Review: Fields of Arle

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Uwe Rosenberg is a particularly prolific German game designer that likes to make games that have to do with agriculture. You may have heard of his most popular one, Agricola. Some take to Agricola‘s harsh world of eking out survival, scraping together enough for a thatched roof extension to your pitiful cottage. Others think it to be overly dry and boring. To each their own: games are for everyone.

However, I’ve always been been a fan of Rosenberg’s ability to give a player a large possibility space and yet always somehow make the player feel that each of those potential options in the possibility space are simultaneously viable and sub-optimal. It makes for tense dynamics if you allow yourself in that magic circle.

One issue some have with Rosenberg’s farming games is that they are gigantic. Caverna is roughly the size and weight of a microwave oven and costs more yet suffers from a criticism that the game plays roughly the same every time.

It is with recent Caverna plays in mind that I started to eye Rosenberg’s newest Fields of ArleFields is 1-2 players only, which works out great for me as I generally can only get these games to the table with my wife. Like Caverna and other similar games, Fields has very little randomness of consequence. Yet somehow, I find the play to be much more varied than that of Caverna and more fair and open to experimentation than Agricola.

The criticism that these games are entirely deterministic and solvable is both true and useless. There are a sequence of moves that can produce the maximum possible score. For a solitaire game, one could label all of the moves, post them on BoardGameGeek, and essentially render any of the decision-making meaningless. While this appears to have happened for Caverna, the decision space is so vast and well-balanced in Fields that this does not seem to happen.

I believe that the mechanism in which Fields shines is the ability to upgrade tools. For a number of action spaces, a corresponding tool exists where the benefit for the space depends on the tool. For example, at the Woodcutter you will get 1 Wood per Axe tool that you have trained. By going to the Master action space (and with other game effects), that tool can be upgraded from 2 to 5. Thus, players can specialize in different actions. Wherein Agricola, the Family Growth space is equally good and desirable for everyone, that may not be the case depending on the strategy here. Instead of drafting best spaces (as is the mechanic in most worker placements), the strategy seems to be to determine the best combination of improvements and exploiting those improvements, knowing you have a limited combination of each. Additionally, Fields improves on the aesthetic of progress hinted upon by the adventuring mechanic in Caverna. Improving your tools feels like progress and by the end of the game you feel like your improved actions are great deals. Where Rosenberg’s best game (Le Havre) shines in comparison to all his others is the feeling of possibility and abundance. These elements are present to a significant degree in Fields.

In most instances, this plays out as a puzzle with a variable solution. If you are looking for a malleable and interesting optimization challenge, Fields delivers in a way different than all other Rosenberg games. I found my initial plays deeply satisfying. There are some thematic oddities present within the delivery mechanism, but besides that, I have little to criticize about this charming game.

Dominion Card Picker Updated

Still play Dominion? I’ve updated the card randomizer app thing I made back in 2010 to (1) work again, and (2) integrate cards from the two most recent sets. Enjoy!

http://www.hiwiller.com/dominion/

Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

[Note: I received an advance reader edition of this book]

In the vernacular of professional wrestling, there is the concept of the “cheap pop”. A cheap pop is when the face or “good guy” character gets an easy reaction from the crowd for not doing all that much. Often, this is done by name-dropping the city where they are currently performing. When the wrestler says something like “Nothing is going to make me happier than beating you up here in the great city of Philadelphia!” the Philadelphia crowd goes nuts. The fans get their ego stroked a bit because an object of their esteem is saying something nice about their city and by extension, something nice about them, which makes them feel good. It is a “pop” in that it is a favorable crowd reaction, but it is “cheap” in that the performer didn’t really have to do anything to earn it.

Cheap pops come in many forms. Many wrestlers are known to have catch phrases that the crowd can say along with the performer which makes them feel like a part of the show: “If you smell what the Rock is cooking”, “Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you?” “That’s the bottom line because Stone Cold `said so”. The performer doesn’t have to do anything creative to get the reaction, it is just something that serves as a means to bring the crowd into the experience without doing something difficult and dangerous like actually performing or telling a story.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a follow-up to his 2011 nostalgia-laced Willy Wonka meets It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World-esque mystery adventure Ready Player One. Ready Player One had flaws but it was largely enjoyable based on the pacing and unraveling mystery of the story.

In Armada, Cline name drops The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game early to give a wink and a nod to the audience that he knows he is just largely rehashing old ground, but he’s in on the joke and so are you now as well. Armada plods along largely content with fulfilling the promise on the book jacket. The first act sticks around for far too long. If Lightman would just read the damn book jacket, he could be clued in on the plot before the midpoint of the book. If you are looking for a story with subtext and mystery, as was at least mildly present in Ready Player One, you will be disappointed. There is one major twist that happens three-quarters of the way through the book, but it is heavily foreshadowed and so the reader just kind of shrugs and continues with the TitanFall fan-fiction.

