Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
7th Continent - Non-Spoiler Hints

As I mentioned before, some people consider the 7th Continent to be a very hard game. After playing some more and watching on Youtube how other people play, I think I know why. Basically the 7th Continent is Sid Meier’s definition of a good game: A series of interesting decisions. Which means that there is a very real possibility of making the wrong decisions. Now of course I can’t tell you which one is the good decision for each of the thousand cards in the game. But I can tell you how to avoid making systematically the wrong decisions in general gameplay.

1) The first easy systematic error is regarding your hand size. Every action in the game involves drawing cards (although sometimes you can draw zero of them); and whenever you draw cards, you can keep one of them. But at the end of the action you need to discard down to your hand size, which is just 5 in solo, 3 with two players, and even less with more players.

If you want to do well in the 7th Continent you need to first use the cards in your hand to get below your maximum hand size before you choose any action on a tile. That also means that when choosing cards to keep, the cards you can play quickly are better than those you might only need in certain situations. Think of it that way: Playing a card or discarding a card due to full hand size both end you with the card on the discard pile. But if you played it, you got some useful effect out of it, which is obviously better.

2) Look at the terrain tiles carefully. In the 7th Continent the artwork on the terrain tile is part of the gameplay and not just decoration. Most importantly look out for hidden numbers, which allow you to replace your current tile with one with more options. But other elements like plants can also become important, provided you found the information what that plant is good for. On some of the event cards the artwork is actually the clue to what is the right decision.

3) Hunt as much as possible. If a terrain card has animal tracks and a spot/observe action next to them, that frequently means a hunting ground. Unless your discard pile is empty, you’ll always want to hunt first, explore other stuff later. And of course you should cook the meat you find if at all possible.

These tips should get you started on a successful adventure full of exploration. If you still find the game too hard, you have two options: One is replaying from the start and using previous knowledge to concentrate on the essential stuff (my wife and me did much better on the starting isle the second time around). The other is to modify the rules. You can use the 777 card. Or you can create a save checkpoint, which is not foreseen in the rules: When you reach a card that feels like a major decision point in the game, e.g. a non-terrain card that asks you whether you want to go north, east, or west, you can simply take a notepad and write down the number of that card, as well as list the cards from your satchel/journal. Then if you die, you can restart from there instead of from the beginning, especially if you already did the beginning several times and don’t want to repeat it.

Monday, October 16, 2017
7th Continent First Impressions

Only 3 days to go on the 7th Continent Kickstarter rerun and I finally managed to actually play the game to confirm if it is really as good as evertybody says. Good news: It is! Furthermore it turns out to be one of those rare board games that are ideally played with your significant other, which is exactly what I have been looking for. A “game” of 7th continent can last 15 hours+, but there is a very fast “save” mechanic which allows you to play in a series of short sessions. That would be difficult to pull off with friends you don’t see every day, but works great for me and my wife.

“Saving” the 7th Continent is actually a strategic move by itself, because you don’t save the map you already explored. This represents time passing in the world while you sleep. If you were to backtrack after restoring the game, the basic geography remains the same, but you might get different events happening while exploring. In our first game we saved when we successfully left area I and reached area II, which involved removing the map of area I anyway, so the save didn’t change anything for us. Of course at home you could just decide to leave the game set up on the table instead of saving, if you have a dedicated game table.

*Spoiler alert*

Just like a YouTube gameplay video it is hardly possible to talk more about the game without revealing some of its contents, so don’t read on if you want to avoid spoilers!

We played the first “curse” of the 7th Continent, curses being basically scenarios that give your exploration a starting point and a win condition. The one recommended to start with is called Voracious Goddess. But don’t expect any major storyline connected to that. The 7th Continent is a survival/exploration game, the stories that happen are about what you decide to do and how that worked out, not some scripted storyline to follow.

The core mechanic of the game is that the tile you are on and the cards you already found give you various actions you can attempt. Each attempt consists of drawing a number of cards and counting the number of successes on these cards. Each action tells you how many cards to draw, and how many successes you need, but various rules and cards can modify those two numbers. If you succeed something positive happens, if you fail something negative happens. Often you are allowed to draw more cards if you want, which makes success easy. But the deck of cards also represents your life, so if you draw cards with reckless abandon you will run out of cards. And then you need to use the cards from the discard pile instead, and if you draw a curse you are dead and the game ends.

