top of that 7 gold difference they have another identical card for purchase that I think is the most important one to buy and always buy it first with either side. But it costs 0 for the French and 5 for the British!

Money action: Some cards have a picture of a gold coin on them with a number in the middle, like the New Haven card shown on the right. As one action you can discard one card with a coin on it to make that much money. The British deck is much better suited to using this action than the French deck is. The British start with seven cards in their deck and have the following coin split: 3, 3, 3, 2, 2. In addition they can pick up new locations with the following split: 3, 2, 2. The French on the other hand start with a nine card deck and have the following coin split: 2, 1, 1, 1. They can't add any more to their deck.

Merchant action: Some cards have a picture of a ship on them, like the New Haven card still shown on the right. You can discard a card with a ship on it to start the merchant action. Then you can discard one or two cards with a money symbol on it to make that much money. It's like the money action above except you can do two at a time! And because you fill your hand back up to 5 cards at the end of each turn it actually turns out to be beneficial to discard an extra card in the process. If I have New Haven in my hand along with a 3 coin card I will often use merchant instead of money just to cycle through my deck faster! New Haven is a fine card but doesn't really do a lot and I probably have something important to dig into. The British again have a big advantage here. Four of their seven starting cards have ships on them. If that isn't enough (and it generally is) they have access to two more ship cards for sale and two more from location. The French only have three ships in their starting seven cards. They only have one more for sale and one more from a location. Perhaps worst of all their only 2 money card is also one of their few ships so they rarely have both a ship and something relevant to cash in.

Trader action: This is the action the French player takes when he wants to make money. He starts with a trader card in his deck and both players have a trader card available for purchase in their deck (so the French can go up to two of them if they want). Trader is pretty straightforward. Discard it and any number of furs to make 2 bucks per fur discarded. How do you get furs? Well, some location cards have a fur on them. The British deck starts with one fur. It has 13 more than can be picked up from locations but most of those locations are very hard to reach. I've never felt the desire to buy the trader as the British and I do a mental fist pump if my opponent ever does. Trader is really bad unless you can saturate your deck with furs (merchant for the British is frequently a 6 gold play so you need your 5 card hand to be trader and 3 furs to even match that) and the British deck can't set that up reliably. At least not without being extremely vulnerable to attack. The French, on the other hand, actually start with 4 furs and a trader in their 9 card deck. They have 14 more that can be added from other locations. And unlike the British the vast majority of their early conquests are the spots with furs on them. Trader is a swingier action than merchant is by far. A fair amount of the time you'll end up grabbing 8 bucks out of your trader and that's more than merchant can ever do. But if you draw a hand of 4 furs and a military card you're really sad. The fact that you essentially get to draw 5 cards after a full trader but have to slowly waste time and money discarding cards if you don't have the trader card is really annoying. I should also point out that you could theoretically get as much as 16 gold out of one trader action if you're really lucky and try to set up for it. (There is a 'draw 3 cards' card you can buy and a reserve you can use.) For the most part you'll be trading for 4 or 6 and be pretty happy with that.

Piracy: YAAAAR! This is an action solely for the French player and only if he specifically has the Louisbourg card in his hand. If he does he can play that card and another card with a ship on it in order to gain 2 gold and cause his opponent to lose 2 gold. You still gain the gold even if your opponent has none on hand. This is a solid enough action but isn't spectacular. (Merchant and trader both frequently have 6 gold swings. Piracy is at best a 4 gold swing.) Sometimes your opponent is really counting on having all his gold and you can blow him out by taking 2 of it.

My gut feeling after playing 90 games is that the British have a better money engine but also need to spend more money to buy the cards they need. This is actually only true when dedicated to a military strategy though. If both players are trying to expand a lot then the French actually end up with the better source of cash. The reason I think this is true is that the British deck starts with all their good money cards in it. You can't add a bunch of cards to your deck without really diluting the money power of your deck. (In fact to really swing into gear you need to buy the governor card and destroy two of your starting cards!) On the other hand the French money engine is based around furs and they get a lot of those as they expand. They'll also need to buy a governor or the second trader in order to ensure they keep drawing trader with those furs but neither of those are stretches.

