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Full Steam Ahead: Age of Empires III

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 9 Hours.

 

The Age of Empires series of games is special to me. These are the games that introduced me to the real-time-strategy genre. Age of Empires got me interested in the classical empires of Persia, Egypt, and Greece. Age of Empires II brought the stories of medieval leaders to life: Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, and Saladin. Age of Mythology took the well-balanced, carefully crafted gameplay I had come to love, and transported it to the world of Norse, Egyptian, and Greek legend.

So, let’s make no mistake: Age of Empires III is fun game. It is a well-balanced real time strategy game, and part of one of that genre’s most consistently excellent series.

Now watch as I spend most of the rest of this article barely talking about the game.

The Spanish home city, and title screen of Age of Empires III.

Not Being That Kind of Jerk at the Card Table

Yesterday I was at an annual Canada Day BBQ when someone pulled out a copy of Cards against Muggles. I didn’t want to have anything to do with this game. At first it appears to be Cards Against Humanity, but saturated with Harry Potter references. Having already decided that I never need to play Cards Against Humanity again I was already predisposed to take a pass on any game called Cards Against ____________. I have no problem with the format, but the idea of playing a game where people compete to be the most shocking in their “ironic” racism, rapism, ableism, homophobia… have I missed any? If so, can someone please pass me a marker and the blank card? If I want to be something more than a jerk then this is a game I cannot play.

I try not to be a jerk about jokey card games.

Cards Against Muggles, to its credit, is crude without a lot of the stuff that makes Cards Against Humanity bad. Sure, I have heard more speculative jokes about the sexual exploits of the Weasley family in the past 24 hours than I would care to ever again, but it was something I could hang around the edges of without feeling like there is something fundamentally wrong with what we, as a group of people, are doing. Most of it was simply an endless barrage of references, a few of which I recognize, but mostly stuff I know to be related to the fandom but have no personal knowledge of. This is what I imagine it’s like to read Ready Player One if you didn’t grow up white and nerdy. This is something that I could, if I was really desperate to play a card game, play. I declined because I found cheeseburgers and side conversations to be far more appealing. In this, however, I still have a responsibility to refrain from being a jerk. I’m not a Potter fan, and that’s okay. Some of the people at the party were huge fans. That’s okay too. For the same reasons I can’t abide playing Cards Against Humanity, I have to let people enjoy Cards Against Muggles without complaint from me. I don’t want to be the kind of jerk that dehumanizes other people for fun, but nor do I want to be the kind of jerk that presumes to judge people liking what I don’t and not liking what I do. I want to be the kind of person that does a reasonably good job of holding those two things in balance, and I want to be the kind of person who does his own small part to make this what being a “Canadian” is about.

Full Steam Ahead – Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones.

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: None

Run along the wall, over a yawning, dark, abyss. Jump from the wall to a nearby ledge. Sidle over to a flagpole before the ledge collapses. Drop down, swing around the flagpole, leaping to a nearby grate. Plunge your dagger into the grate, so you don’t slip down the wall. Jump to the balcony above the grate, rolling past the pressure triggered darts. Sidestep around the swinging blades, slide down a banner hanging nearby with your dagger, drop down the floor, sneak up behind the guard, and slit his throat.

How many ways can this go wrong? What are the chances that it would all go right the first time? Don’t worry, because you will get to try again.

And again.

And again.

…and again, and again, and again, and again…

gf in local

(My apologies to any email subscribers who received a draft version of this post earlier this week when I forgot to finish it before it automatically posted.)

Sometimes, when playing what I call large and expansive recreational games, I wonder how much potential they actually have to live up to my expectations. A few days ago, I was out ratting (that’s EVE-speak for using an imaginary spaceship to shoot hordes of NPC pirates, equivalent to “farming mobs” in other games). An enemy player appeared in local (a chat window with a list of all pilots in system). I warped my ship to my team’s space station, which is a common move when you see an intruder in your space. Ratting and hunting ratters is a game of cat and mouse: they win by catching me, I win by scurrying away too quickly. I make it back to the station and tether, which essentially means I am invulnerable. He starts talking in local. “Fight me,” he says. I tell him that I will not fight him in my ratting vessel (which are almost always ill-suited for combat with other players) or my salvage vessel (unarmed) so I go fetch something more suitable from the next system over. Now flying a nimble assault frigate, I warped to the same station. I tethered up, approached the enemy cruiser, and then broke tether by opening fire. We fight for a while, then a friend in my alliance stumbles across the fight and opens fire as well. I would have told him to back off if not for the fact that I saw in local that there was another alliance mate of the guy I was fighting somewhere close to us. There was to be no pretence of space-bushido here. So I won, not because I am am especially talented pilot, but through (ab)use of the tethering mechanic and unfair odds that I didn’t bother to make fair out of paranoia that doing so is taking bait for a larger trap. That, my friends, is EVE at its most basic essentials. We both write “gf” in local, which stands for good fight. Some people might find this strange, but not people who play this game.