What you are supposed to do to survive is to find places where you can hunt and find food when you are getting low on cards. Food puts cards back from the discard pile into the action deck, which allows you to keep playing. It is all nicely balanced and doable. Some people do complain they die too often, but there are several solutions to that: Either you handle the loop of goin exploring and taking care of survival by hunting better. Or you change the rules, which is something that doesn’t come natural to board game enthusiasts. But really, the game already does have an official easy mode which starts you with card 777, which allows you to basically ignore your first death. It isn’t such a stretch to expand that to unlimited uses of that item and literally “cheat death”. Instead of “survive or die” the game then becomes one of minimizing the number of times you use the cheat item.

On the other hand I can also see the interest of starting over. The Voracious Goddess curse we are playing starts you off on a small island. As it gives you a rough map, we went more or less straight towards the way off the island. But it turned out that this way we missed an essential item and couldn’t use the submarine to get off the island. Instead we decided to use the costly alternative option of swimming, which ended us freezing on some beach. So our success on the starting island, area I, determined where exactly and under what initial conditions we get to tackle area II. If we restart and play area I again, we’d use a different strategy. Furthermore on the first exploration you end up doing things in which the success isn’t all that great, or not essential for progress. So the next time around you just skip the non-essential parts and thus get to the next area faster and with less of your cards used.

I really like the 7th Continent, and I am looking forward to playing this with my wife for a long time. If ever we find the survival part too harsh, we’ll just change the rules to a more casual version. The fun of this game really isn’t just about winning or losing.

Sunday, October 15, 2017
Life is Pay2Win

I was listening to some well-known YouTubers complaining about lootboxes in new games like Star Wars Battlefront II or Shadow of War and pointing out in painstaking detail how getting this or that bonus unbalances the game in favor of people who buy lootboxes. However they appeared to be totally okay with other people getting the exactly same bonuses by grinding the game for many, many hours. And that annoyed me. Wouldn't we be much better off if our multiplayer PvP games would be perfectly balanced and the outcome only determined by skill? If you can get bonuses that make you much stronger than another player, why would it matter whether you got them by playing the game for endless hours or by using your credit card? It appeared to me as if some hardcore gamers are quite okay with a game being unfair, as long as that unfairness favors them and their kind.

The only advantage playing a game for longer should be the skill you acquire by practice. Any other bonus you get from grinding is in fact a historical and economical anomaly. The practice will certainly disappear over the coming decade, because it simply isn't in the interest of game companies to keep doing so. Companies don't *want* players that use a lot of their bandwidth but give them no money. The only free players they want is those that they are still trying to persuade to cough up some cash.

Fact is that life itself is Pay2Win. In a consumer society, the more money you have, the more luxury you can afford. The whole "American Dream" idea is built around the concept that money is the yardstick for success in life, and that by working hard on pursuits that actually earn you money or improve your chances to earn money later, you are leading a better life. Even the people who would like wealth to be redistributed don't complain about the fact that more money buys you a better car or the best seats in the theater. So why exactly should video games be exempt from that?

Games went from being fair and balanced to being unfair based on time spent. Now they are moving from there to being unfair based on money spent. People complaining about that on YouTube or various internet forums isn't going to change that, because millions of people will buy those new games with their new unfairness. Because for millions of people the new unfairness is actually an improvement over the old unfairness. Gaming has become a mass market for the general population, and in the general population there are more people who can afford to spend $100 than there are people who can afford to spend 100 hours. Calling for that to be rolled back to the previous state of unfairness doesn't even have the benefit of being moral, the moral situation would be games that don't give you any advantages from neither time nor money.

Saturday, October 14, 2017
7th Continent - Upping my pledge

I am not a millionaire. However I am not poor or "just about managing" either. If I had to classify my financial situation I'd call it "comfortably well off". Now if you look at my hobby, games in general, the cost of games is usually in the tens or hundreds of dollars/euros. Which means that the purchase of even an expensive game or a somewhat exaggerated, unnecessary game purchase isn't going to cause me any financial hardship. There are occasions where spending more is a reasonable option for me, even if I wouldn't recommend it for everybody. All this to say that I just upped my pledge for the 7th Continent second Kickstarter project from $49 to $200. Why?

