Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 18, 2019
 
Surviving Mars

Surviving Mars is a "hardcore survival city-builder", according to its publisher Paradox. But I must say that compared to some other Paradox games, Surviving Mars is a bit less hardcore, and more approachable. Especially now that they added a tutorial, which apparently was missing on release. Surviving Mars is also one of a few Paradox games available on the Xbox Game Pass for PC, and so I played it this weekend without having to buy the game. Which was good, because I liked it enough to spend some hours with, but not enough that I would have been happy to buy the game.

As you can imagine, Surviving Mars is a game about building a colony on Mars and surviving there. At first you start with RC drones and build some basic infrastructure. Once you have "domes" in place with living space, electricity, water, and oxygen, you can enter the next phase of the game and have human colonists. The humans serve as work-force for more complicated resource generation and manufacturing options.

The "hardcore survival" part kicks in when your carefully planned colony is struck by one of various disasters, like a dust storm or meteor strike. There have been city-builder games with disasters before, but in Surviving Mars they are not optional, but core parts of the gameplay. You basically don't just have to design your colony to be self-sufficient under normal conditions, but need to build in enough redundancy that it can still survive under disaster conditions. Needless to say that this won't always succeed. So while I didn't mind the Mars scenario as opposed to a village/city on Earth, I tend to play city-builder games casually, not hardcore. So I enjoyed Surviving Mars when I was building up my colony, and then didn't enjoy seeing it struck by disaster, even if that didn't wipe out my colony.

While you can play the game at different difficulty levels by choosing a different "sponsor", and there is a selection of different starting advantages, and chains of events, I didn't feel that the game has much replayability. Even within one game you spend a lot of time building the same type of infrastructure (like arrays of solar panels with accumulators and power cables) repeatedly. So after one weekend of playing this, I think I have seen enough and can uninstall it again. Next!

Sunday, November 17, 2019
 
Slight change of plan

I haven't changed my mind on the principal content of my recent "consumer advice" post, that is to say that I recommend very much to not subscribe to more than 1 game subscription service at a time. However I thought I would soon unsubscribe from the Xbox Game Pass for PC, and subscribe to Google Stadia instead. That isn't going to happen.

First of all I simply misunderstood Google Stadia. While I was aware of the streaming aspect of the system, I thought that otherwise it was a game subscription service like the others. It isn't. From the already thin starting line-up of Google Stadia, only a single game is playable for the $129 it costs to get the hardware and 3 months of subscription. The other games, like Red Dead Redemption 2, which I would have loved to play, require an additional full price purchase. At this point in time the offer for me was equivalent to playing Red Dead Redemption 2 for $200. So I cancelled my order. I already have a gaming PC that can run even resource-hungry games, so for me there is no advantage in the Google Stadia service whatsoever.

On the Xbox Game Pass for PC side, the news are better: New games are coming to the service. That includes games that I would like to play, like some of the Final Fantasy games. So my plan has changed to sticking with that service for a while longer before trying anything else.

Saturday, November 16, 2019
 
XP Fever

In World of Tanks one of the recurring XP Fever events started today. Among other benefits during this event you can also exchange excess xp and gold for free xp, which can be used on any tank to research modules or the next tank in the tree, at a better rate. I just exchanged 10,000 gold for 400,000 xp, and that is a lot. It is also unconventional, if you would go and ask for advice on the forums or elsewhere, people would tell you not to do it. So why do I?

In real terms, 10,000 gold can be bought for 35 Euro. The real life equivalence of 400,000 xp is very hard to express, as the amount of xp you get in one battle can vary widely from as low as 100 xp to as high as 10,000 xp. But for the latter you not only need to win a game with a great personal performance, you also need a bunch of special circumstances like xp multiplier bonuses from events and missions. If you play a regular tank repeatedly, the amount of xp you get per battle is, order of magnitude, somewhere around 1,000. So 400,000 xp is about 400 battles, a battle is about 5 minutes on average, so this is 2000 minutes, or nearly 35 hours. In other words, I exchanged 35 Euros for 35 hours of my time.

