Buttonmashing Chats – GenCon 2016


In our first Buttonmashing Chat Chief Buttonmasher Tony and Board Game Frugalist Jason talk over a recent trip to GenCon, a Board Game Convention in Indianapolis Indiana.  We chat about board games, digital games, and some of the experiences at the convention, good and bad.

jasonJason (Boardsmasher): A few weeks ago I attended GenCon, the self proclaimed four greatest days in gaming.  I spent loads of time at that convention learning about new board games, playing some of the classics with friends, and meeting hordes (and I mean hordes) of interesting people.  I wanted to sit down with Chief Buttonmasher Tony to decompress from the experience and share with him the good, the bad, and the boardgames.

I know you were interested in hearing more about my experience Tony, what’s the first thing you want to know?

tony150x150Tony (Chief Buttonmasher): How was the smell? (I’m sorry, I had to do that).

What were the top games you went to see?

jasonJason: Hah, to answer your first question. The smells were fine as long as you stayed within arms length of the person next to you, even the people you came with. But we did go with a list of things that we really wanted to make sure we looked at. The internet is full of “Things we’re looking forward to at GenCon” lists and we used them to find a few games like Via Nebula, Last Friday, and a game called Arcane Academy.

Do any of those games intrigue you by title alone?

Via Nebula

Via Nebula in Play

tony150x150Tony: All of them, but Via Nebula especially.

jasonJason: You’d think it was a space game knowing nothing more, but it’s actually a pretty unique building and route management game set in a fog enshrouded valley.

tony150x150Tony: Can you elaborate on what you mean by route management?

jasonJason: Yeah, that alone doesn’t sound super exciting I suppose, but in this game it means that you have to clear a path through the fog to get resources. Those resources help you build and win the game, but the trick is that you can use the paths the other players blazed. You have to spend time thinking about what actions you want to take and what actions you think others may take that you can benefit from.

tony150x150Tony: Is the map random? How is the setup?

jasonJason: The map and board are the same every game but the resources get placed randomly at the start of the game so there are different paths you have to follow every game.  Its unique enough that it seems like it could be immensely replayable.  We only got one game in of it in the BGG Hot Games room but it was enough to make me want to come back for more.

tony150x150Tony: Did you end up picking it up?

jasonJason: We didn’t end up buying it because I’m a frugal fellow and I know after the post convention hype dies down I should be able to get a it a little cheaper than MSRP. If there’s one thing you know about me is that I can’t usually stomach paying full price for something when I can avoid it. That’s what makes going to these cons so great, you get a lot of value for the price you pay for a four day pass.

tony150x150Tony: Ok, so Via Nebula sounds like a keeper. What’s Last Friday? Do you play Chris Tucker or Ice Cube? Do you crack jokes about weed?

jasonJason: HAH, close? It’s actually a one vs many 80’s horror themed game where one player plays a vicious serial killer and the rest of the players play teenaged campers at an old campground. I didn’t play the killer because the moment I saw that one of the campers in the game was named Jason, I had to claim that pimply weirdo on a matter of pride.

tony150x150Tony: So what is the object? survive? outlast the killer? trap him?

jasonJason: The game is split up into several chapters.  In each chapter there is a different objective for the killer and the kids. It’s classified a hidden movement game because the moves the killer makes on the board are hidden to the rest of the players. It makes it pretty tense!

In the first chapter the kids had to find the keys to the cabins on the map and make it safely inside before being murdalized by the killer.

The killers job was to kill, but in the next scenario he was the guy on the run and we were trying to trap him. It was cool that there was enough variance so that it didn’t feel too samey.

tony150x150Tony: So who won the game you played? The pimply kids?

jasonJason: We did, yes! Although I do have to say that the job of the killer is best played by someone who has experience with the game. The complexities of the hidden movement were definitely challenging for our killer.

tony150x150Tony: That makes sense. Familiarity of how it would be played on the other side of the table would give the killer an insight into how he could avoid it.

Sounds like it would be satisfying to win as the killer.

So, what about Arcane Academy?

jasonJason: One of my regrets about the con. We actually never ended up playing it!  There was so much to do and see that we just couldn’t find the extra hours to get back into the hot games room to play it.

It’s coming out in a few weeks, I’m eager to watch some actual play videos to see how it plays, but it seems like something right up my alley.  Magic spells and board games? Yes please.

tony150x150Tony: Was there anything that surprised you? Something you didn’t expect to see but got you interested?

The gaming crew that we brought along

The gaming crew that we brought along to GenCon

jasonJason: I think my biggest surprise was how much my wife enjoyed everything at the convention.  This was the second time I’ve been to GenCon but the first time I brought her along.  Both her and I were expecting her to be bored of gaming by Saturday but as we were leaving we both were thinking of all the things we could’ve done if we stayed just a little bit longer.

tony150x150Tony: Nice! What was her favorite?

jasonJason: I don’t know that she had a particular favorite but I know that she enjoyed almost everything we played. We both generally enjoy light, moderately strategic, and not lengthy games so most of the ones we got to play we enjoyed.

It was a great time and I’m eager to go again next year, though I’m not sure how realistic that’ll be.  Maybe I’ll crash at your place and go to Origins 2017 next year?

tony150x150Tony: Yeah seeing your pics definitely had me intrigued to do a con like that.

Especially the giant size King of Tokyo.

Giant King of Tokyo

Giant King of Tokyo

jasonJason: Oh man, my monster face was epic.

I played 2 games of Giant King of Tokyo, which is exactly what it sounds like.

I got runner up in both of them which was a bummer since the winner got a convention exclusive King of Tokyo monster.  However, one of the winners already had a Space Penguin so she yielded it to me.  Convention win!

tony150x150Tony: Well it sounds amazing, if that what it was…

So you mentioned if you could have stayed longer you would have seen more — what would you go back and see if you could?

jasonJason: I think just demoing more games and spending more time in the Hot Games room.  Being able to play the latest and greatest was a big draw for us and gave us something to look forward acquiring in the coming year.

tony150x150Tony: Anything you were excited to see that disappointed or didn’t deliver?

jasonJason: One of the events we bought in to was an event called “Big Game Night” which was hosted by a company called AEG.  The draw is that you get to take part in playing their games, seeing the new stuff they’ve got coming, and leave with a cool box of swag.

