Tidbits to tide you over

Hello everyone!  This week I’ve set aside time to spend with my brothers, which means lots of role playing games and storytelling and laughter and yelling (also probably more food and booze than usual).  But because of all that, I’m unlikely to have much for you here.  I’m certainly unlikely to have full-scale reviews or such.  I’ll return with the usual stuff by next Monday, no worries.

But while I’m not writing as much about things, here, have a few tidbits!

Dying Light is a fascinating game: it has gameplay that I find fun and engaging, but a story and characterizations which so far repel me.  It is definitely fun playing with other people, running around the zombie apocalypse at high speed, leaping from building to building, and getting lost in the warrens while hungry monsters chase me.  But every time the story progresses, I shudder and feel that ugly cold spot in my belly; why the hell does the POV character have to be a tool?  Why do they have to make the villain choices they do?  Why did they think the misogynist themes would be worth including?  Why do I feel certain that the “strong female character” they’ve created is just going to be damseled within the next few missions?  For that matter, why are there two or three women survivors in the tower, and everyone else there that I meet is male?

As someone who loves and is fascinated by stories, I’ll probably keep watching the story cutscenes all the way through.  But that may just make me angrier and angrier about their writing choices.  It’s a good thing that the cutscenes are skippable and basically won’t matter in the long run.

On the other end of things, we have Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance, which I just finished.  The first time that I picked it up I bounced off the main character’s narration (a first for me with any of Bujold’s books).  But when I started it this time I fell in and couldn’t climb out… which is about what I expect from Bujold at this point.  She really is fabulous.  I’m going to leave my paeans of praise for another post, when I can give this book it’s due, but if you like the other Vorkosigan series books be sure to keep at it with this one, even if the start is a little disorienting.  It’s worth it.

Okay, that’s all for now.  Enjoy yourselves.

A Red and Pleasant Land: Old School RPGs through a Looking Glass

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My itinerant laser-show friend arrived unexpectedly this week, and as such it was immediately time to play RPGs.  He brought a copy of A Red and Pleasant Land, a Lewis Carroll inspired setting and rules supplement for the system Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and we all thought that this was so cool that we totally had to play it.  We got somewhat distracted by character creation because we’re a bunch of nerds and it’s fun coming up with details about our fictional selves, but I’m really looking forward to playing with these characters.

I can’t tell you that much about the game yet, since I haven’t really gotten much of a chance to play, but I can tell you this: Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a little bit like a more metal version of original DnD, and A Red and Pleasant Land is a far more metal version of Carroll’s visions, chock full of murder, bloodthirsty vampires, and wars.

If you like the idea of playing a stripped down and often lethal version of old-school Dungeons and Dragons, something that will force you to think your way out of your various predicaments (because your stat line and the game systems surely won’t save you), you should check out Lamentations.  If you like the idea of doing that in a fabulously lethal Wonderland, and possibly wandering the world as an Alice (yes, “the Alice” is a class, and from what I’ve seen she’s totally amazing), then you should check out A Red and Pleasant Land.

Ok, that’s enough for now, I’m afraid the time has come for me to go back to seeing my visiting friend before he disappears onto the road once more.

Tombs=Raided, Hearts=Won; Tomb Raider Rocks

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I don’t usually wish that I paid more for a game.  But I liked Tomb Raider so much that I almost wish I hadn’t bought it on sale.  I want the people who made it to know how much I liked it, and I want them to put as much high-quality work into making the next one as they put into making this one.  Because there’s a next one.  I mean, even if I didn’t know that Rise of the Tomb Raider is coming, I wouldn’t have any real doubts (except, I suppose, if the studios involved fell apart or lost the rights, which would be terrible).  The end of Tomb Raider left it clear that Lara is nowhere near finished with being the awesome badass which she’s become, and that makes me very happy.  Watching the announcement trailer for the new game has reduced me to a quivering pile of enthusiasm.

Why am I so happy about all this?  Tomb Raider is a brilliant game, and does things with story-telling that remind me why games are such a fascinating medium in the first place.  It’s an adventure novel with audience participation, a new entry in a genre that I love, and it evades the problematic trappings that spoil so many other adventure stories for me.

