Monthly Archives: April 2015

Quick Impressions: Urbania

I recently had a brief – as in, didn’t finish the game – session of Urbania, and found it to have some promise but also some frustrating aspects.  The game basically pastes some of the basic Ticket to Ride mechanics onto an area control, urban development game.  You collect resources from either a bank of a few face-up cards or from the top of a face-down deck, you acquire secret objectives that you’ll try to fulfill by the end of the game, and you buy stuff off of the map.  There seems to be more depth in Urbania – the resource system is a bit more complex, and there are a few more variables that factor into how you earn points – but it feels pretty familiar in a good way, taking something you know and stretching it out a bit.

The biggest problem with Urbania is the component design.  The most obvious design flaw is how busy the board is.  The main play area consists of a grid of city blocks that you randomly cover with building tiles, Catan style, which have an undeveloped and a developed side.  All of these things – the board, the undeveloped tiles, and the developed tiles – are way too busy.  You need to be able to glance at the board to determine how many buildings of what type are developed or not and where they are, but the board is too busy for you to be able to quickly get this information.  You’ll spend ten or twenty seconds hovering over the board trying to figure out if the move you’re about to make is a good idea or not, and you’ll do this turn after turn after turn.  This ties into another problem, which is that the components’ colors are wildly inconsistent.  Color coding is a huge element in this game; the colors of the buildings relate to the colors of the resources used to build them, and to the specialists who score points from them, and to the wooden cubes and discs that move along scoring tracks.  But none of the colors are the same.  During our playthrough, which was everyone’s first time with the game, our conversations were split pretty evenly between going over the rules, talking about strategy, and asking things like, “Is this red?  Or is that red?  Is there an orange? Or is that pink?”

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One weird feature of the game is that, though you’re buying real estate (or developing it or whatever), you don’t actually own or continue to control these buildings.  Or even necessarily benefit from them.  You get so many points for developing a property, but then you’re basically done with it.  Once developed, buildings earn points for people based on who (temporarily) controls certain specialists, and help you earn points with your secret objectives.  This isn’t necessarily bad game design, but it does feel weirdly out of sync with the game’s theme.  (But then, I wasn’t the one with the rule book.  Maybe there’s a really logical but abstract explanation that ties the mechanics to the theme.  I mean, I must’ve played Lords of Waterdeep a dozen times before I realized that those little cubes were actually people.)

There are some interesting strategic elements at play in Urbania.  One category of secret objectives requires you to somehow lure other people into trading a certain specialist back and forth, driving up its price.  The game also has you paying for things with victory points, which I don’t think I’ve seen before.  So many elements are interconnected that it can be tough to keep track of everything that’s going on, but it also means that it’s probably tricky to simply math your way through the game.

My first playthrough was the typical first run: I spent the first half of the game or so just learning the mechanics and fumbling with strategy, and by the end I felt I had a good enough grasp of the game to play it competently next time.  I’d like to take another stab at this game now that I know what I’m doing, but I’m also slightly dreading playing it again just because I know the design flaws are going to make the game a lot more frustrating and confusing than it needs to be.

Quick Impressions: Pixel Lincoln

I played Pixel Lincoln for the first time the other day, and here some quick impressions.  The game is a light deck builder styled after an 8-bit side-scrolling videogame.  Simple, clever mechanics simulate the horizontal movement of a side-scroller as you make your way from one checkpoint to the next, battling various minions and bosses with absurdist weapons like the beardarang, and wearing a duck on your head for no particular reason.  Almost like a co-op game, everyone works through the levels together, battling not each other but the enemies that come off of the level deck – though it is possible to have some players on different levels – trying to gobble up victory points along the way.

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For a deck-building game, the deck-building here is pretty minimal.  In each level, there are only three potential items to buy and add to your deck, and you’re at the mercy of the level deck, as everything – items, monsters, and NPCs – is shuffled together, and you can only buy items that cross your path.  Revealing the cards this way helps the humor, dribbling the jokes out gradually rather than laying them all out on the table up front, though a deck building game will of course fit far fewer jokes into the box than other humor-oriented games like Munchkin or Killer Bunnies.  For a game that leans so heavily on the sheer wackiness of its concept and cards, I doubt there’s enough material here to keep that aspect of the game fresh for more than a dozen plays.

As for gameplay, the game is decently fun.  As its theme suggests, it’s a simple, light game.  There aren’t too many tactical decisions to make, as your hand often leaves you with only one viable course of action or, at most, the choice to either take down an enemy for victory points or buy an item.  And, as card-buying opportunities are so few and far between, it doesn’t seem like there’s much opportunity to pursue an overarching strategy.  But there are opportunities to screw over your friends, and that usually makes any game more fun.