It was a good concept but a few things kept it from being awesome.  One is that being so late on a Friday night we were pretty tuckered out so it was hard to learn new things.

Two is that the box of swag was essentially 75% empty boxes and 25% microgames.

From what I’ve heard those swag boxes have been getting less and less worth the price of admission ($32) to that event, so I probably won’t attend it next time I go to GenCon.

tony150x150Tony: So this is obstensibly a video game blog — I know you saw HEX there. We’re there other video games/apps on demo?

jasonJason: Hah, good point.  It is a “Gaming” convention so it wouldn’t be right if there weren’t at least a little bit of a digital presence there.

A lot of companies were demoing the mobile app version of their games.  I even saw at the ascension booth that they were demoing a VR version of Ascension!

tony150x150Tony: Did you try VR Ascension? I would probably never leave.

jasonJason: Chalk it up as one of those things I wish I’d done.  Something else shiny likely caught my eye and I moved past it without thinking how awesome it would’ve been to experience.

It’s available now on Steam now with relatively positive reviews.  Worth checking out if you’ve got the kit.

tony150x150Tony: Well it sounds like a roaring success. Anything else you want to mention in wrapping up?

jasonJason: It was definitely a great time.  If you’re on the fence about conventions in general this one, while being overwhelming, has such a tremendous positive vibe going on throughout the halls.

Everyone was walking around with smiles on their faces.  It was fun to be a part of something so wonderfully geeky and fun, nerding out with 60,000 people and not even noticing the crowd.

Retro Video Games: What Was Lost

Nick wanders back to the glory days of Retro Gaming and contemplates what exactly has been lost between then and now.

Axiom Verge (2015) is perceived across the board as a throwback to gaming’s retro days. The 16-bit graphics and 2D platforming are the first evidences of this claim. Digging deeper, the game’s listing on Steam has been given the user-defined tag of ‘Metroidvania’.

This tag is a popular one now, denoting a game that shares characteristics with the Metroid and Castlevania serieses, both of which have titles that originate back to the mid 80’s – those sweet, blessed ‘ol timey Halcyon Days of yore. Those days when we should have been outside basking in golden rays of sunshine and playing with the other children but instead diligently hunkered down indoors and soaked up a different kind of radiation altogether.

Yes! The core mechanic in Metroidvania games is that of exploration, part of which requires the dedicated player to backtrack to areas previously visited, most likely equipped with an item that unlocks a new doorway or blasts a wall made up a of strong material or grapples specific points in the ceiling wherewith to swing gracefully over a lake of acid that was hitherto unpassable. Bossfights also served as prodigious gatekeepers, requiring the player to exercise grit and reflexes to defeat the monstrosity in order to further continue exploring. Often the spoil(s) of victory included that very item needed in three sectors past to open the way.

Super Metroid Start Screen

Axiom Verge possesses these things along with holding merits of its own. And seeing as how I think Super Metroid (1994) is one of the greatest games ever created, reason therefore dictates that Axiom Verge is right up my alley. I hearkened back to my retro gaming days recalling the righteous triumphs and blood-boiling defeats. But whichever way the scale tipped, I always had the dedication to press forward.

And thus I played Axiom Verge, dutifully so, trying not to compare every little detail to Super Metroid but also trying to slip into the mind of my 13-year-old self, to channel that youthful dedication and grit needed to progress through these levels and defeat these bosses. Because, contrary to many current AAA open world video games where there are more side-quests than stars in the sky, if you don’t beat this boss, you shall not pass…

“I’m Too Old For This Crap!”

But my existential channeling failed. I could not, and still can’t, beat the final stage in Axiom Verge. Not for lack of trying, mind you, but a lack of focus, dedication.

My attention waned and has thus drifted elsewhere, to other newer games or my steam backlog or to whatever is happening on my second computer monitor or the updates which my phone chirps are ready for my attention.

Oh, Axiom Verge is a fine game, worthy of every shred of praise it has received. Other players are significantly better at it than I am. Indeed. This is a classic case of ‘It’s not you. It’s me’. And maybe this can apply to you.

Clearly, my approach to playing games has changed compared to when I was a youths. I do not bemoan this because, despite all its other complexities and toils, being an adult is awesome. If anything I use this change as a crutch, as an excuse, for the moments when I perform poorly: I’m not sharp enough for this crap anymore! I don’t have time for this!

Axiom Verge Start Screen

Still, it’s interesting to look back and consider what exactly has changed, where has my unwavering gaming grit and dedication gone?

A few weeks ago, Sir Tony ButtonMasher brought Man Crates to my attention – Specifically the Retro Gamer Crate.

This product jarred something loose in my stubborn, inundated adult mind. Here, quite possibly, is the answer to the question posited above.

Upon first visit, my attention shifted from the image on the webpage – of the gaming console, cartridges and bounty of ‘sugar intoxication’ – to my desktop PC. Now just over three years old (and aging pretty stinkin’ well, I must say) this gaming computer is tapped into the entire digital world. Its computer brain can complete computer process faster than my meat brain can even comprehend. I can steal audio CDs, Skype, download, and virus scan on one monitor while I play Endless Legend (bought at a convenient 67% discount) on another.

“Just Play the Damn Game, Son”

Retro gaming consoles, conversely, were dedicated platforms. As the Man Crate page says: “Before there were streaming services, before there were all-in-one media boxes, a video game console had one purpose.”

Indeed. Just play the game. And when I was younger the video game console was my purpose!

Whereas now, I keep an eye out for heavily discounted games that I will never physically touch, nor will I ever fully ‘own’. The transaction consists of three clicks of the mouse. The game is then downloaded and ready to play in anywhere from 45 seconds to 15 minutes.

The Retro Gaming Man Crate

The Retro Gaming Crate available at ManCrates.com

But, in the retro gaming days, these grey cartridges were the end result of weeks of chores and youthful entrepreneurial endeavors. We had to have someone drive us to the store to even attain them. The drive back from the store felt like an eternity, all the while the closest you could get to playing was gazing longingly at the box art and the cartridge nested inside.

These cartridges were all we had! Every single line of code had to be explored, conquered and exploited. And that sure enough took dedication, grit and plenty of sugar intoxication.

