Last Day Steam Summer Sale

It’s the last day of the Steam Summer Sale, so if there were any deals they’re back and this is your last chance. Here is a list of games that are on special, and if you don’t own them yet – SHAME ON YOU.

(all prices are AUD. Click to jump to Steam.)

Tomb Raider – this was an amazingly good game, now only $5

The Stick of Truth – It lived up to the hype, now $37

XCOM: Enemy Unknown – One of the greatest games ever made for $13. Steam is crazy.

Civ V – the crowning jewel of the Civ series… and that’s saying a lot. $13.50

State of Decay – An amazingly fun, and unique, take a zombie apocalypse. It is a bit rough here and there, but for $5 it’s a bargin.

Banished – An extremely fun and challenging city builder. Nothing like starving a fledging village of outcasts during the winter! $10

Payday 2 – I’ve been getting a LOT of mileage out of this game. Get a crew together for an fantastic co-op experience that has great theme, depth, and RPG-like elements. You’ll get many hrs for your $6

Stanley Parable – I’m not going to try and explain this one… but for $6 you really should try it to see what all the fuss is about.

Batman: Arkham Origins – It was missing a little something-something from the other Arkham games, but it was still worth sinking 22 hrs into. $7.50

Dragon Age: Origins – A good RPG, you’ve probably heard of it. I go against the grain and claim the second was better. I mostly suggest this one now, because the upcoming Inquisitions is looking really good so for $7.50 you could catch up on the “story so far.”

Wolfenstein: The New Order – Just a straight up fun FPS. Captured “Wolfenstein with modern computing technology” really well. A-grade fun here, boys! $40 (expensive, I know, but that IS 50% off.)

Portal 2 – Who would have thought they could improve on the original? Well they did! Play it now. With a friend is a good option too. $5

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare – a standard multiplayer FPS with a easy-to-use-hard-to-master melee system. Plenty of fun to be had here for $5.

Space…The New Frontier

I just finished a fairly epic Sunday evening of board games. We played fair bit of Dominion, Resistance: Avalon, and the my new Space Alert expansion: The New Frontier.

Also, one of the new additions to the group brought along Cards Against Humanity which I think deserves its own post.

You may remember I referred to Space Alert as the greatest co-op game ever, because it avoids Game By Committee.

This was the first time we’d cracked out the Space Alert expansion. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, and one of the reasons for that is that a lot of the expansion seems to include ways of making the game harder. This is pretty common for co-op games. I find it is also pretty common for us to not require any further difficulty! We were only succeeding at about 50% of our games anyway. If we played a couple sessions back-to-back we might get smooth enough to mix in a couple “yellow-difficulty” cards, but a whole new “red” difficulty? Are you crazy?

The expansion also includes an entire new deck of action cards. So-called “double-action” cards they allow for, theoretically, twice as many actions but the way they are designed it would be quite challenging to use them efficiently. To compensate for (theoretically!) twice as many actions the expansion includes a slew of harder mission tracks. Red difficulty. Harder sound tracks. I’m really not convinced we’ll ever use them.

So there’s a couple things added to the expansion I’m sure say, a dorm-full of college students, will use but not really our group. Fortunately for us, though, there is some quite fun additions that both the uni-bums and hard-working-average Joe can utilise.

Previously there was a mission log which you could scribble in if you wanted to. We did – mostly to track our best score. We’d also go to the effort of writing down the crew. If we got the same crew together, we’d try and dig up their log and add to it. If we got the same crew together. That never happened as far as I know.

The expansion fixes this all quite nicely. Now everyone gets a character sheet, and they can track their individual missions on that sheet. But it’s more than just a score-card, with the expansion this is a whole new experience system including a class-like specialisations.

