Friday, June 12, 2009

Trivial Pursuits

Today’s entry is all about a variety of games. Mostly Magic, but not all.

I recently decided that I was spending way too much time playing single-player games, so I decided to cut back. Other than a minor relapse involving Bejeweled 2, I’ve been doing pretty well. I’ve just had a lot on my plate, and wanted to reclaim some time. I’m down to watching only two television shows (The Simpsons and The Office) for similar reasons. I intend to talk about that a bit more some other time.

I haven’t given up, forsaken, sworn off, or otherwise expressed any intention to permanently quit playing single player games. I fully expect that I will resume at some point. For instance, when Diablo 3 comes out. I intend to buy two copies and do most of my playing on Battle.Net with my wife, but I’m sure I’ll squeeze in the odd solo session as well.

There are two upcoming video games that interest me. First up, there's finally a new Magic: The Gathering game, Duels Of The Planeswalkers, being released on June 17. This looks terrific. It has almost everything I want in a Magic game: computer AI to play against (I don't enjoy playing games online against strangers), customizable decks, and a low price point. I've logged far more hours than I care to think playing the old Microprose Magic PC game, and it's still installed in my older PC, because it meets those requirements.

Now the downside. First of all, this game doesn't have nearly enough cards in it. The promotional material says it includes "around 280" cards, many of which can only be unlocked through reaching goals in the single-player game (that part is fine). However, 280 cards is what Magic players call "a nice start". Apparently the cards only go back as far as Invasion block, which to an old-school player like me might as well have been yesterday. Add a zero to the end of that card count and dig further back into the game's history, and you'll have my full attention.

Far more important, though, is the platform. This game has only been announced for the XBox 360. My family doesn't own a console, and if we ever get one (maybe this Christmas, maybe not) it'll be a Wii. A PC version of Duels has been discussed, but apparently those plans are on hold for the time being. In that case, so is any chance of my purchasing this game. If they put it out for PC at a reasonable price point ($20 or under for a retail box, or $10 for a download), I'll give it a shot despite the low number of cards. 280 cards would let me build enough decks to hold my interest for a little while, at least - probably around $20 worth of "while". If they add a zero to the card count, they can double that price and I'll still buy it.

In other Magic news, Wizards have announced some fairly significant rules tweaks. I'm indifferent to some of them (terminology changes, mulligan and token ownership rules), and mildly-to-moderately opposed to others (no mana burn, immediate combat damage, ordering blockers). There are none of them that I can look at and say, "Hey, yeah, that's a good idea!"

I sympathize with their goals of making the game more accessible to new players. I understand that doing so may be essential to the game's long-term survival. The folks at Wizards aren't stupid, either. With very few exceptions (reserved list and power-level-testing-for-Urza's-Saga, I'm looking in your direction...) their tough decisions have been the right ones.

However, my problem with some of these changes is that although they simplify the game, they do so by dumbing it down, removing strategic options that served as opportunities to demonstrate play skill. The elimination of mana burn and the fast effects window during combat damage makes the game easier for new (or less-skilled) players to learn, but the corollary is that more skilled players are effectively penalized. Magic is a game of both chance and skill. Lessening the impact of skill by removing strategic options increases the impact of chance. There comes a point where you might as well just flip a coin at the beginning to determine who wins, and skip all that fussing about with cards. Magic isn't there yet, but this is a toe on the slope.

Sidebar: this utter lack of player input is my problem with many games aimed at children. I can't stand Candyland or any of its myriad clones, or Snakes and Ladders, or any other game where there's absolutely no time where a player can make any decision that affects the game's outcome. I view these games as a necessary evil, a first step toward getting children used to game concepts. Once the kids are used to the boards, dice, tokens, and cards, though, put the mindless games away and move on to anything else that involves at least a little bit of thought. Trouble is a good next step. If you're lucky, your kids will move on quickly. My son, who is in kindergarten, enjoys Battleship, Monopoly, Pass The Pigs, Uno, Disaster, and Heroscape. I'm thinking it's almost time to introduce him to Risk. (I didn't link to them, but pages dedicated to each of those games can be found on Boardgamegeek.) End Sidebar.

The worst of the changes doesn't even make the game simpler. If anything, it has the opposite effect. Under the new rules attacking players "order" blocking creatures when more than one blocker jumps in front of an attacker. The attacking creature's damage is then doled out in order. If there's enough to kill "blocker one", then the rest goes to "blocker two", and so on. Blocker two doesn't take damage unless and until blocker one is dead.

