Tobold's Blog
Thursday, July 20, 2017
Digital Summer

I have a computer at home (several, in fact). I have a computer at work. On the way between home and work, I drive a car and so I don't have time to use a computer. Which means that during a normal workday I rarely have need for a mobile device to surf the internet. But right now I am on my summer holidays, and there mobile devices are a lot more useful. And this summer there are two improvements that make my digital life during summer much easier.

The first improvement is minor, I replaced my old Samsung S4 phone by a new iPhone 7+, which I got with a nice rebate via my employer. I changed from Android to iOS because iOS has built-in support for hearing aids. Having your telephone ring directly in your ear withou anybody else being able to hear it is nifty. So is hearing your phone conversation with both ears. And like with the iPad I have wireless earphones for all media content.

The second improvement is that the European Commission forced mobile phone providers to drop roaming charges. That is a huge boon if you live in an European country smaller than Maryland. Before this you basically couldn't do mobile surfing while traveling, because it was prohibitively expensive. But now I can use my mobile devices for internet access with no additional cost all over Europe. Finally my surfing isn't limited to places with free wireless access any more.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Build your own adventure

Three years ago the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released with the basic rules and the Starter Set. It is a great success, selling better than any previous version of the game. And I do belive that the Starter Set is part of that success. The included adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver, does a great job of presenting both a story and a world setting in a manner that is accessible even to people who never played D&D before. Unlike previous editions it is now perfectly feasible for a group of new players to start 5E without anyone of them having been taught the game by an experienced player. That is a great quality to reach a wider audience.

Unfortunately I must say that the following adventure modules published by Wizards of the Coast for 5th edition D&D do not have that quality. Curse of Strahd is okay, as it still allows a new DM to follow a prepared story. But adventures like Princes of the Apocalypse, Storm King's Thunder, or Out of the Abyss aren't really suitable for beginners at all. They very much subscibe to the sandbox philosophy of gaming, which risks to get both new DMs and new players lost.

After struggling for a while with Princes of the Apocalypse, I decided to completely change my approach to that adventure. You know the adventure module has a problem if somebody is selling A Guide to Princes of the Apocalypse with good success. I tried and tried to find the adventure in this adventure module until I realized there wasn't one; this isn't so much an adventure module than a sourcebook of a region with a bunch of dungeons that can be put together by an experienced DM to form a long adventure. But it is up to the DM to sort out the bits and pieces into a story and take care of important details like how to get to the next dungeon as well as providing a compelling story reason to go there. The book provides plenty of story hooks, but either as a dry list of 21 possible hooks, each leading to a different part of the adventure, or as clues from various NPCs. The latter method is less dry, but you end up with the characters getting clues towards dungeons that are too high level for them, just because they decided to talk to this or that NPC. The clue to the place where the characters should be going first is from an NPC they can only meet if they visit the barber shop. When was the last time your group decided spontaneously to visit a barber shop?

So basically I have to build my own adventure by pushing the right clues into the path of the players. If they are given options like for example which dungeon to visit, I will need to provide them with clues as to the consequences of their decision, e.g. which dungeon is more dangerous. Otherwise you end up with a frequent flaw of sandbox design, being given a meaningless choice between going left or right with zero information about what the difference between going left or right is. I canuse the settings descriptions mostly as written, but I need to create an adventure linking the various places mostly myself.

Unless I prepare a lot, I would easily get lost. Information is distributed somewhat haphazardly all over the book. And a good amount of it is useless, like the long description of two rivaling poultry merchants in the starting town, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the story. With nothing leading towards the poultry merchants, nor anything from them leading elsewhere, how likely am I as the DM to need that detailed description?

My group is still in my abridged version of the Lost Mines of Phandelver, but they already got some clues about what the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure is about, and one possible place to start. I will continue to chronicle their adventures on this blog under the Elemental Evil heading. Just remember that if you read a sequence of events in that journal, this is a mix of what I made up and what resulted from players' ideas and initiatives. If you would want to replay the adventure, you wouldn't necessarily find that sequence, or in fact any sequence of events that make up a story, in the Princes of the Apocalypse book.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Sunless Citadel

*Spoiler Warning!* This post contains spoilers of the Dungeon & Dragons adventure Sunless Citadel, which in 5th edition is part of the Tales from the Yawning Portal collection.