So you and your crew successfully complete a mission (yay!) Then you add up the points, convert that to experience, and voilà, after a success or two you level up. When you level up you get to pick the first rank of a specialisation. There are 10 specialisations to choose from each with three ranks (novice, advanced, expert.) So you can, eventually, get several expert specialisations under your belt. This system replaced the heroic action cards which were, by comparison, pretty bland. You pick one of the specialisations you have ranks in at the start of the game and take a card corresponding with that specialisation (for example, the data analyst gets a card that lets them use the main computer from any room on the ship.) As mentioned, this card replaces the heroic action card from the base. Before you get any ranks, you’re unarguably going to be weaker than with the base game. However with a rank in a specialisation you should be about the same strength, and when you get to advanced and expert levels (with which you can choose better cards) you become more effective.

Combined with this whole system is a massive achievement system. This is exactly what it sounds like and clearly borrowed from computer games. Basically after you finish a mission you refer to the achievement sheet and see if you completed any – typically you’ll complete at least one, and the bonus experience this grants gets you across level. (Well, at least at first. The levels get harder to reach the high you go.) The fun thing about these achievements are that Rio Grande have included quite a few that a computer could never cover. For example, an achievement wherein three or your crew members agree you used your specialisation in a particularly great way (open to abuse, maybe, but you’re only cheating yourself!)

Over the Christmas break I’ll be camping out with a couple friends. I expect to give this expansion a thorough workout.

Mage Knight Expansion: The Lost Legion

As I said before, I had my Xmas a little early this year (as my family does every year.) One of my presents was the Mage Knight expansion: Lost Legion.

Now, Mage Knight is an ingenious game. It is challenging, flexible, thematically rich and its mechanics are, for the most part, pretty intuitive. So what can an expansion bring to the table?

Basically, more of the same. This isn’t a bad thing when you’re already on to a winner. A new Mage Knight to pick, a handful of new spells, actions and some new enemies make up the bulk of the meaty stuff. They also took the opportunity to tweak the rules but when you read the changes it’s a bit like reading a video game’s changelog when it says: “Increased the wizard’s damage output by 0.02% over 3 seconds, and reduced the cooldown on the fighter’s shield bash by 0.1.” Honestly, if you were noticing these figures you’re clearly autistic.

From here on out, if you aren’t actually familiar with the base Mage Knight game, it might all go a little over your head.

So: New enemies, and a new Mage Knight. Great. There is of course the titular Lost Legion. The Legion is utilised in a couple new scenarios that have one incredibly strong army. A bit like combining several cities together at once. Added to that, they have a simple AI and march around the map revealing tiles and looking for the one city in the scenario. Once found, your objective is to get to the city first, assault it, then defend your new city against the legion.

I like it. A lot. I like it a lot more than finding and assault cities, but it certainly hasn’t improved Mage Knight’s only remaining problems and it’s not perfect.

My only game of it so far went a little like this:
We moved and explored, and avoided the legion (hereafter called “Volkare” since that is their leader’s name and the figure represents him.) At one point Volkare found and attacked me putting three wounds in my hand. Not great, but bearable. As the game wound down – some 6 hours later – I started to wonder if we were anywhere near strong enough to fight Volkare’s army. It was truely massive and we’d played on one of the easiest difficulties.

He had 2 white, 2 draconum, 6 green, and about 3 or 4 greys. When assaulting a big city, you might fight 1/3rd that and it is incredibly tough! I’d realised that by this point in the game we should have been somewhere between level 7 and 10, and we were actually level 5. The problem seemed to me that the scenario had too many country-side tiles which don’t grant enough experience.

My fears never came to fruition, though. We got down to the last tile. We knew it was the city. We decided that we had better use Space Bending exclusively to explore a tile so we would find the city near us and Volkare wouldn’t find it before us.

Unfortunately, despite picking quite high tactics, Volkare pulled the #1 round position, went first, pulled the exact card needed to move and revealed the last tile. This put him adjacent to the city and us on the other side of the map. He moved in next turn and it was game over.

On one hand, I was sort of relieved. The game had been going for 6 hours (barring a break for food) and probably would have taken another 1.5hrs to finish off if we’d revealed the city.

