PC Game Hidden Gems and Some That Aren’t

I had trouble coming up with a succinct title for this post. I wanted to go through some underrated games and some highly rated games that weren’t very good, because it’s been awhile since I’ve done any sort of game review post.

Tactical RPG’s

Underrated: Massive Chalice

Massive Chalice has a similar combat system to XCOM. It initially got some very poor reviews because of this comparison. Many called it XCOM-light or a less deep and easier version of that game. This is an unfair comparison, because most of the strategy and depth comes from the other part of the game.

Massive Chalice has you set up bloodlines from your characters. You know a bunch of traits and character flaws of the characters, and then you must marry them to produce children. There are so many factors and risk/rewards that must go into this.

Do you retire your best fighter so that in 20 years you have several of his children on the battlefield only to find out he couldn’t produce any children? Do you risk a sharpshooter with an alcohol problem staggering around the battlefield? Do you trust the numbers given to you by an overconfident person?

This game might not get you the 200+ hours that many put into XCOM, but put it on ironman hard mode and you’ll be in for a tough challenge. It has a lot of character and humor too. The initial hate it got was unwarranted.

Overrated: The Banner Saga

I know I’ll get hate for this one. This game has overwhelming positive reviews. I think they are unwarranted. This game claimed to have the big three things I’d look for in a game: great story, great art, tactical strategy.

It had one of those; the art is fantastic. I thought the story was thin. It mostly felt like a series of excuses to get to the gameplay. Travel, camp, stop at a town, sometimes drama, repeat. It is very Oregon Trail-like in this respect. I wanted something more than an excuse to be fighting, and that’s all it felt like to me.

The gameplay itself is quite poor. There is a tactical aspect, but it is largely irrelevant. Whether you collect resources or not, you’ll be fine. No matter how you level or play the characters, you’ll be fine. No matter how you position, you’ll be fine. Once I found this out, I stopped trying, and just attacked from wherever I was and won.

But the most important part where this game failed for me was how separate everything was. Story-driven games need to integrate that aspect into the gameplay for a rich and seamless experience. The story and the gameplay were completely separate, which created a disjointed play experience.

Roguelikes

If you are a longtime reader, you’ll know this is kind of my genre, so I’ll do two underrated games. For the most part, it takes a ton of time and feedback to make a great roguelike. This means most aren’t really worth sinking time into unless they are well-known. Here’s two that are well worth the time despite not being talked about as much.

Dungeonmans

This is basically a humorous version of the famous Tales of Maj’Eyal (ToME). To be fair, ToME is a more complicated game, but I think Dungeonmans improves on the ToME idea in several important ways.

First, it has a simpler skill tree system. This makes it more manageable for people who don’t want to spend 100 hours just learning what the different things do. It also has less classes/races, again, an improvement.

Dungeonmans has a randomly generated overworld. This makes repeated playthroughs more interesting than going the same places in the same order like in ToME. It implements an interesting persistence mechanic too. This makes the game beatable for more casual players (but there is an “ironmans” mode for the hardcore permadeath fans).

Longtime fans of ToME might not find what they want in this game (though I did!), but I highly recommend this game for the roguelike-curious who are scared off from giant learning curves like ToME.

Sword of the Stars: The Pit

This is one of the only truly modern roguelikes out there. It is hardcore in the most classic sense of the genre except for ASCII graphics. The game consists of pure dungeon diving. You go to the bottom of the pit to win. What makes the game so great is its inventory management.

Planning ahead and conserving weapons and understanding enemy movement is the key to success. Unlike Dungeonmnans, there is a good chance you’ll never win this on Normal mode (and there are still three difficulty levels above that!).

You have to become really good at the game to succeed. This takes patience and effort. This is what people like about roguelikes. If this sounds terrible, then this game isn’t for you. When you start, you will think the game is too hard to beat, but people who are good at this game can win on Normal more than 90% of the time. It’s not too hard—it’s you.

There is a “recipe” discovery mechanic that is pretty tedious, and this game gets a lot of negative feedback for it. I agree with that aspect of negativity, but it is a small matter that shouldn’t ruin the game.

Strategy

Overrated: Unity of Command

This is a small title, so I’m not sure it’s “overrated.” I saw it pop up numerous times while searching for good PC strategy games. The player reviews tend to be very good too. I could not get into this game at all.

The concept of the game is to advance your front in specific battles while not losing access to your supply line. I’ll admit the concept is clever in how realistic a scenario this is.