This isn't to say adding cards to your deck makes it worse in general. You need to add cards to your deck at some point in order to accomplish anything! But when it comes to making money both sides are hurt by drawing blanks. The British will find they rarely end up with a ship + 2 gold cards and the French will find they're stuck trading 1 or 2 furs instead of 3 or 4 furs. (Or they'll keep trading 4 furs but only be able to do it every 6 turns instead of every other turn.) Just remember that money sticks around (unless the French keep sending pirates after you) so you can spend a little bit of time early on making cash and then implement whatever your game plan happens to be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Black Mages

A couple months ago I started on a bit of a Final Fantasy music binge. I'd search YouTube for random playlists of music from the games and listen to hours on end while doing other things on the computer. (Including Final Fantasy Legend II since the music quality from my emulator was giving me a headache.)

One thing I kept noticing every now and then were songs that were covers of iconic Final Fantasy music. Now, I hate covers in general. I find they often butcher the songs. Some of the covers popping up in these playlists were like that but I kept running into covers that were actually pretty awesome. I started paying attention to who was doing the covers I liked and it turned out they were all from the same band: The Black Mages. This prompted me to do some Googling about them...

It turns out one guy (Nobuo Uematsu) was the composer for practically every Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy I, II, Legend, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and XIV seem to be solely done by him. He also had a hand in Legend II, X, XI, and XII. And a whole ton of other games on top of that. To put it mildly, he is the man.

Two other composers at Square-Enix got together to do the music for a wrestling game and decided to put a rock spin on it. They liked how the rock spin turned out and started experimenting with doing other things in a rocking way. The toyed around with redoing some of Nobuo's Final Fantasy stuff as rock songs and got his approval. They convinced him to join them in a rock concert of some of those songs and had a great time. They ended up forming a band (The Black Mages) which went on to release three albums full of redone Final Fantasy songs. And it's all awesome! I guess covers can be good when it's the original artist redoing them?

I just beat The Four Fiends in my Final Fantasy IV game and the music in that fight is fantastic. The redone music by The Black Mages is also pretty great. Both versions are linked below, check them out!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Final Fantasy IV: Mysidian Legend

One to be born
from a dragon
hoisting the light
and the dark
arises high up
in the sky to
the still land.
Veiling the moon with
the light of eternity,
it brings
another promise
to mother earth with
a bounty and mercy.

There are scenes in games/movies which really resonate with me. The one that takes place in Final Fantasy IV when the Mysidian elder recites the legend and then 'wishes' for the spaceship is one of those for me. The music that plays as the ship rises out of the ocean is truly epic (and is found in the video below). The music really encapsulates the idea that we're going to fly to THE MOON! And once there we're going to SAVE THE WORLD!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Red November: All For One and One For Himself

This weekend I played two new board games at Andrew's place. Sky already posted about one of them (Cave Troll) so I'm going to discuss the second one (Red November).

Red November is a cooperative game with a really cool theme. You're a group of gnomes manning an experimental submarine that hits a bit of a rocky patch. Help is on the way but you need to survive long enough to get saved. There are a lot of different ways for the ship to explode or for an individual gnome to die and it's apparently quite difficult which is good for a cooperative game. It uses the great 'time' mechanic where each turn takes a different length of time and you move forward on a turn order track based on how long your turn took. (Time here meaning in game time where walking takes time and not 'we need to chess clock Robb' time.) Thebes and Olympos use a similar mechanic and I really like it.

We ran into a number of rules questions that we didn't quite know how to answer so I turned to the internet today to find out more...

The first thing I found is that apparently the game designer and the publisher have had different ideas for how to resolve some rules questions. (Reminds me of Stone Age scoring...) For the most part it would seem you can find an official backing for going either way on most of our rules questions which is a little disappointing. I want to know the _one_ right way to play!

Apparently the publisher (Fantasy Flight Games) has put out a revised rule book on their website and I think they've even printed a second edition of the game with the new rule book so for now I'm going to take it as the authority on the subject...

First of all you can only have one of any given timed disaster at once. During the game we played we had the missile problem happen twice, twice. The first time we barely disarmed both missiles but the second time coincided with a fire in the same room and several other problems (the ship was running out of air, the Kraken was attacking, and Andrew was on our team) and we ended up exploding. You just ignore the second missile strike if the first one is already in progress.

A minor point but it would seem if you fix a critical error with a machine that could also fix one of the disaster tracks you actually get to do both at once which makes things a little easier.

You can't block the exits from the ship.

