Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Q: How is Italy like the Chicago Bears?

A: They both still suck.

In an attempt to generate some new content, we're gonna reuse some old content. Recently we had another go-round on the old Axis & Allies Global battlefield, so it's time for a few quick ruminations on what went down.

1) In an astoundingly bad play by Havoc Jack commanding UK Europe, the UK was left nearly undefended and overran by an amphibious Nazi invasion. The next turn Germany invaded Russia. After feinting towards Leningrad and handily defeating a Red Army counterattack, the Wehrmacht swung south into the richer lands of the Ukraine, headed towards Stalingrad.

2) After negotiating a five-turn ceasefire with Russia, Japan launched an all-out assault on the US on the first turn. After successfully taking both Hawaii and the Philippines, as well as a daring sweep into Alaska, the Japanese offensive bogged down while battling UK Pacific. This was entirely due to a foolish decision on my part to allow UK Pacific to collect the African IPCs of UK Europe, although I was swayed by a Churchill quote, that wily old bastard.

3) While the American counterattack was defeated, the Axis were not able to build up quickly enough to overcome the American income, and thanks to a slightly problematic purchase for Japan that didn't protect the home island enough the US was able to take Japan for a split. (After about the second round we had to break for the day and picked it up on a second day at which we engaged the UK Pacific collecting African IPC rule.)

4) Italy still sucks. During the first round, the Italian fleet had as good a chance as it would ever have to overcome the British fleet, and failed to roll a four in three consecutive rounds. The remaining fleet and air force were unable to drive the British remnants out, and later a newly built Italian fleet failed miserably at defending itself, as well as the Italian army being hammered by an extremely lucky British defense. Given the final outcome of the game, I can't say that it was Italy's fault this time, but had they done better it might have drawn more US interest and/or allowed them to put auxiliary pressure on Russia.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Rocking the Innistrad Prerelease

Before I get into anything else, a quick correction. In my last article I reported that it took Doyt three months at 8 hours a day to achieve the Insane. Actually, it only took him three months at five hours a day. Plan your achievements accordingly.

This previous weekend Fountain of Youth games held a prerelease for Innistrad, the latest Magic the Gathering set. Like many good things, this story starts with waffles.

At the Friday Night Magic before, I made an agreement with one of the locals to make waffles. At the prerelease. At 10:00 am, when the doors open. So I bring the wafflemaker, I get there at 10:00 and he's nowhere to be seen. At 10:40 I'm sick of waiting, and I haven't had breakfast yet, so I make a run to the local grocery store and pick up what's necessary. As usual, I forget some important components, so I'm mixing with a plastic fork and I have to send another guy out to find me some syrup. Luckily the gas station down the road had some.

At noon the other guy shows up. With 32 double stackers from Burger King. Turns out it's free waffle free burger day at the game store. Which is awesome.

This is critical to the gaming narrative because providing waffles to the populace at large seems to have given me a karmic boost that I rode the rest of the day. In my sealed pool I pulled a new Garruk, and plenty of red and green stuff to play along side him. I ended up with a super aggressive deck and I handily dealt with most opponents. My favorite play of the day:

Turn three I drop a Kruin Outlaw. He doesn't have a play. On my upkeep he transforms into a 3/3 evasive double striker. I play an Inquisitor's flail, equip and swing in four twelve. I won that game the next turn.

I went 3-0, at which point I was able to intentionally draw with the other players into the top eight. Now, I can go either way on that sort of shenanigan. On the one hand it seems cheap for me to guarantee my way into the top eight draft without any risk. On the other hand, well, drafting is pretty awesome. A free draft is even better, and if you can get into the prize support (Fountain of Youth has a very vertical prize structure; only the top 4 got prizes), the prize support makes things better. After drawing with my opponents I did play out the matches "just to see", and I would have ended the day at 4-1, which would have gotten me into the top eight anyway, so my conscience is assuaged. Maybe I'll go into more detail on this subject later.

In the top eight, I wanted to draft red. My brother tells me that red is going to be one of the more powerful colors in the format, and I tend to believe him. However the consensus around the store is that red is a weak color in the format. So I intended to force red, prove my brother right and take all of them down. Based on the packs and the cards available I went blue black tribal zombies. It turned out much worse than I expected. The blue zombies are good, but they require you to lose creatures from your graveyard. The black removal is ok, but it also wanted me to lose creatures from my graveyard. And I had a couple powerful raise dead effects, but that resource was pretty darn low by the time I got around to those. Best card in the deck was, unsurprisingly, Evil Twin. Which, incidentally, is my favorite card in the set. At one point I copied a 5/5 regenerator, and was having to block something else every turn and try to shoot the regenerator, holding them both off. I won one round and lost the next, leaving me in 3rd or 4th overall, and with 4 packs of prize support. Huzzah!

The other high point in the day (and a day that has both waffles and a prerelease ranks pretty darn high already) there was a wizards representative at our store. Mark Gottleib, of the Innistrad development team (and much other experience at WOTC) had other business in town, so he showed up to gunsling at the prerelease. For reasons which I can't fathom his table wasn't incredibly busy all day, so I got to hang around, take on his sealed deck (I won, like I said, my deck was good), and so forth. I got him to sign my Living Wish. You see, Mr. Gottleib was rules manager when the M10 rules changes were enacted. One of the changes took "removed from game" and replaced it with "exile". Since the wishes got cards that were outside of the game, they could no longer retrieve cards that were exiled. Instead you get stuff out of your sideboard or collection. As Mr. Gottleib physically wrote on my card "Exiled cards aren't really out of the game". Though I have some lingering resentments over the M10 rules changes (and not very many; really they did an amazing job with that set in general), I was glad for an opportunity to meet one of the developers.

On Sunday I came back, but made no waffles. My sealed pool pushed me into Jund colors (Red Green and Black), with three shimmering grottos to fix mana. I got a first round bye, and then proceeded to go 1-3 the rest of the tournament. Sad.

Not that many people showed up on Sunday, so the store had extra product, so they were able to schedule an impromptu prerelease draft. Cost more than usual, with some prize support, but most interestingly it's a chance to draft the new set. Once again, I tried forcing red. This time I ended up in red green, very aggressive werewolf deck. I didn't draft any of the enablers (moonmist, for example), but I did have a solid wall of creatures to keep dropping. I narrowly won out the first match against another werewolf deck. I narrowly lost the second match against a mono black deck. It came down in game three to him having the second Bump in the Night to burn me out the turn before I would have killed him. Round three I lost against a guy who had the Sturmgeist I couldn't deal with. I probably would have had him anyhow if I could have dealt with his Crab Fortress

Net outlay $80 on games, for a total of 22 packs. I beat the Wal-Mart $4.00 a pack price, but only just. While I enjoyed myself immensely, I'm frustrated that I haven't yet mastered the format. Looking forward to more drafts.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Joys of Meaningless Rewards

Today we talk about filling bars. The meaningless rewards that games give you to make you keep playing the game. I'm even going to go one step further than that. Your standard fantasy RPG, you get experience points until you level up, and when you level up you gain new abilities and get more powerful and all that. That's your traditional leveling structure. The thing about that is that it actually lets you play the game more efficiently. I'm going one step less useful. The Cheevos.

World of Warcraft rolled out achievements late in the Burning Crusade expansion. When you get your first honorable (read PvP) kill, you get an achievement. Then for 25, and 100, and 500, and 1000, I forget all the increments but it goes up to at least 100,000. So if you keep playing the game you move up the achievement scale. The further up you get, the more achievement points you have, and you can compare these things to the other players. You look at that link? That's Zerg_Rush's primary WoW character, clocking in at 8165 achievement points. You know what those points do for him? Nothing. They might earn him the respect of other players, but they might also earn their pity. If you check his Feats of Strength (pretty long list, actually) he's got "Insane in the Membrane" (and, I hasten to add, the hard version from before that also required Shen'dralar rep before they removed it from the game), which took him approximately eight hours a day for three months to manage. Impressive yeah, but it doesn't let him kill things any faster.

That's not to say that WoW is the only one that does achievements. Far from it. Pretty much everybody is dipping their toes into the field as "gamification" becomes the new marketing buzzword. Three minutes into that presentation and you learn that looking at three lolcats gets you a badge, and that the icanhascheezburger group awards achievements now. Frightening stuff.

This tends to make me unhappy, because I've got two conflicting desires on this front. On the one hand, I like completing things; I like getting trophies or badges or whatnot, and if I know that there's one for doing X task, then you'd better believe I'm going to be doing X task. 5000 damage from a single Hadouken? I'm on it. But I really don't like getting caught in these things with everybody. Lolcats? I'll stay away. Even in games I enjoy playing (Half Life 2 springs to mind) the achievements make me want to go back and make sure I checked every nook and cranny for the solution, but I don't always want that pressure. I've got time constraints like everybody else, and not every game is worth a second or third or nth playthrough.

