Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 27, 2020
 
Low level hexblade in D&D

Dungeons & Dragons is an asymmetrical game, the roles and responsibilities of the players and the DM are not the same. That is especially true for game preparation. Unless you play a very improv style campaign, the DM has some work to do between sessions. If there are to be tactical battles with miniatures and battle maps, whether physical or digital, the DM has to prepare them. So what our group does is running two campaigns with two different DMs in parallel, alternating the sessions, and thus giving each DM twice the time to prepare between sessions. I DM Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and somebody else DMs Tomb of Annihilation.

So, in Tomb of Annihilation we are halfway through the final dungeon, so we started discussing what comes next. The other DM is pushing for somebody else to become DM of a campaign. But as nobody else has any DM experience, we decided to let the new DM start with something easy: The Lost Mines of Phandelver, the 5E starting kit. We only played the first dungeon of that one already, and with a few tweaks the adventure could be quite fun again.

In consequence, I was wondering what character to play. Now the internet is of course full of D&D character build guides to make the most powerful characters possible. But, first of all, raw power isn't the only consideration when creating a new character in D&D. And, second, one needs to consider the level range of the campaign that is being planned. Lost Mines of Phandelver is a low-level campaign, and unless we come up with a way to take the same characters into some follow-up campaign, the characters might well end their existence at level 5 or 6. Which means that great multi-class build you saw on the internet, requiring this many levels of one class, and this many of another, is most likely not going to happen. I need a character that is fun to play from level 1 on.

This requires some knowledge of the evolution of the different character classes. For example in a low level campaign, a Circle of the Moon druid is quite powerful, as turning into a bear at level 2 is stronger than anything any other class can do at that level. Spellcasters like wizards tend to be limited by their number of spells per day at low level, and become very strong at high level. Class balance in 5E D&D also strongly depends on how often the group takes short or long rests; my other group (which didn't want to switch to Roll20, so is on pandemic hiatus) tends to long rest a lot, which makes certain spellcasting classes much more powerful.

Now I have a certain fascination with the warlock class in 5E D&D. But I only played one once, and the class clearly has its weak points. Fortunately those are less evident at low level. In fact, if all spellcasters tend to run out of spells early at low levels, and are reduced to spamming cantrips, you'll probably prefer a warlock spamming eldritch blast augmented by hex and the agonizing blast invocation to a wizard spamming fire bolts or a cleric spamming sacred flame. Also, in order to paper over the weaknesses of the warlock class, WotC added a rather powerful subclass in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, the hexblade.

I love this sort of magically enhanced melee fighters! I once played two 5E bards in two different campaigns, and found the lore bard with his many concentration spells boring, while the sword bard was great fun, swashbuckling with two scimitars. And that sword bard, as well the dexterity-based paladin I played in another campaign, taught me one thing: Getting more than one attack at low level is quite strong. Now you will find a ton of hexblade builds on the internet, often multiclassing with fighter or paladin. But there is also a basic version that works with just the warlock class and already at low level: A variant human warlock hexblade with the polearm master feat. While you can't actually wield a real polearm as a hexblade before level 3 and the pact of the blade pact boon, the polearm master feat actually works also for the quarterstaff you can wield at level 1.

The polearm master feat gives you several additional attacks: One as a reaction if an enemy comes into melee range with you, and one attack per round using the other end of the staff. But if you have cast hex on the enemy, you add 1d6 of damage to each of those attacks. And if you are outside melee range, you still have the basic eldritch blast cantrip of the warlock, which with hex is already very powerful. While I am doubtful that this would scale very well to very high levels, the hexblade gains some rather powerful abilities at level 5. Eldritch smite works a bit like the divine smite of the paladin, which is to say that if you only use it on crits, your crits become ridiculously strong. And the hexblade curse allows you to get crits on rolls of 19 and 20, so multiple attacks with a higher crit chance make such an event more probable.

Personally I also like the roleplaying potential of the warlock, being beholden to his patron. With a brand new DM on his first campaign, I'm not sure how well that is going to work out, but the potential sure is there. I quite like the image of that quarterstaff swirling dark spellcaster. The hexblade option to run into combat and wreak havoc with a staff at low level is an obvious improvement of the basic warlock spamming eldritch blasts all day.

