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Cracked LCD- Hearthstone in Review (again)

hearthstone-game-sshot-1

OK, so for most folks this is a way, way late review since Hearthstone has been out now for over a year, not including time in Beta. It’s also a review that might stir up an obnoxious debate as to whether the digital CCG should be regarded as a video game instead of a tabletop game. And almost certainly, lamentations about it being free-to-play and supported by IAPs – let alone that it is a collectible card game that requires that you actually pay for it if you want to be competitive- will certainly follow. And this is also the second time I’ve reviewed Hearthstone. Last time was just over a year ago here on No High Scores.

But here’s the deal. Hearthstone recently released its long-awaited iPhone-friendly update and I’ve been playing it almost non-stop since. I had played the IOS edition briefly when it first came out as an iPad-only release, but because that device is almost always covered in the sticky remnants of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and clogged up with countless Lego, Disney and Angry Birds apps for the kids I didn’t really dig in for the long haul. Now that it’s in my pocket, I can play it all day long. So now it’s time for me to issue forth (again) on what I think is one of the most significant games to date that has married the strands of tabletop and video game design.

Even though Hearthstone takes place on a touchscreen (or a PC monitor), it is 100% a tabletop game design and the designers at Blizzard went to great pains to make this game look and feel tactile. You don’t have to have a little deck-holder built into the onscreen game table, but seeing your cards fly out of it and then manipulating them by touching and dragging gives the game a genuine sense of being physically real. The UI makes those employed by also-ran digital CCGs like Shadow Era look prehistoric by comparison. Blizzard always makes an extremely polished, highly refined product and this game is no exception.

Refinement extends to the actual design, which at first blush is a standard Magic: The Gathering-descended game. Mana, attack/defense stats, keyword abilities and so forth. You can even use a lot of the same terminology to discuss it. But dig in and what you will find is a game whose designers have likely spent 20 years studying Garfield’s design and what made it so successful and then applying some judicious revisions to make it more accessible, more stable and quite possibly more fun.

One difference at the outset is that you pick from one of nine character classes. That class has a special ability and it represents your in-game ego- no vague “Planeswalker” conceit, no grouping everything into colors here. But more than that, your chosen class determines a base set of specific cards that you can use to build your deck to pummel another player into submission by reducing their life with minion attacks, spells and card effects. Each class has specific foci, strengths, weaknesses and unique strategies. On top of those class-specific cards, you also build from a pool of neutral minions to fill out your 30 card deck.

That’s right, 30 cards. That’s a very short stack for most CCGs, and in fact it’s well below the minimum in most other games. But that’s because Hearthstone runs tighter with typically shorter games and an automated mana development curve. There’s no need to figure out which ratios of which colors of which resources to load your deck up with, you automatically get one mana crystal a turn. So by turn ten (if it goes that long), both players are even stevens at ten mana. Of course, discounts and other card effects can shift that balance but the point is that you’ll never be “mana screwed” or find yourself top-decking a Plains card at a do-or-die late game moment.

But like any card game, luck of the draw plays a significant factor in any game regardless of how stacked your deck is with great cards. Both players get a turn one mulligan if they choose, and I’ve played many games where I felt like that choice almost decided the game. Visit any Hearthstone forum or discussion group and you’ll hear plenty of grousing about the RNG (random number generator) and I’ve cursed it myself from time to time. But the truth of it is that Hearthstone embraces the fact that luck is the great leveler in an environment where you might have a novice player that hasn’t spent a dime on the game competing with another who’s spent hundreds of dollars on booster packs and is coming to the table with a deck full of Legendary or Epic cards.

Which leads to the big, nasty discussion that is required about how Hearthstone is monetized. Yes, it is free-to-play and monetized via the purchase of booster packs, Arena entry fees and adventure packs. Yet there are no timers, paywalls or anything like that. When you break down a card you don’t want to generate Arcane Dust to build one you do want, you don’t have to wait three days or pay $5 or whatever to speed it up. You can literally play the game and never spend a single dollar, and I think you could do so and enjoy it at a casual level without a doubt- especially playing with like-minded friends. You can still earn boosters, arena tickets and other rewards just by playing the game. But yes, if you want to get the most out of the deckbuilding and really get involved with the game, you’re going to need to spend money. It is completely transparent, and it is completely respectful to both players that want to spend and players that do not.

