Sunday, 13 July 2014

UnBrogue postmortem: part 2

It has been over a year since my last UnBrogue post-mortem article, which just goes to show how much time I have spent developing this Brogue variant, which is to say, virtually none.

However, Brogue itself has had two version releases since I last finished the game, and a number of design changes have either vindicated or echoed decisions I made in UnBrogue, so I thought it worth documenting the similarities. I'm not going to be able to draw many conclusions from these, other than 'I told you so' and there's plenty of things in UnBrogue that are not in or intended to be in Brogue, but which I'd like to see preserved and playable at some future date.

The most obvious one in Brogue is that armour now affects your stealth. This was one of the original reasons for creating UnBrogue, however Pender incorporated a significant rewrite of the stealth mechanism for the Brogue release whereas I merely added a stealth modifier for different armour types. I've not played enough Brogue 1.7.4 to know how the stealth mechanics differ, but the effect was significant enough in UnBrogue that in plate armour you'd effectively end up fighting all the monsters on a level near the stairs you entered through. I'd like to think I was somewhat influential here in making a case for linking armour with stealth, although this is harder a revolutionary idea.

The second is that the dagger now has a higher backstab multiplier than other weapons - although a fixed amount in Brogue, whereas it is enchantment dependent in UnBrogue. Again, hardly a revolutionary idea, but it was one that I was criticised for by some long term Brogue players, so I had a small moment of satisfaction in seeing this in the release notes for 1.7.4.

The third is that immunities and slays now include categories of monsters rather than individual monster types. Again, Pender differed significantly here in that the categories of slaying and immunity are far broader than the ones I chose, although there are some of the same choices (jelly immunity in both versions). I'm less willing to claim any influence here, because I believe Pender already had intended to do this.

The fourth is one of the new puzzle rooms is similar in theory to a number of the puzzle rooms in UnBrogue. Again, this is because I built it from the same elements already present in Pender's game - and Pender would have noted direct inspiration in the source code.

The fifth is the addition of further weapon types. The designs are radically different (and much more inspired on Pender's behalf), and the flail is likely influenced by games like Hoplite, but it was clear that there was a need for more variety, and what I've played of the whip is especially fun.

As for UnBrogue, I'd like to fix up the last remaining bugs and release a full 1.1.7 rather than the release candidate it has been stuck at for 2 days less than a full year; however the bugs I've introduced were pretty resistant to being fixed (I can't duplicate the wand/staff crash bug) and it is likely to be some time before this will happen.

And the attraction of working on UnBrogue has weakened far faster and further than UnAngband. I think there's several reasons for this. Firstly, as noted above, a big part of the initial reasons for UnBrogue have been incorporated into the main game, even though UnBrogue has gone a lot further than just these initial changes. Secondly, Brogue has diverged in a number of systemic ways that it would probably require that I start reimplementing UnBrogue from scratch on the new code base. Thirdly, Brogue has fallen into this unusual space for me, game play wise. After playing the likes of 868-Hack and Hoplite, Brogue feels in many ways both too big a game: the early decisions are spaced 'too far apart' rather than being turn by turn, and I now find myself on autopilot through the first few levels which inevitably gets me killed on level 4 or 5. Whereas Brogue doesn't have enough strategic headroom to be a truly sprawling game that I can lose myself in (like Unangband).

That's not to say that I don't think Brogue is an amazing game. And I also would like to preserve some of the crazy ideas that UnBrogue has, to continue as a variant of Brogue moving forward. But between child rearing, starting work on Unangband again, and my other current obsessions (like play testing the 3rd edition of High Frontier), I don't see a time or a place in the short term for a new UnBrogue release.

PS: I've updated the Rogue Basin UnBrogue page and added a page on the Brogue wikia to include the links to the latest UnBrogue downloads if you are still interested in playing the game. I think it is well worth it, and I've spent a huge amount of satisfying time adding stuff. I'm especially proud of all the new puzzle room designs I was able to come up with.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Real Roguelike Renaissance

There has been a mini-spate of 'explainer' articles aimed at easing the neophyte gamer into the world of roguelikes: both on Gamasutra ('Roguelikes': Getting to the heart of the it-genre), and IGN (Roguelikes: The Rebirth of the Counterculture). Both simultaneously praise the old school nature of high difficulty levels, permadeath, procedural generation, and point towards the emergence of the genre into the mainstream as a fresh new trend, with interviews with well known indie game developers such as Edmund McMillen (The Binding of Isaac) and Daniel Cook (Road Not Taken) as well as up and comers like Teddy Lee (Rogue Legacy), Paul Morse and Duncan Drummond (Risk of Rain) and Keith Burgun (100 Rogues, Auro).

