Saturday, 8 September 2012

Memories of Japan

While procrastinating I ended up going through pictures from my travels in Japan. Below is a small selection of photos I don't think I ever shared before. It is very tempting to revisit the entire folder and see if what I've learned about post-processing in the last 18 months could bring new life to the collection!

Google+ versus Facebook for photographers

I don't promote my photography heavily or work hard on networking with other photographers, but I do post on social media sites and over time I've noticed a shift in how photo posts are received.

Take a fairly mediocre macro shot like this:

The original had some issues with the composition but it stood out from the rest of the set because of the escaping bubble which I quite liked. A crop, rotate and slight tint improved it sufficiently that I thought it would be ok to publish, so it went up on Facebook and G+. The results are shown below.

The reaction on Facebook

The feedback on G+

While the comment rate was similar, six times more +1's were received than Likes. While I do have about 40% more followers on G+ than I have friends on Facebook, this does not suffice to explain the difference in response. I do not use restrictive privacy settings.

The main differences I can think of are:

- G+ gives a nearly full screen view of the image, while Facebook reserves considerable horizontal width for the description, comments, etc. The image looks better on G+.

- Reaching the right audience for each post is easier on G+ using hash tags, circles and events than on Facebook. There seems to be a strong self-organizing photography community on G+.

- People seem to be losing interest in Facebook, especially since the much-maligned migration to the timeline. The accounts remain active but public participation (sharing, commenting and liking) seems to be dwindling.

The second point, reaching the right audience, strikes me as being most important here. For me there is no doubt that if I was only going to be posting about photography in one place, then it would be G+.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Ticket to Ride Europe

One of my friends brought Ticket to Ride : Europe to our board game night. He was the only one who had played before, with the other three players (myself included) being complete novices. Rules were explained in a few minutes, with a few special cases (tunnels & ferries) taking up about half of that time. The game concept is immediately obvious from just glancing at the board and although there are some considerations about how the colours, tickets etc interact we could dive right in.

The game was fast-paced, slowing down only when players drew new tickets and needed a few minutes to figure out which of the three cards to retain (at least one, but up to three can be kept). Ongoing scoring was quick and there was competition for longest track by all players except myself throughout the game. I dropped out as soon Amsterdam-Essen was developed by another player as I judged it a lost cause at that point.

The game ends one turn after a player hits 2 or less remaining trains and this turned out to add a lot of tension in the last few rounds. Whenever one of my competitors drew cards instead of placing trains it was a huge relief as I was working on one last ticket. In the end I didn't make it as the game ended while I was still missing the Moskva-Smolensk connection to complete the Rostow-Smolensk ticket.

Final scoring for tickets easily doubles player scores, with huge swings for incomplete tickets. We had one player with an incomplete 21-point ticket, giving him a massive penalty without which he would have undoubtedly won the game. This means that while players can have a points lead throughout the game the winner is never obvious and tension remains high. Finals scores were 108-106-100-95 so it was a fairly tight distribution.

Overall this is an enjoyable and approachable game that I'd recommend for casual gamers. We'll almost certainly play it again and it will be interesting to see if the game holds up to repeat play.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Kickstarter for VTT monster tokens

Devin Night has a Kickstarter project to create more than 150 monster tokens for virtual tabletop games such as MapTool. It hit the funding goal of $6000 yesterday but is still open for funding that will get you the tokens and could enable stretch goals.

For anybody who is using MapTool or another VTT I'd definitely recommend checking this out, Devin's art is great and having a good selection of tokens is important to maximise immersion and avoid confusion. Just $25 will get you the full set of tokens, you can check out his earlier work here and at his blog.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Nexus 7 impressions

I purchased the 16GB Nexus 7 a week ago, this is the Google-branded Android tablet manufactured by Asus. I had delayed buying a tablet because I already had a Kindle as well as an Android smartphone, leaving relatively few areas where I thought a tablet could add value. Also since I'm usually lugging a camera, four lenses and various other photography-related stuff bag space is at a premium and carrying another device didn't really appeal.

With the release of the Nexus 7, the price/performance became a lot more attractive and I was curious if it could displace any of my other devices. A couple of clicks later an order was placed, with an outlook of 3-5 days for delivery. Just 27 hours later I had the Nexus 7 in my hands, so kudos to Google and TNT for making the order and delivery process work perfectly.

First impressions were good, it is a slick device with a quality feel to it. It started up quickly and after logging on to my Google account it synched my calendar, email etc. The larger screen provides some advantage when dealing with the everyday tasks, but after a week I still find myself reading email on the phone as often as on the tablet.

Compared to the Kindle the Nexus has several drawbacks. The screen, while great for other uses, does not provide the relaxing reading experience of E Ink and is much less usable in direct sunlight. The added weight is noticeable and depending on how the device is held I found it induces some wrist strain. Finally battery endurance is considerably lower. All things considered I don't expect the Nexus 7 will make my Kindle obsolete.

As far as apps are concerned, I've tested maybe 20 different apps and found the tablet provides a fast and stable platform. In fact I am very impressed with the overall performance of the tablet and greatly prefer using it over my phone. As an added bonus the Nexus 7 comes with a £15 Google Play credit that can be used to check out paid apps without dipping deeper into the wallet.

Browsing works well, with fast page loading and very few problems over a week of use. I did run into an issue with the captcha for Flickr login, it was displayed off-centre and partially obscured. Browsing high quality pictures works well on the tablet and is definitely preferable over using the much smaller phone screen.

