Friday, July 17, 2015

Learning from the Casual Gamer: What I Learned Reading Lauren Orsini's Review of Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers

I've been excited about the upcoming release of Hasbro's Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers board game since I first got news of it last year. The game has already received limited release through brick and mortar specialty stores and on, but has an official wide release date of August 1, 2015. I've got my game on pre-order with a smaller FLGS who isn't on Wizards of the Coast's list of premiere stores and I'm eager to play it. My eagerness is two fold. First, the game has received praise on Boardgame geek and Tom Vasel has given it a big thumbs up. Second, the game looks to be heavily influenced by one of my favorite introductory miniatures games Heroscape.

My eagerness to play the game has only increased after reading an interesting, and mildly irritating, review of Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers from Forbes, entitled "I played 'Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers' and All I Got Was Drunk."

The article was irritating because of its focus on drinking, used for humor I suppose, and the fact that it was a perfect demonstration of the ubiquity of tl;dr culture. If something is too long people will ignore it. It's one of those path dependent results of video games masking the the mechanics underlying game play. Video games implement the mechanics and players don't need to know how a game works in order to begin play and can learn how the mechanics work through play. There is still a learning curve, but it is an active learning curve.

I'm not entirely opposed to this, but it is a mentality that doesn't work too well with board games. You cannot play a board game without having some sense of the mechanics. This is one of the reasons that some games have "basic" and "advanced" rules that can be used. As I wrote, I'm not opposed to working toward making games more "open and play," but I am frustrated by how the transition to digital reading has lowered people's tolerance for long form journalism and games with rules longer than six pages.

The article is interesting because it demonstrates what an encounter with a "light" wargame is to a casual gamer. I have often wondered why Heroscape didn't do as well as I had hoped and Lauren Orsini filled in that gap for me nicely. To me, Heroscape and games like it, are popcorn and soda affairs that are quick to play and don't require a Master's Degree in Rules Acquisition like the classic Advanced Squad Leader does. Compared to the hundreds of pages of rules in ASL, a 20 page rulebook is nothing. But for someone used to pick up and play, or 4 page rulebooks, the story is quite different.

Image Source ICv2

For gamers like Lauren, Arena of the Planeswalkers 20 page rulebook is the referential counterpoint to those hundreds of pages of rule and being asked to flip through those pages to find a rule is similar to us searching for rule A25.45 which refers us to rule F.8, but is really referring to rule A25.53.

In Tom Vasel's reviews of the game, he talks about how quick the game plays and his group is playing it in less than half an hour. In Lauren's review, she describes how she and her group played for over three hours and still hadn't finished the game. She also expressed concern that her group might not have been playing the game correctly.

It would be easy enough to turn this discussion into a screed against Lauren and tl;dr gamers like her, but that's not what I want to do here. Yes, tl;dr culture irritates me. I don't like it when my students haven't read The Federalist Papers because they are difficult to understand and I don't like it when a gamer is intimidated by a "mere" 20 pages of rules.

 Having written that, 20 pages is actually quite a lot of rules. The basic rules of Chess, one of the greatest games ever made, can be written in two pages.

I think that as fans of games and gaming we need to take into account how intimidating a 20 page rulebook can be and not be surprised when someone is intimidated by it. Think about those game sessions when you wanted to play a new game, but hadn't read the rules yet, and read them aloud to the group before play. Remember how long that took? Remember how not fun that was? Playing a game with a longer rulebook requires home work to be done by at least one of the game group. Keep that in mind when designing games, but more importantly keep that in mind when playing with inexperienced gamers.

It is our job as game advocates and fans to familiarize ourselves with games so that we can teach them to others and make their experiences as much "open and play" as possible. I think that Lauren's article gives us some pretty good insight into how an inexperienced gamer approaches our hobby. She did her best to learn and play the game with her group and wrote a relatively positive review for someone as intimidated as she was.

