Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Cross-Compatibility

Some rambles for your Wednesday morning:

You're probably already aware of this, but I buy a lot of games. Board games, card games, role-playing games. You name it, I buy it. With the exception of collectible games, really. And, even then, I occasionally dip a toe in to see if it's any good.

Even through 2020, I still bought a fair number of games. And I read and re-read a ton of games.

Something I've become quite fond of in games is cross-compatibility, especially in the board game end of the hobby. It's not a new thing -  Dominion: Intrigue was a standalone expansion for Dominion in 2009. The three Hero: Immortal King games released in 2007.  I know there are earlier examples (Stoner Fluxx was released in 2003, and appears to be the first standalone expansion in that series). Magic: the Gathering's Ice Age set was released in 1997. If I remember correctly, it was the first standalone expansion for MtG.

Board game expansions (and standalones) are almost always 100% compatible with one another.  Once in a while, you'll see a set from a game that recommends that you don't play it with certain other sets. For example, The 7 Wonders (first edition) expansion Babel integrates poorly with Armada. Not because of a rules clash, but because players suddenly have a lot more to juggle on their turns. More experienced or advanced players can do it, but even then it's less fun.

Babel, by the way, seems to be the most divisive expansion to the game. It is a love-it-or-hate-it set because of the fundamental changes it makes to some of the strategy. 

Race for the Galaxy has a couple of expansions that are not cross-compatible, too. It's not unheard of, it's just unusual on the board game end of things.

Meanwhile, on the RPG end of things, people tend to expect that a "house" system will be cross-compatible. And, much like the board game end of the gaming hobby pool, it usually is. Mostly.

It probably goes back further, but the oldest example I have a significant amount of personal experience with is the old World of Darkness series of games, starting in the mid-Nineties. Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith: the Oblivion, and  Changeline: the Dreaming. These games were ... mostly compatible. But there were (for example) Werewolf powers that targeted an opponent's Rage. Which was all well and good when using it against other Werewolves, but Vampires didn't have Rage. Nor did Mages. Or any of the others.  And so groups tended to collect house rules on how to mix-and-match.

I've seen discussion back-and-forth on why they're not fully compatible, and the most compelling argument I've seen is that in-character mixed parties are not supposed to happen. Werewolves hate Vampires, for example. So the various "others" should be treated as monsters in games other than their own.

But then we get into newer and more modern games. I'm a huge fan of Cortex Plus (now Cortex Prime). But no two games of Cortex Plus have been cross-compatible - you can't take your Leverage Crew into Smallville or Firefly without a ton of work. It was the first time I've seen a house system that was still recognizably the same core system, but was so grossly incompatible.

Modiphius' house engine, the 2d20 system, is similarly not cross-compatible.  Your Starfleet ensign can't beam into the Mutant Chronicles universe, or visit Barsoom without a lot of conversion work.

At first, these incompatibilities between games really rankled me.  I wanted to see Leverage-style play in the 'Verse. I was curious what Magneto would do in my personal Smallville. 

But then I read more closely, and I saw how the various tweaks and adjustments flavored the game - and refocused it. Smallville wasn't about what most super-hero games was about - it was about the relationships between the characters. So not giving characters traditional attributes very much made sense for that setting.

Where I'd expected a GURPs-like, "Every book adds genre-specific player options" series of releases, the various Cortex Plus games each drilled in and hyperfocused on the core of what they were about.

The first few 2d20 games from Modiphius - Mutant Chronicles, 3rd Edition and Infinity are ... very crunchy. But they're also based on universes from miniature games. I'm honestly surprised they don't have conversion rules that allow you to use your character in the connected minis game. Later games, however, like John Carter of Mars and Star Trek Adventures are significantly less-crunchy. I won't say they're storygames - they're still very traditional in their build and their outlook - but they're definitely a step back from the first two.

Either way, where I was originally frustrated by the Cortex Plus engine, I now look forward to each new iteration.  Tales of Xadia, the Dragon Prince game due out later this year looks to be a lot of fun - and a solid engine for Cartoon Action.