The simplification of the war strategy game genre down to its essentials makes getting started easier, but I didn’t find it deep or satisfying. It uses weird turn limits to artificially increase difficulty (more like a puzzle than a strategy game). Randomness plays too big a role as well.

Underrated: Endless Legend

I’m not sure this qualifies as an underrated, because Rock, Paper, Shotgun named it 2014 Game of the Year. Still, the player reviews remain mixed and often negative, so I’m going with “currently underrated.”

This is a 4X strategy game similar to the Civilization franchise. Unlike Civ, this has a fantasy setting on an alien planet. The art is stunning. The backstory for each faction is buried within the game play. This is the type of integration of story and game I was referring to above.

Each faction plays differently. You can choose to enter tactical combat if you wish or you can auto-complete the combat. The large-scale strategy is almost endlessly deep (you see what I did there?) from what to research, whether to build up cities or expand outward, making alliances, spying, attacking, defending, trade routes, trading, marketplace, completing quests, exploring, assigning heroes, and on and on. Any fan of PC strategy games that hasn’t checked this out is really missing a gem with this one.

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Draw Luck in Card Games

Every year, around this time, I like to do a post on some aspect of game design in honor of the 7DRL Challenge. Let’s talk about something I hate: card games (though I sometimes become obsessed with, and love, well-made ones). For a game to be competitive, luck must be minimized or controlled in some way.

My family is obsessed with Canasta. I don’t get the appeal at all. This is a game that can take 1-2 hours to play and amounts to taking a random hand of cards and sorting them into like piles.

I’ve seen people say there is “strategy” on various forums. I’ll agree in a limited sense. There is almost always just one correct play, and if you’ve played a few times, that play will be immediately obvious to you. This means that everyone playing the game will play the right moves. This isn’t usually what is meant by “strategy.” By definition, the game is completely decided by the cards you draw.

This is pure tedium. Why would anyone want to sit down, flip a coin but not look at it, then perform a sorting task over and over for an hour or more, stop, look at the result of the coin flip and then determine that whoever won the coin flip won the “game.” This analogy is almost exactly the game of Canasta. There are similar (but less obnoxious) bureaucratic jobs that people are paid to do, and those people hate their job.

Not to belabor this point, but imagine you are told to put a bunch of files into alphabetical order, and each time you finish, someone came into the room and threw the files into the air. You then had to pick them up and sort them again. Why would you take this task upon yourself as a leisure activity?

I’ve asked my family this before, and the answer is always something like: it gives us something to do together or it is bonding time or similar answers. But if that’s the case, why not sit around a table and talk rather than putting this tedious distraction into it? If the point is to have fun playing a game, why not play a game that is actually fun?

This is an extreme example, but I’d say that most card games actually fall into this pure coin flip area. We get so distracted by playing the right moves and the fact that it is called a “game” that we sometimes forget the winner of the activity is nothing more than a purely random luck of the draw.

Even games like Pitch or Euchre or other trick taking games, where the right plays take a bit more effort to come up with, are the same. It’s a difficult truth to swallow, but the depth of these games is so shallow that a few hours of playing and you’ll be making the correct moves, without much thought, every single hand. Once every player makes the right plays, it only amounts to luck.

It’s actually really difficult to design a game with a standard deck of cards that gets around this problem. I’ve heard Bridge has depth (I know nothing of the game, but I take people’s word on this considering there is a professional scene). Poker has depth.

How does Poker get around draw luck? I’d say there are two answers. The first is that we don’t consider any individual hand a “game” of Poker. Obviously, the worst Poker player in the world could be dealt a straight flush and win the hand against the best Poker player in the world. Skill in Poker comes into play over the long run. One unit of Poker should be something like a whole tournament, where enough games are played to overcome the draw luck.

Now that we aren’t referring to a single hand, the ability to fold with minimal consequences also mitigates draw luck. This means that if you get unlucky with your initial cards, you can just choose to not play that hand. There are types of Poker that straight up let you replace bad cards (we’ll get to replacing in a moment). All of these things mitigate the luck enough that it makes sense to talk about skill.

Another card game with a professional scene is Magic: The Gathering (MTG). Tournament types vary quite a bit, but one way to mitigate draw luck is again to consider a whole tournament as a unit rather than an individual game. Or you could always play best of five or something.