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Thursday, November 26, 2020
 
Party size and composition

If you visit a dungeon in World of Warcraft, you need 5 players. In most cases you will want to bring a tank, a healer, and three damage dealers. In many other computer RPG, party size is also fixed, e.g. without mods the maximum party size in Baldur's Gate 3 is 4 characters, and there isn't really a good reason to take less once you have access to 4 characters. Tabletop RPG and board games are often a bit more flexible. So I'd like to discuss party size and composition in general in this post.

The classic Dungeons & Dragons party consists of 4 characters, a fighter, a cleric, a rogue, and a wizard. But D&D is rather flexible in that. While the latest D&D rulebook addition, Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, expands the rules on taking NPC "sidekicks" on your adventure in case you don't have enough players, normally D&D is played with one character per player around the table. And 4 - 5 players, plus the DM, usually work best. I usually invite 5 people to my campaigns, and play if at least 4 of them show up. A D&D character sheet is relatively complex, especially if you also need to know your spells, so playing more than 1 character per player tends to be difficult. But in D&D the challenge of the adventure is freely determined by the DM, so party size is more about social interaction than game balance. And while "melee characters with better armor" exist in D&D, in 5th edition there are very few taunt-like skills, so there aren't really any "tanks" in the WoW sense of the word.

The kind of board games I have been discussing on this blog lately usually can be played with something like 1 to 4 players. But quite often the solo rules require you to play at least 2 characters. As I mentioned in my last blog post, in Folklore the Affliction you'd actually be better off if you solo 3 or 4 characters, because the game balance disadvantages small groups. But then, playing a character in Folklore is mostly a problem of finding a system to be aware of your various modifiers, so playing several characters requires good bookkeeping above all. In a game like Gloomhaven, the game is more about mastery of your deck, and keeping several decks in mind while playing several characters is more difficult. Fortunately Gloomhaven scales down okay, so I play that solo using 2 characters, because 4 would be complicated.

If you consider a group of just 1 character, it becomes relatively clear that the first thing you would like to do in a role-playing game combat scenario is dealing damage. A character that is very tanky, or a good healer, but doesn't deal much damage, is less good in small or very small groups. Once you move towards 4-character groups, having a tank, healer, or other support class becomes more of an advantage. In Gloomhaven the Tinkerer starting character can be quite nice in a 4-character group, but isn't all that great in a 2-player group. Support characters generally get better the more other characters they can support, while damage dealers only need an enemy to fulfil their role.

Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth is somewhat special in that characters don't really form a group when fighting enemies. Some cards give you some advantage if other characters are around, but the basic attack action is just your character launching an attack against the enemy, with the possibility of being counter-attacked. Also there is no square or hex grid, and several characters or enemies can stand in the same space, so there is somewhat less tactical movement. I would probably solo this one with 2 characters, because of the complex interactions of prepared cards making every round of combat somewhat different. And even getting damaged in this game is more complex than just reducing your hit points. While the character classes are a bit less evident, I think that the principle of avoiding more support roles (musician) for smaller groups still applies.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020
 
RPG in a box

As a counterpoint to my previous point I have to admit that while it is a very good board game, it is not really an "RPG in a box". That is to say, the gameplay experience is very concentrated on the tactical combat, while the story and decision making plays second fiddle. Also the Gloomhaven combat with a small deck of cards is great for people who like thinking and planning ahead, but is significantly more complicated than rolling a d20 to hit in Dungeons & Dragons. So what should you play if you'd rather have a solo or small group replacement for D&D?

One game I just ordered that fits the description is Folklore the Affliction. While the setting resembles gothic horror more than high fantasy, the flow of the game resembles D&D without a DM, based on d10/d100 rather than d20. You follow a story, you make a lot of story-based decisions, those decisions usually end up with you having to do a skill check, and occasionally there is combat. Not all combat is tactical, there is a faster to play skirmish combat for minor encounters, while more important encounters get the full tactical combat on a map treatment.

