Wayward

Wayward, currently in beta, is a survival game by Unlok. Think Minecraft, but with a classic JRPG look and more dying of thirst. You can fire it up in your browser, and it’s turn-based like an old roguelike, which makes it perfect for playing a few minutes at a time.

When Wayward begins, you are stranded on a small island with a few supplies and virtually no skills. Your goal is to find hidden treasure and get off the island. Of course, this is a survival game, so before you go hunting for treasure you’ll want to set up reliable food and water sources, and build a place to hide from bears.

Your character begins with a small crafting menu, which grows as you find new materials and practice your skills. You will cut down a lot of trees in this game, to get branches, to make bark strips, to make string, to make rope… you get the picture. The menu quickly grows large enough that the text search will come in handy.

I eventually got into a stable living situation, even trying to start a farm; this wouldn’t be a bad Harvest Moon replacement with better farming options. I went in search of treasure, but found none – the big dark cave on my island was empty. Since the game is still in beta, the wiki may be necessary to succeed. At that point my interest sort of ran out.

The good: I like survival and crafting games, and the in-browser turn-based nature of this one allowed me to play a few turns at a time. Being able to play a few turns would work well on mobile for me, as long as you can retrieve the context for what you were doing. The crafting options are extensive.

The bad: In time the game becomes an inventory management nightmare – limited stacks, weight limits, sub-containers and the necessity of stockpiling mean there’s way too much to keep track of and not much help to organize it. I never thought I’d turn to Dwarf Fortress for a usability lesson, but inventoried and searchable stockpiles are an awesome feature.

Wayward is free and worth a shot. My tip for getting started – you don’t need an ax, just hit trees with rocks to get going.

Broken Age: Act 1

As the sounds of an orchestra tuning up played behind the title screen, I realized that this is a game for grown-ups.

Broken Age, the Kickstarted adventure from Double Fine, is a story about questioning perspectives. Shay and Vella are each unhappy with the reality constructed for them. Shay struggles against a rubber-room world with an effort to introduce some real danger. Meanwhile, Vella faces danger enough as she fights back against a human sacrifice tradition. In each case a child challenges their upbringing, and sees the world differently.

It’s an apt story for a crowdfunded game with obvious roots in SCUMM engine adventures. Broken Age had every reason to be a childish nostalgia-fest. Eighty thousand backers invested in a classic point-and-click adventure. They’re getting what they asked for. And yet, Broken Age wants to see the world differently. It wants to grow up.

The first act is short, and its puzzles nigh trivial. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Broken Age is a videogame growing up into a work of drama. The puzzles are a carrot, subordinate to the story and helping to pull players along from one scene to another. The length is respectful of my time, something I can finish in a weekend or two. It’s dense, eschewing backtracking and fetch quests in favor of regular story beats.

Best of all, Broken Age is a game about characters. Videogames are usually a medium of verbs and spaces. I often feel that the environment is the most significant character in a game. Broken Age is different: Superb writing, voice work, and animation combine to create distinctive and memorable characters. Interactions with these characters are not complex, but they are the highlight of the experience – you play for the people.

It was worth the price of admission. I do think this story deserves three acts. But then, I have no idea what act two has in store.

Spoilers about the end of act 1 below:

About halfway through the game I guessed the connection between Shay and Vella. Marek’s viewscreen, the “rescues,” and the locked hold foreshadowed Shay’s emergence from Mog Chothra. Recognizing this early separated me from Shay’s character. It was obvious that he had walked out of one ruse and into another. But Shay’s new freedom blinds him, even when taking orders from a something-in-wolves’-clothing. While this made it harder to role-play as Shay, it also solidified his personality independent of the player. I’m curious to see how act two deals with his complicity in Vella’s trouble.

Morels

My wife dominated Valentine’s day this year. On top of buying me a pizza peel, she tracked down a new two-player card game. She surprised me with Morels, a light strategy game about gathering mushrooms in the woods. Ten rounds later, I think this game has our couples-game stamp of approval. Great work honey!

