Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 15, 2024
Self-adjusting difficulty

The Switch has a great feature, where you can create several profiles. That allows you to play the same game with different profiles, each having its own save games and settings, neatly separated. I have been using that to play Unicorn Overlord at tactical and expert difficulties, the two highest settings, to see which one I prefer. You can of course also change the difficulty of a running game, but I wanted to see not only the effect of difficulty on a single battle, but in the long run.

The interesting result is that on expert difficulty I play the game somewhat differently. The desired effect is that at higher difficulty I play a tighter game, taking more care to optimize. But I also noticed that I am less willing to start a battle when my army feels too weak for it, and so I use optional repeatable content to grind an extra level and feel more ready for the challenge. In the end, the difficulty is somewhat self-adjusting: The added grind makes the higher difficulty level easier again. Playing the same battle under-leveled at tactical difficulty is not so different from playing it over-leveled at expert.

In the end, I decided to continue my main game on the tactical difficulty. Raising the difficulty mostly affected the time it took me to do something, and not so much my enjoyment of the game.

Sunday, July 14, 2024
Ordeal of the gun

In my recent post on different electoral methods, I have apparently forgotten to mention a more rarely used method with which the USA elects its presidents. It is a sacred ritual from the middle ages, modernized with the US gun culture: You shoot one of the candidates. If he dies, that was God's will, and he wasn't worthy to become president. If he lives, he was anointed by God to the office, and he will automatically be elected. It is very similar to some of the ordeals in which knights could prove their innocence in a legal case through an ordeal by sword, just replacing the sword by gun.

Surviving a shooting has always helped political candidates. It motivates the existing supporters of the candidate to turn up on election day, it gets him some sympathy votes from the independents, and it has some more moderate opponents hang their head in shame.

Friday, July 12, 2024
Old board games

I've been playing a lot more board games this year, as I found a local shop with a weekly board game night. And so I have been looking to buy smaller games, the sort that you can set up, explain, play, and pack in within the 3-hour window of a board game night. I have other board game groups to play my narrative campaign games over the span of months, but for board game night I am limited in both complexity and duration.

It is often said that the crowdfunding campaigns for modern board games run on FOMO, the fear of missing out. Unlike video games, of which Steam can produce an unlimited number of copies, board games tend to have print runs, and some games might only get printed in a single print run of a few thousand copies. Thus it happened to me that I heard of a board game that is supposedly great, but either I can't buy it anywhere, or I can only find it on eBay for some outrageous price that isn't worth it for me.

But curiously print runs can also work in my favor. I just ordered a board game printed 5 years ago, and I got it at such a big discount that I bought the much nicer looking deluxe edition for the previous price of the standard edition. Probably they printed too many of the deluxe version, and didn't manage to sell them. And as board games, unlike video games, take up storage space, companies are even more willing to sell you unwanted inventory at a nice discount.

That also works at a personal level. A board game collection takes up a lot of shelf space. Fortunately I now have a board game room, with a bespoke board game shelf from wall to wall, which isn't full yet. But many board gamers resell their older board games, for reasons of space, or to get some money back. If you bought a board game, played it only a few times, and it turned out to not have been the best fit for you and your group, you might well want to sell it. There are specialized shops for used board games. I just picked up a couple of older games in shop I just found, used but complete, for about half of their original price.

There is an evolution in board games, sometimes older games actually *feel* old, in spite of not having the graphics evolution of video games. But other board games age quite well. And games from let's say 5 years ago are often just forgotten due to the flood of newer games, rather than being actually outdated. With a bit of knowledge, one can sometimes find real treasures in a used games shop.

Tuesday, July 09, 2024
What is Democracy anyway?

Imagine an electoral system without parties, where by clever internet technology every person could find the representative that most closely resembles his own political convictions and vote for that person. We would end up with the most representative parliament possible, consisting of a several hundred individuals, each of them representing a maximum number possible of people as closely as possible. That parliament would also be completely unable to agree on anything, and no governing of any kind would ever be done.

