Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 28, 2024
From Gloomhaven to Agemonia

Gloomhaven was released in 2017 and dominated the Board Game Geek game charts for several years. It also was for years one of biggest and heaviest games, in a huge box of over 10 kg. What the original Gloomhaven didn't have was any help in storing the various tiles and tokens. As I bought the game years later, I ended up buying a special made insert consisting of several levels of token trays. But even with that, Gloomhaven is extremely annoying to set up. For every scenario you need to find the right room tiles, and put the right furniture, traps, doors, treasures, and monsters on it. Due to there being so many tokens, setup before the game and storing after the game takes a significant amount of time.

The 2020 version Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is already much better. Yes, it has fewer scenarios, fewer different monsters, fewer characters. But there being less stuff, and the scenarios being printed in a book instead of having to be assembled with tiles and tokens makes Jaws of the Lion a lot faster to set up. And the gameplay, once you are past the tutorial scenarios (which the original was lacking), is identical to the big box game. Jaws of the Lion also comes with a big plastic insert in the box, a plastic tray, and a stack of plastic bags. You can sort all of the components into the provided trays and bags, and have a much easier time storing the game, and finding everything back for the next session.

Today I am unpacking Agemonia, a Kickstarter game delivered this year. Not really related with Gloomhaven, but it is another scenario-driven campaign game that comes in a box which is even bigger and heavier than the Gloomhaven box. But this box contains 15 plastic trays and two cardboard boxes with inserts. While it will take me a good amount of time to punch out all the tokens and sort them into their respective trays, there is a helpful flyer showing exactly which token goes where. The trays are designed to both enable me to store all the parts easily in the box, and to provide easy access to all necessary tokens during gameplay. Each player even gets a separate tray for his hero, and all the cards and tokens for that hero, which makes character setup very easy and fast.

I paid nearly $150 for Agemonia, including shipping, and if you bought it today, it would cost $200. Today the big box of Gloomhaven with shipping is also around $150. And I must say that these days I wouldn't buy a big box game like this if it *didn't* come with a built-in storage solution. I can understand that $30 - $50 retail games at best have plastic bags included (and I frequently end up buying plastic trays for these games for storage). But for the big and expensive games, storage trays are more important to me than miniatures are.


Monday, May 27, 2024
Being loaded and stingy

The Economist has an article titled: Baby-boomers are loaded. Why are they so stingy? I have trouble believing that this was written by an economist. To me, there is just a simple confusion between cause and effect. Turn the phrase around, and you get "Baby-boomers are stingy. Why are they so loaded?". And the answer to that one should be obvious: The less money you spend over your lifetime, the more money you will have accumulated when you are old.

As the baby-boomer generation is the one born just after the war, we need to consider two things here: The parents of the baby-boomers lived through a war, and educated their children accordingly. And when the baby-boomers were young, and were forming their habits, many of today's luxuries weren't as common as today. Baby-boomer as young people did a lot less air travel than young people today, and they didn't get the latest iPhone every 2 years. Those things simply weren't invented yet, or were unaffordable to the general populace. Everyday life is a lot more luxurious in 2024 than it was in the 1970's, in terms of material possessions and things like entertainment possibilities. Baby-boomers had books, not Facebooks. On the other hand, house prices were at a lower multiple of average earnings. I don't think that baby-boomers are fundamentally different from other generations, they just grew up under different circumstances, and formed different habits as a result of those.

There also isn't a problem with the generation "dying rich". Macro-economically it doesn't make a big difference whether some pensioner is spending all his money, or leaves it to children who then spend it. What makes a difference is how within a generation the wealth is distributed. While there are definitively poor baby-boomers, the social and employment situation in the years where the baby-boomers were earning was less unequal than today. The wealth of the baby-boomer generation is better distributed than that of later generations. While the average millennial has less wealth at the age of 35 than previous generations, the top 10% of millennials have 20% more wealth than the top baby boomers at the same age. Graphs showing aggregate wealth of whole generations are misleading, as obviously both the number of people in each generation isn't the same, and age isn't the same. There is nothing surprising in somebody just around retirement age having more wealth after decades of work than somebody who just started earning. Millenials will be the richest generation in 2050, because the baby-boomers will be dead, and the younger generations won't have had the time to accumulate wealth.

