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Ground Floor

I played Ground Floor for the first time last night, with 5 players.  It took forever-- at least 4 hours.  At that length, I need to be having a thoroughly engrossing game experience.  There are very few games that I think justify that length: Through the Ages and Die Macher are the only ones that come to mind (though admittedly, I'm biased towards the shorter end of the spectrum). Ground Floor is not in their league.  This is a game that desperately needs to come in at-or-below the 90 minute mark.

Quick overview: This is a worker placement game where you have two parallel currencies (money and "information") to manage.  Everyone starts with the titular ground floor of their own corporate skyscraper, allowing them to take various actions that gain currencies inefficiently but immediately and at no currency cost.  Players can also spend currency to send workers (abstracted as "time" rather than people, but don't let that fool you) to one of the subsystems on the central board, where they can obtain currencies more efficiently, but delayed until later.  Players can also compete for turn order here, or build additional floors of their building.  Floors will remind you of buildings in Puerto Rico, in that each confers victory points and either a special ability or an end-game bonus.  Each floor a player builds is more expensive than the last, so you need more currency as the game progresses.  When someone builds their fifth floor, or after nine game turns, the game ends.

Artistically, the game is gorgeous.  The blueprint motif is thematic, and the thick cardboard tiles are cut at an angle to match the oblique blueprint perspective on players' mats.  It's a top-notch job production-wise.

Mechanically, everything works.  There's tension in how the currencies interact.  You gain money and information in different ways, so you can't just focus on one angle.  Being first in the turn order grants priority in selling goods, choosing building upgrades, and picking a popularity bonus each turn, so ignoring it is perilous.  All the upgrades and floors are useful.  It all hangs together.

So where's the problem?  Two places.  First, this is what Brian Bankler has called a fixed fun game:

More players means less fun.  Usually, it's because you sit around during other players' turns. So the game takes the same amount of time, but you get to do less. The fun dilutes.

Having more players in Ground Floor does not make the proceedings more interesting.  Some areas of the game may be more competitive, but that competition does not ratchet up the tension or enjoyment appreciably-- certainly not enough to compensate for the extra playing / waiting time.

The second problem is with workers.  You start with four, and get new ones in batches of three.  Some actions require multiple workers to perform, but the vast majority of these don't come into play until at least turn 5.  By that time, most players will have at least ten workers, which means ten times around the table to get them all into play.  This slows the pace of the game waaaaaaaay down.  I can't think of any other worker placement games that ramp up your worker supply so aggressively, and Ground Floor shows why that's such a bad idea.

Overstaying its welcome aside, my other problem with Ground Floor is that it fails to rise above its theme.  Copycat is a similar game of worker placement with a similarly dry theme, but the game engages on a mechanical level.  Turns move quickly, giving me a sense of progression as my deck morphs and more powerful cards appear for purchase.  There's a palpable sense of things ramping up and reaching a crescendo, and the game propels itself forward.  Ground Floor plods in comparison.  Each turn feels very much like the one before it, and each of the individual mechanics feels small and unremarkable.  Compare this to Trajan, a game with at least as many subsystems but all of them more interesting than those in Ground Floor (Trajan's problem is that these subsystems are too disjointed and the resulting game feels too long as a result, but the subsystems operate at a higher level than in Ground Floor and some, like the mancala wheel, are clever enough to warrant revisiting in another game).

I could be convinced to try the game again with three players, but I would be doing so with a nail on the coffin lid and my hammer poised to drive it home.  I don't see any future with the game for me.  These days, a game has to offer something new to keep my attention.  It has to fill a vacant niche in my collection, or displace something already there.  It has to be bionic-- better, stronger, faster.  Ground Floor falls six million dollars short.
Comments (280) | last by attory, Feb 12, 5:42 PM

What's on Your iPad?

In the past 3 months, aside from playing through the campaign of Halo 4, I haven't held a game controller once.  The holiday season is always busy with lots of traveling, preparing for traveling, recovering from traveling, and moaning about all the traveling, and dedicated console time is rare.  Honestly, though, I haven't missed it, because the iPad has ably filled the gap, and with mostly free content.  I thought I'd share a quick rundown of some of the games that have filled my spare moments lately.  All are free unless otherwise noted.  Many of the non-free apps I got for free anyway by adding them to AppShopper and pouncing when they temporarily dropped to free for a day or two, which is a common practice on the App Store.