Now that I am more often at the local role-playing club, I get to experience adventures as a player more often, while in my home campaign I'm always the DM. One adventure I have played is Sunless Citadel. That turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. I checked afterwards that this wasn't the fault of the DM, but the adventure as written has a serious problem with the flow of the story.

Early on in the dungeon the adventurers come across Meepo, a non-aggressive kobold who is the dragon keeper of the local tribe of kobolds. He was guarding a white dragon wyrmling, but it got kidnapped by the local tribe of goblins. Now obviously the players can at this point decide to just kill both kobolds and goblins. But one would expect some advantage in playing along with this obvious story line. So we followed Meepo to the kobold leader, who was sitting on a dragon throne, with the dragon holding a key in his mouth. Ah, we thought, this must be the key to the magically locked door we came across earlier. And yes, the kobold leader promised us the key in exchange for bringing back his dragon.

So we go into the part of the dungeon held by the goblins, fight our way through them, and finally find the dragon. Then of course the dragon doesn't follow us or Meepo voluntarily, so we need to subdue him. We bring the dragon back to the kobolds, get the key, open the magical door, go through a few more rooms, until we come to the end of that branch of the dungeon. There is a sarcophagus, which of course contains a monster to fight. And then we think that this is it, the high point of the adventure to which all of the previous story has led. But it turns out to be a complete dead end. The treasure is lousy, just some coin and scrolls none of the players can use. And none of this has anything to do with the actual main story, which we get to later, after all the goblins.

I must say that I consider this to be bad design. Why put an interesting key NPC in an adventure that leads the group not towards the story, but away from it? You end up with filler material which is more memorable than the main story! I would at least have added some clues and better treasure in that sarcophagus. Even if it just a dungeon crawl, the flow of the story is important in a role-playing game.


Friday, July 07, 2017
Zero sum game

Usually The Economist magazine has a thoughtful view on economic issues. So I am somewhat surprised seeing this week's cover agreeing with Trump that trade deficits are bad, and that fault for the US trade deficit is countries like China or Germany who have a trade surplus. For me that seems to be very much contrary to very basic mathematical principles.

You see, trade deficits and surpluses are a true zero sum game. If you list all trade deficits and surpluses of all countries in the world and sum them up, you get exactly zero, because every export of one country corresponds to an import of another country. And because it is a zero sum game, there is no possibility of having any global trade policy in which every country has a trade surplus. A trade surplus can't exist without a trade deficit and vice versa.

The US has a trade deficit because it consumes more than it produces. If the US targets any single country with a trade surplus to reduce trade with that country, the trade deficit of the US won't change. As long as the US consumes more than it produces, it will simply import goods from somewhere else. A tariff could get US consumers to buy less German cars, but it is hard to imagine that a lower availability of German cars would lead to US consumers buying less cars overall. The solution to a trade deficit is not tariffs on trade surplus countries, but economic conditions that favor more production. If the US would produce more cars, they would need to import less of them, problem solved (for that particular item).

Of course the surplus countries like China or Germany could spend more. For example they could raise wages. As a consequence the production of a German car would cost more, and the price would further go up because more Germans would buy German cars. The result is the same as a tariff: German cars would become more expensive on the US market, and US consumers would buy less of them. But then they would simply buy more Korean and Japanese cars. Other than shifting the blame on a different country, that resolves exactly nothing.

And then there is the tricky problem of foreign direct investment, one country investing in another country, thus creating jobs. The thing is that this is directly related to trade surpluses and deficits: If Germany sells cars to the USA, German exporters end up with lots of dollars. These dollars need in one way or another get back into the USA. It is another zero sum game, a country can't have a lot of foreign direct investment and no trade deficit. Hit the countries that have a trade surplus with tariffs, and you end up getting less factories built in your country by foreigners, and less jobs created. A nationalist might say that a factory built by foreigners in your country is bad, but for the people living next to it a factory built by foreigners sure is better than no factory built at all and unemployment.

In short, the only solution that makes mathematically any sense to reducing trade deficits is for the deficit countries to produce more. That automatically makes the trade surpluses of other countries disappear. The best possible solution you can possible arrive at is every single country being perfectly balanced and having neither a trade deficit nor surplus. It is hard to imagine how one could possibly arrive there with only one side of the trade balance changing.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017
Elemental Evil: Session 4

In the previous session the group had cleared out the Redbrand Hideout and killed or chased away all of the Redbrands from Phandalin, freeing the village. In this session, which was short for out-of-game reasons, we played through the aftermath of this, and up to the start of the next location.