I sometimes get the impression that there is an intentional effort to foster inter-generational economic jealousy in order to create a smoke and mirrors screen shielding us from the real problem. The real problem is economic inequality, and a diminishing part of the wealth created by capitalism going to the people who worked to create that wealth, while an increasing part is going to investors. Passive income is taxed lower than income from work, and wages haven't kept up with the growth of the economy. Higher minimum wages and higher taxes on dividends and capital gains would be the easiest solution. And that would also somewhat equalize the wealth between generations.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

I am 40 hours of real time into Crusader Kings III, or 170 years in-game time. And I am now on my 7th ruler, with a not unusual generation length of around 25 years. If I play the full six centuries from 867 to 1453, I'll have played over 20 different rulers. Succession, and the way the game handles inheritance, is a major shock to whatever domain you are trying to build.

In CK3, you can't choose freely who of your children in inheriting what. You are bound by succession laws, which at the start of the game means your domain is going to be more or less evenly divided between all of your sons. But you, as the player, obviously play only one of your sons. Which means that if you build up your first ruler from a single county to three counties over your lifetime, but you also have three sons, you are back to a single county on inheritance.

My plan in CK3 was to expand to the duchy level, and then play through the centuries with a single duchy. Succession makes that extremely difficult. Holding a duchy and just a single county in it means you are very weak, and a preferred target for outside aggression. But to give all the counties in your duchy to your heir, you need to play expansionist and conquer enough surrounding counties to give to your other sons. That is probably by design: The devs want to push you into expansionist wars, even if you just want to preserve the status quo, in order to make the game more lively and interesting.

Crusader Kings III also has other possible succession laws. These are gated behind cultural innovations, and those are linked to years. You can't get primogeniture before the late middle ages, after the year 1200, more than half way through the game. As a result, there are a lot of players who regularly engage in murder schemes against their own sons, in order to keep succession manageable. That is obviously neither nice, nor very historical.

Fortunately CK3 is also relatively easy to modify. I just used a "console command", aka cheat, to give my culture the innovation needed for "high partition", so while all sons still inherit, the main heir gets the lion's share. But I also noticed that there are a bunch of very popular mods in the Steam workshop that make different succession laws available a lot earlier than in the standard game. The standard succession laws force you into a certain playstyle, and while that style might be fun for many people, it isn't necessarily for everyone.

Thursday, May 23, 2024
Human dignity is inviolable

Today Germany celebrates the 75th anniversary of their post-war constitution, which starts with the words "Die W├╝rde des Menschen ist unantastbar", human dignity is inviolable. This preamble is a statement to reject the Nazi concept of "Untermenschen", labeling certain groups as sub-human, and then arguing that somebody sub-human doesn't deserve the same dignity, human rights, and consideration as others. The Nazis picked up that concept from the Ku Klux Klan.

Today obviously all political orientations mostly avoid using Nazi terminology. That doesn't mean that the concept of the sub-human is gone. They were the basis for the Jim Crow laws in the USA, with the same argument that a group of people was sub-human and shouldn't have full voting rights; that only ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many from the right still use terms like "illegal immigrants" to argue that this group doesn't deserve the full benefits of human rights and dignity.

Unfortunately the concept has also jumped over to the left. These days, leftist attacks consider it sufficient to label somebody as racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe, or collectively a basket of deplorables. For them it automatically follows that the persons or group of persons labeled that way automatically don't have human dignity and don't deserve to be treated like humans. Rights like free speech are only accorded to the people who agree with the left, while those that don't are sub-human and "shouldn't be given a platform" to speak.

When each political side considers the other as sub-human, meaningful democratic engagement fails. If Trump gets elected, which looks increasingly likely, in spite of "being a racist", the conclusion will be that half of America is racist too and just elected a president to represent them. Such simplistic thinking isn't helpful at all, and contrary to the data which show an increasing number of minorities voting Republican. In reality the reasons to vote for one candidate over the other are complex and vary a lot, with issues like inflation being a lot more important than race questions for the large majority of voters.