Asynchronous Play:
  • SongPop: Available on most major platforms now including Facebook.  The latest update on iPad tanked performance, making it painful to play right now, but identifying song clips is still fun.
  • You Don't Know Jack: The Facebook game brought to the iPad.  Brilliantly done.  A daily addiction.
  • Letterpress: Reported on previously.
Card Games:
  • Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013: The most I've spent for any app ($9.99, + $4.99 for the expansion-- haven't yet bought the next two deck packs, but probably will), but also probably the app I've played the most.  Well worth it-- a truly fantastic rendition of the game.
  • Fairway Solitaire: Loved it on the PC, and it's a perfect fit for the iPad.  The iOS version (also on iPhone) is completely redesigned from the one on the PC, with a modified structure, new challenges, etc.  Try it free, then buy the full version for a pittance.
  • Lost Cities: The system of goals held my interest longer than expected.  To better fit the mobile attention span, each game is only one round instead of three.  Very nicely done.  Not free, and at $3.99 I'd say it's overpriced, but worth it if you can catch it on sale.
  • SolForge: This is only a preview of a demo, with a limited card set and no extraneous features, but it's already slick and polished and does a great job of proving the promise of the underlying system.  I'm fully prepared to fall down this rabbit hole when the full game is released.
Trivia:
  • Logos QuizName the brand that matches the (sometimes Photoshopped) logos.  Oddly addictive, with plenty of logos to keep you busy.
  • Badly Drawn Faces: Identify the pre-drawn, cartooned faces as they're scribbled in for you piecemeal.  Has that potato chip quality and is a surprisingly good group game-- first to touch the screen gets to ID the face for a point.
Board Games:
  • Le Havre: A 2+ hour game that compresses to... well, still at least 30 minutes for me, even against AI opponents, but none of that time is spent waiting-- it's all game.  Excellent version of the board game that keeps me engaged even though the AI isn't as strong as I'd like.  $4.99.
Abstracts:
  • Drop7: I prefer the original Flash game, Chain Factor, but this simpler mobile version is still elegant and addictive.
  • Orbital HD: The snazzier mobile version of Flash game Gimme Friction Baby, which won the Casual Games Design Competition on jayisgames.com.  Try the original for free, and if you like the underlying gameplay, you'll love Orbital.
Word:
  • QatQi: I've wanted to write a standalone post about this game for a while now, but held off because I keep hoping in vain that the creator will change his monetization model.  Create words crossword-style to explore hidden chambers in search of gold coins and big points.  The game is brilliantly designed, from the visuals to the soundscape.  It packs in lots of great data-crunching and rewards replay.  But... charging users to use Undo makes it impossible to play properly without forking over cash.  That might not be so bad, except that to really enjoy the game, I think you need to be able to Undo your move with reckless abandon.  And when each one essentially costs you money, that's difficult.  You get a batch of undos for free, so it's still well worth checking out.  And if he ever offers one reasonable price for unlimited undo, I'll jump on it in a heartbeat.  In a way I'm glad he hasn't, because otherwise this would be an all-encompassing obsession.
  • Wordament: Boggle against the internet.  Played the hell out of this on Windows Phone, but it's actually even better on iOS-- smoother, with more consistent, reliable, and less laggy feedback.
RPG:  (this category encompasses any game with RPG elements, many of which might also be listed in other genres)
  • Solomon's Keep / Solomon's Boneyard: Dual-stick run-around-and-kill-monsters games.  The first is a dungeon crawl with an ending, the second is an endless arena where you're trying to survive as long as possible.  Both are well executed and scratch that Diablo itch.
  • Dungeon Raid: The ability to level up between games, unlock new classes, and customize your skills makes for a compelling variation on the match-3 genre.  $1.99, with a free "lite" version available.
  • 10,000,000: A different match-3 mechanic than Dungeon Raid, with a very different feel and a nifty real-time component that amps up the tension.  $1.99
  • King Cashing: An RPG slot machine.  Unexpectedly fun.  $1.99, with a free "lite" version available.

