Mahjong

A while ago, Elaine and I played Mahjong with Matt and Jessica. I was admitted to the Mahjong club by virtue of dating a Chinese lady. ๐Ÿ˜‰

So I asked for a Mahjong set and mat for Christmas. And got both!

The set is very interesting. I really like it, but it confused both Elaine and Matt. It’s a black set, with Chinese characters only. That is, it’s not for Whities (you need to know Chinese digits — which is good! I specifically wanted this, as I didn’t sit there on Wikipedia memorizing them for nothing). But black is an unlucky color to True Chinese.

So I’m not sure of the intended audience. But it looks nice and I’m looking forward to play with it. Thanks for it. CL, and for the mat, ST!

Matt and Jessica, Ben and Jen, Dave and Meg, or any other friends that may be interested (it’s not a team game, you don’t need to come as a pair), I’d be interested in playing/teaching it. A bit of time spent on Wikipedia will tell you all you need to know. Look over the Chinese characters, and ignore most of the optional rules that Wikipedia is at pains to enumerate. It’s basically a bigger form of Gin Rummy. Maybe tomorrow, while it snows all around us?

Update: I only specifically mentioned those couples because they earlier expressed interest. Anyone is welcome!

Chocobo’s Dungeon Review

So, we bought Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon recently. I love it. It’s not only a roguelike — which is surprising enough — but a decent one. Decent here meaning close to NetHack.

Pros/Similarities:

  • Turn-based grid dungeon crawling
  • Items that can be given +X or -X, or be cursed
  • Random items that you have to identify
  • Hidden traps, complete with fake stairs
  • Hunger
  • Collars of Regeneration
  • Scrolls
  • Classes (with the added bonus of being able to choose a class per dungeon)

Cons/Dissimilarities:

  • Too many cutscenes
  • Too easy — death isn’t terrible
  • Not near the complexity of most roguelikes — set of actions is relatively straightforward
  • Dungeons are short enough that you don’t feel very isolated — just wait until you’re out of the dungeon and you can insta-identify your items
  • Not ASCII based

There’s some mini-game based on cards that I haven’t messed around with. That also has a Wi-Fi tie-in, where you can play online with your triply-verified-really-aren’t-rapists friends.

It does have one nice RPG innovation: you needn’t fear investing in your equipment (giving it +1 bonuses) because when you find a better stock weapon, you can fuse your old weapon onto your new one, keeping the benefits of both. Pretty nice way of never making your equipment obsolete.

Three Cheap Games

  • The Penny Arcade Game: Penny Arcade made a game. It has the same art and dry-wit writing that the strip does, but adds a neat Lovecraftian backdrop. Well worth the $20. Native Linux client.
  • Savage 2: I’ve been meaning to play this more. It’s the sequel to the semi-neat Savage game of yesteryear. Basically, it’s half FPS, half RTS. Also $20, also native on Linux.
  • San Juan: This one is a board game. The sequel to the popular game Puerto Rico, this distills the complexities of that game into one of the most elegant games I’ve played in a while. It manages to use one deck of cards as both money, trade goods, and buildings. Very quick too, taking only about 30-45 minutes.

Kingmaker

The term kingmaker, in board games, refers to someone who can no longer win, but can still influence who does win. It’s generally considered a crappy situation because the player has no incentive to continue to play rationally (in terms of the game) and becomes a spoiler.

Even if the player can’t make a king, being in the ‘known loser’ position before the game actually ends is unfortunate, because they just have to sit around while everyone else continues to play the game like it means something.

Now, since a kingmaker can often make a king by either inaction or action, I normally consider it best to default to inaction as a policy. It seems less vindictive. But when someone recently engaged in what seemed to me like kingmaker behavior, his explanation caught me off guard. He explained that he was shooting for 3rd place, instead of 4th. Which made his actions much more reasonable.

It surprised me because I’m used to playing just for first. But thinking about it, there are a lot of advantages if all the players treat non-first positions as worthwhile.

Why it’s good to care about second place

  • First and foremost, you solve the kingmaker scenario as much as you can. Now the only kingmakers will not be people that know they will lose, but people that know they cannot change their relative ordering. A much smaller, less likely group of people.
  • It makes the game more fun for all involved. If second place is meaningful, you will still derive some satisfaction from attaining it. So you’ve generated satisfaction where there was none before.
  • Lowers the barrier to play. Marginal players or players who don’t necessarily enjoy a fully cutthroat game will still be able to come away with some sort of prize. They may be more inclined to start a game than if they only cared for being first.
  • Reduces the power of sore winners and sore losers. Since winning becomes analog, there’s much less to complain about.
  • More strategy. Pretty much the direct analog to minimizing kingmakers: people wouldn’t stop trying to play the game before it ended. Even the player in last still has a reason to optimize his/her play.