2024 internationally is a year full of important elections. We consider many of these elections, in countries like the UK, France, or the USA, as free and fair. However, each of these countries has very different methods on how to translate the "will of the people" as expressed by votes in an election into an actually working government. And each of these systems has its own flaws.

In the US presidential elections, an estimated 99.5% of votes aren't important, because due to the choice being binary we already know how most states will vote, and we also know how most people in the few swing states will vote. That leaves just a rather small number of undecided voters in a small number of swing states that will actually determine the outcome of the election. It is the exact opposite of the hypothetical case from my first paragraph, with voters having the least possible choice of candidates. It is very likely to end up with a country in which about half the population is unhappy that their candidate lost, and the other half is only slightly less unhappy with their candidate who won.

In the UK general election this year, there were a lot more parties, of which 5 got more than 5% of the vote. But the UK electoral system isn't designed to be representative, but is a "first past the post" system, in which the strongest party receives far more seats in parliament than their popular vote share. Labour got 63% of the seats with 34% of the votes. The system can also result in extremely different outcomes for smaller sized parties, so for example the LibDems got 11% of the seats with 12% of the votes, while Reform got 0.8% of the seats with 14% of the votes. But while the lack of representation has been widely criticized, the clear advantage is that the one party who got the most votes also has a parliamentary majority and could at least potentially achieve the will of the people who voted for them.

The elections in France are more complicated, with a two-round system, in which there was a rather large difference between the results of the first and second round. That of course made the party who came first in the first round, but only third in the final results after the second round, rather unhappy. Which of the two rounds *is* the will of the people? Nevertheless, the French result is probably more representative than the US and UK examples. But if you compare the cases, a very clear trend becomes obvious: The more representative the system is, the less likely it becomes to result in a workable majority. None of the parties got more than a third of the vote, and it isn't obvious yet how a government will form.

That isn't unusual for electoral systems that try to achieve good representation. If you have lots of different parties, you end up with no party getting more than half of the votes. The current German government consists of 3 parties more busy fighting each other than governing, while the recently formed Dutch government has 4 parties, with the prime minister being an independant. Belgium from December 2018 to October 2020 had no government at all, because it took them a record 589 days of forming one, after an election in which no party emerged as a clear winner.

I do believe that Democracy is the best system, and a Republic governed by elected representatives is the best form of government. But it would be hard for me to point at any one country of the ones discussed here and declare that their electoral system is superior to the others. What is more important, an effective government or an election being as representative as possible? It seems impossible to have both. And a growing concern in all of these systems is that more and more people think that Democracy is only a good thing when their side wins, and start acting in seriously undemocratic ways when their side is losing, preferring an Autocracy of their side to being the losing side in a Democracy.

Monday, July 08, 2024
Unicorn Overlord

Most of the video games I play, I play on my PC. But there are a few specific games that are exclusive to some console, and while I only have a Switch as current generation console, I consider that one well worth it just for games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. But there are some more games that I play on the Switch: Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Fire Emblem Engage, and now Unicorn Overlord. They are of a tactical JRPG genre which is very typically only available on consoles, with the exceptions being a few PC ports of console games. There are of course a lot of games on Steam that combine RPG elements with tactical combat, like Wartales or Battle Brothers, but if you know of a good tactical JRPG on PC in the style of Fire Emblem or Unicorn Overlord, I would be interested in that. The closest I got on Steam is Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga.

Before Unicorn Overlord, I would have said that an important feature I like about these games is the turn-based tactical combat. But it turns out that Unicorn Overlord's weird combination of real-time with pause tactical movement and auto-battler combat is just as much fun. What makes the auto-battling fun is that you can "program" your characters: You can set the conditions under which they should attack particular enemies or use particular skills, and what they should do when none of the specific conditions apply. As every character class in the game has one or more other character classes that work well against it, every battle becomes a bit of an interesting puzzle. You don't just brute force to victory (unless you are overleveled and the difficulty is too low), you set up your squads to be able to deal with the specific enemies of that particular battle.