Unfortunately, it seems Cline puts more work into connecting with the reader via cheap pops than he does by connecting with the reader through engaging plot or characters that have to overcome any kind of adversity or internal conflict.

Armada is laden with cheap pops. I refuse to count, but I would estimate that there is at least one pop-culture reference per page. Some are subtle; others not so much. There is nothing wrong with references and nostalgia if it furthers some other goal in the story, but in Armada (and to a lesser extent Ready Player One), it serves only as an attempt for the author to build a character or scene without any real character- or world-building.

I know plenty of folks who speak in the nerd lingo, but no one drops constant references to external things in such a forced way like the characters in this book. While reading, I was reminded of this Hawaii Five-O scene with horribly obvious product placement. However, Cline isn’t getting paid by his reference antecedents in the book. He just does it to prove nerd gravitas. That’s with the best intentions applied, of course. With the worst intentions, he provides this non-stop pop culture nonsense to distract from a vacuous, already done-before story with evenly spaced dopamine drip drip drips from things the readers remember and love. “Oh hey, He’s listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures album? I loved that!”

It may seem pedantic to rail on the use of pop culture references, but to me it devalues what makes the references powerful in the first place. Leeroy Jenkins was a funny web video from the mid-2000s. I can still go back, watch it, and laugh. But a reference to Leeroy Jenkins provides nothing new except a reminder that something else was fun and good. Unless the thing making the reference has something new to add, then it just becomes like a recursive Xerox copy, getting more and more faded with each iteration. After a while, you are left with “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” that is so overused that the marrow has long been sucked dry from the bone and you never want to see or hear about it ever again. By the way, there’s an All Your Base reference on Page 89.

At the end of the day, Armada is inoffensive but largely a waste of time, much like a good deal of the pop culture it lovingly cuddles up to.

Seeds is out!

I made a print-and-play game along with a digital prototype. You can download the files and play the game here. Or you can help me by giving it eyeballs and reviews on BoardGameGeek.

Review: Darkest Dungeon

In many role-playing games (although I much prefer the genre title “dungeon crawlers” due to no actual role-playing happening in most of these games), the player chooses a number of characters to join his or her party. Then he or she goes out and levels these chosen characters up to level awesome and everyone who stayed home remains level noob. Every once in a while a contrived story event or a desire to switch things up will cause the player to dip into the reserves (oh no, you can’t use Aeris anymore), but often you just get the characters you start with, whether that was a good initial choice or not.

What attracted me to Darkest Dungeon was that it eschewed a few of the standard tropes of indie procedural dungeon crawlers. One of the unique mechanics is that characters get stressed out when having to deal with monsters, when injuries to party members happen, even when walking around in darkness. If a character gets too stressed out, he or she develops some sort of mental or personality defect.

After each dungeon trip, instead of zipping to an inn to heal up and repeat, characters need time to process what they’ve been though. Characters do this in different ways: some pray, some self-flagellate, some turn to booze or gambling. But these methods of mental healing take time and so the player must dip into reserves for the next trip. This is a great example of a mechanic supporting a unique dynamic. Many games have had switching out characters or permanent injuries before, but few have made it a part of the core game loop to keep the character choice interesting.

Sometimes these personality effects are mild. I have seen characters that are paranoid and will refuse to be healed by other party members, characters that are kleptomaniacs and will take treasure for themselves instead of the party, and characters that will only go to brothels to heal when going back to town, leaving that option unavailable for other characters. While the characters are randomly generated and every character of a given class looks alike, these quirks and foibles end up being meaningful. I have a healer that I just don’t take out unless he is the only option because his stress levels build too quickly in the environment I’m exploring.

There are other attractive differences. Combat is based on one-dimensional positioning. Your party lines up in single-file 4 deep and enemies can line-up single-file 4 deep. Some attacks only work if you are in positions 1 or 2. Rarer attacks hit the back characters, so that’s a smart place to keep weaker characters. However some attacks affect the order of your characters, pushing your warrior to the back line or your priest to the front. Then you must decide whether it is worth it to spend turns rearranging or make due with what you have.

Since one of the main mechanics is the party’s torchlight levels, most of the game is played in washed-out shadows. The palette of burnt orange and browns gets tiring. The narrator should be annoying when he repeats lines, but the delivery and the awareness of game situation make it less irritating.

