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Ascension the Deck Building Game – Review

Of all the deck-builders within the genre, Ascension bares the closest resemblance to Dominion, despite being released much later (2014, while Thunderstone came out in 2009).  I would have assumed the other way around, but I still want to get Ascension out of the way.

Dominion did a lot of the groundwork when it comes to the basic mechanics for all deck builders.  I have never played a deck builder where the core in game currency wasn’t simply shown but “spent” the way it is spent in games that use paper monopoly style money.  The core of a turn for a deck builder is play cards, get stuff/do stuff, discard everything, get new cards and repeat on next turn.   This is the reason I say Ascension bares the closest resemblance to Dominion.

But, we aren’t comparing apples to apples, we’re comparing oranges to apples because comparing identical apples would be pointless!  Dominion, however, has some intentionally limiting rules: you can only play one card and you can only buy one card unless you have a card that says otherwise.  Ascension throws this out the window: if you have the goods, go for it.  I think this is a benefit and would think this would make the game easier to teach.

In Ascension, victory points are on each card instead of being useless cards in your hand.  That’s not to say there aren’t cards that you would rather not be in your deck after the beginning of the game, but no card in the game is completely useless.  Ascension takes it a step further and has some shiny plastic gems to represent victory points.  A player with a large pile of plastic shineys might be intimidating, but the points on the cards in a player’s deck could deliver the win.  I like this because it makes it harder for players to keep tabs on who’s winning.

In fact, let’s take a deeper look at those shiny plastic gems.  Unlike Dominion, in Ascension there are basically two forms of currency: power and runes.  A rune is your classic deck-builder currency and you use it to buy cards from the market to make your deck stronger.  Power allows you to defeat monsters.  Monsters don’t go in your deck when defeated, and you’ll gain those plastic gems for defeating them, plus some text based reward.  It’s an interesting twist on the classic deck builder, so if you wanted your deck building game to do more with its core mechanics it definitely belongs in the “pros” category.

The biggest tip of the hat I give to Ascension is its clear ability to go beyond the 4-player limits of Dominion.  I’ve only ever been able to find vague references in the Dominion manuals on how to go beyond 4 players in Dominion.  That’s not to say I haven’t seen it spelled out in a forum, but since it’s a forum, I take it with a grain of salt.

I think I share the Eurogamer’s irrational hatred of dice.  Dice are purely random (arguably), where I would say a deck of cards are pseudo random.  Let’s say I have a six sided die (d6) and 6 cards numbered 1 through 6, shuffled and face down.  If I roll a die, the odds of me rolling a 6 are 1 in 6 or 17%.  What if I really need that 6, and I get it?  Hooray, right?  But now I need another 6.  What are my odds?  Still 17%.  Not so with the deck of cards.  If I need a card from a deck, every time I don’t draw it from that deck, I’m more likely to see it next time because there are less cards between me and the card I want.  That’s part of the fun of deck-builders, especially when you draw pile is down to 5 cards because now you can count on it.

In Dominion, there are a lot of cards that essentially enable you to churn through your deck.  Not so, with Ascension.  That’s not to say there aren’t any, but my biggest gripe with Ascension is the non-static market.  In Dominion, unless someone buys the last card in a pile, you are never cut off from a card you want or need for your strategy.  In Ascension, there are only 6 cards available to purchase at the start of your turn, and every time someone gets one of those cards that slot is filled with another, random card from the towering main deck (I forget what it’s called, the void is its discard pile).  Especially in a game with a lot of players, if there is a nice card that appears say at the end of your turn after you spent all your runes, you probably aren’t going to get it.  And cards that give you card draw, or let you get cards out of your deck are hard to come by.

So, until your turn comes around, you are at best window shopping because at the start of your turn that 6 card market can and probably will be significantly different – which can lead to some analysis paralysis when it happens to more competitive players.

Worst still, that market can bring the game to a screeching halt.  Because you don’t have as much control over your deck such as through cards that let you draw, discard or banish (remove from game), you can’t really fix the hand you were dealt, so it may come up that the market is full of nothing but monsters and all you have is money, or vice versa and all you have is power.

