Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 01, 2022
Pyrrhic victories

In 279 BC, after having won the Battle of Asculum against the Romans, King Pyrrhus of Epirus is reported to have said some version of "another victory like this, and we will be ruined!". Thus the term pyrrhic victory for a victory that comes with great losses. And unfortunately this is a concept that diminishes my fun in a lot of strategy / tactics game that I am playing, most recently Planetfall, but also classics like the Heroes of Might & Magic series.

In many of these games the surviving army of one battle is what you have as an army for the next battle. You get some reinforcements, and the survivors might gain some sort of experience and levels. But with reinforcements coming slowly, and veterans being hard to replace with fresh troops, and major loss of troops can be catastrophic for the rest of the campaign. The extreme case of that is tactical role-playing games, where you will want to never lose a single character. Thus you will want to engage *only* in fights that you are not only certain to win, but certain to win without any significant losses.

The game design problem of that is that roflstomping all enemies isn't as much fun as pitched battles. In D&D it is said that the art of DMing has a lot to do with making battles *seem* dangerous, without them actually being so. An AI you fight against in a computer game is usually less skilled at that sort of deception. So most of the battles I fought in Planetfall had me losing not a single unit, because I wouldn't engage if that was not the case. I only accepted losses for things like the final fight to eliminate a computer opponent, when ending a war was a big enough win to allow for losing some units.

The problem is a design where wins and losses snowball over the length of the campaign. I usually take perks for my Planetfall heroes that give them a better army at the start. Better starting troops means you can eliminate marauders from various resources and landmarks around your cities, which means faster expansion, which ends up with you getting access to more and better troops earlier. If you "won" your first battle while losing lots of units, your expansion would be seriously hampered by you having to replenish those troops.

Having said that, Planetfall is not the worst offender, because you start with tier I and II troops, and over the course of the game you get access to tier III and IV troops, which will be better than even veteran tier I troops. At a certain point in the game you can swarm the enemy with cheap troops and don't mind the losses. But 4X games in general certainly have a good start / bad start problem, where the effect of good or bad luck in the early stages of the game determines a lot of the outcome of the latter game.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Age of Wonders: Planetfall - Empire mode

After playing 136 hours of Age of Wonders: Planetfall, I noticed that I had made a mistake: I had played a bit of the campaign mode, and lots of the planet mode, and completely ignored the empire mode. And it turns out that empire mode is a lot of fun, and I should have switched to that mode earlier. Which is a bit of a problem, because I feel that I now have played a *lot* of Planetfall and am ready to move on to something completely different.

Why did I ignore such a fun game mode? Because I didn't just start playing the game completely blind, but watched a bunch of YouTube videos about the game first. The problem with that is that people tend to make content about video games when the game is new and shiny. And the empire mode was only added to the game more than a year after release, simultaneously with the third and last DLC, but for free. So the videos I watched were mostly from a time where empire mode didn't exist, which led to me just ignoring the option on the main menu. My mistake!

Empire mode does have some restrictions over planet mode, you can't change some of the settings. But while a win in planet mode just means you have to start a new game, in empire mode you gain some advantages that you can take with you into the next game. Also in empire mode there are added modifications, sometimes even new victory conditions, for a greater variety. So I would recommend maybe playing one or two planets in planet mode when you learn the game, but then switching to empire mode much earlier than I did.

Sunday, November 27, 2022
Printing money

I was reading a variety of economic news in the past few weeks: About inflation, about the downgrading of Hasbro, about the bankruptcy of FTX. And it occurred to me that there is a common theme here, the printing of money.

Economic cycles and inflation are a very complex issue, but most economists agree that at least one reason for the current inflation was central banks increasing money supply during the pandemic. That certainly did help to buffer some of the negative economic effects of the pandemic, but when economic activity restarted, an excess of money caused inflation on a global scale. This is typically a case of unintended consequences: While it is known that printing money can lead to inflation, there isn't actually a formula that will tell a central bank by how much exactly they can increase the money supply without inflation going over the target rate. We can assume that central banks wanted to do what was best for the economy, and then just overshot the target. A central banker has no personal gain from printing money, they can't just print money for themselves.

That is somewhat different in the case of private companies, like Hasbro. Hasbro isn't printing money (other than for Monopoly), but they are printing Magic the Gathering cards. And Magic cards are supposedly having some value, which is why you can not only print them and sell them, but they are also traded on the secondary market. And the same rules as with printing money apply: If you print too much, the value drops. Hasbro this year printed significantly more Magic cards than usual, causing first the value of the cards, and then the value of their stock to decline. Hasbro was one of those companies who benefited from the pandemic, with more people staying home and playing games. When that trend reversed, and their revenue fell, they tried to increase their profits by "printing money" in the form of more Magic cards. And that seriously backfired.