So the group came back to the townmaster and Sildar Hallwinter from the Lord's Alliance for their reward. They also suggested a celebration, and that proposal was accepted. As they hadn't really explored Phandalin before tackling the Redbrands, I thought that might be a good opportunity to meet the townspeople they had previously missed. In a somewhat meta-gamish approach the group also decided to look for side-quests, as they were missing 75 xp each for the next level. The townmaster could direct them to Sister Garaele of the shrine of luck, who was looking for adventurers to negotiate with a banshee. They also found out that the proprietor of the Phandalin Miners' Exchange, Halia Thornton , had been willing to offer a reward for getting rid of the Redbrands, a quest they had missed.

Krosh decided that they should ask for the reward from Halia Thornton anyway. Halia was unwilling and explained that she would have offered the reward for the delivery of all documents found in the Redbrands Hideout. The group pretended they hadn't found any documents, and so Halia didn't want to pay them. Krosh tried to intimidate Halia, but what he didn't know was that Halia is an agent of the Zhentarim and had been the only one not afraid of the Redbrands before. In fact the "quest" they missed was basically motivated by Halia wanting to take over the extortion operation of the Redbrands, which is why she wanted the documents. So Halia liked Krosh's brashness, but wasn't going to be intimidated into paying him anything.

During the celebration the group also met the agents of other factions. This is basically an element of the D&D Adventurer's League, where players can join one of five factions in the Forgotten Realms and get some benefits from it. Not overly relevant for my campaign, but I wanted to keep it in as an option. However my players weren't overly interested in joining a faction, at least not as a group.

The next day Krosh bought a chain and spike to attach it for the goblin, Droop, who they had found in the hideout, being harried by bugbears. Then they set of to on the side-quest to meet the banshee. For once they were sufficiently impressed by the possible danger and didn't attack the banshee, but followed the quest to offer her a jeweled comb in return for answering a question. The adventure foresees the possibility that they could ask one question of their own, but instead they stuck to the quest and asked the question Sister Garaele had wanted, which didn't have anything to do with the rest of the adventure. So they returned with the answer, got 3 healing potions and 100 xp as reward, and got up to level 3 with that.

Sildar Hallwinter reminded them of the urgency of rescuing their former employer, Gundren Rockseeker, from the goblins. As they didn't know the location of Cragmaw Castle, they finally got around to seek information on how to get there. They learned that somebody who could know that would be a druid named Reidoth, who lived in the abandoned village Thundertree. Furthermore Droop, who wasn't bright enough to understand maps, said he would be able to find the way from Thundertree to Cragmaw Castle. So they traveled there, still not with much haste, sticking to the safer and longer way over roads via Neverwinter.

Arrived in Thundertree they found the village in ruins, having been destroyed a long time ago by a volcano eruption. They entered the first building that still had walls and a roof, the tavern, and found the interior covered in ashes. While searching the building from those ashes rose four ash zombies, surrounding the group. Which meant that Popée, who had selected to be at the back of the marching order for safety, was again in melee contact. Fortunately in 5th edition the rules regarding casting spells in combat are much less restrictive than in 4th edition. The zombies however turned out to be difficult to kill, as they have a saving throw every time they are reduced to 0 hitpoints, with a difficulty depending on the power of the blow that killed them. So in spite of the zombies having a low challenge rating and never doing much damage the fight went on for a while. So that when the zombies were finally beaten, we decided to end the session there.


Monday, July 03, 2017
Strange advertising business model

I am very much aware that mobile games are big business, in fact bigger than either console or PC games. And I understand the business model of giving away your game for free, and then selling some sort of currency used in the game to advance for big bucks. And if a mobile game is making big bucks, I understand the business logic of advertising that game. However what I don't understand is how advertising mobile games with fake gameplay could work.

Nobody really expects truth in advertising. With rising advertising budgets we now get ads with real actresses trying to lure customers into some game, and we all know that besides that spot the actress has nothing to do with that game. Because they are much cheaper to do, most ads for mobile games just show some aspects of gameplay. A 30-second spot showing gameplay of some match-3 game will give you a pretty good idea what the game is about. You don't get the details of how exploitative / Pay2Win the real money part of the game is, but you know what the gameplay is.