YouTube video playback works well, but checking messages consistently generated an error message 'invalid response received'.

I used Skype video-calling for about an hour on the tablet. While it is not a certified device it worked great and I did not run into any problems. I used a Bluetooth Jabra Wave headset which again worked perfectly, with good sound quality and no connectivity issues.

Finally I tested the battery standby time by charging the Nexus 7 to full, then leaving it for 24 hours with Wifi turned off. Afterwards it was showing 96% battery charge remaining which I'm happy with.

In conclusion, this tablet provides a really great user experience at a very competitive price-point. If you've been thinking about getting a tablet I'd definitely recommend checking out the Nexus 7. The only exception is if you are looking primarily for a reading device as the Kindle remains superior for that particular use.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Warmachine Cygnar miniature shoot

I don't have any experience shooting miniatures so when a friend visited me this summer on his way home from a tournament I jumped at the chance. The minis are 28mm tall Cygnar faction for the Warmachine tabletop game from Privateer Press.

The setup was very simple, using just the big lamp in the sky, white paper and two prime lenses - a regular 50mm and a 100mm macro lens on a Canon 60D. No flash or reflector was used.

The full set is at Flickr. I really enjoyed the shoot and it was quite different from what I usually work with. My friend was very happy with the result as well.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Stronghold invader phase overview

Continuing my first impressions post on the Stronghold board game, this part covers the phases 2 through 6 of the turn sequence.

Phase two of each turn when the invader builds machines. In the basic games this includes covers which protect a rampart against marksman fire, something my opponent used to good effect. It also included ballista and catapult engines, with the former being used to kill defenders on the walls and the latter destroying wall sections.

Ballista seemed moderately effective, inflicting a casualty every other turn. Gradual attrition could lead to an eventual breach, but there is also an area-denial aspect as the presence of a ballista discourages placing a veteran on a wall section (due to the high cost of training them and the certainty that it will be targeted). I can see the threat of Goblin Frenzy combined with two ballista covering a single wall section being a real nightmare but thankfully my opponent used his Goblins for rituals instead after some early frustration with goblin traps.

Catapults have the same hit rate as ballista but with a new stone wall becoming available to the defender each turn this seemed less effective. Good results were achieved (much to my dismay!) when the Bloodstone ritual was used as this killed off a defending unit as well as destroy a stone wall. My opponent noted in the post-game talk that he felt that spreading the machines out was a mistake and that it would have been better to have two engines covering the same section.

Catapult deck with Bloodstone ritual marker and accurate shot tile, a deadly combination!
Phase three covers equipment such as banners, shields and bridges. As each is available in limited quantities it is important to have a clear strategy in mind when placing them. They will signal your intent so you can expect the defender to reinforce the wall sections you threaten with banners, thus possibly drawing in new victims for ballista fire or weakening other sections sufficiently to allow a breach.

Banners and bridges are very easy to understand. Shields are a little bit more confusing because they force the assault on a wall section to be calculated twice if the first assault generates a defender advantage. In the second calculation the shield value is added and casualties are only inflicted on the invader if the defender still has an advantage.

Unlike banners, the shield bonus is per unit so three orcs with banners and shields would attack with strength 7 (2+2+2+1; six for the orcs and one for the banners) and if the defender had 6 or higher strength then invader strength would be recalculated to 10 (2+2+2+1+1+1+1; six for the orcs, one for the banners and three for the shields) for calculating losses. This makes a huge difference and can really help invaders get a foothold on a wall section, letting them survive until the next turn when more units can be moved up.

Training is done in phase four, offering (in the basic game) artilleryman, master archer or saboteur. These are more valuable the earlier they are used and likely to be a focus in the first few turns. As Master Archer is placed on a rampart it is important to make sure there is a bridge guarding the path to that rampart first. Otherwise the defender can place a goblin trap, rendering the Master Archer useless.
A saboteur is in place at the cathedral, increasing action cost by 1 hourglass. One hourglass has been spent on marksmen blessing, normally it would require just one more to complete but will now require an extra hourglass. Sharpshooter in the tower has already been used this turn and is marked as unavailable.

It should also be noted that the Master Archer can be countered by moving marksmen away from any threatened wall section as Goblins can only shoot marksmen (other defenders hide behind walls). While forcing such a withdrawal may be useful, the defender can use Sharpshooter in the Tower or Marksmen Blessing to continue inflicting casualties on any rampart if he's willing to pay hourglasses. My opponent found it very annoying that I just moved marksmen away from threatened sections, replacing them with soldiers who would hide behind the walls.

Saboteurs seemed very important, increasing the cost of many actions by 50% and forcing me to waste several units sweeping them out. I lost more units to tracking saboteurs than to ballista fire! As they can be swept in any phase but only placed in phase four, there is an incentive to sweep them as soon as the third saboteur is placed. This can create interesting tension where the invader may not want to place a third saboteur at all.

Phase five is an opportunity for the invader to carry out fell rituals by sacrificing goblins. These rituals include the aforementioned Bloodstone which turns  a catapult into a deadly threat, but also spectres that turn defender casualties into undead warriors for the invaders and gale that adds extra hourglass costs to movement.

Gale probably has the clearest cost/benefit ratio. If the invader can use it to prevent enough reinforcements being moved to a critical wall section it could secure a win and in more marginal situations it could cost the defender enough hourglasses to at least grant a foothold and maybe some defender losses. While the extra cost was unwelcome I never found the gale to be very effective against me.