Of course that is not quite correct, as I want to play 35 hours of World of Tanks anyway. But the way I use my free xp is never to research any tanks with it (researching a top tier tank is around 200,000 xp), but rather to use it to research all the most important modules on a new tank. In other words, instead of playing tanks that are underpowered because they aren't fully equipped for 35 hours, I paid 35 Euros to play those tanks at full strength for 35 hours.

You can call that Pay2Win. On the other hand World of Tanks is an old game, with a bad treatment and thus retention of new players, so most of the players you meet are veterans of the game. With my 12k games, I still count as a noob. Players that have been playing for much longer than me not only have their tanks fully equipped, they also tend to play the more powerful tanks, while I am handicapped in having to play the tanks that get me up the tech tree. If I would be playing stock tanks with stock modules instead of spending free xp to get the better modules, I would just further gimp myself against an opposition which has all the advantages. It is the MMORPG equivalent of trying to play PvP with a character that just hit the level cap against other players which have been at the level cap for a long time and not only know have played a lot more PvP than you, but are also decked out in full epic gear. World of Tanks is basically a World of Warcraft in which the level cap is still the same as in vanilla, and there were never any stat/gear resets.

If somebody made an identical copy of World of Tanks, and attracted an equal number of players, but everybody had to start afresh, that curiously would be a much better game. It is the curse of a progression-based game, that without resets the progress accumulates to a point where veterans are not just more skillful, but also have huge stat/gear advantages over newer players. But of course as World of Tanks is in the business of selling progress in the game, they can't do a reset. They are stuck with a game in which the veteran population destroys their chance to attract new players. Something went very wrong with that concept.

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Friday, November 15, 2019
 
Consumer advice on subscriptions

In a recent thread some readers suggested I should play The Division 2. The game is not on Steam, but I do have UPlay installed, and so I checked it out there. I could buy that game for €60. Or, for just €14.99 a month, I could subscribe to UPlay+, and play not only The Division 2, but a hundred other Ubisoft games as well. Now I'm not saying that I won't do that; but I would like to give some consumer advice on subscriptions.

I'm old enough to remember door-to-door salesmen peddling subscriptions to magazines. The subscription price seems low compared to having to buy those magazines one by one, plus you get the convenience of having them delivered. So why do companies want to sell you that subscription? Because it makes buying their magazine or whatever the default option, and it makes not buying the more complicated option that requires more effort. Getting you to go to the newsstand every single month to buy a monthly magazine is hard, selling you a subscription once is a lot easier. You can usually count on people being lazy and not thinking deep enough, so they just let their subscriptions run far beyond the point where they would have stopped buying the goods one by one.

So, what's the danger? Surely I can afford €14.99 every month for UPlay+, can't I? Well, the danger, now as back then with the magazines, is getting persuaded to buy more than one subscription. If I subscribe to the Xbox Game Pass for PC, UPlay+, Apple Arcade, Origin Access, and Google Stadia, the subscription fees add up to €50 a month, and that is if I don't take the premium versions of the subscriptions, which can be up to €30 for a subscription. And I would have access to more games than I could actually find the time to play, so some of those subscriptions would remain unused every month. Also I would probably still have to buy some other games, as all of these services combined have only a few hundred games all together, while Steam now has 30,000 games.

So my consumer advice would be to subscribe, but only to one service at a time. Play all the games that interest you, then unsubscribe and subscribe to the next service. I am currently on the Xbox Game Pass for PC, but I will unsubscribe that one to try out Google Stadia for three months. Then I'll unsubscribe from that one, and try either UPlay+ or Origin Access, and so on. I might sometimes have a bit of overlap, but the idea is to be most of the time subscribed to only one service, and never to more than two.

For the record, I am subscribed to both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, but no third video streaming service. And Amazon Prime doesn't really count, because I order parcels from Amazon frequently enough that the free delivery pays for the cost of the whole service, and Amazon Prime Video is just an extra.