For my part, I’ve purchased the adventure packs (Naxxramas and Blackstone Mountain) and have absolutely enjoyed playing these single-player options. They seemed expensive, but the series of challenging, puzzle-like bosses and the ample card rewards turned out to be well worth it and I’m looking forward to what’s next in that area. I’ve bought a handful of boosters, but most of my extra cards have come through earning gold by completing daily quests that challenge you to win a certain number of games as a particular class, cast X number of spells, kill X number of minions- those kinds of things. You can get a booster for 100 gold (normally two packs is $2.99) or you can get an arena ticket for 150 gold, which always gets you at least one booster and other rewards. It’s well worth it.

Arena is a draft mode, and it’s brilliant even though I’m absolutely awful at it. You get 30 choices of three cards each to build your deck and then you play against matchmade players until you lose three times. Then you get your reward. Do well enough and you can cover your fee to get back in there with a new deck. The game does a tremendous job of incentivizing playing it.

The Ranked mode is where most play occurs, and it’s a random ladder where you are matched up with similarly-ranked players. It can be frustrating if you’re paired up against someone who is running a class or deck type that just destroys what you are using, but them’s the breaks. You ain’t gonna win ‘em all. But the idea is to keep winning more than you’re losing to advance in rank.

But there again, I’m not very good myself so a lot of times I feel like I’m just beating my head against a wall. I’ll tweak a deck, maybe stick in a couple of new cards and try it again. This is fun to me, but I’m also not ultra-competitive and I’m not keyed into whatever is going on in the meta or whatever. All that is definitely if you want it, and Hearthstone can become a very serious hobby occupation if you so choose. There’s virtually infinite depth and variety, as is usual for a well-developed CCG, and there are always more cards to pursue to fill out a deck or to realize a certain strategy. Heck, maybe you want to have a completely gold-card deck- those are kind of like foils. God help you. I fall somewhere in between the causal and the hardcore and I’ve got my limits and expectations set. Much like most players, I suspect, in a game that has literally millions of them at this point. It’s really up to you how deep you want the rabbit hole to go.

Beyond all the debate over whether the game is “pay to win” or whatever, beyond whether certain cards or builds are broken, beyond whatever grief the RNG is giving a player what remains is that Hearthstone is a simply staggering piece of game design. Every time I play, I marvel at some subtle aspect of it or some unexpected combination of mechanic and situation. Quite frankly, I think it blows every other CCG that has come since Magic out of the water and not only because there are certain elements of it that could only happen in the digital space, but also because it is as close as any game has gotten to matching the genius of Garfield’s original design. It’s so clean, so unfettered by complication that it almost comes across as simplistic. But what you are really seeing there is the designers of the game acknowledging that a great design needs to be accessible, approachable and inviting.

I think it’s very symbolic that the game is visually and audibly framed as if you were walking into a tavern to play a game on a table with a real player. That’s another fine point that the creators of this game didn’t miss- that one of the things that made Magic great was that face-to-face interaction, even if here it is reduced to canned emotes. The community is huge, the meta intimidating but just as alluring as it is in real-world CCG play. But then I think of all the things that Hearthstone eliminates- even things like having to sort, store and manage a large card collection, having to find time to go to a CCG hall to play against real players who may or may not proper hygiene- and I realize that this is very much what the future of tabletop gaming could be, regardless of the luddism of the whole “gaming unplugged” set.

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Cracked LCD- Hearthstone (IOS) in Review

hearthstone-game-sshot-1

After a lengthy public beta, a general release on PC and Mac and then an agonizingly long one week delay following a “soft launch”, Blizzard’s much-ballyhooed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has finally hit the platform that could potentially make this free-to-play collectible card game a phenomenon. Hearthstone on iPad is a masterful implementation of a masterfully designed game rich with the kind of polish, refinement and attention to detail that has qualified Blizzard’s best work reaching back to the very first Warcraft. Bar none, Hearthstone is the best card game available on IOS and it may just be one of the most significant examples of video games finally repaying all of that debt they’ve had to tabletop games for all of these years.