Tower Defense:
  • Kingdom Rush HD: Ok, this is cheating a little since I haven't played this in a while, but I played it heavily for a long time and will undoubtedly go back to it soon.  The only tower defense game you need.  Impeccably executed.  $2.99
Endless Run:
  • Extreme Road Trip 2: Use tilt or button controls to do aerial flips and land intact, earning turbo and traveling as far as possible. The goals system takes a page from the Jetpack Joyride playbook, with coins to pick up, upgrades to buy, and friend records to beat providing replay incentives.
  • Punch Quest: Frenetic runner with lots of punching and 16-bit graphics.  Imagine a Castlevania where you're always moving to the right, quickly.  
Misc:
  • Flick Home Run HD: By all rights I should disdain this game, which after all requires the same single action-- swiping to hit a ball-- over and over again.  But I find it oddly compelling.  I'm using the iPhone version instead of the iPad one, since I got it while it was free.  $.99
  • Puzzle Craft: Named one of the best apps of 2012 by Apple, this is a very well-execute game that I spent quite a bit of time with before concluding it was a hollow, joyless experience.  The core mechanic is identical to Dungeon Raid, but with a kind of Farmville crafting and building layer on top of it that I ultimately found unsatisfying, but YMMV.
  • Spectromancer HD: I'm not sure if this is an RPG, card game, board game, or what-- but I loved it on the PC, and it's a perfect fit for the iPad.  $3.99 and well worth it.

Comments (332) | last by xxx, Feb 12, 5:37 PM

Fresh as Today's Headlines

Dikembe Mutombo's 4 1/2 Weeks to Save the World is genius.

A series of 4 episodic arcade games each created in just one week based on something from that week's news, the game feels like an entirely new art form, the newsgame.  But it's news by way of The Daily Show, because it's hilarious.  The quality of the games themselves are quite impressive given the insanely short development schedule, but it's the very funny cutscenes that really make the game shine.  If this is what product placement of the future looks like, I'll take a dozen.

You can read more about how this product got made here,  But do that later.  Go play now.
Comments (138) | last by Claribel, Feb 12, 10:51 AM

Alphagames

A-Z of videogames.  How many can you name?

 
Comments (64) | last by browse around these guys, Feb 10, 6:40 AM

Letterpress

I've been greatly enjoying Letterpress on the iPad lately.  It's a word game where the goal isn't just to make long words, but to make strategic words that capture territory.  Played asynchronously on a 5x5 letter grid, two players take turns making words and claiming the letters in that word, turning them into their color.  Using an opponent's claimed letter in your own word claims that letter for yourself instead, changing it from your opponent's color to your own-- unless that letter is locked.  A letter gets locked if it's completely surrounded by other letters of the same color, and unlocked if any of those surrounding letters gets stolen.  The first controlling the most letters when all of them have been claimed wins the game.



Wired published a story today discussing whether or not Letterpress has been solved.  Of course it hasn't, because the letters are random every game which completely changes the set of legal moves.  But a noted game designer has tweeted the "strategies" he's discovered that have turned him off the game:

"play territory not words.  Expand out.  Lock vowels, extenders (ER,ED,ES,LY).  Kill when few grays left & winning"

This is not rocket science.  These are, in fact, the same strategies I adopted independently.  They're obvious.  Using them doesn't make the game any less entertaining.  There are two bigger problems, however.

1. The board is truly random.  This means you can have a Q with no U, or a board with 4 Xs.  These make for less interesting games.  The former is a particular problem because it makes ending the game through anything but a forfeit almost impossible.  If I could ask for one improvement from the designer, it would be to enforce some heuristics about what makes for the best letter grids.

2. The looming specter of cheating.  It would be trivial, for instance, to use a program like TEA to generate a list of all possible words on a Letterpress grid.  The longest possible word isn't necessarily the best play, but having all possible moves at your disposal would create a significant advantage.  If you're playing against friends, this is easily solved by the implied social contract not to cheat.  But God help you if you accept random partners.

Letterpress is fast, tactical, aesthetically pleasing, and fun.  Recommended!

Comments (125) | last by search engine optimization expert, Feb 11, 6:34 AM

The Ethics of Cheating

Like many of history's great philosophers, I do some of my deepest thinking in various corners of my bathroom.  Today, as I massaged shampoo into what's remaining of my hair, I began thinking about cheating in games.

