Posts Tagged games

Review: Acme Bowl

Today we had a department party (thanks Aaron!) due to how awesome the year has been for Magic. We had it at Acme Bowl, a trendy/more upscale bowling place in Tukwila. I’ve been there before, at previous department parties and with local friends, but I noted a few interesting things to talk about – now that I’ve been there this year, with my blog fully operational!

The first thing that’s sweet about Acme Bowl is that there are music videos on the monitors down the lanes. This is both distracting and hilarious, because (possibly because there’s bar service at the lanes) folk sing along. I know I was singing along and it messed up my game a little bit, but it was all in good fun. I think it really elevates the bowling alley to an event location from the additional ambience.

The second thing I noted was the staff was super friendly. It’s possible that they were being kind due to our catering contract, but thinking back I believe this has usually been the case. The bartender and I also had a great chat about Magic, so there’s evidence they identify with gamers too.

The state-of-the-art bowling electronics were cool, although the random sports shots accompanying “Spare” and “Strike” notices could have been better selected?  Dunno, this one I could go either way on.  Kike most bowling places, there’s a significant amount of maintenance required when lanes malfunction, and that detracted from play experience and just time available.

Overall: B+
Songs Karaokied While Bowling: 2
Lane Reliability: 8/10

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Review: Minecraft

Minecraft might be my new obsession.  Due to Ken’s blog and glowing review of it, I ended up watching a couple of YouTube videos of a guy starting out and I was convinced to download and purchase it.  Turns out, it’s extremely addictive, even to a gamer like me, who generally dislikes (1) 1st person shooters, (2) crafting in general in games, and (3) open sandbox worlds.  Kind of odd, but I have been self-examining while playing, and I think I know why I enjoy it so much – it’s a kind of game design game, in that you generate your goals and the style of gameplay you want as you play.  It’s kind of similar to how I imagine Dwarf Fortress plays out, which many of my friends have played but which was entirely uninteresting to me.

In Minecraft, you start in a randomly generated landscape with nothing.  You can go “mine” wood from a tree, and then “craft” it into wooden planks.  Two planks become sticks, and four planks a workbench.  The workbench gives more space to craft, so you can then make larger objects like a wooden pick – which is betting at mining, and so can get you stone.  Stone can make you furnace.  Eventually you can find other resources, like coal (torches), sand (glass), iron (steel) and even diamond and this crazy mystical substance “red stone” (which can power things at a distance, a la electricity).  Add to this the fact that the world autogenerates around you in an almost infinite fashion, and that there’s a survival component (at night, the zombies cometh), and you have a recipe for a very interesting game with only a small number of core mechanics.

One major drawback of Minecraft is it is extremely simple, pixelated graphics, which means it is not super compelling visually.  But honestly, it ends up being both endearing and undistracting, letting the mechanics shine through.  If you enjoy sandbox type games, or building (Sim-style) games, or quest-adventure games, or you are interested in exploring a world populated only by you and uniquely formed for you, Minecraft is worth a try.

Overall: A-
Mining to Crafting Ratio: 10:1 or greater, depending on how much of a “quester” you want to be
Variety of Speckles in Stone: B-

p.s. My current house has a lava floe into a lake outside, and I am planning on hollowing out the mountain I built it in to make the Mines of Moria.  Hopefully I won’t spend every waking moment on it!

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Review: Starcraft 2

I’ve talked previously about Starcraft 2, how I felt about receiving it on release day and how I reacted to two issues of choice in the single-player game, but I haven’t really reviewed it properly, so I thought I’d do so today.  For those who don’t know, Starcraft is Blizzard’s sci-fi/fantasy IP about humans living in kind of frontier space with an hive-alien race called Zerg and an ancient-tech-alien race called Protoss.  The game itself is a real time strategy game, which means you manage building up your base and sending your troops to attack theirs (and their base) in each game.  In the single-player campaign, there are often other more specific objectives you have to accomplish with the resources you find/leverage.