This brings me to Mage Knight’s problems. Gee it takes a long time. I saw a forum post on Boardgamegeek of someone exclaiming that Lost Legion took 5 – yes 5 – hours. I shrugged and thought to myself: “Our typical Mage Knight games take 8…” I’m sure we could speed them up a little, but I don’t see any way to shave 4 hours off to make it more acceptable. We love the game though, so we just set aside a day to play it. It doesn’t get played as much as it should, though (who has a day free to spend on a game?)

This could be a result of not quite being able to juggle all the rules – which is Mage Knight’s other major problem. The rule books are horrendous. Their structure is only passable as a first read-through. Trying to later refer to rules is pointless. They’re often in the totally wrong section. For example:
The game has turns and rounds. You have several turns to 1 round. I wanted to know the sequence of actions required to end a round. You might think there’d be a section on “rounds” that outlines the structure of a round and what to do when one ends. Nope.

You might think because the end-of-round is the last thing that happens (before we start from the top and do it all again) that it’d be at the end of the rules – just prior to special scenarios and appendices. Nope. Do you want to know where it is? I have no idea. I just went to look so I could tell you and I seriously couldn’t find it.

The thing is: I know what to do at the end of round, because I read it somewhere. The rules are really quite intuitive, so the rules are easy to remember, but if you need to know some niggly detail – do you put the spells at the bottom of the pile, or discard them when refreshing the offer? – good luck finding it.

Alas, Lost Legion followed the exact same pattern for rules structure. I had got all the Mage Knight rules down so I didn’t have to refer to the book any more… with Lost Legion I had to refer to it a couple times and woe betide the poor soul that dives into those books seeking answers.

Games for a Girlfriend

My girlfriend doesn’t play games. Neither the video nor board variety. I’m always trying to get her to join me, though, and I have the occasional success, but not too often. Well, for my birthday one of her presents to me was to play any game I wanted. Moo ha ha!

I went easy on her. There are my current-favourite games, of course (Wargame Airland Battle at the time of writing, and I’m also playing a lot of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, although I hesitate to call it a “favourite.”) but they wouldn’t suit her personality so they wouldn’t be a good idea in any case.

A casual game, like BeJeweled, could garner a passing interest, but it’s not really what I’m looking for anyway. I once thought maybe “artsy” games (such as Flower or Journey, both by Thatgamecompany) would be a good gateway to full-time gaming, but actually she tends to find them boring.

So! I needed games that were simple, quick to pick up, but fun and exciting.

First up I chose Ikugara.

Such a classic. I described it to her as “pew pew pew.” “Let’s play Pew Pew Pew,” I’d say. We lasted until the first main boss. It ticks all the right boxes, and it even has the advantage of having quite a lot of depth to it if it happens to sink its claws in. So, while fun, it didn’t quite last.

Next I suggested “chop chop chop!” Which you might know as Castle Crashers.

This is a game I hadn’t even heard of until it hit Steam (massively discounted of course) recently. Have I mentioned that I don’t play consoles much? I don’t, but that’s a post for another time. Well, this game was fun. We chopped, and we chopped some more, until eventually we had to fight over the red princess. It reminded me very much of Double Dragon – ah, the good old days.

It was simple, fun and had just the right level of humour but our fingers got sore. I can see the appeal: that’s a fun little co-op game.

Well, what now? I had time for one more, I figured, and I had a game I thought she’d actually like if she gave it a chance and today… she couldn’t say no.

So I fired up Civilization V.

The real beauty behind Civ is that its depth and complexity is hidden behind a simple, streamlined interface. Basically all you have to do is click the messages that pop up on the right-hand side and make a choice – and at the easier difficulties you can’t even make a mistake. You just pick whatever appeals. Do you research Pottery, or Writing? What does your little tribe of people believe in? Do you build an archer or a monument? This is something she approves of too – she doesn’t play games to be challenged, like me, but to build things for the most part. A quick, easy, game of Civ is just right.

So we played that for a while – well, she did, but I helped. This was the biggest success I think, and although eventually she declared she was bored, she did concede that I “could save the game… if I wanted.”

If she does come back to it, she has a lot of stuff Civ can slowly reveal (something else it’s good at) and if she gets into it, the multiplayer is top notch too. I could see us having quite a bit of fun with it and in particular its latest expansion, which is getting rave reviews.