Unicorn Overlord is quite a big game. Even the demo lets you play a full 4 hours, and that isn't counting the time spent setting things up in menus, so in reality it is more like 8 hours. If you rush just the main story, you can beat the game in just under 50 hours, but if you take your time you can spend way over 100 hours in this game. The downside of that is some repetition, like quests you can do in every one of the five regions. And good luck remembering the rock/paper/scissors unit strengths and weaknesses when there are 41 classes in the game.

Unicorn Overlord is also one of the few games where I am considering switching to the highest available difficulty level, after doing quite well at the second-highest level. That is probably because the real-time part is slow enough for an old foggy like myself to have time to pause and give commands. There is nothing in this game which requires sub-second reaction time. On the other hand, it is quite an intellectual game, where bringing the right unit with the right programming and the right equipment makes all the difference. Fortunately there are many opportunities for mock battles to try things out.

As an aside, I still have my original Nintendo Switch, that I got Christmas 2017. But for Unicorn Overlord I finally bought a new set of Joycon controllers. The original ones had drift, which I managed to temporarily fix several times using instructions from the internet, but that was never a permanent solution. From all I read I have good hope that more recently produced controllers don't have the drift problem anymore, so I bought a set in colors that weren't available at release. Overall I am quite happy with my Switch, and am considering buying a Switch 2 when it comes out in 2025 or 2026. On the other hand, I am less and less inclined to buy a new Playstation or XBox, because there are now fewer and fewer console exclusives on those, and I can play all the games I want on my PC.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024
Dead Internet from theory to reality

The original Dead Internet Theory is a conspiracy theory, which is mostly nonsense. Which now poses a bit of a problem of nomenclature: How do we now call the measurable reality of some parts of the internet being increasingly populated by AI bots? The original theory speculates that either big business or big government is running the bots the populate the internet with some dark manipulative purpose. The reality is a lot more mundane: The economic fundamentals of the social media part of the internet are deeply flawed; they are fed by advertising money, and then distribute that advertising money based on an "attention economy". Create some click-baity content and get lots of "engagement" with it, and you get a lot of money. You will still get that money if you created that content using AI, and even if a lot of the engagement is coming from bots. Creating a bot that a) engages with other people's clickbait while b) linking back to your own clickbait is a win-win operation. Instead of big business or big government, the actors are internet-savvy youngsters who dream of "passive income", or less savvy people who follow some "get rich quick" video instruction.

Getting paid for a fake Facebook or X/Twitter post with fake bot engagement seems like a victimless crime. Of course, nothing ever is. Advertising money isn't free. Companies pay for advertising, as long as they feel that it increases their sales by more than what the advertising costs. If somebody uses AI to create clickbait, but that clickbait results in a lot of real people watching that content and being reached by attached advertising, that is okay for the company. But if they pay "per thousand views", and 900 of those 1000 views are from bots, which never buy anything, the economics of added sales by advertising stop working. So companies will stop advertising on that platform, and look for other pathways of advertising where they reach more real people. The real content creators on the platform that is swarmed by bots first see their income dwindling because money goes to bots, and then see it drying up completely, because advertising goes away.

Different internet platforms are hit by this in different ways, due to the state of AI technology. Creating a Facebook post or tweet on X by AI with text and images is easy, thus they are the most affected. YouTube videos are a bit harder to create by AI, and I don't think any AI already manages to play a game on Twitch while live commenting. But even YouTubers and Twitch streamers are increasingly battling bot comments these days.

Ultimately somebody in advertising will come up with a better measure of advertising efficiency. The "attention economy" of paying per clicks / views isn't sustainable, if you can't prove that the view is coming from an actual human being. And because people follow economic incentives, I am pretty certain that the internet will look very differently ten years from now. We will not get a dead internet in which all content is created by bots and interacted with by bots, because there is no inherent economic benefit to that. Bot economics are based on advertising inefficiencies, and those simply aren't sustainable.

