Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!

Game design: In search of a half decent football (‘soccer’) game concept, Part 1

SubbuteoBeyond the flicking genius of Subbuteo (pictured), the collective game design minds of the world have so far failed to create a compelling football game. But it must be possible.

The reason oft trotted out is that its impossible to emulate the excitement and energy of a team sport in which so much individual flair and energy is played out; while retaining the higher level of strategic thought that pre-match planning and management bring to each match.

But computer games have got around both of these issues, making either football management sims or fast-paced action games such as FIFA. But we have nothing of either that have made a splash in the board and card game arena. And what about skirmish board games and battle card games? How are they not emulating an exciting tactical situation with an underlying strategic edge?

Then there are commercial concerns. Hobby gamers have for years been earmarked as nerds and geeks only interested in basement games of fantasy battles and space ship combat. But the hobby is throwing off those shackles at a pretty decent rate now; surely there would be a big publisher ready to take a punt on a game with such huge crossover potential into the mainstream?

Football simulation problems: The pitch

sensible soccerAny sensible (pun intended) design conversation needs to start with the ground itself.

Minds immediately turn to hexes or quadrants, with each player represented with a meeple, card, detailed plastic minis (Kickstarted, natch) etc.

And so we run into our first problem: 22 players on the pitch. Controlling 11 people seems too many – especially when you take into consideration that only two or maybe three people will ever be directly affecting play. Positioning will become way too much of the game, making this very much a manager-level sim and losing too much of that all important feeling of energy.

Designers have of course gotten around this but tend to do so in one of two ways (and often both); which I have dubbed the Nintendo and Dilithium approaches:

  • The Nintendo way: Chibify the game, set it in the ‘street’ or the jungle or a school playground, and make it five-a-side – immediately alienating the vast majority of your original target audience and losing any semblance of ‘proper’ football in the process.
  • The Dilithium way: Give them swords! Make them robots! We can set it in the future or the past to get around those awkward offside rules and allow full body contact to make it exciting!! And then add EVEN MORE EXCITEMENT!!!

Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things – it’s just not football.

In my mind, this situation harkens back to my original analogy of squad combat. That tends to have fewer than 11 pieces per side, and they can of course interact with each other far more often: that damnable ball is the problem. For me, this rules out the idea of a pitch, or board, or minis – sorry (we shall briefly pause to let the Kickstarter publishers slope out of the room).

Football simulation problems: The players vs the manager

BergkampThe real joy of football – as with many team sports – is that while both teams head out onto the pitch with a plan, set out by the manager and coaches, this needs to be executed by human beings: and with another bunch of human being trying to stop them.

Football is a chaotic sporting mash up of strategy and tactics defined by flawed individuals: and fans have an opinion on every single one of them. Players have strengths and weaknesses, both physical and mental, which are the absolute essence of the game. You can’t have a ‘proper’ football game without them.

It’s not easy to create a game system where 22 individuals will be different enough on paper to have a significantly varied effect on the outcome of the game. Where do you draw the line with stats? You can have attack, defence, midfield, goalkeeping – but what about stamina, temperament, ‘special powers’ – free kicks, penalties, leadership, flair…?

And that’s just two teams. Any football game worth its salt will want a good 8 teams to start with – and if things went well, more like 20+. That’s more than 200 players now. And what about referees, linesmen, pitch conditions, the effect of the fans?

And of course the manager. Beyond picking the team the manager should be having an effect on the pitch – will they encourage long ball, wing play, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 – and what about substitutions, or reshaping the team after a sending off, or an injury? Oh yeah, I forgot about injuries. And can we really give up on the pitch idea completely?

Football simulation ideas (so far)

Brady top trumpA card game seems the obvious way forward. While dice feel like a good idea, the idea of random on top of random always turns me off in a game that should be at least 30 minutes long – and I feel a proper football game should go that distance or more.

To take it one more step, a collectible/living card game again seems obvious. Building a deck of 11 players chosen from a larger pool (perhaps 20 for a squad) would give the individuality required. Attack and defence stats may well be enough, with individual player ‘powers’ adding the all-important individuality.

These player cards would be bolstered with manager cards: tactics and special plays learnt on the training ground. And finally there can be situation cards, used to represent those moments you just can’t legislate for: the terrible tackle, the ‘bobble’, the amazing drive from 30 yards. And of course those contentious refereeing decisions.

I’m aware these three types of card are falling easily into stereotypes made so popular by the hugely successful Magic: The Gathering card game: the players are the ‘creatures’, manager cards the ‘enchantments’ and situation cards the ‘instants’. Frankly I’m comfortable with that, as I feel there will be divergence enough from this starting point.

The real challenge will be the elephant in the room: that bloody pitch. I’m thinking it could be represented by a single card or play matt, split into three simple areas – the two ends and midfield. A marker will show where the game is currently being played, with each turn ending with a battle for supremacy in the current area: a midfield or defensive win moves you forwards, while a win at your opponent’s end results in a chance.

But how will chances be resolved? Will there be some kind of cost to put cards out? And once out, how will they be removed from play – if at all? How about weather, or home advantage? All decision for another day.

Designer and critic: Does one have to give?

reality checkAs a journalist and all-round gobshite I’ve spent my career (and social life) ‘generously’ giving my opinion to anyone who would listen.

This is fine when you’re a third party; when I was reviewing music, for example, all I had to worry about after writing a scathing review was the occasional poorly spelt threat from the bass player. I wasn’t in a band, so reputation wasn’t an issue. If anything, writing something controversial was likely to get you noticed – often a good thing.

Of course nowadays I’m all about the board games. I’m 30+ reviews and lots of opinion pieces in; but now my first game design is out there, with hopefully more to come. So should I draw the line on reviews? Or what might I lose by carrying on?

Taking it on the chin

I was chatting with the Cardboard Console guys the other day (check them out of you like board and computer games) and they asked about reading the comments made about our game, Empire Engine, on Board Game Geek. They said, if it were them, bad reviews would make them super angry: did I read them all?