Even with all its short comings, I’d say Ascension is my second favorite game of all time (seconded only by Dominion), but with its ability to support large groups it gets played more often than Dominion.

Houkago Saikoro Review

An anime, originally an underappreciated niche market whose fans were commonly ostracized, about hobby games, originally an underappreciated niche market whose fans were commonly ostracized. Add +10 to all subsequent Geek rolls! ^_ ^

It’s called 放課後さいころ(ほうかご さいころ)Houkago Saikoro – After School Dice. I’ve discovered this over my lunch break at work, but I now consider it my solemn duty to review the first episode at my earliest convenience.

I’ll have to see what the next few episodes are like, but so far I’m not very impressed. The episode started off with the main character, Takekasa, straight up declaring that she sucks at having fun. I understand the need to give characters a fatal flaw, but even given what I assume to be the eventual subject matter of the show, this still comes off as really weak. I suppose welling up in tears when you’re losing or don’t understand a game is better than table-flipping, and honesty with my group it’s almost come to that (except the table is heavy), but it just comes off like the anime is trying too hard.

Towards the beginning of the episode they show Takekasa as being awkward, shy, and preferring to be alone almost to the point where she might tick the marks for clinical depression. This would make her a far more interesting character, even though it would darken the cotton candy fluff this anime is going for. Episode one is far too early to declare time of death. I recently got into an anime that has a ridiculous premise called Punchline, and immediately found the story and characters far more endearing than I gave their ridiculous setup credit for.

I do have to ask, though. I assume they weren’t in the elevator together, so how did they know what floor the class rep got off on?

Deck Building Games Pro/Cons: Mage Knight

I came across Mage Knight early in my search for deck building games that did more with the deck building mechanics.  Dominion is 100% deck building.  No deck building, no Dominion.  That’s not the case for Mage Knight.  Mage Knight is first and foremost an exploration game.  You might even call it a dungeon crawler.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I need to be clear about what I mean when I use these terms. 

There are three terms I want to use to talk about Mage Knight: deck-building, engine building, and dungeon crawling.  Deck building, as mechanic or part of overall gameplay, is when you start the game possessing your very own small, weak deck of cards, and use those cards to put more cards into that deck to make your deck stronger and increase your chance of winning.

 Apparently, there is some disagreement over the definition of “engine building.”  Basically, the divide is over whether the game can be called an “engine builder” if the “engine” requires input from the player.  My position is yes.  I mean, my car doesn’t work if I don’t fill the tank with gasoline.  Anyway, the core take away for the definition of an “engine builder” is that during the game you create some series of mechanisms that generate resources for you, whether they require inputs or not.  The key for me is that you improve these mechanisms during the course of the game. Suppose you have something that generates a victory point, and over time you can add “+1,” “x2” or “x3” to that option so the amount of points increase next time you choose that option. A good example of a pure engine builder would be Valeria.

That brings us to “dungeon crawler.”  My first introduction to the concept of a “dungeon” was the Legend of Zelda game for the NES.  I’m not sure if this is an official term, or just one fans made up to describe the difference, but you begin the game in a place called the “overworld” because you go down stairs to enter “dungeons.”  The dungeons are maze like places of loot and danger, usually culminating into a boss fight.  Whether the term “dungeon crawl” when referring to board games predates this, it’s the same idea: a place of loot and danger.

 Phew, now we dig in.  Let’s start with the pros.   If we can call a game who’s map consists only of an “overworld,” a “dungeon crawler,” then Mage Knight is all 3.  The overworld of Mage Knight is a place of loot and danger, culminating into boss fights.  For me this is a plus.  The idea of exploring a vast, imaginary world will always pull me into a game.  And there’s lots to see and do in Mage Knight.  In Mage Knight, you play as a, well, “Mage Knight,” whose actions are represented by a deck of cards.  Your character starts with a deck of 16 cards, and each turn (until you level up) you’ll get a hand of 5 of these.   The game also comes with a number of different colored “mana” crystals.  Every card in the game has a base function, and a “mana” powered function, that basically does the same thing but is more powerful.  You gain mana as a resource by rolling mana dice, and you can save up your mana and use when the appropriate card presents itself.  Because there’s a lot to see and do, and the game is quite meaty, expect it to be the main course of your game night, not a side dish.  That might be a con for some people. 