Three orcs and a troll, using banners and shields, attack a wall section guarded by two soldiers. Two stone walls protect the soldiers. A gale is making it difficult for reinforcements to join the fight. The defender's cannon can not target units that are already on the walls.

Spectres are a bit more unpredictable and were never used effectively in our first game as there was not enough defender casualties in the melee phase. They are perhaps best in the mid to late game when several wall sections are under pressure. Hopefully they'll see more use as we gain experience with the game.

Bloodstones were used to very good effect in our first game. While dependent on drawing a hit card for the selected engine the odds can be improved by using artilleryman training and accurate tiles. It was very frustrating for me when my first veteran stepped up on a wall section only to get a catapult bloodstone in the face, earning him an instant one-way trip to Valhalla.

Dispatch and orders are handled in phase 6 and covers the movement of troops and any special instructions. The mechanics are straightforward, with the phase card offering a major and minor dispatch. Each can be used once per turn and offers different number of units that are moved and different hourglass costs. A unit can only be moved once per order, but if both major and minor dispatch are used then a unit could be moved twice.

My opponent noted that after flipping the phase 1 card (which increases reinforcements from 14 to 16 per turn and prevents trading a unit for extra resources) in the mid-game it became difficult for him to move all units forward and his camp rapidly became congested, offering extra hour glasses to the defender.

After the defender spends the hourglasses from phase 6, the game moves on to the assault phase. This will be covered in the next post.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Stronghold first impressions

Stronghold is a board game covering a desperate battle between an invading host of orcs, goblins and trolls on one side and the human defenders of a castle on the other side. The eventual outcome is not really in doubt as the defenders can not get any reinforcements, but there is glory to be found in a quick victory for the attackers or a drawn-out defence for the humans.

Defender forces in starting positions. White squares are marksmen, green are soldiers. There are no veterans at the start. The red and green circular markers are the officer and warrior, two special defender units.
 The game can be played with 2-4 people, for our first game it was myself as the defender and my good friend Roberts as the attacker. Unlike a game like chess, the board, pieces and possible actions in Stronghold are asymmetrical. Defenders have the protection of high walls and strong gates, with various specialised buildings for assisting the defence. They use hourglasses generated by attacker activity to complete those actions.

The attacker has an off-board supply (where new units are drawn every turn), a camp (where units go if they are not used for something), two foregrounds where they arrive for battle and several ramparts where they move to attack the walls. The foregrounds, ramparts and walls on each side of the board are connected together but units cannot cross from one side of the board to the other.

Stronghold comes with two 20-page rulebooks, two boards, over 240 unit cubes, various tiles and more than 100 cards. This can be quite daunting even to veteran gamers, however the rules do a good job in illustrating what each piece is for and how it all fits together. There is also a basic game variant which uses only a subset of the possible invader actions, meaning that it is not necessary to immediately master all aspects of the game.

One weakness to be aware of is that the turn order overview on page 2 fails to mention an important point: the defender gets two hourglasses and one stone wall section each turn. This is only mentioned on page 7 under hourglasses and actions. It would have been useful to have a printed reminder on the phase 1 card for this as it is easy to overlook in the rules or to forget during game play. At a guess, people who report that the invader has it too easy has probably missed this rule.

Having navigated the rules and figured out which pieces go where, the next step for us was to remove the stuff that isn't needed for a 2-player basic game. This included the haste tile, all trebuchet and siege tower markers, the battering ram components, many tiles for rituals, training and equipment and a lot of phase cards. Doing this really cut down on the confusion level and I'd recommend everybody to do this as step one.

A variety of markers used in the basic game: the defender has placed a pole and a cannon (both yellow) and the green circular marker is an orc cauldron. The red shield, banners and bridge are invader equipment. The swirly marker is a gale ritual and there is a cover protecting the rampart (top right). Two trolls are on the wall section and about to fight two soldiers and the Warrior special unit.
One note here - the phase cards of the basic game identifies the actions available to the invader, however the summary on the back of the invader rulebook fails to highlight those same actions. It would have been helpful to have a star marking the basic game actions in the same was as they cards are marked.

The camp cards are also insufficiently distinct and caused a minor amount of confusion initially. A clear '2 player' or '4 player' mark would have been appreciated although it wasn't hard to figure out which card was right for us.

Setting up the game was very easy. The board is helpfully marked with colour-coded dots that indicate where each unit goes. A minor inconsistency is that there are no equivalent marks on the glory board for the 10 glory initially given to the invader.

Play then proceeded with the invader drawing phase one units and resources, after which nothing happened for a long time. This is one of the quirks of the game as the player is confronted with limited resources which are to be used over the next five phases and even a seemingly simple choice such as 'do you want sacrifice a unit to get additional resources' leads to immediate analysis paralysis for an inexperienced player.

If you are the defender, you may want to go get drinks and snacks. Experience will no doubt reduce the amount of delay here, but at least as far as the first game was concerned 'fast paced' would not be an accurate description. This is unfortunate because a large part of the defender tactics are reactive, meaning that you can't really do much planning of your own.

Once this hurdle had been cleared, each phase proceeded with reasonable speed. Actions used up resources and units for the invader while generating hourglasses for the defender. The latter were then used up by the defender in various ways to counter the threats posed by the invader. As the defender must use all hourglasses after each phase, there is a constant back-and-forth exchange of activity. This compares favourably with games that had massively long turns for each player.

