Cooking for Vegans
Never done it. Probably never will, although one friend may yet drift over from vegetarian. But I like to think I would take on board the requirements and make something appropriate. I do exactly the opposite when choosing games to play. I just put them on the table and see how it goes. Everyone has the right of veto, in which case the game is saved for another session. Why? Because I can no longer second guess my group and their increasingly odd, jaded, age induced foibles. Let alone those of strangers. It is far, far easier to just ‘suggest and remove’ and play the third or fourth choice.
From my side, I am twice as bad and I know it. The simple solution is that I will play anything once. Except, of course, LARPs. Worst case is that I suffer for three hours. This should therefore be a straightforward transaction but it is confused by my always having a partly negative view at the end of the game. Given that totally wonderful, perfect games hardly ever appear (arguably, there have been none ever straight out of the box), it is inevitable that I will find something awry.
This does not mean I don’t like any given game, but it does mean that my regular group are now second guessing me. The very idea! I am… surprised and amused. One gamer turned up yesterday and listed three things I would probably dislike about Game X. One of them was a slight possibility, the other two misreads. I suggested we play it and I was sure I would find something wrong… I did, but not what either of us thought.
If I have a standard dislike at the moment it is more the style of game that appears repeatedly. The first “explore map-read a paragraph-take actions” game is great. It was called Tales of the Arabian Nights. Or, I like a dungeon crawl as much as the next child of the sixties. The seventh, or the fifteenth, perhaps less so. This even after I raved about narrative form for years. While I enjoy Fallout, SMERSH, early phase Seafall and Wasteland Delivery, there are a lot of these games coming out. It seems a number of people caught the paragraph game bug at the same time.
More mechanically based, I have four problems with current design styles:
1. Games that require and expect you to repeat a section of the game, or perhaps the entire session, because you failed or because it is part of the mechanism or because you failed to find a cog, e.g. TIME Stories, 7th Continent, Seafall. Even Fallout has a deja vu quality at times. Broadly, this will never happen at Sumo Towers. Boardgaming is not ZORK nor Lemmings.
2. Games that delight in arbitrarily removing your hard earned achievements or cash, e.g. Rising Sun, Seafall, Innovation, Pendragon, some legacy systems, most lumpen Take That designs. I don’t care if it suits your design, levelling the playing field is a gaming nuke. Use carefully or not at all.
3. Games that require feeding of your tabletop team. Bad enough that we have worker placement but feeding them as well? Every turn or quarter? It is just dead, repetitive resource sourcing. I accept it in Polis, Victory or Death and similar, where you are genuinely short of cereals and this is important. But not just because it seems a cool idea. It isn’t.
4. The other one, minor and thankfully rarely encountered, is having a glowing +1 sword but because it is a deck builder, it is strangely not available at the moment the gobboes rush you. Mage Knight if I recall started this, there are other culprits. Daft. Find an apposite mechanic, or just play Runebound.
For me, this all goes to the design philosophy of how designers treat their players. Richard Breese long ago worked out that any negative effects on a player could be replaced by positive effects for the others. This has a similar outcome overall, but there is no bad taste from a Take That event. Arguably, this is a little too like Pollyana, in that you know nothing bad will happen, but depending on the setting and theme it generally works. There is a sense of building, of progression and achievement. Then there is a massive middle ground where sometimes Captain Chaos gets to show his hand. At the other extreme some games will treat you so badly that the gaming experience becomes unpleasant. There is no explaining this – after design, development and playtesting the designer should know exactly what he is doing to players through his systems. If he still thinks it is okay, then it is not down to chance.
Which brings us neatly to The City of Kings and games of its ilk….
The City of Kings
City of Kings is of a game genre that I feel I have been playing all my life. I call it Chess Board Exploring. A small grid of tiles is laid out with firmly defined world edges. The map is usually symmetrical and partly random. Each tile will be a terrain type, have a building, a resource or some sort of encounter. You are a statted and skilled character, usually fantasy, and you wander around, explore and loot the map while engaging in quests, negotiation and combat. It is closest to, and typified by, Gloom of Kilforth, which I like, and Fallout which for me is the best of the genre so far.
Level Minus One
This is quite a big topic but one I am very animated about at the moment. Feel free to skip; it gets a bit ranty.