There's a rules change such that if you open a door between high water and low water you end up with two rooms at low water.

The rules now clarify that items should be face up and public unless you're playing with a variant where you get to murder your friends with crowbars.

If you're outside the ship (thanks to the aqualung) and you're beyond the 10 minute mark you can abandon comrades even if you should otherwise die.

That last one adds a level of paranoia and team breaking that makes a game like this interesting but not really fun. The rule is that if you're close to the end of the game AND you have a specific item (there are 2 copies total in a deck of 48 items) you can abandon ship. Successfully taking this action means your winning condition is reversed so if the ship explodes you win and if they manage to pull it out you lose. There are a couple problems I have with this rule.

The first is it can really reduce the chances of the other players to pull off an exciting end game victory. In the game we played if we all worked together we were going to need a couple unlikely rolls to pull off the win. We were probably in the 10% range of winning if we worked together. Instead Andrew had one of the items and decided to try to split. He took an action which drastically reduced our odds of winning by flooding a critical room instead of fixing the problem he was beside. This meant we had to divert someone else to take a much smaller chance at fixing his problem. He didn't even manage to make it out of the ship so he lost anyway but if he'd found a way to do it then it would have made sense. He'd be trading a 10% chance of a group victory for a 98% chance of a solo victory. Of course he's going to do that! But it isn't terribly fun for anyone else.

The second problem with that rule is it encourages people to farm for items instead of helping to save the ship. If you assume the ship is likely to explode eventually then you want to make other people deal with early problems while you dig through the item deck for an aqualung. Items are good in general so we do want someone digging for items but the person who actually takes those actions has a huge advantage. They get two ways to win while people who actually spend their time fixing problems can only really win if the ship is in fantastic shape at the end. The reason for this is if someone can do some damage on the way off the ship and flip the victory conditions they're going to do so anytime it increases their chances of winning. Heck, I'd probably do it even if it slightly hurt my chances of winning just because it would give me a solo victory! (Or a two-way victory if someone has the second aqualung and followed me!)

Now, maybe if the game is relatively easy I can see the abandon comrades rule making sense. Then when things start falling apart you can pull a rabbit out of your hat and try for the backstab win. But as it is my feeling is that everyone should just dig for an aqualung early and then play the role of a Cylon. Or find some way to get the aqualungs into the hands of people willing to go down with the ship and out of the hands of Andrew, Sky, and I!

I would definitely play it again (and I think it's easier with some of the rules changes in the second edition) but I am reserving judgment on the abandon comrades action.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Swiss Tournament Byes

Some of my old Magic friends from way back when I lived out in New Brunswick are putting together a tournament series out in the Maritimes which sounds interesting. They have a recently set up forum set up here which is getting updated with more information over time about the series and just about Magic in the Maritimes in general.

One of the things they have planned is to award byes to the winners of the first 5 tournaments which get used in a big end of season event. My brother noticed this and was concerned that adding in byes would change how many rounds should be run in the tournament compared to the default 'number of rounds given number of entrants' chart. (Yes, pedantry runs in the family.) He suggested that it could make an interesting 'crunching the numbers' post and I'm all for getting topics to crunch without having to think them up myself. So, here we go...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

League of Legends: Owning Champions

At the start of any draft match in League of Legends each team gets to ban 3 champions. Those champions can't be chosen by anyone on either team in the upcoming draft. On top of that any champion can only be drafted once. This means you need to have access to at least 16 champions before you're allowed to play. (If you're the last pick it's theoretically possible that the 6 bans and 9 previous selections will cover off 15 champions you own. If you only owned 15 or fewer champions you'd have no one left to pick!)

One thing that isn't explicitly stated anywhere and which confused me the first few times I had to ban is you aren't given a selection of every hero in the game to ban. (My team told me to ban Morgana and I freaked out when I couldn't find her on the list.) You're actually only allowed to ban a hero which is owned by the other team. So if Morgana isn't in the list it means the other team is actually incapable of choosing her. That would mean you'd waste your ban if you used it on Morgana and it's actually pretty awesome that the game prevents that from happening.

This feature actually has a few consequences. If you're paying attention and notice that the other team doesn't have a popular hero (like Rammus for example) you can't ban him. But that knowledge also means you don't need to draft him highly either! You can guarantee that he'll still be around at the end of the draft (assuming they don't use one of their bans on him) and use your early picks on actually contested champions. It's also possible if you see the enemy team has very restricted choices for a role (perhaps they only have 1 or 2 of the healer champions) you could use your bans on those champions and force the opposing team to run with a 'bad' team composition.