Monday, July 01, 2024
Deep discount and live service

I wrote a post about the Steam summer sale deep discounts. Not on the featured deep discount page, but also heavily discounted is Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. Which, nominally, is a triple A live service game, released only 4 months back, and now available for 21 bucks instead of 70 (or 30 instead of 100 for the digital deluxe edition). Paul Tassi at Forbes argues that this might be a good deal. Besides this not really being my favorite genre, I'm still skeptical, based on my experience with MMOs.

The problem with failing Live Service games, like with failing MMOs, is not that you can't have fun with them; it is that the fun is unlikely to last. The "live service" part means that fresh content is added to the game in regular intervals. On release, some of that added content is already produced, and sometimes even announced. For Suicide Squad, the announced first 4 seasons will most probably be delivered. Beyond that is a simple economic calculation: How much does it cost to produce the next 4 seasons of live service content, and how much money is that content likely to bring in? And with player counts being rather low, even with a deep discount spike, I don't think that economic calculation will come out positive.

Like for failing MMOs, there is a possibility for the game to go free-to-play. Which might prolong its longevity, but still be an argument against paying for it now. The other looming possibility is that sometimes next year there will be an announcement of the game shutting down. This is really not the kind of game where you can buy it at a steep discount during a Steam sale and put it in your Steam library to play later. There might very well not be a "later". If you think you can $21 worth of fun out of the game *now*, go ahead. But the end of the party is already visible, this isn't one for the ages.

Sunday, June 30, 2024
Stolen Realm

A reader recently recommended Stolen Realm to me, and I have been playing that for a while. I have a group of 4 characters: Warrior, priest, ranger, and mage. But Stolen Realm has "limitless builds", so my ranger has summoning spells from both the shadow and nature schools of magic; he summons animals and skeletons to serve as cannon fodder, while sniping from the back. My priest has a druid spell to create a wall of brambles, setting up some crowd control early in the battle, when he isn't busy healing yet. I am playing the campaign mode, and every quest consists of a series of battles and other events, culminating in a boss fight. After having increased the difficulty level a couple of notches beyond the default, I am now at a point where combat is quite interesting, and in some boss fights I only win after having a party member knocked out (but they revive afterwards). I really like the tactical combat system of Stolen Realm.

Having said that, it took me quite some time to get into the game, because the game *around* the tactical combat isn't structured very well. There is a roguelike mode, which is highly annoying, because it disables Stolen Realm's strongest point: You can't freely mix and match skills from various classes when playing roguelike, but get a random selection after gaining a level to choose from. That makes the characters in roguelike a lot less interesting than in campaign mode. Both roguelike and campaign mode let you choose freely with how many characters you want to play, with difficulty scaling in function of number of characters. I ended up trying everything until I settled on 4 players. Fortunately it turns out you can reset the campaign by deleting all characters, so I was able to start a fresh campaign after having determined how many characters I wanted.

The campaign has just a very generic story, which is told on text screens, with no dialogue options or moral dilemmas. There are choices in the game, but they are concentrated on gameplay, like whether you want to rest or do another battle before reaching the boss fight. And while the characters have limitless builds, they don't have any personality or personal story at all. Stolen Realm calls itself a tactical RPG, but the RPG part is frankly minimal. I think that is going to limit the amount of time I'll spend with this game. There is character progression and the joy of random loot, but somehow the exercise feels a bit empty to me. Still, at currently only €11.70 (40% off) during the summer Steam sale, you might want to pick this game up, if you like tactical fantasy RPG combat.

Saturday, June 29, 2024
Deep discounts

Steam has, as part of their Summer Sale, a Deep Discount page with major games at 90% and more discount. The games aren't new, but you could call them "modern classics", like The Witcher III, Civilization VI, Disco Elysium, or Frostpunk. The deep discount basically turns the normal "why should I buy this game" into a "why should I not buy this game" consideration. If you don't own The Witcher III and don't want to buy it for $2.99, then you'll never buy it.

There are a bunch of games on that list that I don't own, and which I'm not even buying at 90% discount. I'm not saying that Celeste or Assetto Corsa are bad games, but they are games of genres I don't enjoy. I simply don't like platformers and racing games. Things get a little more complicated with games like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War: I played the predecessor Shadow of Mordor for 31 hours, ultimately didn't really enjoy it all that much, and consequently never finished it. Even at $1.99 I don't need a sequel.