Well, it started with me packing a suitcase for a week of holidays with my wife. We like our holidays to be a mix of visiting things and relaxing, so we always take some entertainment with us. And I was hesitating to take the box of the 7th Continent game I got from the previous Kickstarter. I really want to play this, but what if it gets damaged or the airline loses my baggage and the game is gone? You can't buy the 7th Continent anywhere, it is only available during Kickstarter projects, and they don't happen all that often (about every 2 years).

And then I realized that because there is currently the second Kickstarter project ongoing (I had already pledged to get the next expansion), I could up my pledge and get a second base game too for $129. Throw in a bit more money for optional purchases like expansions (which also aren't available anywhere else) and I upped my pledge to $200. Worst case scenario is that I end up with one extra box I'll never open. Best case scenario is that I'll have a shiny second edition box with lots of expansions at home, and the peace of mind that allows me to take the original box with me on holidays without being stressed about damaging or losing it. Not something I would do for a game that can easily be replaced, but for the 7th Continent I considered it worth the money.

The current Kickstarter project ends in 5 days, so if you still want to join you need to hurry. The projects already has over 33,000 backers and is over 10,000% funded. That is not a typo, they asked for $40,000 and got $4.5 million. As a "second edition" the risk of not getting the product you paid for is much reduced, although it probably will be late again. Great success of a Kickstarter project brings its own logistics problems, and this second run got 3 times the backers and 4 times the money of the first run. The game has raving reviews on BoardGameGeek (Rank #56 out of 96,000 games) and elsewhere. And unlike Gloomhaven you can't just buy the 7th Continent on Amazon. You can get just the base game, in English or French, for $80, but another $49 also gets you the big expansion "What Goes Up, Must Come Down" and the many stretch goals. Or if you are like me you can go all out and get pretty much everything for $200.

Thursday, October 12, 2017
Elemental Evil: Sessions 7

In the previous session the group basically finished the shortened Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure that I used to get them to level 3. In this session I handed out some treasure, and then played the transition to the main adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse. PotA by itself has a relatively weak story hook, but I had added several pointers to the Elemental Evil cults, especially the air cult, in the pre-adventure. So now telling them about the missing delegation was just one additional hook, which I used to also open up the option of going after the water cult. The general idea is to give players some options, playing PotA neither completely linear, nor completely sandbox.

So the players arrived at Red Larch and collected some information. They already knew about the tower of the air cult, but now they could see its location and find out that the locals thought it was just a hunting lodge for young knights from Waterdeep who liked aerial mounts. From the Order of the Gauntlet contact they got the information that a dwarven history book like the ones transported by the missing delegation had been seen in Womford. And a shephard in the tavern gave them the information that he had seen fresh graves south of Sumber Hills.

The whole role-playing from Phandalin to Red Larch took quite some time, but in the end the group decided to head towards the fresh graves and check them out, and to go towards the air cult tower from there. In the graves they found two dead members of the Mirabar delegation, as well as two different cultists, one of which they could recognize as an air cultist. While wondering who had buried them and closing the graves again, they were attacked by air cultists on giant vultures.

The encounter as written in the book wasn't dramatic enough for my taste, so I had added a fourth air cultist as well as some helpful Aarakocra. But as the giant vultures by themselves were already rather strong, this made the fight rather tough, with several people having to made death saving throws before being healed by their friends. But in the end all went well. Their new Aarakocra allies explained to them that they could approach Feathergale Spire either from the top, but there was a drawbridge, or from the bottom through Sighing Valley. The group preferred the stealthy approach to knocking at the front door, and so I know what to prepare for the next session.