The truth is yes, I read them all – good and bad. and I watch the videos and listen to all the audio (which is tricky, as it might be a two-minute brush off in the middle of a poorly edited three-hour podcast). And do they make me mad? Nope, not at all.*

It would be contrary of me to criticise others for having an opinion when I’ve earned a living out of spouting mine; and having spent my working life in creative environments, I’m used to criticism. But any design process can be a hard, long and personal and its easy to see why some people find it hard to separate emotionally from that.

So lets say someone has a bad review and they’re pissed. Some will internalise it and have hurt feelings; but others will take that anger and run with it. This can take us back to our angry bass player, threatening scenarios you can just laugh off; but its the smart ones you have to worry about – especially when you’re starting to put some tentative paws into the very industry you’re biting the hand of.

There is no law

You’d think a well balanced review, explaining its reasoning while critiquing opposite opinions, would put you on safe ground. Don’t kid yourself. There are some vindictive, nasty bastards out there. I’ve seen people go on personal crusades to rubbish someone they’d heard criticise them, even if it was an unarguable truth.

One bad review can see you struck off the mailing list of a PR company or manufacturer. You’re then left with the dilemma of integrity versus acceptance; the right versus the easy way out. As a new member of the designers club, this comes even more into focus.

Let’s get hypothetical. I criticise Game A by Designer A, from publisher A – and both take vindictive exception. Designer A goes and gives all my games a 2 out of 10, writes bad reviews and starts to bad mouth me to his designer friends. Publisher A refuses any meetings with me to see my prototypes, while suggesting to other publishers I’m trouble. A bad rep can spread like wildfire in a small community; soon I’m pariah number one.

I’ve seen how friendly this industry is – and it genuinely is exceptional. But then I also listen when people have a few beers, and read between some of the 140 characters on Twitter. Yes it’s a nice industry, but the people in it are only human.

Right and wrong

So what of the moral side? Forget personal consequences – what’s the right thing to do? I mean, why would you want to upset someone in the first place? Especially your piers.

I’m probably not the right person to ask, as my moral compass has been called into question on occasion, but I believe if you think something sucks and people listen to you, you have a duty to say so. Alternatively, you can simply bow gracefully out of the game.

Personally I’m going to stick to writing nice reviews here, while writing pithy 20-word criticisms on BGG when something gets my goat. As I do about one review per month and haven’t been sent a single freebie (bastards) its hard to write a bad review – I don’t buy games blind and if I do play a crap game I tend to play it once then run for the hills.

But if free games start turning up (please!) I’d feel duty bound to review them all – and honestly. At that point, I’d have to think again; do I really want to be that guy?

* OK, maybe they do a bit; but ironically it’s only really the rating number that annoys me, not the words: every 3 or 4 rating brings the average down significantly right now and is hindering the game rising up the rankings. So stop it. Please 🙂

MMORPGs: A biased history part 2, 2004-2013

If the clue wasn’t in the title, this article is the continuation from MMORPGs Part 1, which spanned the early years of the genre (1996 to 2003). Here I bring it home to where I pretty much dropped out of the hobby; real life commitments meant I didn’t feel I had enough spare time to be a useful member of an online community and without really being involved an MMO soon loses its lustre.

Do I miss it? I sometimes harken back to the good ol’ days when spending 36 hours of the weekend in my room really wasn’t an issue. But now I’m much more likely to be able to spend the odd hour in a game – so a solo game that comes with a deep story is far more appealing. So for now I’m going to stick with the mm-memories.

2004: Ryzom

RyzomMuch like Horizons before it, there was something about Ryzom that made it stand out from the crowd; and once again its uniqueness came from an evolving and dangerous environment that encouraged players to work together.

Another advantage was the lengths they’d gone to in creating a unique world; races weren’t your typical orcs and elves and there were no level one badgers to get bored killing. Instead it was a sci-fi landscape that really fired the imagination and better still, like Anarchy Online, it felt dangerous.

I remember an early experience in which I wanted to move from one area to another but it was too dangerous for us low level characters to go on our own. Instead we had to wait for a group of high levels to escort us across, protecting us (and some died trying) all the way. That’s a lot more special than walking through some ‘magic’ portal.

And you could just watch the world going on. Predatory creatures would stalk the edge of herds and kill weaker creatures while you watched, like some nature documentary. It was hugely ambitious and had me in awe – right up until I realised that the actual things to do weren’t really that interesting.

The world of Ryzom is still happily spinning today and it very much plays on its role-play and sandbox credentials to do so. It has regular interactive events with live NPCs, as well as an animation team in place to actively encourage people to create and write their own events. If my life hadn’t moved in a different direction, this would definitely be high on my list of MMOs to revisit.

  • Tried: City of Heroes (2004)
    As was so often the case in my MMO history, my path to Ryzom was a solo one as my friends opted for the villain-punching antics of City of Heroes. At launch it ‘featured’ empty streets, uninspired content and very little to hold the attention for non-comic fans, so I got out fast. Closed in 2012, but may return
  • Tried: Everquest 2 (2004)
    After missing out on the original Everquest experience, I did try EQ2 when it came along – but it didn’t live up to the hype. Original EQ fans were disappointed that the hardcore follow-up they’d hoped for was more of a linear, hand-holding WoW clone (see below). It was OK, just not what many fans wanted. Still going and free to try.

2004: World of Warcraft

World of WarcraftWhether you love or hate the cartoon graphic style, and despite its shonky launch, World of Warcraft easily holds the record for most MMO subscribers with over 10 million (Nov 2014).

And despite its detractors its easy to see why. Once Blizzard got its house in order the game was every bit as polished and smooth as you’d expect from a ‘Craft’ game. It was mostly linear, sadly repetitive and had boring/pointless crafting, but when it was this pretty, accessible and well written it was east to forgive it.

What World of Warcraft did so well was streamlining. It kept many of the fun bits of an MMO – the fighting, levelling and grouping – and stripped most else away. And once running smoothly it introduced fun PvP zones and endgame dungeons that required big groups to complete – just what most people wanted at the time.