Compared to Gloomhaven, tactical combat in Folklore the Affliction is a lot easier. Just like earlier editions of D&D, you roll dice and add modifiers to determine whether you hit, then roll other dice and add other modifiers to determine damage. There isn't a whole lot of advance planning involved, you just chuck your dice and hope for the best. Which might be exactly what you want sometimes. My only real criticism of Folklore the Affliction at this point is that the scaling appears to be very badly done. In the first tactical combat in the first story you will fight 3 wolves, regardless of whether you play with 2, 3, or 4 characters. Sure, the wolves have more hitpoints when more characters play, but their hitpoints don't even double when going from 2 to 4 players, and obviously 4 players end up having a lot more options. So in spite of the RPG-like bookkeeping involved, I am probably going to solo this as a full 4-character group. Having more characters means rolling more dice, and that somewhat reduces the randomness of the system. The more dice you roll, the less probable it becomes that you have a long streak of bad rolls.

I still want to talk about a third game, but before I do, I would like to talk about replayability. I have played some Gloomhaven scenarios more than once, for example because I failed to get the treasure chest on the first run. That isn't half bad: The decks that determine what the monsters do result in different behavior the second time around, and thus you need to adjust your tactics. So the same monsters in the same rooms still feel a bit different the second time around. I don't think playing a story twice in Folklore the Affliction makes as much sense, as the game is more story-centered, and the story will remain the same.

Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth is interesting in so far as it has an app as the DM, and that app randomizes certain things. So if you play the same story twice, you don't even get the same map, and only the story-relevant encounters will remain the same. Combat and skill checks in LOTR: Journeys in Middle-Earth are done by drawing cards from a deck, and there are some ways to manipulate the deck, which makes the system a bit less random than rolling a d10/d100. And of course you can play characters from Lord of the Rings, although the developer felt compelled to add two completely unknown female characters as options, to make up for the otherwise male cast of Aragorn, Bilbo, Gimli and Legolas. Why not Eowyn?

While the Lord of the Rings lore is nice, the gameplay again is a bit less story-based than Folklore. Just like in Gloomhaven, your decisions are mostly about gameplay, and less "choose your own adventure" style. But the system of assembling the overall map from somewhat randomized tiles gives the game a bit more exploration aspects than the other two. Although the threat meter pushes you to pursue the story and not just go wandering around. In the end, I think I will enjoy playing all three of these games.

Monday, November 23, 2020
 
Gloomhaven, why and which

I have now played 36 hours of Gloomhaven on Steam, and maybe 15 hours (10 scenarios) of Gloomhaven the board game. Which means that in both cases I am still very much at the beginning of the game in as far as it regards the total amount of content available; but I have played the game enough in different formats to say why I like the game, and which version of the game I would recommend to you.

I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons for 4 decades now. But I don't play D&D with my wife. D&D is best played with about 5 people, and doesn't really work well with 2 people. Furthermore D&D is asymmetric as a game in that there is a dungeon master and the players, which creates its own power dynamic, which is not necessarily compatible with a marriage. So to play with my wife, I would like a game that in many aspects plays like Dungeons & Dragons, but in which both me and my wife are players, co-operating with each other. Gloomhaven as a board game very much provides that. We play like 2 scenarios every weekend together, and it is great!

My wife wasn't a gamer at all before she met me. Now she does play games on her iPad, and board games with me, but she clearly isn't a hardcore gamer. The kind of games we enjoy playing together are co-operative rather than competitive, and we'd rather play games in which we share our successes rather than being set up for failure. So Gloomhaven we play either on easy or normal difficulty, because neither of us enjoys the sort of challenge where you need to optimize your strategy through several playthroughs of the same scenario before you actually win. And Gloomhaven has 95 scenarios, so there is more than enough material to play a different one every time, rather than repeating the same scenario at high difficulty until we get it right.

Now while this may sound very soft to you, on the other hand we do like Gloomhaven because it is significantly more of a thinking person's game compared to other "mini RPG" board games. There are a lot of similar games out there where combat is handled by rolling some dice and adding some stats to achieve a result. In Gloomhaven combat is handled by your choosing 2 cards, and then using the top half of one card, and the bottom half of the other. As you only have around 10 cards, your hand depletes quickly, and there is a whole resource management strategy involved with recovering those cards. You often want to preserve resources, by not playing effects that burn the card for the rest of the scenario, and then use the stronger effects later in the scenario when the end is in sight. Combat is 80% planning and 20% unexpected surprises, rather than 20% planning and 80% randomness. The combat modifier deck in Gloomhaven has less random variation than dice rolls, and during character development you can modify your deck to make it more reliable. Gloomhaven combat is one of these desirable cases where a system is easy to learn, but difficult to master, and that makes it a lot of fun.

