Update: Starcraft

We’ve played Starcraft: The Board Game a few more times, so I thought I’d update my opinions of the game. Those of us who have played the Starcraft videogame enjoy the gameplay and mechanics well enough, but our overall feeling tends to be of disappointment once we’re finished.

Reading the boardgamegeek.com forum discussions, there seem to be two main opinions about the game:

  1. “It just Ends all of a sudden…”
  2. “You’re doing it wrong.”

Well, we must be doing it wrong, because just when things start to get going, the game “just ends.”

Those of us who enjoy it will probably play again, because it’s still fun enough before it ends. Maybe we’ll even start to “get it” and stop being surprised by the ending. Or, maybe we’ll tweak the victory conditions to make it longer. However, the attic is Really Hot this time of year, so we may wait until it cools off for a while first.

The other problem we have with Starcraft is that it suffers a bit from Event Card Syndrome, aka “The Golden Snitch.” The game progresses, and everyone is working towards their goal, when all of a sudden, Poof! An external force (an event card, or the golden snitch) comes along, and hands victory to one of the players arbitrarily, making the effort put into the rest of the game somewhat pointless.

We’ve managed to get the playing time down to a reasonable length, but since it’s not really satisfying when the game ends, that may not be exactly what we’re looking for.

Starcraft is a typical “Ameritrash” game: it’s deeply tied to its theme or source material, and ends up being somewhat fiddly because of that. If you’re familiar with the theme, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s probably best to play with people who care about Starcraft the video game, or at least who have played it before.

Games in Space: Starcraft, Race for the Galaxy

Tonight’s game night started early because Marla and the kids were out of the house, so the three of us played two space games. Starcraft is a prime example of a good but typical Ameritrash title, and Race for the Galaxy is an excellent Eurogame.

Starcraft is a board game based on the excellent late 90’s video game. Last time we started this one (our first play), we set it up expecting it to take forever, and it did. Tonight we started over, and managed to finish in under 4 hours. We tend to think too much in our games, or maybe too little. The game lasted 4 turns, which was fairly short, but it would most likely have lasted only one more turn with the same winner (me) if we hadn’t drawn the “end of game” cards so quickly.

Starcraft has lots of satisfying shiny parts: two sets each of plastic Space Marines, Zergs (bugs) and Protoss (space elves? Humanoid aliens with advanced tech.) The general setup takes a long time, especially the first time around, and the bits are quite overwhelming. You need a huge table: we could only fit 4 of us on my 4’x6′ table in the attic.

The gameplay options tend to follow what was available in the video game: collect resources with your workers and use it to build workers, transports, combat units, and improvements for your buildings so you can build better troops. The mechanics change when translated to a board game, but the overall feel is what you’d expect, and it’s satisfying for those who have played the video game.

The board is tightly packed, with only two planets per player, and the combat odds tend to stack in favor of the attacker. This is very unlike most combat games, but fits the model of combat tactics proposed in the Ender’s Game trilogy (or so). The overall effect is to reward combat and prevent a stalemate due to “turtling.” Combat is resolved using selected cards from a hand of combat cards, so it’s generally not susceptible to giant failure due to bad die rolls.

The main complaint I might continue to have with future plays is the dreaded “Event Card Effect.” After a long game with lots of fun decisions, someone draws a random event card and the game ends with an upset victory. This is no fun for the one who should’ve won but didn’t, or for the one who won unexpectedly via one random card draw. You might as well just play War or Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock.

There have been many reasonable games ruined by a deck of overpowered event cards. Hmm, come to think of it, there’s another space game that fits this description: Smugglers of the Galaxy.

Overall, Starcraft is a relatively long game, but it’s not so complicated that it’s unapproachable. If you’re familiar with the video game, it will match your expectations faithfully enough to be satisfying. The effort put into playing the game is rewarded adequately, unlike many long, slow wargames which simply aren’t worth the work of learning the rules.

After Starcraft, we had so much time left over that we had time for two games of Race for the Galaxy. This is a really excellent card game which we’ve played many times, and enjoy every time (even when we’re losing).

Race for the Galaxy is a rethemed version of San Juan, which is a card game remake of Puerto Rico. In all of these games the basic mechanic is the same, and gameplay is very straightforward. Each round, players simultaneously and secretly choose one role or action. All of the players perform each selected action in a certain order, and the players who chose each action get a bonus for choosing that action. Then the next round begins.

In Race for the Galaxy the actions are Explore (draw cards), Develop (play development cards), Settle (play planet cards), Consume (sell goods from your planets), and Produce (produce goods on some planets). The development cards and planets give you bonuses or additional action possibilities in each action phase. The key to winning is finding a strategy which lets you combine the best effects of the cards you happen to draw.