This was mostly brought to mind by Magic's new rating system. I'm a level 31 Invoker! Have yet to see how that has any real world consequence at all. Even so, I'll probably check back from time to time to see when I hit level 31

I can't deny the motivational effects. If you've got a game worth playing I usually end up trying to max out the cheevos. As careful as I am to avoid this sort of thing I can exploit it myself if I find a good enough reason. Enter Mindhack. In the game of life I apparently made Will my dump stat (and Charisma, and Strength... you know what? let's move on.) To fortify a low score, I'm trying one of these reward systems. I wrote a calculator program with a simple experience and level system, and I award myself experience for doing things that ought to be done. Yesterday, I hit level two. And I was happy.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to award myself 100 exp for completing a blogpost.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Replays and Replayability

(No, this isn't going to be a what-if featuring Jane Austen playing D&D. -ed) (Hey, that's not a bad idea! -B) (No! -ed) (C'mon! -B) (Dammit, I said no! -ed)

Warning: This post will contain links to game wikis. If you are worried about spoilers, I suggest not following those links through.

So yeah, this issue's been bugging me for a while, and if I can't get a suitable discussion out of it, I can at least get some content in here. First of all, what makes a game re-playable? Using some of our standard examples, in Kingdom of Loathing, once you beat the final boss, you are given the option to ascend and start at level 1, keeping one or more skills from your previous run, and doing the new run in a variety of different ways. In Fallout: New Vegas, and the other Fallout games to varying extents, you can play through using different skills and/or make different choices, leading to other endings. Another option used in New Vegas is that of achievements, giving you some sort of boost to your fragile ego by giving you awards for things that you either might normally not do, or for doing a lot of the things you would usually do. If you have a couple spare hours, you might ask Zerg_Rush how he got the title "The Insane" for one of his WoW characters. I'm sure you've run across these tactics to squeeze more playtime from other games, I'm just using the examples I've run most recently. Some, of course, are more effective than others.

The more philosophical question is what actually causes one to replay a game? Havoc Jack just spent at least one post talking about how he's restarted Diablo II, but I can't normally seem to muster up that much desire to replay a lot of games, especially after I just finished it, whereas I've seen him finish a Starcraft I campaign and immediately start replaying the same campaign. Every once in a while, I will go back into the vaults and work up some game I haven't played in a while, but for the most part I don't replay games that much. Starcraft II was pretty awesome, but after playing it once I haven't really gone back to it at all, except for running a few missions trying to get achievements. I haven't actually finished Fallout: New Vegas yet, but I don't really plan on playing through again once all the DLC comes out and I actually do finish the game. I ran though Fallout 3 twice, although that was primarily because I got DLC for that and decided it would be simpler to play through again. On the other hand I play KoL all the time, and am constantly ascending. Perhaps it's just that easier accessibility to a wiki and easier character optimization makes me want to play it more, although according to Steam I have played New Vegas for 62 hours, so I guess that's a decent amount of time spent on it. And of course, I did end up reading a lot of the wiki, and sometimes I find that reduces my desire to actually play the game.

I'm not sure why this single-play tendency only applies to video games, though. I've played any number of board games any number of times, I've watched many movies as much as I could stand, and nearly all the books on my bookshelf have been read dozens of times.

Insofar as no one else can answer the question for me, perhaps if anyone actually reads this blog instead of it being a vanity project for us they can attempt to answer the question for themselves.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Diablo II and the Penny Box

My local game store buys Magic collections fairly often. They have a special table in the back where they sort the cards. The good ones go into the case in front, they've got a shelf of binders, and most importantly they've got a penny box.

A given magic block has about 550 cards in it, 1/3rd of which are commons. Commons show up in a booster pack at a ratio of 11 commons to 3 uncommons to one rare or mythic rare. So let's say that the shop has about 3000 cards from Alara block sitting in the back there. Assuming an even distribution they'll get about 12 of each common. Now, they don't need twelve of every single common. they hold on to about ten, but excess cards are dumped into the penny box.

Enter the cheap magic player. I love this game, I love building decks, and of course I don't have the cash to acquire all the cards I want. Or most. Or even many. And honestly, cards like Gravedigger are perfectly fine, if they aren't going to make the tournament decks anytime soon. You can still build a good, fun casual decks. And I do. And thanks to that penny box I've got 47 copies of Terramorphic expanse, waiting for decks. I've spent about $20 buying penny cards.

A couple weekends ago, a friend of mine proposed a LAN party. We'd all bring our computers over and play Diablo II in a networked game until the wee hours of the morning. Ok, it's a good idea, Diablo II still remains one of the best games of all time. I spent significant portions of high school playing the game when I should have been studying, but I got over the game, and in times past I couldn't really work up enough interest to get past halfway through Act I.

I bet you know how this is going to turn out, right?

My necromancer is level 81 now, and doing Magic Find runs in Hell. (Hell is the highest difficulty level. One thing Diablo II did right, they got the style down.) In the game one of the many randomized modifiers you can find on items is "% better chance to find magic items". So you can get items which give you a better shot at getting even better items. It's a cycle, and it's rewarding, and pretty soon you find you can't stop. I got my Blade of Ali Baba and my Goldwrap, but I'm still waiting on my Chance Guards and War Travellers.

The real interesting point about this is the feeling; I can slay my way through the legions of hell with relative boredom, but the minute that Unique Grim Shield drops the adrenalin rushes and I get that cold gambler's thrill while I take my portal in to confirm that it is indeed a Lidless Wall.

I get a remarkably similar feeling when I'm looking through the penny box. Sure, those terramorphics are nice, but every so often I find a card that the store owner undervalued; last time I dug through that box I got a playset of Life and Death, which the internet values at about a quarter, but it's still a much better reanimation spell than they've printed since, well, since about Life and Death. In later times they prefer to print better creatures and worse ways to cheat them into play. I've also found other good stuff in that box, a Zuran Orb and a pair of Animate Dead for example.

And then I think about my brother, Zerg_Rush. He spent more time magic finding in the old days of Diablo II than anyone, and even though he doesn't play much Magic anymore he'd still like you to know he pulled a foil Elspeth Tirell out of the booster packs from Wal-mart.

I usually don't go for casino games; I see the rate of return and decide that I have better games to waste my money on. But apparently the motivation still works on me.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Best deck in Modern

Ok, maybe it's not the best deck, but it's certainly the most awesome. From the pro tour this weekend:

To start with, the deck plays like your usual midrange deck; it grinds out incremental card advantage by trading up creatures with it's Birthing Pods. Start with a Wall of Roots, Take it's mana and sacrifice it with the pod to get a Kitchen Finks. Next turn, sacrifice the Finks to get a Murderous Redcap. For the investment of a wall and four mana (three if you don't count the one the wall produced) you get: 4 life, a 2/1 creature, a 2/2 creature and two damage to direct to any source you'd like. Next turn you can sacrifice the redcap to get a Reveillark or something. You're getting a lot of value for your cards. So even if the deck didn't engage in any other shenanigans you'd have a shot at taking your opponent down.

But does it engage in other shenanigans? It does. Oh yes it does. Take a look at Melira. Then read the fine print on Persist. Persist checks if the creature has a -1/-1 counter on it. If it doesn't, then when the creature dies it comes back, and persist puts one on. But if Melira is in play, then your creature can't have the counter put on it. So it comes back, but without the counter. So if it dies again, then persist will bring it back. Again. And again. So if you set up a Viscera Seer, for example, then you can keep sacrificing the creature and bringing it back over and over and over. To recap: Melira + Finks + Viscera Seer = Infinite life. Melira + Finks + Viscera Seer = Infinite direct damage. And if you've got the Finks combo, the Seer's scry ability even lets you find the Redcap.

So, in addition to the already solid midrange deck, you've got an infinite combo that doesn't even require bad cards to pull off. (Viscera seer is questionable on it's own, and Melira sans combo pieces really is only good against the combo poison decks that showed up, but finks and redcap are fine creatures even without support). Granted also that you've got effective tutoring methods (two different ways to search creatures into play) you can stuff your deck with all sorts of random creatures as answers to particular problems. It also gives you space to tune your deck for particular metagames. I can see how this deck went 8-2 in the highest level Magic tournament out there. (I presume Mr. Jaklovsky also had something to do with it).

Still, if I were to build the deck, (and you can darn well bet I will, soon as I get my hands on some more birthing pods) I think it'd be a little more... silly. To wit, there's another combo that you could easily shoehorn into the deck, but which Mr. Jaklovsky delclined so to do. Probably this was a deliberate choice tuning, which makes the deck more efficient, and therefore more likely to kill. But I'm too happy with the notion of the combo to dismiss it entirely. It uses Viscera Seer and Reveillark, which are in the deck already, to set up a stable loop with Saffi Eriksdotter.

Have Saffi, Reveillark and Seer in play. Sacrifice Saffi with her own ability, targeting Reveillark. Sacrifice lark to the Seer. Bring back two creatures with lark, one of which is Saffi and the other is up to you. Saffi's ability resolves, and brinks lark back from the graveyard to play. You're back where you started, but now you've got another creature in play. What that other creature is gives you a wealth of options.