If you like the idea of Gloomhaven combat, but don't have anybody to play board games with, I would recommend the PC version of Gloomhaven on Steam. Playing alone the PC version is a lot faster and doesn't require so much time and space to set up. While it is still in Early Access, the Steam game is already very playable. And the "Guildmaster" mode of the game plays very much like an alternative campaign mode, so it doesn't matter that the original campaign will only come of actual release. If you prefer the board game version, I think you probably might want to start with the less intimidating Jaws of the Lion box. It only costs half of the standard game, is a lot easier to set up, and has enough content and the same combat system for you to see whether you like the system or not. Jaws of the Lion also has a better tutorial system, where the rules are introduced over the course of the first five scenarios rather than throwing you in at the deep end.

Saturday, November 21, 2020
 
No, I don't want a $1,000 PS5

I am not sure yet whether I will ever buy a Playstation 5. I didn't buy the PS4, but I did own a PS3. I already own a Nintendo Switch, and I might actually be more interested in a Nintendo Switch Pro, for better performance and battery life. So while I was not particularly looking for a PS5, I couldn't help but notice the news that it is basically impossible to buy one. Even a Belgian consumer advice TV show reported the news that prices on Ebay are $1,000 and more.

That looks to me like a huge failure for Sony. Not only were they unable to make as many consoles as there is demand for, they also failed to put systems in place where scalpers couldn't buy large numbers of the console for resale at inflated prices. And Microsoft isn't doing much better with new Xboxes.

Other than the Switch, which not only has more exclusive games, but also a unique sales proposition as dual-purpose mobile console, it becomes harder and harder to justify buying a console. Buying a $1,000 PC is clearly a better deal than buying a $1,000 PS5 or Xbox X. Consoles are only cheaper than PCs if there is sufficient supply in the stores. If you can't find the console you want on Amazon, you are probably better off not buying one at all.

Friday, November 20, 2020
 
Fair and balanced

Like much of the world I am watching the ongoing tragicomedy of the inept tinpot dictator of a banana republic trying to steal an election while claiming that it is his opponents who stole the election from him. Well, it would be just a comedy, the tragic part is the one where this happens in a country that was once viewed as a beacon of democracy.

The claims that a vast conspiracy of Democrats in big cities all over the country stole the election, implying that only the rural votes should actually be counted, are obviously preposterous. But I got really worried when following the reporting on how bad the USA had become, until I realized something: The claims that a vast conspiracy of Republicans all over the country is trying to steal the election is an equally big lie.

Once I had realized that, the panic stopped. I watched Fox News reporting that Guiliani didn't have any evidence at all and that there was no way Trump would remain president. If fair and balanced reporting is actually coming from Fox News, that proves that a large part of the right still hasn't lost the connection to reality. And once you look for it, you find lots of other proof for that: Republican state officials declaring Joe Biden the winner and denying all allegations of voter fraud, Trump appointed judges kicking out frivolous lawsuits from the Trump legal team. This isn't a fight between the Democratic left and the Republican right, it is a fight between the part of the Republican party that is still based in reality, and the fantasy wing of the party.

What I found somewhat missing in this debate was a bipartisan alliance of the moderates fighting for reality. I didn't see much left wing reporting about Republicans doing the right thing, other than showing Trump firing those Republicans doing the right thing. In the end, both sides are hurting Democracy by exaggerating the differences, and not admitting that the other side is just human beings with real concerns, who just happen to disagree on politics. Showing your political enemies as some sort of inhuman monsters is exactly what ultimately enables domestic terror, political violence, and civil war.

After all, there is an easy solution to the Trump problem. Him and his most fervent supporters have shown repeatedly that they aren't much concerned about reality, and would much prefer to live in a fantasy world. "Covid is a hoax, don't mind the quarter million bodies piling up over there!". So why not just use that? Why not create a fantasy America, with Trump as a fantasy president in a fake White House, speaking every day via Newsmax to his supporters, while in the real world Joe Biden is president of the real America in the real White House? You just completely isolate both sides from each other, and everybody is happy!