My proposal would be that we all consider human dignity to be inviolable, even that of our enemies. Whatever word you use to label another human, it simply doesn't follow that he has diminished human rights. Illegals, racists, libtards, transphobes, communists, fascists, wokes, they all have the same human dignity, and labeling somebody as such does not constitute an argument to diminish that person's rights. There are no sub-humans, no Untermenschen. Throwing around labels as insults doesn't suffice as politics, you still need to show that your political side would do a better job to get people to vote for you.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Overpriced for the purpose

Some years ago I bought a third generation iPad Pro 12.9 inch. I am still using this device every day. With the 7th generation of iPad Pros having been recently announced, I was asking myself whether I needed an upgrade. And then I realized that I had stopped some time ago to play games on my iPad: Between deliberately misleading advertising, gameplay constantly disrupted by advertising or excessive monetization, and thousands of games that are all playing the same, I simply found it impossible to find good games on the iPad. I am using my iPad to watch YouTube and Twitch, or to access my mail or surf the internet. I really don't need a $1500 device for that purpose. I could buy an Android tablet of the same size for a fraction of the price of an iPad Pro, and the performance for the applications I'm using would be the same.

The few games I played on the iPad that actually needed the power were ports of PC games. Which still play better on a PC. Especially the genres of games that I am playing are usually better with either mouse and keyboard, or gamepad, rather than with touch screen.

Do any of you play any good games on an iOS device that you couldn't play on another platform?

Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Playing alone together, board game version

Many years ago I cited on this a scientific paper about playing "alone together", by Nick Yee from Stanford et al., which was studying the social interaction of people playing World of Warcraft, and discovered that most people were just soloing. WoW is massively multiplayer, but often this is just a large number of people playing solo parallel to each other, with little or no interaction. With "playing alone together" having become a meme about MMORPGs, I automatically thought of the expression when I experienced a number of recent board games this year.

One example is Wyrmspan, aka "Wingspan with dragons". While it changed and arguably improved on some of Wingspan game mechanics, it also removed much of the already sparse player interaction. It is still possible to be affected by the player before you taking the card you wanted, but other interactions, like the food dice or effects that trigger when another player does something, are gone.

Today I played an even more extreme example, Imperial Miners. There is absolutely zero interaction between players. Playing the game alone is exactly the same experience as playing it with up to 5 players, and all players can do their turns simultaneously and in parallel without needing to watch the others. There is zero competition for resources, and zero player interaction.

The board games with "tableau building" / "engine building" game mechanics are the ones that most often fall into this trap. As the players are engaged in solving the puzzle of how to put the different pieces together into an optimized engine, they might not even enjoy a player interaction that messes up their puzzle. Alone together board games thus provide a third option, besides competitive and cooperative games.

I still think this evolution isn't great. I can always play certain board games solo, and I am playing most computer games solo. If I make the extra effort it takes to get several people around a table to play something, I very much would like to interact with these people through the game we are playing.


Monday, May 20, 2024
AI stories as a lense on society and true value

It has become impossible to open a news source without coming across some story about Artificial Intelligence. AI is making progress or being proposed as a solution for all sorts of human activity. There are people who are in favor of AI, and often would like to make money with it, and others who think that AI will bring some sort of doom on humanity. My personal approach is very different: I believe that all these stories about AI shine a light on our society, and might reveal what about it is phony, and what has true value.

While AI is great at imitating humans, it isn't capable of actual critical thinking or creativity. That for me poses a rather fundamental question: If what you are doing can be replaced by AI, then how creative or intelligent was that activity in the first place? A typical example is content creation on the internet, where the prevailing thought for years was things like search engine optimization, or optimizing your content for some other algorithm, e.g. on YouTube. Surprise, surprise, an AI is in itself an algorithm, and understands how other algorithms work better than most humans do. If I would set up my blog to post an optimized article written by AI daily, my viewer numbers would go up, even if the interest to actual readers would probably go down. I am blogging to have a space to express my personal thoughts, so I am not interested in maximizing viewer numbers. But a content creator who is just after the money might very well be already a slave to some algorithm, and might be better off if he switches to AI.