I had a lot of fun with it initially and I’m certainly not a detractor – I hate people who get bored of something and then feel the need to go back and trash it. Personally, it simply became a drudge; when the thought of getting to the next level no longer excited me, I knew it was time to move on. This happened when they released the first expansion; I bought it, gave it a go, but the thought of doing another section for another pre-set 10 levels had lost its appeal; I was done.

  • Tried: Guild Wars (2005)
    Guild Wars took a very different approach to traditional MMOs, centring the action around small group ‘instances’ where you could group up with friends (or strangers) for short, violent little quests. While it was polished and very successful, and still going strong today, it didn’t suit my play style at all.
  • Passed: D&D Online (2006)
    This licence seemed perfect for an MMO and on first glance it looked great; but unfortunately it proved to be just another rush job with linear progression, a lack of content and no real staying power for most players. I don’t know anyone who stuck with it beyond a few weeks, but it still seems to be going.

2007: Lord of the Rings Online

lotroAfter several years of playing WoW it was going to take something special to challenge it; and that something turned out to be Tolkien.

It looked beautiful and promised a campaign running alongside the Fellowship’s journey, taking you to all those places in the books you’d always wanted to experience. Sold.

And for a long time it did exactly what it said on the tin. New areas opened up as you levelled up, revealing more beautifully rendered parts of Tolkien’s world – the elven lands being particularly stunning. And in each area your quests led you on a parallel path to the fellowship, meeting characters and doing quests that would clear a path for them, sort out problems etc. It was awesome.

Right up until it wasn’t. I really should’ve seen it coming, as exactly the same thing happened as it had with WoW. The first expansion came along, I started doing the next lot of ‘kill 10 orcs’ quests and lost the will to live: another expansion purchase wasted.

They have to keep creating content to keep the levelling brigade happy, but its just smoke and mirrors to cover the fact the true nature of these MMOs is the grind, not community – not building something together, as you did in Ryzom and Istaria. Here the challenge didn’t change – the colour scheme and numbers did, but little else.

I’m a lifetime member of the game, so may go back one day – it would be worth it to relive the storyline once more. And if you love Tolkien and computer games, you can play the game for free now – you’d be mad not to give it a go.

  • Passed: Age of Conan (2008)
    This had some neat ideas, with day and night essentially being different worlds and with an interesting combat system in place that felt epic, with you fighting several enemies at once on a regular basis. Unfortunately it was terrible at launch, being very light on content, and few stood by it. Now free.
  • Passed: Warhammer Online (2008)
    As it had to be with this licence, Warhammer was all about the PvP – which meant it held very little interest for me. It was never going to drag me away from LotRO, and the early reviews didn’t help its cause. It died a death in 2013.
  • Tried: Star Trek Online (2010)
    Another day, another woefully wasted licence. At launch it was almost unplayable, which saw me logging off in frustration after a few minutes each time I tried it. I’m not a fan of the show, but its such a good setting for a game – and it tried to do things differently, giving you NPC away teams to join you when solo. Free to play.
  • Tried: Star Wars – The Old Republic (2011)
    See if you recognise this story: great licence, rushed and almost unplayable game at launch. Yup, its probably the best summation of the MMO genre’s history. This again looked great in screenshots, again promised an interesting new take on combat, and again failed to deliver at launch. And again, it’s now free to play.
  • Tried: Rift (2011)
    With WoW and LotRO both having ended the same way, I was highly dubious about Rift. All it proved to be was somewhere for people bored of earlier MMOs to moved to, offering scant real difference beyond the ‘rifts’ themselves; pop up battle areas you could help defeat. Free trial and done for me – but it’s still going.

2012: The Secret World

The Secret World combatI wrote about my experiences with The Secret World at length already. After three months I still felt thoroughly immersed – but the astute amongst you will note I didn’t go no to write a ‘six months in’ follow up post.

As I’d feared character progression quickly ground to a halt and the second huge area, while challenging, really lacked the personality of the first. I saw little to no improvement in cabals and crafting, while the number of interesting quests (gaining knowledge, sneaking etc) seemed to really dry up.

What I was left with was a game which I wanted to explore the storyline of, and which has some interesting features, but that seemed wasted on an MMO. Everything interesting seemed solo, and having other players around didn’t seem to add to proceedings at all. One day I woke up and realised I hadn’t played it for two weeks, and didn’t care. So that was the end of that.

  • Passed: Guild Wars 2 (2012)
    Again, I passed over the second Guild Wars game as the play style didn’t suit mine and the crafting looks weak, but the more I hear about it the more I’d like to give it a go. The game seems to have done a lot to rid players of the tired MMO mechanisms that were really brought to their natural conclusion by World of Warcraft, with the action and storyline being closer to a solo RPG but with teaming for big battles – and apparently exploring is rewarded.

2013: Dragon’s Prophet

dragons-prophetFor a few months I found myself deeply immersed in the world of Dragon’s Prophet. It was new, free to play and, best of all, after about an hour you were riding around on a dragon – which would also fight for you in battles as a pet.

This was hugely entertaining for a while, especially as you can collect dragons and train them up, almost Pokemon style. They have very different characteristics to suit play style and you can switch them mid battle if you need a different ability set (perhaps extra healing, or more direct damage).

But unfortunately, once you’ve pulled this wool away from your eyes, you realise that underneath this (admittedly awesome) fluff is ‘just another MMO’ – do storyline plus UPS quests, get better items, move to next linear area, rinse and repeat. As soon as that initial shine had worn off, my interest was gone.

This is the end?

With Dragon’s Prophet long gone from my hard drive and nothing seriously tempting me to look at another game, this could well be the end of my love affair with the MMO genre. It’s been a wild ride but I just can’t help thinking that while I’ve moved on, it hasn’t.

When I think of what I want from a computer game nowadays, it isn’t the camaraderie – which should be an MMO’s biggest asset. And even if I was in the market, I think most modern games in the genre fail to deliver on the group/roleplaying experience in anything other than PvP combat.