Monday, October 09, 2017
Gardmore Abbey 5E rerun - Session 2

On the second session of my 5E rerun of Madness at Gardmore Abbey, the group (still just 3 players because of the same 2 absences) further explored the extra-dimensional watchtower. While that struck them with some minor madness effects, they did arrive at the top of the tower and encountered the beholder. Just like the previous group they negotiated a truce with the beholder and helped him (and them) to escape from the tower. While that is a somewhat selfish act to let loose this force of chaotic evil on the world, this second group had a better excuse: In 4E the beholder on top of the tower is designed to be tough but beatable. In 5E it is a standard beholder from the Monster Manual, with a challenge rating of 13, and thus near impossible for 3 level 5 players to beat.

With the beholder were a group of dazed zombies, one of them an elf zombie. They recognized that one as the lost father of Berrian Velfarren, and could thus finish a quest. Another quest done was scouting the layout of the abbey and number of orcs from the top of the watchtower. So they first passed by the elves, and then from there went back to Winterhaven, to hand in their quest and recover from the madness effects.

Berrian gave them another quest to explore the wizard's tower. Lord Padraig had another quest to negotiate peace with the elves. And in Winterhaven they encountered a paladin of Bahamut called Sir Oakley, who asked them to accompany him to the temple on top of the abbey to purify it from evil. With thus lots of options they decided to pass by the elves for the peace negotiations, which were easy with them having already done so many quests for the elves. From there they went up to Dragon's Roost and entered the temple. In the temple were two very strange angel-like creatures, which turned out to be harpies gone mad. Unlike the beholder before the harpies stats were changed to adjust the difficulty of the fight to make it interesting, as standard harpies are only challenge rating 1. With modified abilities causing some nasty effects in a zone around them through singing the fight was quite interesting.

Besides the card they started with, in this session they received 3 cards from the beholder, and 1 card from the harpies. They still haven't really found out how to control the magical effects from the cards, but then there was only one real combat this session.


Monday, October 02, 2017
World of Hoplites

I recently received an announcement telling me that I could sign up for the beta of a new Total War game, called Total War: Arena. Hmmm. While I did play some Total War games, I must admit that I am not the world's biggest fan of the series, mostly because of the extra stupid AI. So a PvP version to me sounded like a cheap ploy to eliminate the AI. But then I saw that the game was 10 vs. 10 players, with each player commanding some troops. And I thought to myself, "Oh, that looks like World of Tanks with hoplites, I'm interested!", and signed up.

Today I got the activation code, and only then I realized that this doesn't just look like World of Tanks with hoplites, it actually *is* World of Hoplites, programmed by the same people who made World of Tanks, Warplanes, and Warships: The "Total War" part is just some cross-branding marketing trick to attract the people who are Total War fans but don't play any games from yet. Well, best case scenario programmed the gameplay and Creative Assembly provided the graphics. (Worst case scenario is the other way round).

So now I am downloading the beta, and I am looking forward to trying it out. In the interest of full disclosure I'd like to add that is one of the small number of game companies from which I ever received freebies. After posting an interview with one of the devs my World of Tank account was set to receive 250 gold every day I logged on. And as I was playing a lot I ended up with still over 70,000 gold left in that game. But I already had spent money on WoT before, and unfortunately the World of Tank gold isn't the same as the World of Warships gold, and probably also not the same as the Total War: Arena gold. So no freebies for me for the new game!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017
The 7th Continent Kickstarter

I still haven’t really had the time to playtest The 7th Continent, a boardgame I got via Kickstarter. But now the second round of Kickstarter started. If you are interested, you can get the game here. The game isn’t available elsewhere. That is why I pledged $49 to get the expansion set.

P.S. The Kickstarter is already 2500% funded, so with them having made good on their first Kickstarter promises, this is a relatively sure bet. Might of course be late, but that is pretty normal on Kickstarter.

Saturday, September 23, 2017
D&D Reader

Another app for players of Dungeons & Dragons has been announced, called D&D Reader. Basically it is a kind of e-book reader only for D&D rulebooks and adventures. Instead of bringing a backpack full of books to your game, you bring a single tablet with all the information on it. And to some extent it is searchable, which isn't the case for paper books.

Now a few years ago I would have said that this is a brilliant idea, exactly what I needed. But since then I spent $280 to get access to all D&D books in digital form on D&D Beyond. As long as I have internet access, that gives me the same functionality: Able to read any D&D book on my tablet and search it. But the new D&D reader app is from a different company. So, you guessed it, if I wanted to use that app as well, I would need to pay *again* for all those books. Which would be the third time, since I already own the books in paper format and on D&D Beyond. Just to have offline access. No thanks!