Now...what Forbes was thinking when they assigned this article to her is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Into The Badlands Looks Like a Post-Apocalyptic, Kung Fu, Western and That's a Beautiful Thing.

I've seen quite a few adaptations of Journey to the West, aka Monkey, in my day. Most of these adaptations fail to capture the wonder I experienced when I first encountered Sun Wukong in Ron Lim's excellent comic book Dragon Lines. It wasn't until Steven Chow's wild and imaginative Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons that I saw a filmic version of the tale that approached what I had always wanted to see. I've yet to see a Western adaptation that properly captures the heroism and whimsy of Sun Wukong. While I appreciated Jackie Chan's and Jet Li's performances as manifestations of Monkey in The Forbidden Kingdom, the film itself focused too much on the wandering Westerner and not enough on Monkey. I've been pretty skeptical of Hollywood's ability to bring this character to screen as the rightful protagonist of a tale.

It looks like AMC might just change my assessment. AMC released a preview trailer for their upcoming series Into the Badlands which is based on the classic tale of heroism and wonder, and I'm really impressed. Yes, it's a Western version of the tale, but it is also a "Western" version of the tale. I'll still go in skeptical, but this show looks like a lot of fun and Daniel Wu's performance as "Sunny" looks great. I was never able to see my much wished for version of the tale with Dennis Dun as Monkey, but Daniel Wu brings a wonderful charisma to the screen.

The cinematography of the trailer hints at the influence of Wong Kar Wai and Ronny Yu, and that is a very good thing.

I can't wait to adapt this to Feng Shui, Chris Pramas' Dragon Fist RPG, or Savage Worlds.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Yay! The Return of Cel Shading! Transformers: Devastation is a Game that Looks Like a Cartoon

While the actual gameplay in the new Transformers: Devastation trailer looks less than inspiring, it looks like a mashup of Dynasty Warriors and Tekken, I'm extremely happy to see the return of Cel Shading in video games. There was a brief period in the 90s/early 00s when Cel Shading was all the rage, mostly in some poor games, but I always thought the concept was a good one. Who doesn't want to play a game that looks like the source material? It only adds to the verisimilitude and can create an immersive experience.

Kudos for returning to the format.

TitansGrave, Fantasy AGE, and Stunt Dice -- Probabilties of Rolling Doubles on 3d6

Green Ronin's AGE game system is one of the more innovative role playing systems on the market and the company has begun a major marketing push to promote the system. As a part of their promotional campaign, or as a bit of wonderful serendipity, the AGE system was selected by Wil Wheaton as the role playing system that would be featured in his entertaining TitansGrave: The Ashes of Valkana webseries. I've begun reviewing the show episode by episode, and will continue to do so, but one thing struck me as I was watching the second episode that prompted me to do a post that wanders down Probability Lane in the middle of Statisticsville.

One of the things that really sets the AGE system apart from other systems is its "Stunt" system. This system allows for an increase in player agency at key moments during a game session. It's a mechanic that evolved from early Greg Gorden designs like James Bond 007 which had pools of points players could spend that would allow their characters to do special actions that were out of the realm of possibility for normal "non-player" characters. Some early games that were inspired/influenced by this mechanic include Marvel Superheroes (Karma) and DC Heroes (Hero Points). This mechanic has been very influential in the story game genre where player agency takes priority over game master storytelling. Modern games in this school include, but are not limited to, D&D 5th Edition (Inspiration), Through the Breach: The Malifaux RPG (Twist Decks), and Savage Worlds (Bennies).

While the "Stunt" system falls within this design school of modeling character heroics through the increase of player agency, the AGE take is relatively unique. Where most systems have a set pool of points, or have GMs give points to players, AGE allows probability to decide when players get points to spend. Additionally, and most importantly, many systems have either set effects like rerolls (Bennies) or allow for players to radically alter the elements of a scene (Hero Points and many story driven games). AGE takes a middle ground philosophically between these two extremes. While stunt points allow for more than "mere" rerolls, the Dragon AGE role playing game provides lists of effects that can be achieved by spending stunt points and assigns each a cost. For example, attacking two foes simultaneously might require 4 stunt points while adding a die to damage might only require 2. These are only two, of a large number, of effects that can be achieved. What is important here is that while AGE allows for increased player agency, it does so within constraints that are balanced to ensure players feel challenged.