For now I’m happy getting my social from board and card games, and my solo from computer games. But if the right game came along, all bets would be off…

MMORPGs: A biased history part 1, 1996-2003

Back in 1998 I got my first home PC – I still can’t quite believe I got through my degree on an Amiga, but there you go. Once I’d got it set up, and online, pretty much before I did anything else I got immersed in the time-sapping world of ‘massively multi-player online role playing games’, or MMORPGs (or MMOs).

I’ve had a love-love relationship with them ever since, although in recent times the thrill has gone. Few of my friends still play and where once players stuck to a game for years, now there seems to be much more transience and cynicism; it becomes hard to keep believing in another new community only to see it fade just as fast.

I may return to them (in fact I may do it this afternoon – so fickle), but for now the long affair is over – so what better to do than mull of the good times with a tear in the corner of my eye, while boring anyone in internet-shot to death?

1996 (1998 for me): The Realm

Skye, GrowL and me kickin' some ass. Such realism...

Skye, GrowL and me kickin’ some ass, January 2001. Such realism…

The first game I got into was The Realm, which was already well established by the time I arrived.

None of my friends were interested, as even back then the graphics were terrible, but I found a thriving and friendly community of players and immediately fell in love with the MMO concept.

While it didn’t look the best The Realm managed to pack in a bit of tension on occasion, while having 300 levels to grind through certainly made it a game you had to stick at; and those levels didn’t come easy either – there was none of this, “Well done, you’ve completed the tutorial and are now level 10” nonsense.

I was happy in The Realm for five years and I’m thrilled to see it’s still going strong today. Better still, it has a monthly charge of about £5. Nice to see a game from 1996 can still go with a subs model and only a one-week free trial, while every man and his dog is being forced to go free with in-game micro payments. I really should give the free trial a go…

  • Passed: Meridian 59 (1996)
    As the first real MMO it was very tempting to give this a go instead of The Realm, but it was very much combat oriented – especially PvP, which wasn’t really what I was looking for. The game did die, but it’s back and free to play.
  • Passed: Ultima Online (1997)
    This was the first properly massive multiplayer online game, being the first to reach 100,000 subscribers. I also shied away from UO because of the game’s strong focus on PvP, but it is still going strong today.
  • Tried: Everquest (1999) Unfortunately I was a year into The Realm when EQ came along and was still loving it. EQ’s bog standard fantasy setting and graphics didn’t inspire me enough to move; but I kind of wish it had, as friends had such a great time with it. I did take a look at it later, when I was losing faith with the AO beta (see below), but by then the graphics had gone from uninspiring to laughable and the end game content had become all about raiding (which didn’t interest me).
  • Tried: RuneScape (2001)
    This was a breath of fresh air when it arrived: free to play, browser based and with lots of content. But the first two plus points seemed to attract every 12-year-old numpty on the planet and a short trial ended in frustration. But guess what – it’s still doing really well, with a HTML 5 version released in 2013, and is still free to play.

2001: Anarchy Online

Posing outside Wine, late 2001. I swear that armour was cool back then...

Posing outside Wine, late 2001. I swear that armour was cool back then…

Having turned down many a graphically superior game already, it took the promise of a beautiful and original sci-fi world to finally lure me away.

I got into the late beta testing of Anarchy Online (AO) and, despite the bugs, totally fell in love with the world they’d created.

And ‘bugs’ is really an understatement – the game could barely stand on its own two feet at launch, but many of us saw enough potential to stick around; and if anything this helped us bond as a community. We rather ridiculously wore that ‘we suffered through the pain’ badge with pride, but looking back now I’m glad I did.

Even today (AO is very much alive), while the graphics are clearly dated, the unique world, creatures and mix of ranged and melee, sci-fi and fantasy, still hold it up as an exemplar of what is achievable with the right imagination. Not an elf in sight. I spent a couple of very happy years with AO (you can get a feel for what playing it is like with an old diary of mine here) and it is my second most played MMO (in hours spent). I still revisit on occasion and am still amazed at the awesome complexity of character development.

Unfortunately while the game started out as a fascinating blend of exploration, storytelling, crafting and combat the most vocal part of the community – as always – was the PvP one. Crafting went almost totally by the wayside despite having an amazing system in place, while expansions focused on guild battles and grouping for battles. All I was really left with was a level grind, so I started to look elsewhere.

  • Tried: Dark Age of Camelot (2001)
    Another game that friends went to and that I had a very short dabble with. Again the focus was on PvP which immediately put me off, but worse was the incredible lack of scope; every time I tried to explore I ran into an invisible wall – utterly frustrating compared to the wide open spaces of AO. As for the generic fantasy world…

2002: Asheron’s Call 2

AC2 lugian

Couldn’t find a mudball screenshot 😦

Some friends in other MMOs had joined the beta of Asheron’s Call 2 and once it went live encouraged me to join them. As I was in an AO rut I decided to check it out.

What I found was a slightly less generic fantasy settings: I got to be a ‘Lugian Raider’, which was a big grey thing that chucked massive balls of mud at people…

But the graphics were nice enough, the gameplay pretty smooth and overall I quite got into it – until my friends left for pastures new shortly afterwards as its lack of deeper content became apparent.

And the game certainly had its problems behind the scenes, with talk of its failure seemingly hanging over it from the beginning. Publishing wrangles between Turbine, Microsoft and Sony were pretty ominous from the start, with US and EU servers being run by different companies – rarely a recipe for happy endings.

It also didn’t help that Asheron’s Call 2 came out while a lot of big name games were in production and getting a lot of buzz, which encouraged many to stay where they were until some of the expected big guns hit the market (see below). It was a time of very stiff competition and AC2 simply didn’t have enough to stand out from the crowd.

The game finally died in 2005 but – you guessed it – is coming back again, along with its predecessor. there will be a one-time fee, after which it’ll be free to play – but you’re going to have to set up the servers yourselves as Turbine will no longer be supporting the games directly. It is hoped this will be up and running in 2015 and if someone gets it stable, it will be pretty tempting to give my mud-slinging arm another work out.