The other half of the games on the list I do own. And for many of those, I can only recommend them at that price. I played over 100 hours of Borderlands 2, and that is without me actually being good at shooters. Even with me recently posting what I don't like about The Witcher III, I would still argue that if you like action RPGs, you should try it out at this price.

Where the deep discount list gets a bit embarrassing is the Steam pile of shame: Games that I do own, like Disco Elysium or Frostpunk, and where I do believe that they are good games, but I just never got around to playing them. Why did I buy these games, usually at an "interesting" discount like half price, if now they are 90% off and I still haven't played them? Some would argue that I am a victim of Steam manipulative sales tactics, but more realistically I simply lack self-control.

In the end I didn't buy a single game on the deep discount page (although I did buy Bomber Crew for $1.99 at 90% off). I basically already owned all the games on the page that I have any chance of ever playing. The games I don't own, I don't own for a good reason. If I was less set in my ways, I could buy a game of a genre that I never tried, like Euro Truck Simulator 2. But given how many games I have where I am more certain that I will enjoy them, and still can't get around to playing them, that is maybe not such a good idea.

Thursday, June 27, 2024
Buying plastic

Very often in life, reality is rather complex on any issue, and people instead grab for extremely simplified representations of that reality, which are ultimately wrong. One of these issues is packaging. It is possible to make complete life cycle analyses of any packaging solution, trying to find the ecological optimum. Because that is too complicated, most people are only able to retain the simplified version "plastic bad, glass and paper good". And even companies that have the scientific and technological knowledge to know in which cases plastic is actually a better packaging solution than glass or paper, are now frequently forced to use glass or paper, because of this wrong public perception. The public is simply unaware of how much waste is produced in the Kraft process to make paper, or how much more energy intensive (and thus carbon emitting) melting glass is than melting plastic. That is not to say that plastic is always the best packaging solution, but that the matter is complex, and *sometimes* plastic does less harm to the environment than glass or paper. The issue is further complicated by human criminal behavior, where waste is dumped into oceans. Everybody has seen the image of the seahorse carrying a cotton bud; I don't know how we got from there to making plastic cotton buds illegal, instead of enforcing rules that make it illegal to dump waste into oceans.

I bought another board game last week: Daybreak (English title) or e-mission (German title). I bought it, because it was nominated by the "Spiel des Jahres" jury as one of three "Kennerspiel des Jahres". That is to say that it is a bit more advanced than the more family-friendly basic games of the main award, more suitable for experienced board gamers, while still not being a really heavy game for experts. I've been buying more games of about that weight this year, because they are usually quite suitable for the board game nights in my friendly local games store, with respect to both length of time needed to explain and to play. Now Daybreak/e-mission is a game about global warming, and how to collectively overcome the challenge of climate change. And the recommendation of the award jury turned out to be a good one, it is a very nice cooperative game with good player interaction and flow. But because the theme of the game is so eco-friendly, the makers of the game decided to not use any plastic for the game. Well, no visible plastic, I'm pretty sure the cards are plastic-coated, because they are as smooth as any other game's cards. As a result, the game comes only with a few thin cardboard dividers, which do a horrible job of storing the game, especially if you transport it. There are no plastic bags to put tokens in. And annoyingly the game box is glued shut with paper stickers, which unlike plastic stickers can't be removed without falling to pieces and the broken seal remaining ugly on the box.