Thursday, November 14, 2019
 
Winning for your team

I have been playing World of Tanks nearly every day since the start of this year. Unsurprisingly that has resulted me becoming better at it. I only have detailed statistics for the last 6 weeks, but during that time my WN8 rating went up every week, by an average of 4. As the WN8 is an average over all your battles, and I have 12k battles, the increase is slow. But the fact that it is going up steadily means that I am now pretty consistently playing better than I was before.

However I noticed that there is no correlation with my win percentage. I have been between 48% and 49% win rate since I started playing in 2011 (it's not 50:50, because a draw is basically a loss for both sides). In the World of Tanks community there is an everlasting discussion whether one should play to win, or whether it is better to play for your personal score, e.g. WN8. Quickybaby, probably the game's best known Twitch streamer, once took the time during a stream where people wanted to look at World of Tanks gameplay to show with an Excel table that the very best players have an average win rate of up to 70%, and the very worst players down to 30%; for him that proved that your skill had an impact on your winrate. Which at the extremes is certainly true.

But if you look at Quickybaby's own win rate of just over 60%, with him being quite good at the game, and playing to win, how many of his games did he actually influence? 60% win rate to me suggests that he didn't have enough influence to turn the other 40% of games into wins. And it would appear logical to me that this also means that of his wins, 40% would have been wins even without him trying. Only in 20% of his games, 1 in 5, did he have enough influence to affect the outcome.

Mathematically speaking, if the very best players have a positive influence on their win rate, and the worst players have a negative influence on their win rate, somewhere in between the curve must hit zero. And because skill is probably a Gaussian distribution, I would say that a vast majority of players are simply too mediocre to influence the win chance of their team in either direction. Me included. Playing to try to improve my personal score is the better option for me, because I have proven that I can do that. I am not convinced that I could play random battles without forming a platoon in a way where my win rate would be measurably higher.

Skill *does* have a marked effect on win probability, but mostly in the aggregate. There are mods that show you the sum of WN8 ratings of the players on each side. If one side has a significantly higher sum of WN8 ratings, it usually wins. But if the matchmaker puts you on the side with the lower skill, as a regular player you simply can't "carry the game" hard enough to make a difference. 

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019
 
Out of the Abyss - Session 2

In the previous session the characters started as prisoners of the drow in the Underdark. They escaped without any planning, and now found themselves somewhere in the Underdark, with no idea where they are, no idea where to go, no equipment, no food, and no water. Ideal start of a campaign, isn't it?

They have 9 NPCs with them, but the players still weren't very interested to talk with them. I had to nudge them a bit to at least make it clear to them that these NPCs, who are mostly denizens of the Underdark, would know a bit of the geography of the region. So the group found out that they were in the region of the Underdark surrounding the Darklake, and that the Kuo-Toa who had suggested a tunnel to choose during the escape was heading for his home village of Sloobludop, on the shores of that lake. They also found out the general locations of the homes of the other NPCs: Gracklstugh, Neverlight Grove, Blingdenstone, and Menzoberranzan. Nobody asked how to get back to the surface, so I think I will need to gently nudge them again in a future session.

My general model of a pen & paper roleplaying game is that there are two parallel levels: The one where the character Thrud the Barbarian swings his mighty axe and beheads the orc, and the other where the player Mike rolls a natural 20 and then rolls damage dice for more than the orc's hit points. My group is clearly concentrated on the latter of these. Knowing that, I used a technique that had already worked well on this level for a previous group, and "gamified" the travel through the Underdark; I turned it into a repeatable sequence of dice rolls, mostly survival checks, for navigation and foraging. The players need to decide whether they travel fast, normal, or slow, with the fast option not giving them time for foraging, while the slow option leads to the drow pursuers catching up. Although not very realistic, I use a big d6 to indicate the pursuit level, keeping the pressure up. That worked very well.

While I let the players roll for random encounters, I only use the encounter tables if I have nothing else foreseen. So normally, when the players' roll says that there will be an encounter, I start the next prepared encounter. Which is important for this part of the adventure, where the characters are under-equipped and a bit weak compared to a regular group of level 3 characters. So, first encounter, half a dozen goblins. The players managed that very well, with the help of the druid's Entangle spell. Still it was no pushover, and the players were happy with scimitars and short bows they looted. That's the advantage of a low starting point, you don't need to hand out magic swords to make the players happy. They then cast Purify Food on the goblin corpses and ate them. Well, it is kind of a dark fantasy campaign.