  • Tried: Eve Online (2003)
    There’s no doubt what an amazing achievement EVE Online is, making a truly epic space combat and trading game really come to life, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually any fun for the casual player. This game works best with dedication and skill, but more importantly when you’re putting everything you’ve worked for on the line in ‘winner takes all’ space battles. As a crafter, it was totally not for me!
  • Tried: Star Wars Galaxies (2003)
    I remember the first time I saw screen shots of SWG – it was Star Wars and I couldn’t wait. Even some friend who hadn’t played MMOs before committed to it so I had to give it a go. Unfortunately Sony completely dropped the ball with it – and just when it looked like they’d picked it up, they kicked it over the fence of that neighbour with the rabid dog wandering the garden. It’s hard to believe how much this stank on release, but even harder to understand the choices they made later in completely overhauling it just when they were getting it playable and on-track – it was is if they were trying to get it canned. It was put out of its misery in 2011.

2003: Horizons (now Istaria)

Me, working on my Istaria plot as recently as January 2012

Working on my Istaria plot, January 2012

Despite some stiff competition, I’ve ploughed more hours into the world of Istaria than any other – and I wouldn’t rule out returning either. It was buggy as hell on launch (a common MMO story), and its history was fraught with disaster, but it had the same key ingredient that had hooked me with Anarchy Online: originality.

But this time, not the setting: it is bog standard fantasy world with just a few different races added to the mix. You could be a dwarf or an elf – or a lizard or a cat – but most importantly for many people you could be a dragon. Better still for me, things you did to the landscape actually changed the game. Yeah, Minecraft didn’t invent that concept (and has worse graphics).

You could get together as a community and rebuild a bridge – which would then open up a whole new island for everyone. Or buy a plot of land near a forest and build a saw mill on it, so people could bring local logs to your workshop and craft them into items.

Well, you can now – and that was the theory in the beginning. Unfortunately at launch half the features didn’t work: a group of us spent weeks building a communal building, only to finish it and wait for it to appear – and nothing happening. At that point all of my friends quit – except me. Who can blame them?

I’m glad I stuck with it though, as no other game I’ve played has created such an amazing spirit directly through its own game systems, rather than relying on the players to use their imaginations. In the end the only thing that stopped me playing were protracted takeover wrangles. Servers merged, ownership changed and it looked inevitable it would fold. I got out before having that awful experience of trying to login one day to a blank screen.

But somehow it’s still alive. I did go back and had another couple of happy years progressing my old character again. I’d still be there today, but in the end the high level grind was just too boring and the guild I was in imploded. If I could play a day or two per month for free, or pay per hour, I’d have kept it going – but for the amount I wanted to play I couldn’t justify the cost. Bring on that lottery win!

  • Tried: A tale in the Desert (2003)
    A fully crafting oriented MMO set in ancient Egypt you say? I’m in! Unfortunately it was very basic graphically and simply wasn’t fun enough to stick with. Just crafting is fine, but just grind? That’s too hardcore for me. It does also have a government system, which appeals to many but didn’t do it for me. The current version of the game is A Tale in the Desert 3 – well worth checking out if you like your games without the bloodshed (and don’t need tip-top graphics).
  • Tried: Entropia (2003)
    Now retitled Entropia Universe, this is another game I might revisit if I won the lottery. Entropia stood out because it was pretty much pay to play via in-game purchases rather than monthly fees – common now, but deemed a rip off by most back then. You could eke out a free existence and hope to get a lucky kill (critters all gave a random value of in-game currency, so a lucky hit could give you a massive payout – which could then be ‘cashed out’ for real money). I got bored of the grind pretty quickly, but it looks very good now. Bring on retirement!

2004-2013: In part 2

The things I’ve taken from those early years in MMOs are the friendships I made and communities I was part of. I’ve made real-life friends from those days, some I’ve met in person (hello Ireland, hello Sweden!) as well as others I’m still in contact with on Facebook (hello Scotland, hello America!) who I’m sure I’ll meet up with sooner or later. I’ve made more long-lasting friends from MMOs than I did in three years living in Nottingham…

In part 2 I’ll move onto 2004, which saw the introduction of of a somewhat popular title named World of Warcraft, and later Lord of the Rings Online, amongst others.

Read more: MMORPGs: A biased history part 2, 2004-2013

Divinity: Original Sin – Brief review and essential basic tips

Divinity Original Sin boxDivinity: Original Sin is an unapologetically old school RPG. It has an isometric view (you can flip to top down), bog standard fantasy setting, turn-based combat and perfectly reasonable graphics and dialogue. So what’s all the fuss about?

For fans of the genre, pickings have been slim for a few decades. Since the boon of Baldur’s Gate et al, the high points have been the solid King’s Bounty series and the low budget (but great) Spiderweb Software games (Avadon and Avernum).

The good news is Divinity: Original Sin has, for me, set a new high water mark for the genre. While much of the game simply ticks the right boxes, the combat ticks them particularly well. And in addition there’s very little hand-holding (death comes easy early on), plus a solid crafting system that’s fun to explore but non essential.

Combat 101: Be challenging and rewarding

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But even in the classic games mentioned above the combat was rarely satisfying. Sure, the big boss fights would offer a challenge and a rare chance to use all those things you’d been saving for a rainy day (healing potions, spell scrolls etc). But beyond that most fights were mere organs to make you feel uber.

Early on in Divinity, every battle feels like a challenge. This is because there’s an underlying difference to the norm that you need to properly learn before you can really succeed: namely that the elements matter – and I mean really matter. A pool of oil or poison on the floor can become a wall of fiery death; an innocent looking puddle becomes an icy sheet for your enemies to slip over on.

This of course makes party (and spell/ability) selection crucial. Its arguable that magicians are pretty much required in the game, but it’s not completely true; there are plenty of crates of ooze to shoot with your fiery arrows, for example. You tend to get a hint of the battles around the corner by the carelessly forgotten and handily placed barrels you find.