I believe that interaction with an AI can at best be a mediocre experience, inferior to true human interaction. But what about human interactions that have been turned so toxic, that a mediocre and meaningless interaction with an AI is actually preferable? Dating app Bumble recently suggested that AI could date "hundreds" for you. The sad reality of dating apps is that they enable a small minority of attractive people to get endless numbers of dates, while more plain people are just fleeced for their money without getting the love the platform promised them. I don't know if there really is "a lid for every pot", but both the plain lid and the plain pot are more likely to "swipe right" on somebody more attractive, and "swipe left" on each other in this system. If AI girlfriends are becoming the next big thing, it tells us something about society, how human to human dating has become too stressful and humiliating to many people, so that an AI girlfriend now appears to be a better option.

The same thing is true for general friendly interaction with other humans: We have turned social media into toxic places filled with rage. If chatbots are the nicer alternative, that tells us more about how worthless a "friend" on social media is than about how meaningful an interaction with an AI friend can actually be. We might have reached, or will soon reach, the point where a chatbot is less likely to encourage you to commit suicide than an actual human. Oh, great! What progress!

In the end the dead internet theory might be less of a conspiracy theory, and more of a glimmer of hope for the future. Maybe humanity would be better off leaving the internet to bots and AI, while concentrating on real life human interaction with true value.

Sunday, May 19, 2024
A pox on both of your houses

While I did buy a couple of DLCs together with Crusader Kings 3, I didn't buy the latest one, Legends of the Dead. Legends of the Dead contains one part about legends, and another about plagues, and has "mostly negative" user reviews on Steam. It seems the legends are too short, and the plagues too annoying, and as the latest DLC didn't get a rebate in the current sale, I decided to skip it. What I hadn't fully realized was that the plagues are actually part of the free update patch that came with Legends of the Dead, and the DLC only expands that feature. So, just quarter of a century into a six century campaign, a minor plague, the smallpox, killed my ruler and half of his family. It also totally messed up the development of my lands.

That made me realize that Crusader Kings 3 has one rather annoying feature: Game settings are permanent for a campaign, and can't be changed without restarting. While there is a setting to reduce the annoyingly high frequency of plagues, I can't change that anymore. And as I didn't want to restart, I opted for a mod instead, which reduces the geographical spread of minor plagues. To me it made sense that "minor" plagues shouldn't cover such large areas. And that should reduce the probability of other minor plagues wiping out half of my house again.

Saturday, May 18, 2024
AI comment spam

My previous post about the economic gameplay of Crusader Kings 3 compared to Victoria 3 received two interesting comments:
Victoria 3 is a masterpiece in grand strategy, brilliantly capturing the economic dynamism of the industrial revolution. The exponential GDP growth and the strategic reinvestment truly reflect the historical wealth accumulation of that era. On the other hand, Crusader Kings 3 offers a fascinating look into a slower, more turbulent period, where economic growth is modest and more reflective of historical realities. The contrast between these two games highlights Paradox's commitment to historical accuracy and diverse gameplay experiences.
Great analysis! I appreciate your deep dive into the economic systems of both Victoria 3 and Crusader Kings 3. Your points about the impact of compound interest and the differences in historical economic growth are spot on. Your strategy to play a non-expansionist count with a "lucky inheritance" sounds like a creative way to enjoy the game on your terms. Thanks for sharing your insights and strategy!
Both then revealed themselves to be actually spam comments, by adding links to some dodgy site. Now my site has received thousands of spam comments over the last two decades. But these two were way more sophisticated than anything I have previously seen. Both paragraphs make it appear as if the commenter has read my post. But I am pretty certain that it wasn't a human being, because that would have been way too much work for a spam comment. Instead, I am pretty certain that both these paragraphs have been written by AI, some typical large language model. This is exactly the level of AI we all have free access to now. The ability to summarize a text in a paragraph is what software like ChatGPT is great at.

Although I have spam filters on my comments (and I do apologize when sometimes legit comments get stuck in that filter and I only see that days later), these sophisticated AI spam comments were undetected by the the filter. To me, the attempt to link to some commercial site was a clear indication that this was in fact spam, but the spam filters apparently are only apt to catch the previous generation of spam, which was a lot more primitive.