I also dread each new Modiphius title less-and-less. I've been a fan of the Mutant Chronicles setting since forever ago, but their system clunked for me and (something I need to write about) - I think I'm basically done with horror-themed RPGs in general. I have all of the books they've released for it, but aside from a one-shot (that did not go well online), I don't think it's going to hit the table again in its current incarnation. But I've also loved Star Trek since I was a small child, and Star Trek Adventures is night-and-day from Mutant Chronicles, 3rd Edition. Where MC3 clunks, STA moves easily. But it still has too many moving pieces for online play, IMHO. I'm actively looking forward to Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

I hope your FLGS survived 2020, because there are some very good-looking things showing up in 2021. Even if they're not cross-compatible.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Soon.

This last weekend, I played a game in person for the first time since February 29, 2020.

It was a two-player game, played with my wife, but it's still the first time I've gamed non-digitally in over a year. And I loved it and I want to do it again.

This pandemic has been tough. in all honesty, I've had it pretty easy - I'm considered essential at work, and so my routine hasn't changed much. But the lack of gaming for me has been rough.

For a few months, BoardGameArena filled that gap, but, as time went on, it ... didn't.  I'm still gaming there.  A lot. But it's not scratching that itch that I need filled. And, honestly, I found that trying to force it to scratch that itch made me resent it a little, so I stepped 100% back from gaming on Wednesday evenings. Because if there's one thing I do not want to resent, it's gaming with friends.

My buddy Rob stepped up and has been keeping Wednesday going without me. And I really appreciate his doing so.

I hosted an online movie night for some friends - and have done so for most of the last year, in fact - and that has helped some, too.

But I still need something. I need that in-person face-to-face social interaction.

Someone on Twitter said, "I can't wait for this all to be over so I can go back to being an introvert by choice," and ... I feel that. I feel that to the very core of my being.

But we're almost through, friends. Vaccines exist, and are being distributed. People are slowly being able to come out of their homes and meet up again safely.

I expect to be hosting my weekly game night again by midsummer. I hope to be hosting it again sooner than that, but that's out of my control.

Since I haven't been gaming, I haven't had much to say here. I hope to change that soon, too. I slowed my game buying over the last year, but I didn't stop. And a few Kickstarters delivered, too. This means that I have a number of games to play that will be new to me (and new to my group, when it exists again).

Thank you for sticking with me. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Playing Online

Due to the current situation, I've had the opportunity to play role-playing games online three times in the last few weeks. It's both wonderful and painful.

It's wonderful because I get to see and interact with people who I know and like. And we get to game.  Hell, Wade got us through one of the major arcs of our long-running 13th Age game.

Wade runs his games using Slack for die-rolling. He has a few more plugins and customizations there, too, and it works. It makes sense. We use Google Hangouts for the interaction with one another. Voice, video, etc. It's good to see the crew, but I very much hate that we can't all cluster around the same table the way we usually do.

Last weekend, I ran Mutant Chronicles for most of my L5R group. I used Discord for the die-rolling and - again - Google Hangouts for the face-to-face.  It was ... less-good than I'd hoped.  The system has too many metacurrencies to easily keep track of online, and tracking damage required that players have scratch paper, so - online at least - the system really got in the way.  And now is not a good time for dystopian horror.  But it was largely a test drive to see if the group could handle online play without weirdness, and it worked. So until we're allowed to game in person again, I'll be moving the L5R game online. The "Sidekick" bot even handles roll-and-keep and exploding dice, so the die-rolling is super-streamlined for us.  The characters were up on Obsidian Portal.  When we needed a map or an image, I just cut-and-pasted it into the Discord chat (and it worked pretty well).

In addition to running L5R online, I'm likely to do more one-shots. One of my players really desperately wants to play some sci-fi, so I'm re-reading Hellas for a one-shot play.

The problems I had were the same problems I have face-to-face.  I have one player who doesn't do much - he rolls his dice, but his character rarely engages. He will react if poked (and will interact with NPCs who interact with him), but for the most part, he sits back and lets the party play.

My party also does a lot of cross-talk. We spend a ton of time interacting with other players. It's the kind of thing that some groups really hate, but I enjoy it. Gaming is, after all, my social outlet. And they do snap back in character when I approach them in character.

I just really really want to see them in person again.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ready To Play vs. Tournament Legal Play

I was at Fantasium a week or so ago, and saw that they had received the first shipment of the new WWE Dice Masters. They had the Campaign Box and both of the expansion boxes. And I love the Dice Masters games. They're good, and they're 100% cross-compatible. Which is nice.

It means I can field Ninja Turtles while my opponent has an army of Space Marines, and there are no hiccups or other issues.