But by pointing at successful examples of commercial roguelikes and focusing on pull quotes from current developers, both articles miss the real roguelike renaissance which predates the examples given by a number of years. Listeners of Roguelike Radio and members of the close knit roguelike community will be aware of the much more titanic shifts in roguelike development in the noncommercial space from a long spanning tradition of the big four roguelikes (NetHack, Angband, ADOM and Dungeon Crawl), through to the relative stasis of the early to mid 2000s followed by the explosive reinvention of the genre inspired by the 7DRL competition, and coffee break roguelikes in general.

I would like to trace a through line from this early roguelike Renaissance to the antecedent of almost all recent commercial roguelikes, Spelunky, which in its freeware form was a huge influence on the early successes of the Binding of Isaac and FTL, but I'm not sure whether such a path can be followed. If it is, Derek Yu would be the person to talk to, but neither explainer article includes an interview with Derek, and I don't recall him talking about whether any of the more recent games influenced Spelunky. There is a direct connection between Derek Yu and DoomRL, but I suspect Spelunky was much more fashioned by the general rise of the indie game and Derek's fondness for NetHack than his participation or awareness of early 7DRL efforts.

But even if there is no connection, it is an important part of the story that the community should be telling and a narrative that is far more interesting than the 'difficulty is in again' message that the mainstream press is perpetuating. It is also a way of including the unsung heroes of the rise of the roguelike - the authors of countless freeware roguelikes who influenced and built the platforms upon which we stand, as well as the original authors of Rogue who founded the genre.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Review: High Frontier Colonization

Are you willing to gamble an hour of time, sweat and frozen tears on the roll of a dice? That's the question High Frontier will ask of you, and if you're not willing - and the randomness this game tempts you with can always be overcome with more turns and more water (its unit of currency) - the steely eyed missile man next to you will be, and he (or she) will win the game as a result.

Phil Eklund designs board games by building a simulation then letting his play testers tell him what is fun; and High Frontier is the simulation closest to his heart and some twenty years in the making. The basic game (sadly out of print) outlines the template of colonising the solar system by flying a rocket to a planet or planetoid which comes in five spectral classes, prospecting and (if successful) industrialising it using a robonaut and refinery, and then ET producing advanced technologies in the resulting factory which allow you to fly further, faster with less mass and get more water when you get there. The Colonization expansion takes this template and turns it into a compelling, deep, rewarding game.

Each turn you get two types of actions: operations, which lets you progress towards your goal by doing things like earning income, researching patents (cards) in auction, boosting cards into orbit; and moves, which lets you form and move a spacecraft. You begin with one crew operation, and one rocket move, and by acquiring additional technologies, many of which are presented in the Colonization rules as self-contained modules, you can get additional moves as you build and promote freighters, and promote your Bernal - a self-contained space habitat that I strongly recommend you include the rules for if you are playing with the political and event tracks, and additional operations by recruiting and boosting colonists.

The political track comes into its own with the colonist module which lets you recruit would be space farers from the mundane (Islamic Refugees) to the theoretical (Blue Goo Symbonts) - each of which has political allegiance to and votes for one of the five factions in the game, and not necessarily the faction who is its employer. The current politics determines how much you get when you free market patents back to the bottom of the deck; but also who is in power and able to antitrust duplicate card types out of any other player's hand. Extreme politics also restrict some or all players in the game and otherwise mix up the rules; intervening politics takes the form of anarchy or war, which allows felonies and even combat between factions.

High Frontier has been criticised for being inaccessible: and this inaccessibility takes two main forms. The first of which is mechanical. In the perhaps 25 turn basic game, you'll spend the first 15 to 20 turns doing nothing but auctioning for patent cards and boosting rocket parts in order to build and fuel your first rocket. The basic rockets in the game use water for fuel, and 40 tonnes of water in low earth orbit (1 WT) is the basic currency of the game, so you literally are burning dollars as you move around the solar system. The last few turns involve a rapid and risky land grab and industrialisation and then the basic game is over just as it feels like it is beginning - a fault Colonization rectifies but unfortunately by extending what is otherwise a briskly paced 2 hour game.

The second point of inaccessibility is conceptual: and it involves understanding the map. The High Frontier map is an elegant and beautiful artefact - the London Underground map of the solar system out to Sedna in the Oort cloud. Moving about this map, once you grok it, is both graceful and frustrating, as planned routes fall short by one tank of fuel, or the mass of the fuel required to get your rocket to its destination instead brings it to a dead stop. For beginners that frustration manifests in failed missions, where the price of failure often involves many turns of effort to reassemble the rocket and recover the stranded crew.

