Essen Spiel '15: Day Three

Yes, I'm still writing about Essen. Onwards!

Artificium

We arrived at the hall as a group of 6, which is a ridiculous number when trying to demo games, but Artificium seated 6 and had a free table, so we played it. I found it ok, but many members of the group were less charitable. It had a bunch of dumb action cards which let you steal from other players, which screwed up the strategy element of the rest of the game somewhat.

I think that the box art is hilarious.

Oh, you are a naughty wizard

7 Wonders Duel

Probably, possibly, the game of the show? Everything I disliked about 7 Wonders (which isn’t much) is gone from this 2 player version. 7 Wonders Duel is fast and harsh and the action starts right away. Every move you can make is incredibly aggressive. We queued for ages to grab a table for this and I don’t regret it at all, it was great. I’ll be buying a copy, I think - it was sadly sold out when we got there though.

Exoplanets

Exoplanets has a great theme, but the game fails to deliver. Instantly forgettable. I really like the orbital mechanic that it has, where otherwise unrelated planets can affect each other, but it felt like none of those effects really mattered. Perhaps it’s a game that rewards patience, and all of its little mechanics create a delicate, intricate game among advanced players, but sadly I’ll never find out.

Dungeon Fighter

I’ve been wanting to play this for ages because the premise sounded hilarious. Dungeon Fighter is a dungeon crawler in which you attack by throwing dice onto a target, the monsters and weapons affecting how you throw. For example, one monster made us jump and throw the dice in midair. It was indeed pretty funny, but now that I’ve played it, I don’t really feel the need to play it again.

Welcome To The Dungeon

It’s hard to describe what’s good about Welcome To The Dungeon. There's this guy, right, who’s going to go into a dungeon, and on your turn, you either add a monster to the dungeon or take some armour or weaponry off the guy, right? Or, if you think it’s all got a bit much, you can pass and leave the round. The last person still in the round then takes the poor, shivering naked warrior and drives him through the dungeon full of monsters you made. If he makes it through, the player wins a point. Does that make sense? The beauty of it comes in the player interactions, when your friend lets a little smirk slip as they drop another monster onto the deck, or someone passes just a little bit too quickly and you wonder what they know. It’s nice. If I didn’t own so many player-interaction-heavy bluffing type games I’d be all over it.

Kabuki

I’m no good at memory games, I sucked hard at Kabuki. Not my cup of tea at all. It’s all about spotting very similar looking masks in piles of cards, and I could barely tell the difference between them when they were right in front of me, let alone when I was trying to remember if the latest card matched one we put down 10 rounds ago.

Me Want Cookies

I made us play Me Want Cookies because it was a giant version with plushy pieces. It was a kids game where you had to solve mazes. It was not good.

Push-a-Monster

Push-a-Monster, on the other hand, is a kid’s game that adults can enjoy too. It’s a simple dexterity game where you try to push as many monsters as you can onto a small platform, and the person that knocks the fewest off wins. The scoring mechanic is extremely cool: each time you knock a monster off, your opponent gets a rectangular monster token. At the end of the game you put your tokens together in a line and the person with the longest line wins. It’s a nice way to avoid counting.

Liguria

Played with boats again. Love them boats.

Day 3 was a bit all over the place - lots of fun games though. I also did most of my shopping on this day so I spent it lugging bags around, which really sucked. The Spiel metagame is all about buying games before they run out, playing the games you want to without queueing for too long, and not carrying around too many heavy bags.

Essen Spiel '15: Day Two

Viticulture

After reflecting on day one’s lack of purchase success, we stumbled upon a free table for Viticulture and solved all my woes. This game is beautiful in every direction and feels deep and intense and well thought out. I want it. The edition on sale was 65 euro, however, so I decided to hold off. I’m not sure I’d ever get to play it, anyway, I don’t have much time for long games like this these days. Still, I was delighted to find a game that felt really, really good.

Kumo Hogosha

Another hit. Kumo plays like chess and looks gorgeous. The game is about pushing dice around a rotating board and attempting to push a “stone of balance” off the opponent’s side of the board, the catch being that when you rotate the board, it might not be their side any more at all. It’s a nice idea and it works really well. Again, I didn’t buy it because I’d never get it on the table, but I really enjoyed it.

Between Two Cities

Our third game from the same stand, Between Two Cities combines drafting, tile laying, and co-operation to create a rather different kind of city builder. On your left, you’re building a city with the player on your left, and on the right, you’re building a city with the player on your right. Your final score is the worse of the two, so you can’t deliberately neglect one, but the constant two-way communication means that something will go wrong sooner or later. It’s a great concept, easy to teach and learn, hard to get right.