Acidic Slime lets you destroy all their noncreature permanents.
Eternal Witness lets you return your graveyard to your hand
Tidehollow Sculler lets you force them to discard their hand (there's a trick to making sure the cards stay removed from game; it involves stacking the triggers properly and sacrificing Sculler again quickly. I'm not going to explain it here)
Wall of Roots lets you generate infinite green mana
And, of course, Murderous redcap can kill them and all their creatures in play.

Those are just the options that are already in the deck. Some more options:

Mulldrifter lets you draw out your deck
Elvish Pioneer lets you play all the basic lands you draw that way.
Nevermaker allows you to put all your opponent's permanents on top of their library
Merrow Witsniper lets you mill them all into their graveyard
Offalsnout lets you remove their graveyard from the game
Riftsweeper (along with Mulldrifter) gets you back anything that has been exiled
Siege-Gang Commander gives you an army of goblins
Essence Warden gets you infinite life

If you're keeping track, that allows us to draw all the cards in our deck, get back anything in the graveyard or that's been removed from the game, play out all our basic lands, play out anything in our deck that requires green mana, make infinite goblin tokes, kill anything your opponent has in play, or stack it on the top of his deck, mill his deck away, rip his hand, and exile everything in the graveyard. Leaving you with everything you could possibly have in play, a hand stocked with whatever you like, infinite life and mana, and leaving him with no permanents, no deck, no graveyard and only a couple land in his hand.

Furthermore, if you consider the Eternal Witness options, you can get back and replay any spell any number of times. For example, a Desperate Ritual played again and again gives you infinite red mana as well. Theoretically this lets you do even more things (rip those last lands from his hand, play out the nonbasic lands stuck in your hand, or possibly steal all his stuff) but I'm going to leave working out the details as an exercise for the student.

Or you could be boring, return a Murderous Redcap and just kill him. But if you do it that way, you'll never understand why Blofeld keeps investing in sharks and piranha traps.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Women. I tell you. See this? This annoys me.

Basically, the girl sets up an online dating account, and goes out on a date with Jon Finkel. She finds out he's a gamer. He played and plays Magic, the Gathering. And she decides "I'm never talking to this guy again."

Ok, I understand that being a nerd means you don't get the girls. And as a shlub who's main magic achievement is occasionally taking down a Friday Night Magic tournament, well, it isn't the thing I talk up when I'm trying to impress someone. Still, there's less stigma now than before, since pretty much everybody's a gamer now. At least amongst the younger crowd.

The thing that really annoys me about this whole bit is the impossibility in her mind of mitigating circumstances. Aside from the basics, he's not just good at the game, he's the best. Over the course of his career, competing against some of the smartest and most dedicated people in the world he's earned $291,865. And I'm pretty sure that number is low; the profile in question doesn't mention his surprising return from retirement to out and out win Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur. This guy lived the dream. But apparently having touched the cards is enough to make him undateable.

"Look, I understand you're Wayne Gretzky, it's just that I don't go for hockey players."
"Oh, you're THAT Angela Merkel? Well, I'm not very political, and seeing as you're the prime minister of Germany..."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

MMO Arbitrage

So today I'm going to talk about an idea I had back in the day, possibly even while still in high school. As the title says, it's MMO arbitrage. I'll assume here that anyone reading this blog knows what an MMO (or MMORPG if you want the full acronym) is, but arbitrage may not be, so if you're too lazy to click that link, it's the process of making profits by trading something (usually currencies) at different rates. How does this work? Let's say I can buy euros with dollars at a 1:1 ratio in Lisbon. I can then sell the euros for $2 in Prague, then return to Lisbon and purchase twice as many euros, and repeat the cycle. The really good arbitrage is going to go through three or four currencies along the way and won't make near as much money per unit. (Ideally you'd also cash out with dollars and head to the States to spend them up, or find another arbitrage cycle to play with)

Anyway, how does this relate to games you may ask? Again, I'm assuming you did, because that's the question that's about to get answered. My plan was to create a stable of characters in several different MMOs, each of which had a certain amount of ingame cash. (The amount? Large) This would allow players who'd accumulated a large amount of cash in one game to trade it for cash in another game, so they could enjoy the wealth they had accumulated. Of course, most people could see several problems with this, such as:

1. Wouldn't it take a lot of time to accumulate that much wealth on that many games? Yes, it would. Unless of course I were able to recruit already rich players or buy them off. I suppose buying resources would be reasonable, given that most businesses expect to start off with a certain amount of investment.

2. How would you determine the cash value of the ingame currencies? The only one I can give a good accounting for is Kingdom of Loathing. As has been previously discussed, the game's currency is Meat, and there's no subscription fee. You can however donate $10 and receive a Mr. Accessory, which in addition to being pretty useful its own dang self can be traded in for monthly Items which do even more nifty things, and more importantly be sold to other players, making for a decent currency conversion. Currently they're selling for 8 million meat, making the conversion roughly 800,000 meat/dollar. So there's one.

3. How would you make money? Besides taking a commission on trading currency from one game to another, there would presumably be personal arbitrage trading and other deals going on the side, assuming the time and wherewithal to do so.

4. What would cause people to trust you? If my word of honor isn't enough, I shall demand satisfaction! Really, though, there's not much of a way, although I'm not familiar enough with PayPal to be sure that there's not a way to enforce a deal if it goes south.

5. How would you know what games to work with to actually get profits? Again, I've no real idea. My guess would be it would require one character in pretty much all MMOs that had a decent fanbase.

6. What about games that don't allow reselling of currency or items via third-party vendors? What about them? This is probably the biggest hurdle, but not the one that actually stopped me. (It was laziness more than anything) If I thought I could actually make a decent profit off this thing, I'd be willing to see if I could work around this. Unfortunately, I think it's just a decent idea. Still worth blathering about though.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Modelling Axis and Allies

I've been trying to mathematically model an arbitrary Axis and Allies battle for a while now. Not having managed to do that, I went one lower, and taught my calculator to simulate the battles. I'm going to post the code.

Program: AXIS
Just setting up a couple variables here. Rather than individual units we list attacking units that fire at 1, 2, and so forth. The list also includes attack at zero for the first hit on battleships, for example. The Defense list has six entries, for the possibility of jet fighters defending at 5

Input "Attackers at zero:",A
Input " one:",B
Input " two:",C
Input " three:",DD
Input "and at four",E
Input "Defenders at zero:",A
Input " one:",B
Input " two:",C
Input " three:",DD
Input " four",E
Input "...and at five",F

So, seeing as I"m doing this on my calculator, there are... interface issues. Basically I've got to express the question as a series of queries. The ABC variables can be ignored. "D" was used for something else important that I didn't want to mess with.

Input "Number of simulations",A
"ALLIES" Is the command to run the eponymous program. After this is a bunch of stuff tallying results of a particular run of the battle.

The specifics of tallying are moved to afterwards, where they'll make a bit more narrative sense. Moving on to the subroutine:

Program: ALLIES
Clearing up some variables. From here there are going to be a number of nested loops, it's going to get complicated.
While (sum ATTACK)*(sum DEFENSE)>0
Recall from above that the sum of either list is the number of units on that side left on the battlefield. When one of them zeroes out the program ends.
For (M,2,5)
...makes sure what follows goes down each attack value of attacking units
For (O,0,ATTACK(M))
And this one does the operation for each individual attacking unit
If randInt(1,6)=HIT
Rolls one six sided die per unit, adding up the total number of hits.
Ends both for loops. We're still inside a while loop, and the for loop from the previous program. If you're keeping track, this is the attacker doing one round of attacking.
If randInt(1,6)=DHIT
A mirror image of the attacker's code, with the usual exception for jet fighters. Note that casualties haven't been removed yet, so all defensive units in the casualty zone get their parting shot. Naturally, this means the model is invalid for submarines with first strike.
For (M,1,5)
A more complicated equation, I'm separating it out a bit to make it more readable. Parse the logic if you like, basically it removes casualties while ensuring it never goes to negative numbers. The first End is for the If statement, the second for the For loop.
The defense has an identical loop, only with the variables DEFENSE for ATTACK and HIT for DHIT. Oh, and the For loop goes up to six.
And that's the finish of that While loop at the start of this program. If after a particular round of combat one or both armies is eliminated, the while loop triggers and we go back to the main program, to finish out that For loop.

If sum ATTACK>0 Then WIN+1->WIN

If there are still attackers at the end of the battle, the sum of the ATTACK list will be greater than zero; indicating the attacker took the country.

(Back to AXIS)

If any units survived on the invading side, they'll be expressed as integers in the ATTACK list. AT2 gives you a running sum of all the units that survive in each simulation. Same with DE2. The other two lines reset the lists to your original inputs before you go back for another jog through the loop. (Remember, this is all in the context of a For loop from above.)