So why don’t we?

I dunno. Gaming culture (and culture in general) rarely gives out prizes for second place. But it’s just a matter of mentality.

Our play group sort of toyed with this idea by informally instituting a ‘glory’ system. Whereby the winner was entitled to 100% of the glory from winning a game, but could share that glory as he/she saw fit. So the front runner could team up with, say, the third place dude and together win the game but share the glory. It was almost a blessing of the kingmaker system.

One nice advantage of it was that it tended to end long strategy games sooner. But it was capricious in that players who did not hold much power in the context of the game might happen to be pivotal in terms of making a king. What we should have done is divvy out this fake glory in proportion to rank at the end. But it’s hard to make people care about 10% of the glory of a game. ๐Ÿ™‚

Solutions

How to encourage people to care about 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.?

The very easiest way is to have players bet on the game and pay out according to ending position. But this would add a new barrier to entry, rather than the opposite.

Another idea is to make it more standard to continue playing for second once the game is over. But this is anticlimactic, not always possible, and pretty slow.

Another possible solution is to keep some sort of simple lifetime rank, towards which even non-1st place would count. This rank might be enough to incentivize relative rank play.

It would have to be extremely simple, since it’s just not worth keeping track of a complicated system for such a minor lifehack. So, not like chess’s ranks.

What if we gave out a small number of points for each ending rank. Maybe based on powers of two (since it’s probably twice as difficult to win 1st as 2nd…). Like so:

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th
2 players +1 -1
3 players +1 +0 -1
4 players +2 +1 -1 -2
5 players +2 +1 +0 -1 -2
6 players +4 +2 +1 -1 -2 -4

If a group of people tied for an ending position (say, three people in a four player game tied for 2nd), count up all the points they would have gotten individually and take the average, giving the same number of points to each (in our example, they’d each get -0.5 points).

This can also work for games like Cosmic Encounter which don’t really have a way to decide ending position — just treat it like everyone that won tied for first, everyone that didn’t tied for second.

Now, I know you’re saying this is all too complicated. And you’d be right. But still, it just takes one person to keep track of these things and then you’re golden. Plus, everyone likes ranking charts.

How to get the players to actually care about the ranking charts, rather than just look upon them with interest or bemusement? Give out something for doing well in the rankings. But since few of us are made of quarters, it would ideally be something inconsiquential. Even small rewards can be enough of a spur to turn on the competitive part of the brain.

What about giving the highest ranked player in a group about to play a game the choice of color and seat (e.g. comfy seat or seat that always falls apart). That’s nothing that matters, but is non the less a source of contention in usual games. “I want red.” “Too bad, I’ve already got it.”

Eh? Something like our Magic ratings, but simpler and with real-world consequences. Hopefully enough to make games more fun and interesting.

A Glut of Wii Games

For a while, Dave and I didn’t play much Wii. There was Metroid, but we rarely had time to sit down and indulge in a single-player campaign. Recently however, we’ve gotten four new games that we can’t stop playing.

  1. Guitar Hero III: Meg and I got this for Dave’s birthday. It’s pretty neat, but I’m not the best person to review it’s particulars. Dave seems to like it. The guitar is pretty solid.

    I really feel the bundle/guitars should be cheaper than their other-platform counterparts. The wiimote takes care of motion control, sound, power, and wireless. The guitar is basically a plastic shell.

  2. Zack & Wiki: I picked this up after hearing about it in the Metro, of all places. It’s basically exactly the kind of game I’ve been waiting many years for, and a perfect fit for the Wii. It’s a classic-style adventure game, made by a third party, with simple graphics, and an emphasis on puzzles. It also happens to be a mere $40.

    It’s similar to, say, Sam & Max, but with more emphasis on the use-A-to-get-B-to-release-C-to-open-the-door puzzle aspect, not the traipsing around advancing a plot aspect. It has a nice feature where up to three auxillary players can point or draw on the screen with the spare wiimotes. Our girlfriends very much enjoyed playing this with us.

  3. Super Mario Galaxy: We were going to wait before buying this, but we heard Toys “R” Us was offering a $25 gift card if you bought it and couldn’t resist. It’s pretty amazing. A very pretty game, with Nintendo’s typical ratio of tried-and-true mixed with a handful of innovative gimmicks. It’s pretty classic 3D-Mario fare, but wrapped in a mind-fuck of a gravity platformer.

    One really great feature is the second-player support. A second player can gather ‘star bits’ so the main player doesn’t have to, stun enemies, and help the first player make tricky jumps. It’s just enough to keep the player active, while making a real difference and letting the first player not trend to the completionist side of collecting star bits. Rather, he/she can focus on platforming.