The first thing I noticed about Morels is that the game is saturated with theme. The rules, though verbose, were easy to pick up. All the game elements interact in simple, sensible ways. You pass mushrooms on your walk through the woods, picking choice fungi. Gather pans to cook mushrooms, baskets to carry more, and foraging sticks to reach deeper into the woods. It all works, and the game feels much like a woodland stroll.

On a mechanical, playable level there’s also a lot to love. Players only take action per turn and there are only two players, so that game moves at a nice clip for its relaxed feel. Analysis paralysis stays low as well – on their first turn a player usually has two or three possible moves. Later the possibility space can include more than ten moves, but two or three usually stand out. Since the game only ends when the draw deck is empty, play time is consistently 20-30 minutes. The only awkwardness is that you’ll often hold a hand of 12 or more cards in the latter half of the game, which can be hard to manage.

Player interaction consists of getting to resources first. Every move affects your opponent’s options in a predictable way, so choices are complex on every turn. Still, it’s not an aggressive game. It’s rare to find a game my wife likes this much. I suspect it will last a while in our house.

2014-02-15 15.00.00

Dominion: Intense

Writing about Yu-Gi-Oh got me thinking about Dominion, and how it’s about the only board game that my wife actually enjoys.

As a thought experiment, I considered how Dominion would change if you took all the randomness out of the game. It wouldn’t be hard to do. Here are my rule changes:

  1. When setting up the game, each player may stack their deck.
  2. When you discard multiple cards at once, you may put them on top of your discard pile in any order.
  3. When you have to draw and your draw pile has run out, you flip your discard pile over and turn it into your draw pile without shuffling it.

There you go, deterministic Dominion. I haven’t tried this yet. I’m going to, but I wanted to write down my hypothesis first. I predict that making Dominion deterministic will significantly increase the intensity of the game, which in turn will make it more fun for a few of my competitive gamer friends, but at the cost of alienating more casual players (e.g. my wife).

At GDC I attended a great talk by Luke Muscat from Halfbrick, where he discussed a prototype he created that made people at the office into mean backstabbing jerks. His hypothesis was that three mechanical characteristics of his prototype led to this behavior, together creating a game with an extremely high level of “intensity.”

  • No Randomness – It was a pure strategy game, based on skill alone.
  • Duration – It was a long game (weeks) with a high time investment.
  • Chaining – This one’s harder to describe. There was a mechanic that let connected groups of players get very powerful, but only if every player in the chain participated. This led to the formation of teams, but also lots of backstabbing since there could only be one winner.

This Dominion variant is based on the first of his points, and on some of Greg Costikyan’s work on the role of randomness in games. Taking randomness out of a game places the blame for failure squarely on the player. If the ideal family game gives you that “win because of skill, lose because of luck” feeling, deterministic games are missing the second half of that equation.

It’s possible that Muscat’s second point will come into play as well, but I’m not sure yet. I think for less skilled players, the game may go longer as they struggle to stack up the right cards and create winning combinations, and it’s hard to be saved by a lucky shuffle. On the other hand, very skilled players may be able to close the game faster, reducing the stakes of a given game and therefore its overall intensity.

This all reminds me of playing Egyptian Rat (also known as…) in high school, with friends who were trying to count not only the cards in their own deck, but in their opponent’s deck as well. Our version of that game evolved a series of rules designed to preserve its deterministic nature because the high intensity was a major feature – the “slap” mechanic being the primary point of intensity, suggesting that games requiring constant attention or concentration also have a high level of intensity. We were able to pull casual players into Rat though because games were often short, again lowering the stakes.

I’m sure the designer considered a non-deterministic game when creating Dominion – I wonder how quickly it was thrown out. I’ll give this a shot, and if anyone else tries it I’d love to hear about your experience.