AI is already being used to make phishing e-mails look more genuine. And now it apparently has reached comment spam on sites like Blogspot and LinkedIn. O brave new world!

Wednesday, May 15, 2024
The problem of compound interest

The Paradox grand strategy game I have played the most is Victoria 3. Victoria 3 has a strong economic focus, and plays 100 years during the industrial revolution. Typically over the course of a game, your GDP will rise exponentially; whatever you invest early will bring some interest, which you can then reinvest. The miracle of compound interest will make your country rich over a century, which is also historically correct for many countries during this time period.

Crusader Kings 3 plays in a much earlier time period, and spans up to 6 centuries. And while the world generally got richer from 867 to 1453, the historic economic growth was a lot slower than that of the industrial revolution. If CK3 had an economic system in which you could make an investment with a reasonable yield, a player-controlled and optimized economy would become incredibly rich over the centuries. Which would be both unbalancing and not historically correct.

So the devs decided to make the economic system of CK3 incredibly low yield. The best investment opportunity is the first level of building up your castles, churches, and cities, and that brings a yield of only 4%. It takes 25 years to just get your initial investment back. And further levels of investment have much less yield, with the higher levels needing centuries to just break even.

If I offered you an investment opportunity that breaks even in a century, you probably wouldn't be interested. Even in the context of a game, and even if you take a long view, the economic gameplay of Crusader Kings 3 isn't very attractive. And it doesn't take much economic genius to discover that building "wide", that is investing in level I buildings in as many counties as possible, is much better than playing "tall", investing in higher level buildings in few counties. That is a bit of a bummer, because it only reinforces the already existing push towards an expansionist game. Even the tutorial wants you to start with a county in Ireland and end up becoming the ruler of the whole island.

Personally, I am not much interested in an expansionist campaign in CK3. I find the warfare system highly annoying, as the AI is programmed to avoid unfavorable battles, and the game is lacking means to somehow force combat or trap the enemy armies. Thus a war feels a lot like chasing a group of chickens, with lots of running around in all directions, and very little actual combat action. If you want to play Crusader Kings 3 as a 4X game, you'll also run into the problem of succession. In the early to mid-game you simply don't have the technology to leave your kingdom to your eldest son, but instead it is divided up between your children (or just your sons). You have very little control about how many children you'll have, with too few risking your dynasty to die out, and too many risking your lands to be spread between too many people.

So I think I will stick with my plan to play a non-expansionist count. But I will "cheat" to start the game with what I'll roleplay as a lucky large inheritance, giving me the money to build the level I buildings quickly. That won't fix the problem of lack of good investments, but at least it will allow me to play with a slightly higher income than smaller counts usually have. With a lot of possible player actions requiring money, playing somebody very poor would mean not having a lot of things to do.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Paradox Publisher Week

There is a sale of Paradox Interactive games on Steam. And I ended up buying the Crusader Kings 3 starter edition, plus one mini-DLC. The starter edition contains among others the Tours and Tournaments DLC, which is widely considered as the best DLC of the game. And that gets me to the subject of changing attitudes towards Paradox: While the fans these days love Paradox a lot less than they used to, my personal attitude towards their games has improved.

The not totally undeserved general opinion of Paradox these days is that they publish unfinished games and then sell you the parts that would make the game complete as overpriced DLCs. If you would buy Crusader Kings 3 outside of a sale with all DLCs (including announced ones), you'd pay $200. And some of these DLCs, for example the latest Legends of the Dead, have user ratings from mostly negative to overwhelmingly negative. Some of those Steam reviews basically read "I paid $20 to make my game worse".

I played Crusader Kings 3 when it was first released, and thus without DLCs, back in 2020. I had access to it via Game Pass, and some friends played it too, so we did some multiplayer. I could still play it there, but without any DLCs, and I don't know when the game will be leaving Game Pass. Buying the starter edition on Steam with the sale for $40 gives me both permanent access, and some much needed DLCs to flesh out the basic game. Between the patches and the DLCs, I think that Crusader Kings 3 is a better game now. But more importantly, I am looking at Paradox games differently now.

