Friday, September 26, 2014

High Degree of Randomness

I've played Shadows of Brimstone 5 times now: twice at demos with the publishers, and three times at home.

I'm enjoying the game significantly. The randomness is high, but it provides a good variety of play experience. You never know what you're going to get.

We completed our mission at both of the demos with FFP really easily, so much so that I was mildly worried the game was too easy...

Since getting it home, we've lost three missions in a row. So, "too easy" is not such a concern now.

Cross-Posted at BGG 
If this is sounding familiar, it's probably because I adapted this from something I wrote on the forums at Board Game Geek. This version is longer, and includes some analysis I hadn't done there, but it also skips a bunch of TPK detail that here I could just replace with a link to a blog post from a couple days ago. This is the better version of the post, but if you've already read the BGG version recently, you may find this to be mostly redundant.

Two of our three losses were TPKs caused by chains of Threat cards. I gave a thorough example in a previous post. The other TPK wasn't quite as ridiculous as it was only a 2-player game, but similar in theme.

The third mission was lost by Darkness meter and the villain escaping. The corridors and exploration tokens pwned us. Despite thorough shuffling, we got 8 corridors in our first 10 map cards. (Each boxed set comes with 6, so a total of 12 of the 48 mine cards are corridors. 8 in a row wasn't even possible if playing from a single boxed set, and the odds of it with 2 boxed sets aren't exactly high.) This pushed us to the deep end of the track where Holding Back the Darkness is really hard. We continued on, but now the Exploration tokens conspired against us, and delivered all 7 of the tokens that don't have Clues before we could get the third (of 5) clued token. Game ended with villain escape despite us having handled all the fights really well and done everything "right". We wasted no time, but still lost on the timer.

These losses were of course all flukes, and won't be indicative of overall play experience across dozens of games... but it's still kind of awesome (or frustrating, if that's how you choose to look at it) to know that such losses are lurking in the cards. Even a well-equipped high-level party will still lose to the Darkness meter from time to time.

Despite the shocking upsets, I still feel that the randomness is a benefit. It's surprisingly fun to get curb-stomped by a cooperative game when you thought you'd won.

Contrasting with Myth:
We took a break from Myth because it was getting too repetitive, and just too easy. There were only two or three monster types that you'd see again and again, and our characters had earned titles and got good gear. Brimstone seems likely to avoid those problems because it has more encounter variety and built-in methods to upgrade the badguys and challenges as you level up. Also, there's more PCs to choose from in Brimstone (assuming you have both boxed sets), and each PC has more customization options out of the gate. If Brimstone starts to grow stale, swapping characters should actually freshen it up again.
In theory, Myth is finally actually shipping wave 2 to the US now, which may even it out until Shadows' second wave many months from now. If I can tear myself away from Brimstone long enough to find out, I'll post my observations here.
My expectation, though, is that the clarity of the rules and card phrasing in Brimstone will push it over the top in any comparison to Myth. There are parts of Myth I do like better (the action decks are fun but clunky, the monster AI is more varied, and the two-stage bosses are cool nod to videogaming), but Brimstone's far gentler learning curve, and dramatically fewer rules-holes is thus-far making it feel like the superior game. 

Little Annoyances:

Which is not to say that Shadows of Brimstone is without flaw entirely.

I do find it a little annoying to track XP during combat in Brimstone. I would have been happier if the xp per hit and per wound on the big guys had been more standardized and tracked with tokens or something that would have sped it up during the most complex of the combat rounds. It's not bad, but it could have been better. It's also not as bad as it had been, because in earlier drafts the XP per wound on large monsters was variable by monster type.

I also think that the high-Initiative characters are going to pull ahead in the XP long haul, and that might prove problematic. In yesterday's game the Saloon Girl asked me to give her my last dynamite so she could throw it before the monsters got to act, and it kinda sucked to be giving her a 100 xp worth of potential kills when she was already the only person to level up that session.  If your group includes anyone prone to jealousy or being a sore loser, I'd recommend rotating out characters frequently (so that you get a different party mix and can share the spotlight moments around the table from game to game), or splitting XP evenly (but that will increase the amount of math during fights, and as I mentioned above, I already find the XP tracking a little tedious). I haven't played enough, or leveled-up enough, to know if this problem self-corrects or not.