The next encounter was with two Hook Horrors, who were fleeing from four gnolls. The group wisely let the Hook Horrors be, and fought the gnolls. But nobody thought to cast Light, so the human fighter was fighting blind, which gave her disadvantage and the gnolls advantage against her. So she quickly went down. But the rest of the group managed to kill the gnolls, and heal the fighter. However they heard more gnolls yipping ahead. They explored the tunnel the Hook Horrors had run in, but that was a dead end, and they still didn't want to fight the monsters. They also didn't want to turn back, as backtracking increases pursuit level. So they tried to distract the gnolls with light and noise down one corridor, while trying to slip past them by another. However the druid rolled a 1 on his stealth check, and the gnolls noticed the group. We stopped there, but the next session will begin with a tough fight.

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Monday, November 11, 2019
 
Shooter advice?

I am not very good at playing shooter games, and I don't very often play them. However, from time to time I quite enjoy the gameplay of a good shooter. So now that I have access to a bundle of different games with the Xbox Game Pass for PC, I tried out Gears of War 4. And I didn't like it. Well, I did like the 3rd person shooter perspective, as it causes me less nausea problems than some of the first person shooter games (I can't play any of the Far Cry games without getting nauseous). But I didn't like the heavily scripted, linear, shooting gallery gameplay.

I prefer "looter shooter" games, with more open world exploration, and less scripting. I much liked the Borderlands series of games, found the two Destiny games okay, but didn't overly like The Division. I didn't try Warframe, because I prefer games that are designed to be played solo. So I was wondering whether anyone could recommend me a Borderlands-like looter shooter with third-person view. One obvious candidate would be Borderlands 3, but I'm waiting for Google Stadia to play that, or alternatively for the release on Steam.

 
Cthulhu the second

As requested, the photo of the improved Cthulhu dice tower with tray.

Thursday, November 07, 2019
 
Same offer, different platform

I am currently subscribed to the Xbox Game Pass for PC (beta), which gives me access to about 150 PC games (for download, not streaming) for €4 per month. I think that is a good offer. Now I read about Apple Arcade, which offers to give me access to 100 iOS games for €5 per month, and I think that this is a horribly bad offer. Why, if it is so similar?

In my mind mobile games are cheap, even the best ones. PC games are more expensive, especially triple A titles on release. The Outer Worlds for €60 at release is a regular price, and getting access to it via the Xbox Game Pass for PC for much less feels like a steal. I can't think of a €60 iOS game, and even €20 for an iOS games seems expensive. Apple Arcade doesn't even try to convince you that it is a way to get games cheaper, instead it has "exclusive" games, which you can't buy at all if you aren't on Apple Arcade. And they are indie games rather than triple A games. Because of that, you don't know these games, and don't feel much pull to sign up to try them.

In the end, Apple Arcade appears mostly to be a paid curator system: It selects a bunch of decent games with no in-app purchases. There are other decent games with no in-app purchases in the iOS app store, but they are hard to find in a sea of garbage and exploitative games. The sometimes very low quality of the Apple app store games becomes the purchasing argument for Apple Arcade. I rather find good iOS games by reading free websites reviewing them.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019
 
Sorcery!

If you play a MMORPG, you probably have seen guides on the internet telling you which class in the game is "best", and how to spec it for maximum efficiency. There is often some theorycrafting involved to calculate the maximum damage per second such a character can achieve. So unsurprisingly some people new to Dungeons & Dragons ask questions like "what is the best class", and are surprised that they can't get an answer. Characters in D&D have a lot more facets than characters in a MMORPG, and combat is more varied; you can't even properly calculate average damage per turn of a build, because that would very much depend on how many enemies there are, and what the tactical situation is. The upside of this is that you can play a lot of different character classes with a lot of different builds, and they all will shine in one situation or another.