In fact, let’s move onto the rest of the cons.  And yes, for me, con number 1 is that rulebook.  There are two versions of the rulebook.  There’s the whole thing, and then there’s the walk-through.  It’s a watered down version of the game meant to teach new players the absolute basics.  That doesn’t sound so bad, but it takes upwards of a couple hours to complete.  That means the first time this hits your table for game night, you probably aren’t going to do much more than play the tutorial.  Ugh. 

But it’s a deck-builder, and I love deck-builders, right?  Well, to bring back some nightmares from English or logic class, all deck builders are engine builders, but not all engine builders are deck builders.  And Mage Knight has non-deck building based engine building elements.  These are not cons in and of themselves.  None of the non-deck building based engine building mechanics bother me by themselves, such as leveling up, managing your reputation (basically whether you’re naughty or nice, AKA alignment) getting extra equipment, and recruiting underlings.  No, what gets me is the slow crawl to amass all of these things.  Despite being a long game, the number of rounds in Mage Knight is fixed.  If the game is going to end on turn Y and you still have some work to do on turn X, the game is going to feel really punishing from turn X to Y.  I don’t like engine building games with a limited number of turns for this reason. 

I wanted to like Mage Knight.  In fact, I still do.  It’s just a hard sell to some of the more casual gamers in our gaming group. If Twilight Imperium is child’s play for your gaming group, you might get to play Mage Knight more often than I do.

Deck-Building Games Pros/Cons: Dominion

I will be posting my opinion of some of the pros and cons of some of the best deck building games ever made

I am only looking at games that use deck-building as their core mechanics. Therefore I will be omitting collectible card games such as Magic the Gather.

Dominion

I will admit right now, I am biased towards this one. The first deck building game ever made, Dominion, is by far my favorite. But let’s look into the cons first. One of the biggest complaints I have heard is that it is just turn based solitaire. To an extent, I agree, with two caveats. Firstly, Dominion is a race. Not directly, admittedly, but you’ll definitely feel the pressure as the piles run out. Secondly, there are “attack” cards. There are also cards that are not labeled “attack” cards that still feel like attacks. However, these aren’t directed at any one player, and mostly they feel like “take that” cards. So yes, direct player interaction during the game can be a little sparse.

The next big con, albeit a necessary one, is the way money works. If the world worked the way money works in deck builders, you would order something off the dollar menu at McDonald’s, wave a dollar in their face, stuff the dollar back into your pocket and walk out with your McChicken. Every time I have begun to teach a complete neophyte the ways of the deck-builder, they have a hard time with this.

I’m not sure this is a con or not, or how much of it extends beyond the deck-builder genre, but the need for being a lawyer. Dominion’s turn structure is simple, but the text on some cards refer to very specific parts of your turn that aren’t very intuitive. For example, let’s say I have two cards that say, “At the start of your turn, do something.” What is the start of my turn? Can I play both cards, or does playing one card signify the start of my turn such that the second card can no longer be used?

So, what about the pros. The core mechanics of Dominion, the ones that are there regardless of what cards you have, are incredibly simple, and if you teach them to a newbie as they are written in the manual (minus the whole money thing) they become easy to grasp. The manual describes a player turn as “A,B,C” which stands for “Action, Buy, Clean-Up” and you only get one of each. Action means you may play an action card, usually a card with a white border. Some cards give you more actions, but if the card you played doesn’t, that’s it, you’re done. Same with Buy. Buy simply means provided you have the money you may buy one card from the market and put it in your discard pile. Want more? Play an action card that gives you more, period. Clean-Up means take all cards in your hand that you did not play and all cards that you did play and place them in your discard pile, and then draw a hand of 5 new cards.