The map is organised in concentric zones with the sun as their centre, named for each of the planets (plus Ceres) and inscribed with helical paths which allow you to move between zones, planets and asteroids. The primary obstacle in your path takes the form of burns. Each burn uses a number of steps of fuel depending on the efficiency of your spacecraft's thruster: the highly inefficient built-in crew module thrusters cost six steps of fuel per burn, the typical workhorse thrusters you build use two to four fuel steps per burn and highly efficient rockets less, to the point where you reach star drives which effectively use no fuel to move (but so do solar sails which you can research immediately, but whose thrust level and dependency on solar power restricts them to the inner solar system unless you know what you're doing). The lighter the rocket, the more steps of fuel you get for each tank of water you invest (but the more fuel carried, the lower the payoff for adding another tank).

Burns appear at the edge of each zone and around planets - the larger the planet, the more burns intervening; and you typically plan starting routes so that you cross no more than three burns before you reach your destination or a refueling point along the way. But you have to balance burns against thrust requirements, because to land on an usable site requires that you have a higher thrust than the size of the site, or you pay a penalty in fuel steps equal to the size of the planet when you land, and again when you take off. The Moon is size 9 in this scheme, and is one of the more inaccessible places in the whole solar system when you take this into account. High thrust thrusters are hugely inefficient (crew modules are thrust 8 or 9, most starting rockets are thrust 3 to 5), so you'll want to carry a second thruster for the landing, but that adds mass which reduces rocket effectiveness...

When you do reach somewhere; and provided you've managed the more complex task of bringing a robonaut or crew with you, you may be able to prospect the site and claim it. You can only prospect if the ISRU rating of the card you're using to prospect is less than or equal to the water rating of the site, both on a 0-4 scale. Crew starts with 4, most beginning robonauts are 2 or 3: the most easily accessible sites are 0, 1 or 2. This is a hard limit, so you have to envisage the board as if sites with lower ISRUs than you can access simply don't exist, for both prospecting and refuelling purposes. But the roll for prospecting depends on the site size, where you roll one dice (or two, with a buggy) to try to get less than or equal to the site size. Comets are a great example of this trade off: they are wet (4 hydration) but small (size 1) and have adjacent hazards which you must spend 4 WT or avoid a roll of 1 to pass through safely, and the majority are synodic comets are only accessible for part of the solar cycle.

A successful claim is only the beginning, because among the heavier cards in the game are refineries, which you combine with a robonaut to industrialise and build a factory on a successful claim (returning both cards to your hand). It is at this point the spectral class of a site matters: because all the technologies you can build also have a spectral class, which allows you to produce the black side of the card but only at your factories with the matching spectral type. Black cards are typically improvements, but the best white cards typically have the most underwhelming black sides, and the most powerful black sides (including the legendary Salt Water Zubrin) are on the black side of the worst white cards. The most easily accessible spectral class is C but few powerful cards are this spectral type (and no gigawatt rockets), the majority and most powerful of cards are spectral class S, but S sites are amongst the smallest and driest in the game (Lunar excepted), and V, D and M spectral classes are distributed in smaller quantities in harder to reach places.

And when you've built the first of your factories and can begin producing black cards that the game of High Frontier Colonization gets going. I can only describe a 2 player High Frontier Colonization game I played recently over at the Board Game Geek forums where I was UN playing NASA in order to capture the flavour of the game.

NASA was able to establish an early claim on Deimos and started shipping water and ET produced D technologies back to his Bernal. I had tried slowing the game down by going anti-nuke, and using my diplomatic immunity to allow me to continue to research and boost reactors but when it became clear that the game was going to run away from me, I forced two elections using Activism, with a threat of going Egalitarianism forcing him to move to Anarchy after he spent an unprecedented 7 WT on the first election to do so to try to counter the political dominance that my Vatican Observers gave me. With my second election I declared war, and hit his Bernal with boosted Kuck Mosquito powered by a Lyman Alpha Trap, killing his Siren Cybernetics Inc colonists who had threatened me consistently with antitrust, along with 7 other cards including two blacks.

I followed this up with a successful water theft on Deimos, avoiding two of his missile counter salvos, and tried to move my Bernal (with the Vatican Observers) to Vesta to avoid further attack which I had already industrialized but it was destroyed moving through the Karin group which I had bust previously.

