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Economy of Design

It’s amusing what can change in three years.

I am currently playing through The Banner Saga 2, which in pretty much all respects is The Banner Saga 1. Still running from the Dredge, still having people die off in blind choices, still have the same combat system. Except, this time, I actually really appreciate the latter.

BannerSaga2_Armor

No secret systems, which is bold

For those that don’t know, the combat system has two components: Strength and Armor. Strength acts as both your attack power and your HP. The formula for damage is simply Your Strength – Their Armor = Their Strength Loss. When attacking, you are given the option of either attacking their Strength or their Armor, with the latter being a set amount of damage based on a separate Armor-Break stat, instead of Strength.

Now, this system can snowball very quickly. Imagine two characters with 8 Armor and 12 Strength. The first person to attack will bring the other down to 8 Strength, which means they will only be able to deal 1 Strength damage in return. Then the first attacker will deal another 3 Strength damage, making any further Strength attacks from the defender take a -10% deflect penalty for each point of Armor above their Strength. Now, the defender could possibly choose to attack the first guy’s Armor instead, but that will only help in future turns… which he won’t live to see.

In any case, the battles are not 1v1 affairs. Turns take place in a round-robin manner: one of your characters take their action, then the AI takes one character’s actions, then your next character gets to move, and so on. Killing an enemy does not remove the AI’s turn – it simply moves the remaining AI units up in initiative. This can lead to incredibly dangerous scenarios if you end up leaving a powerful enemy alive, who gets to act every other turn while you’re stuck moving out-of-range units around. Thus, the superior strategy is actually to maim enemies rather than killing them (e.g. leave them with 1-2 Strength) so that the AI is stuck with weak attacks while you concentrate on maiming more combatants until you can mop the rest up.

Like I said before, this combat system often leads to snowball situations in which one of your characters getting pummeled early makes the latter half of the battle incredibly dicey. Still… the economy in design is brilliant, IMO. You can equip your characters with a special relic that might improve stats a bit, but the whole Strength & Armor deal is incredibly straight-forward. The game will helpfully tell you exactly how much damage an attack will cause, but you can eyeball the field and work it out yourself since there are really only two components. MMORPGs have to have a pile of random-ass stats in order to have room for item level-creep, but most other games do not. Hell, this combat system is so simple that I could imagine them making a board game out of it.

Oh, and another thing? The only currency in the game is Renown. Leveling up characters, purchasing food for your journey, and buying special relics all consume this one common currency. I found this incredibly frustrating in the first game, but I have come to appreciate its elegance this time around. It reminds me of deck-building games wherein the cost of adding a new card to your deck is… adding a new card to your deck. Renown is a little less intuitive than Strength – why would merchants care how famous I was? – but the tension inherent in consuming that resource adds meaningful choice to an otherwise straight-forward decision. Plus, it’s a balancing mechanism preventing you from creating uber-leveled characters.

Like I said before, The Banner Saga 2 is precisely like the original game. If you didn’t have fun playing the first time around, then things are unlikely to have changed. Unless you are like me, apparently, because I’m having a lot of fun now.

That said, fuck Blind Choices. I have zero interest in choosing one of three options, only to find out that my choice results in the loss of 150 Clansmen and dozens of fighters because… arbitrary reasons. I look up the results before I make my “choices,” and feel zero guilt for doing so. I’m not sure if these exist as a sort of roguelike mechanism to encourage multiple playthroughs, but that’s not how I like playing my tactical RPGs.

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First Impressions: Card Hunter (beta)

I got into the Card Hunter beta last Thursday.

It is rare anymore for me to spend a lengthy amount of time playing the same game. Game developers these days front-load their daily bonuses in such a way that the most “efficient” way to maximize your playtime is to switch between 3-4 titles. And yet I spent ten hours playing Card Hunter on Saturday, and another six on Sunday. So, spoiler alert: I really like this game.