So how does one acquire these extremely valuable stunt points?

In any AGE game when a player attempts to accomplish a task, that player rolls 3d6 and adds whatever attribute is relevant to that task. For example, when picking a lock a character might add her Dexterity score to the roll. This number is then compared to a Difficulty Number. If the roll plus bonus equals or exceeds that number, the action is successful. If lower, then the action fails. One of these die is of a different color and in Dragon AGE is called the "dragon die", but we'll call it the "stunt die." How successful a character was with the action is sometimes (in the case of extended actions) determined by the value of the stunt die.

If any two of the die come up doubles (or if all three come up as a triple), and the action is successful, the player acquires stunt points which may be spent to make that action special. Maybe the attack hit vulnerable spots or a lock is permanently disabled.  These things are determined by the expenditure of stunt points and a player acquires a number of these equal to the stunt die value. Note that this only occurs when a player rolls doubles (or triples) and is successful.

It's elegant and allows characters to feel extremely heroic in their actions, but this leaves open the question. How common are doubles on 3d6 and how do we even begin to think about these things. There are a couple of books that might be helpful. Chapter 3 of Reiner Knizia's classic Dice Games: Properly Explained is a good place to start, but I have found O'Reilly's Statistics in a Nutshell to be a wonderful resource to return to once the basic idea is understood.

The first way we can see how frequently doubles, or triples, turn up is to write out all the possible combinations.

In this case, it isn't too much work, but if more die had been rolled then it would have been far more time consuming and really we don't want to have to do this all the time. What we really need to understand is that this kind of problem is an example of an intersection of independent events. This means that it is an example where we are looking for matching results from things that are independent from on another. This is the case in all die rolls since what a die rolled on one roll does not effect what gets rolled on the next die roll. If you roll a six on a d6 and pick it up, you still have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling a six the next time you roll the die. These are independent events.

When determining the probability of independent events, we need to know the total number of combinations possible. In this case, that's simple because we are rolling 3d6. This makes the total number of combinations as follows:

6 × 6 × 6 = 216 

 Now we need to know the probability of rolling doubles (or triples) on 3d6. This is equal to:

P(Rolling Doubles) = 1 - P(Not Rolling Doubles)

Since this is a case of an intersection of independent events, we will use the following equation and modify it as a chance of not rolling doubles and then subtract that probability from 1.

P(D1 ∩ D2 ∩ D3) = P(D1) × P(D2) × P(D3)

We know that the probability of rolling a number on 1d6 is 100%. The first number we roll doesn't matter, so that makes D1 = 1.

We know that there are 5 ways to not roll the number rolled on the first die and that leaves us with D2 = 5/6.

We know that the chance of not rolling a number on either of the first two die is 4/6 which makes D3 = 4/6.

This gives us the following equation:

P(D1 ∩ D2 ∩ D3) = P(1) × P(5/6) × P(4/6) = .66667

P(D1 ∩ D2 ∩ D3) = P(1) × P(5/6) × P(4/6)  = .55554

The odds of not rolling doubles is .66667. Thus the odds of rolling doubles is:

P(Doubles) = 1 - (.66667) = .44443

P(Doubles) = 1 - .55554 = .44446

This leaves us with a 44.44% chance of rolling doubles or triples. If you want to double check the equation, you can count the 16*6 combinations above and divide that by 216. Another way of looking at this intersection is using this Venn diagram. As you can see, there are 6 ways of rolling triples and 30 doubles combinations at each intersection of any two dice (making a total of 96).

As for calculating the odds of earning stunt points at any given Difficulty rating, that is beyond the scope of this conversation and I'd leave such analysis up for those much better versed in probability and statistics than I am.