This all was really brought to the forefront when we played our first ranked team games on Friday. Some of us have a very restricted number of champions and as a team combined we only had 50 champions between us. Our opponents in the match we noticed this had 83. This gives them a lot of information and power if they bother to pay attention to it. It also came to mind that we don't have a lot of ability to trade champions since we don't really own a lot of the same ones either. If I'm picking early I actually can't grab Rammus for Robb to use since I actually don't own her. And even if I did he doesn't own Akali or Nasus so he wouldn't be able to trade a hero back to me for her.

Obviously the solution to both of those problems is for everyone to play more games to earn more currency to buy more champions. But the question I've been asking myself is which problem is better to resolve? If I'm going to blow some points on a champion I'm not likely to use is it better to buy one no one on my team owns (potentially allowing the other team to ban a champion we won't use) or is it better to start building a swapping matrix by buying all the champions the rest of the team wants to use? I think possibly the first step is going to be determining precisely which champions each member of the team owns?

Does anyone have any opinions one way or the other as to which is the best start? My initial feeling is that I should pick up frequently banned champions (Morgana, Kassadin, Shaco, Rammus, Lee Sin, Skarner...) and then work on setting up trades? Ideally if I keep playing the top lane with the team I want to have my selection happen last in order to counter whatever champion they pick so being able to trade properly with the last pick player would be optimal. (But we couldn't figure out why it was ordering us the way it was so I don't know if that's even feasible to figure out.)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

League of Legends: Ranked Teams

Last night marked the first time I've played in a full 5v5 ranked team match. We had a moderate amount of success (3 wins, 2 losses) but importantly it was a lot of fun. Even the losses were more enjoyable than a regular game with puggers and I think it's for one primary reason... Communication.

The game by default is played with a mouse and keys strictly on the left side of the keyboard. You can change the key bindings but the basic keys for your abilities are always Q-W-E-R. This makes it a lot easier to play different champions because while the buttons will do different things it's always the same button that does something. (DotA used to use the first letter of ability names for the button press. It made things very annoying. I remember downloading a keyboard modifying program where you told it which hero you were playing and it would remap your QWER keys on the keyboard to whatever WC3 thought the keys were supposed to be.) This is great for playing the game but not so great for chatting with your teammates. In order to start chatting you need to hit enter (a key which is nowhere near either of your hands), type out your message (during which time any key presses go to chat instead of to the game so you can't use any abilities), and then hit enter again. It's better than not saying anything at all but each time you do it you're giving up an edge in game-play. It's frustrating to call out missing players with in-game chat since I often end up missing a creep kill while I do it.

Using a voice chat program (Skype/Ventrilo) removes this problem. I can call out a missing enemy while still using my mouse to click on creeps in order to get the killing blow on them. I can ask for help while actually fighting an enemy hero. I can also hear a response from my teammates on if they're coming or not without having to shift my vision focus to the small chat window in the corner of the screen! It's very useful!

I was thinking about it a little today and I think Robb and I have the most success when we play together (2 of us and 3 random people against 5 random people) and he's mid while I'm jungling. And the reason I think it works out so well is communication. I can ask him if showing up to gank will help while still killing neutral monsters in the jungle. If he says no I can continue getting gold and experience from the monsters. If he says yes I can head over and we can properly plan when to engage without losing focus on killing monsters or obviously running away to chat. I often find when I'm jungling with a full pug team that I have to walk up to a lane and wait around in the hopes it makes sense to gank. I have to stop and wait and chat with the guy there to set up an attack. And if it doesn't work out (he wasn't paying attention, the opponent was ready for some reason, my teammate was wounded and couldn't commit fully to the attack or had no mana) I lose a lot of leveling time. If the ganks work out we win, otherwise I become useless, and I don't really have the ability to know which is going to happen because I don't know how my teammates are going to react and can't ask them about it properly.