The Starcraft 2 single-player campaign was pretty impressive.  Not only did it cleanly introduce the player to the units and structures you can build (by way of play-to-learn levels), but it also told an interesting story and made me care a bit about my choices (by rewarding me with more story or with stuff) and gave me a wide range of customization – and since RTS games are about “customizing” the units you use and the strategy you take based on what’s happening minute to minute, further customization is a perfect addition here where in other games it may just feel extraneous.  I liked that the missions you got in single player varied widely in goal type, and it usually wasn’t “kill all the enemy buildings,” which is great because I can do that in multiplayer vs. a real human opponent.  One thing I disliked (although I admit this could be personal preference) is that the achievements/badges you get in the campaign mode aren’t told to you until after you complete a mission, and when you make a choice about what sort of customization you want, it is often irreversible – two things that made me feel like I was forced to replay the same content to “achieve everything.”

Speaking of which, the multiplayer in Starcraft 2 is actually something I got a head start on, joining the beta along with many friends to play online.  Multiplayer in Starcraft continues to be the pinnacle of online real-time strategy games for me: it has the right number of units, the right number of structures required to make those units, and the right number of “spellcasting” units so that the intense micromanagement of your units is an opt-in experience.  I am by no means an excellent Starcraft 2 player, but I love playing with friends in 2v2 or 3v3 capacity, and the game is well set up to make that function.

Overall: A
Sequel Power: More like Back to the Future 2, less like Terminator 2 (good, though!)
Use of Choice and Achievements to Enforce Replay: C
Zergling Rush: Still strong, after all these years!

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Fantasy Football

I can’t really do a review about fantasy football because (a) I am not a particularly good fan of football (in that, I have watched some games, and I have watched the Superbowl, and I have attended some games, but I am not invested in the sport), and (b) I have never participated in a fantasy football league.  So instead, I ask the reader: have you had good experiences with fantasy football?  What compels you about it as a game?  What about in relation to the sport?  Are they separable?

One issue I have with team sports is that I never really feel invested in the team.  I have felt very invested in the people competing, especially with individual sports and when my friends (or I!) are on a particular team, but I can’t seem to find the “fan bone” that would make me devoted to one in particular.  The closest I came to team devotion was living in Boston when the Red Sox went nuclear during 2003 and 2004, and even then I feel like I was held up by the tide of fandom and not really a part of it.

Lee and I were chatting about fantasy football after work / during dinner, and I got the sense that I am missing out on some interesting social gaming… not to mention the system he outlined is kind of like build-your-own-team.  And if I care about individuals, and not teams, then surely a team of my own construction from individuals I care about would be the solution?  I think I have commented before that I don’t really feel like I can connect with friends on the sports axis, and maybe this is a step in an interesting direction.

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Review: Kingsburg

Kingsburg is one of your classic German resource-management strategy board games.  Dylan introduced me to it; I bought it recently while browsing for other stuff at a game store, because I remembered I enjoyed it.  Like many games of its ilk, it takes an hour or two to play, it involves a lot of fiddly resource pieces, and you build up and acquire victory points.  Unlike other games, it has a sweet core mechanic that I am very impressed with: dice roll drafting (explained below).  Although the game is kind of annoying to teach (there’s a lot of information to take in on your personal stuff-to-build card), it’s got pretty good pacing and a lot of fun moments.

The dice roll draft works as follows: all players roll three six-sided dice of their own color.  Then there are spaces on the board, 1-18, which have resource icons on them (they are advisors you are trying to influence, so like a Merchant, a Wizard, a Duchess, etc.).  You “draft” a space (take it and nobody else can) by putting any number of dice on it that add up to exactly the number shown.  So with my 6-5-4 roll, I could take the 9 space with the 4-5, or the 15 space with all the dice, or the 6 space with just the 6, etc.  You keep going around the table until everyone’s out of dice (or can’t place anywhere).  There are neat mechanics in game – extra dice, bump the number up/down one, get a one-time +2 chit – that influence the roll in interesting, strategic and fun ways.