Now, being limited to being able to only play one action card and purchase one new card every turn sounds kind of lame, but that’s what makes the game fun and interesting. There are cards that let you draw more cards, but if that is the only action card you played and it doesn’t give you more actions, oh well. Planning out your turn so this chain of more actions, more cards, more buys and more money is what I love about Dominion. If you plan your purchases well, you can almost gaurantee doing sommething like that every turn.

That leads me to my favorite part of Dominion: the static market. Once the game starts, the cards don’t change. You can come up with a strategy, realize it’s not working, re-strategize and maybe still win. The only hidden information is what’s in your deck, and if you build your deck accordingly that shouldn’t be a problem.

A twinkle in our eye: fan generated content

We built Ruins of Elysia on two very basic mechanics (we did put our own spin on a couple of things, though): Deck Building and Tile Laying. 

The tile-laying mechanic does the heavy lifting in terms of exploring and building the map.  Exploring also involves a push-your-luck mechanic in that as long as you still have movement, every time you place a tile you may choose to end your movement there, or you can keep walking and find out what lays over the next horizon.  There are empty terrain tiles and overlay tiles (made out of the same material so you can’t tell until they are drawn) that make up the map.  Right now we have 5 terrain types (desert, forest, water, mountain and plains) and 3 overlays (village, ruins, and fortress).  Monsters always spawn in Ruins.  Villages allow players access to the card market.  The fortress is the end boss’s lair.  We would love to have more terrain and overlay types, but we want our base game to be reasonably priced. 

We didn’t try to re-invent the wheel when it came to deck-building.  Our goal is to keep the game as simple and therefore as accessible as possible.  While a careful reading of our rulebook will reveal some “neat tricks,” at no point does the game require you to know them to accomplish a goal.  In fact, we only broke one norm when it comes to standard deck-building mechanics.  In almost every deck-builder, you draw your hand at the end of your turn, play cards, then discard all cards played and all cards still in your hand.  That last one was the part we chose to break.  Since you might need more weapons cards than money cards (or vice versa), you can leave cards in your hand. 

There are only 5 types of resources in the game that the cards provide: coin, card draw, walk, attack and defense.  In the interest of keeping things simple, we don’t plan on changing this.  Of course, we aren’t counting any text based special ability on the cards themselves as a resource.  We would love to add more item cards to the market, the Exploration Deck and even more playable characters, but we feel anything more than what we have right now should be in addition to the base game, such as through booster packs (maybe a new character deck in a tuck box) and expansions.

Granted, we took significant liberties in designing our combat system.  There are no dice in Ruins of Elysia.  Combat occurs in repeating rounds of attacking and defending because players can only play one card each time they attack or defend.  You cannot stack attack or defense, and you must discard a number of cards from your hand equal to the attack value you are unable to defend against.  We feel this makes for a much more interesting combat system.  Rather than just showing you have the required attack points or rolling a die and hoping you succeed, combat requires cunning hand management and reading your opponent.  Due to this combat system, no player starting deck affords their character more than 2 attack (or 4 if they use their special card that allows them to play more than one).

So that’s it, the three systems at the core of Ruins of Elysia: simple deck-building, simple tile-laying, and a combat system based on back and forth hand management.  Why is this relevant?

It may be just a twinkle in our eye right now, but so too was Ruins of Elysia.  After our kickstarter ends (assuming we are successful), we want to add a feature to our website that allows fans to create their own official content.  We’d be looking for things that add to our base game in some way: new terrain tiles, overlay structures, character starting decks, and anything else our fans want to see that we haven’t thought of.  Of course, we don’t want to break the tenets that we believe make Ruins of Elysia a great game:

  • A true open world for your tabletop. You can explore to your heart’s content and the game doesn’t punish you for it.
  • Exciting, strategic combat.
  • Not just multiple paths to victory, but multiple end game goals available to all players at all times.