Wish me luck!

Why Co-Op Board Games Are The Devil

I have been having a discussion on Google+ today about why “Paul” doesn’t like co-op board games. I think one of his points is totally off-base, and his second point is totally understated.

Let’s start with the positives first.

Co-op board games are generally ingenious. Their mechanics are tight, and the balance (usually automatically scaling to the number of players) spot on. They’re the sort of cleverness I never would have imagined in the board game arena just 3 or 4 years ago. Now they’re everywhere.

For those of you that haven’t really played a serious co-op board game before let me briefly outline them for you:
You and a group of friends will be working together to beat the game itself. Maybe you’re trying to wipe out a virus that is teetering on the edge of a pandemic and is threatening to wipe out humanity.

Basically a turn goes like this: You move your guy. You do an action to try and help the team a little. Then you draw a card from a deck that is nearly always terrible for you and your ilk.
The whole point of the experience is to overcome these challenges. You must prepare for, and mitigate, the bad stuff that you will inevitably draw from the deck of terrors. It’s strategy at its core, and is usually so finely balanced that no matter the number of players you have to do everything just right or humanity is doomed. They often end in nail-biting finishers where this one move will determine the fate of the game.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes, they’re clever and can be fun. But they suffer a fatal flaw.

The flaw comes in two flavours: Play By Committee and Field Commander.

They’re two sides to the same coin, however. If you’ve not played a co-op game you probably just won’t really understand the problem. It goes something like this:

There is no room for error. So everyone discusses each facet – starting with the character selection. Something like: “Well, you go this guy, and I’ll go that guy and then we’ll also need another guy and for our first turn you do this, I’ll do that…”  It’s not that bad on the face of it. Everyone is typically involved, and options are discussed and strategies developed. The problem is — why am this guy? I don’t really control him, except to move him and to declare that,  yes, I will do the action we all agreed on a few minutes ago. Really – other than a bit of brainstorming – there is absolutely no reason it couldn’t just be one person playing with 6 characters, rather than 6 persons playing with one character each.

This leads me to the Field Commander. You see, it’s even worse when it’s not even a committee. One player – one who has a lot of experience, or looked up strategies, or what have-you – directs everyone on what they should do. Strategically, it actually makes a lot of sense. Everyone is on the same page as “we” all “work together” towards a common goal. So, in many ways, it’s the best way to win… but why I am even playing? Why not just let the Field Commander play with 6 characters? In these sorts of games you could literally get up and walk away, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

The one saving grace of a co-op board game is that they can be pretty fun the first couple times you play. These problems really only rear their head after you start to learn the mechanics. Once you start to learn the odds of drawing cards, or work out some optimal strategies for various situations. Once you start getting to that point (in my experience after about 3 games) then everyone starts to agree on tactics and strategies and then the committee quickly and naturally forms. (Or if one person is perhaps more strategically-minded than the other players, the field commander comes out.) Prior to this point people tend to do their own thing a bit. No-one knows the game well enough to make suggestions and most of the time all anyone can recall is their own character’s abilities. So it’s up to each individual to step up and help out. It really doesn’t take long to get past this point though.

So I can be talked into playing a new co-op game a few times (especially if no-one is experienced with it) but I won’t be buying any more.

The one exception to this rule (that I have so-far found) is Space Alert. I’ll cover why in a later post.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Coop is the Way to Go

Splinter Cell really turned a corner with multiplayer. It was Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory that introduced it in its infant form, and it was really pretty good. As with all the games since Chaos Theory the single player portion of the game has been decent, but I’ve enjoyed the multiplayer more. In the early days the co-op was limited and the VS was a little bit ahead of its time. I mean – a shooter where one side isn’t even in first-person? Where the sides are totally disparate? This is in the days of Counter Strike, mind you, so such things were a tough sell. Combined with no match making (or what match making existed was painful to use cough gamespy cough) there were a few diehards you could match up with, but not many. I got my friends to play it a few times but never for long. I, however, luurrrvvved it.