Once the loop stops, once the simulation is run, we can tally up the results:
Disp (Win/A),(AT2/A),(DE2/A)
The first number you get is the percentage of the simulations where the attackers took the country. The second list gives you how many units the attacking army can expect to survive, and the third list is the expected survivors on the defense. Stop stops the program, so it never actually gets to the necessary sequel, which is a comment on the code. Or a comment on my taste in jokes.

And one general, vital question: Do I trust the results? In a word, no. I'm always suspicious of computer models in any situation, and I'm not convinced my logic is satisfactory in this case in particular. And even if my logic holds up this is still based on rolling a large number of dice; while you won't get too far away from the law of averages it's still an inexact predictor.

Yeah, ok, so we can't necessarily trust the results; what sort of results does the program give? Bad ones. By setting up a battle that can have only one outcome (attackers at zero, defenders not) I find the modeled results don't match up to reality. So it looks like I'm going to have to save this post, do some debugging and come back. Grr.

After saving this post, doing some debugging, and finally coming back, I don't have a solution. My logic is fine, as far as I can read it, so I'm not sure where the errors are creeping in. Even so, I'm lacking in content, so I'll post this now and maybe give you an update if I ever figure out where I'm going wrong.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Assemble one Economy

Now that we have our solar system more or less laid out, let's continue looking into the economy. Broadly speaking, the economy exists to transform time into spaceships with which to blast the enemy. Consequently, in broad strokes let's try and figure out what goes into spaceships.

There are only a few really vital characteristics to a warship. From my previous post, the interesting ones are:

How hard it hits
How many hits it can take
How accurately it fires
How fast it can move
How much it can carry

The question here is, how do you achieve those characteristics, and what materials do you need so to do?

How hard it hits:
Nuclear weapons. Your standard atom bomb has a hollow sphere of plutonium in the middle, surrounded by a soccer ball array of high explosives, which have some complicated electronic triggering mechanism. Then you stick it in a steel shell so it doesn't fall apart, and a rocket engine on the back to get it where you want it to go. (the bomb detonates by blowing the high explosives to crush the plutonium into a very small nugget, which then hits critical mass. It's bombarded by neutrons, and all hell breaks loose.)
So, in a materials checklist we have: Plutonium, High Explosives, Advanced Electronics, Steel, and a Rocket Engine.

What's in a rocket engine? Let's skip down to

How fast it can move

I'm thinking of these ships moving due to advanced fusion motors. What makes them advanced? My say so. Also, if you install a Langston Field into a heat engine you can get some interesting properties. If you stop over once again at the incontestably useful Project Rho, you learn that one of the main factors that affects the feasibility of engines is not letting your engine melt due to waste heat. If we run our fusion reactions inside an inverted Langston field, the energy from the reaction is absorbed and emitted only inwards; we can sustain all kinds of scary high energy reactions without damaging our ship or crew. Just leave a hole open in the back so that you can go rocketing along. (I haven't run the numbers proper just yet, but I expect I'll work off of this type of engine)

Anyways, an engine includes Fuel, Reaction Mass and a Langston Field generator. Since I mentioned the ability for spaceships to generate their own hydrogen supplies (again with that field. You see why I try to keep my miracle devices to a minimum?), I think we'll qualify both fuel and reaction mass as Hydrogen, allowing us to move on to

How many hits it can take

Which is entirely dependent on the properties of a Langston Field generator. So I guess I've got to 'fess up to what's actually in these things. You ready?

Exotic Materials.

No, I don't have any idea how one of those things ought to work either. Moving along;

How accurately it fires

Since we're pretty much entirely talking about missiles, we're asking what a missile needs to connect with it's target. It needs to find a potential target, identify as friend or foe, measure relative positions, velocities and accelerations and modify it's own vectors to collide with said target. It also needs something to tell it precisely when to detonate.

All that I'm going to sum up in my previous category of Advanced Electronics. Convenient. One last warship category:

How much it can carry

Seeing as cargo space is mostly empty volume, we can ignore this category. Or, in a move that saves me some rewriting on this post, we can talk about what the ship needs to carry some of it's more vital components; people.

People require some basic things to live. Food, water, air, access to the internet. At least those first three. In the context of our discussion, our spaceships have to be able to carry a basic livable habitat for the people. In resource terms, I'm going to shoehorn all of that into Organics; I'm looking to build game pieces not actual starships. Note though, that a troop transport ship will require a whole lot more life support than an ore freighter.

There are also considerations involving the ship itself; you need a steel framework to hold the various pieces together (you could go with titanium or some such, but with the Langston field providing the defense, you really only need enough structure to hold the thing together. Steel is still cheapest.) You need some vast, complicated bridge with a huge glass window and oddly shaped chairs and large computer banks with blinking lights on them. There are other features that are useful for maintenance, Medbays, Machine shops, the sergeant's illicit still, that sort of stuff. But broadly speaking, they fall under the same resource categories. To sum up:
Organics, Steel, Advanced Electronics

Let's list out those resource types for all the categories:
High Explosives
Advanced Electronics
Exotic Materials

Seven types of resource. Can we pare that list down at all? Sure. For starters, let's just pretend the High Explosives don't exist. (Side note: this is not a winning legal defense.) Furthermore, Plutonium is only a component on the bomb side of things. If we upgrade to H-bombs, we still need a plutonium detonation to trigger the hydrogen explosion. I suppose I could just say "Future!" and hand wave that away. I think I'd rather shoehorn it into the Exotics category. One more; Hydrogen, while it's useful to remember it's there, can be safely ignored. That brings us down to four categories:


I'm going to add in one more category:


Or possibly Money. I'm less certain about this one than the others. While I don't want to get into all the details of financing (buy war bonds!) I want to provide a resource that can be expended to ease tension between other resource amounts. So, if you don't have enough Electronics one week you can expend a certain amount of Metals and Labor to turn it into Electronics. Or if you need more steel, you can expend labor to boost it up wholesale from Earth's gravity well. (Remember, the cheapest way to get steel in space is to start with steel that's already up there; thus the asteroid mining and so forth. You can stick some on a Saturn V rocket and send it up to the orbital factories, but that'll cost you.)

It also allows us to gather resources from locations that wouldn't have them normally, or produce the wrong type. There's a small settlement on Mars; not large enough to pull things out of the gravity well. So what good is it? It produces Labor.

As with most things at this stage of the game, these resources aren't set in stone. Except for the metals, which are probably an ore in some obscure asteroid right now. Next time I get back to this topic We'll go over a map of the solar system and discuss what gets produced where, and how much.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

'sploitable mechanics

Continuing on my theme from last night, we're talking about exploitable mechanics. Tonight I'm going to cover the difference in power of exploits.

Here's your classic example. In Super Mario Bros. you could jump on koopas against a wall in such a way to generate as many extra lives as you please. (So long as it's less than 99, that is.) By Mario 3 they realized that that's a feature, not a bug, so they implemented more loops to allow you to get lives. Broadly, these fall into two categories.

Coin loops; if you run around the same terrain twice coins don't regenerate but bricks do. If there's a Pow block in the area you can jump on it, turn the blocks into coins, go down a tube and repeat.

Life cycles: In a couple levels (1-2, for example) you can jump on regenerating enemies, and so long as you don't touch the ground you can generate extra lives like in Mario 1.

So what's the difference? Magnitude. 100 coins buy you one extra life. Even though you're sweeping up twenty or thirty coins in a particular coin loop, it takes significantly more effort to gain the lives than if you're jumping on the goombas. (Assuming you've got the mad skillz to pull of the goomba jumps. It ain't easy to keep it up for any length of time.)

Broadly speaking, if I want to bolster my life total, which exploit do I use? A life cycle; it takes me a lot less time. In general an exploit is more or less worthwhile depending on how much effort it takes to use it versus how much reward you can get.

Let's go with a classic Kingdom of Loathing example; Boozerbear's Salty Dogs.

Boozerbear, or so the story goes, found a bug in the code that let him turn any item in the game into a Salty Dog. This is a low output exploit; while it's always good to have booze on hand, salty dogs aren't that special of a drink. The real bonanza came when Pimonkey suggested that you could turn store items into Salty Dogs

Buy any amount of chewing gum on a string, for 24 meat each.
Convert into Salty Dogs.
Autosell Salty Dogs for 65 meat each

Gives you 42 meat profit per unit. Meat being the currency in the game. Infinite money is a whole lot better to have. While some of their hordes of booze and meat were nuked by the game admin they were still left very wealthy. Boozerbear's stores of salty dogs haven't run out yet.

He used to put salty dogs up for sale at 66 meat each; for a while he tried selling them at 33 meat each, but a player named Qrrbrbbrl (you'll excuse me if I misspell that) pulled the same stunt on him; buying the salty dogs, autoselling them and buying more. He's still got about 500,000 for sale at 130 meat per.

