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Gamasutra Talks with Reynolds and Shelley

This is a few days old and I missed it when it went live back on the 15th, but in case you missed it as well, Gamasutra has a revealing interview with Brian Reynolds and Bruce Shelley, two strategy gaming icons, about the hows and the whys of their joining Zynga (Shelley is more a consultant) to develop social games on Facebook. Say what you will about that, but Frontiersville made money and has or had a user base of well over 60 million people. Million with an M. At what point does the idea of “social games on Facebook” not cause some gamers to make “that face” and chuckle? These games aren’t going away, folks. Brian Reynolds is a great guy to talk to–about as laid back as any “name” designer you are likely to meet.

Fun fact: When Reynolds was at Big Huge Games, developing Rise of Legends, I was at E3 that year covering the show and scored a Q&A with Brian inside this makeshift kiosk. Tom Chick and I were there for GameSpy and we sat at this little table and Brian started riffing about all kinds of stuff. Sid, Civ, Alpha Centauri, Rise of Nations, design ideas, etc. Tom and I were all ears and we just started talking games. It was great. So we’re done talking and I ask Tom “So did you get all that?” Tom says, “Wait, I thought you were recording it?” I had that deer-in-headlight look.

“Hey Brian you can do that again?” Much laughter. He didn’t do it again. We are, if anything, strictly professionals.

A taste from the Q&A:

What is it about the Sid Meier school of design that seems to meld so well with the social games space?

Brian Reynolds: So I think it’s partially the fact that Sid created a system of making games where the core of it was rapid prototyping, and he was the best at it, ever. You would say ‘firemen’, and he would — two weeks later — have a game where you’d be like going down poles and pointing hoses at stuff and there’d be fire engines. So he could kind of make a game out of anything and get the core of it up running really fast, and then you play it and you revise it, and you play it and revise it.

Read the whole 3-page Q&A here.

Amazon Brings the (Non SSI) Gold Box Gaming Love

No High Scores

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s Atlus love-in, Amazon is busting out a bunch of gaming Gold Box deals today. Here are the game descriptions, with my best guess as to what the game is:

6am – “Enter into the premier online role-playing experience” – World of Warcraft Battle Chest – $17.99
8am – “Don’t forget treats for your Mabari War Hound.” – Dragon Age 2 – I was right – $49.99 to $56.99
10am – “Pick up this Sony PS3 exclusive collectors edition” – Killzone 3 – $79.99
12pm – “Hey man, nice Skillshot.” – Bulletstorm – $39.95
2pm – “After thirteen days of fates intertwined, the battle begins” – Probably Final Fantasy XIII
4pm – “Embark on epic quests and build your Kingdom.” – Sims Medieval?
6pm – “Unravel the mystery surrounding the origin of the KINGDOM HEARTS” – Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded
8pm – “Get ready to take to the field” – I would imagine either MLB 2K11 or The Show

I’ll update the post as games and prices get announced, so keep checking back.

Mortal Kombat: Legacy Episode Two Brings the Owie

Damn. Hope Kano has a good vision plan. If you thought the episode of this series was too much with the talking and not enough with the punching, rest assured, all of the talking in this one is done with fists. Well, not all of it, but a significant percentage.

On a side note, Jeri Ryan has one hell of a “walk away from bad guys and look damn good while doing it” walks.

Inbetween Days

After the madness of bum-rushing through nearly fifty hours of Dragon Age II, reviewing five of the 3DS launch games in the span of about two weeks and beating what must be the longest FPS single-player campaign ever in Crysis 2, I found myself without a big, new game to play. You see, I’m one of those “whales” that Abner talked about in his Sunday Time-Waster. I get games when they’re new, and I try to at least play everything at least reasonably interesting that comes out. I think it’s important as a games writer to check everything out in a timely fashion to get a handle on trend and to keep discussions current. But I can’t catch ‘em all, so to speak, so inevitably some things fall between the cracks. That’s why I like it when there’s a lull in the endless conveyor belt that is the video games release schedule, and there’s nothing particularly worthwhile on the books for a couple of weeks.

These times are when I get to catch up on games I missed, never finished, or just want to check out. I’ve actually got a small stack of these “inbetween days” games. It seems like R.U.S.E. is determined to remain at the top of it. I swear I’m going to play that game one day. Yet I still wind up hitting Gamestop,, or Gamefly to bring in new titles even though I’ve got this rainy day pile, and over the past couple of weeks I did it again. All while Oblivion, a half-finished replay of Arkham Asylum, and a bunch of XBLA and PSN games lie there asking “why not me?”