The downside is that this super fun core mechanic is accompanied by a sheet of stuff to spend resources on, that isn’t particularly compelling in my opinion.  Ostensibly, the structures make you (a) better at dice-drafting, (b) better at doing the regular-interval combat mechanic, or (c) get points, but they kind of feel haphazard and they are very hard to keep track of in-game.  I would prefer a different system for spending resources that integrates better with the dice-drafting part of the game – maybe everything makes you better at drafting, there are more spaces, and the primary way to get points is via the draft?

Regardless, the game has many compelling parts (there’s even fun in griefing your opponents by picking a spot they want right in front of them!) and if you are into strategy board games, I recommend picking it up!

Overall: B+
Core Mechanic (Dice-Drafting): A
Fiddliness/Wordiness: C+
Gold Icon That Looks Like a Lemon So Everyone Calls It Lemons: A++ (thanks Dylan!)

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Review: Plants vs. Zombies

So, here’s a dirty secret: I had not played Plants vs. Zombies until very recently, when Bill couldn’t stop talking my ear off about it.  But, surprise surprise, it is in fact a PopCap game and extremely good!  I just completed Adventure Mode plus a few of the “survival” levels (which let you use some of the stuff you acquire late in the game to good effect), and I wanted to talk about my impressions.  For reference, I love love love Peggle, I enjoy Bejeweled but not overmuch, and I haven’t played other PopCap games.  I also have historically not enjoyed Tower Defense games, probably because they tend to (a) lack polish, and (b) take a bit to get into.

PvZ immediately solves both of these problems because it is amazingly polished (like any PopCap game) and it doesn’t waste anytime getting you into the meat of the game.  PvZ has two major components that I want to talk about – its sunflower system and its progression of content.  The sunflower is the game’s mana system, in that your ability to construct “towers” is limited by your sun currency, and that currency is generated by sunflowers.  I think this is both a beautiful design feature, and also a minor design flaw.  Because the space you build in (your lawn) is limited, the arrangement and number of sunflowers has strategic value, and I like that.  In addition, because sunflowers produce sun at an approximate rate, that means you build as you play, which is an excellent way to keep the game moving and energetic, and I love that about it.  On the other hand, it’s a flaw because I have found every one of my games starts the same way – I make a bunch of sunflowers while defending with temporary defensive structures.  This repetitiveness wore me down and is a major contributor to why I am not planning on playing much more past the “campaign track.”  (It also has another effect which I’ll talk about below.)  Sunflowers are also super adorable, so major plus there too.

The progression of content in PvZ is great – you receive new plants as you progress (they are not “money-limited,” although a few “post-game content” items are).  I found this kept me interested, and the inclusion of levels that leverage the strengths of the new plant immediately after you receive them as kind of a running tutorial is an excellent system for teaching.  I did find, however, that due to the build order constraints sunflowers place on me, I ended up using a lot of the same plants over and over again.  Once again, the repetitiveness is frustrating and I didn’t feel the variation in level makeup (pool vs. fog vs. roof etc.) was sufficient to make me feel like I was diversifying.

So, overall, it’s clearly an excellent game, and I should have played it sooner!  PopCap never fails to deliver an excellent package, and the very fact that I have this much to say about it is a testament to the game’s subtle depth and overall fun factor.  I recommend it, probably over other Tower Defense games (unless that’s your cup of tea specifically), but not over other casual games generally.

Overall: A-
Polish, Flavor, etc.: A
Strategy: B-
Strategy for a Casual Game: A-

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Review: Ascension

I’ve been playing a fair bit of Ascension, both with friends some evenings and with some folks at work, and I feel like I’ve played enough now to give my impressions and write up a review.

Ascension is a descendent of the Dominion series of games: fast play card games with fixed cards, with a nifty collect cards, put into deck mechanic. It’s got a leg up over the “original” in its ease of setup and its variety of cards played (since it uses one-big-deck, which neatly solves my issue of repetitiveness with Dominion). The fact that every card is worth points is also great, because it means everyone feels like they are progressing as they play, and it makes card evaluations easier on that axis as well.

On the other hand, there are some things about Ascension I don’t like – the downtime when it’s not your turn is wearing on me. Since the cards available change with every turn, it’s rare I want to be aware of what’s available when it’s not my turn. One other thing I dislike, one that’s just a minor negative, is a few of the cards just seem bad from a game balance perspective (or a gameplay “fun” experience).