I'll go one simpler. There's an item in the game called a meat vortex. If you use it on yourself you lose your item and some meat. So you quickly learn not to do that. But someone figured out that if you had no meat, instead of going into the negatives you would roll over to the high end of the scale; about four billion meat. The secret got out, and the economy went up in smoke. Delicious grill smoke. (There was also an item duplication bug running rampant at the time, and no recent server backups that could be rolled back to. I gotta say, it was pretty entertaining.)

On the flip side you can get exploits that are too unwieldy to use properly. Take Project X. Project X was a Magic deck, a tournament deck from the Ravnica/Time Spiral standard season. Let me walk you through the combo.

Start with Saffi Eriksdotter in play.
Play Crypt Champion, without paying the red mana.
Since you didn't use any red mana, crypt champion hits play with a "sacrifice this creature" trigger on the stack.
Sacrifice Saffi, targeting crypt champion. Saffi goes to the graveyard.
Crypt champion's trigger resolves, sending it to the graveyard.
Saffi's ability goes off, returning Crypt Champion to play.
Crypt Champion's second ability goes off, returning Saffi to play as well.
Since you didn't spend the red mana (0r any mana) this time either Crypt champion has another sacrifice trigger. Sacrifice Saffi to save it again...

It's a stable loop of two creatures entering and leaving play. There are ways you can convert this to other useful resources; if you also have an Essence Warden in play you can gain an arbitrary amount of life. (Thus the name "Project X", since it allows you to gain X life.)

Now, if you're playing the game with physical cards, you can demonstrate the loop to your opponent and say "Ok, run this loop a million billion times." The rules allow for it, even the finicky tournament rules. It's a different story in the digital game.

On MTGO (Magic: the Gathering Online) there's no way to specify that a loop is happening. So you have to run through each cycle individually. Furthermore, you have to go through each trigger and priority pass individually to make sure that you've got them all correctly. So while it's still technically possible to play the game online it involves oh so many clicks and it's really just not worth it.

This produced an interesting disparity; there's a certain class of tournament players who use MTGO tournaments to predict the metagame for real life tournaments. But with a strong disincentive to play Project X online the data is necessarily warped. Since Project X was never really a dominant deck it didn't make that much of a difference.

There's another factor that makes one infinite exploit better than another; versitility.

Take the potion exploit from Morrowind I mentioned earlier. It's not the only infinite money bug in the game. Shopkeeper prices depend on your reputation with the shopkeeper. At least in some cases, you can max out your reputation by bribing them, to the point where they buy things at a higher price from you than they ask when they sell that same thing to you. So you can keep buying and selling it and make your money that way. But the potion bug is more interesting, since in addition to arbitrarily large sources of wealth it allows you to raise your stats to stupid heights. (It also requires less starting capital than the bribery exploit.)

Again, Magic provides plenty of examples. In a highly competitive game that encourages innovation, in a game with a bazillion interlocking pieces it should come as no surprise that many different combos exist. Furthermore, they can be generally ranked in terms of power level.

Infinite mana is good, but won't win you the game unless you also happen to have some way to use that mana.
Infinite life can sometimes just win you the game, but your opponent might be able to deck you, or just go even more infinite with something else.
Infinite creatures is good, but they usually take a turn to kill your opponent.
Infinite card draw will usually win you the game right there, since if you have your entire deck in your hand you presumably planned out this scenario and have some combination of cards that you can use to kill your opponent.
Infinite direct damage usually does the trick.

And of course there are other infinities (Project X is essentially infinite creatures coming into play. You need more pieces to turn that into a useful sort of infinity.)

At this point we could go into another constraint; the resources required to get your exploit going. But by and large, this doesn't come up in most contexts. Magic is directly competitive, you only have so much time and so many cards with which to win the game before you lose it. In terms of an infinite gold bug on WoW, or item duplication or some such, you aren't so directly competing against people, so it doesn't much matter if it takes too many resources to start it off. You can gather the resources at your leisure. While I like talking about magic, I think I've spoken on this topic enough for now.

Exploitable Mechanics

Today we're talking about infinite combos. In a game, you can sometimes find ways to shift your resources around so that you end up with more than you started with. At which point you can keep doing it, and keep doing it, and generate massive amounts of resources. In real life these examples are less common because almost inevitably you encounter negative feedback along the way. Here, let me give you an example.

In the game Morrowind you can practice alchemy. Take ingredients A and B, mix them together, and make a potion. Pretty much the standard fare for modern fantasy games. The trouble comes with the way stores work. If you sell your frost salts to an armorsmith you'll never see them again. If you sell them to an alchemist who already has one in stock, his stock will permanently go up by one. So buy both salts back from him; then close and reopen his window; he'll have two more salts for you to buy. As many times as you like. Or keep selling them back to build up a real proper inventory. It's a real easy way to get otherwise hard to acquire reagents.

If you take two foodstuffs and mix them together, you get a potion of restore fatigue. Not terribly useful, except that it sells for significantly more than the ingredients cost. But if you use the store exploit I mentioned above, you can keep buying reagents, keep selling potions, and get essentially infinite money and stockpiles of powerful potions and rare reagents.

Understandably this does bad things for game balance. On the other hand, Morrowind is a strictly single player game, so that's less important.

I'm going to define some terms quick.

Bug: A bug is anytime when a game does something it wasn't designed to do. This just indicates that the game isn't working properly. For example, in Diablo II if you stood in the bottom corner of Atma's tavern and dropped an item, it would land outside the wall even if you were inside. Usually bugs occur in a computer game, but not always. They've printed Magic cards that play havoc with the rules before. (You used to be able to give judges headaches with Opalescence and Humility. They've since worked it out.)

Exploit: An exploit is anytime you can use a convocation of mechanics or a bug for personal gain. That Atma's tavern bug? I remember it because people could use it to scam people in trades (we each drop an item, then we run around to pick up the other persons. Go stand in the corner so you'll be sure I can't get to yours before you get to mine.) When it's just an oddity in the game, it's a bug. When you can do something with it, like scam other players or make infinite potions, it's an exploit.

Hack: A hack is essentially a way of cheating at the game. Wallhack in counterstrike or loaded dice in back alley craps. What differentiates a hack from an exploit is that in an exploit you're using the rules of the game as they're laid out, with a hack you're changing those rules. To continue the craps example, on your basic come/don't come bet you've got about a 1.4% advantage betting on don't come. If you strictly bet that way you'll do slightly better than otherwise. That's an exploit, not a hack.

There are a couple different phenomena I'd like to discuss concerning exploits, but for now, I'll just talk about the effect on gameplay. For the first consideration, is this a multiplayer game? Ruining the Morrowind economy is one thing; scamming people in Diablo II is another. Generally speaking, if you're screwing over other players it's not a nice thing to do. If you're just making infinite gold that's less troublesome. But that sort of bug tends to get patched relatively quickly.

For example, early on in WoW you could easily script a fishing bot that would sit around in Stormwind and fish. Leave it running, you get stacks and stacks of fish, which you can sell to vendors. That was how the early gold farmers got their stock. They fixed the problem relatively quickly by making the fish you catch almost worthless. Not an ideal solution, but I don't know how you could better solve it. Err; how better it could have been solved.

If you're playing a single player game, do you use the exploit? The question you have to answer is how does that affect your enjoyment of the game? Take the potion example from above. Sure, you feel clever when you discover the exploit, but being able to make completely overpowered potions (yeah, that's another part of it. If you have a higher intelligence you make better potions. You can make potions of intelligence. With infinite potions you can make insanely powerful potions as well) obviates a lot of the exploring old ruins and discovering treasures that makes the game interesting. On the other hand, in Evil Genius there's a short time at the start of the game where you can steal from the world but the world can't fight back. So if you stop completing the objectives at that point and just loot you can get effectively infinite gold (just leave the game running overnight). But since the acquisition of money mechanic in the game is essentially another timesink I don't mind bypassing it. (I've already complained about the timesinks here.)

To think of it another way, if I'm playing through the Starcraft campaign there's not much point if I use the invulnerability cheat. (Power Overwhelming in the original. Don't know about Starcraft II). On the other hand, if I've already tried this stupid battle three times and I'm losing again and I don't like playing the zerg anyway and I just want to see how this story continues already and... and... yeah, then I don't mind using it to get to the next mission already.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Assemble one Solar System

December 25th, 2155

That's the day the aliens will invade. Mark your calendars, it'll be here before you realize.

I chose this date in particular not just because it's a conveniently far flung future date, but also because the stars are in alignment. Specifically, if you go to an online orrey and put in the date, the planets will be in position.The game has an expected real world time of about a year. That is, I intend to update the game in real time and the positions of the planets in real time once a week for a year when we actually play the game. That means the board will change dynamically each update. Over the course of a year mercury will go around twice, Venus once and a half, Earth will return to it's starting place (...ok, that one's obvious), and Mars will end up about opposite where it is now. Jupiter will shift slightly.