What the Retro Gaming crate captures is the essence of what gaming used to be. When our focus was laser-tight and our time and dedication had purpose.

One personal example comes to mind.

Rampage. The 1988 Nintendo port of the arcade classic will forever be stitched into my essence. The game, in summary, takes place over 128 days. Each day takes place in a different city of the USA. The player assumes the role of a monstrous lizard or guerrilla or werewolf mutated from human form and must destroy all the buildings in that city/day in order to move on to the next day.

Rampage Start Screen

It’s a simple premise but an absolute blast to play – especially as a kid who would be stuck at Grandma’s house for the weekend. Indeed. I don’t remember why I had to be at Granny’s that weekend but I knew that I’d be on my own with lots of time on my hands. It was a perfect opportunity to push the limits of my Rampaging abilities.

Plus, I had a goal, a benchmark to reach. Ryan Gold said that he got to day #97. That little bastard had been bragging about it during recess all week. Tired of his boasting I was dedicated to not only reaching day #97 but surpassing it, thus guaranteeing my dominance of morning recess discussions/bragging sessions.

And so, I packed up the NES, assured the rampage cartridge was stowed and traveled over the river and through the woods. Granny had an extra black and white TV in one of the small bedrooms upstairs. I had plenty of licorice on hand, which doubled as straws to slurp my orange soda. And there I planted myself, sitting on a pillow on the floor, my gaze glued to this little radioactive box sitting atop one of the dining room chairs. Thus, the weekend rolled forth with very little variation.

Innocence Gained

Whether or not I beat Ryan Gold at his own game is besides the point (plus, I honestly don’t remember), but as I sketch out this recollection I hope to illustrate the gamer’s dedication that has since been lost, something that even playing Axiom Verge could not bring back.

The dedication is more than just promising oneself to finish the game. It is about creating the setting and having the motivation to throw yourself into a game. More often than not, as adults, we try to squeeze in the time when we can, and as a result often end up skipping along the surface of an ocean of video games to explore, fathoms of which are well and beyond what we can see from the waterline.

May those afflicted with adulthood strive to channel — and make the time for — the innocence of youth, to reclaim the fervor, focus and dedication felt while playing all those retro video games.

Unsolicited Mental Objects – Fallout 4

(Unsolicited Mental Objects are a series of posts that we started as a sort of stream of consciousness to talk about whatever was on our mind, gaming-wise. I am currently making an effort to write everyday, so these should start popping up with regularity, along with other content.)

fallout_4After an extended break, Fallout 4 is back in heavy rotation. With the first two solid DLC packs having already dropped, I wanted to get through the main quest line before diving in to the DLC. That’s been my SOP for most games like this — finish the main game, then play the DLC the way the Lord intended (in the order it was released). I feel like there was a distinct order the developers had in mind and I want to stick with that.

Unfortunately for me, I put my playthrough on hold and the first two DLCs dropped before I finished the original storyline. No big deal, I’ll knock out the main quests and then work my way through the add-ons later.

So I’m working my way through a quest and it sends me to a randomly selected location to clear out some ghouls. I flip on my Pip-Boy and the quest marker is in the upper right corner of the map, a place I have never been.I dutifully head up there to find the “Eden Meadows” drive-thru. But I get up there and Eden Meadows is nowhere to be found.

It’s just a couple buildings, a dock and an older Asian couple looking for their run-away daughter.

Wait a second. This sounds like a quest that mysteriously appeared in my queue when I started playing regularly again. I talked to Detective Valentine about it and realized it was the Far Harbor DLC. I stashed that quest away to come back to later and now this randomly selected location was smack-dab in somewhere I had no intention of going until I finished the main story.

(I’ll reserve judgement on whether this was a good design choice or not for another post. Fallout 4 is massive and a marvel of development and programming. I’m not going to accuse Bethesda of not squashing a potential bug. I was helping out some Synths and Far Harbor fits that description anyway)

But this presented a dilemma, one that I have grappled with before. Do I sully my experience with the DLC, something I had been saving, to continue on with this quest? I have to further the story of Far Harbor just so I can make progress in infiltrating The Institute. I like to think my way of playing through content is the right way and now I’m forced to do something against the grain.

So I went to Far Harbor, ignored anything that might trigger another quest line, made my way to Eden Meadows, handled my business and got back to The Commonwealth. But in doing so, I still had to further the Far Harbor story a little and now it will wait, fallow, as I continue my quest to get answers from the Institute.

Sorry Mr. and Mrs. Nakano, your daughter’s disappearance will have to wait. I have some revenge to exact for my dead wife and lost son.

Steam Summer Sale 2016: A New Approach to Buying

It can neither be confirmed or denied – but we are all as sure as shineola – that the Steam summer sale will begin on Thursday of this week.

Steam has altered the way it handles these sales over the past two years, opting for a more straight-forward approach to providing discounts without all those ‘micro deals’ ala, daily deals, bundle deals, flash deals; the discount that is assigned to a game on the first day is the discount that shall remain for the duration of the sale.

This approach is definitely not as dynamic or, perhaps, as exciting as the hustle-and-bustle sales, and this trend seems to show that discounts aren’t generally as steep, either. I pooh-pooh’d this at first having found favor in the excitement of waking in the morning and checking what flash deal popped up while I fitfully slept and dreamed dreams of backstroking in all pool filled with all those green discount tags. Likewise, I relished in the opportunity to snatch up the deep, deep discounts, regardless of whether or not I really, truly wanted the game. And let us not forget the ‘encore’ sale when it was that last day scramble to scoop up everything on your wishlist now that the possibility for flash deals and daily deals are gone. Indeed. Steam sales were a time of a weird kind of methodological indulgence.


I have since reversed my opinion of this new, more temperate Steam sale setup because it coincides so nicely with a personal decision I’ve made concerning acquiring new games. The rule I’ve made for myself is thus: I shall buy a game when, and only when, I am prepared to immediately devote the time and attention to striving to complete it or have my ‘fill’ of it.

It is a simple rule and one that I hope will be effective in preventing me from making impulsive, money-dumping, backlog-bloating purchases. And now that Steam sales are more streamlined, I can adopt a different kind of methodology when it comes to buying, one where the games are in charge, not the discount tags.

