Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lord of the Rings Living Card Game

Now that we got the LCG concept out of the way, it's time to dig into my current favorite. The new LotR LCG does a lot of interesting things. Let's take a look.

1. Co-operative play with constructed decks made possible

This I find a rather interesting combination. Usually co-op games are pretty tightly tuned packages to ensure a certain level of challenge, although they do differ quite a lot in randomness (usually there's lots of it, to retain replay value). The interesting twist in Lord of the Rings is that players play with constructed decks just like in any other LCG (or CCG for that matter). But wait, doesn't this mean that balance gets thrown out of the window? In short, yes, in many ways it does. However, there is not just one game, but as of writing there are 7 different quests available. Three quests are in the basic sets, and each expansion pack has its own.

These quests have different grades of difficulty. The most difficult quests are in fact designed to be tough enough to actually require quite optimized decks. Especially the notorious Escape from Dol Guldur, the toughest quest of the basic set, is pretty much impossible to beat without customized decks. There is enough freedom left for quest designers, which means that the challenge provided by each quest is not only of varying difficulty, it is also of different kind. A deck optimized against one quest may fail miserably in another. In the end, when each player has a very good deck and they all play together nicely, the quests do become kind of easy though.

The fact that they can keep releasing new quests is what I think keeps the game alive and interesting. Just like expansions keep traditional games fresh, but more often. Although I do think they should definitely make them harder and harder with each expansion, because players are piling up more customization options and playing experience. In a way the experience is actually quite similar to certain types of computer roleplaying games. Players make character builds (= decks), and test them against the game's challenges. New expansions come with new build options and new challenges.

Of course, since it is an analog game people play with their friends, nothing stops them from making it more difficult if their hypercustomized decks breeze through every challenge. Looking for good ideas myself.

2. Interesting solo play

Another curious thing about the game is that it's the first analog game I have greatly enjoyed playing just by myself. Tuning my deck so that it can beat all the quests solo without any changes is surprisingly satisfying. For the record, at least as of now, most quests are in fact much harder solo than with 2 or more players, especially, again, the notorious Escape from Dol Guldur. This is actually an interesting side effect of co-operative play because one downside of living/collectible card games has always been deck testing. The only way to really test a deck is to find a lot of opponents who play different decks. The nature of LotR makes deck testing easy because all the possible challenges are always available to be tested against.

3. Multidimensional challenge

The game is out to get you in many ways. There are always two main sources of trouble: on the one hand, encounter cards on the staging area make it difficult to progress in the game; on the other hand, engaging enemies is troublesome as they need to be defended against, or risk taking damage. Every conflict in the game, be it questing or combat, has an element of uncertainty. For example, in combat, enemies have shadow cards dealt to them. Often these do nothing, but they can have highly devastating effects, especially if the attack goes undefended. For this reason it's usually best to defend against all attacks, but defending exhausts characters. A lot of things in this game does, which means that players have to carefully consider what to do with each character.

It doesn't stop there either, because quests can have their own unique challenges. One quest has a rather strict timer in the form of an ally that takes damage each round and is quite hard to heal. The game itself has a rather slow timer as well, because each player's threat rises every round by one.

4. Careful with the card design!

Balancing a game like Lord of the Rings is really hard work. The people at FFG have done quite a good job, but they're not quite there yet. The problem is that there is one clear path to victory: a deck that is able to produce a lot of resources and a lot of card draw can pretty much handle everything, regardless of what strategy it plays. No quest so far punishes these types of decks. This is of course a quite standard CCG convention, where more is more. The problem I think is that especially in terms of resources, there is one clearly superior way of getting a big resource boost in the form of one card. Since this card is from one particular sphere of influence (the 'colors' of this game), being able to play cards from this sphere tends to make decks a lot stronger. At least the card is unique which means there can be only one on the table (between all players).

The same is almost true for card draw, but at least here two spheres have quite feasible options for drawing, and all have some means. Fortunately the designers have included fairly feasible ways to include cards from any sphere to any deck, but nevertheless I do feel a little disappointed that to play a solid solo deck, I am pretty much forced to include this one particular card in my deck (and a maximum number of copies of it, of course). However, I think the issue is fixable by including similar acceleration cards (with different mechanics) to other spheres. Although each sphere does have its own thing, I think resource boosting should be available in many forms instead of just one that is clearly superior.