The next day I attended the weekly session of World of Darkness I play with my friends. We went totally off script, but ended up bringing a split party together onto the same narrative thread, no rails in sight. This is the tabletop gaming that I like to think is so good and interesting, rather than it being a tangle of out-of-character debates about arcane rules that makes me wonder why I think so highly of the game. There have been times, in many different campaigns including some that I have run, that I feel like the esteem I hold for the tabletop RPG is misplaced. Not last week.

World of Darkness is often hard to pace when you have a plot arc in mind but players are more interested in negotiating their dice pool for each and every action (me, guilty of this myself? nahhh)

So what’s the point? Some games can suck up a lot of time and not produce measurable returns. I don’t think, though, that this means we should eliminate recreational games from a healthy life balance that includes other activities just because there is no instant gratification. While it may be true that Yahtzee (or, as my wife’s off-brand set calls it, 5-dice Game) always produces a winner, it’s never going to be satisfying in the same way as having a great night at the WoD table or a fantastic example of the “gudfight” that capsuleers spend so much time seeking. Not even when I have the disgusting luck of multiple Yathzee rolls (five of a kind) in a single game. It’s there… and then it’s gone. It’s a game, but not a story. I happen to think that making new stories is just as good a way to spend a midsummer night as sitting on the patio enjoying some cold ones, or cycling, or whatever. That’s what I need to remind myself the next time I feel like I spend too much time listening to other people discuss their dice pools or spinning my ships in citadels and not enough time working or writing or designing or…. any of those other things I can maybe stand to do a little more of, but should not pretend like I could be doing it all non-stop.


Site update: in case the unscheduled break wasn’t a clear enough sign, I’m having a bit of a hard time keeping up right now. I have a few more posts in progress, then I am going on a semi-vacation from active blogging for a month. A generous donor has decided to supercharge Alastair’s Steam-Powered Hope initiative which means Almost Infinite will be running 100% Full Steam Ahead, every week in August. I will still be monitoring things behind the scenes and moderating comments, and then be back in September with what I hope will be more of the content I want to be creating rather than falling into the habit of steam-of-consciousness posts about whatever I happen to be playing, just to get something published for the week. There will be more applied game theory and philosophy posts after the break. Thanks for reading.

Full Steam Ahead: Divekick

Time Logged before Full Steam Ahead: 90 Minutes

I’m going to oversimplify things a little here, so please bear with me. No matter what mechanics, genre, themes, or budget a game has, their interaction with the player can be broken down to a cycle of three steps: choice, action, result.

Lots of games pride themselves on the freedom of choice they give to the players,. Similarly, in many games, the mechanics are multi-faceted, intricate machines which are prepared to account for a dizzying array of player actions. Not every game succeeds in showing how player choices matter, but some do an excellent job of showing how a player’s choices and actions affect the world of the game.

This is a drastic oversimplification of things, and I’m sure many of my friends with enthusiasm for game design and theory would say as much, but for today’s episode, oversimplification is appropriate; I’d argue oversimplification is what Divekick is all about.

This is either about to get, or is already, very silly.

Working On Avoiding Fallacies Three and Five

Social time. Escapism. Fun. When I play recreational games it’s usually in the hope that those aspects of the activity will lead to reduced stress. But this weekend, I had a hard time focusing on the game on our regular tabletop night and had to say no to a bonus game run by this blog’s favourite guest author.

I wasn’t out at work or sleeping in bed or something so obviously excusable like that. I ended up going out on a fleet to help my online space guild stake a claim on more imaginary solar systems. I know I shouldn’t feel bad about it, but it’s hard not to think that there must be something wrong with my priorities when I have time for them and not for my friends.