I thought I’d just capture some thoughts on the games I’ve been messing around with. I hesitate to say “play”, because some of them are literally just one-night stands. And in case this gets picked up by the All Seeing Eye of Metacritic, I’m going to assign these all-or-nothing scores. 0 or 100.

Alpha Protocol

Tom Chick is on record as stating that this game is better than Mass Effect 2. I also suspect Tom was that one kid that got Go-Bots instead of Transformers for Christmas and then went back to school proclaiming the superiority of Leader-1 and Cy-Kill over Optimus Prime and Megatron. Sure, the game features some amazing concepts such as the real-time conversation decisions and the mission-based structure with actual espionage and intelligence-gathering gameplay, but the problem is ultimately that Obsidian had no idea how (or perhaps the resources) to leverage them into a decent game. Between the awful controls, graphics that feel like punishment to look at, and a virtual dumptruck full of “clunk” littering every single facet of the game, I couldn’t make it past a couple of hours.

On top of all of its widely reported issues, Michael Thornton is quite possibly the worst character I have ever seen in a game. I don’t know why they bothered with different “tones” for you to select when they all are really “asshole”. At least they could have been honest and gave you a choice between “Smarmy prick”, “Arrogant jackass”, and “Flippant jerkoff”. Facial modeling is uniformly nightmarish across the board, and I found myself pining for the doughy faces of the Gamebryo engine. It’s that bad.

Truth be told, I knew this game was going to be bad when I saw the metallic gold logos and fonts in the menus. For some reason, that just says cheap and tawdry to me. I really wanted to give this game a fair chance, but it actively dared me to like it with its poor quality and sloppy design. I threw in the towel.

All or Nothing score- 0


Another game that met with middling reviews and a general lack of interest, yet there was also some noteworthy praise and suggestions that this might be something of a cult sleeper. I was kind of feeling it at first even though it definitely had a huge, Bioshock-shaped chip on its shoulder. Come on guys, don’t copy everything about a successful game. Regardless, I liked the Cold War theme, I’m a sucker for Soviet kitsch, and I love story-driven FPS games. So it was looking good, even though “workmanlike” was the watchword and there wasn’t anything particularly exciting about it. The stink of mediocrity was faint, but definitely present.

The time travel thing and the business with the “ghosts” was compelling, but once I got to the phasing mutants, whatever they were, I realized that I wasn’t really enjoying the game. I was just “doing” it. I died a couple of times trying to get into this guy’s lab and my interest in the game just plummeted. The weapons were dull, the enemies completely uninteresting, and the setting was repetitive and ultimately boring. I played for several hours and I still didn’t get to the TMD (Time Manipulation Device), which might have made things more interesting with its promise to let you age enemies to death or turn them into embryos. I’d like to use the TMD to help the game get back to Gamefly quicker so that they can send me something else.

I’d love to attack this game more passionately, but it’s just so dull that I can’t muster up the willl.

All or Nothing Score- 0

Yakuza 3

Now we’re talking. Here’s one that I thought for sure was going to be a single session game, but I wound up absolutely adoring it. It isn’t really an open world game, at least not in the Rockstar sense. It’s an open world game in the Sega sense, which puts it more in league with Shenmue than GTA. But what’s even more interesting to me is that it’s almost like a Warner Brothers gangster movie, with a soft-hearted and imminently likeable protagonist who tries to be good but just can’t help getting himself into trouble again. You can almost see Bogart playing Kazuma.

Yakuza 3 is strangely sweet and good natured even beyond its orphanage subplot, and most of the time when you beat down the street punks that accost you at random, they capitulate, apologize, and offer you a gift. How very Eastern. The fights are fun and frequent, and I love picking up a rusty old bike to teach some guy that didn’t like for me to walk by drunk a lesson. By the way, all of the booze in the game is real. I like to get tanked up on Macallan’s and Herradurra before hitting the streets.

I love that the game is very much a Streets of Rage-style beat ‘em up but with light RPG elements and what a forum poster here called “Yakuza soap opera episodes” in between action sequences. Sometimes they’re pretty long, but I’ve actually not minded watching them because the characters are good and the situations are interesting.