Ok, spoil is a strong word.  I love adventure stories enough to enjoy them despite their frequent problems, but being able to enjoy one that isn’t so inherently problematic is a breath of fresh air.  It doesn’t hurt that this particular story is extremely well written, with characters who feel like real people, and who share history with each other that seems fitting and unforced.  It’s a little bit like someone crossed Tintin with Indiana Jones, turned the tone dial to ‘gritty and a bit bloodthirsty,’ and then put you through the Bildungsroman of Lara Croft as she goes from untested and unconfident archaeologist to self-assured and competent survivor and adventurer, hellbent on keeping herself and her friends alive.  Wait, no, that’s almost exactly what it’s like.  It’s glorious.

Look, you don’t have to take my word for it.  You can play the game yourself.  But if you want to read more of my thoughts on the topic, including the few reservations I have, please be my guest:  Continue reading

Pairs

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There’s something brilliantly simple about Pairs.  This is probably because it’s a very well designed pub game, from the experienced designers at Cheapass Games.  Pairs is in some ways a departure from the style of their other games, but it shows their collected experience: it’s a snappy game with simple rules that pushes you to go big or go home and gives you quick excitement with good replay value.  It rewards you for smart play, yet it’s just random enough to make flirting with risk a rewarding experience, especially when you can force your fellow players into even riskier territory.  Succeeding in Pairs means balancing your untenable position with your knowledge of the deck and the mental states of your fellow players, and somehow staying in just long enough for someone else to crash and burn first.

While the composition of the game’s deck is very easy to understand (there are ten 10’s, nine 9’s, eight 8’s… all the way down to two 2’s and one 1), counting cards has been actively discouraged by means of a few careful tweaks: each deal starts with five cards being dealt off the top of the deck into a burn pile, all cards removed from play during the game are discarded face down into the burn pile, and a cut card is used to cover the bottom of the deck in order to restrict player knowledge.  Players gain points (a bad thing) when they are dealt a card matching a card they already have in their hand, and all players play with open hands.  Points are tracked by leaving cards you’ve scored visible in front of you, separate from your hand.  Because of how the deck is constructed, you have a roughly 50-50 chance of being dealt an 8, 9, or 10, limiting the amount of time that you can last in any given round.  But it’s possible to fold before you are forced to take points, scoring any one card in play instead of risking being dealt a higher value pair.  The moment you score, regardless of how you do it, you discard whatever remains of your hand.  This means that by folding you to both avoid taking a high value card (e.g. by having a matching 10 dealt to your hand), and deprive other players of opportunities to score low-value cards (either from your hand, or from whatever you picked elsewhere in play).  In play, this means that players’ turns cycle quickly around the table as players choose to either fold, accepting that they will take some points, or hit, accepting risk for the chance of taking no points at all.

Once you’ve taken points and your hand has been emptied, you check to see whether your score has passed the threshold set for your number of players (31 for two players, 21 for three, [or 60/(number of players) + 1, with a minimum of 11 for 6 or more players]).  If you haven’t lost, play continues and you are dealt in once again starting with your next turn, while you hope desperately that someone else will lose before the game gets back around to you.

All in all, rapid and easy play combine with just enough chance to make Pairs an excellent game for laughing at your friends.  If you’re looking for more easy pickup games or pub games, check it out and enjoy scrabbling to take as few points as possible while everyone else does the same.

Cooperative Fireworks Puzzles: Hanabi

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Try this: set off a totally awesome fireworks show without every being able to look at your own hands, relying instead on what your friends tell you about what your hands are doing..  I can’t say that Hanabi is exactly that in game form, but it does a good job of approximating it.  It’s can be difficult, but that very difficulty also makes it rewarding.  Sometimes, of course, you misunderstand what others are telling you and everything blows up in your face.  Read on for more detail.

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Rimworld: The Magic Continues

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Correction: with Alpha 7‘s release, the space magic continues.  Or, uh, the starving frontier space magic, beset by violent thugs and now diseases.  But let’s look on the bright side of things: even as Ludeon has introduced plague, it has also given us the prosthetics and organ harvesting and transplantation, in addition to a welter of other neat new features.

The introduction of prosthetics is far more important than you might realize.  The last version, Alpha 6, introduced a complex medical system which tracks injury and debility by location, though perhaps without quite the same granularity as Dwarf Fortress‘:

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My Alpha 6 colony had a slowly growing number of people who’d lost appendages to chronic cases of gunfire and explosions.  I was forever terrified of having my wonderful and productive citizens maimed horribly while defending the colony.  Now, it looks like we can give our debilitated friends a leg up, so to speak, by building prostheses for them to replace whatever they’ve lost.  Given the constant scarcity of more advanced medical supplies, I foresee specifically targeting raiders with cybernetic prosthetics so that I can strip the things I want from their cold, dead bodies.  Or from their warm and unconscious bodies, if they somehow survive the fusillade of bullets and seem like they aren’t worth rehabilitating.

