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Optimizing Board Games

While on vacation this past week, I had a chance to put in a few rounds of Betrayal at House on the Hill. It is an ostensibly cooperative board game that consists of exploring a haunted house by laying down tiles, rolling some dice, and then attempting to survive once the Haunt starts. Once the Haunt is triggered, usually one of the players becomes a traitor working for the monsters that show up, and thus it quickly becomes 1v3 or worse.

The game was fun for the three rounds we played it, but by the third game, I started seeing the cracks in the design.

Exploring rooms will usually cause an Item, Event, or Omen card to be pulled. Items are pretty much universally good and are a hot commodity. Events are usually bad or otherwise risky – most require you to succeed on a roll to gain stats, or you otherwise lose stats. Omen cards are usually the equivalent of good Items, but once an Omen is pulled, that person has to make a Haunt roll that surpasses the number of active Omens, else the Haunting starts. In the three games we played, the Haunt pretty much consistently occurred after the sixth Omen.

The cracks mostly show once people realize that optimization is the answer. Some of the rooms, for example, allow you to increase a stat (Might, Speed, etc) by +1 if you end your turn there. Now, the rulebook states it only works once per game, but the FAQ (PDF) makes it clear that it happens once per game per player. In other words, the moment one of these rooms open up, the optimum strategy is for everyone to stop what they are doing and go get that stat increase. Free stats are free. Considering that the Haunt can only start when an Omen card is pulled, and no Omen cards can get pulled if no new rooms are being explored, there is zero reason not to perform that strategy.

Another example is the Vault room. A player needs to roll a Knowledge check and get a result of 6+ to open the Vault and snag two Items. Rolling a 6 would be exceedingly unlikely for someone with Knowledge 3, because the dice only have 0, 1, and 2 printed on them. But, again, there is zero danger pre-Haunt as long as no one is actively exploring new rooms. It costs nobody anything let one person roll three dice until a total of six appears. Granted, there are other players with higher starting Knowledge totals who can make the roll faster, but the bottom line is that the preferred result is inevitable.

Once I realized all this, the game become significantly less fun. We didn’t do the “everyone get your +1 Sanity” trick the first two times we played, because we really didn’t know better. The third time we did. And that room might as well said “everyone gets +1 whatever” because we basically cycled through everyone’s turn 2-3 times in ten seconds to make sure people with slower Speed scores could travel there. While we didn’t quite make the Vault an auto-open situation, we could have done that too.

Another example: some rooms force you to make a Might/etc check to leave without taking damage. The FAQ points out that if you fail the roll, you can choose to not leave the room and avoid the damage. Ergo, the optimal strategy is to not leave until you win the roll, and for no one to explore any rooms until you do.

Noticing a pattern yet?

The optimal strategy makes the game less about interesting decisions, and more about whether your friends are willing to play the “right” way. This becomes especially evident once the Haunt actually starts, considering the Traitor/monsters are way more dangerous than most of the other players by default. Since the Traitor/monsters get a turn to try and kill you, suddenly turns become a precious commodity. It’s less about options and more about “we need to win this roll or be turned into a toad.” What ends up being even worse is the fact that the Haunt is pretty much over – win or lose – within like 2-3 full turns. Yeah, sometimes it takes several turns to successfully research X, or tear apart a room for Y, but you either have a strategy/house layout that gives you breathing room or you are dead.

All in all, I found Betrayal at the House on the Hill to be relatively fun for a while. It honestly reminded me of a sort of Arkham Horror-lite, in fact. But having played Arkham before, I immediately recognized how much of a difference it makes to be time-limited. There are still optimal decisions to be made in closing portals or otherwise holding back the eldritch beings, but at least the gambling in Arkham has teeth. Sometimes literally.

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Game Dialog Choice

I’m still slowly working my way through Pillars of Eternity, but this is starting to irk me greatly:

Fine then.

Fine.

Pillars is not, of course, the first game to tie your in-game dialog responses to statistics or skills. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas come immediately to my mind, for example. But on reflection, I don’t really like it in those games either. I find Pillars a bit worse in this regard though, due both to how much more difficult it is to actually raise your abilities, and how this game is supposed to be a spiritual successor to, you know, stuff like this:

Planescape_01

and this:

Answer: Charisma 16

Answer: [Wisdom 18 Required]

Ironically, Plansescape Torment also required certain attributes to be above an arbitrary threshold to unlock dialog options, so perhaps it is not the best of examples.

Or maybe it is. After all, the attribute breakpoints were invisible.

And I guess that is what annoys me the most: I do not understand the point of showing me dialog options I can never select. I don’t care that the other options would have only increased my quest payout by 100 copper, or saved me from one additional encounter, or given me an extra potion.

As a designer, what are you trying to communicate to me? The fact that I made poor decisions on the character select screen hours before actually playing your game? Are you trying to signal that certain skills will be important in the future? If so, are you giving me any tools or resources to achieve those thresholds later? I mean, clearly I can do nothing about these forbidden choices in the middle of the conversion, or even after I reload the game really. Or am I supposed to simply keep this in mind for some hypothetical second playthrough?