I don't think that resource boosting are card draw should be the "thing" of any particular sphere, because to me these are more like the prerequirements for a functioning solo deck. It's also a bit nasty that in multiplayer, the one and only really good resource boost can only be used by one player. Besides, the sphere that has this card, also has another "thing", buffing the players as a team. So while I'm all for having highly distinctive spheres/whatever in games, it should be not so that one sphere is practically irreplaceable. I'm going to try to make a deck without that one particular card though just to see how it goes.


As a concept, the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game is very clever, and mostly superbly executed. The game is still taking its baby steps with "only" four expansion packs out. It will remain to be seen how the game changes, especially with the upcoming bigger expansion.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Living Card Games

Instead of a particular game, I'll go through a game concept this time. One of the newer innovations of Fantasy Flight Games is the Living Card Game concept. The LCG is a twist in the usual collectible card game concept: instead of selling cards in random content packs, LCG cards come in fixed packages. Usually there's a starter set with all the mandatory cards, tokens etc that are always needed, and some starter decks to get players going. A typical pack includes as many copies of each card as is the number of copies allowed in one deck. Basically it throws out the collectible nature of CCGs and replaces it with traditional style (mini) expansions.

Since I'm not a big fan of CCGs anymore, I find the LCG to be an excellent alternative. There is no card rarity, which means the price of cards will remain low. Since players know what cards will be in a particular pack of cards, they can only buy the ones that have useful cards. The concept allows anyone to create whatever deck they desire without dishing out enormous amounts of money for rare cards. This makes deck-building much smoother as there is no longer a need to agonize over not being able to use a card because it's too hard to get. While players will still spend quite a lot of money if they want to build really good decks, no money ever goes to waste, and there is always a clear upper limit. Once a player possesses all the expansions, there's no need to buy more.

Since it's a deck construction game, useless cards will still pile up. The downside is of course that since the same cards are easily available for anyone, there is not much of a trading element, which means players are stuck with the cards they don't need. I guess some trading is possible between players of different decks, as no one's going to need all the cards from a given pack. Unless making multiple decks of course. Another downside of the format is that there are less different cards than in collectible card games. Because every pack is guaranteed to have exactly the same cards, and multiple copies of each, the number of different cards per pack is quite small. While the developers could push out packs more quickly, there will be a saturation point.

Overall, I think the LCG is a smart design. It appeals to the board gaming audience much more than CCGs do, but nevertheless it retains the fun of deck-building and endless customization. While the card sets are quite small at first, they'll expand over time. It's also important that there is a basic set that on its own provides a fun gameplay experience, for gamers who don't want to bother with deck construction but like the mechanics of the game. It's also good that it's easier for players to control how much money they're spending for the game. This appeals to people who find the CCG business model distasteful.

I started out with this concept post so I can more easily discuss my current favorite LCG next time...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mirror's Edge

This game is one of my current generation favorites. It's too bad we're not likely to see a sequel. It's sad because with some polishing (read: reducing enemy encounters) this concept could easily be one of the best games ever. There are a lot of things done right in Mirror's Edge. My thoughts.

1. Eliminating the HUD

I don't remember if the HUD of Mirror's Edge was really gone, or was it just optional. Nevertheless, my experience with the game happened entirely without it. The game is designed in such a way that it plays perfectly without one. Again, I think this works very well for immersion. Not to say that games with a HUD cannot be immersive. All attention is paid to the game world itself when there is no additional information on the screen, and this can have a huge effect on the playing experience.

One important HUD element in many games is the minimap or similar navigational device. Mirror's Edge has a different way for offering guidance: objects in the game world that lead Faith towards her goal are shown red in the otherwise white game world. Although I first considered playing without the visual aids, I pretty soon turned them back on. The gameplay experience is so much better when the player can run with some decent knowledge of where to go.

2. Tricks to increase physicality

I like to describe Mirror's Edge as the most physical video game I've played. Of course it's not physical in the same way as dancing games. It's physical in the sense that the player is given a vivid feeling of being Faith. The developers have used several neat tricks to achieve this feeling. First of all, Mirror's Edge is in true first person: the developers had done their best to put the camera into Faith's eyes. Looking down, her legs are actually visible, and of course we can see her hands actually perform all the climbing, vaulting and whatnot. They've also made the camera move in pace with Faith's step.

They've done the same with the game's soundscape. Players hear not just Faith's footsteps but also her breathing. Oh and the grunts and all the other noises. The crash of Faith hitting the pavement is one of my favorite dying sounds and made me feel really bad about screwing up. It usually goes without saying that soundscape is much more important for immersion than graphics, and the developers of ME have nailed that.