Defender has placed two cauldrons, a wooden wall, a troll trap and a cannon as well as moved a veteran and a soldier to the courtyard, ready to reinforce any wall section. One stone wall has been destroyed (lower left)
 There is no fog of war so all pieces are always known, with the only uncertainties arising from drawing hit or miss cards for siege machines and from the unit draw at the start of each turn. Tension therefore mostly arises from the creation of multiple threats and the limited resources available to counter them. The stakes are high as a single breach will win the game for the invader, leaving no margin for mistakes.

For a breakdown of each phase, see the next post in the series.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Glasgow wargame show 2012

I grabbed my camera and headed to the Royal Concert Hall this morning for my first ever visit to the Glasgow wargame show. The event started at 10am and I arrived shortly after opening, paid £3 for an all-day ticket and entered to find that the hall was already busy with many games going on and a lot of visitors checking out the traders and games.

Prussian army facing off against Russian and Austrian opponents
Bandit down! RAF scores a kill against the Luftwaffe.
There was a healthy mix of games, some appeared to be demonstration only but others invited active participation. The arrangers were very helpful and welcoming, with many taking time to explain the scenarios and games being played to interested bystanders.
Indian braves advancing in skirmish line
A rifleman seems to be checking his weapon - perhaps after a misfire?

Several of the tables were massive, showcasing warfare across the centuries (11th to 20th) and the continents (Europe, Middle East and North America). While the majority were focused on historical conflict there were two at least two games with fantasy elements.

British troops in line formation prepare to face assault by Indian braves
Fatimid cavalry advancing in the desert
Land, sea and air warfare were all represented and there was also a good range of complexity, with the smallest games having 10-20 units on the table while the largest had hundreds of miniatures.

Crossbowmen at the ready in front of the main Crusader line
It was good to see that the event had a healthy turn-out with visitors of all ages and it looked like people were enjoying themselves. While tabletop gaming may not offer the special effects of modern console games it is considerably more cerebral and I hope the hobby will continue to see new recruits joining, which events like the wargame show will surely contribute towards.
Skirmish at a chapel in a fantasy game
A Crusader army faces their Fatimid foes in open terrain near Ascalon in 1099

Creative Commons License
Pictures are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. A full set of pictures from the day are on Flickr.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Friend of animals

The forests once more cover the lands, from coast to mountain in every direction. Two thousand seasons have come and two thousand seasons have gone, acorns grown to saplings and thence to mighty tree.

Fed by sun, rain and the great corpsefields, the forests grew and the memory of the deed that was done faded. The treeherders roam far and wide, the threat of axe and fire long faded from this world. In the shadow of the boughs, joyous birdsong fills the world, a choir to please the ear of every elf and wizard.

Yet I still recall the day of the great council and a night never passes without dreams of what could have been had my journey been delayed. There were great tidings brought to me on the wings of my friends, bestirring me to leave the long watch at Rhosgobel. The great evil had been banished from this world and the race of orcs broken on the field of battle. Human, dwarf and elf had stood together and some even sang of hobbit-deeds of bravery and endurance. It was a time of great change, the end of an age and an opportunity to set the great ship of history on a new course.

When I arrived at the council the elves were talking of sailing west, making room for the age of man and letting their race fade from memory. The treesingers had grown weary and sought peace in exile, with hope that mankind could grow and mature, to become stewards of the east. Truly the elven capacity for self-delusion was amazing and at first the shock at such dereliction of duty nearly sent me fleeing back to the vales of Anduin.

It was that night that Corvus came to me. Long had he served as my eyes in the south, a trusted friend and true heart. His wings were sooty black, not just of feather but also with ash from the pyres of the orcs, and his tales of human deeds were of equally dark nature. He spoke of the strife among the different races of men, how great numbers of them had sworn loyalty to the shadow. He reminded me of how easily the old kings of man had fallen, to become wraiths that scoured the land, and spoke of a new king that had made alliance with the dead of ages past.

Corvus spoke also of the Mûmakil, great tusked beasts and wisest among all my friends, that had been forced to serve in war by man and now lay slain on Pelennor Fields. The herds that once roamed Harad had been reduced by the ravages of man and it became clear to me that in just a few short centuries our majestic friends would no longer shake the earth with their passing.

By dawn, my mind was fixed on the task ahead. Fiery words sang in my mind and I knew that tomorrow would be neither autumn nor winter for the elves, but that they would rise to my challenge and embrace a new spring. I knew that the first singers had not been forgotten in these halls and that if I could evoke their spirit then the elves would rally to my cause.

Six days and six nights the council argued, some crying for what had been lost and others for what might never come. Many had set their minds, one foot already on the ships to the west. Others were less certain and could hear the reason in my voice. Iron, fire and strife were the signs of both man and orc, two sides of the same coin. Death and despair ever walked at the side of man, to think otherwise was madness.

To leave man as stewards of the east was to condemn the forests and animals to extinction or servitude. War would consume the lands until one day man found the means to sail west in pursuit of new lands to destroy. What then would remain for elvenkind but eternal damnation, having forgotten the song and their duty? On the sixth night, as the stars glimmered above, the decision was made.