Steam sales, however the setup, are traditionally about two weeks long. Two weeks is quite the chunk of time, especially when it comes to playing video games – there is the potential of significant turn-around. I foresee my gametime during the two weeks of this summer sale to be akin to a sort of 3-part stage production, and the players – the dramatis personae, if you will – are a select few items from my Steam wishlist whose purchase will be methodically timed based on what type of game it is. This way I can still take advantage of the succulent discounted prices but still hold true to the golden rule that I have set for myself.

ACT I – Nuclear Throne

Day one of the sale will begin with a BANG as Nuclear Throne blasts its way into my Steam library. I am in need of a new game with some gritty crunch. For a while there I was embittered in the Nuclear Throne vs. Enter the Gungeon debate. The former is more appealing because it places precedence in firepower over exploration, which the latter handles inversely. Nuclear Throne sounds like equal parts fun and enraging, but a game where player skill waxes strong with every failed run – signs of a true roguelike. And, like a roguelike, there is the possibility that the game will consume me, or the very real possibility that I will throw my hands up in exasperation, never to return. What better way to kick off the Steam summer sale by playing a wild card?

ACT II – Renowned Explorers

Whatever modicum of exploration sidestepped by choosing Nuclear Throne in the first act will be more than made up for with Renowned Explorers. This looks like one charming little exploration game, one whose obstacles are fun to overcome. I find much appeal in how many variables there are in just about every aspect of the game – from party composition to enemy encounters. Decisions need to be made on the fly. The historical setting is also a personal plus. The whole game looks upbeat and colorful. It might be one that I play with my 8-year old son. Depending on how well I recieve Nuclear Throne, Renowned Explorers may likely take up the bulk time of the Steam sale.

ACT III – Offworld Trading Company

Offworld Trading Company sounds fascinating. Certain games in the grand strategy or 4x genre may have various victory conditions, ways to win other than painting the map your color. But, let’s be honest: These other ways aren’t nearly as much fun. OTC grabs hold of these ‘other’ ways and runs with it, making non-military your only way of winning. Indeed. Victory comes by buying and selling, sabotaging and dominating the central goods market. And from the sound of it, matches have the potential of being fierce, intense and brief. I like this idea. The game sounds like it requires practice and intuition, especially in multiplayer. This is the perfect type of the game to carry me onwards after the summer Steam sale has ended.

There is also the very real possibility that I will pick up a handful of DLCs during this sale. This is an exception to the golden rule stated above since I have already put the time into the base games required for the DLCs. Most notably I will pick up a few for Dishonored and the “Shifters” expansion for Endless Legend. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch up on some Crusader Kings 2 expansions, but I’m honestly just a little burnt out from Paradox games – we’ll see… Steam sales do strange things to otherwise lucid and logical people.

D-28: Or, Looking Forward to Hearts of Iron IV

With absolutely nothing else of interest going on at Paradox Development Studio today, we can calculate that at this very moment here on 9 May 2016, Hearts of Iron IV will be upon us in exactly 27.84 days. Paradox took a week-long hiatus from their “World War Wednesday” Twitch streams last week in order to, I can only assume, convene into the company’s war room to develop last minute designs for the game and to advance, with what will certainly be, a bombastic marketing campaign that will rely on the primacy of the game’s setting and not, say, cheap and flimsy SWAG.

We, the ranks of HoI4 recruits – We, too, have much to prepare. While other Paradox players on this day are otherwise occupied by lesser things, we must steel ourselves, sharpen our focus. We must unroll our terrain maps, the corners weighed down by our miniature Panzer models and artillery shells. We must crack open the tomes of military operations. We must study this original history. And as intelligence is added upon we can therefore ask ourselves, ‘what if…’ Thereby, the spirit of HoI4 can be made manifest.


This is more than just expansion and extermination of the enemy. This is not some half-assed broadstroke over a massive interstellar expanse. This is about digging deep, of taking the initiative to color history, to become a sort of reflective historian. To this end, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel explains: “Here the main thing is the elaboration of the historical material, which the historian approaches with his spirit… Especially important are the principles the author sets up for himself, based in part on the content and goals of the actions and events [of history], and in part on the way he constructs history.”

What a marvelous opportunity HoI4 will give us: To give us this orb of history, of this specific conflict and allow us to interact with it on so many different fronts. The game’s setting is recent enough that we can impart our own principles, as Hegel states, in how we go about playing. How big are the ripples we can create. How altered our modern world can become. How twisted or righteous will the geopolitical landscape turn out to be? How engaging can we make our end game screenshots!

… We have but 28 days to find out.


Sifting the Chaff: Paradox and the Next Generation

Paradox Development Studio is coming at us on two fronts. They’re flanking us!

The most immediate approach is Stellaris, their intergalactic grand strategy game – due out May 9 and is now available for pre-order. I’ve been skimming the dev diaries and youtube videos, and am generating marginal-to-lukewarm interest. Paradox will be implementing some very interesting ideas about the structure of every playthrough, but overall what I am seeing doesn’t really blow my skirt up. (In fact, if to the stars we must go, I’m actually leaning towards taking the Distant Worlds:Universe route.)

However, I will be following very closely the game’s reception upon release. Scrutinizing, even. (There is an overarching purpose for this course of action which I shall explain later.) What I will be looking for is this: How complete is Stellaris? By saying ‘complete’, I do not speak of game-stopping bugs or graphical spasms. I want to know how fulfilling is the gameplay? Does it seem like there are voids that future DLCs will gladly and conveniently fill? How will the UI – admittedly not Paradox’s strongpoint – withstand the use and abuse of a broader gaming populace? In other words: How sound will Stellaris be and how badly will players bounce off of it?

The future of the company requires that Stellaris be rock solid. Not only is the hype through the frigging roof, but now that Stellaris is available for pre-purchase, if there is anything less than smooth-sailing the backlash will be severe and demoralizing. Bitter nay-sayers will pistolwhip Paradox, citing the company’s history of ugly new releases and will identify the mountains – and hundreds of dollars worth – of DLCs that are available for Europa Universalis 4 and Crusader Kings 2, claiming (somewhat erroneously, though not completely) that each expansion is just another patch job that gamers should not have had to pay for. The peasant rabble will swell and be foolish to ignore.