Truth be told, I was a bit miffed back in the day once I realized that most of the best dialog options in Planescape Torment were locked behind Wisdom 18+. But the game never rubbed my face in it, or otherwise treated dialog so… gamey.

Speaking of which: why are we all tying dialog to abstract attributes in the first place? For roleplaying purposes? To cause players to handicap themselves with useless Feats/Skills/Talents so players can’t be good at fighting and not fighting? Just give me my dialog choices and let me work things out from there. Or don’t and just not tell me about it.

This middle way is the worst of all worlds.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

In a game with morality choices, would you choose the Good options if the results were often worse?

Most of the games I can think of that had moral choices ended up rewarding you the most if you chose the Good options. In Bioshock, for example, you could either “harvest” the Little Sisters for extra upgrade currency, or you could Cleanse them for a smaller reward. As it turns out though, if you end up Cleansing the Little Sisters they would start dropping off care packages containing ammo and extra upgrade currency, such that you might even come out ahead by going the Good route. The choice also ends up reflecting the tone of the ending, but it luckily skews towards Evil Ending rather than Bad Ending per se.

In thinking back to Bioshock, I started wondering if I would have been more inclined to harvest the Little Sisters if they did not “sweeten the deal” with the gift baskets later. I would like to say “No,” but I also feel like the “Pick the Good option and get bigger reward later” is such a ingrained gaming trope that I am beginning to question which inclination came first. Would the promise of a “better” ending be incentive enough to make Good choices, even if the game proper was made more difficult thereby?

Or to go all the way: what if the only reward of a Good choice in a game was the personal satisfaction of having done the right thing? In other words, what if the player was punished in some way for choosing the moral thing to do? An example could be sparing a bad guy, only to have them return and kill an NPC teammate later. Would the average gamer behavior change? Would the moral players feel better about their choices, or worse?

Sometimes I feel like I want to be a game designer just to screw with people.

Interesting Choices

Tobold put up a rather cringe-inducing critique of Mass Effect 3 the other day, prefaced by the Sid Meier quote of “good games are a series of interesting choices.” From there, Tobold argued that ME3 was not a good game, because the story choices being presented did not lead to gameplay changes. Indeed, he goes so far as to say in the comments:

My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story. Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn’t be in a game. Otherwise I might as well wait for “Mass Effect – The Movie”, and not bother playing at all.

First, that argument is so absurdly cliche that I started questioning whether he was simply trolling us at that point.

Secondly, in point of fact, you could not simply wait for Mass Effect: the Movie because any such film could not encompass the varied plot choices you can make over the course of the game. Characters can die in Mass Effect 1 & 2 and thus not show up in Mass Effect 3, cutting out entire swaths of character arcs. Who makes it through the Suicide Mission? Would the film feature a male Shepard or FemShep? Would the choices be primarily Paragon or Renegade? Which races get the shaft? Would the conclusion be the Red, Blue, or Green Cupcake?

The green one. Always the green one.

The green one. Always the green one.

Third, I believe Tobold’s stance is exceedingly pernicious to the maturation of gaming as a medium. It simply boggles my mind that a self-professed lover of D&D would twist “interactive story” into a pejorative; are non-interactive stories supposed to be preferable?

Individual agency has a way of submerging players into a narrative in a way that traditional storytelling does not. Just look at the mind-bending (at the time) twist in the original Bioshock and the narrative arc in Far Cry 2. Even if you were not particularly impressed with the depth of these narratives, those story mechanisms simply cannot be replicated in book or movie form. Reducing games to their mere mechanical components would be an incredible tragedy of potential.

What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?

In contrast, Tobold simply picked whatever gave him the most War Assets.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

I do agree that a good game is full of interesting choices. But what should be obvious to anyone spending more than a minute thinking about it, is that what is interesting to one person can be boring/irrelevant/pointless to someone else. “Interesting” is not an objective term; Sid Meier may as well quipped “Good games are full of fun” for all the sage wisdom it contains.

¹ The full quote is actually: “According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.) This does not meaningfully change my objections, as whether an option is “clearly better” and/or “equally attractive” is necessarily subjective. For example, I almost always prefer passive abilities to active ones, to the point that most of the WoW talent tree levels have only a single rational (to me) option.

Review: Dishonored

Game: Dishonored
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 91
Completion Time: 18-20 hours
Buy If You Like: First-person Tenchu or Assassin’s Creed, sneaky Bioshock

Style over substance.

I have been hearing Metacritic, er, criticism for years now without really understanding what all the fuss was about. It is a useful tool, and I include it in my game reviews as a sort of “by they way, this is what other people are saying” disclaimer. But now? I understand why people complain. I have no idea how Dishonored got a 91 Metacritic score. It is a good game and probably worth your time depending on purchase price. But is it better than (or even comparable to) Fallout: New Vegas (84), F.E.A.R. (88), Deus Ex (90), or Fallout 3 (90)? Lord no.