So I am a bit confused that more and more I am seeing mobile games advertised with video ads showing completely fake gameplay videos. One, whose name I am not going to mention to deliberately not advertise it, is advertising itself with gameplay apparently prepared using some engine similar to Total War on the PC. But if you watch 30 seconds of glorious 3D Total War like combat and then decide to install the game (or watch actual gameplay on Youtube, which is what I did because I didn't trust it), you see that combat in the game is actually very primitive 2D. Another game advertises itself with a first-person 3D view swordfight sequence, but the whole game is isometric 2Dview. The fake gameplay sequences come complete with believable UI elements like a mini-map or controls. But apparently they have been created only for advertising, with nothing like that being actual gameplay of the game advertised.

But as these games are Free2Play, downloading and installing the game doesn't cost the customer any money, and so don't bring any revenue to the game company. You make money by retaining customers in your game and getting them hooked so they spend money on virtual currencies. But if you lured them into your game by fake gameplay videos, how could that possibly work? It only takes the player 5 minutes to see that he has been cheated and to uninstall the game again. Only a loss of time to the player, and no gain of money to the company. And the player is less likely to try a game of that company in the future. So what can the interest of these fake gameplay video ads possibly be? I don't understand!

Sunday, July 02, 2017
Ending a game

After 25 hours of playing No Man's Sky I decided that I had seen everything I needed to see in that game and uninstalled it. I don't regret having bought the game, I don't feel cheated because I never believed in the promise of an "endless game with 18 quintillion planets". I simply played through of what content there was (most of which was from the base building patch) to the point where anything else I would do would just be a repeat of previous actions. And then I stopped. But it did prompt me to think about how we end games.

None of us play games 24/7, we all need to lead the rest of lives full of work, study, eating, sleeping, and all the rest of it. So playing a game is always a discontinuous affair. So we don't so much "end" a game rather than coming to a point where we simply don't start the game again. We rarely reach the end of a game. And more and more games don't even *have* an end, or, like No Man's Sky, simply start over if you finish them. So we are either content with the unconscious ending of games by simply letting them rest, or we decide to make a conscious decision to stop playing a game and uninstall it.

It gets a bit more complicated with games that not only never end, but which add more content over time. Blizzard sent me an invitation to play World of Warcraft for free for 7 days, so I could admire their latest patch. So I updated my client and loaded the game. I played through a scenario that led me to the Broken Shore. And there it became quickly evident that I was supposed to visit that new zone every day, do world quests and grind reputation, to get my flying mount for that expansion. And although it's just a bit over half a year since I played last, I didn't fully remember the sequence in which I was supposed to press all these hotkeys for maximum efficiency. In short, the new content and the idea to come back to WoW didn't really excite me. But I have no idea whether I actually "ended" WoW, or whether that is just a phase and I'll be back at the next expansion.

I like the clarity of a conscious decision to end a game and uninstalling it. I own so many games that it doesn't even make sense to play a game longer than the period where it is really fun and exciting. But some games I can't seem to be able to make that decision, and they end up being installed on my hard drive for years and years, even if I don't actually play them. How about you?

Monday, June 26, 2017
No Man's Sky

In a presumably not highly original way I put all the games I see on Steam that interest me over the year on my wishlist, and then buy them when they are heavily discounted. The Steam Summer Sale just started this weekend, and one of those heavily discounted games was No Man's Sky. Now I know the reviews of the game weren't great, and a lot of people who paid $60 on release felt somewhat cheated out of their money by a game that over-promised and under-delivered. However three factors persuaded me to buy the game now: 1) 60% off. 2) Large content patches since release (Foundation, Path Finder) 3) A personal preference for exploration/crafting/survival games without PvP. So I bought the game.

8 hours into the game I am still having fun and don't regret my purchase. At first the game caused me headaches, literally, and nausea, but searching the internet I found how to modify the field-of-view FOV setting in a file to 120+, which more or less solved that problem. After spending maybe too much time exploring the starter planet, I now followed the breadcrumbs of the tutorial to first learn everything I needed to explore space, and then find a planet on which I could build a base. I still have to find out how exactly this will work if I move on towards the center of the galaxy, but I read that there are teleports from space stations as well as a way to move the base.

