Hearthstone! For the Horde!

I should write a bit about Hearthstone. I signed up last year when it launched in open beta but sometime after the iPad version hit it sunk hooks in me but good. I suspect it was probably the videogame I spent the most time with in 2014 and while Destiny made a bid for competing in 2015 I can see where my Destiny time is already beginning to taper off a bit while I still play Hearthstone at least four or five nights a week. Yesterday I decided not to update my bounties in Destiny but I made sure to log in and kill at least one Hearthstone quest so I could get a new one today.

On the one hand, I'm not surprised at Hearthstone grabbing me: it pushes enough of the Magic: The Gathering buttons and the digital version isn't … look I'm trying to be nicer in my public persona in my middle age so let's just say when I quit playing Magic Online I was confident that it wasn't me it was them. It's been like a decade and they still don't have the mode (League) I liked the most back in MTGO. But a decent OS X client would probably get me playing again, I just don't think that will happen. So yeah, there are known hooks into my attention that have lain fallow lo these many years.

On the other hand, an online-only, adversarial game? Not my bag baby. Never has been. I have some friends who claim to play (eyes Bwana) but I don't have any friends who ever actually log into the thing. I was really surprised to realize that the crux of why I like Hearthstone was this simple fact: you can't chat with your opponent. There are six emotes you can say and they are basic things: Greetings, Well Played, Oops, Sorry and so forth. That's it. And if somebody is being rude/obnoxious/annoying with that limited palette you can squelch 'em in two taps. It's weird how liberating that is. And if somebody plays well, and accepts the outcome of the game with good grace you can friend them later and THEN have text chat. I've had a couple of times where I exchanged a bit of dialog post-match with my opponent and they have been really satisfactory interactions. I assume the racist, homophobic tweens who dominate Xbox Live don't make it through the "play an entire game without being an ass-hat" filter because I've never sent nor accepted a friend request in Hearthstone and then not liked whatever interaction has occurred afterward.

In the last year there have been two expansions to Hearthstone: the "adventure" that was Curse of Naxxramas in late July through August, and the first expansion of Goblins vs. Gnomes in December. Naxxramas in particular because it was interesting: a single-player expansion that rolled out a bit at a time. For five weeks they put a new "wing" of Naxxramas up and each wing had a few AI's with special decks and powers. As you beat the encounters you would unlock cards for your collection, usually a card that you had just played against. So as an "expansion" it was small: I think it was 30 cards spread over a five week window but as the cards were revealed and dropped in the metagame would change. Naxxramas was a really fun time to play the game. I don't have as much to say about GvG, which is more of a traditional expansion, something like 120 cards. I like it fine and I think it did a great job of shaking up the game.

So yeah, Hearthstone. If you play it drop me a line with your BattleNet ID and I'll add you to my friends list. The game itself is free and in fact you play quite a bit without buying anything meaningful. I've bought some cards but not a ton and I get most of my cards through playing the game and earning in-game gold. So if you think you are at all interested I'd say grab the client and give it a whirl!

Plants Vs. Zombies

I'm a little late to mention this but Plants Vs. Zombies is a seriously good gaming value at $20. The game is a lot of fun and has quite a variety of game modes. I'm not sure what all it's available on - I know there's a Mac version (Intel only), and I'm reasonably certain the is a PC version as well. There's also a free demo so if you have any interest in a solid little game on the computer of your choice you should definitely hit that link and check it out. Unless it the link doesn't work where you live of course, in which case suck it up! ;-)
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Kublacon!