The situation gets even worse if you look at FTX and crypto currencies. In the early days of crypto, there was a common argument that the limited of supply of Bitcoin would guarantee that the cryptocurrency remained valuable. Bitcoin was seen as valuable because there was no central bank that could print more of it. That concept went out of the window pretty fast: Not all cryptocurrencies have this limitation on printing more, and even if individual cryptocurrencies are limited, the fact that there are now a growing number of different ones make the overall supply unlimited as well.

From all we know, FTX repeatedly printed more of their own cryptocurrency, FTT, to buy stuff. When people found out that the liquidity FTX said to have wasn't real, but basically self-printed Monopoly money, the whole edifice collapsed. So the issue of printing money has different forms, from honest mistakes, over questionable business decisions, to downright scams. You can become a billionaire by printing your own money and persuading other people that this money actually has value. But in the end a Magic card is just a piece of printed cardboard, and a crypto coin isn't even that; if people *think* that these have value, they are valuable, but if they change their mind, they can become worthless.

Thursday, November 24, 2022
Prosperous Universe - 7 months later

7 months ago I started posting about an indie MMO game called Prosperous Universe, and wrote a series of posts about it. As I am still playing, albeit with much lower intensity, I thought I'd give you an update.

First things first: Am I still having fun? Not so much anymore. Which does have to do with what my particular desires for this game were: I wanted some sort of space trading game. Now, Prosperous Universe does have space trading; but you only have a very limited number of ships, two from the start, and after 7 months I still am far from being able to afford a third one. Two ships, rather limited cargo capacity, and flight times of a day or more make for a very slow trading experience. All that wouldn't be so bad if the market was big enough; but unfortunately the actual number of players is rather low, with concurrent online players between 200 and 400. Which results that sometimes you produce a good that has a high price, but then find out that there is actually no demand for it at all.

I started Prosperous Universe with a base that produced mainly basic consumables, food and water. That was a very good idea, and although profitability goes up and down, the base is always doing something useful. My second base in comparison was a complete disaster, and I am in the process of winding it down. I had found a less hospitable planet with a good yield of titanium oxide. So I set up my base there, extracted the titanium oxide, and smelted it into titanium. After a few weeks it became clear that my one titanium base was producing more titanium than the demand for the stuff was in the whole universe. Price crashed 80% and never recovered. I then used the base to make more basic goods, but because the base isn't very close to a commodity exchange, and the planet is less hospitable and needs special building materials, the whole thing wasn't really profitable.

My third base was more of a success. When looking for metals with some actual demand, I found that aluminium was a better bet than titanium. Iron is needed to make the lowest level of building prefabs, while aluminium is needed for the second level. And building prefabs have a pretty constant demand. So in this case going to a less hospitable planet paid off: I am making aluminium in the Moria space, where it is less common, and turn it directly into high-value building prefabs. That means I don't need to ship that much stuff from and to the base, and what I ship sells quickly and for big bucks.

When I started Prosperous Universe, it had just released on Steam. That Steam release brought a huge influx of players, which didn't last. My fourth base is a testament to that, it is on Moria - Vallis, which is one of the starting planets. Each planet has a limited number of plots, but starting players can build "excess" bases beyond that plot limitation. So when there are a lot of players, the starting planets all not only have no available plots, but are in fact hundreds of plots over capacity. The fact that I recently was able to find an empty plot on Vallis shows how many players have left.

What I am basically doing now is moving my second base to Vallis, going back to three bases. With Vallis having iron, I can then build basic prefabs there, and the next level on my aluminium planet. All that supplied by my food and water planet. All very basic stuff. Prosperous Universe has a large tech tree, but due to the low number of players, once you move away from the basic stuff, there simply isn't enough of a market there to buy and sell. People who want to move up the tech tree vertically integrate their production with their guild, but I didn't want to play that way. And as a single-player game, Prosperous Universe, like it's bigger brother EVE Online, has serious limitations. Right now I am playing with very low intensity, like 5 minutes once per day; but I expect I will stop playing by the end of the year.


Tuesday, November 22, 2022
Find the error!