Last night, for example, I was playing top and was getting brutalized early by my opponent. I couldn't really get hits in on the enemy creeps without taking a lot of damage. All I had to do was mention that in voice chat and the jungler asked if ganking would help. I said yes and then on his way up he was able to talk about coordinating the attack. He got there, I jumped in just as he did, and we blew up the enemy Mordekaiser. I went back to heal, he covered the lane getting the experience, and things stabilized for me since I was able to buy some items with the assist gold without the enemy outleveling me when I went back. With a pugger jungler I would have had to run away from the creeps to ask for help (losing gold for sure and maybe experience) and then hope he responds in time and that I can guess his timing. (If I go too soon I die, if I go too late the enemy gets away easily.)

Also it's really hard to continually make jokes about which key is bound to CV in a pug since you won't keep playing with the same support game after game...

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Few Acres of Snow: Introduction

A Few Acres of Snow is a deck building board game that has really caught my eye in the last month. I can't stop playing it on Yucata and I'm really looking forward to playing it at the World Boardgaming Championships this year. I want to win! In order to do so I need to answer the two important questions about any game... In the immortal words of James Coburn... How do you play? How do you win?

First we need an idea of what the game is like. It's a deck building game (the genre brought to the mainstream by Dominion) that has a lot of very interesting twists. It's similar to Dominion in that you start with a basic deck which you use to acquire more cards which get put in your discard pile. Then when your deck is exhausted you shuffle the discard pile. As such you end up drawing the new cards which determine what actions you can take in future turns. Deck building games tend to have a period of time where you're building up a powerful deck and then a period of time where you use your powerful deck to win the game (typically by picking up efficient point scoring cards). A Few Acres of Snow takes that idea and changes the dynamic in a few ways to end up with a substantially different game. Those changes are:

  • It's strictly a 2 player game which allows for more player interaction. There can be ways to attack the other player and good 'blocking' plays can exist that aren't just kingmaking.
  • The game is asymmetrical. Each player starts with their own deck and has their own set of cards to add to their deck as the game goes on. There are a few communal cards that either player can buy but by and large if you buy something it doesn't stop your opponent from buying the same card since they'll have their own copy.
  • Money is built up over time and isn't exhausted each turn. This means you don't need to be capable of generating cash every turn where you want to spend cash. One of the annoying things in Dominion for me is having a turn with 7 bucks and then a turn with 9 bucks. Someone who gets exact change (8 and 8) will outscore you. That's gone here since you carry over extra money every turn. It also allows cards to have minor costs tacked on to them since you can spend some of your stockpile to activate them.
  • There's a board! The game simulates the French/British conflict in North America. The board has spots for cities which you can go around settling. Most of these spots are worth points for game end and all provide you with an extra card for your deck.
  • Many of the cards have multiple ways in which they can be used. The Boston card, for example, can make money, or let you merchant, or provide a military strength, or give you a boat for coastal travel, or lets you connect to New York, New Haven, Pemaquid, Port Royal, and Halifax. It can also be used to upgrade a settlement to a city. It can be used to provide settlers to initially colonize a settlement location. Finally it can block incoming raids at Boston. That's a lot of versatility for one card!
  • Perhaps most importantly... You don't discard unused cards at the end of the turn! You do draw back up to 5 cards after each turn (where you can take 2 actions) but you don't have to discard the stuff you haven't used. This does all sorts of things to the way the game is played. It lets you actually play with defensive cards and know they'll get to do their thing. Moat in Dominion is a pretty swingy card. If you keep drawing it the turn your opponent draws his attack card it's amazing. If you never draw it when they draw their attack card it's absolute garbage. But if you could always hold on to your moat until you need it? That has potential. There are still plays that can be made (buy 2 attack cards to use in the same turn, use your attack right after they reshuffle and draw it again before they can draw their defense) and it does clog up their hand the whole time. But those are all things you can control unlike the timing of card draws in Dominion. It also lets you build a deck with certain combos in it since you know you can always hold on to the first piece until you draw the second one. And it heavily punishes players who fill their deck with useless garbage. If you don't have a way to use a card you don't get to just cycle it away at end of turn. You have to take some action to get rid of it. (You can discard a card as one of your actions, for example. Or you could buy the governor that permanently removes cards from your deck.) Tracking hands becomes a thing you can do and actually make plans with that information. In all it really feels to me like this change more than anything else adds a lot of skill to the game.
A Few Acres of Snow also has a variety of different end conditions. It ends immediately in a win if you conquer your opponent's capital. Then there are a bunch of end game triggers which have the player with the highest score win. These all trigger at the start of someone's turn if there are no combats in progress. If that player has either put all his settlement cubes in play, or has put all his city disks in play, or has managed to raid/conquer at least 12 points from his opponent the game ends. High score wins. The no combat clause is interesting because it means even if you're down in points and the game 'should' end you can keep attacking to prolong the game in an attempt to score more points or take their capital.