Yeah I really did post "Hey the blog's back" and then not post for a week. Sorry 'bout that. In my defense I ended up being busy preparing to go to ... KublaCon. I've been to GenCon once, back when I was fresh back to the States from Germany and stuck in New Jersey for a year, but the gaming convention bug didn't really stick with me in any meaningful way. But lately I've been getting the itch to play D & D Fourth Edition instead of running the game (as a DM). I talked Blake into going with me to check out the "Game Day" event that Wizards had when Players Handbook 2 released back in March and while that had the stereotypical gaming collective problems it was still fun. Monster Manual 2 came out last week and there was Wizards-sponsored event for that on Saturday. I was trying to talk my players into attending that when Cyrus mentioned he was going to be at KublaCon. So I decided to take a flyer on it and go to KublaCon, make a RPGA Living Forgotten Realms character, and generally check out the scene. The RPGA stuff is pretty fun overall. Basically there are some rules about how you get magic items and managing character advancement and then a whole set of adventure that you can sort of hop around from convention to convention. It strikes me as a little tough to follow in that there are stories, but each adventure is supposed to be roughly a third of a level and most of the storylines have the first adventure for character levels 1-3 and then the second adventure is for character levels 4-7. In other words I played in a session last Friday (East 1-1), and I need to play in something like eleven to twelve other adventures before I can play East 1-2 and revisit that storyline. The odds of me remembering much about it are pretty slim by then. I played three times over the weekend and got my character (a gnome sorcerer using cosmic magic) up to level 2, as well as acquiring a spiffy +2 weapon that he can't use until he reaches level 3. It was enough fun that I'll probably try to play more in the future. I also got to play several new-to-me boardgames over the weekend. I played EuroRails, which is one of the classic Rails series but I had never played any of them before. I liked EuroRails enough but I think the pacing of it is somewhat off. It was really slow starting (and we were using "expedited" rules to make it play quicker) and it seemed to suffer pretty badly from a "once you have fallen behind you just fall further behind" mechanic. I think it's probably one of those things where if I had experienced it back in 1990 when it was released it would have blown my mind, but nearly twenty (!) years later it suffers a bit in comparison to state of the art. I'd certainly play it again or one of the other games with the same basic rules, but I don't see jonesing for a copy myself. I taught Agricola to Cyrus and some of his friends on Sunday night and we played that twice (using the beginner rules without Minor Improvements or Occupations). Agricola is a really good game, I think it deserves knocking Puerto Rico out of the #1 spot on BoardGameGeek, as it is a very similar game but doesn't bog down in the end the way Puerto Rico does and it has a lot more variation/customization to it. Lastly I checked out Dominion and Small World, both of which are relatively recent releases. Dominion really shot up the charts last year after it was released (it currently sits at #6 on the Geek), but I had never really understand how it plays. The idea is that each player has a deck of cards and every turn you buy new cards to put in your deck, so you're simultaneously using the deck to draw a hand of cards to play in order to build the deck. Basically you build up an economic engine (in your deck of cards) and use that engine to generate more and more wealth (represented by cards in your deck) until you can buy victory points (which are also cards in your deck). It's a really elegant design and there's a lot of subtle interactions between the cards. If the dealer room had still been open when I finished playing Dominion I totally would have bought a copy and made Cyrus play it later that evening. Small World wasn't as good, but it was a fun little game, it had decent depth while not being overly complex and it played quickly. Small World is apparently some sort of redesign/retheme of Vinci, which I didn't know because I had never played it. There's a list of creature races available that are matched up randomly with a "profession". Each race has some sort of bonus power, and the profession confers some additional benefit as well. Each player purchases a race and then gets a certain number of tokens which they use to conquer territory. Once you've expanded that empire as far as you can (you don't get more units after the initial race purchase) you can put your race "in decline" which means they continue to hold their terrain and you get points for that but you can't move them around or anything and they are weakened such that somebody will soon expand into their territory. In the game I played there were nine turns (it might change for other numbers of players? I'm not sure) and it takes an entire turn to put a race into decline so that's a major strategic decision when is best to switch horses. I liked both games, enough so that I ordered both of them from Funagain. Dominion plays two to four players and Small World plays two to five and I think Karin will like both games. Games that play well for two players and Karin would like are the gold standard game category for me, as we can play them without having to arrange some sort of larger social gathering. Anyway, KublaCon was fun. I came home a little tired (we stayed up until after 3 AM on Saturday night/Sunday morning and that's a bit much for my old bones these days), but I guess that's probably a good thing for a convention. I would seriously consider going back next year.
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D&D Reviews - For Real This Time, No Fooling

OK so yesterday's post was originally intended to be a book review amalgam before I put on the rose-colored glasses and got out the scrapbooks. Today I want to talk about a pair of book(let)s and I may talk a bit about the first 4th edition module. The books are called Wizards Presents Races and Classes, and Wizards Presents Worlds and Monsters and together they are the bulk of the "preview" materials for 4e. The module serves a bit of this as well - it's called H1 - Keep on the Shadowfell. I call them book(let)s because each book is only about 100 pages long. At first I was sort of dubious about them, and I still think they are badly titled. But they aren't really a "This is wizard and look we had somebody draw a picture!" What they are is actually a series of essays by the people who created 4th edition. (Well and to be fair, there is a "This is a wizard" component.) Sticking with wizards, there are six pages about wizards in the Races and Classes book. The first two are clearly going to be in the Player's Handbook and are pretty much "So you wanna be a wizard? This is what you'll do." and some pictures. But then there's a half column on the role of the wizard in combat and talking about how the wizard now has an implement such as a wand or orb (Pratchett fans will wonder if the the implement has a Knob on the End) and that implement shapes what the wizard does. Next up is some "crunchy" (i.e. full of rules information) details about the changes from 3rd to 4th edition, including why the changes were made. Next up is discussion of how the wizard class is balanced against the other classes, both how it worked in 3rd edition and what they changed for 4th. The point I'm trying to make is that while yes these books do cover the fluffy "Wizards cast spells and suck at combat" aspects, there's also a good bit of crunchy "this is how 4th edition works" and a whole big helping of "This is what the design goals of 4th edition are and how we got there." It's almost like these two books are the directory's commentary track of the Player's Handbook. For somebody like me with a more than passing interest in how gaming sausage gets made this stuff is just great. The split of the books is a bit odd. I actually read all of the Races and Classes book and the first quarter of the Worlds and Monsters one before I got the logic. They talk about how 4th edition was developed by two teams - a mechanics/rules team and a flavor/creative/art team. The first book was written by the mechanics team and the second by the creative team. This makes a lot of sense but it's not said explicitly anywhere. Once I got that it was a lot easier to flow with which topic was covered where. I think this is even further obscured by the fact that the "Races" topic is the blurriest and it's what the first book opens with. Are dwarves and elves mechanics or flavor? The answer of course is "Yes". The book focuses a bit more on the mechanics side of the fence but it dabbles more in flavor than the other sections do. The second book shows a lot of good thought. The whole planar system has been redone and one mantra was "lose pointless symmetry". Did anyone ever really adventure in the Positive or Negative Material planes? Even most of the elemental planes were cast in a way that A ) made them uninteresting and B ) made them impossibly difficult to use. "So it's an endless plane of fire? The ground is fire, and the air is fire? And this rock? No, it's fire too huh? And we can't breathe, because of the fire? What a great place to go." Instead now they have a plane called the Feywild which is an eerie mystical echo of the "real" world. All of the fey/faerie creatures come from the Feywild, and ancient elven (technically they are eldarin, but that's a technicality) cities might exist in the Feywild except for the solstice when they materialize in the real world for just one night. Bam! Already that has more adventuring potential than the Inner Planes ever got in 20 years of D&D. I'd say if you have any interest in D&D, or even much of an interest in game design as a topic this are worth reading. I really liked reading them, and if it wasn't clear already they really piqued my interest in reading the actual rulebooks.
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Dungeons & Dragons - A Retrospective