Having seen a handful of planets I already noticed the fundamental problem with the advertised 18 quintillion planets: The human brain has an enormous capacity of pattern recognition and simplification. We live on a world with 7.5 billion people, but have a neocortex that can only handle 150 stable relationships. But that doesn't cause us a problem, because we simple recognize patterns of behavior and just bundle people into large groups where we don't need to treat them as individuals. We think of "Americans", or "Nerds", or "Gamers" as groups, not as individuals. So in a game like No Man's Sky, we also group all "small, non-aggressive creatures" into one group and don't care about how many trillion of them the game has in it. They all behave the same, so our brain can treat them as one, not many. And unlike humans the creatures in the game actually *are* just one, not many, because they are all ruled by the same algorithm. Once you count how many different algorithms or distinctively different groups of content No Man's Sky has, you quickly end up with a much smaller number than 18 quintillion. Probably below 100 even.

Once we look at the game like that, it actually contains "less content" than a typical $60 game with hand-crafted environments and creatures. So I would agree that No Man's Sky isn't worth $60. However it is well worth the €24 I paid for it, because it is a reasonably well-crafted exploration game which can provide a good number of hours of fun. Having said that, I am more interested in the fun hours of exploration than in grinding hours of crafting Bypass Chips or mining minerals for sale in order to pay for things like ships or exosuite upgrades. But fortunately the standard money cheat program I use, ArtMoney, works perfectly well with No Man's Sky, and I can just hack myself the money I need instead of grinding. There is still enough mining and crafting to do in the game just to build the stuff I want, I don't need to prolong that by mining and crafting only for money.

In summary, I like No Man's Sky at the summer sale price, and am looking forward to playing it some more until I get bored or reach the center of the universe, where the answer "42" is hidden.

Sunday, June 25, 2017
Moral dilemmas in D&D

In 2014 I used this blog to collect ideas for a D&D adventure, which I then wrote with another blogger, and played in my 4E campaign. It is the story of an evil princess who wants to succeed her father on the throne, but the father prefers his younger son. So she uses an incident where a crack into the Underdark opens in the dukedom to make people afraid of the "Underdark menace" to make her brother, who is captain of the guard, look incompetent. The players get involved when the princess has the lover of the prince murdered, and the players become suspects. Trying to get rid of them and creating a panic at the same time, the princess arranges for them to be transformed into deep gnomes. The players need to flee, and have a series of adventures in the wilderness and in the Underdark before gaining their normal form back. Then they return to the city as diplomatic envoys of the king of the deep gnomes to negotiate peace and trade, and try to find out who is behind their transformation and the murder.

The whole story ends in a moral dilemma: The players successfully negotiate peace, and find the henchmen who did the murder and the transformation. They find out that the princess is behind all that, but they can't get proof enough to convince her father. The end of the adventure is open, but the three most obvious options would be to either attack the princess, turn the princess into a deep gnome, or to leave the princess be. None of these options is without negative consequences: Killing the princess risks getting found out and being attacked by the guard. Turning the princess into a deep gnome risks destroying the peace treaty between the dukedom and gnomes (because the princess appears to have been "kidnapped by a deep gnome"). And leaving the princess be results in her eventually murdering her brother and "winning".

I now played the adventure through a second time in 5th edition (where the adventure took 3 sessions instead of 10 in 4E). And the players of the 5E group chose the same option as the 4E group, which is letting the princess win. Personally I found that the worst possible option, but it is the one with the least direct risk for the players. What do they care whether the dukedom in the future will be governed by a good prince or an evil princess? So I think my adventure has a design flaw there. Or do you think other groups would have chosen one of the other two options?


Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Elemental Evil: Session 3

In the previous session the group had started to clear out the Redbrand Hideout in Phandalin, albeit with some difficulties. This session started with them talking to the prisoners they had liberated. These were the wife and children of the local woodcarver, who had been killed by the Redbrands for intervening when they harassed his wife. The family didn't have much to reward the group with, but the woman was able to tell the group where an emerald necklace family heirloom was hidden in the nearby abandoned town of Thundertree. The group led the family to safety and started arguing about whether to rest or not. In the end they did, because they could do so in the safety of the inn, and figured that with all the noise they had made their element of surprise was gone anyway.