Big Book Of Madness

Big Book of Madness had a lot of hype surrounding it. You’re a group of schoolkids who’ve opened a big, bad book full of monsters, and have to defeat the monsters together in order to close it. It’s pretty simple to learn considering the number of moving parts, and I think it’s probably a “good” game, but I didn’t think it was a very “fun” game. I think Dave put it very well when he said it was a deckbuilder in which your deck just doesn’t get very exciting.

The Game

Pretty much everyone I knew only heard about The Game when it got nominated for Spiel des Jahres this year, and didn’t really understand what it was all about. About 3 turns in we were hooked and all bought a copy immediately. It feels like Uno - a great game for killing time.

Liguria

Oh, Euro games, how I love you. In Liguria you run a boat that floats about collecting coloured paint to decorate your cathedral and you can also conquer islands and send diplomats to other harbours and oh gosh little boats did I mention the boats? Liguria is beautifully put together and feels really fun right from the start as your boats start circling the board itself. The most ingenious thing about Liguria is that it doesn’t even touch on scoring until the very end of the game and does it all in one go, which removes all of my most disliked euro tropes. Gorgeous. Instant purchase.

Steampunk Rally

I’ve never seen a game that turns theme into mechanics as accurately and elegantly as Steampunk Rally. You feel like an inventor as you bolt extra bits onto your vehicle mid-race, replacing bits that explode as often as you can to keep the damn thing running. At the end of the game we played, Emma’s car lost its wheels but immediately sprouted robotic spider legs to carry her across the finish line.

Cthulhu Realms

Cthulhu Realms is a reskin of Star Realms with tongue in cheek artwork and a nice vibe. A fun little deck builder, easily worth the meagre sum they charge for it.

Day two was perfect. Intense games, a few good purchases, loads of fun. I managed to find a good variety of deep thinky games and light fun games, and managed to find games that I wanted to own.

Essen Spiel '15: Day One

Last weekend Spiel ‘15, an absolutely huge board game fair, took place in its long standing home of Essen in Germany. After years of wanting to go to Spiel but never quite being organised enough, I finally made it. It was a good year for it, as something like 14 of my friends managed to go this year: it was a great crowd and I had an awesome time. Here are the games I played on day one.

Abraca...what?

After a long journey to Essen I rolled up into the halls to find a group of my friends just finishing up a game of Skyliners and we headed to the first empty table we found. It turned out to be Abraca… What?, a game of trying to cast spells when you don’t know what spells are available. You deduce what must be in your hand by looking at what your opponents are holding and what’s already been played. It’s cute, and it’s a great filler game.

Octodice

Aquasphere looked cool, and Octodice is set in the same world, so I was keen to try it out. It’s sort of push-your-luck dice rolling and sort of optimisation and it plays quite quickly. I enjoyed it. I might buy it, actually, but I’m just not sure when I’d get it to the table.

Potion Explosion

Potion Explosion looks gorgeous and feels nice and is great fun to play: it uses marbles to make a sort of physical bejewelled experience. It requires a lot of thought but it plays out quite quickly. I was torn about this when we played it, because I wasn’t sure if it was all gimmick and no trousers, but the more I think about it the more I wish I’d bought a copy.

Bomarzo

Worker placement is a tricky business. It’s hard to know, on the first play, if a deep worker placement game is nicely complicated or overly complicated, but unfortunately I suspect Bomarzo falls into the latter category. I had a good time with it, but I couldn’t help but feel that there are better examples of the genre out there. After playing this I was itching for a good euro.

T.I.M.E. Stories

Winner of the “I can really see what you tried to do” award, T.I.M.E. Stories had an amazing looking booth with a great premise (you signed up as teams and were sent “back in time” into a private area away from the noise of the fair) and the game itself looks great. You’re a team sent back in time to fix a “time anomaly” of some sort in each scenario, which you do by playing through time until you run out of time units and then going back to the start of the scenario to have another go with all your new-found knowledge. It’s a great introduction to roleplay for someone who’s never played pencil and paper before, but if you’ve played a few campaigns of anything like DnD, I feel like you’ll find this a bit too lightweight. It also comes with one, non-replayable scenario in the £40 box, which I think is a bit steep.

Love Letter

There’s always time for Love Letter when you’re waiting for dinner. It’s a cute game and I’m always happy to play it.