There’s a stupid amount of gameplay, most of it light and fun. I usually despise minigames, but I found the golf and other goofy activities kind of fun. There’s silly dating sim material, completely with Karaoke rhythm games. There’s light crafting elements so you can tool up your extendable pole or stun gun. Throw in a little baseball, fishing, and I’m sure there’s probably some kind of racing at some point. The key is that like Saints Row, none of this serious and the game recognizes its own ludicrousness. It’s not self-important and pretentious like most of Rockstar’s titles. It knows it’s a silly video game.

It’s a funny, fun-to-play game. It looks good, controls well, and who knows how much content there is by the time you get to the end. This is going on my “inbetween days” pile to play every now and then, probably on top of R.U.S.E.

All or Nothing score- 100

Pilotwings 3D

You know, I love Nintendo. I think that their first party development is amazing and they do great work in making games that provide players with the ability to effectively choose how difficult they want them to be. I love the “star” mechanic, how it lets the player beat the game fairly easily but everybody knows that getting all the stars is where the challenge is.

That being said, I was sort of looking forward to this kind of game with PilotWings 3D. But every time I started to play it, I got really sleepy. Despite the good 3D effects, this has got to be one of the most sedate, terminally unexciting games I’ve ever played- and that includes the insomnia-curing Kirby’s Epic Yarn. I couldn’t find anything in the game to keep me interested beyond the first couple of courses, and it made me wonder if Nintendo’s explorations into vitality-sensing peripherals might be to provide the user with a warning that they may be about to enter a game-induced coma.

All or Nothing score- 0

SOCOM 4 Beta

Downloaded it. Then, when I sat down to check it out, the game wanted to download another 1554mb or something. On my connection with PSN that’s an overnighter. Deleted. Never played. Sounds like I didn’t miss much.

All or Nothing score- 0

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes HD

I ignored this back when I had a DS. Once I got around to trying it, it didn’t stick with me for some reason. I thought it was OK but unremarkable. I thought I’d pick it up on the cheap sometime and try it again. One I heard that the XBLA version was essentially the same game but with obvious HD upgrades, I thought I’d go the route but then I lost my resolve and plunked down $15 for it and the immediate gratification of content-on-demand.

I just beat the first campaign today, and now I get it. The game is brilliant. It’s easily tbe best puzzle RPG to date, and I think it’s superior to Puzzle Quest by far if only because it introduces some fresh puzzle mechanics rather than simply adding layers to Bejeweled.

As I play through the game, I’m constantly surprised at how incredibly well-designed its mechanics are. The need to balance offense with defense while playing not only with the three-move limit but also space provides a lot of deeply strategic opportunities. Watching for matches is much more complicated than in other puzzle games since there are two types, vertical and horizontal, that have different functions. Then there’s the linking, fusion, and champion units to consider as well as the five unit types to develop your army.

The story mode is fun, although it uses the old timey portrait-and-typed-words crap that I hate that dates back to NES days. It’s not an awful story at least, and it does give some context. The load times, as reported, are terrible and I’m not quite sure why they’re so bad. Maybe a patch can fix that.

I haven’t played multiplayer yet but it looks to be fun, although reports of 60-90 minute matches will probably mean that it’s a friends-only pursuit for me. The AI seems good, but I’m getting to the point where I’m trashing it every game. Human players might give this game some serious legs.

I keep thinking that somewhere in it there is a good design for a tabletop game. It feels board gamey, and I think tabletop gamers will get a lot out of it. If there’s a better XBLA game out there, I haven’t played it yet. Outstanding on every level.

All or Nothing score- 100

So that’s it for this interim period. Tomorrow we’ve got Mortal Kombat and Portal 2, the Gears 3 beta next week, and a bunch of big titles like L.A. Noire and Brink on the immediate horizon so it’s back to the high profile, AAA stuff for the time being. Next time, I swear I’m going to play R.U.S.E. No, really, I mean it this time.

Atlus Games at Amazon's Deal of the Day

Some great stuff at Amazon today for more discounted prices. Amazon’s Deal of the Day includes Demon’s Souls for $15, 3D Dot Game Heroes (a Danielle fav) for $13, Radiant Historia (a Brandon fav) for $28, and a bunch of other Atlus games that I didn’t play.

If you are still considering taking the Demon’s Souls plunge now would be the time. $15 for this game is absurd.