In the end, I bought a plastic organizer box to sort the different tokens of my ecological game. Transparent plastic boxes which can be closed for transport and used as token trays during gameplay are simply the best solution for this specific task. The open box the game came in just results in a huge mess when transporting the game, and even smaller cardboard boxes with a lid would be less convenient and more expensive than a plastic organizer "tackle box". And this isn't single use plastic, the game might stay like this in my collection for decades, and will hopefully never end up in an ocean. I'm pretty certain the decision to make this game "no plastic" has zero actual ecological impact, but just makes the default storage solution look too cheap and impractical for a 70 Euro game. Worst of all, I'm sure the makers of the game are feeling really good about their bad packaging decisions, all smug and morally superior.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024
Sounds like

If you turn on the radio (younger member of my audience, ask your parents what a "radio" is) and hear a country song, how do you know that this is a country song? Well, probably because it "sounds like" other country songs you have heard before. The whole classification of music into genres is built upon songs "sounding like" other songs. That makes the lawsuit of the Recording Industry Association of America against two AI music services somewhat interesting. Isn't the AI doing exactly the same as most music producing artists, which is having listened to other songs producing something that "sounds like" those?

Now of course there have to be limits to that. If I created a virtual AI musician called Saylor Twift, whose music is exclusively made by "sounding like" existing Taylor Swift songs, I could see a strong justification for getting copyright sued. I also fully support the rights of Scarlett Johansson against OpenAI about the voice that "sounds like" her. It seems to me that this has a rather simple algorithmic solution. If we block AI music generators and voice generators from using more than let's say 10% of any single existing human voice in generating an AI voice from training data, the result wouldn't sound like anybody specific.

One of the Twitch streamers I sometimes watch has used an AI music generator to create several songs of different music styles, all with also AI generated lyrics that sing about how great a streamer he is. It is pretty funny. There actually used to be a time in history where lords paid bards to do exactly that, create music praising them. Some games these days actually have in their settings a "streamer music" option, so that no copyrighted music is played when a streamer is streaming that game. Sometimes music is just background, and it is good to have a non-copyright source for that, even if it just sounds generic. I doubt that AI generated music is actually a threat to great artists. And if minor artists are threatened by AI being better at creating generic music than they are, that isn't a great loss.

Sunday, June 23, 2024
Different types of expansions

I didn't buy the expansion pass for Age of Wonders 4 when the game came out, but I did buy it after the first DLC was released. Now all 4 DLCs included in that expansion pass are out, and I don't regret my purchase. Age of Wonders 4 itself and all 4 DLCs are rated as "very positive" by the Steam user base. And as every DLC added numerous options to the game, and affects AI opponents as well as players, the presence of every DLC is felt in every game to some degree. I am actually happy to have learned that Triumph Studios is planning on making DLCs beyond the 4 contained in the expansion pass.

That is insofar surprising as Paradox Interactive doesn't have the best track record for DLCs. The Steam ratings for the DLCs for Crusader Kings 3 for example are all over the place, from mostly positive to mostly negative. And some DLCs, like Fate of Iberia, only really impact your game if you actually play in that specific region, while Royal Court only applies if you play at king or emperor level. On the other hand, games of Age of Wonders 4 are more structured and following a more predictable scheme than games of Crusader Kings 3; so the ability to play CK3 in a very different style explains that then not every DLC applies to every style.

While definitively fitting for the general philosophy of Elden Ring, the just released Shadow of the Erdtree expansion (ratings on Steam currently "mixed") can't even be played at all by 60% of the players of Elden Ring. You first need to "beat" Elden Ring more or less before you can access any of the content of the expansion. While the DLCs for Age of Wonders 4 or Crusader Kings 3 make the games broader, Shadow of the Erdtree makes Elden Ring only longer. Which is welcome for people who reached the end and are looking for more content, but not very helpful for anybody who didn't.

The different types of expansions also exist for board games. In fact, some reviews for board game expansions mention exactly the same issues as reviews for video game DLCs. Forest Shuffle, a recently popular card game, has been blasted for basically needing the expansion in order to have balanced gameplay; the base game without the expansion is said to feel "incomplete". Now where have I heard that before? But my main problem with board game expansions is that I rarely have any use for an expansion that makes the game longer. I have a handful of board games that I played through completely, like Roll Player Adventures or Clank Legacy, and then decided to buy more of that game. But I have far more Kickstarter board games where I decided to pledge for a bundle that contained an expansion, but I never even finished the main game, so I never needed to add to the length of the game. These days I am much more careful with crowdfunding, often only taking the base pledge, as I have the experience of unused expansions only taking up shelf space.


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