I should mention that my impressions are based on a single, abbreviated play.  Four of us played through level one; level two would have added another batch of (presumably better) items and, therefore, more opportunities to form a strategy.  We also stumbled our way through the level, three of us having never played before and one of us remembering rules incorrectly.  This seems like the kind of game that you want to be able to blast through quickly without having to consult a FAQ.  At this point I don’t know that I’d buy this game (MSRP $45) unless I found it steeply discounted, but the taste I got was enough to make me want another go at it.  My first (partial) playthrough was fun in part due to the simple novelty of playing a new game, but it hinted at potential for more fun to be had, and I’m looking forward to a complete playthrough unencumbered by rules confusion.

Now You’re Playing with Less Power

Everyone’s favorite kerfuffle generator, the Internet, is at it again, making kerfuffles out of kerfufflets.  The source this time is a pair of blog posts from Noah Horowitz at the NRDC drawing attention to the fact that the Xbox One consumes a remarkably high amount of energy, especially when in standby mode – or, as you or I might say, “turned off.”  Predictably, this news has induced a case of what you might call Gamer Persecution Syndrome among a certain subset of gamers who show a strong aversion to any critical or negative commentary about our hobby (see: feminism).  To be fair, this type of thinking is not unique to gamers; hyperbolic, vitriolic reactions can be found in just about any comment thread on the Internet, and usually represent a tiny slice of the community.  Also, this is not a huge issue.  The reaction has been pretty muted, and I doubt anyone will be talking about this a month or two from now.  Still, it seems worth writing about, because there are a number of misconceptions in the coverage of and reaction to this story.

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The Xbox One: it’s the same color as oil and coal for a reason.

First, some background.  While a lot of the coverage has referred to “a recent report” or something along those lines, what they’re really referring to is a blog post.  (The word “blogs” in the URL and “Noah Horowitz’s Blog” at the top of the post should’ve been clues.)  The report in question is actually almost a year old, and is linked to in the third paragraph of Horowitz’s blog post, a paragraph that begins with the words “last year.”  The report outlines the results of an NRDC study of energy consumption by the three current-gen consoles and makes recommendations for improving their efficiency.  One of the big takeaways is that current-gen consoles use a lot of energy – enough to power all the homes in Houston by the end of this generation – and a lot of this energy is consumed in standby mode.

The March 26 blog post criticizes Microsoft for not only making the energy-gobbling “instant-on” mode the default mode, but for also burying the energy-saving mode in the less-than-intuitive settings menus rather than as an option during initial setup.  Someone buying and setting up a new Xbox One could easily have no idea that the energy-saving mode even exists, let alone how to activate it.  Microsoft responded to the post (and media coverage) by announcing plans to add a screen to the setup process that will prompt users to choose between these two modes “in the coming months.”  Horowitz responded with a second post that praised Microsoft for addressing the issue, but expressed skepticism that the changes would be as effective as they could be.  He pointed out that the new setup process would still default to the “instant-on” mode, and uses language that seems biased against the energy-saving mode; he also pointed out a few other areas where Microsoft could make energy-saving changes. Continue reading Now You’re Playing with Less Power

Star Wars Battlefront Changes Lives

The Star Wars Battlefront trailer dropped today at the Star Wars Celebration event.  I don’t really have anything insightful to say about this, and keeping you updated on breaking news isn’t really the point of this blog, but I’m too excited for this game to not post something about it.  With the new Zelda game delayed into 2016, Battlefront is officially my most-anticipated game of 2015.  I’m trying to go full embargo on Episode VII – a task that’s proving a lot harder than it was in 2005 for Episode III­ – so, after an excruciating day yesterday of seeing everyone on Facebook super jazzed about the footage that I won’t see (Internet willing) until December, it’s nice to have a Star Wars trailer I can watch.  Over and over.  And what a trailer!

They’re emphasizing Endor here (or the Sanctuary Moon, if you prefer) because, I’d assume, it shows off the Frostbite engine a bit better than the frozen expanse of Hoth does, and the speederbike chase in Return of the Jedi is one of the best action scenes ever put to film.  The trailer advertises this as in-engine footage and, according to Gamespot, the video is from a PS4.  While that isn’t the same thing as gameplay footage, it still should be pretty representative of what the final game looks like.  Right?  There are supposed to be 40-person battles in this thing, and I didn’t see anywhere in that trailer where the system was rendering anything close to 40 people at once, so I expect a bit of a fidelity drop, but I still think this will be pretty close to what gameplay looks like.  E3 is in two months, and I’d imagine that Battlefront will be playable there, or that there will at least be a much more in-depth look with extended gameplay footage.  When studios release crazy, pie-in-the-sky pre-rendered videos of what they hope a game might possibly but definitely won’t actually look like, it’s usually a few years out, not a few months before playable demos are due. Continue reading Star Wars Battlefront Changes Lives

An NES console.

