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.

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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.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist. It’s Conviction, But With Chaff Added Back In

I’d heard plenty of belly-aching about how different Splinter Cell: Conviction was from the previous games. It was. And it’s always a risky endeavour to do something like that, but they nailed it. The series had become so bogged down in pointless chaff that while the core gameplay was a solid stealthier I had to wonder why I bothered since everything they added to the series did nothing to improve it (the exception being spy vs merc, of course.) Enter, Conviction.

Conviction’s crowning achievement was to strip about all the crap. I mean, in previous titles, Double Agent and Chaos Theory, you had a silenced assault rifle, and a silenced pistol. Which meant you had fully 2 different ways to simply head-shot everyone on the level without raising an alarm. Oh? You wanted to do it non-lethally? Perhaps to make it a bit more of a challenge? No problem, you could literally shoot compressed air with enough force to knock guards out. Naturally, you could take everyone down with hand-to-hand (and I think this is what most people did) but that meant: pistol, air-ring, main gun, basically every single gadget… all useless. They even gave you the option of using a lethal knife or just non-lethal takedowns… which of course was a pointless decision.

Double Agent and the knife. Does it actually have a point?

So, Conviction cut through all of that like a laser. You could tear through the level like a thing of nightmares, disappearing dudes packs at a time. If someone stopped to ask, “Huh?” You’d use that as an opening to drop down from above and dispatch him too. Even Conviction struggled to truly make everything count, though. They gave you a wide variety of weapons and each of them could be upgraded with various mods… and the whole exercise was completely and utterly pointless. There was next to no point in ever upgrading your main gun, and all you were interested in was getting more “marks” for your pistol so you could use the awesome “Mark and Execute” better.

So take that minor flaw of Conviction, and amplify it ten-fold. That’s Blacklist. I know why it’s happened: whingers. Those who were turned off Conviction’s focused gameplay because they were long time fans and who knew how to take a middling series and squeeze fun out of it. They didn’t like the idea of tight controls and clean gameplay. Now anyone can have fun! What’s that about?

Case-in-point is the return of the knife. Like most things people whined about, it was an odd thing to request a return. The decision between lethal and non-lethal was always pointless, so Conviction simply took it away. Why not just combine the lethality of the knife into the default hand-to-hand strikes? It was gravy that Sam would throw in brutal point-blank-range pistol shots in his take-downs. Now, in Blacklist, the knife is back, and you can choose lethal or non-lethal. To their credit, they’ve tried to add a reason to use it. There are three ways get through a level: Ghost (non-lethal), Panther (lethal), Assault (You might as well play Gears of War.) There is a little bit of subtlety to each of the modes – for example Panther gives you bonus points for using Mark and Execute on as many people at a time as possible, whereas Ghost gives you bonus points for each guard that was completely undisturbed in a zone. It doesn’t quite work, though, because as a Panther I like killing guys, but if I have no need to kill them, shouldn’t I get a little bit of a kick-back for that? No? I guess our ideas of sneaking into an area (lethally) are different.

Blacklist is for the most part still Conviction, it’s just a shame they didn’t improve on what made it so good, and instead opted to add as much chaff back in as possible (except, of course, spy vs merc which was never chaff.) Now you have tens of gadgets, which alternate between utterly useless (tear gas) and the completely game-breaking (tri-rotor.) The whole game has some real balance issues, actually. Now you can Mark and Execute just as well with any weapon as your pistol. Say hello to Mark and Execute from across the map with a silenced sniper rifle.

To slow down your marks and executions “special” guards have been added in. Guys with helmets, for example. They can present an interesting challenge since a Mark and Execute that includes them will only make them angry – but include a co-op ally and now you can double tap him. Oh, except, the best sniper rifle (which you can get in the first 25% of the game) can just shoot through their helmet. Yay.

You can still have a lot of fun by exercising a bit of self-control, though. (Similarly to Double Agent, I guess.) The co-op is just as much fun as it was in Conviction (although the story only gets interesting when it references Conviction) and it is worked into the single-player campaign quite cleverly. They also present 4 different co-op pseudo-campaigns: once again, Ghost, Panther, Assault, and this time also a story campaign that you’re not obligated to do in any particular style. Poor balance rears its head again, though: I usually complete the Ghost missions by just killing everyone. Since it’s supposed to be done “ghostly” there are less obstacles in your way and so it’s incredibly easy. Furthermore, you’re usually supposed to be sneaking in and bugging somewhere without them knowing… you’d think leaving a trail of bodies would be a giveaway,  but nope. If you restrict your weapons, play the missions as they’re probably designed (rather than what is most effective) it works OK. It’s silly you have to self-censor yourself though.

A lot could be said about Sam’s changed voice, too, but ultimately it’s not why you play so I won’t go on about it. The story-line is about on par with previous entries, but Sam’s voice is so bland it carries absolutely no weight. I cannot remember much of what happened in the previous entries – except Sam’s personal developments; I attribute this to Michael Ironsides superb voice acting. Compared to any other game voice actor out there, the new Sam does fine. Compared to Michael Ironsides it’s barely tolerable. If they were to change the actor for the next Splinter Cell, I doubt anyone would even notice, he is so bland.

From everything I have heard, the new Spies vs Mercenaries mode is excellent. I know that played with and against friends I had a ball with the original games’ versus offering. I’m a little afraid to dip into this one though because experience counts for so much – knowing the map layout and map tricks, for example. I should try it out, but at the moment all I can tell you is that I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

If you’re hankering for more Conviction action, like I was, I’d recommend grabbing Blacklist now. It’s fun, and still has much of what made Conviction great. If you’re pining for the good old Double Agent days, and hated Conviction, I’d steer clear (and therein is the irony, since Conviction’s style has been comprised to appease the haters, and it will not help to bring any in.) If you liked Conviction, but aren’t willing to put up with objectively worse gameplay, then wait until it’s on special. It’s worth checking it out, but few of us are used to paying full $70-$90 for a game nowadays, and it’s hard to recommend Blacklist at that price.

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.