I was forced to rely on the Ablative Laser and Biophytolytic Algae Farm to moving and prospecting from comet to comet (unsuccessfully), until just before the red synodic comet, which (due to turn order) he was able to get to before me and prospect successfully - I managed to industrialize a non-synodic comet one burn away. I had been able to research and produce both the V freigher and GW thruster which held out some hope, but with a comet dirtside (along with M class Hertha he used to build his terawatt thruster) he was able to boost more colonists, turn his Bernal into a lab and reach Europa. I conceded when he researched the D freighter after a long inspiration burn: it would have been a short step from there to emancipate the robots and build the Beehive future victory with 4 spectral classes Europa would have given him he needed for the Epic Hazard op.

I want to stress that I conceded at what would normally be the beginning of the High Frontier Colonization late game - because the game had been so one sided. I had failed every prospect I attempted except the last (and where prospecting was automatically successful), he had succeeded at every prospect no matter how unlikely. But what sticks with me, is no matter how far behind I was, there was a possibility at almost every turn which I could leverage, if I looked hard enough. The game felt like playing chess, but where I could find cracks between his bishops and rooks with which to move my remaining pawns.

And this is why High Frontier Colonization rewards the time you invest in it. There is no game winning tactic, easy synergy or cheap trick: and yet when you look hard enough, every move you make takes advantage of your knowledge and understanding of the interlocking systems in the game.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


I'm not going to get the runner up details together for a little while, but Darren Grey made the intriguing suggestion that the roguelikes which get between 10-100 votes are the most interesting. With that in mind, and with the assistance of Joseph Bradshaw who has converted the results to a spreadsheet for further analysis (TBD by another volunteer if you want to help out), I'd like to present 'The most interesting roguelikes of the year 2013' as a unicorn chaser.

Infra Arcana84
Steam Marines50
One Way Heroics46
Pixel Piracy45
Red Rogue39
Bionic Dues38
Diablo, the Roguelike37
Dungeon of the Endless35
Legend of Dungeon35
Triangle Wizard31
Hack, Slash, Loot25
Forays into Norrendrin20
Nuclear Throne18
Paranautical Activity17
The Veins of the Earth16
Hydra Slayer15
Drakefire Chasm14
Tower of Guns14
Voyage to Farland12
Dungeon Dashers11
Rogue's Tale10
Occult Chronicles10

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Winner of the Ascii Dreams Roguelike of the Year 2013: Noxico

You probably haven't heard of Noxico. It is one of the sub genre of adult roguelikes, that I only was made aware of when I ran this poll last year. The link I'm not going to include in this post has an adults only warning on the front page. The site beyond it is NSFW but in reality is only barely titillating. I'm bemused to see that the first bullet point feature the game has is 'Reasonable Unicode Support'.

Nonetheless, it garnered more votes than any other for the roguelike of the year, and I wish to congratulate the developer for his or her persistent fan base.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Page down key

If you're on a PC, it's at the top right of your keyboard.
If you're on OS/X, good luck...

[Edit: My apologies for the lack of vi-key support.]

Monday, 30 December 2013


If you really liked 868-HACK but wished it had a bit more blood and sandals, Hoplite (iOS, Android) may be your thing...

(Touch Arcade thread where it appears to be causing people to sacrifice their GotY to the ancient gods)

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Request for Votes: Ascii Dreams Roguelike of the Year 2013

290 roguelikes have qualified this year: this is only a slight increase of 7 roguelikes from last year and begs the question: 'Have we reached peak roguelike?'. More importantly, there's a significant difference in the included roguelikes as I have included all the 7DRL entries this year. I have not done this in previous years, so the figures could hide an actual drop in the total roguelikes released in 2013. However...

How did the games qualify?

The list was taken from the roguelike releases announced on the Rogue Basin news section between December 16th 2012 and December 16th 2013 and the 7DRL rogue likes that were rated by the challenge evaluation process. Unfortunately the list of Actively Developing Roguelikes is no longer maintained, so I instead included roguelikes listed on the last 6 months of  posts on the roguelikes subreddit. This undoubtedly misses more rogue like releases than in previous years. I especially note that the Rogue Basin news section appears to be heavily biased against commercial releases - whereas the roguelikes subreddit is biased towards commercial releases so in summary it probably evens out. However, more eclectic releases will undoubtedly be missing from the list.

If there is a roguelike you want to vote for which is not on the list, please post in the comments and I will include your votes in the final totals.

What about 'x'? Why isn't it on the list?

Make sure you announced your roguelike on Rogue Basin for next year.