Thursday, November 19, 2020
 
Gloomhaven physical, digital, hybrid

I have been playing Gloomhaven in different ways over the last week. At first I only used the content of the big game box. While it is perfectly possible to play that way, the foreseen way to track hit points and statuses of monsters is a bit fiddly. So I followed the advice of one of my readers, and tried out the Gloomhaven Helper app, which helps with monster management. I found that both in solo mode and when playing with my wife, playing in "hybrid" mode with that app accelerated gameplay.

Of course playing the digital version of Gloomhaven on Steam is even faster. The original campaign from the board game isn't implemented yet, but the "Guildmaster" mode plays pretty much like an alternative campaign mode. Playing on the computer allows a few new game mechanics, like achievements that count things like the number of hexes moved overall, which would be really tedious to keep track of in the board game version. The Guildmaster mode also has repeatable missions called job quests, which unlike the board game version are *not* always the same, and thus are less boring to repeat, if you ever feel the need to repeat old content for xp and gold.

One major difference in my mind between the physical board game and the digital PC game is the design of road events. Either I am extremely lucky, or the road events in the PC version are designed much more positively for the players. The road events in the physical version frankly suck. There are a lot of road events in which both possible outcomes are negative for you. And they aren't much fun, because you take a decision and then suffer a consequence which often seems to have very little relation to your decision. In the digital version I never ended up with a negative condition imposed upon me at the start of the scenario from a road event, and if I lost gold, it was because I decided to pay that gold, and then usually got some positive effect out of it. That is a lot nicer. I'd gladly pay for a deck of the PC road events to replace the board game road events with. :)

One other hybrid thing I am using for Gloomhaven is Forteller. That is basically the text of the Gloomhaven board game scenario book in professionally made audiobook format. So instead of me reading a text aloud when playing with my wife, I let the app do that, because the app is better at voice acting and supplying background noises. Your mileage may vary, but for me that is worth $15 for professional voice acting, although I otherwise don't use audiobooks.


Monday, November 16, 2020
 
Back to 3D printing

For many months this year my 3D printers went unused. My main application was printing miniatures for tabletop roleplaying, and due to the pandemic my roleplaying went virtual, and didn't need 3D printed miniatures anymore. But as I am missing playing with physical objects, I have recently taken up board games again, which I can either play solo or co-operatively with my wife. And there is a bunch of stuff one can 3D print for those.

One thing that is often needed is some sort of counter, for counting things like hit points, levels, or objectives achieved. From various files on Thingiverse, with some modifications on TinkerCAD, I assembled the dials shown in the photo below. There are little 5 mm x 1 mm neodymium magnets in the top and the bottom, which hold the two parts together while allowing the dial to be turned to show the number. I had a lot of difficulties with other designs, because my 3D printer can only print one color at a time, and that made numbers hard to read. In this design the numbers stick out from the background, and I could easily paint them.
The other items shown on the photo are for Gloomhaven. After spending a lot of time punching out cardboard tiles for doors, bookshelves, and other pieces of dungeon decoration, I decided that they would look a lot better in 3D. Search Thingiverse for Gloomhaven, and you will find a 3D version of every cardboard tile in the game. I especially liked the design for the doors, in which the base fits the Gloomhaven hex, and the top is removable for when the door has been opened. But I am just printing the dungeon decoration. There is a whole system on Thingiverse for you to print the map tiles as well, but I didn't feel the need for that.

For both Gloomhaven and Too Many Bones I 3D printed custom design boxes for holding cards. In the Too Many Bones case the idea was to have a box hiding the encounter deck, so that you could draw a card without seeing it first (they are printed on both sides). For Gloomhaven the big square cards with the monster stats had no place in my insert, and I wanted a box to keep them together. That sort of item is easily designed in TinkerCAD, as it is just a hollow cuboid with one open side.

All this doesn't change my evaluation of home 3D printing as a solution in search of a problem. Unless you have a good application in which 3D printed parts are useful, a 3D printer is of not much use. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020
 
Assassin's Creed Rebellion, played differently

While everybody else is playing the new Assassin's Creed Valhalla, I am still playing Assassin's Creed Rebellion, which is a gacha game on iOS and Android. You collect the Assassin's Creed heroes from all over the series, and do missions with them. For a gacha game it has good gameplay, and the monetization isn't too in your face.

