Looney Labs Icehouse Mailing list Archive

Re: [Icehouse] Winter 2008 IGDC feedback

  • From"Jorge Arroyo" <trozo@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • DateThu, 20 Mar 2008 14:38:18 +0100

  I'm glad you liked Virus Fight. It was indeed inspired by Core Wars, and being a hobbyist programmer myself, it's a theme I really enjoy. I'd really appreciate it if you'd post your comments to the wiki and bgg page. Thanks for the feeback.

  This post reminds me that I have to put my thoughts about the games I played in written form. Next time, I'll be writing those right after playing the games, because after the results come out it's more difficult to remember exactly what my thoughts were... still. I hope to do it sooner than later....




On 3/20/08, Doug Orleans <dougorleans@xxxxxxxxx> wrote:
Okay, I finally got around to writing up my thoughts about the games
in the most recent IGDC.  I posted the write-up to Jason McIntosh's
Gameshelf weblog (along with some general information about the
competition, since the audience is presumably not familiar with
Icehouse or this community), but I'm copying it here to better
facilitate discussion.


One of the main goals of the competition was to encourage people to
give feedback to game designers about their games. To that end, I am
going to post my thoughts here about the games in the Winter 2008
competition. I did manage to play all 8 games, but most of them only
once, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. I'll discuss them in
the same order I ranked them on my ballot, from best to worst, along
with my ratings on the Boardgamegeek.com 10-point scale [1] (10 being
"outstanding", 1 being "clearly broken").

Virus Fight - 8. The old programming game Core War [2] involves
writing computer programs that run in a shared memory space and attack
each other by overwriting each other's code. Translating this idea to
a turn-based strategy board game turns out to work surprisingly well!
Each pyramid represents an instruction based on its color: yellow is
"move", green is "write", blue is "jump", and red is "erase". Each
player has a program counter, a small pyramid that moves around the
board executing instructions one at a time. Unlike Core War, which is
completely deterministic after the initial selection of programs, in
Virus Fight the players have choices of how to execute the current
instruction; for example, a "write" instruction lets the current
player place any spare instruction onto any empty square. A player can
also choose where to move his program counter after executing an
instruction, using the two-dimensional nature of the board instead of
the linear memory model of Core War. Despite these differences, much
of the spirit of Core War is still here: players' programs start out
in separate regions of the board, but can move and expand and merge
with each other, allowing players to invade each other by moving their
program counters into each other's programs, and the "erase"
instruction allows players to remove certain instructions from the
board, reducing the other players' options. The goal is to force all
your opponents' programs to die by having nowhere to move their
program counters.

Aside from the initial simultaneous selection of programs, there is no
element of chance in Virus Fight, and when played as a two-player game
(which I think is the best way to play, in order to avoid the
negotiation and king-making that can occur in multi-player games with
no chance) this is a pure abstract strategy game akin to chess or
go. I can appreciate most pure strategy games for their elegant
mechanics, but in general I don't actually enjoy playing them---I
don't have the patience to mentally search the game tree looking for
the optimal move. For some reason, though, I really enjoy playing
Virus Fight. Maybe it's because it's quite difficult to look more than
a couple moves ahead, due to the way the turn order can change based
on the relative sizes of the pyramids currently under the program
counters, so you have to just play by intuition most of the time. Or
maybe it's just that, as a programmer by vocation and avocation, the
theme is a natural fit for me. In any case, the game works well, both
as a well-balanced strategy game and in capturing the essence of Core
War, and for me it was clearly the best game of the
competition. Sadly, it did not fare well in the voting, perhaps due to
its somewhat intimidatingly complex rules (which are nonetheless quite
elegant, in my opinion). But if you like pure abstract strategy games,
or programming, give it a try.

WreckTangle - 5. It's very difficult to design a simple abstract board
game that has an element of chance without the chance element
overwhelming the strategy. Backgammon is the canonical example of this
kind of game, and I think it succeeds in part because the chance
element only serves to randomly restrict your options at the beginning
of your turn rather than to randomly determine if you succeed or fail
after performing some game action (like in most wargames). (This
distinction is sometimes referred to as "situational luck"
vs. "resolution luck"; I can't find a citation for who came up with
these terms, but I think I first saw them in The Games Journal [3].)
WreckTangle uses the same idea: on your turn, roll the die (a
Treehouse die), then make two moves, one of which is partially
determined by the die roll; for example, "dig" lets you move a
pyramid, either yours or an opponent's, one space diagonally away from
its home row, and this can be done either before or after you move one
of your own pyramids. This system works out pretty well: you still
have a wealth of options on your turn, but sometimes you have to play
the odds and hope that the next player's roll doesn't let him ruin
you. This sort of blurs the distinction between the two kinds of luck,
however, since these situations can feel more like you're randomly
succeeding or failing, especially because, unlike in backgammon, your
captured pieces are permanently removed from the game. And a single
capturing move (by forming a rectangle---of any size---with four of
your pyramids) can capture multiple pyramids, so this can be pretty
drastic. Still, I liked the basic idea of WreckTangle, and maybe with
some sort of tweak to reduce the potential for drastic swings of fate
this could become a solid game.