But that's just the planets. There are a whole bunch of other things out there. Earth has a moon, Mars has two, Jupiter has several, bordering on many. But the handy thing about moons is that they'll tend to follow the planets along. There's a wide belt of orbital facilities around Earth, which also follow along. I expect there will be scattered habitation modules that won't be following anything, but I think those are fine to leave off for now.

The real question is "where do I put the asteroids?" If I go to NASA's planetary fact sheet it gives me some basic orbital parameters. If I check on that orrey I linked earlier it'll let me plot asteroids, but only if I do it in the correct format, for which they've helpfully declined to state the names of their variables. While I'm sure I could find another resource on the internet that will let me plot the proper positions of the larger asteroids, I'm equally sure it'll be a long and arduous task.

So I'm going to fake it. The width of the board is about the diameter of Mars' orbit. The asteroids spend approximately 1/4th of their time in that section. Rolling an eight sided die to figure out where to put them, we get Ceres and Pallas in our zone of interest. They both have an orbital peroid of about 4.6 years, which means they'll go about a quarter circle around the sun in our game time. Pallas starts towards the left and will be rotating out, while Ceres starts off the board on the right and will rotate in sometime in the game.

There are a couple other things on the board, but by and large we've got the layout down. Next we'll do some work on the economy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Sequels done right

Seeing as my compatriot has poked his head in to write a post or two it bears upon me to push him down off the main page. Or at least suggest that you slog through my posting before you get that far down. My impression of Europa Universalis III is well, it seems like I'd have to spend entirely too much time adjusting sliders and divining mechanics and not nearly as much breaking things. I figure it'd go down something like this. Inasmuch as I don't actually know my friends are plotting against me, I hold them in general suspicion only.

But as long as I'm linking to Penny Arcade, I should probably get along and write that bit about sequels. The thing about sequels is that they're never as good as the original. The thing about that statement though, is it's not strictly true. At one point I suggested we have a "Disappointing Sequel Movie Night". It was (correctly) pointed out to me that that's a horrible idea. So I spent some time considering the converse question, how many sequels didn't suck, and are there enough to fill up a movie night? Right now, I can only name two off the top of my head; Terminator II and The Road Warrior.

Actually, the greatest sequel ever has to be Paint the Line 2. It has all the right elements, and it doesn't burden you down with any more plot than is actually necessary.

It's a little bit different in games. The movie experience is pretty well laid out, you passively participate in the medium. In a game, you have to interact with the medium, and there are ways to make the interactions easier. Let me give you a couple examples.

Fallout and Fallout II basically have the same plot; get the MacGuffin or everyone you know and love will die. And then save the world, or they'll die anyway. And they have the same basic interface. But in between games they smoothed it out a bit. The inventory in both games is arranged in a vertical stack of icons, about six fitting on your screen at once. In the original, if you get a new item, it goes to the bottom of the stack. So let's say you loot a leather jacket (conveniently with only one sleeve). You want to equip it right away, so you go into your inventory, scroll past your backup gun, ammo, your caps, and the various drugs you've been saving to barter with (no weight, high value, good looting), and finally get to equip your new jacket. In the second game, the item automatically goes to the top of your inventory, so you just click into the inventory and equip it without all the needless scrolling. Or again, in the first game you could only select stacks of items up to 999 units. If you're trying to sell high level weapons to the gun runners you're selling for a couple thousand caps at a time, so you've got to move multiple units of 999 caps over. In Fallout II they moved the number up to 99999, so I've never had the issue come up. In Fallout Tactics they took it a step further, and allowed you a keypad so you could just type the number in.

In Fallout I you had a "Tell me about" option, that would let you type in a subject for an NPC to discourse upon. This had all the fun of a text adventure game and frustratedly thinking up synonyms in an attempt to get the one the game developer put in. Generally you'd get a "sorry, no clue" answer even when asking about subjects the NPC might know about; surely this guy in the cathedral has an opinion about the Hub, but no, nothing. Mercifully, in latter games, they cut out the mechanic entirely.

In Fallouts I and II ammo came in clumps of 2o or 24 rounds, with each clump weighing one pound, rounded up. Your weapon unloaded weighs a pound less than your weapon loaded. So if you take out a bunch of raiders and you're carrying a dozen of their hunting rifles, you want to go into your inventory and empty each individual clip; the ammo will form into clumps and you'll gain a couple pounds of carry weight just like that. It also makes for easier trading later on. When they made Tactics, though, they had guns unload automatically as soon as they hit your inventory. Much more convenient that way; the unloading process was sort of unweildy. They also split ammo down to a single cartridge per unit, so you could move it around on a bullet by bullet basis. Again, with the keypad arrangement there too to simplify matters.

Fallouts III and New Vegas also unload weapons as soon as they hit the inventory. But the main point, and the reason I'm posting this now, is that in upgrading to the sequel, they also polished the game. Most notably, in Fallout III you would get skill or attribute checks that allow you different dialogue options. They'd only show up if you met the criteria. In New Vegas, they show you that there's a check to be made even if you don't meet the criteria; that is, you can take a dialogue option along those ways but you'll end up putting your foot in your mouth. This interacts well with the temporary skill boost books they implemented in that game, but more importantly it lets you know what to do to get the most out of the game. "I should come back here later, after a level or two." Or "Ooh, I should play through as a high explosives character to see what happens when I say something here..."

You know what? Why am I blogging here when I could be finding out the answer to that question?

How to Min/Max Your Nation

I finally finished my first playthrough of Europa Universalis III. According to Steam, it took 329 hours, although having left it open overnight a couple times probably assisted in that total. Anyway, I of course have some things to say about the game. I'd organize them in some fashion, but I really don't want to. So you've been warned.

EUIII is a nation simulator which happens to take place between the years 1399-1821. You take the part of the leader of a nation, and I mean any nation. You have your various European duchies, counties, prince-bishoprics and the like, some of which you can attempt to build into the nations we have now, you have the various hordes of the Central Asian steppes, you have your various Eastern empires, and last, and possibly least, you can also choose to be several Native American tribes or one of the nations of mysterious Africa. So having loaded it up and checked out a couple of these tribes after the first play (I chose Novgorod, somehow never got around to turning it into Russia) it seems that they've weighted it against being able to have African tribal musketeers waiting for the conquistadores. Which is somewhat strange, given that it's not entirely given over to historical accuracy, but I suppose makes a certain amount of sense.

So let's talk about historical accuracy for a bit. They try to work in a certain amount of accuracy, such as their tech research. Putting a lot of cash into any one branch of research (gov't, production, trade, naval, or land) will result in getting to higher levels faster, however at a certain point it will make those higher levels more expensive to ensure you don't reach them too soon. In addition, the larger the empire you have, the more the tech is supposed to cost; even so with the largest empire I had the highest levels in government and land research. I suspect this is an inadvertent offshoot of having picked a Russian country myself. It probably also had something to do with the sliders, but I can't speak to that for certain, because I haven't gone through the manual.

Speaking of which, the PDF version weighs in at 148 pages, truly an example of tl;dr if ever there was one. I mainly used it as a reference guide when I remembered it was there to reference. One of the things I found in there that I did like was their position on doing things that they knew weren't technically or historically correct in order to make the gameplay better, a position that we here at Awesome Games wholeheartedly support. And make use of, more often than not. I do believe it helps to actually know said history, and I'm pretty certain these guys do.

Moving on, I'm going to talk about the post title for a bit. This game is really all about the min max. You have sliders that represent more or less every policy you can have, sliders that represent your budget, numbers that represent your relationships with other countries, and probably many more that I don't want to look for right now. It's not hard to go into information overload, or on the opposite end start making spreadsheets and databases to play this game. On the other hand, at certain points I could use a bit more information, usually when I'm attempting to form an alliance or secure trade rights. When you go to do diplomacy, you'll get a blurb that gives the likelihood of any of your diplomatic requests succeeding, from Very Likely to Impossible. What I want to know is why I get said rating, and how can I change it? When I offer an alliance to a nation in the same region as me, with the same religion, with whom I have max positive relation, I'd think they'd be amenable to it, but no. Is it my alliance with someone else, government style, what? (Sidenote: You have several different governmental styles available, dependent of course on your government tech level. I probably should have switched at some point, but the Merchant Republic I started with allowed me to form Trade Leagues. I'm not sure what, if anything, those did for me, but I really liked the idea and thus stayed with it.)

So of course, what else am I left to do but go to war with them. As much as I hate to admit it, this game makes you think before you go to war, which is generally a good thing. Failing that, it makes you need to set it up so you can constantly be at war without taking too many penalties. I was usually pretty good at that. Some of the things EUIII makes you consider before you go to war are: your stability score, which is more or less how happy your nation is, and will go down precipitously if you go to war with no reason, or against a nation with which you have good relations; who the nation is allied with, if anyone, your Casus Belli, assuming you have one (you don't need one, but it helps) and of course, the military strength of the nation. (that one's not in there, but you need to do it anyway) Which reminds me, in one of the many charts available in game, you can find that out. About any nation, not just the ones you know about, which seems somewhat strange to me. They have fog of war, but you still know how many troops are out there?