Here's what I don't like, though:

The Campaign Box gives you three of each included character's dice.  The expansions give you two of each included character's dice.  In tournament play, you can have up to four dice for each character you include.

So, while you can play tournaments with just the base game, you might be at a disadvantage compared to someone who bought two base sets (or two copies of the expansions).  But buying two copies of these gets you a bunch of extra cards. Two copies of the base game gets you a bunch of extra cards and a couple of extra dice (and a bunch of extra Basic Action and Minion dice).

There are a few other oddities, too. Like Bret "The Hit Man" Hart has three dice in the base game, and two dice in one of the expansions. But the expansion dice are a different color.

It's frustrating. It's still better than the random distribution they were using, though. And it's dramatically better than what Fantasy Flight has done with their Legend of the Five Rings card game (L5R).

A tournament-legal deck for L5R includes 1 Stronghold, 1 Role, and then two decks of 40-45 cards each (the Dynasty and Conflict decks).  The Dynasty deck can only contain cards that are neutral or from a single clan. The Conflict deck can only be neutral or from a single clan or from a single other Clan puchased by using Influence.

I'm going to ignore the Conflict deck for a moment, here. Let's talk about the Dynasty deck:

The base game includes 20 neutral Dynasty cards and 15 Dynasty cards from each clan.  That's 35 cards for someone's Dynasty deck. There is no way to make a tournament-legal deck from the starter box. There's not even deckbuilding strategy involved, either. To play in a tournament, you need to buy more cards. And, unless you buy a bunch more, you won't have many options for deck construction, either.  Their expansions all include "play sets" (three of each included card), which is nice. But why doesn't the base set even include the ability to put together a single tournament-legal deck?

Let me put on my Grumpy Old Man hat for a second, here:

In 1993, when I bought my first deck of Magic: the Gathering cards, I paid $8 for a starter pack, and instantly had a tournament-legal deck in my hands. It wasn't a good tournament deck, but it was legal. Unless I had a banned card - but the banned/restricted list was still in the future. In fact, I played in a number of single-starter sealed deck tournaments. Because they were fun and viable.

Now, I know that a Magic starter is not $8 anymore. But it's still a whole lot less than the $40 that FFG is charging for their L5R starter. And WotC now produces non-random starters, too, so you know what you're going to get. And - yes - Magic is still mostly provided in random booster packs, where L5R (and Dice Masters now) are mostly sold as fixed starters and expansions.

It just throws up unnecessary speed bumps for new players.

With Dice Masters, you have limited options, but you can put together two tournament-legal sets from just the base game.

Honestly, it's almost enough to get me back into Magic.

Almost.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Everything Old Is New Again: Changing Expectations

I'm not a huge video gamer. Haven't been since I was much younger.

My brothers and I saved up, and - together - bought an NES. This was during the era when the system included the Zapper and the included cartridge was Super Mario Brothers / Duck Hunt. My younger brother, who has always been better at anything physical, was significantly better than I was at both games.

After a year or two, we bought Defender II. At some point, we wound up with Legend of Zelda. We had one of the Castlevania games, too.

But that was it for us. We borrowed games occasionally, and played games at friends' houses, but the NES didn't take over our lives like our parents feared it would (probably because we never had Tetris or Dr. Mario).

We never got an SNES or a Genesis. In fact, the next video game system to appear in the house was my original Playstation - more than a decade after the NES showed up.

But when I was in HS, I spent many a weekend going to friends' houses and playing Street Fighter II for hours and hours and hours. "Winner Stays" was the rule of thumb. And I was very rarely the winner.

For Christmas this year, my mother bought me a device called a "Retron 5." I'd seen it on the shelf at a record store, and then added it to my wish list (which I use as a way to keep track of things I'd like to check out later), where she saw it. It's a retro system emulator, with slots for NES, SNES, Genesis, Famicom, and Game Boy Advance cartridges. Have a game? Stick it in, and you can play it!

I thought it was pretty neat, so I spent a few bucks and got some games. And I was amazed at how well some of them had held up over the years. Dr. Mario is still super-addictive (and fun). Tetris is amazing. Super Battletank II is ... not but it was cheap. Golden Axe is alright. Altered Beast is what it's always been.

I see a lot of discussion these days about the price of games and how short they are, and I realize that these retro games are almost all shorter than most modern games.

Super Mario Brothers is all of 32 levels. People are beating it (without warps) in under 20 minutes. But I don't remember people complaining about how short it was, because it was from a completely different era of gaming.