What about 'y'? Why is it on the list?

As roguelikes become more popular, the term is used to increasingly describe a broader type of game. This list has expanded to embrace that idea, but mostly to ensure that we don't miss any actual roguelikes. With this many entries, I'd rather be inclusive rather than exclusive, as I cannot possibly play every entry. You are free to not vote for a game if you don't consider it a roguelike.

What's the prize?
Pride. And a sexy logo - if you want one. You can see the winning 2007 logo on the Dwarf Fortress links page. Other winners are free to request them, but haven't done so. Logo designs for this year are welcome.

Having a competition is a dumb idea/offensive/stupid when you can't police the results.

Yep. Doesn't stop it being fun. You can vote for multiple different roguelikes. The idea here is that you will be encouraged to go out and download a roguelike that other people consider interesting, not that there is any kind of real competition element involved.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

An Interview (of me)

I just received an enthusiastic email from someone who clearly loves the blog having just started reading it, but is also wondering where I am at. I thought I'd include my response to his email below:

My output has dropped significantly now I have children. I hope you've also checked out the PCG wiki that I've set up, and have read the chapters of the PCG book Noor Shaker, Julian Togelius, Mark J Nelson et al are putting together.

Conveniently, below is the interview responses to some interview questions that the above authors sent me recently - I hope these answer your questions. Their questions are in bold.

Was there anything you wanted to do in a game you worked on that you could not do because of algorithmic or computational limitations?

My thinking about game design has changed significantly over the years, since writing the original Death of the Level Designer series of articles. One of the key changes - guided a lot by games like Michael Brough’s 868-HACK - is that a game should embrace limitations, rather than attempt to design around them. So rather than creating procedural systems which can model everything ala Dwarf Fortress, there are real advantages in keeping games as limited as possible in order that the significance of individual procedural elements is emphasized, rather than smoothed over by a melange of inputs. My personal limitations are very much around algorithm implementation rather than design: for instance, while I have a good understanding of what a Voronoi diagram looks like and where it could be used, I’m unlikely to ever successfully reimplement anything but a brute force approach for calculating cell membership.

What new design questions has PCG posed for some game you worked on?

I’ve written extensively about this - refer to the writing on my blog post on Unangband’s dungeon generation and algorithmic monster placement for specific discoveries. Since then, UnBrogue includes very little original procedural content: I mostly plug new values into the well written framework that Brian Walker has developed for Brogue’s ‘machine’ rooms. These days I try to steer clear of actually designing procedural systems: my experience is that you can achieve a lot using a very simple set of algorithms, provided you choose your content carefully (see Darius Kazemi’s essay on Spelunky’s level generation for a great example of this).

Which is the most impressive example of procedural content generation you have seen since your own work?

I’d be hard pressed to ignore Miguel Cepero of Voxel Farm, who I’m sure a lot of people you interview will mention. While the above ground system looks great, it was his cave designs that won me over, after being a doubter. What really impresses me though is he’s developing all this while being the father of twins - I’m in the same position and I can never find the time...

What do you think of the fact that roguelikes have become a genre of their own? Is PCG in your opinion an essential part of what a roguelike is?

I’m going to quote Edmund McMillen here, since he made the definitive statement on why you should write a roguelike:

"The roguelike formula is an amazing design plan that isn't used much, mostly because its traditional designs rely on alienatingly complicated user interfaces. Once you crack the roguelike formula, however, it becomes an increasingly beautiful, deep, and everlasting design that allows you to generate a seemingly dynamic experience for players, so that each time they play your game they're getting a totally new adventure." --

PCG is obviously an important part of this process, but it isn’t independent from the other roguelike genre features like permadeath. My hunch is that there are other ‘design plans’ out there that are waiting to be found that will feature PCG - in fact the majority will do, but we don’t necessarily know what they look like, or have the maturity of the medium (of PCG) to be able to discover them.

What's your tips for designing games that use PCG?

Keep your algorithms simple and choose your content carefully.

Do you have any interesting stories about PCG failures?

Not personally, since I’ve taken such a conservative approach to PCG algorithms.

In general, is there anything in a game you think could never be procedurally generated?

The specific quirks of the real world. I’m not saying that PCG can’t create something like the real world: I expect the depth required to make a world ‘completely convincing’ is actually more shallow than most PCG ‘haters’ realize - but ultimately, when it comes to simulation, the fact that we exist at a specific time and place in a continuum of choices and random events is something that PCG can only hold a mirror up to. Hand placed design will always be needed if you want to model history - PCG will overtake hand placed design for ‘fantasy worlds’ in the not too distant future.