With a history of playing 4X and other strategy games, I had previously approached these Paradox games as strategy games. And as I was still working long hours in a day job back then, I needed games that provided fast fun. In hindsight, none of the core Paradox games (Victoria, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis) are really suited for that. While Age of Wonders 4, of which I have nearly 400 hours played, was a better fit for me, it was developed by Triumph Studios, and is only published by Paradox. After my retirement my approach to Paradox games changed. I now see them more as a sort of role-playing or life simulation game, except that you play as a country or dynasty.

Thus I am planning to play CK3 by choosing some insignificant county with a count who is *not* hell-bent on conquering a kingdom or empire. I am not excluding military or diplomatic expansion, but I'll take a long view, trying to grow my dynasty in power over centuries. That will be slow, but I'll see whether with the DLCs and other added content there is enough for me to do. It'll be a game about patience, about taking decisions "in character" of the current ruler, and reacting to what happens in the world around me. Exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating will not be at the top of the agenda. I am pretty confident that I can fulfill my games value criterion and have 40 hours of fun for my 40 bucks. I am less confident that I would then want to start another game, because there is a large risk that I have seen most of the possible events already. On the other hand, I don't have any of the "regional" DLCs yet, so playing on the Iberian peninsula with the Fate of Iberia DLC and doing a bit of Reconquista might be an interesting approach for a later game.

Friday, May 10, 2024
Houses, inflation, and technological change

The determination of the rate of inflation typically has a problem with technological change. If you say that you want to buy a PC with a current generation CPU and current generation mid-range graphics cards, that will probably cost you a good bit more today than it cost a year ago. But part of that is that from year to year the "current generation" part changes. The people calculating inflation instead look how much it would cost to buy a PC this year with last year's specifications, and tell you that computers have gotten cheaper.

I moved into a new house last year, having previously lived for quarter of a century in an apartment that had been built in the early 90's. The apartment wasn't very well insulated. It was on the first floor, and part of it was above the garage and entrance hall of the building, while another part was above another apartment on the ground floor. As a result there was a very noticeable difference in temperature in winter between these rooms, as the rooms above the unheated garage lost a lot of heat through the floor. The house we moved in is a near zero energy house, with walls, floors, and ceilings all very well insulated. We need much less energy to heat now, and the temperature is much more even. We share a wall with the house next door, but that wall is so well insulated that our heating wouldn't change if the neighbors went on a long winter holiday and turned the heat down. (That also has the added advantage of not hearing the neighbors.)

Many economies these days have a housing crisis, with housing having become unaffordable for first-time buyers. So you see all those fancy graphs that show how the average price of a house increased over the past decades, rising faster than inflation. But that compares a typical house of today with a typical house from decades ago, and the specifications have changed. In the USA the average size of a single family home has more than doubled since the 1950's. In Europe, the apartment in which I lived for so long would now be illegal to build, as insulation is (rightfully) one of the key measures with which the EU is trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And size has also gone up, increasing by 50% per inhabitant from the early 90's to today. A range of other specifications, regarding for example electricity or safety, have also gone up over the decades. Yes, a typical house today is much more expensive than a typical house 30 or more years ago, but it is also a very different house.

Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, introduced a lot of policies that made it possible for families in the 1950's to buy their own homes. One stated reason why he did that was that he believed that somebody owning real estate was a lot less likely to become communist. Increased home ownership increases social peace. That principle hasn't really changed, although the political orientation of people unhappy with their economic situation has changed. But I do think that it is still very important for modern societies to make it possible for a young family to buy real estate and have an affordable roof over their head. I do think politics has to intervene to increase minimum wages, and to squash zoning laws that prevent affordable housing. But on the other hand we also need to realize that the size and quality of houses built in the 1950's wouldn't cut it today. The free-standing single family house has evolved into a product that it isn't compatible with affordable housing anymore, and isn't sustainable either. Affordable housing is more likely to be an apartment building. And that isn't even a downgrade, because the quality of life in a 2020's apartment is probably higher than in a 1950's single family house.


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