In future posts I'll go into more detail about the different types of actions that can be taken and then I'll try to delve into how those actions actually help progress towards a victory condition.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Final Fantasy IV: Land of the Summoned Monsters

I can remember having real trouble with both the Land of the Summoned Monsters and the Sylph Cave in previous playthroughs of Final Fantasy IV. Both dungeons have massive damage zones on the floors which can only be avoided with the float spell. If you're not high enough level for Rosa to know that spell you're in for a world of pain just walking through the dungeons. On top of that some of the monsters are actually pretty dangerous. Especially for a party that isn't high enough level to have float since they're hit by the double whammy of fewer maximum hitpoints and not being anywhere near that max because of the damage floors.

Both dungeons provide extra summoned monsters for Rydia to call in combat. The Sylph Cave has the Sylph spell but you need access to the overworld in order to get it. (You have to get a frying-pan from Bung's wife in Fabul so you can crack him over the head with it to convince him to stop being lazy...) The Land of the Summoned Monsters has both Asura and Leviathan in it (queen and king of the summoned monsters) but in the traditional manner of earning a summon you need to beat them up first.

Asura is a tricky one. The only actions she ever takes are to spam massive heals on herself. She never takes an offensive action unless you hit her first at which point she counterattacks for brutal damage. Ultimately she ends up being extremely trivial because of the wall spell. You cast it on her and then when she tries to heal herself she ends up healing you instead. Then it's a matter of controlling how frequently you attack so her heals will undo her counterattacks. Avenger turned out to be a real detriment here and I ended up just letting Cecil die so I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore and slowly killed her with jump.

I remember having real problems with Asura in the past because I'd get to her without having the wall spell. I don't think she's impossible without it but she's certainly a lot trickier. I'd imagine you'd need to be high enough level to know wall in order to be powerful enough to kill her! I know I'd gotten down to her and had to leave before because I didn't know wall. But I just looked up the levels where Rosa learns spells and she learns wall 2 levels after she learns float. How could I not have had wall? I guess I must have gone there first and run from most of the random encounters? Or possibly plowed through the dungeon without float? (That does sound like me...)

Anyway, I killed her easily last night. I saved and decided to give Leviathan a try. I remember him being really hard. I've always had to wait for FuSoYa to join my party and for Rydia to learn lit3. Then I'd use them both spamming lit3 to burn him down before he obliterated me. I didn't have FuSoYa and Rydia certainly doesn't have lit3 but I figured I'd give him a try anyway. Avenger may have been bad against Asura but it was a complete beating against Leviathan. And the Asura summon made Rydia better than just an off-healer... She was healing everyone for double or triple their maximum health! This left Rosa without much to do so she just cast fast on Cecil over and over to make him berserk more often. (It turns out fast doesn't really stack all that well and 2 applications gets you to max speed. Good to know!) He ended up dying without really being much of a worry at all. His big spell almost killed everyone for sure but Asura just undid all that damage.

I wonder if I can take out Odin with this plan or if I really need lit3 for him...

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Final Fantasy IV: Avenger!

One of the things I noticed when I was reading about bugs in Final Fantasy IV was how many bugs revolved around a weapon I'd never used. This weapon is the Avenger and the reason I know I'd never used it is it automatically berserks the person using it and I'd have remembered using a weapon with that ability! Other than getting a pink tail I'd thought I'd done pretty much everything there was to do in the game at some point so I had to find out where this weapon was found...

It turns out the weapon is in the Sylph Cave which I've certainly cleared out every time I've played long enough to learn the float spell so I was confused as to how I'd never had it before. Is it hidden in some obscure chest? I didn't dig any deeper and figured I'd just put a thorough searching into the dungeon once I reached it. Well, last night I'd finally silvered up the Falcon (I always loved how the airships in this game were named after Star Trek and Star Wars) but didn't yet have the float spell. I figured I'd clear out the sealed cave in order to level up and Rosa ended up learning float off of the very first trap door. That settled that! Off to find the Avenger!