This is Rimworld, after all, and I already do my best to hunt down fleeing raiders when they’re wearing or carrying things I find especially desirable.  It’s hard to come by powered combat armor without taking it off the body of an erstwhile attacker.  Traits have already made a meaningful entry into the game, affecting everything from move- and work-speed to mental stability and opinions of cannibalism, and there’s nothing quite like having a murder-happy speed demon ready to hunt down your fleeing enemies.  You just have to make sure that they never suffer a mental break or suddenly decide to betray you.

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Buzz Lightyear Simulator: Volo Airsport

That’s definitely falling with style.

We can probably all agree that wingsuit flying looks both insane and intriguing.  It’s not something that I think I’d be comfortable with doing, but I’m happy to watch other people throw themselves off cliffs and then whizz along at supremely high speeds in their flying-squirrel suits.  Why don’t I want to do the same?  Mostly because it scares the crap out of me.

But there’s something incredibly appealing about the idea of flying like that.  So when I found out about Volo Airsport, I thought I’d give it a try.  I’ve loved flight simulators since I was little, and the idea that I might be able to play a flight simulator without a plane really tickled my fancy.  Oh, and did I mention that the alpha is quite pretty?  Have a look:

Like I said, it’s a Buzz Lightyear Simulator, all about learning how to fall with style.  The body-mechanics based control scheme gives an extremely fine sense of control, and the game requires you to learn it well.  Turbulence and wind will buffet you relentlessly, and maintaining awareness of your control surfaces is both crucial and difficult.  Case in point, I spent my first fifteen or so runs crashing into the ground with more or less success, never quite getting the hang of what it took to stay airborne while I fiddled repeatedly with my mouse sensitivity.  The game’s splash screen suggests that you use a controller and I’m inclined to say that I agree, though I’ve yet to test how much easier that makes things.

That said, something just clicked for me around run twenty, and suddenly I was able to soar.  I’m still getting better, pushing my close proximity runs to the limit as I learn how better to deal with the vagaries of a rapidly shifting landscape flashing by beneath me.  This game isn’t deep, and it offers you only as much challenge as you decide to set for yourself, but it offers an almost meditative experience as you plummet towards the ground and then zoom off at a breakneck pace.  So, if you want a playground in the sky, check out Volo Airsport.

N.b. There’s no normal starting menu: you need to press escape in order to bring up the menu interface, which contains a grand pile of options for you to adjust as well as adaptable key-bindings.

New D&D Sneakily Poaches Inclusivity, Narrative

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I grew up playing AD&D, as my brothers introduced me to RPGs before I was 7.  I’ve since moved away from the various D&D systems, flirting with them occasionally in passing while I instead focus on other systems that I find more interesting; I’ve come to prefer more narrativist games for the most part, though my friend Zach’s super-old-school D&D certainly calls to me at times.  But with the release of the newest edition of D&D (5th ed? Next? Whatever we’re supposed to call it) I thought I’d give it a look.  I’d examined some of the playtest documents and made appreciative noises, so I thought I should take a chance.  I’m glad I did.  It seems like the new D&D has learned a few tricks from the games that pulled me away from it in the first place.

There have been a few things that have really stood out to me while I’ve been reading the new Player’s Handbook (PHB), two quite good and one that I’m not sure how to qualify.  These have nothing to do with the rules, I’ll talk about those later.  The first item is one which I understand has already been discussed elsewhere, namely the game’s specific mention of a player’s ability to construct their character’s gender- or sexual-identity, and statement that that’s a perfectly fine thing to explore in this game; the second item is D&D’s incorporation of distinct backgrounds, personalities, and motivations into character creation, including something called “bonds” which I can only presume has come from Dungeon World; the third item is the art chosen for the book, and its depictions of a diverse group of characters.  I’ll talk more about all of these, but let’s tackle that last one first.

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Finance, Ponzi Schemes, and Cards: Liar’s Poker

Lying to your friends can be exceedingly fun.  Unfortunately, other people are often angry when you mislead them in everyday interactions.  This is where Liar’s Poker comes in handy; it gives you all the satisfaction of lying to your friends, with none of the insalubrious repercussions!  I was first treated to this game last night, when I played it with my brothers and cousins, and I’m now a staunch advocate.  Please note that this is not the same as the similarly titled bar game played with $1 bills.