But let us have hope. The company has grown and matured these last few years. And, at least in respect to the condition of newly-released games, matters have improved since the days of yore. EU4 and CK2 were, for the most part, able to stand on their own two feet. Let us hope that Paradox has learned from history as they plan to move forward…

Indeed. The time has come for the company to pass the torch. Stellaris is one of the newcomers. It is garnering tremendous attention. Message board and comment sections are buzzing.The hype train is real. Paradox seems to be capitalizing on the fact that this game breaks the traditional Paradoxian mold. The marketing has been tasteful… and fun! Space aliens and pew-pews have a broader acceptance compared to hard historical settings. And now, in this, the new generation, it looks like Paradox will have both.

Which brings us to the discussion of the second – more important – newcomer: Hearts of Iron 4.

Where Stellaris looks to the stars and is dictated by scope, campaign structure and a dash of RNG, Hearts of Iron is very much grounded, very much logistically detailed, and very much akin to the mold of a Paradox game.

The Hearts of Iron series – three titles in all, each with varying number of expansions – is known for being notoriously complex, dense, and difficult for newcomers to take on. Despite this, the framework for the games is interesting. They operate in the narrow window of time that leads up to and plays out through World War 2. Conquest isn’t always the goal. Because the time frame is so short and the details are so concise, objectives can take on a more ahistorical flavor. Knowing that a world war will break out, the player can build a campaign around this determination.

Hearts of Iron 4 looks to intend to follow this same formula but with a greater emphasis in streamlining the in-game logistics. I’d say ‘simplify’ but that would send tremors down the spines of veteran players. But it kind of looks like this is what Paradox is doing: Cutting the crap and interconnecting many of the mechanics. The process has been a slow and deliberate one. HoI4 doesn’t have the luxury that Stellaris currently has; It can’t get too wieldy with (re)defining itself.

And come June 6, the game will have all sorts of players shoring up, with many others reconnoitering from perhaps their empires in Stellaris.

That’s the rub: How do you gently onboard new players to this game with a reputation without turning your back to the veteran players of the franchise?

There has already been talk of streamlining and creating, essentially, mutually exclusive military profiles. This method seeks to focus the player’s attention to certain aspect of the game and not just throwing a wall-of-game at him. Another way to onboard new players has been put in effect already. Paradox sponsored a 3-part video series at the Extra Credits youtube channel. This series gives an overview of the economic and industrial factors behind WW2. It is a great attempt to, at the very least, orient new players to the historical goings-on that are at the foundation of Hearts of Iron 4.

But to veterans of the HoI series, the historical goings-on of WW2 is old news. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. Because of this, there’s a good chance that many of them will chafe against all this talk of streamlining, favoring the wall-of-game of previous HoI iterations. So, to ease the low-level player rumble, Paradox, sticking to a proven game design model, is basically coding the game to easily facilitate modding. Paradox is leaving the game wide open and is practically daring modders to have at it. Nary a ten minutes will pass in the preview/gameplay Twitch VODs when a commentator will make an observation or answer a question from chat and respond with, “I’m sure someone will mod that in”.

Whoever that ‘someone’ is could be someone who has followed the Hearts of Iron series from the very beginning or it could be someone who is new to the Paradox fold, perhaps even drawn in by Stellaris. And that is exactly what has me so excited: To see just what can materialize when this motley crew of players coalesces upon Hearts of Iron…

And that is exactly why the initial release of Stellaris needs to be a smooth one. The next phase of Paradox is hinged on this. It’ll be interesting to see how many of the newcomers from Stellaris also make the leap into HoI4. Even more so, how many of these actually stick around. Hearts of Iron 4 has the potential of not only being a great game with a diverse player set who may or may not mod the shit out of it, but it also provides many philosophical and theoretical platforms to explore – And that, in and of itself, is reason enough to stick around.

Paradox is taking a rather aggressive stance with flanking us with two strategy games that are nearly polar opposite. But I see it as quite an adroit maneuver: reap a huge audience with Stellaris and let Hearts of Iron 4 sift out the chaff, so that a new player base, tempered by wisdom yet eager to move forward, may carry the company into this next generation.

Dodging Uncertainty: Teleportation in Chaos Reborn

“The goal that led him on was not impossible, though it was clearly supernatural: He wanted to dream a man. He wanted to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality”
– Jorge Luis Borges

True to itself, Chaos assumes many different forms to many different fields of study. To science, chaos illustrates just how disorderly our universe can be. We see how randomness is the lack of decipherable patterns, of uncertain behavior, unpredictable outcomes. Chaos is used in cryptography to harness all that unpredictability in order to mask the cipher and the message’s true order. In Mythology, chaos is the abyss from which the matter of our current world was fashioned. This act of creation was accomplished by demiurges who are not quite supreme deities but nonetheless wielders of great supernatural power.

Chaos Reborn (Snapshot Games Inc., October 2015) confidently grabs hold of chaos in its variety of forms and balances it on a needlepoint.

Lords of Reformation

The lore of Chaos Reborn puts the game’s setting in a world that once was one but now is fractured. Within the center of this swirl is Limbo. “Limbo,” explains the game’s lore, “is existence waiting for something better.” It is from here that players assume the role of wizards who come from elite bloodlines and are charged with going forth out of limbo to recreate with matter that is leftover and to repopulate… to become overlords.

Using the same magic that was responsible for tearing the world apart, players compete for dominance by materializing beasts and activating offensive spells from the aether chaos. Herein is the challenge because chaos is slippery. So very slippery. Spells can and do fail. Some don’t fail, but should. Very little is certain in Chaos Reborn.

These spells and creatures consist of the player’s hand. Each card has a designated percentage which dictate the likelihood that it will be successfully cast. There are many ways of influencing this number, of teasing it up some to increase the likelihood. But, nonetheless, the player is still uncertain of the cast’s outcome before it is complete; the beast may materialize within a glorious beam of light or break apart before it is fully formed and disperse back to the void.

To heap chaos on top of chaos: Offensive spells like magic bolts and lightning strikes, not only have a percentage to cast but, depending on specific variables, also have a percentage to successfully hit their targets. Slippery, indeed.

One of the few certainties out there in the battlefield is that of movement. Each turn allows the wizard 3 actions: Movement, spell casting, attacking. So long as the wizard or creatures are not detained by spider webs, blobs, or the stone stare of a hellhound, movement from one hexagon to the next is 100% guaranteed.