I am going to take you back to the Seventies and D&D was blowing everything away. It was innovative, it was exciting, it was literally a way of life. The basic tenet, as I saw it, was that you were a hero, setting out to do hero stuff. In some special way, a cut above the norm. I think Gary Gygax said somewhere that the shopkeepers, the servants, the everyday folk of the fields are Level Zero. You are Level One and the sky is the limit. You have a weapon. You have learned a spell. You have a backpack and a ten foot pole. You have ambition.
The game is designed to facilitate this. There were levels of many things. All pointed to progression, with optional death. The interest for me was advancement, of activities not possible in real life. At its best, it was limitless imagination and fulfillment for both DM and players. The ultimate sandbox, and I love a sandbox. That said, one of my players was quite happy not to adventure but instead made a fortune from his blacksmith chain…
But what you are definitely not is Level Minus One. I first saw this in Swords and Sorcery. You start very low. Sub Shopkeeper low. Your character card indicates a certain affinity with The Staff of Snargling but you don’t actually get that staff. I was so perplexed by this that I asked for the staff three times. Sorry, you don’t have it. But I have the ability! Sorry.
The saving grace of Swords and Sorcery is that there is a workable rationale. You are a spirit form of your previous self. You can search for the staff but meanwhile you will use ghostly chopsticks. I get the backstory, but why would I want to play a game where I don’t have stuff? Stuff is key. Stuff and character and skills are what make these adventure games.
The best system I ever saw, which took two minutes, was from Fantasy Flight for one of the Call of Cthuhlu games. Choose your adventurer. Take two cards off the items deck. Take a spell. Take an artifact. Take an extra character skill and a flaw. Done! Character formed, not too powerful, but not too weak. Just right. IDENTIFY.
But back to the missing staff. Infamously, I whinged. I whinged again. I annoyed people with my whinging. I was still whinging when we were packing up. It is NOT because I was weaker as a character and denied my only ability, although that killed the game for me, it was because I was railing at the designer’s decision.
City of Kings is worse.
I think this is about approach. The designer’s philosophy. And the handling and delivery of that decision process. By all means play a game role as a powerless peasant, mana-free magician or undergunned adventurer, but we need something else to bite on. In a way I quite like the idea of being weak. But again, what is the trade off? Interest. Game value.
Too many recent games have been depressingly hard. Sometimes it is acceptable because of the setting – This War of Mine – and sometimes it is because the game isn’t scaled or staged well – Gloom of Kilforth – while Sentinels of the Multiverse is famously swingy depending on number of players. But sometimes success is too difficult because the design is poor, the development is off, or the designer has decided it will be an entirely good thing for everyone to die.
For me it is also about balance but agree that this is subjective – there are different, valid styles. This game quality is the ability but not a guarantee to succeed, gaming enjoyment, desire to repeat and rationalisable ‘realism’ – verisimilitude if you like – and here we go back to D&D. We know the DM can do anything he likes. Open the first door and there is a dragon and a vampire. He rubs his hands with glee and rolls his dice, but we immediately know he is a tosser and go and play elsewhere.
A good DM balances the setting, the players and the opposition – something many games now try for through environment cards, minions, bots etc. Sentinels, and later Aeon’s End, broke the trail here. The party will probably survive. They should get a reward. They should enjoy themselves with the right level of drama. If they take risks, or fate is against them, someone might be seriously hurt or killed. But because you are good GM you give them one charge on a wand of resurrection, so the legend lives on. Legacy gaming is not new. Characters build. Friendships form. It is not easy; one balances an easy trip against a hard one. They cannot be cosseted, but they cannot be overwhelmed. But if the designer’s thing is extermination….
City of Kings feels exactly like this. Within a handful of turns you can have several killer monsters in play and more are coming, ever more deadly. They get strong in minutes, we have to wait hours. You die multiple times. You lose. I do not have a single positive thing to say about this three hour overall monster themepark ride.
I cannot excuse the designer at all because of what I said earlier, and because he left in a giveaway clue. After an entertaining journey to our first episode point – meeting an old lady and securing some fish, waking up a killer horde – the second episode was [tadaaahhh]… kill all monsters in play. I groaned. He knows they will be there and blocks any story until we fight. It is pathetic. At the time, this was akin to telling two rhythmic gymnasts to take out the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line. Morale cracked. Shoulders slumped. The game lost its audience.