3. Simple yet powerful controls

The final piece of the puzzle are the games controls. Most of the game is played using only two analog sticks and two buttons. One button means jump, the other means crouch. These are contextualized in a natural way. Crouching while running means slide. Crouching while falling means roll. There is a high sense of mastery in playing Mirror's Edge because while things are relatively easy to do (thanks to the controls), the game never feels like it's doing things for you. Even the toughest tricks still have to be fully performed by the player.


The real genius in Mirror's Edge's design is how everything comes together to support player immersion. The designers have carefully removed everything game-y from the game in favor of a strong experience, and they have been successful. The flow of movement in Mirror's Edge feels really good, thanks to the combined effect of all the things mentioned here. I've yet to play a game that would get close to what ME does in terms of pure joy of movement. Of course, when movement is the game, it better be good.

Monday, October 10, 2011


A non-digital this time. Ascension is a rather fast-paced card game in the vein of Dominion. It's been designed by Magic the Gathering pro-tour champions, and boasts to introduce the MtG experience in compressed form. Surprisingly, this is not that far from the truth. Since this is the first deck-building game analysis, I'll start with that mechanic.

1. Deck-building game

This new trend of card games was pretty much started by Dominion. The core concept in all these games is that players start with a fixed deck of cards, ten in Ascension. These cards are the shittiest cards in the game, giving very little resources. The point of the game is to buy cards from the table and add them to your deck. The experience of playing these games is not unlike getting the experience of building your deck and playing it, only both at the same time. What could be more awesome?

A careful observer might notice that at its core the mechanic is the same as any other game where players spend resources to produce more resources and do other useful things in the future. This is definitely true. The basic mechanic of deck-building games just makes the process really interesting and smooth. On any given turn, you get five cards out of the cards left in your deck. What's the best use for them? What cards should you get to improve your average hand? Turns are usually over fast. Usually, unless some or another killer combo comes up.

The concept of the average hand is highly important in deck-building games. Since hands are always random, mindlessly buying good cards can actually lead into a very bad deck if those cards don't work together well.

It is also typical to deck-building games that not all the cards in the game are available in each game. Quite far from it actually, as usually the cards available are a rather small subset of all the cards in the game, especially since these games spawn expansions like no tomorrow. This pretty much ensures that no two games are ever exactly alike, and new strategies come up even after hundreds of plays. The downside is that once the amount of cards becomes large, the setup gets a bit annoying.

A lot of these games are mostly multiplayer solitaire, although on occasion there's cards that affect other players.

2. Center row & portal deck

Okay, back to Ascension. Unlike a typical deck-building game, Ascension does not feature a storage that is randomized at the beginning of the game (storage is the pool of available cards). Instead it features a center row with six card slots and a portal deck. Cards are drawn from the portal deck to the center row so that it is always filled with six cards. This mechanical change to the norm has two pros.

First, it hugely decreases setup time (although after the first expansion, shuffling the portal deck does become a bit difficult). Second, whereas in other deck-building games I've played strategies are usually cemented at the beginning of the game (if you change mid-game, you are screwed), in Ascension players have to play more flexibly because there is no knowledge of what cards will be available in the future.

The center row also provides some means for players to affect each others' strategies by buying off or banishing cards they think other players might want. This is much harder to do in other deck-building games because the supply of cards is usually sufficient for all the players to get the ones they really want. Denying players of cards is a viable and often necessary strategy to keep opponents in check.

The flipside of this mechanic is that sometimes the center row does introduce more luck of the draw into the game. There are two basic cards that are always available, but they are not comparable in power to cards from the portal deck. Then again, this is why players need to stay flexible, to make use of the cards available to them on their turn.

3. 2-dimensional economy

Ascension has two resources that the players use: runes and power. The former is used to acquire cards (basically money) and the latter is used to defeat enemies. There are really few cards that provide both, so players need to make choices. Focusing entirely on one is a gamble - if the center row does not favor your strategy, you are majorly screwed. Staying balanced on the other hand makes it difficult to get the best cards or defeat the monsters with the biggest rewards.

Building a deck that does both effectively is the holy grail of Ascension, but quite hard to achieve. To get there, players need to acquire cards that improve the deck's infrastructure but these cards don't usually provide any resources. Decisions, decisions.