  4. Sims 2: Castaway: Elaine, being a fan of Sims 2, bought this for our apartment. It’s got a few minor bugs, but on the balance is a very enjoyable game. It’s like previous Sims, but instead of a 9-5 job, your task is get off the island upon which you’ve crashed. The game gives you many mini goals, like ‘Catch a chicken’ or ‘Build a raft,’ which keep you moving. Eventually, you get off the island, but I don’t yet know if that ends the game or starts a more standard Sims game.

    There’s a lot of resource-gathering and tech-tree construction, which may turn off normal Sims fans. If you’ve ever happened to play A Tale in the Desert, this part of the game will seem very familiar.

I’d recommend any of these games. As a bonus, all of them are good group plays too.

Arkham Horror

cards from Arkham Horror

When Elaine and I went down to Maryland to visit her friend Cory‘s annual LAN party, little did I know what horrors were in store.

Specifically, of the Lovecraft variety. Cory had recently purchased the game Arkham Horror, so we played a couple rounds. I was instantly hooked.

The game is one of those complicated affairs where you need at least two people who know how to play in order to help each other remember all the details. There are dozens of tiny decks of cards and myriad cardboard tokens and counters. The rule book is pretty big, but reasonably comprehensive.

For some, those might be detractions, but I love it. The really unique thing is that the game is cooperative. Everyone is on the same team, trying to forestall the Ancient One’s awakening. Or, failing that, to defeat it in hand-to-demon combat. Because of this, even though it’s a tad complicated, casual gamers (and notably, lady casual gamers) take to it rather well.

And the more intense gamers can take solace in the game’s difficulty. The base game is decent. But there are all sorts of optional rules and three expansions you can buy that all make the game tougher in various ways. My play group is of the opinion that if you won a game of Arkham Horror, you played it wrong.

Which is OK, because crushing defeat and the accompanying loss of a populace’s souls are surprisingly easier to take as a group.

Warhol Hydlides

four painted Hydlides

I have certain opinions about Hydlide — namely that it is a misunderstood game with great interface. No one else on Earth seems to share this opinion.

In fact, it is so underappreciated that it sells for 1ยข on eBay. When I saw that, I knew I had to do something.

Dave and I had the idea of buying four copies, painting them different colors, and sticking them together ร  la Andy Warhol.

The picture to the side is the result. I think it came out rather well.

Capcom Makes Ranks Up

Mega Man says please return all carts

Oh noes! I just discovered that there is apparently an SS license to be had in Mega Man Legends 2.

I have rested about 65% of my self-worth on my S rank in that game. This is crushing information.

My only consolation is that you don’t have to beat another special challenge to get it, just finish the game with an S license. Anybody could do that, given the S rank. Right? Right?

Citadels Review

A game of Citadels

I recently bought the card game Citadels and have been very pleased with it.

I’d describe it as a simplified Puerto Rico with only one resource and secret role choices.

The hidden roles is a big deal. There are eight of them and each round, some are buried randomly and the rest are chosen in counterclockwise order. So you have some information about what upstream players chose, but you have to divine from what you know of them: are they the sort of players to put the poison into their own goblet, etc.

Figuring out what roles other people took is important, as several roles can ‘snipe’ other roles, but you have to declare a role to snipe, not a person, and hope you guessed right.

In addition to the guessing game of the roles, there is an interesting tension with what sort of buildings to develop. Constructing the same sort of buildings makes certain roles much more powerful for you but simultaneously more obvious.

As an added bonus, the game is even a fun play with just two players, which is a rare commodity. It supports up to eight.

Excite Truck Review

I got Excite Truck for Christmas. It is pure adrenaline. Few other games have come as close to giving me heart attacks or require me to not play it too soon before bedtime.

It’s a nice spiritual successor to Excitebike. It has the same tilting-in-air mechanic and reward for landing on all wheels. It doesn’t let you edit tracks (sadly), but it does have in-game items that terraform the track on the fly.

There’s a multiplayer race mode, but only for two players and only in a head-to-head sense. No grand prix mode and no handicap settings. Still, it’s fun.

But we’ve mostly played single player, which is entertaining because there’s always more stuff to unlock. Using the classic Nintendo D-C-B-A-S ranking, Excite Truck won’t unlock the next single player mode until you get S rankings on all tracks — no small feat.

It also has this novel feature that lets you put mp3 songs on your SD card and set the soundtrack for various tracks. We figure this is largely intended to remind the player of how awesome the built-in soundtrack is.

The built-in songs are all thrashing metal and wailing guitars, which is totally appropriate for smashing other trucks or sailing through the air while a volcano erupts below you. Even knowing we can change the music, we choose not to.