Wizards of the Coast really need to rethink their strategy on this one. In this time and age it is a great idea to have content available in different ways, paper, online, and offline digital. But a full collection of D&D books is already expensive to buy once. The paper books should include a coupon for all digital versions. I was already exaggerating by buying the books twice, but who on earth is going to go for a third version at full price?


Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Godwin's Law in politics

If you haven't read it in a forecast yet, you'll read it in an analysis next week: The "Nazis" are back in Germany, with a good likelihood of coming in on third place in the German elections next Sunday. Soon the Germans will wear brown shirts again, grow mustaches, and roll their tanks all over Europe. Really? What sounds like a big story in a newspaper headline in reality is far more harmless. It is more a problem of Godwin's law in politics, where the likelihood of a politician calling another politician or party anywhere to the right of himself a "Nazi" approaches 100% towards election day.

The German elections this weekend are boring. The two parties that govern today together, the center-left SPD and the center-right CDU together will have well more than 50% of the votes. The CDU has about 35%, the SPD 22%, and there is no chance of the SPD overtaking the CDU. 4 smaller parties each have around 10%, with the AfD, which is to the right of the center-right CDU probably getting something like 12% of the vote. So, is that a sign of a growing Nazi resurgence in Germany, or is there a simpler explanation?

The reason why the AfD has more votes than usual is that they are the only party with a strong anti-immigrant position (not counting the regionally limited CSU). The center-right CDU in Germany is well to the left of conservative parties elsewhere, like UK conservatives or US Republicans. Citing Christian values the CDU has welcomed a large number of refugees to Germany, Syrian and other, in previous years. This large influx of immigrants wasn't unopposed. And so it isn't really surprising that 12% of voters end up supporting a party that is anti-immigrant, the AfD being their only option in this case. Compare that to other countries, where anti-immigrant parties and policies are in the majority. The news is 88% of voters voting for pro-immigrant parties, not 12% voting for anti-immigrant parties. What you see is an anti-immigrant protest vote, by people who wouldn't necessarily vote for the AfD if they had any chance at all to actually come to power.

Personally, I have been an immigrant for the last 20 years, and so of course I am pro-immigration. But I do believe that liberals have done a lousy job to explain the advantages of immigration, and to address the various fears of voters regarding immigration, from job competition to crime. I do think that an anti-immigration party has to exist in a democratic society. And we should stop calling people "Nazis" just because they are anti-immigration.

Sunday, September 17, 2017
Gardmore Abbey 5E rerun - Session 1

I ran the 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey back in 2013/2014 and consider it to be the best official 4E adventure. So now I am running it again in a 5E version with different players. I'm not going to write a blow-by-blow journal on this one, but I do want to write down an outline of what happened and my thoughts on it.

In the first session the players started in Winterhaven, where they learned that the card of the Deck of Many Things they had found was one of a set. Lord Padraig of Winterhaven has at least one other card, and is interested in the full deck in order to defend his town. So he told the group about Gardmore Abbey, where most of the cards apparently are scattered, and asks them at the same time to scout the layout and number of orcs there. The players manage to get more information about the abbey from the library of the mage Arris, from Lord Padraig's counselor Valthrun, and from a bard singing ballads about the place in the inn. Lord Padraig also provided the group with a squire and horses for faster travel between Winterhaven and the abbey.

At the abbey I gave the players a picture of a front view of Gardmore Abbey. And after the scouted the outside of the abbey a bit more, I gave them my player map of Gardmore Abbey. Now the principle of the adventure and the map is that the players can approach the abbey from any side they want: Frontal assault on the main gate, climbing the wall to the north of the gate, going through a hole in the wall to the south of the gate, or try to get up the hill from the un-walled back side. From all the groups I've read on the internet having played the adventure none ever choose the frontal assault on the main gate. In reality the main gate isn't all that heavily guarded, but a frontal assault on a large army of orcs just doesn't appear to be a good idea.