4. Constructs

Usually cards in deck-building games are only useful on the turn they are played, and then it's off to the discard pile with them (until they come up again once the deck is depleted and the discard pile is shuffled to become the new deck). In Ascension there are constructs that stay in play unless a specific effect discards them. This introduces a new deck type into the game, one that slowly builds these more constant resources (which have weaker effects than heroes) to improve their average turns.

Such a strategy can have huge payoff, but it also poses a big risk if certain effects trigger. It also is blatantly obvious to other players, which makes it easy for them to deny you the cards you need for this strategy.


Ascension differs from most other deck-building games by the portal deck system. None of the game's innovations are new but rather cleverly adapted mechanics from other games. The designers have looked for inspiration outside the deck-building genre and created a highly enjoyable game. Ascension is particularly successful in dealing with the two common problems of deck-building games: setup time and the multiplayer solitaire symptom.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lumines Supernova

I wanted to write about Lumines... again. Just wanted to point out the things that make Lumines awesome. Lumines is a block dropping puzzle game. The main hook of this game is how it connects its soundtrack to sound effects triggered by game events, making it a highly involved interactive audiovisual experience. The mechanics also happen to hide a really solid game, and here are my observations of some of the causes.

1. Non-solid blocks

In Lumines, when you land a 2x2 block on top of previous ones so that half of it is left hanging in the air, it doesn't remain that way. Instead, the blocks that were left on top of nothing break off and fall down until they hit something solid. It doesn't sound very revolutionary, and indeed it's not particularly new. In Lumines this mechanic ensures that it's more challenging to figure out how a block will end up. Players need some experience to see what's the best way to drop a block into a particular spot on their "construct".

It also means that when a player "undermines" (connects and destroys blocks so that some of the destroyed blocks are underneath other blocks), they again need some experience to see where all those blocks that fall down will end up. In short, the mechanic makes the game less static, and therefore more challenging to entirely figure out. Setting up combos that make use of this mechanic is an art form in itself, and something I have yet to master.

2. The beat line

In Lumines, when the player connects rectangles of four or more blocks, these are not immediately removed. Instead, they are marked for removal. A beat line constantly passes over the playing field, left to right, and as it moves, it erases all blocks marked for removal (and scores them). This mechanic affords big combos, as the player can build lots of rectangles for removal before removal takes place. It also adds a bit to the player's cognitive load as they need to be aware of which blocks are not going to be around much longer while they are placing new blocks. Combine with the previous mechanic, this makes it sometimes quite challenging to figure out what's a an optimal move for a situation.

Another interesting dimension about the beat line is that its speed affects how a level plays. Levels where it moves slowly afford big combos, but are harder because more blocks will accumulate on the screen between removals. This is especially true in levels where the beat line is really slow, and the falling speed of blocks is really fast. The difficulty of levels in Lumines is therefore controlled by two parameters instead of one, which adds a lot of variance to progressing through the game. Which brings us to the next point:

3. Nonlinear difficulty progression

Lumines does not simply change both its difficulty parameters constantly towards more and more challenge, but instead some levels downplay the challenge in one of the parameters and increase in the other. The levels are arranged such that the toughest levels are often followed by somewhat easier ones. I like how this gives the player a second chance after a hectic level which is almost guaranteed to mess up their stacks. Often in these slack levels scoring is not as important as improving the block structure for the next tougher level.

The downside is that this makes the game much longer to play, as it becomes "impossible" way slower than games where only one difficulty parameter constantly ramps up. After the full cycle of 20 levels, the overall falling speed of blocks increases, so eventually the situation is going to get out of hand (for me its at the first half of the third cycle). The definite upside is that one mistake is not going to ruin the entire game. There is always hope. "If I can make through this level, I can fix that problem. Not all is lost."


Lumines (Supernova) does a lot of things right. It puts a huge cognitive load on the player and succeeds in keeping a player in flow for a long time by introducing non-linear difficulty progression. Thanks to the huge cognitive load, the game is really hard to master. It stays interesting a long time.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dead Space

To kick off this new blog, I'll start with something recent. To me anyway. I suddenly had an urge to resume Dead Space. I stopped playing it after a couple of chapters last year and thought I'd never touch it again. Now it's done, and it was in fact quite enjoyable. Observations follow.

1. Why Dead Space is not scary

In this Gamasutra article, Dead Space and several other supposedly scary games are pitted against each other in a scientific study. I cannot say anything about the other games since I have not (yet) played them, but Dead Space is not particularly scary. It was this disappointment that made me stop playing the game last time. Based on my prior observations of horror games, I'll point out the problems.