It turned out the Avenger was just sitting in a treasure chest in the loot room of the Sylph Cave. It was guarded by monsters (as were the other 5 chests in the room) and I couldn't see how I could have missed it every time I'd played the game to this point. Then I went to equip it and saw that it was greyed out. That's odd. I tried to put it on anyway and got the cryptic error message 'to equip'. Which made me remember a bug fix in a future version of the game where they fixed that very error message related to Cid trying to equip his 2 handed hammer... Avenger must be two handed! I quickly took off Cecil's shield and lo! I was able to put on Avenger.

There's nothing I can find in the game that would indicate this weapon is 2-handed. The icon looks the same as the other swords Cecil can equip. The error message if I even try to put it on is nonsensical. If I hadn't read about the bugs I wouldn't have thought anything of it again on this playthrough. No wonder I'd missed it in the past!

At any rate, I tried it out on the next fight. In reading about the bug I knew the berserk effect doesn't kick in until you're 'supposed' to get a turn and therefore Cecil should be put in slot #1 (the middle one). I rearranged my team to put him there and opened the next trapped treasure chest. It was a fight with 6 ghost things. I'd fought them before and it was a little rough. They (like almost all enemies) kill Edge in 2 attacks. I actually doubt they could kill Rosa no matter what they did but the melee people take a lot of damage from their spells. But with Avenger the fight became trivial. By the time Kain had resolved his first action the berserked Cecil had killed 3 of the 6 enemies. The end result had Cecil killing 4, Kain killing 1, while Edge, Rosa, and Rydia had to team up to take down the 6th.

Losing control of my secondary healer bothers me a little, but when it comes right down to it his heals suck compared to Rosa's. I'm likely better off using Rydia and Sylph/Asura as a secondary healer and just have Cecil kill everything in sight with the berserk weapon. He gets to go so much more often by getting around the ATB system. Another option would be to give up on jumping with Kain and give Avenger to him. But since jump gets around the ATB a little too that seems worse. (And I worry that I'd forget to unequip it before Kain turns traitor again and lose it forever.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Starcraft 2 Winter Arena Qualifiers

I haven't actually been playing games much in the last week after work. Major League Gaming started running their qualifiers for a big tournament later this month and have been streaming the games on their website ( from 7pm each day. They're streaming the games off of replays from the looks of it so I imagine the games have already been played but they're spreading out all the content over 3 weeks building up to the main event. I can't say no to ~50 hours of quality SC2 games!

The winter arena seems like an interesting idea. It's going to be a 32 person invite only event where MLG is paying airfare and hotel for the 32 players who qualify which seems pretty sweet. The $10k first prize isn't too shabby either. They're giving invites to the top 8 players from MLG Providence and then they're holding 3 regional tournaments with the top 8 from each of those qualifying as well. Today marks the last day of the European tournament but there's still a Korean tournament starting on Thursday and the North American one next Thursday. Some of the favourites are missing (Huk and Idra for example have invites from Providence) but it's been pretty great so far. Worth tuning into I think! The schedule is here if you just want to tune in to the final rounds.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Final Fantasy Games You Must Play

Andrew mentioned an article to me a couple weeks ago which centered around the idea of picking just 3 of the games from the Final Fantasy series as the ones that someone absolutely should play if they were only going to play 3 of them in order to get a feel for the series. Without telling me what the article picked he asked me to answer the question. But I wasn't really sure what question was being asked... Am I trying to guess which 3 they'd say? Which 3 I'd say? Which 3 should probably be said taking my bias for FFIV into account?

I ended up guessing that they'd picked I, VI, and VII. Depending on who you listen to on the internet either VI or VII is the 'best' game so I hedged my bets and picked both of them. Then I tacked on I since I figured if you wanted to get a feel for the series you should start at the roots. My own biased list would be IV, VI, and X. And in a general case I'd go with I, VI, and X. That way you'd cover 3 of the 4 hardware eras and you'd hit the 3 high points. (I liked VII, don't get me wrong, but as someone who played it long after it was released it never really resonated with me like it did most people.)

It turns out they actually chose IV, VI, and VII. Having now read the article it seems like they didn't care so much about getting a feel for the series but rather were just trying to pick 3 awesome games and I can't dispute that they did. Andrew also gave a very convincing argument for including VII that I hadn't known... It sold a stupid amount of copies. We're talking more copies of VII than were sold of the first 6 entries combined at almost 10 million! The only game to outsell it for the original Playstation was Gran Turismo. 3rd on the list was Gran Turismo 2. 4th was Final Fantasy VIII and 10th was Final Fantasy IX. Wow!