I think I know why it has happened. The designer has gone a bit meta. He is trying to send a message that you should not activate monsters. For me, this makes it a puzzle, not a game. Oh right, I can’t explore the map because I will get eaten, so I have to sneak along very slowly hoping I don’t disturb any monsters (but you will anyway because it is a random layout). At the same time I must find quest locations – yes, by exploring – and level up to survive which you do by… killing monsters.
But hang on! The designer has given us a sign. Half the map is red and the other half is green, so we stay safe in the green areas. Er, no. The green area is pre-programmed to generate x monsters. One is tough. Two will kill you. Three is game over. The red area just adds more. If they can move they will be on you. All of ours could move. Fine, fun for some. Not my thing: frustration, lazy design, and only correctable in game two because you are already dead when the third monster appears. The fallacy is that I am not going to play game two having been savaged in game one. And I don’t like puzzles.
We argued over the approach of this game for a little while. My opponent felt that being a trainee adventurer was okay as a task, given the story of the City itself, and that dying inevitably was also acceptable. In fairness, I was the only one not to like Swords and Sorcery. So, probably just me then.
Eventually I made the point that the huge character sheets (with beautiful perspex overlays) have a genuinely frameable portrait, a backstory and more stats than you can possibly imagine but all the characters are exactly the same; neutered clones of fantasy stereotypes. And, unbelievably, they have no skills. They are there on the character sheet, you can level up, and in later scenarios you may start with a low level skill. But Ragnar Ironfist is the same as Etherea the MU and she is the same as Inevitable the Dwarf. No magic, no items, and you cannot use your arms to carry stuff. There is not even basic instinct to fall back on, which is where the animal world scores over us.
It gets worse. The skill development system looks very interesting. Very. A sort of Eclipse tech tree affair. Sadly, the janitor has not switched it on as, oddly, the designer does not want to show us all of his design. Adding insult to injury, the game lays out your second and third tier skill cards to show you what you could have won. I don’t see any way that in a two day story you are going to advance enough to use these. Or even Tier One. But they sit there, mocking your weakness.
Do you think I am finished? No. The absolute corker is that the monsters ARE given abilities. You sit there shaking your head as the Nurgloids teleport in, tractor beam you, heal themselves, spray you with poison and laugh at your non-existent spellbook. I am definitely thinking BDSM as simile. You, identifying as a generic person who really wants to be a gardener, just roll over and die as 75% of your hit points drain away. The takeaway is that the monsters are interesting, if overpowered. They have combos and do cool stuff (“Release the hounds!”). They even have some character, even if they feel more like superhero enemies. One monster we generated had a timing flaw in his attack plan, which was touching. Heuristics next!
If only the characters were given the same courtesy through a basic personality graft.
So this underdog trend paired with overpowered monsters, this ridiculous decision by the designer, has to be fixed. Or… not. This game has been designed this way for a reason and just look at those BGG ratings. The designer can do what he bloody well likes. I am sure he can explain why we have to die, why we have to repeat the story until we get it right, why we have to puzzle rather than explore, why there is an edge of the world, why many aspects of the game, including (ironically) luck, use d6s, yet combat alone is deemed to be a dice-free exercise with calculable hits, heals and damage. I am sure every soldier will tell you that is exactly the way it goes down.
For balance, I rather like the action system, which also redeemed Gloomhaven. And the quests are fun. I liked the Boil-in-a-Bag Monsters. And I really enjoyed getting my worker to catch fish. Seriously, the rest of it is good. Especially the paragraph text which is witty and concise. It works to a point, which makes my cynical mind think the bits that don’t work are conscious decisions.
Please don’t get me wrong. This is just the sort of game that I like to comment on because it is thought provoking. It is the Curate’s Egg. Overall, I enjoyed City of Kings, as far as it went. The publisher will want me to play again, and buy more, but I probably won’t. I am not sufficiently gripped and no amount of scenarios nor plastic figures nor expansions will change that. The game is not ‘good’ enough nor deep enough and it is clear even on first playing that it is a restricted format. We can’t increase the map size easily and still play scenarios in an evening (whatever that is – four, five hours?). Version 2.0? Open ended design? 90 minutes? Then we could have a deal.
To summarise, a Jerry Springer style homily. The designer of The City of Kings is free to make his own design calls and I have to go along with them because we don’t really do house rules. I like a cycle, he prefers guided public transport. He has designed a good game, and should be proud. Approach wise, and stylistically, it is just not for me.