But one of the most interesting aspects is the deck itself. Unlike traditional playing cards, you get to make the deck you play with. This means that over the course of many games, you can only blame yourself for bad drawing. Did you only draw lands on your first turn for five matches in a row? Then maybe you have too many land cards. That’s your fault. Did you draw no land many times in a row? Also, your own fault again. Composing a deck that takes all these probabilities into account is part of the skill of the game (usually called the “curve” of the deck).

Here’s an interesting question: is there a way to mitigate draw luck without having to play a ton of games? Most people want to play something short and not have to travel for a few days to play in a tournament to test their skill.

In real life, replacing cards is obnoxious to implement, but I think it is a fascinating and underutilized rule. The replacement idea allows you to tone down draw luck even at the level of a single game. If your card game exists online only, it is easy to do, and some recent games actually utilize this like Duelyst.

Why does it work? Well, if you have a bad draw, you can just replace one or all of your cards (depending on how the rule is worded). Not only does this create strategic depth through planning ahead for which cards will be useful, it almost completely eliminates the luck of the draw.

I really want to see someone design a card game with a standard deck of cards that makes this idea work. The one downside is that the only way I can see a “replace” feature working is if you shuffle after each replacement. This is pretty annoying, but I don’t see a way around it. You can’t just stick the card you replace into the middle of the deck and pretend like that placement is random. Everyone will know that it isn’t going to be drawn in the next few turns and can play around that.

Anyway. That’s just something I’ve been thinking about since roguelikes have tons of randomness in them, and the randomness of card games have always bothered me.

 

Should Roguelikes be Winnable?

A topic that I’ve been thinking about recently has to do with balancing roguelikes. If you haven’t heard the term balance before, it basically refers to making a game fair through adjusting values: enemy health, enemy strength, items you find, your health, your strength, and so on.

For a normal RPG, you balance a game so that a skilled player can win and so nothing feels unfair. An example of something an RPG fan might find unfair is an “out of depth” enemy that instantly and unavoidably kills you (this happens in many roguelikes).

Many developers and players think this is bad game design because the player couldn’t do anything about it. Why bother getting good at a game if you will just lose to unpredictable circumstances? The game cheated you somehow, and many players quit various roguelikes before getting better for exactly this reason.

This post isn’t so much on actual balance as it is on two distinct philosophies on the winnability of a roguelike. This is a design choice that must be thought about carefully in roguelike design, and it doesn’t even come up for other types of games.

The question: Should a skilled player be able to win?

Most modern game designers would laugh at this question. Their games are designed so that you don’t even need skill to win. Winning is the default position. Your hand will be held through the process. Checkpoints are made every step of the way so you can try something again if you mess it up.

This might be surprising to people not immersed in the genre, but many classic roguelike games have a steep enough skill hurdle that probably less than 10% who ever play will get a win (maybe even as low as 1%). Sometimes it can take years of playing a game to get good enough at it to win. But the game is balanced such that a really skilled player can win almost every time.

Think about that for a second. This is quite a feat. Here’s an analogy which isn’t perfect: think about running a 5 minute mile. Almost no runner (even ones that train very, very hard) achieves this. But once they do, they can reproduce it many times. This is what makes roguelikes great. The focus is on player skill and progression not on character progression. You get a sense of real accomplishment.

After I wrote this post, I did a search for the topic and found it discussed at the Brogue forums. It seems there isn’t an easy way to even define “winnable.” I’ll give you my definition in a bit, but I want to dispel the obvious one as not being a good one.

We already have to distinguish between the game being winnable and the winnability of a given seed (industry term for a particular playthrough). This is only weird for roguelikes, because the game is different every time you play.

One might try to define a game as winnable if approximately 100% of the seeds can be won with “perfect play.” But using perfect play is problematic in a roguelike because of the randomness. Perfect play means you play in a way that perfectly maximizes your chance of winning.

It isn’t hard to think of situations in which sub-optimal play will randomly luck into a win and optimal play loses the seed (e.g. you need magic reflection, so you check Sokoban, but encounter an enemy with a wand of death that kills you, but the unskilled player doesn’t check Sokoban and goes on to win).

This is kind of funny, because now we have a problem with defining winnable even for a seed. Should it mean: someone somewhere won the seed? This, too, seems problematic. I’ll try to explain why from the commentary at the Brogue forum discussion. One person claimed that at least 80% of Brogue seeds are winnable based on the fact that people got wins on around 80 of the last 100 weekend challenge competitions (not the same person).

Let’s digress to make the problem with the above analysis clear. Suppose we make a game. Flip a coin. If it is heads you win and tails you lose. Under the perfect play definition, the game is not winnable. In other words, perfect play does not guarantee a win. Under the definition that some person somewhere was able to win, it is winnable.