The next day they went back into the dungeon. Searching for tracks outside revealed that suspiciously few tracks were present, which made them conclude that there was another entrance. Inside they had explored every room, so they started searching for secret doors and found one right in the first room, leading to a corridor. Given his experience falling into a trap in the previous corridor, Erdan the druid used a barrel he had found to roll before him. When they reached a large room with a large crevice all the way from north to south, he also used the barrel to test the stability of the bridge in front of him, which promptly collapsed. He looked into the crevice and saw a hole in the wall under the bridge, but didn't follow up on that. The group was somewhat distracted by a Nothic, who used his telepathic powers to read their minds and speak with them telepathically, asking to be fed. They "asked" back what they would get if they fed him, and the Nothic (which they never saw) answered that he would let them pass unharmed. So they took one of the corpses of the Redbrands killed the day before and threw it in the crevice.

All session long the group was highly chaotic and uncoordinated. Erdan searched the room north of the crevice room and found a secret door leading down some stairs, but didn't use them. Meanwhile the rest of the group was in disagreement how to cross the crevice, with Krosh jumping across, others taking the north bridge (which was safe), and others building a new bridge from planks found in the ruins upstairs, which was equally safe. Finally everybody went across without problem and they chose to descend the northern one of two stairs going down. That ended in a corridor with two doors, one leading north, the other south. They decided to open the north door, and found a room in which two Redbrands were feeding a rat.

The following fight demonstrated how tricky the concept of a simple door can be. The group killed the two Redbrands within the round with relative ease, but Popée the sorceress thought that the safest place was the space just outside the door, not considering that there was another door right behind her. So when it was the turn of the Redbrands, the south door opened and two Redbrands attacked Popée, nearly killing her. She tried to bluff and fake her death, but a bad roll meant the performance wasn't very convincing. In round two the group turned and stormed the south room. Popéé, for safety, went into the north room, again ignoring the fact that in that north room there was yet another door. At the end of the turn that door opened and a mage appeared, firing Magic Missiles at everybody in the room, knocking Popée unconscious. On the next turn the group killed the remaining Redbrands, and Krosh, the half-orc war priest used his channel divinity to get a +10 on an Inflict Wounds spell, seriously hurting the mage. Laurelin the paladin revived Popée. The mage, which turned out to be both "Iarno Albrek", the mage that Sildar Hallwinter was looking for and "Glassstaff", the leader of the Redbrands, used a Misty Step teleportation to disappear. Krosh failed his perception check and didn't notice the secret door with the view hole "through" which the mage had teleported, so he escaped.

Having finally realized the importance of doors, Erdan wanted to open the door south in the Redbrands room, while the others wanted to search the mage's room. They found some treasure, but more importantly the book that the goblins had taken from Gundren Rockseeker, and a letter. The letter congratulated "Lord Albrek" on having infiltrated the Lord's Alliance and taken control of Phandalin. It asked him to use his "goblin allies" to capture Gundren Rockseeker and get his book, which was "dangerous to our cause, even if the dwarf doesn't know it". The mage was supposed to bring this book to "our tower near Red Larch". The book was the family history of the Rockseeker clan, starting from 5,000 years ago, where the dwarves had a surface kingdom called Besilmer. They defended that kingdom with an underground fortress called Tyar-Besil. But digging deeper they came upon a drow temple worshipping the Elder Eye of Elemental Evil. The dwarves were unable to destroy that evil power, and the Rockseeker clan recorded the dwarven knowledge on Elemental Evil.

The group was a lot less interested in this campaign background / clue what to do next information than in the next door, which they now opened. They heard some voices behind it, but decided to just open it rather than listen. So they stumbled into what was actually probably the hardest fight (and the most avoidable) of the dungeon: Three bugbears were harassing a goblin for fun. The goblin hid under the bed when the group entered, and the bugbears attacked. As usual in 5E the fight was over relatively quickly, but the bugbears got in some serious hits and the group was low on health and spells at the end. However that was the last room of the dungeon, and we ended the session here. Due to the group having 6 players compared to the "standard" 5, they are still a few experience points short of reaching level 3. But we will certainly get there next session.