Movement across the battlefield is therefore slow and calculated.

Sidestepping Uncertainty

One way to flaunt this slow movement is by using the Teleport spell. The spell is of a neutral alignment and comes with a 90% chance of successful cast and is guaranteed to place the wizard someplace within 8 hexes of his current position. Successfully using Teleport exhausts your movement and spell actions for the turn.

Similar to the offensive spells mentioned above, Teleport can be parsed into two actions: casting and function. The uncertainty of a successful cast, though generous, maintains the idea that chaos still reigns. But the sweet certainty of landing on the hexagon of your choosing completely unaffected otherwise contradicts the laws of this universe.

This is a perversion in the face of almighty chaos. Consider what the wizard doing: He is choosing to dematerialize himself, to remove himself from this plane, mix his corporeal form back into the chaotic soup, in an attempt to re-materialize. The wizard is assuming the same chaotic state of the very creatures he has thus far attempted to bring to pass. And yet, unlike the fate of some of these creatures, after a successful teleport cast the wizard is guaranteed a successful re-entry.

The game’s lore explains that the wizards who pass through the portals of Limbo out to the fractured realms are far from all-powerful deities. While still able to wield the power of creation many have yet perfected their abilities. This frustrates the guaranteed flawless teleport re-entry all the more. If there is a chance of a wizard failing to produce a simple rat organism from chaos, there should be an even greater chance of failing the second half of a self-teleport.

Indeed. This is an advanced spell which readily transmutes chaos into complex order. Not only is it just any complex order; it is the self. And it should not be flailed around by novices the way it currently is.

A wizard of the lore warns: “Those who exceed their positions, always face consequences.” As with all other actions a wizard makes, chaos should play a factor in the outcome of a successful teleport cast. And it should affect the makeup of the wizard himself. Perhaps a random selection of cards in the player’s hand should be shuffled back into the deck. Maybe a staff’s inherent mega-spell should change (until the end of the match if playing in Equipped). Maybe talismans should reset. Maybe talismans should change function. And maybe, just maybe, there is a chance that nothing will be altered.

And yet, what guarantee should the wizard have that he will even rematerialize at all? Perhaps there should be a greater percentage of failed reassembly based on the distance traveled from the point of origin. Likewise, maybe each opposing wizard can have vectors of passive influence; the penalty of teleporting further away from yourself is negated if you are placing yourself closer to an opponent. However the uncertainties are calculated, if the re-entry fails, the match is over.

Trumped by Chaos

Chaos is multifaceted, and Chaos Reborn knows this. Like a master wizard the game spins chaos into a wonderful tapestry of lore and gameplay. Let there be no enmity between player and the unpredictability of outcomes. Chaos is a state of nature and is without guile. But its nature conflicts with ours as we strive to have our designs realized.

Nearly every decision a player makes in Chaos Reborn must be thoroughly thought-out, executed and, if chaos so dictates, amended. Nearly every action has its chances for failure – as it should be. This is why Teleport in its current state is far too wieldy. The spell contradicts the facets of chaos which the game so adroitly uses.

I paid ten dollars for a Dota 2 cosmetic set…

… and I’m surprisingly okay with that.

I’m sure someone could pinpoint the moment when “Free to Play” got a foothold in gaming and became a thing but for the longest time, my attitude toward them was firmly on the “who cares” spectrum. Paying for cosmetics in a game I otherwise did not have to buy seemed pointless. Whereas, in other paid games, paid cosmetics was just a bonus feature that I’d just ignore. I was firmly a “I’d never pay for a cosmetic item” kind of guy. Cosmetics, ultimately, didn’t have any impact on me anyway because I didn’t play anything that was free to play anyway. Then I started playing Dota 2 in earnest a couple of years ago. (I think I gave the game a try after listening to a string of Idle Thumbs podcasts where the main topic of discussion was Dota 2. I had tried a MOBA before (League of Legends) but it didn’t grab me like Dota did.) I was now playing a free to play game wasn’t in your face with their microtransaction offerings. Just the occasional “get these cool cosmetic items! Look at this sword for your dude!” My feelings remained unchanged.

Cosmetic items have been, as far as I can tell, always been available for Dota 2 heroes even if they weren’t an option for all heroes.

This is a topic that will probably fork into another post, but somehow I ended up playing and building an affinity to the agility hero Juggernaut. I don’t know if it was because it was the most recognizable name in the list or I liked the idea of a masked, exiled samurai. Either way, Juggernaut has become “my guy”. He looks cool, has a sweet sword and his ultimate is one of the more satisfying ultimates in the game.

I don’t remember how it happened, but one day there was a cosmetic set for Juggernaut in my inventory. It was a simple set called Traveler on the High Plains. All the set items were classified as Common items, meaning they weren’t particularly rare or unique but the next time I played Jugg I equipped the items and a whole new game opened before my eyes:

I had an epiphany. This was my Juggernaut. There are many other Juggernauts like it, but this one is mine.

There are many cosmetic items for Juggernaut, possibly the most out of any of the heroes (maybe research this). Between his mask, his sword and his clothing, the possibilities and combinations of your Juggernaut are endless.

Juggernaut Mixed Items

I picked up odds and end pieces for Juggernaut but never could bring myself to pay more than a few quarters to pick something up. That was until the set “The Balance of the Blade Keeper” set became available last year. At the time, it cost $10.99 and as soon as I saw it, I hit the purchase button and haven’t looked back. Because the Blade Keeper set had such a unique look and style I picked it up without hesitation.

Juggernaut Balance of the Bladekeeper

The cosmetic items for Dota 2, to me, have been one of Valves most brilliant moves. Opening up the character models to freelance graphic artists basically increased their “workforce” to thousands of people with talent and know-how to customize the game and the personal experience of individual Dota 2 players. Valve lets these freelancers peddle their wares, all the while taking a little cut for being the middle man. This enables artists to develop a brand and a following, creating items for fans of the game.

Juggernaut Arms of the Gwimyeon Warrior

Juggernaut Bladesrunner

I have amassed, officially, over 1,000 hours of playtime over the past three years playing Dota 2. Steam tells me I’ve spent over 150$ on the game over that period of time. If there was some formula to determine “value” and if that formula were to be, say, dollars divided by hours, Dota would have delivered on 10 cents an hour, which I would say is a pretty dang good value, considering 1) it’s free and 2) most AAA games are luck to deliver 1.50$ an hour.