Hunt - 5. Hunt involves moving a stack of pyramids around a maze of
dangerous obstacles, trying to stay alive while positioning the
obstacles to kill your opponents' stacks. This game is in the same
general class as Wrecktangle, and most of what I wrote about that game
applies to Hunt as well---Hunt has slightly less chance of a drastic
swing of fate, because sometimes the damage to your stack can be
healed, but it also has slightly more of the feel of resolution luck:
sometimes your die roll dictates that your stack immediately take
damage because you can't make the required move. Fortunately, your
stack is immune to damage caused by obstacle pyramids of the same
color as the top pyramid in your stack; each time do you take damage,
though, you remove the top pyramid of your stack, which means you
become immune to a different set of obstacles. There are also ways in
which the order of the pyramids in your stack can change, which also
changes your immunity. This is a clever mechanism, leading to some
tactical positioning options, but you still don't have quite enough
control over the element of chance to implement any kind of long-term
(or even medium-term) strategy. The rules also seem to be a bit more
convoluted than they need to be, which is why I decided to rank this
slightly lower than WreckTangle.

Martian 12s - 5. A push-your-luck gambling game, like Blackjack with a
few twists: there are essentially three different "decks", and you can
choose which one to draw from; also, "card"-counting is not
discouraged! This game is simple and to the point, and it works
perfectly well for what it is, but it just doesn't excite me at
all. I'm not a big fan of push-your-luck games, but that isn't really
my problem with Martian 12s; it seems like there isn't much else going
on besides calculating the odds and deciding the appropriate level of
risk to take. This turned out to be the winner of the competition,
which I'm okay with---I would have preferred Virus Fight, but Martian
12s is a solid game that works as intended, and that's really the main
goal of game design, isn't it?

Timelock - 3. Here we start getting into the games that had serious
problems. Timelock is structurally quite similar to backgammon: your
dice roll determines how far you can move your pieces towards the
goal, and you can sometimes interfere with your opponent's
progress. The problem is granularity: in backgammon, rolling high
numbers is generally better, since you can make further progress
towards your goal, but sometimes you want a specific smaller number so
that you can land on a particular spot; in Timelock, however, rolling
higher numers is always better, and for the most part it's simply a
matter of who rolls the highest total over the course of the
game. There are some slightly non-linear decisions about whether to
make progress towards your goal or to block (or undo) your opponent's
progress, and some Treehouse die results are better in some situations
than others. But most of these decisions are obvious, and there's
really not enough of this non-linearity to matter, so it pretty much
boils down to a dice-rolling contest.

Timberland - 3. This hybrid of Treehouse and Volcano seemed like it
had promise, but turns out to be overwhelmingly random---even moreso
than Treehouse, which aims to be the Fluxx of Icehouse games. Volcano
is a Nim [4]-style game, where all the pieces on the board are shared
between the players and you're trying to arrange for the best captures
to be available on your turn. But when you add the randomness of
rolling two Treehouse dice on each turn, it's pretty much impossible
to arrange a configuration that will have any chance of surviving
until your turn, even in a 2-player game; it's difficult just to
minimize the next player's chances of making a capture on his turn,
even if your options weren't restricted by what you rolled. In theory,
I like the idea of adding an element of chance to Volcano, but this
isn't the way to do it.

Chicken Run - 2. This game is similar to Timelock (and backgammon),
but it has the same problem: higher rolls are always better. In fact,
you only get to move at all if you roll higher than your opponent,
which makes it boil down to a series of dice-offs, rather like
War [5]. The only interaction comes from moving neutral pyramids to
block your opponent or unblock yourself, but they can only be moved if
both players roll the same number, which only happens one sixth of the
time on average. This means they play a very small part in the game,
and in fact the first time I played I think we only got matching rolls
once before the game was over. I won't go so far as to say this game
is broken, but it would need some significant changes before it would
really work.

Martian Gunslinger - 2. There are some interesting ideas in here, sort
of a resource management/exploration/dueling card game with an
intricate Western theme (...on Mars). The problem, once again, is the
overwhelming amount of luck, especially resolution luck: when you
"attempt a plotpoint", you draw two cards, and you succeed only if the
first is higher than the second. Also, it feels like an afterthought
that this game involves Icehouse pyramids at all: one part of the
rules suggests using them to keep score, encoding numbers based on
stacking configurations, while another part talks about using dice to
keep score. (There are pyramids on the board as well, but these could
just as easily be pawns, or painted miniatures.) The rules are also
ridiculously complicated, with each playing card representing a
different action, resource, and event, based on three lookup tables
filled with text descriptions of what they do. Even if this were a
custom deck of cards, there probably wouldn't be room on most of the
cards for the explanatory text! There might be the germs of a decent
game buried in here, but it's probably not an Icehouse game.

[1] http://www.boardgamegeek.com/wiki/page/ratings
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Core_War
[3] http://www.thegamesjournal.com/
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nim
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_%28card_game%29

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