Friday, June 16, 2017

I have been playing Magic Duels for two years, nearly every day, and on two accounts: One on my iPad, and one on the PC. During that time I bought or earned over 5,000 cards (both accounts together), which is about $600 value in cards. Yes, the bigger half of that was earned by playing, but even if you just consider I spent something like $200, it still is a good amount of money for a computer game. The way Magic Duels, and in fact all online versions of Magic the Gathering, are presented is that you don't buy a game, you "buy cards", just like the physical card version of the game. But the latest development kind of removed that illusion. Wizards of the Coast is stopping support for Magic Duels and is launching a new online platform, currently knows as Magic Digital Next. And I feel expropriated, as if WotC just took my virtual cards away from me.

Legally of course I have no rights here. They haven't even announced whether and when they will be shutting down Magic Duels, they just said they won't add any new expansions to it. But expansions were basically the game of Magic Duels: You played one expansion enough to get the gold to buy the next expansion, and then the circle started over. At every expansion the AI was using decks built around that expansion, which renewed interest in the AI opponent. If they just stop adding expansions, the AI (and the players) will just use the same set of decks over and over, until the game gets too boring and everybody stops playing.

The best case scenario is that Magic Digital Next offers me the same entertainment, just minus my existing collection, forcing me to start over from zero. In Magic that usually means having to pay money, because the starting cards you get for free aren't enough to build a variety of reasonable decks. All the cards I have in Magic Duels, and all the gold I earned there is lost.

The worst case scenario is that I won't have any good platform any more to play Magic against an AI. Game developers have become increasingly lazy over the last years. They just don't *do* AIs any more. It is far cheaper to make games that are PvP only, and basically sell your existing customers as "content" to other customers. But real players are a lot less patient that artificial intelligence players: You can't just interrupt your game on your mobile device because of some event in real life, and then continue that same game later, when you have time again. If a game is PvP only, you lose the advantage of playing on a mobile platform, where otherwise you might want to play on the bus or metro until your stop, or in similar situations. Furthermore in Magic it is very possible that one player has a stronger start than another, due to a variety of random factors. Real players tend to quit in that situation. In Magic Duels the AI takes over if you play against a quitter, but what if the new version of Magic Digital Next won't have an AI?

So right now I am not happy at all over the announcement. They are killing Magic Duels off before we even get to see the first demo of the replacement (which will be in September). And they are doing it in the middle of an expansion block, instead of at least finishing that block. And as WotC has repeatedly messed up digital conversions of both Magic and D&D, I am not at all confident for the future of playing Magic on my iPad.

Thursday, June 15, 2017
Predicting the shape of the Brexit with game theory

Next Monday the negotiations between the UK and the rest of Europe about the exact conditions of the Brexit begin. While the very word, the referendum, and the "Brexit means Brexit" slogan suggest that people actually know what Brexit means, in reality there are about a million possible variations of the actual result. We only know that Brexit means the UK not being part of the club any more, but we haven't got the foggiest idea what the future relation between the UK and the EU will be, and by what rules it will be governed. How open will the borders be to the movement of goods and people? What will be the rights of British citizens in Europe, and European citizens in the UK? Which European rules will still apply in the UK in the future? Who is paying how much to whom? Nobody knows at the start of the negotiations.

Frequently one can use game theory to predict the outcome of negotiations. If you have an idea of what the negotiation parties each want, and what their incentives are to stick to some position or be flexible on another, you can make an educated guess predicting at least the likelihood of a range of different outcomes. So what if we apply that game theory to the Brexit negotiations?

If you look at Britain as a whole, you will see that there is a huge range of positions on Brexit. Just under half of the population didn't want a Brexit at all. But a reversal is unlikely because a good number of the remainers is willing to accept the opinion of the majority. But we can assume that the people who voted remain would prefer a "soft" Brexit over a "hard" one. And as the leave side is split on that, one could assume that overall there is a majority in Britain for a soft Brexit.

However to apply game theory one must first study the rules of the game. And it turns out that the rules of this game don't favor compromise. Compromise is something that is achieved when neither side in an argument has the power to push through their position. But in the Brexit game the rules state that if no compromise can be found, Britain simply drops out of the EU in the hardest possible way. The Brexit negotiations are basically about what softer rules, in addition to the default WTO rules, will apply in the future. Which means that in game theory terms a win for the hardest possible Brexit is the default option. The people who want a hard Brexit don't need to persuade anybody, they don't need to negotiate, they simply need to stall and block any negotiations and they win the "game".

Guess what my prediction of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations is!


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