Juggernaut Gifts of the Vanished Isle

I don’t know how much longer I’ll play Dota 2 but they’ve turned me into a Free to Play believer and I’ve most certainly got my money’s worth.

The MOBA effect

Recently, I’ve only been playing MOBAs. I haven’t had the desire to branch out very much, especially into a time intensive genre like MMOs.

I honestly think it’s because of the game progression… or the lack thereof. By ‘progression’ I mean that you aren’t leveling up a character like in an MMO, which would take a lot of time to get that character to the maximum level. That kind of progression definitely has its merits and satisfactions but in my current state of life it hasn’t been as enjoyable with the limited playing time I do have.

I’ve had discussions about this with a good friend from high school (I’m 31 now) and he tends to feel the same. Granted we are both in a similar position – we are both married and have little one(s) that we happily give up time for – but it just doesn’t feel like we have the time or the drive to devote to an MMO. Oh how we’ve tried! From going back to the nostalgic (Everquest) to trying a few of the new kids on the block such as Rift, Neverwinter Online, Guild Wars 2 (debatable). None of them are able to keep me coming back.

MOBAs, however, operate on a different kind of progression. One that, contrary to MMOs, does compel me to log in night after night.

Dota 2 has been my MOBA of choice for a while, a decent run with Smite, a little stint with League of Legends, and a few smatterings of Infinite Crisis but, Dota 2 is my choice. steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_181979094_preview

Smite has kept me playing the second longest out of the bunch. Whether this was because my friend played it pretty much non-stop and my desire to play with a friend kept me going or the change in pace it provided with its different game modes (which could end in a 15 minute match), Smite had me for a while.

League of Legends was along the lines of a standard MOBA but, it felt slower than Dota, the champions didn’t seem to move as fast to me. The movement speed may have been a factor but, the time it took to unlock a champion that seemed interesting was demoralizing. Don’t get me wrong though, my brother and I saved up for characters who were also brothers, which cost a ton to get, and we wrecked face! It was glorious… still, it wasn’t enough.

Infinite Crisis was an interesting occurrence for me. I was able to get into the beta for this game with a friend. Needless to say the game is totally different from what it was back then (for the better). One thing I’m thankful for was that it helped me determine that I don’t want to play games while they are in beta. In this instance the UI was horrid, the game felt buggy, and it was not enjoyable until you were actually in the game and even then it wasn’t the smoothest. HOWEVER, playing as the Flash or Green Lantern was definitely worth it. They recently had a huge patch/improvements and I have been meaning to check it out one more time.

Some of the things that drew me in to MOBAs were the semi-short game length which can be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more in rare cases, no need to grind anything if you don’t want to, and you can still get the sense of accomplishment from getting items or even more so from improving your play.

Dota 2 had all that I needed. My friends were playing it, the fun was there, the amount of hero choices was staggering (and continues to grow), it looked great (see League of Legends or Infinite Crisis), and it was Valves baby (I dumped a lot of time into Team Fortress 2 so, I enjoyed the Steam network/Valve’s quality of work).

With a MOBA I feel like I am working on me, on my skill as a player, on my ability to fulfill a role on a team, and it was rewarding. I always thought that I would need progression that didn’t go away for a character in order to enjoy a game (i.e. leveling an MMO character) but, that isn’t the case. I’m don’t feel like I’m falling behind anyone if I can’t devote time to the game like I felt when I played MMOs and my friends would spend more time in-game than me. In essence the effect of a MOBA engages the player more as an individual than the MMO genre which mostly requires your time.

Dota 2 is definitely something that will force you to honestly look at yourself and your capabilities. I have the perfect example!

Let me share a story with you… ready?

I was in a match playing Visage this is a hero which requires the player to control up to three other summoned units in addition to himself, other active skills, as well as any items with active abilities. The additional units Visage controls also have active abilities in order for them to do damage or stun. This juggling act required that I had to be on my A-game, and I knew it. Controlling your hero’s position, timing your attacks with your teammates, using items at the appropriate time, while watching the mini map to make sure you’re not about to get ganked, etc is hard enough. But playing Visage under these circumstances can be a hectic experience. I even thought my history of playing RTS games would help with that some but, not so much.

It was a non-stop match for me, if I wasn’t busy trying to control my units I was trying not to die/kill the other team. There were a few times that I was mixed up and thought, “Why isn’t my guy moving?” or “Oh crap, they are attacking my hero and I’m controlling my units not my hero!” but, overall I was successful and my team was victorious.

After that match I knew I could handle the hero but I wouldn’t want to do it again. Having the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily make it fun. I’m more inclined to play a hero that doesn’t rely on other units to be effective or make a contribution to the team. This made clear that as a player I don’t really appreciate having more units to control/the game is complex enough that I don’t need to ramp up the difficulty for not much in return. After realizing that about myself I steered clear of Visage and stayed with the heroes that were more my style.

My main hero is Sven – he’s a beast that can do a LOT of damage and is a pretty straight forward hero. “Get in there and smash people’s faces”, is the name of his game.Sven!! I’ve also got to the point where I want to experiment with different builds (skill order and item use). Sven is a strength hero that is normally played one way – MOAR DAMAGE!! Looking at some really old Reddit posts has lead to me to the realization that Sven used to be played as a support hero and not a tank. I’ve attempted to try a support Sven once and it didn’t work out to well. I have to admit that my decision was on the fly and I didn’t give the proper preparation or forethought before the match began. I’d like to try it out again but, I’ll probably try it against some bots instead of impairing my team.

Even though the hero is played one way by everyone doesn’t mean he can’t be played a different way and still be viable and effective. It is fun to try and tinker a hero (PUNNY!) to see what they can do and what items can change the way they play. Matching these variables up with a five man team doing the same thing yields a very, very complex interaction.
This complexity can get someone so obsessed with all of the different options, builds, timings, etc. that it can take over their “free thought” time. I felt like this a little bit during the height of my playing. I was playing every night with friends, multiple games in a row, and I would think about it throughout the day while looking towards that night’s game.