This post is somewhere between a couple of book reviews and just some general commentary. I can do that, it's my blog and I'll organize however I see fit :-) Turns out I'm just going to go down memory lane. I'll post more about the 4e products another time .... The venerable Dungeons & Dragons is getting a new version this week. The fourth edition rules are supposed to be available on Friday (you can easily find PDF's via BitTorrent if that's how you roll (pun not intended)), but there's a wealth of information you can soak up now if you'd like. A good place to start would be at the D&D Insider web site, but there are also two books Wizards of the Coast released about the new edition, and already one adventure is available with "quick-start" rules and pre-generated characters that lets you play in advance of the full rules dropping. I should probably talk a little bit about D&D and me I suppose. I remember the original "box set" game but we didn't do much with that. I have memories of my Dad trying to figure out exactly what it was, but not much more. At some point later we got the Advanced D&D books (back when there were only three). I still have those three books, they are probably some of the oldest books I own. The Player's Handbook has lost the spine and they are in general completely beat up. I have a second copy of the first edition Player's Handbook in the more "modern" orange spine covers. I played AD&D with my Dad for years. In my mind we did it throughout my entire childhood, but looking back with an adult eye, it couldn't have been more than a couple of years tops. As I became a teenager the system was getting ridiculous. I just counted, I have *8* different orange back books as well as the five volumes they put out before adopting the orange spines. Believe it or not, at one point in time I could navigate that fluidly and tell you (without looking) where a particular obscure rule was. Oh, and there's so much stuff I didn't keep - years of Dragon magazines, modules by the linear foot, it's crazy. Looking at my 2nd edition Player's Handbook that's copy-righted 1989 - my freshman year of college. Which surprises me, I thought I was playing second edition in high school, but yeah I definitely think of 2nd edition as my college game. Of course, I spent a lot of time in college with GURPS, and even with DC Heroes for a while (I never gamed in the DC setting, but those were really good rules for running a superhero campaign.) The campaign withered and died after college though, and there's been no significant RPG'ing since then. There was third edition D&D - the first version done by Wizards of the Coast after the buyout of TSR. This is also the first version where the "Advanced" moniker disappeared and it is not AD&D anymore. I have the basic books for that set but looking at them next to the first and second edition books tells the tale. As I said, my first edition PHB doesn't even have a spine anymore, and I think the binding was starting to fail. I know I wouldn't let anybody but me touch it for a few years - that's what the second copy was for. My 2nd edition PHB isn't that bad, but it's been through the wars. The black spine is worn white in spots, the corners of the binding are rounded from countless trips in backpacks. The 3rd edition PHB? Still pristine. No noticeable wear and tear. It is copyright 2000, and I'm somewhat humored to notice there's a CD-ROM tucked in an envelope in the back that claims to have "Character Generator" software on it. So high tech! (It also has a "GDC Hotel Information Card" from 2003 stuck in it as a bookmark.) I remember when the 3rd edition PHB came out - Jeff Gregg and I spent an awfully long lunch one day trolling for copies. We talked about playing but I think we both knew we wouldn't ever do so. It was just nostalgic then, seeing what they've done with my old toys. I was aware of a revised "3.5" edition of the rules, but by then I couldn't see the value of buying another PHB. I mean, the last one won't even lay open flat on a table! Practically virginal, which is perhaps a poor choice of words, considering how "virginal" the entire topic is ;-) Amazon says that the 3.5 PHB came out in 2003, but I don't have a copy of that. Wow, I ran really long just looking at the old books. I suppose it's somewhat telling that I can put my hands on all this old crap and do so almost instantly. It's easily fifteen years since I opened a first edition book but I knew exactly where they all were in my office. GURPS may have more primary shelf space than the AD&D books but I can't imagine setting up my office without a place for those thieves prying the gem from the statue.
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