I think most people can agree that cheating to improve one's position in a game does not put you on the side of the angels.  I don't know how grievous a sin it is exactly, but it will probably shift you closer to the NAUGHTY column on Santa's ledger.

Does the same hold true if you cheat to lose?

Suppose we're counting up points in Dominion.  I'm last to report my score, and it's higher than my opponent's.  I've won.  Does my opponent need to know that?  Would it be the greater overall good to report a lower score and give my opponent the chance to savor the same moment of triumph I just experienced privately?  Does bestowing victory in this way do anybody any harm, or is it an act of selfless charity-- a mitzvah, if you will?

The knee-jerk reaction is that cheating is wrong, full stop.  By giving my opponent the illusion of victory, I'm robbing him of the chance to learn from mistakes, and lessening the value of future victories that are truly earned.  But if the lie goes undetected, to my opponent this is an earned victory, as sweet and delectable as any other.  I've already savored my victory internally.  By passing it to my opponent, am I not bringing more happiness into the world?

I realize the equation is different if the deception is discovered.  There are ancillary matters of trust, embarrassment, and other messy emotions.  But what if that wasn't an issue?  What if the lie would never be revealed?
Comments (7) | last by wholesale nike jerseys, Jan 7, 1:34 PM

Biowhatnow?

I watched the trailer for Bioshock Infinite and was not moved.  I realize that's not the approved narrative.  I'm supposed to fall over myself, spittle running down my chin as I high-five my gamer bros and scream about how awesome it looks.  And while I have little doubt that the world-building on display will be exquisite, evoking a time and place that never existed but certainly seems like it must have, the gameplay it's in service of looks like the same thing I've played twice now.  Or really far more times than that, if we set our sights beyond the franchise walls.  Perhaps most disturbing to me is that the human faces of Columbia share the same artificial wrongness as the citizens of Rapture.  In the five years since the first installment, the creators' artistic expression appears to have remained trapped in amber.  Perhaps zipline combat will be the shiznit.  Even though Columbia is a brand new place, right now I just feel like I've been there before.

Fool Me Twice

When I was in college, if you went to the desktop of just about any student's Mac, you'd be almost guaranteed to find two games there: Dark Castle ("Whoa... whoa... whoa... bibblebibblebibble!") and The Fool's Errand.  If the latter wasn't the first collection of classic visual and word puzzles for a home computer, it was certainly the most ambitious and delightful.  Everyone was playing it.  I didn't have a Mac myself, so I only dabbled here and there.  But years later I played it through on the PC using a Mac emulator.

It's been 25 years since The Fool's Errand, and creator Cliff Johnson has been promising a sequel for much of that time.  He's announced, and then missed, ship date after ship date over the past few years.  It seemed like A Fool and His Money wasn't just the title of the sequel, but an accurate description of everyone who had preordered the game.  Now it seems like it's finally happening.  Johnson is promising the game for next Friday, October 26.  And despite all the missed dates and a throwback $40 price tag that feels extravagant in the modern age of $0.99 apps and $9.99 indie titles on Steam, I finally plunked down my money.

Let's hope this isn't another false alarm.

Free Cards in Magic 2013

I am playing the hell out of Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Plainswalkers 2013 on the iPad.  It's been years since I've played the physical game.  I don't really play 2-player games anymore, and I'm not particularly interested in constructing a deck.  So all of my alphas, betas, and limiteds are just gathering dust in a box.  Probably should think about selling them.

Magic DOTP 2013 gives the fun of Magic gameplay without any of the setup, cleanup, or headaches.  You can play online, but I never have-- I'm still unlocking all of the cards for all of the decks in campaign mode.  It's been fun to see how different each deck feels, and how some opponents get easier or harder depending on what deck you're playing.

The game provides tremendous value for your ten bucks.  And if you go into the in-game store, you can unlock even more by plugging in these codes.  Each unlocks ten additional rare cards for one of the game's decks, and some cards are not otherwise available.  Enjoy!

1 - WMKFGC
2 - KWPMZW
3 - FNMDGP
4 - MWTMJP
5 - FXGJDW
6 - GDZDJC
7 - HTRNPW
8 - NCTFJN
9 - PCNKGR
10 - GPCRSX
If you're on Facebook and you're not playing You Don't Know Jack, why the hell not?  It's awesome, and it's free.  Go.

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