The leaders of man were summoned, given guidance and encouragement. It was announced that the elven hosts would leave, set sail for the lands of the setting sun. A great celebration was held, a coronation and a wedding sealed the pact and gifts were solemnly exchanged.

Twelve great founts were brought forth by the elves, gifts of parting to the new stewards of the land. From each there flowed, on call, all the food and water a man might need, sufficient to feed a city of any size. The tendency for man to huddle together and live in great proximity was well known and this gift suited them well, for it would free them of the labour of the fields.

In the years to come, mankind continued to till some fields and keep some animals for they did not fully trust the power of the founts. There was ever a minority who sought to keep apart and sustain themselves, but over the years suspicion eased and the easy life offered by flocking to one of the great fount cities, as they were now known, became irresistible to most.

Fields lay fallow for a time, but as the seasons turned they became overgrown and became lost from sight. Years passed and cities grew, becoming ever more vast with stone covering the old fields as roads, monuments and buildings sprang up. Generations passed and man began to forget the lessons of agriculture, relying ever more fully on the founts even as their numbers grew beyond reckoning.

Then came the day when the founts produced nothing but ash. At first they thought that it was only temporary and they called wise men to determine how to restore the flow of food and water. When their spells and prayers failed to bring forth sustenance there was a great panic and people fled, seeking to make their way to other cities that might yet have a working fount.

As hosts of refugees met in the wild, rumours travelled far and wide. Some claimed that all the founts had failed, that mankind was cursed and abandoned by the gods. Others claimed that at least one fount was still working but that the city controlling it was keeping it for their own exclusive use. Truth, as always among men, became irrelevant as the first among them drew steel and slew a man from another city.

The slaughter that took place over the next few months was far beyond anything seen in the war of the ring. Blood turned rivers red and fields were lined with corpses over distances beyond reckoning. To sustain themselves for battle the warriors turned to feasting on the red meat of their enemies, bathing themselves in blood and chanting to dark gods for strength and victory. Among the elvenkind, any doubt about the virtue of man was removed when those rituals were revealed by farseeing stones.

When winter came the hardship among men became so great that not one in a thousand survived. Hunting and gathering sustained a few, cannibalism lent strength to others but despair and hunger stole the strength from the multitudes and they lay down to a rest from which they never awoke. The spirit of man had been broken irrevocably.

With the first spring rain, the elven hosts landed on the eastern shores again. Their splendour was great, a host such as had not been seen since the first age. United by desire to wipe the stain of humanity from middle earth, they marched forth with spears shining in the sunlight. The campaign would last less than a year as the remaining bands of mankind were destroyed on the field of battle or hunted like animals in the forests and mountains.

Thus my plan was brought to fruition and the brief interregnum was ended. The kings of man had enjoyed prosperity in the absence of the great shadow and the elvenhost, but had shown their true nature and been punished for it. It would take two thousand seasons before the last of the human cities sank beneath the canopy of the vast forests, but the ship of history was firmly on the new course I had plotted.

Birds and animals roam free once again, free from harness and fear of the hunter's arrow. The great trees provide shade and shelter, with elf and treeherder lending a guiding hand when needed though their numbers remain few. The lessons of ages past has been well learned and the world shall forever remain free of the taint of the plow and forge. The nightmare of the taming of the lands and rise of industry has been banished for eternity, replaced with the the free spirit of the wild.

Mankind lives on only in my dreams and memories, indistinct and foggy reminders that evoke the haze that ever gathered over their camps and cities. Sometimes Corvus speaks to me of them, warning me that just as orcs and man once rose out of obscurity others could come. Perhaps the dwarves might one day leave their mines and use their mastery of fire to destroy the vast forests. Corvus counsels me to craft a ring and store much of my essence in it, thereby ensuring my immortality and also enhancing my powers. Only through such means can I truly ensure that this age will last forever.

I am Radagast of Many Colours, friend of animals.


This is a non-commercial derivative work, written for the RPG challenge. Apologies to the late J.R.R. Tolkien for borrowing one of his characters without permission.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Flanking and facing

DnD combat plays very much like a tactical war game and, as in many tactical games, flanking is an important concept. In the real world this is a tactic where you attack a foe from several directions so that he or she can not effectively defend. While distracted or busy parrying an attack from the front the combatant can easily be cut down from the side or rear by an unseen opponent.

So how was flanking implemented in DnD 4e? Well, take a look at the picture below and consider if the defender (with a green cloak in the centre) might be suffering unseen attacks and struggle to parry attacks from multiple directions. Has the defender been flanked in this example?

In DnD, the answer is no - this is not a flanking situation. The defender gets full defences against all the attackers and none of the attackers gain Combat Advantage (an important concept in DnD which gives +2 to hit and triggers extra effects from many feats and powers).

To flank in DnD the attackers would have to be on directly opposite sides of the defender. The number of attackers doesn't matter and facing doesn't exist so you can never be behind anybody. The defender effectively has 360 degree vision and can spin around instantly to deflect or dodge every attack.

For what otherwise plays like a tactical war game, this is a somewhat odd design decision in my opinion.

Next, consider the second situation shown below.

Here the attackers have wisely taken positions on opposite sides of their target. Although there is only two of them to worry about the defender will now struggle to defend himself or herself, granting combat advantage to both attackers. In the previous example attackers were spread out in the wider 270 degree approach, but the rule set allows only the 180 degree approach to generate advantage seen here.

