Monthly Archives: May 2008

Werewolf vs. Mole

The Mole is about to start a new season here in the US, after an absence of several years. I hadn't heard of it before and was about to come here proclaiming that clearly it was inspired by deception-themed party games we've covered on The Gameshelf, such as Werewolf and Shadows over Camelot, but Wikipedia tells me that the concept is many years older than the latter game and rather contemporary with the former's invention. (Though it could certainly be informed by Mafia, Werewolf's progenitor.)

It still strikes me as a potentially fascinating reality show concept - I especially like that the TV-viewing audience doesn't know who the "traitor" is, either. I'm quite curious to see how well it works in execution. Any "Mole" fans here? (For the record, my favorite reality show - indeed, the only one I can watch without feeling dreadful - is Top Chef, which is a straight-up competition featuring a group of talented individuals doing what they love, as opposed to a group of random folks playing arbitrary games and encouraged to backstab each other and otherwise generate teh drama on the way to victory. Though I do wish they'd lay off the super-obvious tension-adding editing. And retire the screeching "Uh oh something bad just happened" sound effect. Anyway.)

Speaking of television, please accept my apologies that the most recent episode is taking a long time to come together. All my spare attention's lately taken by that mysterious game-related project that popped up in March and will likely take me the rest of the summer to complete, much less talk about. I went into this year hoping that I'd be able to produce a lot of episodes, but circumstances (which is to say, my own habit of leaping at shiny, shiny opportunity) dictate otherwise for now. Still, the show will be done when it's done, and then will suddenly appear in the RSS feed as usual. Hurrah for surprises!
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Sulk: Squad Games

You have read many posts in which I dissect games, extract what makes them good, distill what makes them bad. I have made reference to common principles, familiar gaming history, and the Eternal Verities of Aristotle.

(It is not widely known that The Frogs was originally designed as a first-person shooter. It was adapted for the Greek stage only after vigorous debate by leading citizens, who insisted that violent games would corrupt the youth of Athens, and also that guns hadn't been invented yet.)

Anyway, this post is different. This is the post in which I insist that some games are bad because I Don't Like Them Dammit. And That's All That Matters.

I bring you this enlightened and irrefutable opinion after looking at my favorite casual-game linkfarm and seeing a Flash RPG of which it is said:

The first time you enter battle, make sure you drag your team members to appropriate positions.

Right. Team members. Coordinating team members. How about I go read blogs instead? Or cut my fingernails? Or watch my fingernails grow so that I can cut them someday?

Here's my problem with multi-character games: I have to pay attention to all the characters. If I don't, some of them get slaughtered and then I'm not playing the game well.

No, wait, let me tell it with math. In a game with one character, I decide what to do and then stuff happens. That's fun. In a game with N characters, I decide what to do N times, and then something finally happens. That's fun but it's more work and it takes longer. How do I maximize the amount of fun for the amount of effort? By setting N equal to 1, that's how.

(Smartarses will now ask me about N=0. The answer is, yes, I do enjoy a movie now and again. I also read a lot of books. Now we're going to talk about games again.)

I did a lot of this kind of squad organization when I was a kid. Wizardry, Ultima (3 and up), Bard's Tale... I also drew square-by-square maps in colored pencil. I did these things because I had no money and had already read everything decent in the library. Time is shorter these days, and we've invented something called "casual gaming" which we do when we don't want to spend all that damn time.

You have extensive options for customizing your party, with a decent variety of skills for each of 7 different character classes.

Yeah, customizing my party. Also in the category of "things I have to do before I can start having fun." What happened to "here's a sword and an onrushing tidal bore of level-1 monsters"?

This is not a problem limited to the casual gaming sphere. A few years ago, I played Clive Barker's Undying, an uninspired but decently-executed magic-shooter, heavy on the storyline. I had some fun. It had alternate worlds and puzzley boss-fights, which are the two things I demand out of an action game. Then last year I saw ads for Clive Barker's Jericho, and I think "Yay, a brand which I know is decently-executed... oh. Squad of seven characters to control. Screw that." And so I went off to play American McGee's Scrapland instead, which was an endless series of uninspired and storyline-light hovercraft racing missions, but at least it drops you into the patootie and doesn't expect you to micromanage a bunch of wingmen while fighting and racing your way out.

No, I am not an absolutist about this. Single-character control is not an iron law of nature (unlike "avoid third-person adventure games unless they are written by God", God being Telltale in this case). But the last squaddie action game I really enjoyed was Project Eden -- a game in which your four distinctively identical team members respawn every time they die. So you really can ignore two or three of them at any given time. It's not good tactics, but it lets you get your footing so that you can treat the squad tactical options as a bonus, rather than a crippling responsibility.

"Crippling responsibility" sums up everything in my life that I play computer games to forget.