Can Story and Gameplay be friends II

Theme is the meaning behind why events have turned out the way they did. In a written work of fiction we, the author, can control whether a character succeeds or fails any given trial. How we infuse meaning into that success or failure is based on what the character does or fails to do during that trial. Say our intended theme is “man is self made.” Themes are trite little nuggets like that, but it is what the author does with that theme that turns it into a competent work of fiction. Let’s say our story is about a man trying to build a boat by himself and as an author we have identified two different outcomes. After accepting his shortcomings he succeeds in building a boat on his own, but it is a little crude due to those shortcomings. In this we have affirmed “man is self made,” as long as we accept our shortcomings. Let’s say, however, that the character’s vision for the boat is a little too grandiose for one man to build with his own hands, and rather than scale back that vision he accepts that to make his vision come to life he must employ the help of others. Now our theme has become “no man is an island.”

So, looking at the above conflict as an example, the main character is at a crossroads and must accept some modification of their original goal, and accepting that modification is what delivers us our theme. To turn this into a game mechanic, we have to look at what needs to stay, and what must be stripped away. Meaning must stay, or it will cease to be a story. Player choice must stay or it will cease to be a game. What is not necessary is the linear progression of events.

Perhaps we can affix a “story point” to some game location, or game event (like finding the master sword). And in doing so we, at that point, dangle some proverbial carrot in front of the character (reveal the stakes). That alone, however, may not be enough to imbue said event or goal with meaning. Meaning comes from which action derived from two conflicting ideas a character chooses in order to achieve a goal. The player must know, thematically or at least contextually, the consquence of their actions in order to imbue such a choice with meaning. Blind choices can never have thematic meaning because they are devoid of “why”.

In fiction, when the main character makes the decision that affirms one theme over another, that exact moment is the very tip of our climax. Our boat building example is such a moment. This moment is final. Very soon after the main character makes this decision we will be typing the words “the end.” In an open world with go anywhere gameplay we cannot affix that level of finality to any given player choice, with some exceptions (such as the end boss). So the question of how to tell a story in an open world game becomes, “how do (or can) we attach meaning to intermediate choices without dependence on chronology?”

In writing fiction, especially when you know your theme, it’s easiest to start plotting from your climax. Let’s stick with our boat building example. Let’s assume that getting the boat to float in the water is the end goal. We know why making the boat on their own, or making it magnicent mattered to our character, but we need more to make it matter to our player. Granted, this is overly simplified in order to serve as an example.

Perhaps this is a victory point game, and the best boat wins. To add to our conflict, we make the players start out very asymetric. It is hard to win without getting help from other players, but getting such help costs them a victory point. Victory points are gained directly proportional to the complexity of your boat. You can try to do it on your own while sabotaging the boats of other players, or you can enlist their help. If you don’t build a boat that floats, you can’t escape the island and you lose. So, what we have done here is infuse player choice with theme: do you risk not getting enough victory points by asking players for help, or do you go it alone it and risk another player outshining you or not setting sail at all.

So far, however, we’ve only looked at the end game condition, so we haven’t answered the question of how to do the intermediate goals. Perhaps the game is played in rounds: survival, gather materials, build and sail. But also, perhaps using a round based structure is really just a cop-out that allows us as a story story teller and game designer to basically tell 4 different stories with 4 different climaxes.

What if we just drop the players on an island made out of hexes. They must keep themselves fed or they die as an ongoing mechanic. And the food spoils, so that encourages a small economy based on trade. You can do what you want, when you want, where you want, but winning still means the most points for building the best boat with the least amount of help. Perhaps we have random encounters. Can an island have a bear population? Maybe we use aligators. Gain victory points for saving another player from an aligator attack, but doing so means the players who weren’t involved gathered more resources.

What’s missing now isn’t theme, but backstory and character motivation. Again, admittedly easier to do with just prose. Giving players their character’s backstory will always seem artificial, even if done really well, but that might be a necessary evil. If we have a character based, narrative driven game, we are going to want to use our characters to sell our game, even if ultimately the characters are only avatars or masks for the players who may bring a conflicting personality to them. Not everyone who wants a story driven game wants to role play. We can, from a mechanics point of view, however, motivate the player. Perhaps one of our characters is a washed up carpenter and he gains points for helping people shape their lumber. We’ve taken a character trait and motivation, our washed up carpenter is looking for respect, and turned it into a mechanic.