The reason I say I shouldn’t feel bad about it is because I know better. The Five Geek Social Fallacies were posted in 2003 and remain an important reference for when I might be falling for one or more. I know it’s not necessarily sound scientific psychology, but I have adopted those five fallacies as guidelines for what kind of negative thinking to avoid. Today it’s three and five that I have to read and reread. It’s OK to do something that requires less mental energy than more tabletop RPG adventures with friends. It’s OK not to grab every available tabletop night to the exclusion of space friends. I know these things at an intellectual level, but it’s still a challenge to feel it sometimes.

Full Steam Ahead – Mass Effect 2

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 32 Hours

Every now and then, this list of randomly generated games throws me a bone. A few weeks ago, I got to play one of my absolute favourite games (and listening to the response, a favourite of some of our readers as well).

It may interest you to know that the original Mass Effect was not appealing to me the first time I played it. The first time I played Mass Effect was on a friend’s Xbox 360, and I found the controls to be unintuitive and imprecise, making even the game’s initial sections a bit of a slog for me. It wasn’t until I played the sequel years later (also on my friend’s Xbox 360) that I really got interested in the series. It’s a little backwards, but Mass Effect 2 is that game that got me interested in Mass Effect.

Years of study have shown me that two comes after one… and that I’m an idiot.

Full Steam Ahead – BattleBlock Theater

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 4 hours

What makes something funny? Most people can agree on a definition of comedy just vague enough to be nearly pointless. Some definitions acknowledge subjectivity, and define comedy by its intentions as opposed to specific content. In short, comedy is intended to be funny. However, most definitions, while striving for accuracy as to what is funny, fail utterly in describing how something is funny. Furthermore, what one, or even most people may find funny can be unamusing, or  offensive or hurtful to some. Comedy in a social context requires a careful balancing and understanding of others opinions and feelings.

In a way, comedy as entertainment should be easier. After all, it stands to reason that the audience of a comedy movie or show comes with a expectation and the desire to be entertained. Yet even this can come up short. At a live show, one can’t possibly gauge the individual preferences of an entire theatre of people. At a movie, jokes that aren’t working can’t be rewritten or altered to suit the audience’s tastes.

This being the case, I do not envy The Behemoth, the studio behind BattleBlock Theater. Good comedy is hard to pull off in any medium, especially an interactive one like video games.

Welp. Looks like I forgot to get a screenshot of the title screen. Oddly enough, this is pretty representative of BattleBlock Theater.

The Quiet Con

This weekend (Friday evening May 4, 2018 to Saturday night on May 5) was the first spring iteration of Edmonton’s IntrigueCon. I had a great time playing some 5e D&D (and running it for the first time) and playing a flavour of World of Darkness that I hadn’t tried before. As much fun as those sessions were, I have to say that the most interesting game to talk about wouldn’t be any of those. It would be the one that involved no dice rolling and drawing a map on the paper table covers.

The Quiet Year is a game that uses nothing but pencils, paper, a few six-sided dice, and a standard deck of playing cards in addition to the rule booklet. There were no grand maps of the city of Waterdeep at this table nor any carefully arranged dungeon maps. Although there are a few rules to pull the game along to its conclusion in an orderly fashion, the rules have very little impact on the success or failure of the fictional civilisation being rebuilt.

The first thing we did was set the scene by drawing a coastline, a river, and some mountains to frame the area.

This is how it works: a society has suffered a catastrophic conflict with “the Jackals” and have four seasons to rebuild until the “Frost Shepherds” arrive to mark the end of the game. What the Jackals are (literal canines, gang members, aliens) is not specified, nor is the precise cause of the fall, nor what the Frost Shepherds are. This means that this game can be played out as a science fiction adventure on an alien world, as a medieval high fantasy, or anything else a person might come up with. In our case, we went with a fairly plain post-apocalypse theme.

Extremely well-drawn golden idol
The discovery of this expertly-drawn golden idol buried in the clay near the river bank was a result of drawing a card directing the player to discover an omen of some kind.

On each turn, the players draw a card and play out the corresponding events from the booklet. This may direct players to choose what shortages or abundances of resources there are, or do something specific with the map. There is often an OR choice on these events and there is nothing regulating how many times the players can choose the good (or at least less-bad) event over the worse one. After playing the card, the player may make their own choice of starting a discussion, adding something to the map, or beginning a project of their choice. Again, there is nothing stopping the players from making oh-so-convenient resources readily available, that fill the gaps in resources, and that are close to an idea plot of land to build a village on.  Players may also start a crisis for the community with forest fires and poisoned rivers. It is entirely up to the players at the table whether this is a legend of prosperous pioneers or a tragic tale of woe and misery in the twilight of human civilization.

