Sunday, April 13, 2014

Myth vs GD vs SoB part 7: NPC AI

This is the 7th of 8 posts comparing specific elements of three big kickstarted cooperative miniatures games: Myth by Mercs/Megacon, Galaxy Defenders by Project Gremlin / Ares, and Shadows of Brimstone by Flying Frog Productions. I've played all three, and in this post I will compare and contrast how the monsters move and act in each game.

NPC Movement and Artificial Intelligence

Myth's monsters behave in organic and interesting ways. The actual movement rules are relatively simple, but the clumsy rulebook makes them seem more complicated than they actually are. Each monster species has its’ own targeting priority, which is pretty neat because it means smarter monsters fight more intelligently and cooperate better than others, and cowardly monsters fall back to shoot at easy targets from a distance. The monster’s actual tactics are a little predictable, but there’s a nice variable turn-length mechanism that introduces an element of skill (and teamwork) into anticipating which heroic actions will be accomplished by the party before the monsters get to counter-attack. Overall, it’s a little clunkier than it needs to be at times, but it really does keep the game fast-paced, flavorful, and interesting. They give the very encouraging advice that if you do it wrong, don’t sweat it — it’s a cooperative game where you can easily scale the difficulty on the fly. If you’re having fun, a technically misplaced monster or two doesn’t matter. If the mistake bothers you, make up for it by spawning extra monsters when you're placing the next room.

GD has a similarly organic movement system, operated by card draws. It does a great job of differentiating between the monster types, so smarter/faster/vicious/stealthy monsters behave appropriately. It automates their tactics, and keeps the players guessing. You have to take opportunities as they present themselves, because you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s absolutely the best part of the game, and is actually a better version of what Myth was aiming for. (GD's take on it is smoother in play, and more crisply differentiates between the monster types.) Unfortunately, it’s permanently wed to the mostly-dreadful hexagonal area boards, which are an eyesore. If I can figure out a way to pry the heart of this game away from its hexagonal boards, I bet I’d play a lot more of it.

Shadows of Brimstone has the most conventional movement system of the three. It’s the very board-gamey, where the monster directives in the other two are more immersive and flavorful. Most monsters are very predictable in Shadows. They quite sportingly attempt to split their numbers (and attacks) evenly between the heroes. They arrive in a checkerboard pattern for the express mechanical purpose of keeping dynamite from being too powerful in the first turn of any encounter. Those are solid play-balance decisions, but they seem a little artificial once you’ve been exposed to Myth’s “it’s a cooperative game, so set your own difficulty and do what's fun” philosophy. That said, some folks find Myth to be too malleable and not challenging or structured enough. I’m predicting that those folks will prefer the balanced concrete systems present in Shadows.
I do have one minor setting / mechanical gripe about SoB, but it might just be a function of the specific demo I played. All the monsters we faced were melee swarms. In a game about Western gunfighters, it seems like cover should matter a little more, and some of the bad guys ought to be shooting back at you. That feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, and it may actually auto-correct itself when I see the final mix of NPCs. The monster stat cards had a box set aside for ranged attacks, but that box was empty on every creature we faced in the demo.

And The Winner Is:
Either Myth or Galaxy Defenders, depending on whether you find the former's awful rulebook more or less of a hassle than the later's overly-busy mapboards.

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