Card Hunter grabbed me from the word Go. In essence, this F2P browser-based game is a tactical, turn-based RPG where your abilities come in the form of random cards. Instead of building an entire deck on your own, a character’s game deck is actually the sum total of the cards associated with that character’s equipped items. This might sound complicated, but it is the exact opposite – after about 5 minutes of looking at the screen, the system becomes immediately grokkable and engaging. For example, here is a character sheet:

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

All of the cards along the bottom are the sum total of the deck. When you look at a specific item…

Kinda funny how it's pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

Kinda funny how it’s pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

…you can see what cards it contributes to the overall deck. As you might imagine, weapons usually contribute attack cards, armor contributes armor cards, and so on. Occasionally though, you will have some items that contribute cards from outside their “theme.” Most items are limited to certain classes, of which there are three: fighter, cleric, and wizard. You can have either human, elf, or dwarf versions of any of those classes, with the differences being the typical D&D tropes; elves have low HP and fast movement, dwarves have the opposite, and humans are in the middle.

How does the game play? Fabulously.

Yes. YES!

Yes. YES!

As you can see, the “setting/lore” of the game is retro-D&D, and it is adhered to from start to finish. All characters are represented with those figurines, and all the maps are exactly like this one (with different terrain and such, of course). The game’s F2P currency are slices of pizza, the battles are all prefaced with D&D-module write-ups, and there is clearly some tension going on inbetween the new DM Gary and his rules-lawyer brother Melvin in campaign mode – not to mention Gary’s awkward crush on the pizza delivery girl. Change some names around, add in two more teenagers, and Card Hunter could have described my high school D&D experience to a T.

As far as the game flow goes, it is pretty intuitive. You and your opponent take turns playing one card from any of your characters’ hands. You don’t have to alternate which character’s cards you play – if your warrior has 3 attack cards and someone within reach during each of his/her turns, you can wail on them 3 times. When you and your opponent pass turns in sequence, the Round ends, everyone discards down to two cards, three cards are drawn (one of which is always a movement card), and any Round triggers fire (e.g. players starting their turn in lava take 10 damage, etc).

The strategic brilliance of this combat system simply cannot be praised enough. Yes, the card-based nature of abilities can lead to immensely frustrating, if not outright impossible scenarios. In the screenshot above, for example, my elven mage has drawn all movement cards, severely crippling any initial attack I could muster. Defeat can (and will) be drawn from the jaws of victory even if you are careful. Here was a moment I exclaimed “You have got to be shitting me” out loud:

I mean, come on!

I mean, come on!

The above screenshot was taken from the dreaded Compass of Fucking Xorr level, right from where you might imagine is an insurmountable advantage. The armored dogs are dead, I have the last mercenary backed into a corner with 5 HP, and all my dudes are (barely) alive. It’s a new Round, my turn, and… look at the bottom. Don’t see many red cards, do you?

In fact, I drew exactly one attack card, and it only deals 3 damage. That larger card in the screenshot is a “seen” card that I know is in the merc’s hand, and it’s a doozy. Basically, any time you would deal damage to the merc, he rolls a d6: on a 4 or higher, the damage is reduced by 3. Like many Armor cards, it also has the Keep quality, which means it stays in his hand after triggering, ready for the next reduction in damage. And from fighting this guy, let me just tell you that his attack cards all deal 6+ damage from two squares away.

I did kill the merc on the turn after this one, as he just happened to draw a “drawback” card that caused him to discard all his armor cards. But it was a close one either way.

In any event, I am having a blast with Card Hunter thus far. That might sound strange after I just dedicated a few paragraphs to describing what could have been a terrible RNG-based wipe, but that kinda goes with the TCG territory. Who hasn’t been mana-screwed in Magic: the Gathering before? Part of tactical thinking should include the possibility of things going wrong – if games like Frozen Synapse taught me anything, it would be that. If nothing else, it keeps you on your toes.

I’ll go over the other elements of Card Hunter, including the ever-important F2P bits, next time.