I do know that this problem is less pronounced than it was at the time of that first demo many months ago. At the time I complained to Jason Hill that I felt my character (the Gunslinger) was too good, because of the way Quickdraw interacted with Dual-Wielding and his high Initiative. Since that time, the Dual-Wield penalty has been rewritten to be more severe (it used to apply to only your off-hand shots, not all of them), the Quickdraw card gained a restriction that it can't be used when Dual-Wielding, and the XP numbers were tweaked in a way that rewards hits instead of wounds (so you can still get a decent amount of XP if you are shooting at a monster that only has 1 wound left).

On a related note, I don't quite understand why low-Initiative characters lose their activation if the last monster dies before they move. Restarting at the top of the round only makes it more likely that the high-Initiative PCs will get the scavenge rewards. This seems an unnecessary bit of insult-to-injury, even if they do get some manner of compensation during the Catch Your Breath step.

Things I Love

The combat system is solid, and the handfulls of dice are fun. The components are beautiful, and the tile system rocks. Variety of play experience is high, thanks to 18 missions, tons of cards, customized PCs, and lots of random events. As mentioned above, the game can turn difficult with a single bad roll or draw, which is a good thing in a cooperative game. The XP system solves the problem of being the party healer - you score a lot of experience patching up the other characters.

I really appreciate the Traveling and Frontier Town portion(s) of the game. While some folks are probably going to complain that the game inserts random rolls into everything, I find that the risk of events really spices up what would otherwise be another boring min-max shopping trip. I _hate_ those "stop and ponder the equipment list" moments in traditional RPGs, but in Brimstone shopping is actually fun.
House rule caveat: 
When we play, we don't let you buy things for other people. Doing so (there's no clear official rule against it, but the rules seem to vaguely imply you can't) would allow a 6-player posse to hit every location on the first day, and that's just not as much fun as pushing your luck on multi-day town stays. 
And really: Outlaws, Bandidos, Saloon Girls and Gunslingers probably shouldn't be trusting one another with their wallets.

The level-up system is kinda fun, too. You get one random (rolled on a chart) stat boost each level, and then you get to pick a cool power to go with it. This gives you control of the important parts of your character (choosing your new trick) but the random chart makes it harder to min-max. In most level-up systems, the players who've mastered the system (at least to the extent of having identified dump stats and exploitable interactions) have a huge advantage over casual players that haven't done as much analysis. In theory the random stat boost should even this out a bit. It won't perfectly balance things if one person is making poor choices while the other carefully weighs the options, but it should at least reduce the gap. I'm excited to see to what extent that holds true over the long haul, as we've had such bad luck that only 2 characters have leveled up in 5 games (though to be fair, that's also because I've played a different character in each game to get a taste of everything). Worst case scenario: the casual player gets unlucky rolls for stats with no synergy, and the min-maxer rolls exactly what they wanted. While that sounds bad, it's actually basically the default assumption/starting point of most other games.  Worst case is essentially breaking even, and it's still providing at least a small extra hurdle for the shameless min-maxer to have to work around. I feel like that's a step in the right direction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We split party xp and I think the way we do it keep the extra time to a minimum. I have nice poker chips and have been putting xp into a central pool whenever someone hits. We haven't leveled up mid game but knowing that we are all at the same xp we know the level it needs to get to before anyone can level up, so its not too hard to keep track of. I use the poker chips for gold too, handing them to individual players.

In terms of buying stuff for each other we allow it, but only by giving another person the gold first. We play you can only trade at the hotel/camp. This prevents such shenanigans as the saloon girl going to the saloon and making a bunch of money, another character going to the outpost and selling darkstone, and then using that money to buy things, so you have to stay at least two days in that case.