[Edit to add: I also think the trend to 'single map games' like DotA 2, and e.g. de_dust2 in Counter Strike may also provide an impediment.]

Why is PCG not used more?

PCG is a language that requires a level of literacy to understand. We’re not effectively teaching this language yet, but we’re not effectively teaching the language of game design in general either. Also, it is often more expensive than hand placed content, because a PCG algorithm which is only 90% complete can not create anything useful, whereas 90% accurate hand placed content is clearly 9/10ths done. It's hard to describe working with PCG this way, but there’s almost a phase change between when a PCG algorithm just creates junk, and when it starts producing beautiful results, and it can be very hard to tune it to reach this state.

What do you see as current directions for PCG that are worth investigating?

There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening on the academic side - getting this to percolate over to game development is going to be the real challenge.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Loneliest Frontier

If you have been following me on twitter, you will know I've taken the plunge into the world of board games*. This almost happened by accident: I'm still tweaking the Civilization Revolution variant that I've written the manual for (and little else); and one of the resources I'm using is the rocket science fan site Atomic Rockets. One of the games which gets the Atomic Rockets seal of approval for scientific accuracy in space flight is High Frontier, a game which has been around for a few years, but has just released a new version of its game expansion High Frontier: Colonization. And this, along with Bios: Megafauna by the same designer, are the board games I've decided to first buy and play.

The designer, Phil Eklund, is an actual rocket scientist but surprisingly High Frontier was not his first game - but he has gone on to develop it as a part of his magnum opus: a board game series which allow you to play through the history of the earth (currently from the Permian catastrophe using Bios: Megafauna), mankind (using the now out of print Origins: How We Became Human) and out into space using High Frontier, High Frontier: Colonization and a solitaire game High Frontier: Interstellar which uses the HF: Colonization playing pieces along with a poster map you order online and simulates the first interstellar colonization attempt. Phil has promised further games in the series: namely Bios: Genesis which will cover the origin of life from RNA to multi-cellular organisms, and Bios: Insecta which presumably will cover the pre-Permian period from invertabrates to vertabrates and for which he has made few details available other than the name [Edit: Insecta exists and is mostly in print]. Each game in the series also details how you move from one to the next (another poster release, Bios: Origins expands the Bios: Megafauna and Origins maps, and includes the rules to get from megafauna to High Frontier).

The whole concept is gamer catnip, and I am extraordinarily surprised that the games are not more highly coveted and praised. As a board game neophyte, I can see several reasons for this:

  • The barrier to entry for playing a board game is much higher - namely you have to have two to five people in the same room at the same time, with a similar understanding of a set of rules which only knowledge of these rules is capable of enforcing. So a lot less games get played, and the process of developing and testing these games is a lot less likely to find game design issues which are only obvious after repeated plays.
  • There is an accompanying weird fetishization of physical objects attendant with owning a board game. The process of shipping creates a dissonant anxiety (did I order the right things? when will they arrive?) not to mention the process of handling and taking care of the game (I bent a card! what do you mean I have to cut stuff with scissors?). I can happily report I had absolutely no issues with the procurement process: for High Frontier, you buy the base game here, and the Colonization ziploc expansion here (which fits in the original box) and you'll need to get both to get the 10/10 game experience. Phil has also mailed the pieces to the two players who ended up with a single missing component without prompting when they mentioned it on the Board Game Geek forums.
  • It is not entirely clear which games to buy and which are still available, especially from the Board Game Geek site. At the moment, you can only get High Frontier + High Frontier Expansion, and Bios: Megafauna; and two posters, one for High Frontier: Interstellar and one for Bios: Origins. I'll put together a poster buying guide when I take the plunge. Additionally, you'll need to download the living rules for Bios: Megafauna (and Bios: Origins - there's an optional rule about Herbivore immigrant placement which is recommended by enough people for the main game) and email Phil Eklund to get access to 3 'Alive & Complete' Google docs: for High Frontier, High Frontier Civilisation and High Frontier Interstellar.
  • The way these particular games are designed to work involve a high level of randomness which results in repeated set backs. Coming from a roguelike background, this isn't an issue but the randomness is anathema to what I understand is the Eurogame style of play that a lot of board gamers ascribe to. The alternative school of board games, called Ameritrash, would bounce off the set back side of things, combined with the fact that playing requires a lot of forethought and set up turns (each turn in High Frontier is quite quick to resolve, but if you don't build your rocket right, or miscalculate the fuel required for a trip, you need a lot of turns to recover).
  • The themes and expression of these themes are pitched hard into my hard science fiction ball park ("Blue Goo Sophonts, New Attica Secessionists"), but could be incredibly off putting to your average Star Wars/Star Trek nerd, if such a beast exists (what do you mean there's a whole game dedicated to making one trip of less than 10 light years?). Similarly the balance between game and theme is way off - over half the basic High Frontier manual is a detailed explanation of the technologies involved, and the average High Frontier card has the same balance between information and chrome of a face card in a standard deck of cards - although a lot more information needs to be packed onto a single HF card.
  • The scale and scope of the games is quite different to conventional games set in the genre. Science fiction games are typically multi-solar system spanning space opera epics; civilization games are usually technology centric; rather than socio-technical. Part of this challenge is due to Phil's naive Objectivist and rather perplexing climate change denialist stance, as well as his adoption of some offbeat ideas which sound like cards straight from Steve Jackson's Illuminati (L5 Society!).