Overall, though, I really enjoy it and the benefit of fast and varied play over its competitors give it the easy edge. Looking forward to expansions!

Overall: A-
Variance Incorporation: A
Easy to Learn: B-

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Todd Schuman

Todd and I got to know each other during my freshman year of college, since we both lived in Blacker and frosh are pretty tightly-knit at Tech. I remember him saying he was awesome at Starcraft, and I challenged him, and I tried to cheese him with cannons (which, for those who don’t know Starcraft, is kind of like trying to sneak up behind someone and scare them hard enough they wet themselves). It didn’t work, of course, but I laughed my head off, and everyone had a good time. Todd and I went on to be class officers together, play various strategy games, enjoy yearly Vegas trips, get back into Magic (he is the one who got me back into it via Magic Online), even start an online business and eventually have regular game and TV nights.

Todd is one of my closest friends, and it’s no surprise why: he cares deeply about his friends, is both jovial and social, enjoys gaming immensely. We think alike, chat a ton, and try to visit each other (along with our associated nearby friends) frequently. Todd even asked me to be one of his groomsmen for his wedding, which was totally awesome, and his wife Tory is one of my closest friends in her own right – the two of them are amazing and it’s wonderful they are together.

Todd’s also an inspiration to me because although we share a lot of the same thought pathways (he and I would get into philosophical/political/etc. discussions over game night in Los Angeles quite a bit along with our other friends attending), he is much more responsible and dedicated to self-improvement in ways I wish I could be. He runs marathons (something I could never do but which I greatly admire!), plans many many trips to visit friends and learns valuable life skills in his free time. Basically, I’m super happy we’re friends because he is so awesome, and it barely matters than I am so thoroughly upstaged. 😉

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Dylan Mayo

I met Dylan during a Thursday night Draft Club draft, which is to say during an evening where we played Magic after working on Magic.  Dylan was quite forward and friendly – introducing himself and claiming he had in fact spent all week on introductions.  He was exactly the right combination of interested in what you had to say, and interesting things to say, and I later discovered also has a razor sharp instrument of sarcasm on him.  Even now, despite my conscious awareness of his legendary sarcasm, I get taken by it when we are conversing.  Dylan is also one of the few friends who just “get” me when I’m geeking out on gaming references, possibly because he’s more of a geek than me. :)

Dylan and I have a lot in common – we are both devastatingly handsome, we both think too much, we both loooove games and playing games with friends, we both enjoy teasing Bill Stark (we kid because we love!) and we both care a lot about our friends.  Dylan also has more experience in the games industry than me, and cares more about the “real world” than me (as in, he’s formally studied economics and such).  We still have really interesting conversations all over the place, though, as good friends with varied interests should.  It is Dylan’s model of a manager – the kind that holds his people up to others when they accomplish something great, and protects them from outside influences while they are doing their work – that I admire most of the friends I have seen as managers.

Although it was a sad day for all at Wizards when a bunch of excellent people were let go with the dying breaths of the Gleemax initiative, I don’t think I miss anyone’s company quite as much as Dylan’s at Wizards.  We just clicked so well, and also had enough to argue and disagree about, that I was always interested in spending more time chilling with him, and I am sad I don’t see him every day anymore!

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Jenny “Tifa” Meyen

I’ve actually only known Tifa for a short time, but she is totally fun to hang out with, and I was hearing good things about her from Zac and Lee before I met her. The reason I know her is, of course, Monday night karaoke, which although inconveniently timed for a busy workweek, is full of amazing people (like Tifa) and excellent times.

Tifa is a very bubbly individual, evidenced by how she jumps up and hugs everyone who arrives for an event. It’s really great to have a few “social pillars” in any gathering – friends who are welcoming to newcomers, who are comfortable involving surrounding people in new conversations – and Tifa is that for our karaoke group. Also she has an awesome voice! She is also a quintessential gamer, working at a game store, learning Magic and even doing something I strive to do – planning gaming evenings with friends.

I’m grateful that I know Tifa and it’ll be great continuing to become better friends.

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