Here’s where things get interesting. If we think about what percentage of seeds can be won, we better find out that the answer is 50%, because this is our expected percentage of games a player that plays perfectly would win. But in the above Brogue analysis, the commenter takes a pool of players and asks if any of them has won. This should greatly inflate the win percentage, because it is like taking 5 coins and flipping them all at the same time and seeing if any were wins.

To get around this subtlety, I’ll call a game winnable if a single skilled player can get a win streak of say 10 or so. A good example of this is NetHack. The vast majority of people who play will never get a win ever. But Adeon has a win streak of 29, and many people have streaks of 10. This proves that it is a game that can be won basically every time (and many consider it so easy they self-impose crazy challenges and still win).

Other famous roguelikes that have this same philosophy are Tales of Maj’Eyal (on normal/adventure at least) or from the “roguelite” genre The Binding of Isaac (where people have 150+ win streaks).

At this point you’re probably thinking, what other philosophy could there be? No one could possibly want to play a game for which you work really hard for 1,000 hours learning to make all the best moves, and yet the design will still have you lose to random impossible scenarios. It wouldn’t be fun. It would be pure frustration.

But people do this all the time in other types of games. The best example I can think of is poker. It takes a huge number of hours of training to become good enough to make roughly the best plays. You can be the best in the world and still lose due to the inherent randomness. You can only see how good someone is through long-term averages.

One way to think of this philosophy is: losing is fun, winning is more fun, winning every time is too easy and boring. Traditional roguelikes are fun, because you get in seemingly impossible situations but with enough skill you can think your way out. You can have a lot of confidence that you will basically never be randomly put in an impossible situation. Losing is your own fault, and you can get better from it.

If you take this alternate philosophy, the fun comes from the fact that you don’t know if a given situation is impossible. Maybe you just weren’t good enough. Balancing so that there are impossible situations makes it so that the top of the skill curve can still feel challenged.

I think the biggest difficulty with balancing in this manner is that a highly skilled player may never reach a 10 streak, but they should probably still be able to win something like 6 or 7 of those 10 games. This would be a very difficult balance to achieve. It is much easier to make it winnable.

Roguelikes already have a very small market. Part of what keeps people interested is that when they lose, it is their own fault. They don’t feel cheated. A game that was upfront about containing a large number of impossible seeds would probably narrow the market even more. One way to mitigate the pain would be for the game to keep track of your monthly win percent. That way you can track your progress.

I haven’t heard of this before. I’d be curious if anyone knows of any roguelikes that fit this design philosophy. The two that come to mind are Sword of the Stars: The Pit and Brogue. Both feel like you can just not find the items necessary to get a run off the ground. But I’m not very good at either, so it could be player error. There are people with about 2500 hours of play in The Pit, so I’d be curious to see if they could get a 5 streak on Normal mode (most refuse to play that difficulty since they’ve won on much harder).

Thoughts on ToME’s Adventure Mode

I’ve done several posts explaining why I think roguelikes are a great genre of game to play. It is probable that the most important feature of a roguelike for me is permadeath. For example, see this post for reasons why.

If you aren’t up on roguelikes, there are only a handful of games that standout as the “giants” that most people have heard of. One of these is called ToME (aka ToME 4; aka Tales of Maj’Eyal). There are more interesting features in ToME than could fit in a single blog post. Someday I may come back and post about these.

I’ll fully admit that my views on permadeath have evolved a bit, possibly due to my age. I think the older someone gets, the more likely they are to view losing all progress in a game as too punishing to be worth it. You tend to grow out liking the more extreme and hardcore elements of certain games.

Anyway, I stand by my original post. I’ll recall some key points. Permadeath is a great game mechanic, because it forces you to contemplate the consequences of your actions. It gives weight to the game. It makes you become better at it in order to win. You can’t just “save scum” until you get through a particularly difficult section.

Before you take this the wrong way, ToME is possibly the most well-balanced roguelike I’ve played. Every death feels like my own fault and not me getting screwed by the randomness. But when a game involves as much randomness as any of the great classic roguelikes, you are bound to get the occassional unavoidable death that is not your fault.

This becomes more and more pronounced as a game’s design is less thoroughly vetted for imbalances. Part of ToME’s excellent balance comes from people who have put in thousands of hours of play who can spot these things. The developer takes their opinions seriously which makes the game more fair.