It is this scale which is a refreshing change from video games: while the games are simulationist, they are only so in a sense that can be captured simply and expressed clearly - but they achieve much more than an equivalent computer game would dare to. Climate change in Origins involves submerging and exposing continental shelves and in Megafauna whole species can be wiped out in a single card draw. There is a profound cause and effect relationship in these board games which video games lose: were these games be ported to iOS (plz kk thx), people would treat the random number generator as biased against them.

As is my wont, after playing a game and a half of solitaire rules, I've already written a set of house/optional rules/variants for High Frontier: Colonization to address some imbalances in the political side of the game, and Phil has graciously indicated that if I can get them playtested, he'll include them as options in the online rules. That in itself poses a challenge, because I need to find 3 to 5 willing test subjects in Sydney who already understand (and preferably own) the game - or devote the time to learning the online Vassal module. I can't include myself in those games in case I need to tweak the rules while running live, but the changes I've made are simple enough I'm hoping they don't required much amendment.

But the sheer thrill of successfully building a rocket and landing it on Mercury has hooked me. I look forward to the rest of the series.

* Writing this post, I realise I actually mean a plunge back into the world of board games. I owned Steve Jackson's Illuminati at one point and possibly the original Civilization board game and expansion which predates Sid Meier's game. And I'm not sure whether Car Wars counts as a board game.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


Kornel Kisielewicz, developer of DoomRL recently asked via twitter and the Roguelikes Reddit what people expect from a modern roguelike - and received the usual responses: UI, graphics (and even multiplayer). While an excellent user interface is a necessary but not sufficient reason to call a roguelike modern, I think he is doing a disservice by dismissing my tweeted response out of hand that roguelikes need to be more like Brogue or 868-HACK.

I only have a few minutes to expand on this idea here, but ever since the Binding of Isaac, it is my belief that a modern roguelike should be of limited length, but infinite width. The games should be short - Brogue's maps are at the upper limit of what is acceptable for me any more; but replayable, and the experience should expand through unexpected interactions arising out of a small number of meaningful items, so that no two games play alike. The game cannot have much if any in the way of pre-game character development: characters should instead be defined by the random pickups that they must choose between - both to reduce the length of time playing, and to force the player to experience a greater variety of what the game has to offer.

I don't see this as a subgenre, as Kornel suggests: I see this as the future.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Tips for 868-HACK: Part One

868-HACK is a game at a tactical level about positional conflict: you can fight an infinite number of enemies provided they approach one at a time with no gaps between them, whereas two adjacent enemies will leave you with only 1 hp remaining from full health and three will kill you. The margin of survivable to fatal is razor thin, so it becomes important to understand how your positioning and your programs can help you reduce the number of enemies you must face at a time. This can roughly be divided into three phases of play: incoming transmissions, either from entering a new level or siphoning; the post-transmission melee; and surviving the large number of enemies in the later levels of the game.