Plus, Project Eden switches over to puzzle gaming in between fights, dropping the time pressure in favor of exploring clever environmental interactions. I don't mind coordination planning when I have time to think, and when the penalties don't involve being razzed and kicked back to an old save point.

Okay, and I played the PS2-era Bard's Tale game. I have no explanation for that. It wasn't the best thing ever, but I was able to cope for the sake of the absurd sense of humor. Aristophanes would have approved.

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Gleemax Games

The WotC social network for gamers, Gleemax, launched the alpha version of its online games page. The games are all free to play for a limited time (no clue when that time will be up, or what sort of charges will apply later). Right now, the games they have are Axis & Allies, RoboRally, Acquire, Guillotine, Desktop Tower Defense, Vegas Showdown, and Magic the Gathering: Online. And it looks like they have AI for each of them except MtG:O. I haven't played any of them yet. Free registration required.

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Pictures of Lunar Rails locations

Hello! I'm Denis Moskowitz, an occasional player on the Gameshelf. I'm a fan of board games and video games.

If you are both a) a fan of the game Lunar Rails and b) able to read Japanese katakana, you may enjoy this. (I know at least two other people like that, so it's not just me.) The Japanese lunar orbiter Kaguya has been taking some beautiful pictures of the moon, and on this NHK page there is a map of the Moon which links crater names (in Japanese) to pictures Kaguya has taken of them. Lunar Rails cities that are listed include Hertzsprung, Mare Moscoviense, Tsiolkovsky, Copernicus, Archimedes, Aristarchus, Orientale, Mendeleev... (There are some craters and locations whose names are given in kanji, so they may also be LR locations and I wouldn't know.)

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Why all Grand Theft Auto apologias are baloney

The_creature_and_Maria.jpgOr anyway, most of them; I roll my eyes every time someone puts forth the argument that you only kill hookers and run over little old ladies if you want to play the game that way.

This statement is literally true, but it carries the false implication that the game offers you alternative interactions with these non-player characters. Lookie, here are your two options for communicating with any of the random people walking around the game world:

• Ignore them

• Beat / maim / kill them

That's it. The controller doesn't have a "talk" button, but it has an array of buttons dedicated to punching, shooting, and breaking into things.

Your character in GTA is Frankenstein's monster. He wants to talk to the little girl with the flower, but ends up drowning her instead, because his action-range is so limited. Sad.

(No, this game isn't a very Gameshelfy topic, but I can't recall seeing anyone raise this particular critical angle regarding a game that engenders a vast amount of discussion (and blowhardiness), and I felt it's a point that really needed making.)

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A screenwriter looks at Half-Life

Screenwriter Todd Alcott looks at the difference between Doom and Half-Life, two first-person shooters from the 1990s with nearly identical plot setups, and yet one tells a so much more compelling story than the other. He argues, basically, that while the former game contains a series of thematically consistent levels, the latter game uses the tried-and-true three-act narrative structure that's supported countless films and television episodes - applying it with great success to a series of thematically consistent game levels. Recommended reading to all interested in writing interactive adventures of any sort.

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Game Chef indie RPG competition

Kynn Bartlett alerted me to Game Chef, an annual role-playing game deign competition. (Kynn's one of the entrants, with his game Awesome Women Kicking Ass.) As its name suggests, it's inspired by the TV show "Iron Chef", insofar as each year's competition stipulates a "secret ingredient"-style restriction on its entrants, who then have only have a week or so to create an entire, playable game.

This year, the contest was split into two parts; artist-entrants had a week to sumbit sets of black-and-white illustrations for RPGs that didn't exist, and the following week the designer-entrants picked up those sets and designed games around them. The competition closed a few days ago, and is currently in a judging phase - I look forward to reviewing the entries myself!

I know about the existence of indie RPG design culture from listening to the Ogre Cave Audio Report, a podcast involving Gameshelf friend Mike Sugarbaker. It's turned me on to fascinating games I'd really like to try playing sometime, including Dogs in the Vineyard (which puts players in the role of heavily armed clerics in alt-universe frontier America) and the Shab-al-Hiri Roach (where academic politicking and the schemes of ancient insect gods collide in an early-1900s New England university).

I'd love to put a short session on the show somehow, but even a short one would probably be too long to film with a full crew. Which isn't to say we can't do it anyway...

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Simple Sunday Game Design

David McDonough recently posted his 20th "Simple Sunday" Game Design. Every week, he posts a design for a new game that adheres to the following rules:

  1. The entire description and ruleset must fit on one page (more or less).
  2. No extravagant or custom objects, including cards, tokens, boards, or other devices.
  3. Try to be original; keep it simple.
I haven't read through all of them, but he's recently been doing ones where the board is a piece of paper, and the players battle it out in some way by drawing things on the paper. Check out the interesting games Molecule, Hardscrabble, and Penicillin. Many of these are designs that haven't been playtested yet, so feel free to play them and then give him some feedback.

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