Like most of Blizzard’s work, Hearthstone is built on a rock-solid design that is immediately approachable by the noobest of the noob, yet the myriad fine points of the design open the doors to tremendous depth and avenues for thoughtful gameplay. The rules are so simple and straightforward that many naysayers and hardline tabletoppers might decry it as a “dumbed down” version of Magic: The Gathering. However, as I always say, those who declare designs that are streamlined and accessible as “dumbed down” are the dumb ones.

There is virtually nothing mechanically fussy or procedurally complicated about the game from the deckbuilding to the highest level of online play. You either take out a stock deck or build a deck of 30 cards from your collection. Each deck corresponds to one of nine Warcraft character types, and each has a unique special ability. Because the deckbuilding limits you to 30 cards, you’re forced to keep decks lean and focused, selecting from class-specific cards as well as neutral options available to all. Those intimidated by selecting cards have some help on hand via a suggestion tool. With deck in hand, you can head out to practice games against fairly competent AI opponents, online casual or ranked games , or an Arena mode that is effectively a sort of sealed deck endurance mode.

Once you’re in a game, it’s about as cut and dried as CCGs get. Every turn you add a mana crystal to your supply- there are no resource cards, no “mana curve”, and you will never be screwed because you didn’t draw the right card. This mechanic keeps players on an even footing in terms of resources while also setting an escalating tempo for the game. Each card, of course, has a mana cost and you’ll be playing Minions, various spells that buff or debuff other cards, direct effect spells and Secrets that remain hidden until the opponent does something that triggers its effect, like immediately killing a summoned Minion.

Creatures have an attack and a defense value, can’t attack on the turn they were summoned, et cetera et cetera. The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life from 30 to zero with Minion attacks or direct damage, blah blah blah. This is all very basic stuff, really, and anyone who has ever played a CCG will feel like they’re putting on a favorite pair of sneakers. Anyone who hasn’t will be playing with some degree of competency within an hour, even though they may not quite yet grasp the subtleties of when to play or not play a card, when to trigger an effect or when to use the extra Mana Crystal card the second player gets as a balancing handicap. Regardless of a small handful of keywords and the inherent intricacies of limitless card interactions, it ain’t rocket science.

But let’s be clear about it- Hearthstone, as a design, is not particularly innovative. It doesn’t break the CCG mold and it will not forever change the way we look at card games. It’s not a quantum shift like Magic: The Gathering was, at least in terms of its white papers. Hearthstone’s greatness doesn’t like in that direction. Where Hearthstone earns its greatness is in how Blizzard’s developers have dismantled the core CCG model and thrown out all of those rocket science elements that sometimes put off game players from more hobby-oriented tabletop games or “hardcore” video games. Blizzard has stripped everything down, wrapping it in a package that looks expensive, complete and inviting with completely intuitive controls and gameplay that is perfectly positioned for all audiences. Ease of play counts for a lot. Ease of play plus a virtually flawless, immaculately balanced and meticulously crafted game design that welcomes players of all skill levels counts for everything.

This game could be huge, as if it didn’t already have a enormous player base. Everyone with an iPad now has free access to one of the best card games in recent years, and it’s absolutely free-to-play so there’s no excuse to not at least check it out if you are at all interested in using your iPad as a gaming device. Hold on, I just hit the brakes there with “free-to-play”, didn’t I?

We’ve all seen abusive, exploitative and utterly repulsive free-to-play schemes in digital CCGs and everything from match-3s to AAA disasters like Dungeon Keeper. We’ve seen games that use “free-to-play” as a leverage point for psychological shenanigans like making players wait hours or even days to build something unless you pay some kind of scrip currency bought with real money. We’ve seen games where you are actually locked out of playing because you’ve run out of “energy”- but oh look, you can buy energy gems with your credit card! Hearthstone has none of that kind of nonsense, and it should serve as a shining example of how to monetize a free-to-play game in a way that respects the consumer and encourages players to spend money because the game is actually worth it.