Day one left me feeling a little odd: I’d played a lot of games and enjoyed them, but I hadn’t found anything I actually wanted to own. I wanted to find something to bring home, something I wanted to play 30 games of in a row, and I hadn’t found that at all. I decided to head out looking for just that on day two.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Arkham Asylum is probably on my all-time top 10 games list. It features no filler, no nonsense, no missed opportunity for comic book brilliance. It set a trend for combat in games. It managed to feel like a complete world without being so open that you get lost, and it managed to maintain a sense of “levels” that made it feel somehow arcadey. It was a wonderful mix of everything that makes a game good. Arkham City threw a lot of that out the window, and, in spite of itself, managed to be a pretty good game, but it never managed to make me care about the side plots: there was absolutely no way I was collecting all those Riddler trophies. The central plot was outstanding in itself though, so I was willing to forgive the sprawling open world aspect that added nothing to the game and only detracted from the beautiful setup it was granted by Asylum. I skipped the next in the series, Arkham Origins, based on its poor reviews, but that didn’t stop me getting all excited for its sequel, Arkham Knight.

I don’t, as a general rule, pre-order games, mainly because I have too many old games to play to be excited about something new, but a new game in the Arkham series is one of very few things that will make me pay attention. I didn’t want to pre-order this either, as it happens, but the Amazon PS4 and Batman bundle was too cheap to ignore. Unfortunately, my console was damaged in transit and didn’t even arrive on my doorstep, so I had to get a refund and go and buy the same bundle at Argos for £20 more, meaning that I didn’t actually get it on release day. Oh well. I still got it more or less at release, which is a bit of a big deal for me. I think the last game I bought on release day was LA Noire.

The plot of Arkham Knight is movie-worthy, for sure: it could be a comic book movie, slightly cheesy, slightly more focused on the action than the characters, but it would hold up. It twists and turns like a comic movie should, characters do a reasonable job of developing over the course of the game, and a few slightly shocking things happen. They do brave things with the licence: I’m not sure if this is considered canon to the Batman franchise, but it plays like it is. It feels like some of the story beats here should be reserved for the big screen, and it’s refreshing to see them take place in a game.

Rocksteady have also managed to tie the side quests into the main story in a way that made sense and made me want to do them: I had done all but 3 or 4 before I reached the end of the main storyline without really going out of my way. It helps that there are only around 15: some are very short, some are long, but the low number of them and the big, friendly display of every available quest in the game made it very easy to get my head around them and somehow stopped me from suffering from the open world game ennui that means I’ve never played more than a few hours of any GTA.

There are, unfortunately, several side quests that are repetitive and empty. That said, they involve driving the Batmobile, which is mostly pretty fun, and hitting people in the face, which is what the Batman games have been doing best since the very start. Mastering the combat system is enjoyable in itself, and I was never too upset about the opportunity to fight some more bad guys. The quests that involved finding things in the open world were absolutely not my style, but the constant radio broadcasts picked up from thugs around you made the majority of them quite easy to find and I managed to get very close to the end before I sighed and looked up a map online. I hate cheating, but in my mind, virtual hide and seek with no clues is not an interesting way to spend my time. Putting over 200 Riddler trophies in the game and requiring their collection in order to see the “true” ending of the game seems like a total joke, too: I watched it on YouTube, and I’m glad I did - if I’d worked through 200 trophies just for that I’d have been furious.

The other thing that grates is how tightly this game holds your hand - it wouldn’t allow me to be stuck for even a second. I never got a chance to really think through a problem: one moment’s hesitation and I’d be told exactly what I should be doing. I was led through an experience rather than presented with a challenge. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by years of indie games and brutal Souls-style battles.

I may sound down on Arkham Knight, but I’m really just being critical of something I love and want to see reach the perfection of the start of the series. Arkham Knight was a joy from start to finish and I’m so, so happy to dip my toe into the AAA games world and see that it’s come so far while I’ve been mucking about with obscure stuff and esports. I look forward to the next one.

Steaming: Dark Souls

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I never thought I’d get to write this. I started playing Dark Souls years ago, but due to one thing or another, I’d never been able to put much time into it. Dark Souls is, to the beginner, punishing and frustrating. It doesn’t hold your hand at all and does little to guide you through any part of the experience. It’s hard to bring yourself to spend time on it when you don’t know what you’re doing. I decided, foolishly, to play through it blind. This was a terrible mistake.

A while back I decided that I was too casual a gamer to do this kind of thing: the hardest difficulty setting is not for me. I’m there for the experience more than the challenge, and the lowest difficulty setting is usually quite tough enough for me, thank you. Dark Souls doesn’t have a difficulty option though: it just has the option of googling for answers, or not. If you do, you’ll find a reasonably pleasant game that will push you but is ultimately a fair, consistent system which is a pleasure to pick apart and learn. If you don’t, you will die a lot. Over and over again. In the same spot.