I remember when I played Star Wars: Republic Commando on my XBox, I was disappointed at how short its single-player storyline was. It's about a nine hour game. And so (on average) is Legend of Zelda. But I don't remember any complaining about that one being super-short.

Of course, my XBox had an internal hard drive that remembered where I was, so I could turn it off and walk away. Some Nintendo games had internal memory storage, and could remember where you were, but most of them didn't. Some games gave you codes once you hit a certain level. That code would jump you to that level so you didn't have to start over every time you turned the device on.

But longer games are more viable, now, than they used to be.  Early NES games were basically arcade games - play for a few, run out of lives, and then either continue or start over. I don't know that "arcade games" are still a thing, to be honest.

Meanwhile, on the board game end of things ...

A particularly deep or complex game used to take literal days. Empires in Arms was (and continues to be) a particular favorite of mine. It takes weeks to play. Civilization with its sequels and expansions could take days. Whereas Eclipse takes only a few hours (and scratches a similar itch for me).

I don't really have a point, here.  It's just fascinating to that video games are taking longer and longer while board games are getting more and more efficient.  The two branches of the "game" hobby seem to be traveling in opposite directions.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Pushing To The End: The Failure Of Going Set

A few years ago, I was playing a lot of Tichu. It's a great game that pushes a lot of buttons that I like having pushed. It's (for example) a trick-taking game. And I love those. It's a partnership game, and I love those too.

I really like Pinochle and Rook, too. I suspect that, if I'd played more than a hand or two, I'd really enjoy Bridge. I sure enjoy reading about its strategy.

But all of these games have a small niggling problem: players can "go set." Although different games (and groups) use different terminology for it.

When you "go set," you fail to meet a pre-determined condition and lose points instead of gaining them for that hand. In Tichu, for example, you can call "Tichu" or "Grand Tichu."  If you then empty your hand first, you get a ton of points. If you don't, then you lose the points you would have gained. Your opponents still gain the points that they would have gained, too.

In theory - and on paper - it works. And it works in play, too. Mostly.

But losing points actually slows the game down.

Lately, I have been playing a ton of Haggis on BoardGameArena. Haggis is played very similarly to Tichu, only without the special cards (and with a few additional wrinkles). And it has a mechanism that is similar to calling "Tichu" to gain points.  In Haggis, you can place a bet.

If you place a bet and then don't go out first, then you don't lose points, though. Instead, any opponents who didn't place a bet score the points you would have made from that bet. So if I place a little bet (15 points) and fail, then my opponents each score that 15 points. If Steph and I each place little bets and Sean goes out first, then Sean will score 30 points from our best and Steph and I won't score any points.

In terms of spacing between players, it makes no difference.  If I bet 15 in Pinochle and fail, I lose 15 points and my opponents gain zero, for a total score difference of 15. If I bet 15 in Haggis and fail, my opponents all gain 15 points, for a total score differential of ... 15.

But the key difference is this:

My sliding back 15 points means that the game as a whole can potentially take 15 points longer to complete.  Whereas my failure pushing my opponents forward by 15 points means that the game is 15 points closer to a finish.

If everyone fails all the time at Tichu, it's possible to have both teams with negative points. Games like that can drag on for hours. But by flipping that on its ear, Haggis turned itself into a pretty fast-playing little game because every hand moves the game forward towards its end.

I find myself wanting to play Tichu and Pinochle with the failure condition flipped like it is in Haggis, just to see if it changes the feel of the game.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Let's Try This Again, Shall We?

I was planning to be back. I really was. But then things at work - which had been chaotic, but on an upswing - took several dramatic turns. In all honesty, I reached a point where I was considering deleting this blog and its archives and just doing what I could to disappear entirely from the internet.

Google Plus closed. Facebook continues to suck.

And now work is ... well, it's complicated.

But it led me to a realization:

If I don't force myself to write, I'm not going to write.

A lot has changed in my gaming life. A lot has changed in my home life, too. And it occurs to me that change isn't going to go away. Things are never going to be 100% stable. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The other day, a friend said to me that I need to blog more. And I realized that I really do.

I won't promise a regular schedule with my usual Wednesday updates. I may post half-formed ideas occasionally and then circle back to them in later posts.

But I'm trying to be better. I'm trying to be here more often.

We'll see how well that ends up working out.

Welcome to 2020.