The important thing is creatures your level will comfortably dispatch you if you screw up – and they have the same spells and abilities you do. If you don’t shoot that pool of oil when they’re standing in it, you can bet they will when you stand in it later. And those bosses? If you don’t dispatch them fast they’ll be resurrecting their buddies you just struggled to kill.

Of course, once you get the hang of things, battles do start to get easier. However they still feel more satisfying than combat in Divinity’s forerunners. I think this is mainly because you keep finding new and entertaining ways to dispatch things. What will happen if I use telekinesis to drop that exploding skeleton into that burning oil pool next to that archer…?

Divinity 2

Hints and tips: Save battles until you have a full party

You start the game with two characters, but can increase this to four early in the game. There are a couple of (fairly annoying) NPCs in the first town you come to, but soon after this you’ll meet a guy who will let you hire two extra characters from a long list of options.

My suggestion is to follow the main central quest in the town (trying to find a killer) until you get to hire these NPCs. Avoid all the combat you can to that point, then go back and do everything with your full party of four (this includes the tutorial dungeon you come across very early in the game). This will keep your party as close to the same level as possible.

The game’s pacing is odd. You start with a few little battles then come to a town where you can literally spend 10 hours before you need to have another fight. Do so, soaking up all the info and quests, getting those extra NPCs, then doing the little dungeon on the first beach (plus the one under the graveyard in town – dig up the ‘big’ earth mound to find it).

Exploring will also get you XP; you’ll want to try and get your full party of four to level three (or close) before you start to head out of town again.

Classes, abilities and skills

Most non-combat skills you only need to raise on one character (good examples are leadership, bartering and blacksmithing). Crafting is very much optional, and while lore is hugely useful it is not necessary to put a single point into it: several town NPCs can identify items for you, while plenty of items you’ll find have the skill on them as a bonus.

You’ll definitely want to cover the four main element magics (Aerothurge, Geomancer, Pyrokinetic and Hydrosophist) and level them up as fast as you can. The general consensus seems to be to make two mages with two of these each, which has worked for me. This also leaves your other two characters to be whatever you like.

That said, make sure you have some healing capabilities. This is wonderfully flexible though, as warriors have a solid heal (via the important Man-at-Arms skill) and any character putting some points into hydro can also get heals. The game is wonderfully open ended in this way, letting you create your characters down whichever paths you choose.

In terms of non-magic combat, train one melee skill maximum per character. You may want to boost armour skills for tanks and train someone in bows, but it’s down to your style – I’ve found neither to be necessary.

Last but definitely not least is telekinesis. This is found on a lot of items and is definitely worth investing in – perhaps mainly on one character (to move heavier stuff) but its good to have a few people who can use it. It has uses both in and out of combat, helping you snag difficult to reach items and move people (friend and ally) to where you want them.


Make sure one character concentrates on Perception (both in skill points and items found); they’ll find all sorts of interesting things; most importantly traps but also treasures.

Speed is worth investing in across the board; this is turn-based combat and speed gives you action, movement and initiative points. Constitution is also handy as it raises health and vitality. But in the main, boost your character’s main combat skill (intelligence for mages, strength for warriors etc).

Talents and traits

If you’re a dedicated min/maxer you can probably find guides to tell you what to take. If you’re a normal person, take what suits your characters – this is an RPG after all!

I’ll make one exception here – and that’s to make sure one character starts with Pet Pal (or gets it early). This lets you talk to animals – great for three reasons: 1) It opens up some quests you wouldn’t get otherwise; 2) some animals, especially rats, can be very informative; and 3) the ones that aren’t informative are usually funny.


Every minute I spend whiffling here is one I’m not playing the game, so I’m going to shut up. Hopefully this will give you a good head start in the game – I’ve only pointed out things I learnt before I respecced and restarted, so if that can save someone having to do the same then it was worth it.

To sum up, anyone who likes RPGs with turn-based combat should buy this game right now – you won’t regret it. Fans of other RPGs will probably get a kick out if it, but don’t expect anything amazing in the graphics/storyline department – in those terms Divinity is solidly ‘good’, but by no means a classic.

Divinity 1

Hearthstone: The five most needed emotes

Hearthstone-logoI guess it was only a matter of time. Blizzard, the company made famous by its dumbed down (but beautifully polished) multi-billion selling MMO World of Warcraft, has turned the greedy sites of its ‘lowest common denominator’ team to online collectable card games (or CCGs).

The game itself, Hearthstone, has only just hit the market and many of the proposed features aren’t in-game yet, so it’s impossible to judge how good it’s really going to be (I’m hoping awesome). For now it is a predictably basic sub-Magic new-user friendly game, with much of the depth of a children’s paddling pool, but as it’s free (with easy to avoid micro payments) I’ll certainly be sticking around to see what comes next.

One of the big areas it’s lacking right now is in-game communication. You can add ‘friends’, and then chat to them, but when you’re actually in a card duel you’re limited to a six (yup, six) programmed chat commands: hello, well played, oops etc. I can only presume they’ve done this to stop abuse during matches but it’s SO LAME. It makes it feel like you’re playing a Disney game or something.

Anyway, to try and alleviate this awful state of affairs, I’ve done Blizzard’s work for them and come up with five new emotes they can add for each character. Got better ones? Add them in comments below and I’ll promise to lose my next match against whoever comes up with the best one…

The five most needed taunts

1. Yawn: So many slow players, so many boring decks, so many idiots who think they can wind you up by deliberately playing slowly (dude, I’m working on my other screen – it’s really not an issue).

2. Haha you paid: They have fancy card backs, gold shiny animated cards and their poop smells of roses. They have a Blizzard Platinum Card from their mommy and, worst of all, they’re going to win. At least let me ‘haha’ them.

3. Bum draw: It’s in the nature of a CCG game this simple; or really any CCG. You know it, they (probably) know it; you’d have kicked their ass if you’d not dumped three 5-cost cards and been given two 4s and a 7 in the initial draw.