I’ve spent about ten dollars total on the game, playing it on the PC since February (don’t worry, all of your progress from the PC/Mac version ports right over). And I’ve spent that money not because Blizzard has bamboozled me into paying for wilfully excluded content, features or any kind of “pay to win” con game- but because I love the game and I’ve ­wanted to spend a couple of bucks on it just for the spur-of-the-moment fun of opening a couple of booster packs. The incentive to spend money in this game is primarily because it is a quality product that earned my money, not because of pernicious design decisions.

A booster pack (five cards) costs 100 in-game gold, earned fairly easily by just playing online games. You can also buy two for $2.99, seven for $9.99 and so forth. In true CCG fashion, what you get is random so you might spend your way into the poor house and never get a particular card. So you can grind these cards into crafting dust if you’d like and use it to buy that card (and somehow validate your poor life decision). These boosters are the only real cost of the game, and it’s pretty easy even playing casually to earn enough gold to get a booster a day- particularly if you play the daily quests that give bonus gold for completing certain objectives. The sealed deck-style Arena mode has a 150 gold/$1.99 entry fee, but the rewards for surviving are the best payout in the game.

So yes, you can literally play Hearthstone for free, no strings attached. The core decks are great and if you prune your collection carefully you can make them very competitive. Sure, the “Johnny Suitcase” mentality is there and folks that spend hundreds of dollars on boosters will have a much larger card pool to draw from but it really doesn’t matter- if you’re playing casually or even in the ranked games, the likelihood that you’ll feel outspent rather than outplayed is extremely low. You might never even encounter someone that’s spent more than any reasonable person should on electronic cards.

If there’s anything to complain about regarding Hearthstone at this stage, it’s that it feels like there could have been another round of optimization before the general release. On my iPad 2, it plays fine but with a few seconds here and there of sluggishness. At first, it was very noticeable coming from the PC version but after a day of playing it whenever I had ten minutes (or three hours) to catch a game it doesn’t really bother me. The good news is that this is a game that will be broadly supported with technical fixes and additional content- it literally has nowhere to go but up, especially with an iPhone port coming later this year.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to take on my bad ass Hunter deck, I’m Zurenarrh on Battle.net.

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The Great Flappy Bird Flap of 2014 (A Memorial)

flappy bird

My son River (four) has this thing that he does where he will sneak into our bedroom in the morning and steal my iPhone. Usually he’ll play Lego Star Wars or one of the awesome Rayman runners I keep on it- he has good taste in games. Last week, I woke up and I heard him in his room laughing and his sister, Scarlett (two) was in there giggling as well. I had no idea what was going on. So I crept down the hall to spy on them and they were both watching the phone, River tapping it furiously. Then I heard a familiar punching sound and I knew what was up.

They were playing Flappy Bird.

Like most of the world, I downloaded it out of curiosity to see what the deal was with this weirdly popular, out-of-nowhere sensation that was earning its creator $50,000 a day in ad revenue until he pulled the game from the App Store over the weekend. I thought it was goofy and kind of dumb, but not without an odd charm mostly owing to its ridiculous difficulty and notably Mario-like graphics. I meant to delete it.

But I’m glad I didn’t, because my kids were playing together and having a ball with it. I sat down and played with them. We all took turns. I’d get the phone and say “alright, this time I’m gonna do it” and then crash out on the first set of pipes. We’d laugh. Then Scarlett would take the phone and do the same thing. River would clear one, and it was like a small miracle. They loved that you get a Wreck-it-Ralph style Hero Medal (with no actual value) for setting a record. I tried to be awesome dad, getting through 11, 12, 13 and finally 14 of the pipes. They were impressed. But there’s no way to do that consistently, regardless of your skill level.

It’s a “thing” for us now. When we have a minute or two, I’ll pull out the phone and we’ll pass it around, crashing and laughing about it. Every now and then, completely at random, River will say “Daddy, that Flappy Bird is too hard!” I can just imagine that in his mind he’s trying to reason out why he actually does pretty well with Lego Star Wars but can’t work out how to get that stupid bird through a a gap between some pipes that he probably recognizes from Super Mario Bros.

