Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: Age of Empires Castle Siege

My base during the 5th age.

The Wife and I recently picked up new phones, and along with the upgrade comes the inevitable downloading of new phone games.

Over the past several weeks, I have become completely engrossed with Age of Empires Castle Siege. The game is basically Farmville for historic RTS fans. It's a super streamlined version of AoE. You select from one of several civilizations, build up your base, gather resources, upgrade structures and train troops. Once you have an army built up, you can use them to raid other players' bases with the aim of stealing their resources, and ultimately destroying their keep.

The multiplayer functionality is interesting, because only the attacking player is active during a skirmish. The defender must rely on their pre-set defenses. The attacker wins if they either take down 50% or more of the structures, or if they destroy the keep. Though I think the attacker gets to keep whatever resources they raid even during a loss scenario.

There is also a single player campaign that uses pre-assigned armies and will net you big lump sums of resources.

The game uses a freemium model similar to Farmville and countless other apps of its ilk. You must spend resources to construct and upgrade buildings, build your army, and even launch raids, bot those resources take time to accumulate. All construction and upgrades also have associated build times. When you begin the game, most of the build times take a few seconds to a few minutes, but as you progress/are drawn in, they quickly swell to hours and then days. You can, of course, bypass the timers by spending gold, which you slowly accumulate, or purchase at low low prices of real moneys from the app store.

Honestly, this economic model in games doesn't really bother me. It can actually help temper my addiction. Rather than playing for two hours straight, the build and resource collection timers force me to play in bursts: five or ten minutes at a time every few hours. Right now, most upgrades seem to take about a day and a half. We'll see how ridiculous things get once I reach the next age.

There are two things that DO bother me about this game. The first is the clumsiness of the control system on a touchscreen phone. Sometimes the touch gestures inexplicably switch from moving troops to zooming the screen in and out. When this switch happens in the middle of tactical maneuvers requiring precise timing, it can spell disaster for an expeditionary force! I said cavalry advance on the left flank, not zoom out, damn you!

The other, even more obnoxious thing about the game is that it occasionally disconnects from the server mid-battle, and when you reload, you find yourself kicked back to your home base minus the troops you had committed with the win or loss added to your record dependant entirely on where you were in the attack process, regardless of how things were going. Less than 50% you lose. More, you win.

If you're a fan of RTS and/or Age of Empires, this game might be a good way to casually scratch that itch. I find it much more entertaining than the candy crushes and bejeweleds.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Whole New World

Baby's first game session

2014 has been a heck of a year. Between working the bugs out of fatherhood 1.0 and settling in to our new home out in the burbs, my family's gaming habit was chucked unceremoneously into the back seat of life among the lost quarters and the ice scraper.

Well, earlier this fall, while rummaging around in the metaphorical seat cushions, I rediscovered my desire to DM. It was a little flat and covered in crumbs, but still functional. I put the word out to the old gaming group to see if folks were interested in restarting the old D&D 3.5 campaign, or in rolling up something new. The interest was definitely there, so we began working out what would be different.

Our new house is on the opposite side of downtown Seattle from most of my players, and the longer travel time means that our previous weekday evening schedule was out. Having an infant in the house also made late-night, raucous hack-and-slash Cheetofests impractical. We ended up settling on Sunday afternoon game time. And because of the longer commute for my players, we also decided to do longer, 6-hour sessions about once a month. Honestly, this format is something that I have been wanting to do as a DM for a long time. It means I don't have to shift straight from working Sporkchop into gaming Sporkchop, and longer sessions mean more continuity over the course of a game session.

The changes meant we lost a couple players to busy lifestyles and other projects. This also made it necessary to start a new campaign as the in-progress plotline of the former game could not maintain its integrity minus the characters we lost.

We are now playing in a different part of the same campaign world, and starting again with at level 3 with four players down from the honestly unwieldy seven.

I also made a couple changes to my DM-ing choices for this campaign to help it better fit with my crowded lifestyle.

I am wholeheartedly embracing Sly Flourish's philosophy of the Lazy Dungeon Master. I am trying to keep prep minimal, and focused on the things that are really necessary to run a fun session. The biggest specific choices I have made to simplify this new game are:

Limiting the source material:

Original from XKCD
In my last game, pretty much any supplement people wanted to work into the game was added to the pile. While this was great in some ways, the sheer number of books we needed at the table every session, and the sheer number of pages to flip through when leveling, or looking up a rule really dragged the game down.

I decided to try an experiment that I had been mulling over near the end of my last campaign. I offered each player the choice of adding one supplement (no compendiums) in addition to the core rulebooks as a source for their character's material. They picked the splat book, and I would use it to help season the campaign world. Most of the players embraced the choice, though I did get some pushback from our resident min-maxer who had developed an astonishingly game-breaking concept.

Going with found maps:

You got the thiiing!
I love world building, and drawing maps. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most time consuming aspects of game prep, and I just don't have the capacity to develop my own custom city and dungeon maps for every session. I thought I would try to add my own stories to existing maps I found online. I started with the wonderful trove over at Dyson's Dodecahedron, and grabbed a couple candidates for the starting city. I also did some searching through the Cartographer's Guild, and even pulled in some maps from published sources. This has not only saved me a tremendous amount of prep time, but has also helped inspire some ways to flesh out my shoestring concepts based on the spatial arrangement of the maps in use.

Firing up the generators:

This generator produces d100 random Daves
These are the Daves I know, I know...

NPCs are my key to a successful session. If I can nail down the personalities and motivations for my NPCs, I can wing most anything else. I have been making heavy use of the random name generator at Behind the Name, and of this awesome list of d100 NPC traits.

We have now run three sessions. One for character building, and two play sessions. So far the new structure seems to be working well. People are having fun, and the prep time has been much more manageable than for the previous campaign. After our last session my players also mentioned that they really enjoy the longer, more leisurely sessions, which allow for time to eat together and catch up before jumping into the game.

On a related note, I've had a lot of people start following my Youtube channel over the past few months after finding my DM Organization in OneNote video, and I got so excited by the new followers and the opportunity presented by this new campaign that I decided to make a video describing my OneNote planning process from the very beginning of a blank campaign.--A Let's Prep video!

I shot the whole thing, then reviewed it with the Wife and found that I was rambling into the bore-o-sphere throughout the video, so I never edited and uploaded it. I've been meaning to re-shoot with a tighter outline, but just haven't had a chance. If you'd like to see me prattle on about my game organization process on camera, let me know. Maybe it'll convince me to get off my butt and make it happen.

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