Now I have been playing Assassin's Creed Rebellion for many months now. At some point I had all of my heroes at the maximum level, 50, and two thirds of them at the maximum promotion level of 5 stars. Then my wife started playing, and I abandoned my high-level account and started over to play at the same level as her. And this second playthrough, we are doing differently, and I think our way is more fun.

In Assassin's Creed Rebellion you gain experience points by two ways: Using the "intel" you regenerate slowly by playing or rushing missions, and by doing daily objectives. The daily objectives are easy, and produce over twice as much experience per day as the missions do. So in the standard way of playing, doing all the daily objectives every day, your brotherhood level rises rather quickly. So you can raise character levels quickly as well, which are capped by brotherhood level, but you are constantly short on all the resources you need to level up, equip, and promote your heroes.

So my wife and me are playing without ever claiming the rewards for the daily objectives. So our brotherhood level rises at only one third the speed of the standard way of playing. But in other words, we are doing three times as many missions per level, and every mission gives us the material needed to equip, level up, or promote our heroes. As a result, our pool of heroes is comparatively strong for our brotherhood level. Not only is that less frustrating to play than always being short on resources, but it also gives us advantages in the events that happen 5 days out of 7. In the events you indirectly compete in the ranking with other players who have the same brotherhood level than you have. But if they play the standard way, our heroes are at a higher promotion level, and better equipped, so we are doing rather good in those events. Which then gives us even more DNA fragments to promote heroes.

So, if you ever plan on playing Assassin's Creed Rebellion, I can only recommend skipping the rewards of the daily objectives. In the long run it makes the game better. And you can play for longer before you hit the level cap and get bored.

Saturday, November 14, 2020
 
Game balance and randomness

In the comments of my previous post, Yeebo mentioned he was currently playing Shadows of Brimstone. Shadows of Brimstone is a game where you start in a Wild West frontier town, and from there take a group of heroes to nearby mines to explore and battle monsters. From the basic flow of the game, scenarios being played out on cardboard tiles, co-op PvE gameplay of group against "AI" monsters, it might appear that Shadows of Brimstone is a very similar game to Gloomhaven. But in fact it is a good example of the great "Euro" vs. "Ameritrash" divide. (Sorry, I didn't invent that term.)

Of course, no classification is ever perfect. Shadows of Brimstone has some characteristics of a Euro game, for example it being co-op instead of confrontational. Gloomhaven has some characteristics of an Ameritrash game, for example the miniatures for the heroes. Still, the first thing you see when you open a Shadows of Brimstone box is lots and lots of miniatures which you have to assemble yourself (which is one thing I hate, because I am not good at this), but more importantly for gameplay, lots of dice.

This is where you can really tell that Shadows of Brimstone is more an Ameritrash game, and Gloomhaven more of a Euro game: There is a lot more randomness in Shadows of Brimstone. For example in Shadows of Brimstone the scenario dungeon is created randomly while you play: You move to the edge of one tile, and draw a card to determine the next tile, and roll a dice to determine the exit of that tile. In Gloomhaven, the complete shape of the scenario dungeon, and the number and type of monsters in it, are usually pre-determined in the scenario book. (In fact, I kind of disliked scenario #2 in Gloomhaven, because of boss abilities that could randomly end up overwhelming you with monsters if you were unlucky.)

Even more importantly, movement and combat is a lot more random in Shadows of Brimstone, where you mostly use dice to determine everything. If you roll 1d6 to determine how many spaces you will move this turn, you don't get much control. In Gloomhaven you decide which cards to play this turn, so you have a pretty good idea how many spaces you are going to move. Even the basic combat modifier deck has 16 cards out of 20 that just modify your attack between +1 and -1, which is a lot more reliable and predictable than a d6 roll. In Gloomhaven you plan how you want your move to go, and there is a significant chance that it works as planned, and a smaller chance that it works out somewhat differently, because a monster drew a very fast initiative card, or you drew a rare "attack failed" card.

I like games to have a bit of randomness, like Gloomhaven, but not to be too random. I like Gloomhaven combat, because it makes me think, and allows me to plan ahead. Player skill has a bigger role in Gloomhaven because of that, rather than luck. Over the past decades, a lot of genres of games have moved away from too much randomness. Even Dungeons & Dragons in 5th edition is a lot less random than previous editions, due to the game design concept known as bounded accuracy. Deckbuilding in games like Magic the Gathering are all about reducing randomness. In Gloomhaven, a part of character advancement is changing the attack modification deck to make it more reliable. I don't want to take it too far, and play a game like chess in which there is no randomness at all. But too much randomness makes planning obsolete, and thus makes player skill obsolete.