My first Dark Souls attempts are something that I’m quite proud of because they demonstrate that I am, if nothing else, persistent. I made it to Anor Londo in 50 hours. I fought bosses 20, 30, 50 times, who knows? I spent over 2 hours on the Anor Londo archers. I was terrible at the game. I decided to give up on the blind thing, start fresh, and learn about the game. I wanted to be good at it.

I learned which weapons were the most practical (to its credit, there is no “best” weapon in Dark Souls, only different ones), how to upgrade them effectively, and which armour to get hold of first. I looked up maps of the areas. Suddenly, the game became not just playable, but incredibly fun: I stomped through to the same spot I’d reached in my previous game in around 12 hours, I think. It’s still not fast, but perfectly acceptable for me. Most importantly, I really, really enjoyed it. I took time to appreciate the game’s world and level design and found that when you can see the map, each level is actually quite short, and the time between bonfires is no longer hours but minutes. Those save points went from being far too far apart to almost too close together for a game with this reputation. I felt like I was finally seeing the game that the world fell in love with.

Dark Souls is a poster child for the idea that games are all about environmental storytelling. Almost none of the plot is explained to you outright, there are few cutscenes, and you’ll only interact with the handful of characters in the world on rare occasions. Instead, the plot is all around you. The world tells the story, the environments you work through provide clever hints at something bigger. The game doesn’t give you any clues as to the ways that you can change the storyline, but it’s actually wide open: your actions have real effects on the world.

A part of me wants to write that Dark Souls would be better if it had more of a tutorial, or just a few more guidelines. I don’t know if that’s true. It’s certainly true that learning more about the game enabled me to enjoy it, and the game didn’t provide a way to learn that suited me. Is that ok? Is it part of the game to uncover those mysteries? It was refreshing to play something so opaque and deep and weird, but I’m glad that someone else is out there making the guides that allowed me to enjoy the game. I hope they had as much fun making them as I had using them.

Hotline Miami 2

I’ve struggled for a while with what’s worth saying about Hotline Miami 2. The reviews out there cover it quite well, and if you’re trying to figure out whether or not you want to buy it or not, I’d recommend you read Andi Hamilton’s words over at Midnight Resistance - I think he covers a lot of it very well, and I almost canned the whole idea of writing anything about it because anything else feels redundant. I can’t quite let it go, though: I feel like the great bits of this game have been missed by the masses.

Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is the icing on the cake to an incredible game that elevates it from being great to being one of the best games ever made. The audio design as a whole is simple, elegant and brutal. Hotline Miami 2, unbelievably, improves on this. The more varied levels lend themselves to a more varied musical background, allowing the developers and composers to work out something truly imaginative and special. The build-up of Carpenter Brut’s Roller Mobster is a wonderful example of how this game uses quieter moments in an otherwise unrelenting soundtrack to emphasise the tension that’s present in the game.

Tension is a theme in this game. Where Hotline Miami’s story was vague and meandering, Hotline Miami 2’s is always working towards something, and it’s always something horrible. Every character is searching for an answer, but it always feels like it’s going to be a Seven-style head-in-a-box answer that no character really wants to reach. We watch as The Soldier desperately seeks a way out of the war, but we feel like it will never really end for him. We watch The Writer give up everything in pursuit of understanding the events of Hotline Miami. The world is falling apart for every character we play as, one way or another, whether it’s the corrupt cop who abuses his position to kill for fun, or The Fans, morally bankrupt kids who emulate murders for kicks. It’s left a little unclear whether people are deliberately corrupting the world, or the organisations we see are merely symptoms of the human condition.

The ending didn’t satisfy me, but that felt ok. I don’t think that every story has to be what you want it to be, and these stories, these lives, feel like unsatisfying ones. The characters are all missing something vital, something that makes them whole human beings, and they end their time broken and lost.

Is it any good? As a game? Well, that’s more complicated. What everyone else has said is right: the levels are so big and open that it becomes more of a stealth shooter than a combo-busting brawler at times. The AI is frustrating and broken in places, and the random seeding of levels can make them laughably easy or maddeningly hard: one level I tried was nearly impossible because I couldn’t get my hands on anything other than a 2-cartridge shotgun. I quit the game, tried again the next day, and every enemy was boasting a fully-automatic machine gun, meaning that I was able to breeze through the level first try. That all said, I finished it, and I enjoyed it. It tries too hard and does too many new things, but anything less and it might have been branded as “more of the same” and “unimaginative” - it’s a fine line and I think they did the best they could. This is not a bad game, by any means - it’s just not going to sit in the hall of fame alongside Hotline Miami.