What can I say? We had un and are having fun with a game that has confused, angered and mystified everyone from the mainstream media to hardcore gamers. I have more fun playing this silly, frankly crappy game with my kids than I did playing just about any multimillion dollar AAA game made in the last year. I think I’ve played it longer than I had either Killzone 4 or Assassin’s Creed 4 in my PS4. My kids do not care about the politics of it being ad supported or the maybe-maybe not appropriation of Nintendo-branded sprites. They aren’t worried if the game demonstrated some kind of “dumbing down” of video games. They do not see it as a general barometer of how terrible and shallow mobile games can be. They do not view the game as another catastrophe in the casualocalypse that is supposedly destroying video games.

And you know, ultimately, I don’t either. Because we had fun playing a video game. It did exactly what a video game is supposed to do, regardless of quality, intent or depth. It entertained us. It didn’t try to make some grandly juvenile statement about The Way Things Are In America. Flappy Bird did not have a girl pack mule to escort in an attempt to show how not sexist the game is. There’s no DLC, IAPs or DRM. I was never called a “faggot” over a voice com every time I hit a pipe. Other than the ads, Flappy Bird might just have been a return to the kind of pure no-bullshit video gaming my generation grew up on- even if by accident rather than design.

Sure, Flappy Bird is a crude, single-mechanic game with no other goal than to see if you can get further than you did last time. It is punitive and intolerant of failure with a hard fail state. But you know, those qualities are perfectly in line with a lot of classic early video games. If it were 1981 and Flappy Birdd were housed in a cabinet festooned with gaudy artwork, there might have been a Bruckner and Garcia song about it.

Flappy Bird probably won’t be (and shouldn’t be) remembered as a classic like Pac-Man or Space Invaders but like those games, it will be remembered as a fad. It’s a very different cultural time, and that fad lasted for all of about a week and a half before it apparently fizzled out. Was Dong Nguyen, the game’s apparently reclusive creator, a marketing genius that got in and cashed out before the backlash? Or was he really just some guy that made this silly game that somehow went viral and went on to millions of downloads almost overnight?

I almost don’t want to know. I want it to remain this kind of strange anomaly. I want to think that Mr. Nguyen really did pull the game because he wanted to be left alone to spend his unexpected fortune. I’m sure that some of the big IOS development houses are already either offering him jobs or trying to sort out how to duplicate the success of this short-sell, flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. Good luck with that, suits.

So Flappy Bird is gone after an 11th hour update that randomly changes Flappy Bird’s color and makes it night time over the mysterious city in the background. You can’t download the game anymore. It looks like there are already a horde of other Flappy games emerging on the App Store- and into the charts. You can already go on eBay and buy a phone from somebody for $650 with Flappy Bird installed on it. It’s obnoxious and absurd. But the whole Flappy Bird thing has been. That said, it’s made for a hell of a lot more interesting news then some corporate marketing bullshit like a “reveal” or trailer announcement masquerading as a video game news story.

Whether you hate the game, love it or are just bewildered by its success it doesn’t matter. I don’t really care about what it “means” for gaming and sensible people shouldn’t either. My kids love it, I play it with them and we laugh about it. It doesn’t really “mean” anything, don’t overthink it. That’s really all there is to understand about the Great Flappy Bird Flap of 2014.

Brakketology Plays Waterdeep, Muses About Theme

Lords of Waterdeep Cover

I’ve bee playing a bit of Playdek’s Lords of Waterdeep on iOS ($7). This wholly competent boardgame adaptation should be right up my alley. It’s D&D-themed, which I like. It’s a worker-placement game, which tends to be the sort of thing I appreciate and excel at. And yet it’s ultimately rather hollow. Not bad, mind you, the core game mechanics are very good and faithfully translated. Playdek, from whom I received a free code to download this game (full-disclosure and all), could not have done a better job of translating this for iOS. The problem is that the D&D aspects of it don’t add anything to the game. At all. And yet, as an iOS port of a game that doesn’t have many Apps Store counterparts, I can’t help but recommend it for fans of worker-placement games. It’s good enough to be worth your time.