Spawn control
I have lost count of the number of times I have died from siphoning a 4 alert firewall on the opening level because the resulting incoming enemies spawned in a position that killed me. In a game with permadeath, even one as short as 868-HACK, if you rely on something once a sector that is only 90% effective, then your avatar will die over the course of a single game 57% of the time. And the biggest source of randomness that will affect you over the course of a single turn is the location and type of incoming transmissions.
Ignoring programs for the moment, there are several factors you can use to influence transmissions following a firewall siphon. The most obvious one is controlling how many enemies appear with each siphon. When you don't have the resources available to control the positional game (see below), it may be worth siphoning less efficiently for credits, energy or usage of siphons, if you can siphon two close firewalls separately instead of being forced to siphon both at the same time. And since transmissions don't appear in locations you can immediately attack - the 4 cardinal directions from your avatar to the nearest firewall - it may be worth siphoning in a more open location to decrease the number of grids transmissions are permitted to appear in, or to eliminate closer grids in favour of grids further away.
A number of programs allow you to reduce or modify the nature of incoming transmissions. The calculus of how many credits to spend to eliminate transmissions is a complex one, but again you should be willing to spend more resources the more transmissions are incoming in order to reduce this to an ideal 3 transmissions or less.
In terms of cost, a good rule of thumb is that 4 energy (two pushes) or 3 credits (specific enemy counter programs) allows you to kill a single enemy in positional combat if things go wrong and you have the right program so if you can eliminate transmissions for less than this amount, you should. You should also use this calculation as rough guide for how much cash and energy you need when entering a new sector (a number of enemies spawn per sector) - again depending on which programs you have. If we take 3 as the 'safe' transmission amount, you don't need energy or credits moving to sectors 2 or 3, 4 energy or 3 credits for sector 4, up to 20 energy or 15 credits for level 8. On top of that, you'll need up to 3 times the 'tactical parity flip' cost (see below) to deal with the remaining three enemies.

Positioning is all about ensuring that no more than one enemy ends up moving next to you each turn, which you can then stun to damage and eliminate. A corollary of this is you need to ensure that you never end up being forced to move next to an enemy - which can easily happen if you don't have what Michael Brough calls a 'tactical parity flip'. The canonical example of this is the .WAIT command. In the screen shot below, I'm unable to consume a turn of time to allow the DAEMON to move closer towards me and as a result I am forced to move towards them which allows the DAEMON to attack and remove my last hit point. Tactical parity affects all enemies which are an even number of moves away from you.

While there are a number of other tactical parity flips such as PUSH and STEP, you will most often use non-program parity flips. The most common is being able to attack another enemy, often at range, which uses up a turn, but you could also siphon to use a turn. Exiting the level has the opposite effect, you move, but no enemies get a turn, and you can use this to both flip parity and increase range between you and your enemies. And enemies can be blocked by other enemies which will flip the parity of the unit being blocked - the easiest way to do this is to retreat away from both enemies which is why paradoxically the corner grids are dangerous in this game as they offer no path of retreat. This is especially noticeable when you appear on a new level and have an incoming transmission a knight's move in from an otherwise clear corner. Unless it is a virus, you will have to spend a tactical parity flip or eliminate the transmission or you will be damaged by the resulting enemy.

Retreating has one important additional function. If an enemy has the wrong parity, and you can retreat so that it is presented with a choice of two grids it can enter, it has a 50% chance of moving perpendicular to you, which may present a ranged shot opportunity. This is not always effective - glitches appear to always move onto wall grids if at all presented with the opportunity; but conversely viruses appear to always move into a ranged shot opportunity if given the choice between that and the grids directly diagonal to you.

Viruses are more complicated because they have parity on the odd numbered grids away from you (or every third grid if you move towards them on your turn), and additionally have half parity moves. This is where a virus is two grids away from you and you are unable to attack it safely such as the top most virus to the left of the daemon next to me.
With half parity, eliminating the intervening enemy allows the virus to move into the grid adjacent to you and attack you on the same turn. Half parity moves cannot be parity flipped by using WAIT, attacking another enemy or using siphon, but can be eliminated by programs that allow you to change the intervening distance by one or by exiting the level. Most importantly, half parity can be flipped by retreating one grid - which is yet another reason why you should give yourself space to retreat and not get boxed into a corner.

It is important to note that viruses cannot just move one grid unless they are blocked. In the example below the virus closest to me is in a full parity position. Until I kill the daemon, it must either move north then west or east then south - both of which are also parity positions. When the daemon is killed, it will occupy the grid next to me. Unfortunately, while fighting the daemon, and the virus to the west which is at half parity, one of the two remaining viruses ended up with a blocked move and changed to half parity and was able to damage me.
Killing fields
The large number of enemies that appear in the late game, especially on level 8, need to be avoided or eliminated. Part of the early game is identifying how you will handle levels such as this one which are almost filled with enemies: in this example I was fortunate that the exit didn't appear in the bottom right hand corner when I entered from top left, and so I was able to step across the intervening grids, pausing to siphon points. There are a number of combinations of programs which can perform the killing function - and it may be useful to siphon near the exit on the previous level and enter 8 not having cleared 7, if you have a combination of programs that benefits from overlapping enemies or a mix of enemy types.