Dead Space falls into the same pitfall that undermines a lot of suspense from the Silent Hill series: there are lots of enemies. Killable enemies at that. This is a huge problem, because it has been acknowledged time and again that once the threat can be dealt with, it becomes a lot less scary. Enemies in Dead Space do take some skill to defeat effectively but typically they are gone in seconds. Dead Space also does not do a whole lot foreshadowing. Mostly, enemies just appear from somewhere, sometimes trying to get that cheap surprise scare.

While the game is very grotesque, it rarely got me particularly disturbed. By fluff the necromorphs have been human, but when you encounter them in the game, they are so far removed from traces of humanity that the deformation effect does not kick in. They don't look like horribly mutated humans, they just look like monsters. The ghosts in Project Zero (Fatal Frame) are actually more effective in evoking this effect, and they are not even physical beings.

Finally, Dead Space by design cannot evoke the scarce resource effect. Fighting enemies is a core mechanic in the game, and therefore there was no way for the designers to limit the resources available to the player so that ammunition would be actually scarce. Okay, sure, I'm a gaming veteran and I can get a decent hit ratio, so maybe less skilled players will have to deal with scarce ammunition and occasionally take out monsters in melee. However, I remember how things were in System Shock 2 where ammunition to weapons really was scarce. The reason why I think the scarcity effect does incur fear is that although you might have the tools to deal with enemies now, what if they come in such numbers that you don't have enough.

I'm not denying the atmosphere of Dead Space. It was fairly strong. The game just was not scary.

2. Ammunition, Dead Space style

I do now know how popular this mechanic is, but this is my first time encountering it. In short, there are next to none pre-determined drops / crates / items laying on the ground in Dead Space. Instead, the player will always randomly get ammunition for one of the weapons they have equipped or some utility item. On paper this might sound pretty good: players get to use the weapons they like. On the flipside, players are never forced to fight with suboptimal weaponry. I remember how in System Shock 2, availability of ammo played a big part on which weapons to use.

This mechanic might sit better with some games, but I didn't particularly enjoy it in Dead Space. It gives little incentive to make use of all of the weapons and the randomness feels a little bit cheap. It also allows gaming the system by having less weapons equipped. Having enemies drop items consistently also has a side effect: the player can be sure that an enemy is dead when they see the drop. Since some enemies in Dead Space in fact do feign death, this kind of ruins the surprise.

3. Don't aim for the head

Dead Space challenges the headshot trope of shooters. Although cynically speaking it's just replaced with limbshot, the mechanic does in fact serve the game well. Tearing enemies down limb by limb is the name of the game. I liked to start with legs. The point of this mechanic is that damage has a big impact on how the enemies perform. Especially shooting their legs off. It definitely adds to the grotesque feel of the game. After a lengthy battle, the place is littered with severed limbs and limbless torsos.

The mechanic alone would not be as effective without weapons that fully support it. The very first two weapons in the game are best examples. The plasma cutter is a precision tool that can make horizontal or vertical cuts making it far more interesting than your usual pistol (although it is in fact pretty much just a pistol). My favorite weapon in the game, the line gun, fires a wide cutting line which can easily sever both legs off of multiple enemies at once. Oh and there's ripper, an industrial remote-controlled saw blade, which is an excellent tool for close quarters combat.

The limb shooting mechanic and brutal weapons combined make defeating each enemy a highly satisfying experience of mastery. I enjoyed shooting monsters in Dead Space a lot more than in many games I've played previously.

4. The cool UI

Dead Space is highly successful in integrating everything into the game world. The sci-fi theme affords this without suspension of disbelief, and I liked the floating menus etc. as soon as I saw them. Ditto for the guidance system. The simple but clever trick employed in the game is to display every GUI thingy as a holographic projection in the game world. That's all, and it works like a charm.

I do believe that in games that put a lot of emphasis on atmosphere, UI designers should strive to make the HUD go away entirely, and in Dead Space the designers have succeeded without taking any information away from the player. Overall, the designers of the game have done a fairly good job of minimizing the suspension of disbelief.


Dead Space is a good shooter. Its action is satisfying visually and mechanically. The designers have put several solid innovations into the game and made it highly enjoyable. They have done a good job with minimizing the suspension of disbelief. They only falter with the weird resource system. However, Dead Space is not very scary, suffering from the common problems of horror games where a lot of monsters are fought.