Saturday, November 19, 2022
Finishing games

When I was a kid, an electronic entertainment wasn't as prevalent as it is today, my main form of entertainment consisted of reading books. Like most people do, I was reading one book at a time, which wasn't a problem because I was an exceptionally fast reader. Reading one book at a time helps you remembering the characters and plot in a story better than if you try reading several books in parallel. I don't know if it is because of this background in book reading, but today I frequently have a feeling about video games that I should "finish" them before starting the next one. With the same basic justification: It is a lot easier to remember the controls and game mechanics of a single game than mixing several games in parallel.

Curiously I don't do that with mobile games. There are a lot of mobile games that have game mechanics that allow you to play only so long before you run out of "energy" or have to wait for something to finish. For those games it is better to play several of them in parallel, as you just need to log on and play each of them for like 15 minutes, setting everything up and then waiting for stuff to replenish or finish.

But for the games on my PC, most of which don't have any real-time limits, I always feel reluctant to start a new game before finishing the last one. Only, unlike books, it often isn't all that clear when a PC game is actually finished. For example I have now played Age of Wonders: Planetfall for 90 hours. I sure got to the end of several games, and even to the end of one races campaign. But I haven't even played all the races yet, and am far away from having all achievements completed. In other games, like Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga, I got to the end of the campaign and then started over, because there was still stuff that I wanted to try differently. I decided I had "finished" somewhere in the middle of the second playthrough. So "I feel I have seen everything" for me is a more relevant indicator of "finishing" than some artificial length of a main story.

The matter gets even more complicated when a game isn't in itself a finished product. I still have games like Wartales or Baldur's Gate 3 installed, each with 60 to 80 hours of played time, but both are works in progress and I feel I would like to play again when there is a "release" version. For Solasta: Crown of the Magister the game is released, but new DLC are coming out all the time that tempt me to come back, so I don't uninstall the game either. In the end I have over a dozen games installed on my PC; and while I have this weird urge to "finish" them before uninstalling, I never really get there.

Thursday, November 17, 2022
Not an engineering problem

I used to work as a scientist in an engineering company. To understand the difference, you could ask both a scientist and an engineer what π² is. The scientist will tell you it is a number with an infinite number of digits close to 9.8696. The engineer will tell you it is about 10. After working for long years with engineers I understand that finding a good enough solution fast enough is often more useful than having the most exact solution. Engineering is one of the most useful things a person can learn, and many of the big problems humanity is facing, like for example climate change, will need at least in part engineering solutions.

Having said that, engineers frequently think that everything is an engineering problem. I was thinking of that when reading the latest news about Elon Musk telling Twitter employees that he wants them to work "hardcore" on coding to get the current Twitter to some ideal Twitter 2.0 state. He pretty much told the same thing to his employees as Tesla; but creating an AI for an electrical car is an engineering problem, and creating a non-toxic "digital town square" for everybody is not an engineering problem.

Selling the blue verified checkmark on Twitter for $7.99 was clearly as mistake, although there was nothing wrong with the coding. My first thought when I heard it was that it would have been better to do the opposite, to ask that every Twitter user either lets his identity be verified, or pays $7.99 for the luxury of remaining anonymous. The fake Pepsi account stating that "Coke is better", and the fake Coke account offering to put cocaine back into Coca Cola sure were funny; Eli Lilly losing billions on the stock market because of a fake "insulin is now free" tweet probably less so. It just shows that if everybody has access to a verified blue checkmark on Twitter, then "verification" doesn't mean anything anymore, and we need to treat all tweets as fake.

There is probably an engineering solution to a non-toxic Twitter that involves biometric facial recognition as verification with an absence of anonymity and legal consequences for criminal abuses of "free speech" equal to the existing consequences in the real world. However, that would not be a mass market product, and would be very hard to monetize. The current version of Twitter probably could be improved, but I think that would involve mostly psychologists, behavioral economists, and maybe even anthropologists, not mainly engineers. Elon Musk might be the wrong man for the job.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Imagine you read my previous post about Age of Wonders: Planetfall and it influenced you to buy the game, but you then discovered that you didn't like the game at all, and wasted your money. Or you followed some fashion influencer's advice on the latest style, but your friends made fun of your outfit and told you it wasn't fashionable at all. Those are the dangers of listening to people on the internet, who are often described as "influencers" for a reason: Other people might follow their advice. The good news about me recommending games, or the fashion influencer recommending a style, is that your risk is relatively low. $50 for Planetfall if you bought it on Steam (but they have a refund policy), or somewhere closer to $5 if you bought a grey market key as discussed in that post. The bad news is that people also tend to listen to financial influencers, as I already wrote about some months ago.