Not only can the defender no longer spin around to parry, dodge and deflect blows from multiple directions, but there is also no choice to ignore one combatant and focus on defending against the other. Both attackers always gain combat advantage.

This has important implications in fights where there is a great disparity in threat levels between different opponents. No matter how insignificant the threat of the lesser opponent is, as long as it can attack and is in a flanking position you can not ignore it and focus on the more dangerous opponent.

Note that this also holds true even if the lesser combatant is actually fighting somebody else than the flanked defender. Position and capability are required, but actual action is not needed.

If DnD wants to embrace tactical game play the designers would do well to consider adding facing in the next edition, with the associated rules for real flank and rear attacks. Combining this with reasonable rules for parrying and shields would address the inconsistencies and counter-intuitive situations as well as let players make critical decisions about when it is ok to turn your back on a minor threat in order to focus on a greater threat.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Tactical movement

Tactical movement speed in DnD is typically in the range of 5 to 7 points per turn. There is no facing and therefore no turning cost. Most squares cost 1 point to enter, with difficult terrain doubling the cost to 2 per square.

The commonly used movement actions are walk (base speed), run (speed + 2) and charge.

You may want to read that again.

Walking is a gait where one foot is always in contact with the ground. Typical walking speeds are around 5 kilometres per hour. By contrast, running humans have a top speed (world record) of 44.72 km/h. That is nine times faster than walking!

This is of course over a short distance and without being encumbered, but even cutting it to a more reasonable 20 km/h would mean running is four times faster than walking. However in game terms, a speed 6 human runs at speed 8, a mere 33% increase. This is painfully gamist for anybody who bothers to engage his brain for a moment to consider the design choices made.

Walking in DnD
Running as fast as you can in DnD

Arguments that this is based on the action split between move and combat activity (such as parrying or attacking) will fail to convince as the same 33% increase applies when doing nothing but moving. Double move at walk speed would achieve a speed of 12, while a double move at run speed would reach 16 speed - this is the same 33% difference.

This can be contrasted with the design in a simulationist game, where the fastest movement speed is five times the base walking speed. A character moving at 15 metres per round (50 feet) at walk speed can dash 75 metres per round (250 feet). This is a far closer match to reality and thus much more believable and the difference is obvious in the illustrations below.

Walking in a simulationist game
Dash in a simulationist game
 More after the break.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Future of copyright update

Today I got a really nice surprise in my email from the folks behind the Future of Copyright initiative:

We are proud to announce, that finally we selected 10 works which will make it to our „Future of copyright” book. Winner is among them, but you need to wait just a little bit more – jury is still deciding. Here are works we have selected, in alphabetic order:
  • Jesse Betteridge „The Brick in Room 207”
  • Reuben Binns „History of Copyright 2012-Present”
  • Eddie „In Session”
  • Mike Linksvayer „Future of Copyright”
  • Aymeric Mansoux „Morphology of a copyright tale”
  • Alf Melin „Remote Kill”
  • Carlos Solís „Blurred – a utopian story”
  • Roland Spitzlinger „Future of Copyright”
  • Togi „Give”
  • Jarosław Żyła „Heritage of ACTA”

Congratulations to everybody who was selected!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Retro board game - Fortress America

Published by Milton Bradley in 1986 using a design by Michael Gray, Fortress America is a kitschy thematic wargame that covers the invasion of the U.S.A by socialist armies from Asia, South America and Europe. Only the northern map edge remains safely neutral as Canada refrains from entering the general US-bashing.

All invaders have identical order of battle but choose reinforcement order after turn 1

While outnumbered and attacked from nearly every direction the U.S. forces have the advantage of partisans and other reinforcements through event cards as well as solar-powered lasers that gradually come into play. The invaders hold the initial advantage and must advance quickly to defeat the U.S.A. before lasers can weaken their forces.

However, if the U.S. is defeated then individual victory goes to the invader that has captured the most cities (10 victory points), lasers (5 VP) and resource territories (3 VP). This can lead to rivalry and open warfare between invaders.

It had been at least 15 years since I played the game and I remembered it as being fairly good fun for 4 players, with the U.S. player relying on a strategy of trading space for time while trying to get the invaders to fight each other.

The invaders must grab cities to defeat the U.S. and also want to take out lasers as quickly as possibly (they are built in cities only), with resource territories a distant tertiary objective. They must also consider supply lines and the risk of partisans appearing as well as the possibility of another invader striking at them.

U.S. forces are spread thin as the invasion begins - no partisans or lasers are in play
Recently I had the opportunity to play it again, although only with 3 players (necessitating that one player take on the role of both Asian and European invader). The game turned out to last very long, turning into an unusual protracted battle with huge swings in the number of controlled cities. The invaders regularly pushed the U.S. into loss territory, but could not hold against counter attacks and the game only ends if the U.S. holds less than 13 cities at the end of their turn.