Then again, there are people who love to play the game to play the game – they just don’t worry about any of the details and enjoy a fun time with their friends. Personally, I don’t take loses to heart at all – I say, “Oh well” and try to determine where things went wrong or what I did/didn’t do to help my team and learn from it for next time.

The two best ways I improved my play in Dota 2 are – replays and spectating. Replays of your matches allow you to relive what just happened in your game and pause it at any point or even repeat a battle over and over again. This really allows you to pick apart an engagement or determine why a Laguna blade from Lina at Faceless Void just might not be the best idea.

Spectating was key for developing a foundation for any hero I wanted to play. I was able to watch a player who had experience play that hero and watch how they used their abilities, the timing of their attacks, or even, “So, that’s how I missed that gank”. The signs and little queues are what can make the difference in a game where one mistake or taking the advantage of one can turn the tide of a battle.

Coming back to the game has also changed my perspective. Instead of working on the basic mechanics of the game I am giving more thought to parts of the game at the higher level. I would tell you more but, that will have to wait for another post – this one has already become a little long in the tooth.

Hit me up if you’re interested in playing!

(My Dotabuff profile for anyone who may be interested: Semaji Thunder)

Nick’s 2014 Game of the Year: Hearthstone colon something about WOW

I am initiating this post in the heat of the moment. Yes. Fury percolates my blood right now. My eyes are twitching just as feverishly as my hands. I am yammering out loud.

I am am am am am am in a state of extreme agitation because I just lost four matches in a row in Hearthstone. Which is, in all honesty, nothing new. Losing streaks happen. But these were sloppy losses, achieved by playing stupidly. Each of the matches at one point were tilted ever so slightly in my favor. But then one critical misplay on my part ultimately led to an embarrassing, enraging demise. I should have walked away after the third loss, but I was stubborn and went back for one more match. After that defeat I was furious; I backhanded my can of Diet Coke from off the desk and sent it flying into the next room. This string of losses seems to sting more than the others.


And so, in this state of mind – this state of what I shall call ‘rabid lucidity’ – I am hereby declaring Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft to be my 2014 Game of the Year. Because I can! Because not doing so would be exactly what this stupid game would want! I have the upperhand, fool! Indeed. The fire which doth burn before mine eyes brings forth a clarity of understanding, a recognition of why this game stands apart from all the others I have played this year.

I still hate Hearthstone so much right now…

But there are times when I feel contrary to this, times when I hoot & holler with surprise & delight. There was that one time when, as a Shaman, I danced around two opposing legendaries for three turns, slipped through the cracks with a Spellbreaker and pulled off a miraculous, windfuried victory. I was so giddy I had to go for a walk, grinning from ear to ear the entire time, chuckling to myself, delighted at the flood of endorphins that unleashed as I watched the Paladin’s portrait explode. And hopefully that haughty Paladin had to go walk off the percolating fury in his blood after that loss, just as I may or may not have had to do an undisclosed number of times.

Indeed, no other game this year had me groveling and soaring as much as Hearthstone. It’s like being in a high school relationship all over again. Sometimes I swear that we are meant to be together forever; Other times, out of spite, I don’t even answer the phone. I have torn down Hearthstone desktop wallpapers so fast it would make your head spin.

Hearthstone has exclusively solicited other kinds of behaviors, which is the main criteria that I am using to declare this as my GOTY. (I’ve calmed down now, BTW.)

No other game had me talking out loud while playing. While Hearthstone certainly can churn emotions, its simplicity as a CCG and its unrepentant RNG-mongering keeps me on my toes. And the best way to keep from slipping into analysis paralysis each 90-second turn is to converse to myself about strategies and risk assessment. The extra step of vocalizing keeps me focused. Even if I’m tapping away on the iPad while laying in bed, and even after the elbow jabs from my wife.

I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.

I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.

No other game was as methodically played. Meaning, this goes beyond ingame activity. I make sure munchies are within reach. I have tunes in queue to match my mood and at the ready to be changed on a whim. Music level and game sounds level need to be perfectly mixed and are futzed with constantly. My head needs to be covered, preferably with a drawn hoodie. I need a ‘nerves toy’ to fidget with while I wait for my turn – a deck of cards to endlessly shuffle or one of my kids’ slap bracelets.

No other game has as many logged hours this year as Hearthstone. Granted, I don’t know for sure exactly how many but I am guessing it to be somewhere in the range of one and infinity. And because the game is available on iOS it’s easy to sneak away with the iPad at a family holiday function and play a match or two. Either on iOS or Windows, I rarely have matches go longer than 10 minutes. There’s always gold to be earned, booster packs to buy. Sometimes I don’t feel like building and experimenting with a deck. Sometimes I don’t feel like playing Hearthstone at all. Contrary to a grand strategy campaign or story-heavy games, you can walk away from Hearthstone for a week or more and then be able to pick right back up – there’s always other players in queue. This is one of the reasons I enjoy staying within range 22-15 of ranked play; the opposing decks are never the same, always a mishmashing hodge podge. It’s fun playing below the meta threshold. Always fun enough to keep me coming back sometimes after sometimes.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

And finally, no other game was quoted so often by my family. There was a short while during the end of last summer where this was a thing. It was memorable and fun. In Hearthstone, soundbytes accompany every card placement and movement. If the card is a minion the soundbyte is some form of vocalization. And if something involves vocalization my kids are all over it. This mimicry was mindfully executed. Say, if I was arriving home after being gone all day Mitchell would shriek “Gimmie a big hug!” ala Leper Gnome. “Follow de rules” ala Aldor Peacekeeper was a parental favorite, though it didn’t always work – in fact, it rarely worked, but it was certainly fun to hope.

Hearthstone was, and continues to be, a game that always seems to be so near, even if I am on a self-imposed ‘break’ from it. Despite its simplicity as a CCG, Hearthstone still feels like a complete package. Its snappy response and interactive board are just as critical to its success as the swift match-ups and evolving playing field. The game is constructed in a way that the player still has room to ease into the hot seat; thus, cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship. This post would not exist otherwise.

And so, here’s to another year of facepalms and jubilee, backhanded Diet Coke cans and awkwardly-quoted Paladin cards. “Boys! Look who it ’tis!” Indeed, dear Innkeeper. Glad to be back.