This month another crypto crash event happened, with another crypto company called FTX going bankrupt, and Bitcoin crashing another 20% (which today is worth 71% less than a year ago). And FTX famously was a huge sponsor for financial influencers on platforms like YouTube. Although these financial influencer channels pretty much all come with the #NotFinancialAdvice warning, a lot of people rather listened to that financial advice than to financial advice from their dads. And nobody follows investment advice to just risk $50. A lot of people lost a significant part of their savings, which isn't good news in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

Now even bankers and hedge funds were fooled and lost money on FTX, so one might argue that the financial influencers just fell for the hype. But with sponsorship deals from FTX being as high as $50,000 per month, it appears obvious that at least some of the hype was faked. We have a largely unregulated crypto industry, billion-dollar crypto companies being run by inexperienced people with no checks and balances, and the whole thing is marketed by YouTube influencers, most of which don't have much financial experience either. And that in a market that is full of scammers, and extremely short on consumer protection.

This is not financial advice, but in my opinion the domino effect of crypto companies going bankrupt isn't over. I never owned any bitcoin or other crypto currency, but if you still do, you might want to get out before all those crypto currencies reach what is their fundamental value: Zero.

Wednesday, November 09, 2022
Age of Wonders: Planetfall

Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a game from 2019 that I just recently started to play, it being available to me for free as part of my XBox Game Pass for PC subscription. Usually I am not a big fan of science fiction themed games, but this one is pretty fun. Basically it is as if Civilization and XCom fell in love and had a baby: You get the standard 4X gameplay of exploration, city building, and research, but battles are handled as tactical combat on a hex grid. Seeing how combat was always the weak point of the Civilization series, this is a huge improvement to the 4X genre.

You can play Age of Wonders: Planetfall like you would play any Civ game, on a random map with your selection of parameters for the world, and your selected civilization; but there is also a campaign with several scenarios for each civilization, which gives you some story, some quests, and alternative victory conditions. That adds a lot to replayability.

I already have 24 hours played on Planetfall, and I am only approaching the end of the campaign for the first civilization, Vanguard. There are three DLC available with more civilizations, more NPC factions, more secret techs, and everything. But those don't come included on the Game Pass, so I am not sure whether I really need more content for a game that already has a lot of it. The season pass with the three DLC would be $40 on the Game Pass store, while the base game is $50 on Steam, and $90 with the DLCs included.

Which brings me to another topic, which is especially relevant for games that are already several years old, but aren't discounted much on Steam: Grey market keys. The longer a game exists, the more of these keys are available, and the cheaper they get. Either you pay $90 on Steam for that premium edition of Planetfall with all DLC included, or you pay less than 1/10th of that for a Steam key that gives you exactly the same game. Of course those keys are also available for new games, but a quick check for a recently released triple A game on Steam showed keys going for half the official price, which is much less of a discount.

Game keys are usually not outright "fell of the back of a lorry" stolen. But the origin of the keys is often unknown to the buyer, and there are risks involved. To the best of my knowledge you can't get your Steam account banned for using a keyshop, but there is a definitive risk of the key not working and you being unable to claim your money back. But for most people, keys work, so it is more of a moral problem than a practical one. It is safe to say that buying a grey market key isn't supporting the game developers. But it also isn't the same as downright pirating a game. So, what do you think about keyshops?

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

So today is the midterms election in the USA. I remember a better time when this was recognized as being the nothingburger it is. In a political system which is built so that one party can always block whatever the other party wants to do, the midterms are about tiny shifts in power which make life for the two parties either a bit easier or a bit harder, without changing anything fundamental.

Unfortunately in these midterms we have the Two Big Lies: The one that Trump won the 2020 election, and the other that if Republicans win the midterms, democracy in the USA will immediately end. Neither of these are true. And none of the upper ranks in each party actually believe anything of this bullshit, it is just the sort of lies that they feel they need to get the base motivated to vote.

This is equivalent of both parties deliberately pouring petrol over the country and claiming the other side is planning to light a match. The most likely outcome of the midterm elections is that politically nothing of any real importance changes, but that some people of the base of both parties who believed the two big lies will conclude that the world just ended and it is time to pull out the guns and start shooting. After Nancy Pelosi's husband being attacked with a hammer, next time it might be Mitch McConnell's wife attacked with a knife. Politicians created political drama out of nothing, and that drama will need to discharge itself somehow.