After it finally ended with a victory for the invaders we talked about the high points of the game, the mistakes, the strategy and so on. A couple of points that stood out:

  • The use of dice from D6 through D10 but keeping the target number to destroy an enemy unit constant (always 5 or 6 depending on terrain) is really efficient for quick combat resolution. It avoids addition and subtraction, consisting instead of a fast sort that all players can do easily.
  • The combination of combined arms to overcome terrain penalties and the targeting system makes for interesting battles with calculated risk taking.
  • The supply rules rarely seem to come into play, partially due to map scale and layout and partially because of the balance of forces. However, when out of supply does occur it can change the board immensely.
  • It is unclear if the deck of cards can be reshuffled and used again. We played it as 'when you run out, you get no more reinforcements'. This puts a constraint on U.S. forces (60 + the card effects) similar to the invader limit (60 each). In a long game this means a battle of attrition can be won by the invaders if they can destroy lasers quickly enough.
  • The rules are written quite verbosely, but are clear and don't seem to suffer from any obvious exploits or other issues.
Few U.S. cities remain but partisans fight back and threaten invader supply lines

One thing that all players agreed on was that it was actually excellent fun and if the game hadn't taken so long I expect we might have had a re-match immediately. I've re-rated the game an 8 out of 10 on Boardgamegeek after this play, previously I had it down as a more average 6 out of 10.

I think the game is getting a re-release sometime in 2012. It might well be worth checking it out, do not mistake it for a R.I.S.K. type game - this is good fun with quick game play and does not devolve into 'biggest stack' type strategy.

U.S. forces are reduced to mostly isolated bands of partisans

Monday, 14 May 2012

Evolution of roleplaying tools

When I first started with roleplaying games 30 years ago a typical adventure would have a simple graph paper view of the place being explored, most often a cave or other underground complex. This guided movement, but combat usually took place mostly in the imagination of the participant. The scale of the map did not really encourage tactical movement and there were few conditions to track.

As games became more tactically oriented it became more important to use miniatures or other tokens to track activity, line of sight and other battlefield considerations. As printed 2D maps were prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to create the most common solution was a dry erase grid.

When insufficient miniatures were available it was common to substitute in other items, with predictably confusing results.

Chainmail Bikini © Shamus Young and Shawn Gaston
Continued after the break

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The older the fiddler, the sweeter the tune

And today the fiddler is a year older, although still only a young forty which is no age at all compared to the Sunland Baobab or Prometheus.

Here is a self-portrait to mark the day.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Word clouds

Since October last year I've been doing an interdisciplinary (politics and economics) course with the Open University. Tonight I submitted the last essay for the ongoing assessment, below is the word cloud for that essay.

The two stand-out words for me were 'et' and 'al', it looks like I quoted multiple-author works a lot.

I wonder if it is possible to string together any cohesive story or argument using each of the words in the cloud just once.

Monday, 30 April 2012

"D" - animated short film

An unusual and very creative take on the horror genre, this short film is set in a study on a dark, stormy night.


Highly recommended!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Damage calculations

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition uses a fairly simple system for determining combat outcomes. A 20-sided dice roll determines if an attack is a miss, a hit or a critical hit. For a hit, damage is then rolled using various dice depending on your weapon and for a crit you always do maximum damage.

As combat is often a key dramatic part of game play, player enjoyment may be deeply linked to how combat results play out. It is therefore unfortunate that the game system has a number of design mistakes.

1) The less powerful your weapon, the more likely you will match 'critical' damage on a regular hit.

For example, with a dagger a critical hit can not be distinguished from a regular hit in 25% of all cases. This undermines the dramatic effect of critical hits.

This could have been addressed by placing critical damage outside the range of normal hits or by adding additional effects. Some efforts have been made towards that goal by giving extra effects through feats, powers or magical weapons but at low levels the reaction to a crit may often be 'meh, whatever'.

2) The higher the level of power you are using, the stronger your damage will trend towards the average.

This is quite silly as it slows down game play while players tally ever increasing number of dice rolls while at the same time making it less dramatic by making most outcomes fall in a small expected range.

At level 1, a character might roll 1D12 for damage and see maximum damage in 8% of cases - it is a completely flat distribution. At level 9, the same character rolls 3D12 and sees the maximum results in only 0.06% of cases (1 out of 1728)! Thus it is more than two orders of magnitude less likely that you will see the most powerful outcome.

As your powers increase, you will become average.
More after the break.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Magical ammunition

If presented with the choice between shooting at a target with magical arrows or mundane arrows, which would you prefer?

Most people would of course prefer the magical arrow, assuming that it would bring some benefit such as greater accuracy or more severe wounds. This is based on a long tradition of fantasy literature with magical swords and such granting advantages to their owners.

However, in Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition it appears that the designers decided that the risk of players gaining advantage from ammunition was just too great and they ruled that if a magical arrow is fired from a magical bow, then the properties of both can not apply.

This leads to the perverse situation that a character may lose a significant part of their ability to deal damage by using better arrows!

Using a paragon-level ranger as an example, consider the case of using the Twin Strike power ten times with a +3 bow and mundane arrows against a target where the ranger has 75% chance to hit. Each Twin Strike involves firing two arrows, so a total of 20 arrows are used and 15 are expected to hit. Each hit does an average of 12 damage, for a total of 180 damage.

Now switch to +1 arrows with some added property that makes them desirable to use. In order to enable that property, the ranger must calculate the attacks using the +1 bonus of the arrows and can not use the +3 bonus of the bow. This drops the hit chance to 65% and the average damage to 10 points, resulting in only 13 hits and 130 damage.

Thus the magical arrows do only 72% of the damage that the mundane arrows would do. It also understates the damage lost somewhat as using the properties of the arrow also involves giving up the effect on critical hit that most weapons have. This is counter-intuitive, using better (and highly expensive) ammunition should never result in a worse outcome.

I'll look at how this probably came to be and how it could have been done after the break.