More on Waterdeep, as well as thoughts on the PAR closure and some new Elder Scrolls Online trailers, after the break…

Lords of Waterdeep Zoom Out

Waterdeep is a game in which, on behalf of a randomly assigned patron, you must complete quests using hired henchman of the fighter (orange), rogue (black), cleric (white), wizard (purple) variety. In any given turn you have three or four avatars (or whatever they’re called) that you can place in one of a host of locations on the game board. Put one on the inn and you can choose a new quest to pick up. Put one on the Fields of Triumph and you can pickup a couple fighter cubes. Put one on the Builder’s Hall and you can add a building to the town. Build the Yawning Portal and you can grab any two cubes of your choice, paying the owner a bit of rent (in the form of a cube). There’s variety to be sure, but mostly it’s about amassing cubes and gold.

Cubes are color-coded to their class, but the game’s biggest problem is that, ultimately, you’re never going to think about them as rogues and wizards. They’re a collection of colored cubes that you acquire and dispose of to complete a quest. (Completing quests, if you haven’t guessed already, is how you acquire victory points for the end game.) That’s not really what characters in D&D are all about. The fact that neither they nor the various places on the map are particularly memorable is telling. I’m not putting my little avatar guy on Waterdeep Harbor, I’m just putting it in that spot that gives me an Intrigue card.

For me, it all makes an interesting contrast with the Firefly boardgame, which I’ve played a few times of late and that Michael reviewed here last week. Firefly is so strong in theme that it makes everything about the game better. The captain I choose for my ship matters and affects how I go about hiring my crew. The jobs I take impact where I go on the board and what kinds of equipment I need. The mechanics are wonderful too, but flying ’round the ‘verse and picking up crew with characters from the show and items from the series all enhance those mechanics. The whole is worth more than the sum of it parts.

Not so with Waterdeep, where my cubes could well be anything and the locations could be replaced with a modern set or a sci-fi set and it wouldn’t make much difference. That’s rather shocking, given how rife with potential the source-material actually is. Imagine if all those little cubes weren’t so disposable. If they carried some kind of more unique identity (as D&D characters should) and the system allowed them to level and grow more useful over time. There are no, “Hey, look, I just got Drizz’t for my party. You guys are so screwed!” moments to cling to here. It’s all generic and replaceable cubes all the time.

Lords of Waterdeep Close-up

This is not said in an attempt to play amateur designer. It’s just that there’s so obviously a great D&D game lurking in this design, but the team of Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, despite coming up with a very solid worker-placement game, failed to bring it out out as fully as they needed to. Because of that it really doesn’t so much matter how good a job Playdek did of implementing it for iOS. And, as noted, they did do a good job of that. I haven’t touched the online multiplayer, mostly because this is not the sort of game that suits asynchronous play. But as a pass-and-play game it works well and the AI opponents (set to one of three difficulty levels) do a credible enough job to make any game a challenge, especially while you’re still learning it. (The tutorials, which Playdek has sometimes struggled with in the past, also do a swell job of explaining the game to you. One run through the tutorials and one practice game should be all you need to get comfortable.)

If you like worker-placement games and want a competent one to play on your iPad the, by all means, buy this. It’s solid and competent and, in the absence of much competition, it’s worth owning. Just don’t go in expecting a unique D&D experience.

Elsewhere…

PAR, closed for business. I was shocked (SHOCKED!) to point my Feedly subscription at Penny Arcade Report this weekend, to find an article from Ben Kuchera announcing that Penny Arcade had closed up shop on PAR. (The official explanation from PA, here.) That’s depressing. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Ben’s take on games and the industry at large, but I’ve followed the man since he was at Ars and the fact is, he wrote stuff I was willing to read. Most gaming sites I follow via RSS I click over to read about 1% of what they post. Maybe 3%. PAR and RPS are the exceptions (probably more like 10-20%) and now I have one less reliable place to find quality coverage of the industry that isn’t lumped in with sixteen posts of pure dreck. I doubt you’re reading this, Ben, but you did great work at PAR and we’re all hoping you find a solid place to land in the very near future!

Hey, look! A fantasy MMO! Yay? Speaking of depressing, Elder Scrolls Online has a new trailer:

There’s also this one on class building:

There is nothing about these that tell me why I should be interested in this game. Though it’s true that I’m not an Elder Scrolls guy at heart, I’d sooner load up Skyrim or Oblivion than this.