The UI is a bit confusing in a number of places. The map window should know to focus in the direction of unexplored rooms, but for some reason you have to use your right mouse button and drag to manually move the map around. There’s no way to navigate to new hallways from existing rooms without using the map widget, despite being able to exit through doors in the hallways. Some menus have two options and the coloring makes it unclear which is the selected and which is the unselected option. The game shows you a lot of data, but doesn’t prepare the player to receive it as information. It’s clearly a game that was developed by a small group who understood it and tested with a small early access group that watched it grow because some of the mechanics are entirely inscrutable without referring to a wiki.

For example, I had played for three hours before knowing that I could heal traits in the sanitarium. Obviously, the text in the UI told me I could. However, when I dragged a character in, I received a list of traits in yellow text. When in the dungeon though, yellow traits are positive and red traits are negative. I did not realize that my negative traits were mixed in and could be selected by clicking on them as they looked like static text referring to positive traits. There are many small usability nightmares haunting this game.

As you earn money, you unlock abilities of the town to heal and upgrade your poor adventurers. This is a straightforward gameplay hook. However, a few hours in, I felt that I had seen everything there was to see. The power of your group scales very slowly. Items earned tend to be balanced such that they all involve tradeoffs, increasing one stat while decreasing another. This is fine in a multiplayer setting, but I do not feel much more powerful at level 4 than I did at level 1.

Dungeons can end up being exercises in long backtracking sequences as there is no way to jump to completed areas, especially in large branching dungeons where the goal is to explore 90% of the dungeon’s rooms.

In retrospect, I seem to be complaining quite a bit, however I quite enjoyed Darkest Dungeon for about six hours of total gameplay. If you really enjoy the dungeon crawling genre, you will likely get a lot more playtime out of it. It takes some big risks in a number of places. In some aspects, it whiffs embarrassingly. In others, it knocks it out of the park. I think the attention to character choice dynamics is particularly admirable. It is a game worth playing.

Review: PARTICLE MACE

I have what I consider to be a lot of Steam games. For some of them I’m not entirely sure where they came from. I could have bought a bundle for one game and it tagged along. I could have had it pushed to me from IGF, but since judging is over, I cannot check. Or maybe I bought it and just forgot.

PARTICLE MACE (all caps) is one of those games. I saw it sitting there in my library untouched and due to the penumbra in my heavenly rotation of responsibilities had an hour or two to myself to try something without the taint of preconceived reasoning for why it was in my library in the first place.

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PARTICLE MACE uses the simple Geometry Wars artistic styling, which is appropriate, since much of it’s play aesthetics feels cribbed from that title. Yet it cribs from the bits of Geometry Wars that are not themselves cribbed from Robotron 2084. In Particle Mace (no more caps, it tires me), there is no shooting.  Instead, your ship drags around the titular particles, which are your only defense against invading asteroids and creeps. Thus, the game plays much like the Pacifism modes in Geometry Wars at a very base level. Because of how the particles trail around the spaceship, a common dynamic is to try to fly in circles to get the mace to swirl around in a violent circular pattern. This makes the game similar in some way to Michael Brough’s recent game Helix, although since I am playing on PC, it doesn’t suffer from the finger occlusion problem that made Helix a very difficult go for me. Particle Mace is also out on iOS, and I can see it suffering from a similar problem there, but I haven’t played it there so take it as you will.

Sometimes your body tells you first whether a game is right for you instead of a rote spreadsheet-like mental calculus. As I played, my tongue slightly poked out of between my lips, my breath coming and going only when gameplay allowed the spare brain space for the luxury. I haven’t felt this sense of flow in an action game since Super Hexagon. Particle Mace shares the <60 second core loop* of Terry Cavanaugh’s game, yet I feel Particle Mace is actually able to be completed by non-cybernetic players.

I have spent most of my time playing the “Mission” game type, and it is a perfect framing for the main game mechanics. Players are given three tasks to do within the game world based on destroying specific units, traveling to specific locations, or avoiding death in certain ways. This would be a standard implementation of a modular achievement system if the goals didn’t conspire with each other to create unique scenarios. For instance, I simultaneously received a task that kept me within a tiny space along with a task to not destroy asteroids. The tiny space quest suggests a dynamic of frantically bouncing around your allotted space, but the task which forbids the destruction of asteroids means that zipping around will likely cause your mace to whack into the desultory asteroids. Since the tasks constantly cycle out upon completion, you are often reexamining your strategy instead of just frantically trying to stay alive. The normal “arcade” mode feels aimless in comparison.