4. Fluke! You bastard; I’ve been handing you your ass all game and you were totally screwed unless you drew that ONE damned card. You know it, I know it, we all bloody know it. Aaaaagh!

5. Friend chat: I mean seriously, we’ve decided to be ‘friends’; can you at least let us chat within game? Or maybe open up a bigger range of options for chat? Or at the very least have friend chat incorporated into the main screen during a dual?

Spiderweb Software reviews: Avadon vs Avernum

Avernum logoI lost my ability to play ‘twitch’ computer games shortly after Road Rash came out for the Sega Mega Drive. So for the last 100 years or so I’ve contented myself with RPGs; I can play them at my own pace, while the writing quality is usually better than your average fantasy novel.

Avadon logoIn the late 90s I mostly disappeared into the world of online MMORPGS. But because of this online addiction I never really got into the BioWare line of RPGs that started with Baldur’s Gate. I tried them, but they didn’t stick – I wanted that online community.

Now I’ve pretty much given up on MMOs, I’ve rediscovered the turn-based RPG thanks to Spiderweb Software. I didn’t want to go back over old ground, but these games had that old RPG feel but in their own universe (rather than cadging off D&D) – perfect.

In short, they’re brilliant value for their low price ($20 or less). If you take good writing and storytelling over fancy graphics (the graphics really are quite small and zooming isn’t an option), and love turn-based RPG combat, seek them out. I’ve been totally immersed and don’t regret a single hour of the 100+ I’ve sunk into them.

It’s also worth noting that as well as being available on PC (including Steam) and Mac, both games are also available on tablets – both for iPad and Android.

I’ve now played through both Avernum: Escape From The Pit and Avadon: The Black Fortress and while they share a lot in common there are some huge differences. So what sets each apart from the other – and more importantly, which is best?

The setting

A battle begins in Avernum

A battle begins in Avernum

In Avernum you find yourself exiled below the world’s surface; a place populated by criminals with no hope of return to the world above – and plenty of beasties.

But as you begin to explore you find it’s not totally lawless – and better still, there are rumours of a way to escape to the surface.

I was immediately drawn into the world which, while typically fantasy in many ways, has enough originality to hook you in. There’s even hints at even stranger previous occupants, adding the possibility of a little sci-fi in the mix…

Avadon has a more typically fantasy set up. You’re a soldier seeking to make your name in a force that governs over several lands united purely by the protection you offer. They don’t like each other and like you even less – but they have to respect the power of your leaders. Your base is the castle, but you are sent on errands to several different settings to sort out a host of problems (goblins, ogres etc) – while as you go along a bigger intrigue continues to build to a crescendo in the background…

  • Winner: Avernum. Adversity and escape over a job as a soldier every time.


In Avernum you build your party the old fashioned way, meeting brothers in arms who soon join you in your quest and fight by your side – there’s not much more to it than that. But your main character has to make interesting choices along the way as you start to see more of the political picture. You have opportunities to be a right nasty bastard if you want to, or play the typical hero to the end. You’re soon up to a party of four which you can switch around as suits you.

Avadon tries to do things a little differently. You have several companions foisted in you when you get to the castle, each of whom has their own little story to tell – and at some point a side quest you’ll join them on (if you like). As mentioned above you’re all soldiers, so I found it quite hard to get into character – if I was him I’d have deserted after five minutes. Also, there’s a Steam achievement for completing the whole game and only taking one companion with you. I did it this way, so it was  pair rather than a party.

  • Winner: Avernum. A party of brave adventurers, with interesting choices? I’m in!

Levelling and the UI

The Avadon skill trees are just right

The Avadon skill trees are just right

Avernum offers a high level of customisation for every character, with a very large range of skills available.

But the amount of choice didn’t really seem to correlate with the amount of difference it made to the game, as equipment drops tended to make decisions for you as you meted out the gear to your party. The world is also full of useless items – or are they?

It was frustrating to start leaving behind items (like shovels) that are worthless in shops, only to later find some quest giver wants 10 of them. Definitely too much crap.

Avadon is the slightly more polished game and here it shows. The skill choices have been honed down well, meaning they’re meaningful but sensibly limited – there’s probably half the choice, but I didn’t find that in any way restricting as your party member choices (thief, magician etc) are the more significant decisions.

The world is still full of crap, but now it is obviously crap you can ignore with impunity – a great relief. In general, everything just seemed that little bit more considered, in a good way.

  • Winner: Avadon. Thumbs up for a slightly tighter ship and less pointless clicking.

The world

The huge world map of Avernum

The huge world map of Avernum

Both games are very well written, plotted and paced. They skilfully reveal more and more plot the more you search, while twists and turns – as well as choices – are common. There’s humour too, alongside some great side quests and plots.

I much prefer a sandbox though, and while Avernum very much leads you down a particular path around its one huge map it cleverly gives you the impression you’re leading the exploring. You can actually run over an awful lot of the map from very early – but if you bump into anything on the way you’re going to be in big trouble.

Avadon has several large play areas but it feels much more instanced and very much hand-holds you from quest to quest. That said you do still get the feeling you’re exploring each new area and sometimes you may find levels within levels that are out of your depth for now, knowing you’ll be back later.

Graphically the games are almost identical. This is a little bit of a shame, but then the familiarity is nice too. Sound effects are equally similar and pretty average; they certainly do the job without being spectacular.

  • Winner: Avernum. Give me a nice big sandbox to play in any day.


A battle in Avadon

A battle in Avadon

I played both games on the normal mode and while I didn’t have much difficulty with either, some of the bigger boss battles in Avernum definitely proved trickier.

Even with less party members than I could’ve had, Avadon was mostly straightforward but with a decent level of challenge at times. However Avadon definitely had the best single idea combat scene, in which a room is slowly filling with water as you try and fight your way to the exit. I’d call this section a draw, as playing with two was fun – as was playing with a fuller party.

The End…

Spoiler alert! I found the end of Avernum to be everything I’d hoped it would be. Unfortunately I found the end of Avadon to be a totally damp squib. Such a shame.