Before getting into what Dishonored is not, let us begin with what it is.

Dishonored is a first-person stealth action game set in the highly stylized, steampunk (or whale-oil-punk) city of Dunwall. You play as Corvo, a counter-assassin of sorts, as he struggles with being framed for the murder of the Empress he swore to protect. Through the course of gameplay, Corvo is granted supernatural powers like the ability to teleport short distances, stop time, or possess animals/people. The game is roughly divided into “missions,” which can consist of multiple areas and be completed/traversed in several ways. Within each area, there is usually a side-quest or two that can be completed for additional rewards, along with a smattering of extra upgrade components hidden around the map.

Blink onto hanging speaker, Sleep Dart guard on balcony, Blink over and enter via 2nd floor.

One of the most vaunted and critically acclaimed features of Dishonored is the ability to overcome challenges multiple ways. This is, for the most part, accurate. The mission goal may be to assassinate a certain individual, and the game will overlay the location of said individual on your UI, and… that’s it. If you want to stroll in the front door with a blood trail, tripping every alarm along the way, you can do that. If you want to Blink your way from rooftop to rooftop, hop in through a window, and switch the target’s wine glass with one that he poisoned (or mix them to poison both), you can do that. If you want to body-hop your way inside by possessing rats, fish, and guards, all so that you can render the target unconscious and remove them from power in a nonlethal manner, you can do that too. Or whatever combination you choose.

The problem I have with the extraordinary hyping of this gameplay feature is twofold. First, the game is incredibly easy. Almost trivially so. After the first 2-3 hours, I decided that I needed to restart on the highest difficulty setting. So I did… and further decided on a 100% nonlethal route for my first playthrough. Less than twenty hours later, Mission Accomplished.

People have different skill levels, of course, but most of the supernatural powers you get (all six of them) are pretty ridiculous. The default power is Blink, a short-range teleport that effectively has unlimited uses provided you wait 4-5 seconds between them. Blink is definitely a lot of fun to use, but once you upgrade it to level 2 (increasing it’s range) the game is basically over – there are no “puzzles” that cannot be solved by simply finding higher ground, going through windows, etc. Indeed, on more than one occasion I accidentally bypassed damn near the entire level and all of the security inbetween by Blinking between buildings.

The very next power that the game strongly suggests you unlock is Dark Vision, which allows you to not only see enemies through walls, but also their cone of vision; like Blink, Dark Vision is a super-cheap spell that you can effectively chain infinitely. Other stealth games, if they offer this sort power at all, make it expensive or difficult to use precisely because of how difficulty-destroying it is. Dishonored lets you peek through keyholes or lean around corners while remaining hidden… but it’s moot considering you can see everyone all the time with a touch of a button. Perhaps the worst part of Dark Vision though, is how it destroys the visuals and ambiance of a very stylish game with its sepia-tone washout effect and dark whispers; once upgraded, it even highlights cash and other items, meaning you can go through an entire level with it on and miss nothing… except all of the artwork and nuance. Dishonored without Dark Vision is a 100% better game, but you shouldn’t feel like you need to handicap yourself by not taking it to have fun.

Between Blink, Dark Vision, and how absurdly easy it is to kill/incapacitate guards, I only used Bend Time or Possession out of a sense of guilt for having “skipped” the rest of the game.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

The second reason I do not understand the hype is how most games do this sort of thing anyway. If I am playing Metal Gear Solid, the game asks me to get to a certain location and then sets me loose. Whether I get there by avoiding all the guards, or shooting all the guards via sniper rifle, or going through the vents, or using a cardboard box, or whatever, is irrelevant. Dishonored is really no different. It doesn’t matter whether you got into the building through the window or by possessing a rat, just like it doesn’t matter in MGS, or Deus Ex, or Tenchu, or any of the other hundred games released since 1998 that feature more than one path. This sort of thing is par of the course. If the critics are referring to your ability to take out “bosses” in a nonlethal manner as being groundbreaking… um, again, 1998 called and just filed an injunction.

All of this is not to say that I did not have a good time in Dishonored. The story is fairly predictable, the setting is bit all over the place, but the game is good at pulling you in two different directions when it comes to whether you should simply murder your target or show “mercy” (where mercy sometimes ends up as fates worse than death). And again, I had a fun time in the game sneaking around and feeling like the biggest badass in the place. I just do not have any notion that Dishonored, mechanically, was the one delivering that fun experience versus me reliving the joys of MGS, Tenchu, and Deus Ex.

Maybe that distinction is immaterial to you. Maybe it is enough that an off-brand experience is so similar to one you enjoyed in the past. In which case, by all means, have fun. I just do not see how Dishonored deserves a 91 for emulating actually groundbreaking games wholesale, minus their difficulty and nuance. I’m thinking it is an 81 at most. Which is still great!