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One can certainly ignore two of the tasks at any time and focus on one of the three, but that feels like it eschews the random beauty of pairing the tasks together, almost like a childhood dare: “I bet you can’t eat three pancakes while balancing on one foot.” Either task is simple but together they become silly and fun.

Meeting certain criteria unlock new ships and other bric-a-brac, but I’m not far enough yet for that to be much of an incentive. The credits are a playable level which, had I been involved in the making of this, would have pleased me as there is actually a reason to go into the credits screen.

There are additionally menu listings for a co-op arcade mode and a death match. Both use controllers and require two folks in front of the screen, so I have not been able to try either. I am imagining death match to be a lot like ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS, another quick-cycle game that requires controllers and feels compelled to scream its title at the players. I have no evidence from which to make that judgment.

If you have played and enjoyed any of the games I’ve name-checked above, you will likely have a blast(as I did) with Particle Mace. It’s on Steam, itch.io, and Humble. And iOS, but I’ve got unfounded concerns there.

* The expansive stats screen tells me my average life is actually 26 seconds.

IGF

I was privileged enough to be allowed to be an Independent Games Festival Judge this year. For those who don’t know, the IGF is one of the premier games competitions in the world and always has new and interesting ideas in the mix. How judging works is that judges are randomly assigned games based on the listed platforms that they own (for instance, a judge would not be assigned an Ouya game if they don’t own an Ouya). Judges then download and play the game and then can choose either to not nominate the game for any awards or nominate a game for one of the awards. After the judging period is over, the totals of nominations go to the juries who then play the nominated games and choose a winner. As for my role, I got to play about 100 new games. Some were broken and/or uninspired and you would wonder why a person would spend the registration fee on submitting. Others were weird quirky ideas that wouldn’t find a home anywhere else. Some were bona fide achievements that compare with any “AAA” game at retail.

The juries got it mostly right! The submissions were an embarrassment of riches, so it was hard not to. Let me tell you about some of the games you might not have heard of or played. I don’t think these are the top 5 or anything nor do these represent what I voted for. I gave thumbs up to lots of things. These are just the ones I want to talk about.

Hand of Fate

Image via Indiemegabooth.com

Hand of Fate got totally snubbed. No nominations, no honorable mentions. Nada. Which is a shame because it does so many fun, interesting things. Hand of Fate mixes a deck-builder with a dungeon crawler and a 3rd-person brawler. It’s the sloppy kind of mix that I honestly enjoy. None of the parts really shine on their own, but taken together as a whole they are wonderfully compelling.

The best part of Hand of Fate arguably is your antagonist. He sits across the table from you as you play his game and narrates all the action. Given that the very design of the game necessitates the repetition of encounters, you would think that the game would shy away from particularly interesting or in-depth audio cues as their repetition would be grating and pull the player out of the story. That much is true. So the narrator has multiple lines per encounter that seem to draw on not just what he has said before, but also context within the game and within previous games.

This is the kind of polish that most AAA games eschew as unnecessary and most indie games cannot afford to consider. Kudos to the folks that are responsible for this.

Side note: the antagonist’s hands bother me. They are way too big for him and since he is always pointing to things and moving them around, you always notice. I don’t know if that is supposed to be on purpose, but it uncanny valley’s me out. I know they gave him the face covering so they wouldn’t have to animate the facial features, so clearly they understand the importance of the visual fidelity of the character.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine is the most depressing game of The Sims you will ever play. You control three survivors in an active war zone modeled after Serbia in the Balkans War. By digging around, trading, scavenging, and creative utilization of resources, you need to attempt to keep them from being hungry, sick, wounded, tired, or from an overwhelming weltschmerz.

Image via Gog.com

On one overnight raid, I broke into a home with two elderly residents. They got angry, but once I realized they posed no threat to me, I pilfered all the food I could carry from that house back to my hideout. In any other game, the designers would guilt you at the scene and leave it at that. This War of Mine not only strains the mental health of the characters when they do something antisocial, but the world itself reacts. In the previous example, my character became distraught at what he had done and had to lay down for a while. Other characters at the house talked about it. I truly felt like an asshole. These people are just trying to survive too. What right did I have taking their food? In a later incident, I chatted with a priest at a church and decided looting his area would not be the best idea. I came back later to find squatters who mention that they had to clear the priest out. This immediately changed my temperament towards otherwise cardboard NPCs.

These kinds of details create not only a rich, believable world but also serve to inform meaningful decisions for the players that go beyond min-maxing and affect the aesthetic. Here is a war game where you don’t control the powerful and you don’t fight for God and Country. It’s bleak, but it is beautiful and was one of the great surprises of the contest.