Small World Underground

The original Small World is a fast-playing strategy game for up to 5 players who take turns commanding quirky races conquering provinces on a map which quickly becomes crowded.

The mechanics ensure that each race reaches the limit of their ability to expand in about three turns, encouraging players to place the race into decline and move on to another race. This results in waves of expansion which are more dynamic than a typical 'province control' game where players gradually accumulate ever larger stacks of counters (such as RISK).

The Underground sequel introduces a number of new game elements, adding a certain amount of complexity and uncertainty to the gameplay.

Relics are powerful magical items that provide new powers. The relics move to wherever they are used and therefore usually end up on the frontlines where they are exposed to counterattack and seizure by other players. For example a magical rug (shown in image below) allows your force to fly anywhere on the map, giving you the option of a surprise attack behind the front lines but then leaves the rug in that spot.

Places are stationary sources of additional income or abilities, such as a deep mine providing extra income or a keep providing defences and income (shown in picture below). They often become the focus for savage battles between the races as successive waves of invaders try to seize them for advantage.

While it could be argued that relics and places are too central to winning and therefore detract from what was a more balanced, free-for-all approach in the original game I would counter that there is a valid winning strategy in avoiding relics and places altogether. Maintaining a low profile and staying out of bloody wars can boost income as much or more than holding a mine for a short time.

Similar to the original Small World game, each race is randomly matched with a power. As these combinations vary each time you play the game will remain fresh for longer, throwing up new twists that change how each race plays and adds a degree of strategic choice about when to activate a specific race. Some powers encourage cannibalisation of your declined race while others may provide income when other players attack you. They may also give specific advantages linked to terrain, not having neighbours of another race and so on. This provides a strong influence on tactics.

The map has a dark colour theme, well suited to the underground realms it seeks to depict. A major feature is the river which divides the map, providing either an obstacle to expansion or a highway for rapid conquest depending on which race you control.

The game ships with multiple maps, each adapted to suit a certain number of players. This is a very welcome addition that should be adopted by other game makers.

Because of the way the river splits the board it could cause the game to split into two separate battlefields, however if the aquatic Kraken and Lizardmen come into play or if the rug or pipes are in play then this counteracts this tendency. Any race with the Quarrelling attribute may also find the river useful as a way of quickly expanding into pockets of occupation to maximise their income.

Counters are of good quality with distinctive graphics, using colours, icons and illustrations to allow easy identification. They are also sufficiently thick to make it easy to pick them up. Reverse side is used for when the race is in decline.

Game play is fast, with the situation on the board changing rapidly with each player turn. The objective is to accumulate victory coins which are rewarded primarily from province control exerted both by the active race and the race in decline for each player at the end of his or her turn. Coins are kept face down, making it difficult to track the exact position of each player and victory thus remains uncertain until the very last turn and counting of coins.

The game ends when the turn marker has reached the last position (nine turns for a 5-player game) so typically each player will control three races, two of which will have been put into decline.

Overall this is an excellent game for a small group and I would definitely recommend checking it out.

Creative Commons License
These photographs are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Complexity in RPGs

When I started playing (usually as the Dungeon Master) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons about 30 years ago, hitting an opponent with an arrow resulted in rolling 1D6, a single six-sided dice, to determine the amount of damage done.

Over the following years, much experimentation with different systems gave me a feeling for what worked and didn't work during game sessions. More rules could bring clarity or, done to excess, it could bog down game play. Sometimes a system might hit a sweet point where it didn't intrude on enjoyment either by leaving huge gaps (which could lead to arguments about interpretation or how to resolve a situation) or by imposing huge burdens which slows everything down and confuses those who haven't spent their time studying rule books instead of school exams.

My system of choice back then tended to get a lot of criticism from players who felt it was too complex, involving table look-up for results. I liked it as I had achieved a certain level of mastery that put me in a state of 'flow' when running it, but the critics had a good point when comparing it to contemporary systems such as the aforementioned AD&D with the simple damage roll. Rolling 1D6 was pretty much as fast and simple as it could get without eliminating chance.

Twenty to thirty years later I find myself as a player in a D&D group. During the early levels of heroic adventures (levels 1 through 10) the system often threw up problems with how long it took to resolve combat and mistakes were prevalent due to the amount of modifiers, often of a fleeting nature, that had to be applied to get the final results to determine if an attack hit and then what damage it would do. Note that this is with bright people (IT professionals and a doctor of biology) who have been into RPGs for 25-30 years, in many cases having played all editions of D&D as well as many other systems.

Last night we had a session at paragon level, starting at level 11 and reaching level 12 during the session. This brought in some additional factors for each character as various class powers are unlocked at those levels, leading to everybody struggling more than usual. Temporary boosts from our Warlord were usually forgotten completely and I know that I failed to apply a large amount of damage in several cases despite usually being au fait with the system.

Therefore I decided to map out exactly how damage is resolved for my character. He has ten different powers that can deal damage, each of which has many quirks, so I decided to focus on just one to limit the scope of the exercise. The following flowchart illustrates the process using one of my ranged attacks (shooting an arrow):

Image is available here and can be used freely with no restrictions.

There is an assumption in this example that the power was successfully used as the starting point is the "hit or critical", thus the chart doesn't actually show the entire process. Some of the powers also have an effect on miss, making it a bit more complicated than what is shown above.

Contrasting today's D&D with the 1978 version that used a simple 1D6 roll to determine damage really brings home how much the complexity in RPGs has changed.