Overall winner: Avernum

Avadon: The Black Fortress is a good budget RPG. IT tells its story well, never crashed and kept me interested for many hours. However I never really connected with my character and, having played Avernum first, I misses that big old map to explore freely. The sequel is out and unfortunately I won’t be buying it; I’m not cut out to be a soldier!
6.5 out of 10

Avernum: Escape From The Pit is as close to perfect as I could’ve hoped for a cheap solo RPG. I was hooked from the start, loved my lead character and the world he was in, while the ending was epic. It was a bit cluttered and clumsy at times, but it was worth it. Bring on the next one! And until then, there are seven older Avernum games out there…
9 out of 10

NOTE: All screenshots are taken from the official Spiderweb Software website.

Anarchy Online: Looking back on a walk on the Wine side, 2001

NOTE: I wrote this back in 2001, when I was at the height of my obsession with the MMORPG Anarchy Online. I found it in an old docs folder, having posted it before on a long dead website. I feel it really captures what was so magical about MMOs back then – there was very little hand-holding and you really felt there might be something unexplored somewhere out there in the world. Hopefully a few older gamers will get a kick out of it…

Weird chirropIn days long since past, a young Algenon (lvl39 at the time) and a slightly older Jayhawk were just chattin’ when I mentioned the rumours about a place called Wine.

It was meant to be way south of Tir, but no one I’d ever spoken to had been there.  As we both had a bit of time to kill, we decided a little expedition was in order.

While neither of us had Yalms my reet and speed buffs made us confident we could avoid the hardier foes, so we set off on a trip of a lifetime.

AO Lucky escapeAfter a fairly uneventful wander south from Newland and a scary stroll around Stret we followed a large river east into uncharted territory.

After a very lucky escape for me and seeing some truly odd beasties (see above) we started to follow the river south toward where wine was rumoured to be (far east on the map).

Here things were far less hostile, but strange and very, very big – I didn’t see anything but reds all trip. Also, we entered some zone names that were truly worrying. After many hours travel, I was beginning to lose hope, but then we saw buildings up ahead…

It was a tranquil place with a beautiful waterfall, a bar, shops and save/mission terminals, plus some very scary looking guns – and it was clan! Maybe it wasn’t the place; how were we to know?

But for us, for that moment, it was Wine. A mayhem area in the wilderness with some of the biggest clan guards you’re ever likely to come across. There were no other players in sight. In fact, we didn’t see a soul the whole trip.

Content, we headed south. Walking back would take forever, so we decided to go out Bonnie and Clyde style after a little more snooping around. On our travels south we found a place we think was called Twin Falls, a cool tree house and some even more bizarre and scary bad guys.

As we neared Omni country, it was either let ourselves be taken down by the enemy or try our hand at cutting back the local wildlife. There was something near us, but we couldn’t see it – even when it was within attack range. Jayhawk built a pet and sent it off to hunt; when it found its prey, my eyes nearly popped out of my head.

AO the endIf you’ve never seen a Desert Eremite, you want to try to keep it that way – never have I been made to feel so feeble.

From nowhere it rose from the ground, dealing huge damage while our attacks bounced off of it. Our journey’s end was how we had expected it – brutal, and quick.

So in all, it was a highly successful trip. I would advise anyone to head out that way as there are some truly amazing sights to be seen. I will end by thanking Jayhawk, who was such a good companion on this adventure. May we team up again, and soon.

CLOSING NOTE: ‘Jayhawk’ was in fact a guy from Sweden called Janne. We stayed friends in game and in 2002 I went to Goteborg to meet him. More than 10 years later we are still firm friends, seeing each other (on average) about once a year. I didn’t make it over last year; hopefully this reminder will make sure I do this.

Five reasons board games are better than computer games

This is in no way serious. Well, maybe a little bit. But for full disclosure I’m a computer gamer too, although not as much as I used to be. Although this may or may not be because modern computer games have left me behind at some evolutionary step involving using more than one button at once…

1. They’re sociable

online game memeYou need other people actually in the room to play board games. So you’re not going to get ganked by a 12-year-old, unless you invite them round (then more fool you).

If you’re properly competitive, there’s nothing better than winning in person, mano-a-mano – looking on the face of your victims with contempt.

And if you’re not competitive, there’s nothing better than competing while socialising – and laughing about the intensity of the overly competitive guy on the way home. Also, adult beverages tend to be more socially accepted when consumed in company, instead of on your own in a darkened room…

2. They’re inclusive

E3: Men men men men manly men

E3: Men men men men manly men…

As well as being socially acceptable (if not as popular here in the UK right now), board games also offer something close to a level playing field. You can always find a game where people should be able to compete.

And hey – girls like them! When attending the world’s biggest board game show, Essen Spiel in Germany, you’re immediately struck by the diversity: couples, kids, families; a mass of diverse folk, young and old. If you go to E3, the biggest computer games show, you’re immediately struck by the smell of bloke…

3. They work after the zombie apocalypse

laptop in sunThere’s no electricity involved! No plugs, no batteries, no charging. So that box price you see? That’s it – that’s all your paying.

Well unless you want to buy board game expansions, or CCGs, but that’s a whole other story…

You can play them non-stop on the train; in power cuts; you can take them camping; head to the garden in the sun and not worry about not being able to see the screen, or fling the windows open in summer and still play. And they’re not going to crash either!

4. They’re compatible

compatibleIt doesn’t matter if you’ve got a BlackBerry, or an old Nokia, or even a calculator – all you need to join in on a board game is to show up.

If everyone is talking about a brilliant new board or card game, you can simply go and buy it – or borrow someone else’s copy.

You don’t have to buy an ugly plastic box first, then try and work out how to make it be friends with your TV. And then have to buy a new ugly plastic box two years later to play the next lot of new games…

5. There’s something for everyone

From minutes to hours; competitive or co-op; free to expensive; themed or abstract; nerdy or no; silly or serious; quiet or LOUD; even solo. Board and computer games have it all covered – but with board games, only one person needs to buy them – and people are much more willing to give things a go.