I am currently a player in only one Dungeons & Dragons campaign, Tomb of Annihilation. As the name suggests, character death can easily happen in this campaign, as unlike other campaigns there is no chance for resurrection. So my tabaxi paladin, with an interesting dual-wielding build based on high dexterity, heroically charged a huge dinosaur, and was eaten by him. As the DM had told us at the start of the campaign to create a backup character, I had actually planned a tragic-comic story for this eventuality: My paladin was always asking people whether they had seen his sister. And as soon that he died, the sister turned up as my backup character, a tabaxi sorceress.

5th edition D&D has three classes that are purely arcane spellcasters: Wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. Wizards have the largest selection of spells, warlocks have the fewest spells but can deal lots of damage every turn with their main cantrip, Eldritch Blast. The Sorcerer is somewhere in the middle between the other two, having a medium amount of spells, and an interesting ability to modify spells with metamagic. My sorceress has the divine soul sub-class, which allows her to use some cleric magic. And as metamagic she has one ability that enables her to cast touch spells at range (or double the range of a ranged spell) and another ability that allows her to cast a spell which normally would be limited to one target onto two targets. As a consequence I chose mostly spells that can normally be only cast on a single target, and didn't take more classical spells like fireball. Now I can for example cast Cure Wounds at a distance, or on two characters at once.

The result is an interesting one. As the twinned spell ability is powered by sorcery points, and I can give up spell slots to create sorcery points, I can now basically decide to cast fewer spells per day, but with twice the oomph. That didn't always work out in my first session with the character, but I am getting the hang of it. And now I reached level 7, which gives me access to the Polymorph spell, and that one gets really nasty when twinned. I can turn two party members into Giant Apes, which gives them a ton of extra hitpoints, and quite strong attacks. Or I can turn two enemies into sheep for some time.

One of the design flaws of D&D is sometimes described as "linear fighters, quadratic wizards". The problem is that the power of a melee fighter goes up with levels, as he gains stronger attacks. The power of a spellcaster goes up in two ways: He gets access to more powerful spells, *and* he can cast more spells per day. The build of my sorceress is specifically made to use that to a maximum. While at low levels the number of spells per day you can cast is limiting you, at higher levels you reach a point where you have more spells than there will be combat rounds in a day. Thus the ability to double a spell's effect by giving up spell slots get increasingly more powerful. I really made a quadratic sorceress, and I am quite happy with the result.

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Saturday, November 02, 2019
 
Walking Simulator

I finished The Outer Worlds. There is a degree of satisfaction in getting through a game with a somewhat depressing setting, and trying to achieve a "happy end", as far as that is possible. And the fact that I "rented" the game for €1 via the Xbox Game Pass for PC, instead of paying €60 to "own" it in a more permanent fashion, somehow encouraged me to play through the game to the end.

Having said that, through the whole game I never really clicked with the gameplay experience. As as shooter, The Outer Worlds isn't working all that great. In the last part, which is the only hard part if you play on "normal", many of my favorite weapons simply didn't deal enough damage per shot, and were thus ineffective against the armor of the enemies. I ended up sneaking through that last dungeon with a sniper rifle and using headshots to take enemies out. The exploration part of the game is marred by the fiddly business of picking up thousands of trash items as loot. And the puzzles are of the extremely simple variety, like hacking a terminal to unseal a door.

So in the end I felt as if I was playing a walking simulator, a game in which only the story is important, and the gameplay isn't. Not really my favorite genre. While I did like the dialogues, and the story is okay, The Outer Worlds for me compares unfavorably to a game like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which offers the same good dialogues and story, but enhances the experience by tactical gameplay.

 
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

This post is just to show off my print of the Cthulhu Idol Dice Tower. I had to scale it down to 18 cm height to fit my printers maximum dimensions. I printed at 0.14 mm layer height, and full print speed. Those aren't my best available settings, but with these settings the print took nearly 2 days, while at maximum settings it would have been 4 days.
Unfortunately the claws over the opening haven't come out perfectly, I didn't get the settings for the supports right. I am now printing a dice tray to add at the bottom.

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