Uncharted 3 MP Beta Coming Soon

I am currently in an Uncharted 3 media black out. I don’t watch Uncharted 3 trailers, I don’t read Uncharted 3 stories, I don’t even know who’s in the damn thing. I’m assuming Nathan, and Elena and maybe Sully. Other than that, I have no idea. This blackout applies to the single player portion of the game only, which is why I can tell you that the game’s multiplayer beta will start on June 28th. If you’re a PlayStation Plus member or buy InFAMOUS 2, you get access even earlier.

Naughty Dog is promising all sorts of additions to multiplayer in Uncharted 3 including customizable player skins and weapon load outs as well as a buddy system that will allow you to hook up with a friend so that you can find yourself more easily as you get killed all across the battlefield. The buddy system also has a boost component to it granting perks for you and your buddy that allow you to gain more experience, cash and medals during matches. No word on whether or not your buddy and you can climb a tree, or if your buddy and you will be the best friends you can be.

Hunted: The Demon's Forge Crucible Trailer

More Bethesda news today as a new Hunted trailer is making its way around the blog circuit. I’ve played this first hand and while I am still unconvinced just how good it’s going to be as a solo game (it was an early build so don’t hold me to that) it does look to be a neat co-op game and the Crucible mode detailed in the above video, as long as the core game is good, is a pretty neat idea.

Hunted is set to drop on May 31.

Rage 'Anarchy Edition' Announced

Bethesda and id are getting in the pre-order game with Rage: Anarchy Edition. What do you get for slapping down your cash early? Tell them what they’ve won Bob!

A one-handed double shotgun, the Fists of Rage (spiked knuckle dusters), a ‘special’ buggy for the driving/racing sections called the Rat Rod, Crimson Elite armor and the Wasteland Sewer missions (mutant tunnels, basically).

The armor isn’t just a better piece of metal . As Destructoid put it, “Apparently, when you first start the game, you’re given the opportunity to choose from one of three suits, each suit has its own unique attributes. With the Crimson Elite armor, you’ll receive the attributes of each suit, and you’ll be the most fashionable human in the wasteland.”

If you don’t pre-order it sounds like you can “upgrade” to the Anarchy Edition later, at a cost. Hooray.

Rage is set for a September 13 release.

Writing About Talking: Jumping the Shark Podcast #65

No High Scores
Image: Filomena Scalise /

Guest month continues for Jumping the Shark this week as we’re joined by High Voltage Software’s Keith Hladik (producer) and Eric Stoll (lead designer) to talk about tomorrow’s release of The Conduit 2. My only experience with this franchise is marveling at how good it looked on the Wii at E3 two years ago, but Brandon? Brandon loves him some Conduit and he’s in top form this week. Unfortunately, the High Voltage gang was unable to join us for the games we’ve been playing segment, but that didn’t stop us from talking a little Clash of Heroes (XBLA), Hunters HD (iPad), more Demon’s Souls, a Tiger Woods wrap-up, and just a teensy bit of Dragon Age 2.

iTunes Link
Direct Download

7 Wonders Review: Pretty Cards in the Ancient World

When it comes to games, be they of the digital, card, or cardboard variety, I am a sucker for ancient and medieval history. Slap on a picture of an ancient Greek holding an 8-foot spear, a war elephant, or a picture of a pretty castle and, for better or worse, I’ll at least pay attention.

Boardgames do this all of the time with middling success. “History” is a common tool designers use to hook in people like me; the problem is that there are so many games which use a historical setting for little to no reason other than to be a historical setting.

The hugely popular deckbuilding game Dominion is a prime example of this. You are, supposedly, trying to build a medieval town or something when you play your cards. But in truth that game could be about baking a cake and it wouldn’t change anything. Just replace the “Bureaucrat” card with an “Icing” or “angel food” card and you’re good to go. Why does the Village give you extra plays or buys or whatever? Shrug. It just does. Go with it.

Not to pick on Dominion, a game that I enjoy in small doses, as there are a slew of games which use a generic medieval or ancient history backdrop for no other reason that to put an old guy on the cover of the box so people like me will look at it.

7 Wonders, one of the current “hot” games on the market, fits snuggly into this category of game – it’s technically about building one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the world which is a really cool backdrop for any game, but it’s really about playing cards of various colors and earning points—in theory (and I have seen it first hand) you can win the game without building or even starting to build a Wonder at all…

And yet, I will never turn down a game of 7 Wonders…

I received 7 Wonders as a Christmas present, and bought it without consulting Barnes first; it’s something he’s still mad about, but I have played dozens of games since and it has turned into one of the best 30 minute filler games in my ever expanding boardgame collection.