On the other hand. This Apotheon trailer looks rather nifty:

Makes me think of Mark of the Ninja… in a good way.

Around the web: Telltale will bring us Borderlands and Game of Thrones-licensed games next year. There are trailers for them, though the one for Borderlands shows little and the GoT shows basically nothing. Evidently Telltale aims to monopolize all of my free time next year. Galactic princess looks interesting. Zombie-survival RPG, Dead State, is getting a demo. There’s also a video. GOG wants to let you return your purchased games if they don’t work. I’ve never bought a game from them that hasn’t worked. This actually happens? (rhetorical)

The Forest of Doom Review

Forest of Doom cover

It’s one of the great ironies of modern gaming that the venerable format of paper gamebooks has made such a huge comeback on mobile devices. And riding the crest of this coolingly nostalgic wave is Tin Man Games. Authors may come and go, designers may build peculiar experimental magic systems into their apps, but the steady Tin Hand ensures a pleasing experience no matter what the content.

Their gamebook adventures engine improves with every release, making combat faster and the interface smoother. And I’ve always loved the eye for detail that goes in to their wonderful collections of achievements and book art, always with knowing winks to consumers of nerd minutiae hidden amongst the titles and the pictures.

Their latest game is a digitisation of hoary Fighting Fantasy title Forest of Doom, originally authored by Ian Livingstone in 1983, before he became officially omniscient in the world of gaming and the engine is as brilliant as usual. They’ve even added an auto-map function which is an absolutely joy, as I’ve always wanted to see a physical map of my path through a gamebook but am just too lazy, or maybe just too excited to keep turning the pages, to bother.

But sad to say that whatever mechanical innovations it provides, this latest jaunt into Fighting Fantasy land isn’t up to the quality of their other recent releases. It’s not the fault of the developer, but, bizarrely, that of the author. When signing the franchise rights over to Tin Man, he insisted this be one of the early releases. This is somewhat inexplicable, since it’s one of the weakest in the original run.

Forest of Doom is a no-holds-barred trip down into the worst excesses of 80’s adventuring. The overarching plot, which involves collecting pieces of a magical hammer to save a Dwarfish kingdom, is right out of fantasy boilerplates 101. The forest itself is just series of sequential encounters with mythical creatures with little to string them together into a meaningful whole, and few clues toward making good choices in the decisions you’re offered.

I have to admit that a part of me did enjoy this return to straightforward adventuring, written before the days when every monster needed a motivation and every dungeon a scientifically plausible ecosystem. But it wears thin with time. Especially when you discover that the book has an utterly nonsensical looping structure should you make it through the forest without collecting all the items you need.

forest-doom2

And that map, that wonderful auto-map that so excited me when I first began to explore the forest, ends up inadvertently adding to the woe. Because the best I can tell the book never allows you to turn south. So if you make a wrong turning and miss a location you know you need, you can’t go back to find it. The map taunts you with its prescience, showing the desired location in all its glory, but the text just won’t let you get there.

I think I’m right in saying that the original Forest of Doom was the very first Fighting Fantasy book I ever played. If so, I would have been nine at the time, which makes me thankful I wasn’t old enough to care about its literary shortcomings and went on to enjoy many other books in the series. But my modern day experience chimes with my recollection: I don’t remember it being as good as most of its peers with their imaginative settings and cunning puzzles.

I also remember it being easy, but that’s clearly something I made up. Or, more likely, without puzzles to stand in the way I just cheated my way through the whole thing. But the book does have a reputation amongst series fans for being relatively straightforward, so Tin Man have packed the hardest difficulty mode with a welcome tougher ending. At least it’s welcome until you actually try to get through it. My word; but it’s certainly a fun addition.

It’s a testament to the brilliance of Tin Man’s engine that I got engaged enough by the book to bother trying again on the hardest setting once I’d seen it through on an easier one. They’ve made the experience entertaining in spite of the weak book beneath it. But this is one for genre fans only: most gamers would be better off picking up their frankly superb conversions of Blood of the Zombies or Trial of the Clone, or their cracking in-house commissioned Assassin in Orlandes. And if you’ve not tried a Tin Man gamebook before, you really should do just that.