Assuming you win, you have to be careful here, too, as you generally can't just annex the nation into your empire. Again, there's a dizzying array of options available, but it generally comes down to Infamy, which if raised above a certain level will basically give every nation a free swing at you. This is generally raised fastest by annexing nations or taking big chunks of their territory, except for certain cases such as border disputes. It goes back down over time, but usually not fast enough to suit me.

At any rate, I figure I must be getting close to how much I can type here, plus I think that this is enough for now. If you enjoy moving sliders and filling bars while engaging in diplomacy and fighting wars, you'll probably enjoy EUIII. If not, don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, July 4, 2011

10-4, good buddy

Griping about Axis and Allies, part II of an unknown set

Seeing as how a) it was perhaps expected that I do the Axis and Allies ranting from the aforesaid live blog, b) it hadn't happened yet because I'm lazy, and c) the first topic has already been brought up and I forget the rest of them, today I'm gonna complain about convoys.

Axis and Allies 1940, as well as the original Europe and possibly Japan as well, which I haven't played, utilize 'convoy zones' in the ocean to represent the movement of men and materiel from the US to other nations, and probably from other nations to other nations. In the 1940 edition, you can station ships (or subs, I'm given to understand that subs are referred to as boats. I've no idea why) on them to deny income to the enemy. Subs remove 2 IPCs of income to normal ships' 1 IPC, and you may only reduce income up to the total generated by any territories adjacent to the convoy zone. For example, Great Britain (the island, not the nation) produces 6 IPCs, so their income could only be reduced by that much for ships in position around it.

And now (finally!) we get to the complaint: the fact that when Axis powers capture Allied convoy zones, they are subject to income reductions when Allied ships are sitting on them. Normandy, Southern France, Egypt, and Greece are all examples that have had Allied ships sitting on their convoy zones, reducing Axis incomes. Granted, it's possible that should the Axis take Egypt they might be using that convoy route, but they have their own on Italy, and there's even less reason for others. To where is Germany shipping from France? Anywhere they might need, they can get it there on land.

I'm also willing to grant that I'm making this complaint largely because, having played the Axis for the larger portion of the games I've played, I'm always alert to moments of seeming unfairness towards them in the rules. (As opposed to real life, where they deserve all they get. In general.) At any rate, I feel the larger point stands in respecting the letter of the rules as opposed to the spirit of the rules: if it is logical for a side to be using a resource, then they should pay any prices for doing so. If there's no reason, then there should be no price to pay.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Griping about Carriers

With the amount of thought we've put into strategies over here at Awesome Games, you might not be surprised to learn that the occasional punctilio of the rules gets on our nerves. I'll try to keep the other surprising revelations about the wetness of water and all until you've had a chance to steady your nerves. Whatever, let's get to the carriers.

Under the traditional A&A movement rules, a carrier moves two spaces and a fighter moves four. They have to start their movement in the same space; the carrier can't haul the fighter for two spaces and then have it launch. They also end in the same space as each other. (Well, technically the fighter can land other places, but for the purposes of this thought experiment let's assume you want to keep your fighter on your carrier). The point here is that the movement effectively allows you to project your fighters one space further than the carrier is able to move; the fighter go three spaces forward, and then one back, meeting up with the carrier which only moved two spaces forward. They also have the advantage of staging your planes out in the water to begin with; Axis and Allies deducts a movement point for moving over coast lines, which a carrier neatly sidesteps.

In Axis and Allies 1940, they added a refinement; naval bases. If your ship starts in a sea zone adjacent to a territory with a naval base, you can move that ship three spaces instead of two over the course of a turn. The trouble with this is that there isn't any corresponding advantage for your fighters on your carriers. The carrier moves three spaces, but the fighter still only moves four; therefore the carrier's original mission of projecting force further than other naval forces is compromised. It gets worse; a battleship actually does better in those situations since you can move it those three sea zones and bombard a land target, where the fighters can't get there and participate in combat.

To take a concrete example, if Japan chooses to attack on the first turn (like I did in the provided narrative), they can move a fleet three spaces to the waters surrounding Hawaii, but if they invade they can't bring in any air support. By contrast, if in the original you were to invade Hawaii, the distance was only two spaces, and you could bring in planes.

The 1940 versions offer a similar refinement for planes; air bases. Air bases allow a plane taking off in that territory one additional space of movement. This also obviates part of the reason for carriers. If you're leaving your carrier in the sea zone around Japan, then it makes no difference whatsoever if you land fighters on it or not; any territory the fighter could reach in four spaces from the carrier is one the fighter could reach in five from the airbase. In the event of a fleet invasion, you can always scramble the fighter. It's a case of redundant mechanics, and games can ill afford to have more rules than are strictly necessary.

On the other hand, I have to point out that the choice isn't always arbitrary. If Italy has a carrier outside of Rome, whether the fighter is on the carrier or in Northern Italy with the airbase isn't a trivial decision; since Italy is part of a continent you can't scramble the fighter to defend the sea zone, but contrawise the airbase gives you move movement options on the northern side of Europe should you need to exercise them.

I gotta admit I feel somewhat churlish complaining about mechanical changes that only benefit the players.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Complexity for the sake of Complexity

Recently, one of the comics I read came uncomfortably close to reality. A game, about battles in space, which makes itself extraordinarily complex, and therefore not that fun to play. Huh. Seeing as I'm attempting to design a space battle game that's incredibly complex, maybe I should spend some time thinking about this.

There's a thing I call "upkeep", which generally means any sort of mechanical action you have to perform to play the game. "Mechanical" in that it's rote work, not like basketball. Every turn in RISK you have to count every country you own, divide that by three to get the number of units you'll build that turn. In pretty much any card game, it's shuffling and dealing out the cards. Let me give you a more detailed example.

In the game Lords of the Realm II you run a medieval kingdom, both the economy and the armies which you then use to assault other people's counties. It's a fun game. But every turn when you start a new one you've got to go to each and every one of your territories and make sure all the local economies are optimized. If you've got three territories, no big deal. If you've got fifteen counties you're going to have to spend a couple minutes every turn making sure nobody's starving. Setting up a successful economy is one thing. Micromanaging it entirely too much sucks the fun out of the game.

So back to the comic at hand. The game they're setting up involves complicated vector movement in space. I intend to use complicated vector movement in the Terrible Secret of Space. Why? Because I think it'll make for more interesting battles, and because I've been striving for the hard science fiction aspect of this game. I've also been flirting with the idea of a non-hex grid.

But using the tape measure to measure distances, and calculating out vectors, that all qualifies as upkeep. Whenever you're designing a game, you want to minimize upkeep, so that you have less boring parts in between the fun parts. To a certain extent I'm willing to let it slide in this game because I'm intentionally shooting for a more complicated, strategic game and that sort of thing can stand a little more upkeep. Still, I'd prefer to keep it to a minimum. Hence my joy a couple days ago when I realized the physics could support never having to keep track of spaceship fuel levels.

So how do I square that with non hex based vector movement? An excellent question. For the first, I'm splitting combat and non-combat movement apart. Non-combat movement just means getting from one point in space to another, and once you've derived the initial equations it's pretty easy to get Excel to do all the relevant math. That is, "how long will it take me to get from A to B?"

Combat movement is different. You have to be able to maneuver. If I was keeping everything to a physical board, I'd probably just rip off the triplanetary rules wholesale. On the other hand, this game is going to be played over the internet anyway. I'm thinking it shouldn't be too hard to make a program that will track positions and velocities of ships, and from there allow you turn by turn combat without the hexes and without too much upkeep. It remains to be seen if I can get that sort of a program running, so in the meantime I plot other things out.

So lets bring all this back to my original question; is my game overly complicated? Possibly. Adding complication to games makes them more interesting; Axis and Allies having varied unit types versus the undifferentiated masses of infantry from risk makes the former a better game. But too much complication lowers the interest level any of your players will have in a game. Seeing as I'm intentionally looking towards a chess by mail level of though to be put in to each individual turn, it's arguable that I've already gleefully skipped over that event horizon.

Hardcore Plundering

So, I finished Fallout: New Vegas last night.

"Finished" in that I made it all the way through the main plot line. Still a number of places I want to explore, and definitely a number of other factions I want to align with, if only in future games. For my first play through, I did it entirely in hardcore.

Hardcore means a couple of things:
Ammunition has weight
you have to watch your hunger, thirst and sleep deprivation
it's harder to heal damage to your limbs
You get a reward at the very end for playing it through strictly this way.

I have strong views on looting. When I first got my hands on Fallout III I swore that I'd loot every single bent tin can in the wasteland. While I didn't meet that objective, I did loot a lot. Quite a lot. That should come as no surprise. But seeing as I've already stated objections to the sort of game that puts too many restrictions on looting, why did I willingly play the game in such a way that I'd be restricting my looting potential? Again, as I tend to object to upkeep in games, why did I play the game with the food/water requirements. Just last post I was complaining about having to refuel spaceships, how is this any different?