Dice are used as counters for how many turns it will be until the project is complete.

As the game progresses, players add projects to the map and use the dice as counters: projects may take up to six weeks (each turn is one week), and this timeline is set entirely at the discretion of the player placing it on the map. The only limiting factor is that there are a set number of project dice to be deployed at any given time, so players are occasionally compelled to choose between starting a community discussion or adding a new feature to the map instead if there are too many projects active.

This is what we had created when the game ended. The clear conclusion is that none of us are taking the plunge into making a living as a freelance illustrator.

The whole experience was a lot different that the tabletop games with wargame ancestors. This was as much of a collaborative storytelling experience it could be while still being a game rather than a writers’ circle. Looking back on how much stress I was experiencing in trying to get my dungeon set up and getting players set up with suitable characters for D&D, I really see the value in a game like this where there is no preparation required and no storyteller/GM/DM to have expectations of. In being so minimal in its restrictions on players it really allows something interesting to develop at the game table. As excited as I am to run another 5e scenario at IntigueCon’s main event in October, this is the game I am going to remember for being something different.

Going South In New Eden

I met up with a friend of mine the other night; the friend who suggested to me that if I was going to write about any MMO I should give EVE Online a whirl rather than WoW, etc. He was shocked to find out that I was still playing it and profusely apologized to me. I told him that it was OK. There have certainly been times where I considered moving on for good. The battle of  9-4RP2 is one of those (that’s the overhyped “million dollar battle” that people were excited about in late January). I came home from work that evening knowing that something big was going down, started up the game and didn’t stop for about five hours. My wife was worried about me and wanted to know if I was okay. I assured her that this was an exceptional event that would not be happening again. I would make sure of it: if it ever looks like a five-hour TIDI-fest is going to ensue then I am going to feel the need to attend to real life and log out. The lack of fun and monstrous waste of time was exactly what I am not looking at in a game.

It was not long after that when my alliance departed the so-called north (the battle mentioned about happened in Cloud Ring, while we lived mainly in Branch as a part of the Guardians of the Galaxy coalition) to move to The Spire. There we were to join the Drone Control Unit (DCU), a subset of the mighty Drone Region Federation (DRF). That did not work out so well. By the time we arrived they were already starting to break under siege. As a result, a lot of the fleets were also not a lot of fun. We would receive pings with all kinds of superlatives related to how important it was to form a fleet as large as possible. Some of these would be hours of waiting for nothing. It wasn’t TIDI, but it was grueling. And it showed in our enthusiasm. I recall one particular evening I joined a fleet with about two and a half hours before I planned to leave to attend a social event. It took an hour to form up, then we did lots of flying through gates, then docked up and waited some more. Eventually it was time to leave, and so I dropped fleet early. I did not regret it, as I later found out that they waited at least another hour before walking into a trap. Still not the kind of stuff that makes a person be interested in playing the game.

This is a third-party site’s conceptual map of the EVE Online universe. The cardinal directions I describe are arbitrarily assigned based on up/down/left/right on this map. More at http://evemaps.dotlan.net/

Due to widespread dissatisfaction with how things were going, my alliance announced that we were leaving and moving even further south (a good move considering the DCU imploded very shortly after this was announced). We departed towards Detorid/Immensea/Tenerifis. If you look at Sov Maps the south appears to be a dog’s breakfast of little territories quite unlike the empires of the Imperium/Goons in Delve or GOTG and PL in the north though the ascension of the Winter Coalition has made it a little less fractured at the coalition level (in EVE the groups of players from smallest to largest are corporation, alliance, coalition). We are no longer under the protection of a powerful coalition. We are on our own now. And yet I enjoy this game more than ever. Any day of the week has us going out and meeting up with some smaller groups for some pew-pew spaceship combat. Everyone so far has been a good sport. We win some, we lose some, and it’s actually fun. I don’t miss the security of the north or the unfulfilled promises of empire in the east. Small gang warfare is something I can enjoy as time permits. When it comes to screen-based distractions, that’s everything I could ask for. I am glad that things are going south for me in this game. No need to apologize for that.