Friday, November 13, 2020
 
My thoughts about Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven is an absolutely massive board game of epic dimensions. It comes in a 10+ kg box, has over 2,600 pieces and cards, a campaign of 95 scenarios, and 17 different character classes. The good news is that this epicness isn't the only reason that made Gloomhaven the top 1 board game on BoardGameGeek for the last few years. It also has an absolutely fantastic turn-based tactical combat system with interesting resource management.

Now excuse me while I take a short detour to the board game I played previously, Too Many Bones. Too Many Bones exists in a standard version for $130, and a standalone expansion called Undertow for $90. And if you asked me which one to buy (or buy first), I'd advise you to go for the full game, and buy Undertow rather as an expansion than a standalone game, because with only 2 characters, Undertow is a bit too limited for my tastes. In comparison, Gloomhaven exists in a standard version for $107 (current price on Amazon.com), and a standalone expansion called Jaws of the Lion for $48. Jaws of the Lion has 4 characters and 25 scenarios, and the scenario maps are played directly on the pages of the scenario book instead of on cardboard tiles. But that is well enough to get the full gameplay experience of the combat system. So if the standard game is a bit *too* epic for you, Jaws of the Lion might be the better solution for you. On the other hand, I don't see me needing Jaws of the Lion as an expansion after already buying the standard game. Not many people have actually finished Gloomhaven.

So, back to the discussion of Gloomhaven. Like many other games, board or video, Gloomhaven has a core gameplay, which in this case is the scenarios that are being fought out in turn-based combat, and a framework gameplay, called the campaign. If you play the campaign, you can only chose among 6 starting classes, and there is a single scenario to start with, although that leads to a tree of scenarios, not a linear sequence. Your starting character levels up and becomes stronger, but also works on his personal quest (you can choose a personal quest from two randomly drawn cards at character creation). Once a character finishes his personal quest, he retires, but a new character class is unlocked. That way, through the course of the campaign, a bunch of different character classes will be played. I am playing the campaign as intended, but unlike a video game, a board game makes it easier for you to *not* follow the rules if you don't want to. If you wanted, you could just open all the "locked" character boxes from the get go, and play whatever character you want in whatever scenario you want. In fact, if you ever get to the end of the campaign, you probably have a number of character classes still locked, and a number of scenarios still unplayed; you might prefer to just play through the unplayed content instead of starting a new campaign. I think the campaign mode is okay, but I also see where the downsides are.

For me the real strength of Gloomhaven is the core gameplay. Each character has a small deck of cards, around 10 of them. Each turn you play two cards. But each card has a bottom and a top section, and you can either play the bottom of the first card and the top of the second, or the other way around. Furthermore, you can always use any bottom of any card for a default move of 2 spaces, and any top of any card for a default attack of 2. When you choose your two cards, you also designate which one of them represents your initiative. The monster's initiative is determined after all characters chose their cards, so you don't know whether you will act before or after them. And you don't know what the monsters will do, as their actions are determined by drawing a single card, and those cards have different options. Maybe you decided to go for a slow initiative and let the enemies come to you, but then the enemies card says they stay put and heal up, messing up your tactics. Also, the attacks of both sides are modified with draws from another deck, which often just modifies the result by plus or minus 1, but could also double an attack or make it deal no damage at all. Character progression as well as the scenario can add or substract cards from that modification deck. And Gloomhaven has 34 different standard monsters and 13 boss monsters, each with their own different deck of actions. So in the end, every scenario plays differently, and every turn in the scenario is interesting and possibly surprising.

If you have 10 cards and play 2 per turn, you obviously run out of cards after 5 turns. But then you don't just simply take your discarded cards back. Instead you need to decide whether you do a short rest or a long rest, both of which make you lose a card for the rest of the scenario; the long rest makes you skip a whole turn, but lets you choose which card you lose, and heals you for 2 points. And as scenarios often have doors and monsters in the next room don't wake up until the door is opened, you might want to do a long rest before opening the door. Also, some of the options on some of your cards are stronger than average, but require you to lose the card for the rest of the scenario to play. So over the course of the scenario, your deck is getting smaller, and the amount of time you can play before having to rest becomes shorter. You can completely run out of cards, which has the same result as you losing all your hit points. So there is a complex resource management sub-game involved, with the added advantage that it discourages stalling.