This is an excellent game, and matches many of our preferences. It has very straightforward rules and gameplay, and only takes about 30 minutes to finish a game. It requires plenty of choice by all players, but it’s not prone to overthinking. There is no player downtime: almost all actions are performed simultaneously. There is very little direct player interaction: you can’t act offensively against another player or directly foil their plans, but successfully anticipating other players’ action choices can make or break your game. There are many different strategies which can lead to victory, which provides a different game each time you play due to different card draws.

The major downside is the game’s rulebook. It is very daunting and wordy, and not very easy to follow. It caused me to put down the game instead of playing it many times, before we finally found the time to sit down and read. For first time players, there are sample starting hands which can make the game a lot easier, since the first thing you do in the game is choose which 4 out of 6 cards you want to keep: an impossible task if you don’t know what the heck you’re looking at. Definitely keep the card and turn summaries handy, they’re very useful until you familiarize yourself with the rules.

I highly recommend Race for the Galaxy for almost anyone who enjoys euro games. It plays well (but differently) with only 2 players, and can handle up to 4 (or 5?).

Washington DC vs. Fallout 3

When I was in college, I played a lot of Doom. For those of you not familiar with Doom, it was an early 3d first person perspective video game, and used very basic textures (graphical patterns) on the walls. One night after a long session of Doom, I walked out into the academically inspiring hallway of Wean Hall and turned quickly to face the wall, where I thought I saw a secret door… before realizing I had been playing games for a really long time.

This weekend I had similarly odd experiences almost everywhere I went in Washington DC. You see, I played maybe about 70 hours of Fallout 3, which is set in a “postapocalyptic radioactive wasteland” version of Washington DC and its environs. I already knew they did a really good job of copying the look and feel of Washington DC: so good that Metro passengers complained about the graphic depictions of a post-holocaust DC in advertisements. But going to DC, and having Deja Vu from in-game events really drove the point home.

So I thought I’d take a few minutes to provide a bit of a comparison.

DC has done a pretty good job of cleaning up the Mall. They filled in all the trenches, though not all the grass has grown back yet. There was only one fallen tree, and the only Super Mutants left were caused more by overeating than radioactive mutations.

The Washington Monument was patched up really well, you can hardly see the cracks. They’re getting a lot more radio station coverage all over the city, so I expect they must’ve put in an even bigger antenna up there.

The metro stations haven’t really changed since the game. The trains are back on the track and running again, and they took most of the sleeping shelters out. They also removed all the vending machines and Nuka-Cola machines. But other than a little cleanup and replacing the Protectrons with humans, there’s not much of a difference: there’s only so much you can do with bare cement.

They removed all of the Pulowski Preservation Shelters, but apparently they’ve learned from the past: there are “Evacuation Route” signs posted prominently along major routes next to the street signs.

The air and space museum was bigger than it was in Fallout 3, but not as interesting. They mostly only had space ships and airplanes which actually existed in real life. The only other museum we went to was the Natural History museum: I’m not sure if it was represented at all in Fallout, but if it was I never went there.

Overall, I’m inspired to go back and play Fallout 3 some more. I’d like to see a few of the locations I don’t remember seeing in game, such as Dupont Circle. Maybe I can remember the location of one of the vaults in case I get bored on our next road trip.

Order vs. Chaos

12: 45 Restate my assumptions.

  1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
  2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
  3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.

Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.

Max Cohen, in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi

It all started with a simple observation

My friend Daniel enjoys abstract strategy games, but this is one of the few types of game I just can’t seem to enjoy very much.

Next came an exception which clarified the rule

Mike and Elly introduced me to Zendo. This very interesting game is a pure distillation of an inductive logic puzzle, in a multi-player format. I enjoyed it very much, even though it was an abstract strategy game.

In Zendo, the master decides on a rule which distinguishes between “koans” (sculptures built of the plastic pieces shown here) which have the buddha nature, and those which do not. An example rule: “Only koans which contain an orange piece have the buddha nature.” The students (other players) try to discover the rule, by observing previous examples and constructing koans to test their hypotheses. Technically, the first student to induce the correct rule “wins;” but as in most good games, “winning” provides a convenient stopping place more than a reward for good performance.

Reconciling my enjoyment of Zendo with my general distaste for abstract strategy games ended up being a bit of a realization. The games I don’t like tend to have simple rules which result in complex gameplay (if you’re lucky). The games I enjoy tend to have a larger, more chaotic system, and part of the fun for me is to find the order behind that chaos.