It got a Grand Prize and Narrative nomination, but not a Design nomination.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Image via Imgur.com

This game was made by eight people. I find that so hard to believe, even partially understanding photogrametry. It’s a beautiful game and my new PC was built just in time to take advantage of it. It takes place in a rural setting where every tree and rock feels authentically made for just that position. I was less impressed with the game itself, although it is worth playing. If you are going to make a game where you mostly just wander around though, the scenery should have to be as beautiful as this.

It didn’t get nominated for Visual Arts, though. Look at that screenshot!

Pry

Image via PryNovella.com

Pry is the story of an ex-Iraq War soldier. I don’t even know what else to say about the story because how the interaction with the app plays out is so central to understanding the story.

There is largely one mechanic in the game that is manifested in two ways. First, you can spread your fingers to “pry” your eyes open or expand an element. You can pinch to condense an element or shut something. The game is played with a large amount of well-produced full-motion video. As you begin to understand more and more about the main character and his two comrades, you feel a growing sense of discomfort at the images you see.

I’m torn here because I really want to explain why this is excellent, but doing so would partially ruin the experience for new players. So I won’t. Pry is unfinished currently (it is missing chapters), but I will say that Chapter 6 is a postmodern masterpiece in slow revelation of details. It isn’t a perfect game by any stretch, but it does something new and interesting and has a hard time falling into any genre position. You can get it on the App Store now.

The Talos Principle

One of the problems of puzzle games in the new millennium is that the answer to any puzzle is just a YouTube search away. One of the privileges of getting to play this before its release is that I had no ability to Google the answer to any puzzle. However, that has bitten me as I am just completely stuck on a critical path puzzle.

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game much in the style of Portal. I don’t want to explain much about the premise of the game as it unfolds in a compelling way, but you play a robot that needs to complete puzzles in order to satisfy a voice in the sky that claims to be your creator. There’s fun Philosophy of Mind stuff going on here, but other games have done that before just as well.

Talos Principle puzzles do not exist in a vacuum. First, there are the puzzles themselves. Complete them and get a little tchotchke that helps you unlock further puzzles. But there are secrets upon secrets that really open up the worlds. There are stars which are unlockable by solving puzzles in alternate ways. There are world-level puzzles that require the player to use materials across different puzzles in each environment. Then there are the weird pseudo-discoveries that are certainly secrets (I won’t spoil any), but are hidden throughout the environments. There’s so much clever content here.

Quantity is one thing. I’ve played hundreds of (mostly mobile) games that brag about their quantity and then just give you some procedurally generated crap where one element is just a permutation of another. The puzzles in The Talos Principle are tight and carefully crafted. I’ve seen forum postings that want this game to be co-op and I want to smack those kids silly. If you want a master class on design, here it is. You start with what you think is the obvious solution to a puzzle only to understand its limitations. Then you test edge cases and find all the edge cases to be wanting. Then you end up twisting your thinking around to get the pieces to do something new in order to solve the puzzle. You end up feeling like a genius, but it was all carefully crafted.

This game has impeccable design, an interesting narrative, a beautiful visual style, and thanks to an 11th hour change of Elohim’s voice actor, a well-rounded audio set. While other games are surely worth mentioning, no game captivated me this year in this contest or in the larger world of games like The Talos Principle.

Others

There are so many more games I would talk about had I the energy that got no nominations: Roundabout (Loved everything about this. It’s silly, novel, and fun). Goat Simulator (Same aesthetic as Katamari Damacy. I watched judges who didn’t get it complain about it, so I guess it is not for everyone but I just keep going back to it. It’s something a normal studio would never try and that’s what makes indie games valuable). Apotheon (The most visually appealing Metroidvania in a crowded market.)

Anyway, I feel blessed and thankful to have had the opportunity. Support indie games!

Read in 2014

2014 was a silly year. I was in graduate school, so most of my reading time was spent on papers with titles that stretched into three lines and used words like hermeneutics. Nonetheless, I did just as well this year as I did in my previous grad-school-encumbered year.

2014: 27 titles, 10,248 pages, 28.07 pages/Day
2013: 27 titles, 9,368 pages, 25.66 pages/Day
2012: 45 Titles, 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
2011: 30 Titles,  10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
2010: 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
2009: 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
2008:  31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day

I’ll leave the gritty details to Goodreads. But highlights in fiction for me that I read this year were City of Saints & Madmen, Shriek, The Hydrogen Sonata and Ancillary Justice. Nonfiction was light due to aforementioned reasons.However, this is the year I finally read Rules of Play cover to cover and it is peerless.

© 2015 Zack Hiwiller

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