The core gameplay of Gloomhaven is not only excellent, it also is nearly the same between the different versions of the game. Including the early access version of Gloomhaven on Steam, which at $25 is again only half as expensive as the cheaper board game version. If you are unsure about whether you like Gloomhaven, the Steam version is probably your best entry point, especially for solo play. If you are looking for a co-operative multiplayer board game, both choices are good, depending on whether you would like to go for the cheaper Jaws of the Lion, or directly for the more epic standard version at over twice the cost. I don't regret having bought the biggest version of the game (although I also bought the Steam version). If I ever finish that, the sequel Frosthaven is coming out early next year, with the same great core gameplay, but new classes and monsters, and a city building element added to the campaign. I don't think I will need that anytime soon though.

Monday, November 09, 2020
 
Gloomhaven unboxing blog post

My blog is so old, it predates sites like YouTube or Twitch. When I started, I didn't really have the choice whether I wanted to write or make videos. But of course, later I could have switched media, but didn't. I am a fan of the written word, rather than the spoken word. Editing is a lot easier. So I stuck with blogging, way beyond the point where blogging became irrelevant compared to videos. Having said that, today I am going to talk about unboxing Gloomhaven on this blog, and even I can see that an unboxing video makes a lot more sense than an unboxing blog post. Well, I'm still writing it, and if you need images you can search YouTube for "Gloomhaven unboxing" or "Gloomhaven e-Raptor insert".

Gloomhaven is not only the top ranking game on BoardGameGeek, it is also one of the biggest games I have ever seen. It comes in a huge box of over 10 kg. The first page of the manual describes over 2,600 pieces, cards, and tokens that make up the game. Many of them have to be punched out of 18 large cardboard sheets, which takes quite some time. And once you've done that, if you haven't been warned by a video or blog post like this, you'll notice that there is a problem: There are no inserts in that huge box which would allow you to keep all those punched out tokens separate. At the bottom of the box there is just one layer of an insert, and that one doesn't have all that many separate spaces, and can't hold half of the items you have. Either you come up with an independent storage solution, or you just dump all the tokens into the box and spend hours every setup to sort them out.

As I was warned before I bought Gloomhaven, I ordered an insert together with the game. I took the e-Raptor insert, which is made out of high density fiberboard, a sort of artificial wood. While my own personal "fab lab" at home only has 3D printers, I am aware of laser cutting as alternative fabrication technology. The e-Raptor insert comes in laser cut HDF sheets, and you need to punch those out and assemble them. Due to this manufacturing method, the whole thing smells a bit like burned wood, which isn't unpleasant. The bottom insert has a section in which you need to align 30 spacers in parallel, which is designed badly and very fiddly to assemble. But the rest fits together easily. The e-Raptor insert for Gloomhaven costs around 40 Euro, which, surprising as it may sound, is at the low end of cost for Gloomhaven inserts. It holds together without glue, but I am currently in the process of gluing together the bottom tray for increased stability.

The insert came with 3 pages of assembly instructions, which I found easy enough to follow. It didn't come with instructions what tokens go where, but you can get photos of the final product with tokens in from the website, and that can serve as a guide. While the assembly took some time, and there is a risk of long parts breaking when you punch them out of the sheets, overall I am quite pleased with the result. There are slightly nicer inserts made out of plywood instead of fiberboard, some with labels on which token goes where, but those cost as much as the game itself, up to $100.

I also bought, much cheaper, a set of removable stickers for Gloomhaven. The game comes with sheets of stickers which stick more or less permanently on the game board, showing for example locations you discovered on the map. I prefer a version that I can "reset". However, the Gloomhaven campaign has 95 scenarios to play through, and would take well over 100 hours to completely play through. So maybe those removable stickers aren't strictly necessary. On the positive side, you always only play one scenario at a time. So the desk I am currently using to play (my gaming table having been converted into a home office these days) might actually be big enough to play Gloomhaven. And the insert trays to keep the tokens and cards sorted will certainly help.


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