Liar’s Poker is very simple.  Much like in Ponzi schemes (or even the stock market), the idea of the game is to be one of the first people in, and be the very first person out.  You never want to be caught holding the overvalued collection of rubbish that is methodically working its way around the table, and you most certainly want to convince the next person in line that the crap in your hand is actually worth something.  Like I said, it’s very simple.  It also has the potential to be hilarious.

The first player is dealt a hand of five cards, looks at them, and declares a hand (anything from high card to royal flush).  They then offer the hand to the next player.  The second player (and every player after them), then has the opportunity to decide whether the offer is believable.  If they accept the offer, they receive the hand and now have the opportunity to discard face down up to three cards from the hand and draw cards to replace them.  They must then declare a hand of greater value than the one they recieved and offer it to the next player.  If they reject the offer, the rejected hand is revealed and evaluated; if the revealed hand met or exceeded the declared value of the hand (and the declaration did not substantially misrepresent the hand’s contents), the person who rejected the hand takes a point.  If the rejected hand was, in fact, the load of rubbish which the discerning player believed it to be, then the liar who tried to pass it off as something better takes a point.  The first player to 10 (or whatever you decide on for your preferred length of game) ends the game, and the person with the lowest point total wins.

While you are in possession of the hand, you may say whatever you like about its contents.  Once the hand is no longer yours, you should not declare anything about what had been in it except to repeat what you had claimed when you passed it along.  Table talk is otherwise encouraged.  Remember that all discards are done face down, so you can’t see what has moved in or out of the hand.  Also note that the next person must always claim a higher value than the one you gave them, and the only way to hurt people further around the table is by allowing a hand to keep moving.

What did I mean by “substantially misrepresent the hand’s contents”?   If you’ve got three aces in your opening hand, you could say “the highest card is an ace,” and not be in danger.  If you had a pair of twos and a king, you could simply say “pair of twos.”  If you wanted to turn up the heat, you could get more specific and claim the higher value hand, which would also narrow the range of claims available to the next player.  But if you have a straight in your opening hand and instead claim a pair, you would be in danger of taking a point if someone calls you on it, regardless of the fact that your straight certainly outdoes a pair.

So why do I like this so much?  It may simply have been a combination of sleep deprivation and alcohol, but I suspect that I would have similar results when playing this game with the right group of people.  That’s an important note: there are certainly people with whom you will not want to play this game, which may be a larger (or different) group than the usual people with whom you don’t want to play games.  Make sure that you have players who will be willing to laugh at being duped, even as they take joy in lying through their teeth to the next person in line.

Liar’s Poker requires only minor memorization, and will quickly teach familiarity with the values of poker hands, but it really shines when it comes to creating hilariously improbable situations and forces you to judge just how deep the lies really go.  It’s great fun.

To be perfectly clear, there are other games which are also called Liar’s Poker, and there is a book by Michael Lewis with the same title.  This game bears only passing resemblance to the others, but it seems far more interesting to me than the bar game.

Transistor

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There are many things that I wish to say about Transistor, but the story-related ones will have to wait for after the break.  I don’t want to spoil anything for you.

To start with, this is one of the prettiest games I have seen in a while, and it has a soundtrack that makes me want to close my eyes and sink into it.  I spent a considerable amount of time simply sitting and absorbing the game’s music, doing nothing else for fear of missing out on the songs.  I wish that the soundtrack had all of the various in-game versions of the music, including Red’s hummed accompaniment.

I’m hard pressed to peg the game to a single genre or type, but its construction and design bears a profound similarity to Bastion.  You do battle with an ever-growing variety and number of foes, following the protagonist from a third person isometric perspective as you wander through lushly painted land- or cityscapes, slowly puzzling out the backstory of the characters and learning what is happening around you.  As far as I’m concerned, what worked in Bastion works here too.

As a game, I found Transistor very appealing; designing my own powers, mixing and matching elements as I discovered new killer combos, and adapting my loadout to the situation presented were all quite satisfying.  Making sure that I wasn’t crippled when I lost one of my powers due to a mistake, and being forced to rethink my situation creatively when I failed in that, were both very rewarding as well.  And when battles became a little same-y towards the end, or failed to present me with situations that I hadn’t foreseen, I still wanted to follow the story.  Now that I’ve finished the game, I also want to see how it handles itself on a second pass-through.  But I’ve played it enough to be able to say that I like it, and that I suspect you’d enjoy it as well.  Now about those *SPOILERS*…

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