That's apparently supposed to be simpler and more intuitive than "the attacking player chooses how damage gets divided up between blockers." I'm not seeing it. I'm also not seeing how blocking with banding creatures or Furnace of Rath will work. If the Furnace is in play, can I assign half the damage required to kill blocker one, then move on to blocker two, or do I need to assign full lethal damage to each one and let the Furnace overkill them? I hope the Wizards rules team have thought things like this through. Experience tells me they probably have. (They've announced that they'll explain banding under the new system "at a later date", which implies to me that no, they hadn't thought it through.)

I'm well aware that I could simply ignore these rules changes. My Magic playing takes place at my kitchen table, not in sanctioned tournaments. If I didn't specifically tell my wife about these rules changes, she would have no idea they existed. However, that's not the way I like to do it. I like playing by the actual, official rules. I like that if I do happen to go into a game shop and get into a pickup match, we'll all be playing the same game. I've been known to correct people who say that they always play by some house rule that directly contradicts the actual rules - being allowed to play all lands in your opening hand on your first turn is a popular one - by telling them that they aren't playing Magic: The Gathering, but a game of their own that happens to use Magic cards and borrow some of its rules. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but you should understand that you're playing a different game than the rest of the world.

So, my house will be sucking it up and playing by the new rules, effective with our next game (hopefully this weekend). There's no point in putting it off. I'll miss having some of those options, and tune a few decks to account for them (some cards, like Magus of the Vineyard or Power Surge, have been made far worse or completely useless by these changes), but the game goes on.

On to another new video game: The Beatles: Rock Band. As frequently noted on here, I came perilously close to idolizing the Beatles for much of my life. I'm over that adulation, but still a fan. There was a time when I would have scrimped and saved and sold my blood to get my hands on this game. Nowadays, I just think the trailers look cool.

However, as noted earlier, I don't have a console. I like playing games on a machine I can also use to store my MP3 collection, write blog posts, etc. Consoles have enough advantages (primarily simplicity of use) that I may get a Wii someday, but I haven't hit that trigger point yet, and The Beatles: Rock Band isn't going to do it.

There are two major reasons I won't be buying this game anytime in the foreseeable future. The first is the price. A console aficionado friend warned me that it would be expensive. I thought that meant maybe a hundred bucks. Instead, it seems like it's more like $250 to get the game with all the necessary controller hardware. Add in the fact that I'd need to buy the console to run it, and we're talking over $500. Nope, go fish. Simply and absolutely not going to happen.

Second - here comes the heresy to many gamers - I watched the gameplay trailer, and although the graphics and animation are great, I'm just not sure the game looks like any fun to play. I've never tried any of the Rock Band / Guitar Hero games. I've never taken a good look at their controllers, or touched one. However, I just don't think I'd enjoy the gameplay experience. It may stem from the fact that I actually play guitar (albeit far from well). Rather than tapping buttons on a vaguely guitar-shaped bit of plastic, I think I'd get much more satisfaction from sitting down with my guitar and some sheet music and actually learning to play the songs.

Who knows? Maybe if I tried one of these "pretend you can play an instrument" games, I'd be instantly hooked. Maybe I better not try one. I don't want to get sucked in and wind up eager to pay $500 for the experience of pressing coloured buttons in time to Beatles songs.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the top of one of my bookshelves, Hostage Bunny's captors apparently having gone incommunicado for the time being. This particular shelf holds a bunch of old toys.


Anonymous said...

I played Rock Band once for about two minutes. It was a song I liked, and could actually play on a real guitar. The game itself was lame lame lame. A pawn shop guitar will be cheaper than any of these consoles, and won't be out of date at the whim of some business executive. That said, the Halo games rock, especially on the two player co-operative mode. Played this way is much better than the 3 a.m. just-have-to-finish-this-level style of play, which I have never ever done. Ever.


RebelAngel said...

Sorry is another good one for easy rules and at least SOME decision making. But, if you are past the need for easy rules, which, judging by his game repertoire, you are; Risk is certianly a good direction to go. My girls (ages 8, 10, and 11) have enjoyed Risk for years. It comes in all sorts of merchandise-marketing flavors (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Transformers, etc) but, as a home school mom I made sure we started with the original and tricked my girls into learning a smidgen of world geography without even noticing.