Friday, November 04, 2022

Since August I have been playing Warhammer 40K: Tacticus on my iPad. While I am not a big fan of gacha games, Tacticus has an interesting hex-based tactical combat, so it isn't all bad. This week I looked into other games made by the same game developers, Snowprint Studios. And I discovered Rivengard, a previous game of theirs. And when I tried that out, it quickly became obvious that this was pretty much exactly the same game as Tacticus. The same hex-based combat, the same menus, the same events. There are a few minor differences, but basically Warhammer 40K: Tacticus is a reskin of an older game which had just a generic fantasy theme, and wasn't quite that successful.

That got me thinking that there are a couple of games where I do like the gameplay, but am not a huge fan of the theme. So I sure would play a fantasy reskin of XCOM 2. Given the huge number of games that steal many of their ideas from other games, a direct reskin of an older game wouldn't be that bad. Which game would you like to see with the same gameplay, but a different theme?

Tuesday, November 01, 2022
Narrative board games

Imagine you are reading a book when suddenly somewhere in the middle you come upon an instruction to roll a die: If you roll high, you can continue reading the book; if you roll low, you have to return to page 1 and read everything you read up to now again. Obviously nobody would follow those instructions, but just "cheat" and keep reading. And this is just the start of the inherent problem of narrative board games. The fundamental issue of these games is how to integrate gameplay with the story, without the gameplay being either superfluous nor getting into the way of the story.

Examples of board games in which gameplay is very light would be games like Lands of Galzyr, or Roll Player Adventures. Both of these games are full of "fail forward" mechanics, so that if you do badly in gameplay (whether by bad luck or bad skill), you still move the story forward all the time. It is impossible to reach a moment where through a death spiral in gameplay you "lose the game" and need to start over. These are great games for families or casual gamers, but the game mechanics will feel very light and "too easy" for more veteran gamers. Still, I sometimes do enjoy such lighter fare.

At the other extreme are games which nearly fall of the edge of still being considered narrative games, because the amount of story you get is rather small compared to the amount of gameplay. My worst example in recent time was Bardsung, where you only get a paragraph or so of story after every complete dungeon crawl (and the repetitive dungeon crawls aren't fun enough to play anyway). But even a great game like Gloomhaven has far more gameplay than story, and the 95 scenarios (60+ to get through a campaign once) are probably too much for most people, so very few players will get to see the end of the story.

My wife and me are currently playing Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon on easy "story mode". The problem with Tainted Grail is that exploration takes time and resources; so if by bad luck or bad skill you get into a bad loop of gameplay in which you have no time and no resources, but just make move after move just trying to stay alive. There are even rules for death and complete failure in the standard rules of Tainted Grail, which would ask you to start over from the beginning. However, there are also alternative rules to ignore death and failure, and just keep playing. Basically in Tainted Grail you need to tune the rules to a level of difficulty in which there are enough time and resources left to keep moving the story forward. And even the devs think that the standard rules are a bit too heavy on the gameplay loops, and are working on 2.0 rules to make those a bit easier and less time-consuming. The 7th Continent has similar problems, where a struggle for survival can become so overwhelming as to stop story advancement. Note that of these two, Tainted Grail has the much better story, although I'd say that The 7th Continent has more interesting gameplay. It really depends what you are playing these games for.

A great game with a great balance between gameplay and story is Sleeping Gods. It has just enough worker placement / resource management and character development gameplay to make the gameplay interesting enough for standard gamers, while never getting into the way of the large amount of story content. But Sleeping Gods is clearly primarily a narrative game, and the gameplay comes second. While also nicely balanced in its own way, in Clank!: Legacy - Acquisitions Incorporated the gameplay comes first, and the story is more of a side-show that is there to explain the gameplay changes in the legacy elements. It is more of a story-enhanced deckbuilding game than a narrative board game.

While the balance between gameplay and story is important, even the best balance can't help you if the story is bad or simply not interesting for you. I didn't buy Etherfields because the horror/dream theme of the game didn't appeal at all to me. And I am still on the fence on ISS Vanguard, because I usually prefer fantasy to science fiction. In Destinies you play through a campaign of five stories in the base game, and while we liked the early ones, we felt that the quality of the story decreased markedly over the course of the campaign, and the 5th story was just a confusing mess that was no fun at all. Unfortunately that is the sort of information that even most reviewers never get to, especially not if they reviewed a Kickstarter prototype which only contained the first story or two.

I am buying a lot of narrative board games, because those I can most easily play with my wife. Narrative games frequently shine with lower player numbers, solo or two players, because of the difficulty of getting everybody listening and involved in the story at higher player counts. Even with two players we prefer games in which the story has some app support for voice narration, rather than one of us having to read aloud for the other. At their best, narrative board games are a great way for me and my wife to interactively experience a story together.



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