When they overhauled the gameplay, feel, and design with Splinter Cell: Conviction the new flow and speed really lent well to multiplayer. It was a great shame to lose the “spies vs mercenaries” but I found there was plenty of action there to keep me busy without it. The main reason for that was because co-op is cool.

Whereas in previous iterations the co-op was more tacked on and the VS mode was the primary focus Conviction polished the co-op portions nicely. It took quite a while for that to grow stale. Once again, the single player portion was fine, but it was the co-op that sold it. It looks like Blacklist is going the same route and that’s just fine by me.

In fact, my biggest concern with Blacklist is Ubisoft caving in to the complainers that railed against Conviction‘s new design.

The original Splinter Cell games succeeded due to a lot of things that were done well: The interesting main character; great technical achievements with regard to graphics; great environmental graphics and design; well-captured “Tom Clancy” theme; excellent animations and voice acting.

The areas where it was actually weak, was the gameplay. It was welded to an already-outdated idea of what a stealth game should be and to try and spruce things up it then fell into a puddle of feature creep. I mean, the first game already suffered from feature creep so you can imagine how things looked by the 3rd.

A typical, old-school, Splinter Cell game gave you a silenced pistol, a silenced assault rifle, a knife, and the ability to knock people out. So 4 different ways to stealthily remove someone – not counting a wide variety of gadgets that could do it as well (such as a sticky camera that could blow knock-out gas in a passerby’s face.) What was the point? Obviously the easiest thing to do was just to sneak up to within 20m of the victim, and shoot them in the head. If you wanted the extra challenge, perhaps you’d want to use melee… but what is the point of lethal vs non-lethal? There was essentially no point. If you’re running around knocking people off with melee attacks and decide to break your rule and shoot someone … well, you’re not non-lethal now so you might as well shoot everyone. Yes, still silently – you don’t want to get into a gun fight after all – but still you might as well just pluck people off with your guns.

So rather than having a tool for every job, you instead had 1 useful tool and a huge collection of crap that never got used. Depending on whether you wanted to feel like an assassin (pistol only, knife, fists, etc. all useless) a ninja (knife only, all other items useless) an  honorable ninja (non-lethal strikes only, all other items useless) or a soldier (super-rifle and attachments heavily used, silent moves, knife, etc, all useless) you’d have 1 item or move you’d use, and everything else was just pointless fluff. They gave you the ability to hang from pipes, split-jump, half-split-jump, shoot while upside down – you name it – and it was all useless because the only reliable way to silently remove everyone non-lethally (the way I believe most players would want to play through the game) was to walk up behind them slowly and take them down.

Now look at Conviction. All the crap stripped away. I’ve literally seen people complain that you can no longer get through levels non-lethally. If you melee someone now, it’s silent and combines using your pistol a lot of the time. Wham! Bam! Pew in the head! It’s impressive to behold and really makes you feel like a modern-day spy. Then they go one step further and grant you an awesome game-play benefit: You could then mark and execute an entire room of guys in one smooth animation as a reward.


Pew! Pew! Pew! Pew! Room cleared. In what way does non-lethal take-downs make sense or fit into this picture? What does it matter? The only point to non-lethal was for the challenge, and it made exactly zero difference whether you used a knife or an elbow. Now, they simply remove the elbow. Bam. Fantastic.

The prior Splinter Cell games typically boiled down to leaning against a wall and watching a dude patrol. Around, and around. Until you find a window of opportunity where you can sneak up behind him and dispatch him. Compare that to Conviction … sure, there is a little bit of that but your “window” is usually just everyone looking away from you so you can sprint (silently) up to way guy, take him down, mark up everyone else and send them to permanent sleepy-town in a matter of seconds. Very lethal. Very cool. Very much what Splinter Cell should have been from the start.

So what’s this I hear of Blacklist bringing old moves back? They better have a point. They better not be feature creep.

I’m sure I’ll play through the co-op though. Conviction was good enough to justify just playing through a new campaign with the exact same mechanics. If they’ve actually improved the co-op experience (and it looks like they have) then I’ll be there with bells on.