Zendo is a crossover. It has simple rules with interesting emergent properties, which I don’t tend to lke. But the game creates a chaotic-looking system with the goal of discovering the rule which generates those seemingly chaotic results: exactly matching my preference.

Trying to find a rule which explains a set of observations is called “inductive logic.” In contrast, “deductive logic” starts with the rules, and generates outcomes consistent with the rules. To me, the difference between inductive and deductive logic seems to mirror the sort of games I enjoy.

The problem with inductive logic in practice, is that it is easy to get stuck on a false rule which is consistent only because not enough observations have been made. Inductive logic can be applied with a greater degree of success, in cases where you know there is a simple rule which explains the chaos, such as in Zendo.

To be useful, inductive logic must be combined with a strict process to weed out the false rules. The game rules of Zendo define the process used for this during the game. In real life, the process typically used is something like this:

  • Make as many observations as possible
  • Hypothesize a rule which explains and is consistent with all observations
  • Test the hypothesis by trying to find counterexamples
  • Revise the hypothesis to match new observations

When applied to observations made about “The Real World,” this process has a name: The Scientific Method.

Finally, a pattern started to emerge

Once I settled on this explanation for my preferences within the realm of board games, it became evident to me that not only do these preferences match my abilities, but they also apply to many other aspects of my life. I’m relatively good at finding the patterns behind chaos, and I also enjoy it.

As I said before, there are problems with getting stuck on invalid rules (superstitions and myths), or finding patterns where there are none (paranoia). The movie A Beautiful Mind tells the true story of mathematician John Nash, who was both a mathematical genius and a paranoid schizophrenic. This correlation between madness and genius has become almost stereotypical, but most normal people end up with the problem of superstitions, instead. Without thinking much about it, they attach themselves to simple explanations for their observations which do not hold up to tighter scrutiny.

I tend towards paranoia, and constantly questioning other peoples’ explanations, rather than settling on inconsistent rules. I’m no genius, but at least I don’t have the madness which goes with it.

I’ll write more in the future, indirectly related to these concepts, but I wanted to describe my general thoughts first so I could refer to them later.

Lego Batman: Toys vs. Games

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood recently released their nominations for the 2009 TOADY award for Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children. Kotaku.com, an excellent video game news site, pointed out that LEGO Batman: The Videogame is among this year’s contenders for the TOADY award.

I agree with the CCFC’s general intent, and the other four nominees seem entirely appropriate for this award. However, I think CCFC has missed the mark in a fundamental way, when nominating LEGO Batman for this “award.”

The problem is, LEGO Batman: The Videogame isn’t a toy. It’s a game.

Good toys provide a platform which inspires play, without limiting a child’s freedom. A good game provides a strict framework which restricts allowable actions, while providing goals which must be accomplished while following those restrictions. Both toys and games are valuable tools for learning and playing, but they are valuable in different ways, and for different reasons.

Saying that LEGO Batman is an oppressive version of a LEGO building kit is like saying Go (the board game) is an oppressive bowl of rocks. While true, it completely misses the point: a game is a game as opposed to a toy exactly because it has rules and structure that good toys lack.

I will admit that the branding and marketing of LEGO Batman is somewhat heavy-handed compared to the average hand-carved wooden toy car. But unlike almost all other video games launched along with a movie, the LEGO video games are not primarily cobranded “shovelware.” The marketing may not be ideal, but the games themselves can easily stand on their own merits even in the absence of the movies they were launched with. LEGO Star Wars is a far better game than the abysmal Star Wars movie it was originally launched with.

All of the LEGO video games (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman) share some very positive qualities that are hard to find in other video games marketed for children:

  • Cooperation: Multiplayer Lego games are cooperative, not competetive. Players must cooperate to make progress in the game. Cooperation, compromise, and civil conversation between children, or even between a parent and child, can be difficult, and games are a good place to practice these skills.
  • Creative problem solving: These are primarily physical puzzle games, not fighting games. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult to solve, and repeat play provides useful practice with remembering and executing a multi-step process.
  • Exploration: These games have fairly large worlds to explore, and many hidden surprises to find.
  • Money management: In the Lego games, you collect “Studs” which you can use to buy additional characters or other gameplay elements. This progressive mechanic teaches that you can’t have everything for free right now, but that you must “work” for it. Using money instead of a typical simpler “unlocking” mechanic forces kids to choose between alternate rewards, when using their limited resources.

It is unfortunate that an excellent game like Lego Batman has to suffer the wrath of proxy parenting groups, when even within the realm of video games, there are much more worthy candidates for the TOADY. Lego Batman seems to be singled out for defiling the long-beloved LEGO name. Instead, I am glad that products with the LEGO name on them still have high quality in comparison to their direct peers.