So this group went through the hole in the south wall. From there they could go to the watchtower, or straight up the hill through a fey forest, or north along the wall back towards the orc main keep. They first tried the watchtower as a probably vantage point, where they saw some weird scenes from back in time through the windows. They decided not to pursue that further, still didn't want to move towards the orcs, and thus went up the hill through the fey forest, in order to get a view from the top.

So they came across a magical fountain where a group of high elves was camped. The elves were mistrustful, but not hostile. Their leader Berrian Velfarren told the adventurers that he was here in search of traces of his father, who disappeared centuries ago. He also believed that there were documents somewhere giving the elves some claim on the fey forest. And his sister Analastra had gone missing. After receiving some visions from the magical spring, the group followed the path further up the hill. They came across the groundskeeper's cottage, where they fought the owlbears now inhabiting it and found the documents the elves were looking for. Then the came to the garden behind the main keep, where another group of rival adventurers were fighting spiders. Trying to help them resulted in the rival adventurers disengaging and leaving the heroes with the spiders. But they did found a sword they had heard about in a ballad about a lost paladin.

Further up the path the group came across some nymphs playing a game of telling each other secrets, and learned some of the secrets of the abbey, including the fact that the missing father had last been seen in the watchtower. Then they came to a bell tower, where Analastra was fighting two displacer beasts and a nest of stirges. The highlight of that fight was the druid keeping Analastra alive with healing words, while using a Call Lightning spell to damage the displacer beasts and eliminating the nest of stirges. Having rescued the sister, the group returned to the elves to rest there.

As they had already finished two of the three quests of the elves, and Berrian had promised them his card of the Deck of Many Things for finishing all three, the group headed to the watchtower next. The elves had said that they couldn't find an entrance to it. But after some experimentation it turned out that the group's card opened the door. But stepping inside the group was trapped in some extra-dimensional space connected to the Far Realm, a plane of chaos. In the first room they fought a black pudding (who destroyed the druid's armor) and two mimics, who had been disguised as cards forming a bridge. After that fight we stopped because it was getting late. But having finished encounters 13, 12, 9, 10, 11, and 14 of the adventure was good progress, 6 encounters out of 33.

On the combat side the encounters were tough, which was mostly because of two players missing from the group of five. Next session we should be up to 4 players, which will be easier. But I didn't have to cheat or remove monsters, the adventure was still doable with just 3 players of level 5. They earned about 40% of the xp needed towards level 6, so I think that by the end of the adventure they will be at least level 7, if not 8. However I don't really have a good follow-up adventure for level 8 characters in store, as all of the official 5E adventures start at low level. Except for the Rise of Tiamat, but that one is the second part of a story that starts with Hoard of the Dragon Queen.


Friday, September 15, 2017
The return of third class travel

When railway travel was new in the 19th century, carriages came in three claases, 1st for the rich, 2nd for the middle class, and 3rd for the working class. That sort of class system went out of fashion in the 1950's, and since then most railways only have 2 classes. So do many airplanes, having business and economy as choices, with "1st class" only available on a few long-haul flights.

I am currently sitting in a train, 1st class carriage, from Brussels to Paris. And I'm reading an announcement that from December on this high-speed railway will have economy, comfort, and prestige instead of 1st and 2nd class. Which of course means that if you travel economy, you are effectively travelling in 3rd class, there being two better options on offer. That isn't an outlier, airlines have started to introduce "economy plus" between economy and business, also turning economy into 3rd class. We aren't quite back to wooden benches yet, but everybody knows how comfort has diminished in economy class over the last decade. Frequent travellers have many a horror story to tell.

Somehow I feel there is a vicious circle involved here. As the name "business" suggests, the target customer for a business seat is a traveller whose ticket has been bought by his company. But many companies have become less generous over the years, forcing their employees to travel economy, at least on shorter voyages. So the idea of railroads and airlines is to get companies to at least pay for an intermediate option. But of course the response of companies is going to be to never pay for business class again, the economy plus option being deemed sufficient.

Of course a 3 class system is also a symptom of a less egalitarian, more unequal society. And as a student of history and economy I know that unequal societies have a strong tendency to go horribly wrong. So 3rd class isn't something I think is a good idea.


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