But I've been mulling the idea over in my head recently and think from a 'feel of the series' perspective there's a whole other direction that needs to be taken. There's one game that is very polarizing among fans of the series, and it happens to be the second highest selling in the series. Especially when contrasted with the highest selling entry I think it really demonstrates what Final Fantasy is all about. Some similar underlying themes (there's magic, you enter commands on a menu, there are side quests, there's crazy collection quests, there are summons, there's incredible music...) but two very, very different games. So I think having thought about it more the three games I'd tell someone to play to really feel Final Fantasy would be VI, VII, and VIII.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

League of Legends: Ninja Tabi

League of Legends recently made the interesting decision to remove dodge from the game completely. I would imagine they thought it was too spiky a stat. Against Nasus, for example, if you managed to dodge one of his Q attacks it would basically take away most of his damage output. Fail to dodge it and you'd get blown up. There was one champion based around dodge and they remade how he works. There were glyphs with dodge on them and they took those out and refunded the cost to anyone who bought them. When they redid the mastery trees a few months ago they pulled dodge out of them. And then there's the one item in the game that had dodge on it...

Ninja tabi used to be the set of boots used against people who mostly auto-attack. For the low cost of 850 you got the level 2 speed boost, 25 armor, and 10% dodge. This changed to a set of boots that for 850 gives you a level 2 speed boost, 25 armor, and 10% damage reduction from non-turret basic attacks. That sounds like quite a mouthful of a restriction but I'm pretty sure it works out to only working against the same things dodge used to work against. The difference is now instead of taking full damage 90% of the time and nothing 10% of the time you always take 90% of the damage. In the long run it has the same impact on durability but it is much smoother in the short run. There's no getting lucky and surviving when you 'should' die. There's no getting unlucky and bursted out with your defenses having no impact.

But the question I have is should it ever be purchased? How does it compare to other defensive stats you can buy on items? How does it compare to other pairs of speed 2 boots? Now that dodge is gone we really can use the old 'effective health' formula to calculate how long someone's going to live. There is healing in the game (many teams will run someone with a healing ability and there is life leech) which will make mitigation better than it looks when compared to straight health but for now I'm going to ignore healing...

Going back to a previous post on the subject Z=X*(100+Y)/100 where X is your max health, Y is your armour, and Z is your effective health. If all the incoming damage comes from auto-attacks (maybe you're fighting a fed Tryndamere, for example) the formula changes to Za=X*(100+Y)/90.

Ninja tabi costs 850. Possibly the best way to compare is to scale up chain vest which is 45 armour for 700 gold. If it cost 850 you'd get 55 armour out of it. So compared to ninja tabi you're picking up an extra 30 armour but losing the modifier. When, if ever, do these two things line up as equals?

Z = Za


With Y=0...

With Y=100...

With Y=200...

This is a pretty obvious pattern. Until you reach a really silly amount of armour you're better off just getting more armour instead of shifting to a ninja tabi. EXCEPT! You do actually get the speed boost out of the boots. It really isn't fair to assign the entire cost of the item to the defensive stats since the speed is a very real part of the item. You're not getting one or the other. You're getting some set of boots no matter what you do. How much of the cost should we deduct for that? Well, tier one boots cost 350 on their own. Lets be super generous and assume the boot upgrade is only an extra 50 on top. Then the defensive stats on the ninja tabi only cost 450 instead of 850. In this case the chain vest is really only worth 29 armour. This isn't even a comparison. You can get 4 armour or the 10% modifier. But for fun...

Z = Za


With Y=0...

With Y=100...

With Y=200...

So, yeah... Even if you didn't have any armour at all you'd be better off with the ninja tabi. Looks pretty good! EXCEPT! All the incoming damage is practically never going to be entirely auto-attacks. Maybe against Tryndamere, Master Yi, or Nasus? (And against them you should be all over ninja tabi!) But what about someone like Gangplank who does a lot of physical damage with special abilities? I was thinking this was going to be a question but with the current valuations it isn't. Only getting 4 extra armour means as long as practically any incoming damage is auto-attacks the ninja tabi is better than buying a chain vest.