Here’s how it works:

Each player is dealt a hand of seven cards, a few gold coins, and a specific player mat with one of the Ancient Wonders from the Lighthouse of Alexandria to the Pyramids of Giza. The cards range from basic brown resource cards (stone, clay, ore, wood), special gray resource cards (loom, papyrus, glass), red military cards (barracks, towers), green science cards (apothecary, scriptorium), blue civilian structures (temples, bathhouse), and yellow commercial cards (markets, taverns).

Obviously the cards all do various things from scoring points to building up military strength and the cards you play are all kept in your display area for all to see; each type of card serves a very specific role and it’s up to you to decide how best to play the hand you are dealt. The kicker is that after you play your first card you then give the rest of your hand to the player next to you so every turn you will receive a set of new cards until the initial seven cards are gone, at which time the first Age is over and seven Age II cards are dealt and the game continues as such. After Age III the game ends and points are tallied.

It’s quick and dirty.

Each card play is tremendously meaningful. There are no throwaway rounds. If you make a mistake and play the wrong card at the wrong time it can cripple your game if you manage to give the player sitting next to you a card he/she obviously needs. You have some terribly tough decisions to make, particularly in the second and third Ages. Do you waste a card to build a stage of your Wonder? Do you stick to your plan and play nothing but science cards? Did you screw up and not play enough resource cards in the first Age? You better have some money then to buy resources from your neighbors.

I love how interactive the game is, even though the level of interaction is a bit obfuscated. The players sitting to your immediate left and right are in effect both mandatory trading partners and bitter enemies. Let’s say you need ore to build a structure (i.e. play a certain play a card). The building costs two ore and you only have one in play. Todd is sitting next to you and he has ore in his display – if you pay him two gold he must allow you to use that ore to build whatever you need. (Todd keeps the ore for future plays, cards are never “used” and removed, but such trading is not optional; you can’t refuse to trade.)

So knowing what the players next to you are doing is extremely important when planning your strategy. On the flip side, at the end of each Age attacks are carried out and, yep, the players next to you are the targets and vice versa and this is where the military cards come into play and points are earned for crushing your enemies and you can even lose points for getting mauled. (Battles are easily calculated by the number of attack symbols you have in play.)

I love the fact that I’m simply not just staring at my play area without a care in the world what is going on around me, which is a common issue I have with games that use player mats.

But what of the Seven Ancient Wonders?

They’re a special part of the game and each Wonder offers up various bonuses and powers. For example, the Pyramids are simply victory point machines. Each time you build a stage of your Pyramid (there are three in all) you earn points. The Temple of Artemis provides money and points after each completed stage. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus allows you to snatch up and play discarded cards, but again you need to build stages in order to do it. To build each stage of the Wonder you need the necessary resources in play (and/or acquired via trading) and then you need to effectively waste a turn and tuck a card under your player mat signifying that you are using it to build the Wonder.

It’s yet another tricky decision that is all about timing and picking the right card to dunk.

I have seen various strategies work in 7 Wonders: going military and crushing your neighbors, trying to corner the market on green science cards which can lead to huge end game points or complete disaster, hoarding blue cards and getting a lot of free upgrades along the way, using Age III guilds to maximum efficiency, etc. It’s the type of game you can play in 30-45 minutes between longer games or you can make a night of it and play this several times in one sitting.

My biggest complaint is that even though it technically supports seven players it really hits a sweet spot with three and with no more than four. This is a point of contention with 7 Wonders players but when you have more than three players there will be players to which you have no contact with throughout the entire game. If we’re playing a seven player game and I’m sitting across the table from you with several people between us, what I do has very little impact on you; we’re never going to be in direct conflict (and we can’t trade).

The other complaint I hear from those new to the game is that it’s very hard to plan a strategy and even after winning people aren’t quite sure how or why they won. It’s a fair complaint but after repeated plays basic ideas start to come to light; even so it’s not a brain burning card game.

7 Wonders scratches a specific itch. It’s fast, easy to learn, and feels complete right out of the box and avoids the weird lingo and abstraction of a game like Innovation and doesn’t require multiple expansions to keep it fresh. At least not yet.