The first thing, and why I started playing the game in this manner is that I've got something to prove. I've been obsessed with the Fallout franchise for years. In high school I recall having friends call me up for help on difficult parts of Fallout II. I helped them, even quoting back dialogue options from memory. My brother started playing the game again recently, and sure enough I get a ring "How do you get on to the Westin Ranch?" (you bring proof to First Citizen Lynette of Vault City that the raiders were hired by Bishop, who is in turn acting at the behest of NCR. She sends a message to Westin, which gets you on the ranch.) I'm a pretty hardcore fan of the series, and sometimes you need to show it, by being more hardcore than the game.

Also, when I first heard about the hardcore option in New Vegas, the guy writing the article said that clearly ammo requirements would mean less looting. Sometimes you just gotta prove that guy wrong.

The other thing to note is, the requirements really weren't as onerous as perhaps I would have assumed. In the original Fallout games, ammo had weight. Weightless ammo was really nice when Bethesda introduced it, but I can get along without it. Also, the ammo doesn't weigh much even so. Flamer fuel in the original games weighed two pounds per unit, where in New Vegas it doesn't weigh much at all. Rockets in the previous games were three pounds per, where in this game it's only one and a half. Now, the fact that it weighed something meant I was constantly selling it off, and stashing excess micro fusion cells somewhere I could retrieve them. This leads to some problems, where I'm ambushed by folks in power armor and don't have any energy cells to arm my pulse rifle, but as it turns out plasma bolts to the face still work.

The game still had any number of things which didn't have weight, currency notably. By the end I was carting around 60,000+ bottle caps, two fifty stimpacks and forty super stimpacks, which didn't slow me down one iota. Not that great on the realism, but plenty good for the fun aspects.

The food and drink requirements weren't so onerous precisely because they dovetailed with the looting so well. In this game they scattered various plants across the wasteland which provide fruit or some such that gives you food and water. I loot them because hey, free stuff, I eat them because they have weight and drag me down, and they provide me with a benefit, keeping the starvation at bay. I often carried around Brahmin or Bighorn steaks because of the temporary +1 STR bonus.

Even so, for my next playthrough I'm not playing it hardcore. I did it, I proved that I can, and now I can get back to looting unimpaired. Besides, that bonus wasn't all that thrilling. I got to see the wacky credits.

Heh. Push the button, Frank.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Hydrogen and Hohmann Transfers

On some nights, if you know where to look in the sky, if you're out in the middle of the Atlantic or somewhere the light pollution isn't too bad, you can see a bright flash of color, green then yellow then orange into red. Sometimes it even starts in green or blue before working it's way down the sequence. A negligent poet once described them as nature's fireworks, which is completely wrong, since there's nothing at all natural about them. But the best the rest of us can come up with is "bursts of colored light in the sky which serve a purpose other than simply being pretty", but that completely wrecks the scansion. University English Departments tell us they're working on it.

I've been considering the economic aspects of the Terrible Secret of Space, namely what resources we need and where you get them. It's a thorny problem, and in some ways it can't be broken down into component questions. Especially because any analysis of these questions bears on what number and what type of warships can be produced, and therefor the combat aspects of the game as well.

Let's take an example; Hydrogen. Where do you get hydrogen in the solar system?
Potential sources:
Splitting water
Collecting it from Jupiter
Collecting it from the Sun
Breaking it off of hydrocarbons

Now, we don't want to get too much of it at the bottom of a gravity well; too inefficient. So boosting earth water into orbit for hydrolosis is possible, but we don't want that as the main supply. Rather than get water from Earth's oceans, we could get ice from Europa (smaller gravity well) or the rings of Saturn. We can say there's infrastructure out that far if we need to, but let's take a look at the other options.

Jupiter's atmosphere is largely composed of hydrogen. It should be possible to skim off some of the higher atmosphere. Sort of a reverse gravitational slingshot effect; you lose energy but you fill up your fuel tanks on your way through. You don't have to worry about Jupiter's gravity well either; since you're starting at the top you aren't losing much energy going down and back out again. You could also do this with other gas giants, or even the sun, assuming your shields can stand that close to the sun. In the Mote in God's Eye, the book which I lifted the shields from, a spaceship makes a trip inside a gas giant, so it might be possible. I'm going with awesome, but not economical. If you're not diving into the sun, there might be a way to collect the charged particles of the solar wind, combine them into hydrogen and use that as a fuel source.

The last option, hydrocarbons, is pretty speculative. I mean, it's not that different than boosting water for splitting, if more efficient by mass. But hey, it's possible we'll find hydrocarbons in the sky. There's an assumption that these things are only produced by life forms, but I'm not sure how true that is cosmically. Carbon and hydrogen exist in great abundance in the universe, I should think we'd be surprised if it didn't ever come together otherwise. Then again, I really don't know enough about chemistry to really say much about it. So if all else fails I guess we could Word of God a stellar source of hydrocarbons into the system. A lot of all else would have to fail though.

Let's move on to the other half of the problem for now. There are going to be asteroid miners, there have to be asteroid miners. Presumably they're out there mining metals to send back in to the orbital factories. But how exactly do they ship the materials? Again we have to pay attention to the laws of commerce to make sure this works the way we want it to. Barring the interplanetary transit network, the most energy efficient way to get from one orbit to another is a Hohmann transfer. It has the great advantage of only requiring you to accelerate once at the start and decelerate once at the end, saving immensely on gas.

Hohmann transfers have two problems; one is that it takes a very long time to switch orbits (in college I remember calculating that it took two hundred some days to get from Earth to Mars this way), and the other is that you can only leave at certain times. (Once you got to mars, you'd have to wait the better part of a martian year to return on another Hohmann transfer.) On the first issue, a couple hundred days isn't much of a problem; getting the materials a known number of days from now just requires more planning on the part of the manufacturies in question. Not something we have to concern ourselves with. Er... with which we have to concern ourselves.

Only certain launch dates being allowed gives us a bigger problem. I'd have to figure out where certain asteroids are at each point in the game, work back to the previous hohmann transfer window, and figure from there when Earth will receive it's goods. A lot of calculation, which I'm not particularly eager to do. It gets worse if you realize that I'd have to do the same calculations for materials from any other source in the solar system; the mines of Mercury, for example.

If it was a spaceship moving along these transfers, it'd carry an engine along to do the accelerating. We could lash engines to the rocks, but that adds a lot of difficulty and expense to the mining. It'd be a lot easier if you could set up a cannon in the belt and fire the rocks down with that. But you'd need something to decelerate once you got to Earth orbit. The good news is, we already have an in game system for decelerating large rocks; the Langston field.

Supposing you had a large Langston field generator up in orbit. You've got an asteroid coming in, which needs to be stopped before it can be stripped of it's metals. So you maneuver your asteroid or your shield so that the former strikes the latter. The shield stops the asteroid's momentum, giving off the energy as heat and light. You move the asteroid away from the shield with some sort of tug boat, and you're ready to collect another. Neat as that.

Next question: why do we have only one of these catcher's mitts? Let's say we had fifty two of them, spaced evenly in Earth's orbit around the Sun. The reason why Hohmann transfers have required windows to start them is that you need to connect your orbit with the target planet's orbit, if you get there but the Earth is several months out you've got nowhere to land. But if you're just targeting the orbital path itself, you could launch one off whenever, and get it caught on whatever mitt is available at the time. The orbital factories get dragged around the sun with the Earth, and they'd pass a mitt every week. That means a consistent influx of new raw materials. Best of all, I don't have to calculate a thing.

It gets even better; your Langston field doesn't just catch huge chunks of silicate, it also stops things like radiation. In particular, I'm thinking of the solar wind. The solar wind is a stream of charged particles from the sun, mostly protons and electrons. As long as you have a Langston field in the solar system, it's going to be absorbing these particles. So we invent a scoop, which will swish through the field every so often, combining the charged particles into hydrogen. In addition to the function of asteroid catching, we can use these stations to collect hydrogen to fuel the fusion engines of the orbital factories as they swing past every year.

Even more than that, every warship in the game is going to have one of these field generators on board. If we also equip them with a scoop, we never need to worry about refueling them; they'll subsist off of the gleanings of the solar wind. As someone who's never liked the upkeep of manually refueling spaceships in games, I'm pretty happy about that.

The other consequences of this system are Here's another thought; what about using Langston fields for re-entry? Take a place in Arizona, middle of the desert in case something goes wrong. Put up a number of shields so that a patch of desert acts as a great catcher's mitt. You can drop things from orbit, land them on the shield and collect them from there. It might work for raw materials, but I can't imagine that the deceleration would be very pleasant for persons or manufactured goods.

Also? We now have established the existence of multiple rock throwers in the asteroid belt, which could easily be re purposed as weapons. I'm not at all unhappy with this development.