We can keep going, but let’s get a bird’s eye view of the forest before we get lost in the trees. We are trying to tell a story through a game. In so doing, each story point, motivation, goal, etc, is turned into a mechanic. We didn’t need paragraphs of text, or choose your own adventure mechanics because we infused the very game mechanisms with the stuff of story in order to drive our narrative. This immediately informed subsequent design, but what if, as in my case with Ruins of Elysia, the mechanics are already in place?

If you are trying to add narrative to a game that already has its mechanics in place, then the narrative would require mechanics that either are in addition to or replace mechanics that are already there. As was revealed as we muddled through our example, narrative in games is derived from player choice, the apparent consequence of that choice and how it motivated player action within a given mechanic. I already have such a mechanic — the quest cards.

Can story and gameplay be friends?

Ruins of Elysia, from a story and word-building standpoint was, admittedly, a throwing spaghetti at the wall affair.  The game had already been fully conceived from a mechanics point of view, and during early play-testing had a slew of terrible working titles based solely on my idea that the land was some kind of special named place and players were making their characters into the stuff of legends there.  As such, I wasn’t really that shaken when one of my play-testers a while back told me that the game did a poor job of selling its theme.

However, I think we have ironed out almost all of the kinks in the mechanics at this point, so I have turned my attention once again to theme, and as such have been researching narrative driven games.  I’ve become somewhat disappointed and discouraged to learn that narrative driven board games are almost exclusively the realm of big, expensive, complicated legacy games.  This disappoints me because this describes the things I don’t want Ruins of Elysia to become.  They said of Pixar in its early days that their lightning in a bottle came from them making the kind of movies they wanted to see. 

Ruins of Elysia is the kind of game I want to play.  I don’t like the consumable nature of legacy games.  I also don’t like games with a lot of complexity.  The worst of the worst are games that have a lot of actions and said actions have a lot of contingencies.  I also don’t want a game that’s a sucker punch to the wallet.

But I do love a good yarn.  Surprisingly, however, telling a story through games is a divisive topic.  Some of those who want to be spellbound find the mechanics of the game simply get in the way.  Some of those who want to play the game find the narrative constricting.  I found this argument on board game geek, which boiled down to this; the nature of a story as a linear sequence of events is in direct conflict with the multitude of available actions a player has in a game.  Essentially, the argument was, the necessity of story would mean the game would be “on rails” such that story and gameplay would be subservient to and hindered by each other instead of allowing one to reach the zenith that would be possible without the other.

I have to object.  I think they missed the forest for the trees on step one.  A linear telling of events by itself is not story.  And I raise this objection not simply to interject with examples of non-linear storytelling, but to get to the very heart of what story is.  History is a linear telling of events, but no one has ever finished a chapter in a history book and said, “that was an amazing story.”  Sure, all the facts are there, but something is missing that would turn those dry lists of dates and events into something we intuitively know to be story.

That missing component of story is meaning, otherwise known as theme.  All stories have a character, a setting, some goal the character is striving for, and some obstacle that is preventing them from getting this goal, but theme is the answer to why events have unfolded the way they did.  Whether presented internally, or by the world at large, every character in literature experiences a conflict, and that conflict is the result of two competing ideas regarding the innate truth of the world and human existence.  At some point in a narrative, the stakes (that is the goal and the consequence of failure) are revealed.   Failure would affirm some truth about the world that the character is fighting against, and success would affirm its opposite.  This is the real tension behind every work of literature

So, does the non-linear nature of gameplay destroy the ability to tell a story?  No.  Does it destroy the ability of a storyteller to tell a story with a deep and meaningful theme?  Maybe.  For a game to feel like a game, it needs to provide its players with free agency.  To deliver meaningful theme, said theme needs to directly inform the conflict, and by giving players free agency the choices they make and the consequences of those actions may not have anything to do with the meaning you were trying to convey.

So, ultimately, I haven’t answered the question I set out for myself: can a non-legacy game tell a good story without being text heavy?  Should I even bother?  Can the choices made by players still have thematic depth, and if so how would I achieve such a thing?