Nintendo’s Going Mobile

Nintendo recently released two news babies into the wild with nothing but the barest scraps of information to protect them from the Internet: the company, in partnership with DeNA, will be making mobile games; and, Nintendo is working on a new “dedicated game platform,” codenamed “NX.”  With almost no details to report or discuss, all we can really do is engage in the twin 21st century pastimes of Waiting in Agony to Know Everything Right Now, Dammit, and Wildly Speculating.  So, let’s speculate!

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Nintendo goes boldly into the future.

The two announcements came at a press conference on March 17, the primary audience of which was stockholders.  This is worth remembering when trying to draw inferences from Nintendo’s announcements.  Nintendo’s stock price has been stagnant for years, and this press conference knocked it up to as high as it’s been since 2011.

Let’s consider the mobile announcement first.  Nintendo has been understandably reluctant to jump into the mobile gaming fray.  They’ve enjoyed a more-or-less uninterrupted reign atop the handheld gaming market since they released the Gameboy in 1989.  The last thing they want to do is cannibalize their own market, trading sales of $200 handhelds and $40 games for some $0.99 apps.  They’ve also been adamant over the years that their games should be considered “premium,” and thus worth the $40 price tag, on top of the upfront console investment.  They don’t want to cheapen their brands by releasing a bunch of Nintendo-skinned match three games; if they did, people wouldn’t be able to see the value in such premium games as Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition.

But for all their reluctance, Nintendo doesn’t really have a choice.  They’ve been able to ward off all would-be usurpers of their handheld gaming throne for decades, but smartphones are an entirely different animal.  Nintendo’s best-selling handheld, the DS, sold just north of 150 million units.  Their current model, the 3DS, has sold around 50 million units.  (For comparison’s sake, the PlayStation Vita, released the same year as the 3DS, has sold about 4 million units, making it slightly more successful than something called the Bandai WonderSwan, which is powered by a single AA battery.)  Meanwhile, by the end of 2016, there will be over two billion people in the world people with smartphones.  Continue reading Nintendo’s Going Mobile

The Bright Lord DLC Review

With the release of The Bright Lord on February 24, it would seem that Warner Bros. has finally finished the run of post-release content for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.  This DLC story takes players back to when ring-forging elf Celebrimbor was still alive and follows him as he completes ten missions on the way to a final confrontation with Sauron.  And that final battle is, undeniably, the highlight of this add-on.  The build-up to this confrontation, though, is a bit underwhelming.

Celebrimbor takes aim.
This time around, you play as legendary elf Celebrimbor.

After a pretty enjoyable DLC story in Lord of the Hunt – which had you palling around with the wisecracking dwarf Torvin, stealth-killing uruks with the new caragath, and steering a massive projectile-vomiting graug through packs of enemies – the Bright Lord adventure seems a bit stripped down.  Other than some voiceover conversations with Galadriel and Sauron, there are no other characters to interact with besides the orcs you slay.  The missions present you with the typical challenges to blank this many blanks, either in blank minutes or without being blanked.  (There are also some more fetch quests that reward you with a bit of lore.)  The missions are each unique in some small way, and provide ample challenge, but it’s basically more of the same.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Shadow of Mordor is a great game, and its basic mechanics and mission templates are a lot of fun to play over and over.  Having a new set of missions built on the same framework with just some minor tweaks is a welcome addition.  On the other hand, the base game continues to repopulate its world with captains and war chiefs even after you’ve finished it, so if you just want to just keep fighting uruks, you can do that ad infinitum without spending a nickel on DLC.

Continue reading The Bright Lord DLC Review

Cumin-Cured Creekstone Hanger Steak with Green Chile Redeye Gravy, Spicy California Avocado Sope and Queso Creama.

Of Course Game Length Matters

There’s been a lot of discussion on gaming sites lately about game length, and whether it matters.  The catalyst for this conversation was the recent release of the PS4 exclusive The Order: 1886.  If you haven’t been following the story, The Order is a Victorian England-set, most-gorgeous-game-ever-candidate third-person shooter that was hotly anticipated until days before its release, when a video appeared on YouTube purporting to show a complete playthrough of the game clocking in at around five hours, about half of which was devoted to cutscenes.  The developers responded that at normal difficulty and played at a normal pace, whatever that is, the game would take eight to ten hours.  Most reviews I’ve seen put the game at about six or seven hours.  Let’s charitably call it seven.

(One caveat: I have not played The Order: 1886, nor will I likely ever play it, as I do not have a PS4.  The game has gotten generally mediocre reviews, but I can’t attest to its quality or lack thereof, other than to say that the graphics are undeniably gorgeous.  So for this post I will be treating it as a roughly seven-hour game of indeterminate quality.)

The Order 1886 is an undeniably gorgeous game.
The Order 1886 is an undeniably gorgeous game.

That the game – which is single-player only and costs the standard $60 – might only take five hours to complete predictably drew ire from more or less everyone in the world.  And this ire, in turn, provoked a number of think pieces about game length and its importance.  It seems like every gaming website and blog has had an article or panel discussion asking, “Does game length matter?” Continue reading Of Course Game Length Matters