ToME has three modes of play: roguelike, adventure, and explore. Roguelike has traditional permadeath. Once your die, you must start the entire game over. Adventure gives you five lives. Once those five are gone, you start the game over. Explore is deathless.

The main point I’ve been contemplating is whether Adventure mode ruins the permadeath experience of a roguelike. This will be a highly controversial statement, but I think it keeps all the original greatness of the mechanic and eliminates the negative aspects.

If you only have five lives, then each one is still precious. You’ll play the early game as if you only have one life, because if you waste one early, you will probably restart anyway. This makes the beginning just as intense as if you only had one life.

Let’s put it this way. If you don’t play as if you only have one life, then you will probably quickly lose them all anyway and revert to roguelike mode. So nothing really changes. In the middle and late game, if you are really good and don’t lose any lives, then it didn’t matter anyway. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be back to one life by that point and get all the benefits of roguelike mode.

It seems to me that Adventure mode merely serves to alleviate the annoyance and waste of time that comes from getting killed in one hit by some out of depth enemy that randomly appeared due to no fault of your own. It keeps all the intensity and pressure of permadeath, but gives some much needed buffer for the extreme amount of randomness of roguelikes.

I’d be quite happy to see some other roguelikes incorporate this as an option, but I’d also be totally understanding if they saw it as a compromise on the quality of the play experience.

Theseus: a 7DRL 2015 Completed!

Final Stats:

One week.
About 90 hand drawn 64×64 pixel tiles.
Over 2000 lines of code.
A completed one-hp strategy roguelike.

Proof that it can be beaten happened during my stream where I tested for bugs (quality isn’t the best):

Actually, I think I’ve finally gotten it balanced so that you should be able to win if you know what you are doing every time except for extraordinarily rare scenarios dictated by the randomness.

7DRL 2015 Success.

[Edit:] I’ve set up an itch page: http://hilbert90.itch.io/theseus
Download the game to play for free here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1ywjy7s3y72bq5k/AABOZWsPOFBYs0qgcxW5Ccqxa?dl=0

7DRL Dev Log Day 5

Today turned out well. I didn’t get trapped trying to fix some problematic C# syntax like in the past two days. The main improvements were to draw the final boss, get him animated, program his AI, and get the final room set up (which has different design structure than the rest of the labyrinth).

I did some balancing with the boss to figure out how much HP seemed reasonable for what level I thought an average person would be at. I also drew, animated, and designed an AI for a new NPC that will make an appearance later in the game. They are pretty tricky, so I imagine a bunch of deaths for people who dare to make an attempt at them.

The game feels reasonably complete at this point. There is a nice progression leading up to the final boss, and you win the game if you kill it. I made a push to get it to this point before today, because it turns out that tomorrow I’ll have almost no time to work on it at all.

I have two more significant additions I want to make, and then tons of polishing I can do (tons of extra animations, sound, balancing, bug finding and fixing, etc). Overall, I’m finding the game a bit too easy, but my alpha tester hasn’t beaten it yet, so who knows. If you know all the enemy patterns (like I do), then I think it is beatable pretty much every time with caution. I never came across an impossible situation today.

Tomorrow I’ll give a download of the most up-to-date version in case any readers want to volunteer a few playthroughs to give some feedback before the end of the last day.

7DRL Dev Log Day 4

Today I’ve put in some more details, but I still haven’t gotten around to programming the final fight, so the game technically goes on forever right now. I plan to do that first thing tomorrow.

I added another weapon and a bunch more items, which will be one of the main things that keep repeated plays interesting. The weapon was a spear (technically a bident) which can damage enemies at range.

I’ll keep the items a mystery, but I will say that items all have positive effects. This choice came from two places. The first is that in a “one HP” roguelike, you cannot have much by way of negative effects without causing an unfair death.

The second is that I really want everything identifiable on sight, because part of the strategy is to make hard choices about what to use and what to keep. You have a weapon slot and a spacebar item slot (in my head these correspond to what you hold in your two hands).

Since the maze has no backtracking, you can’t bring two really good items with you. Items are fairly sparse, which I like. The game should be beatable without any, so finding something will make the run more enjoyable and safer.

I also implemented the dragon I drew last time into the game. Again, today’s changes were mostly behind the scenes, so there isn’t really a screenshot that helps you see what has happened. Instead, I’ll post a video with sample gameplay.

Don’t watch if you want to experience it yourself. I’ve gotten a lot of standard movement patterns down after playing it a bunch, so I might spoil how to handle lots of situations.