The Shallow End of the Complexity Pool

22 01 2009

I’ve been playing that damn PQ:Galactrix demo for way more time than I should be lately. I’m probably gonna end up getting the DS version for the road, and the 360 version for home, that’s how much I dig it. It’s got me hooked, indeedy, and that got me to thinking WHY I was hooked. I believe it’s managed to peg my sweet spot for strategy, complexity, and challenge. So it’s time for another Half Baked Game Theory Post!

For me, I prefer games which offer a precise amount of strategic thinking — on your feet style thinking. As in, “Here is the situation in front of you. What actions can you take to resolve the most immediate problem, and set up a condition that’ll help you resolve the next immediate problem?” I like matching three in a specific way to set things up so my enemy’s next turn will suck and my next turn will rule. I like picking my targets and my attacks in COH so that something important will be recharged and ready for use when I need it. I like seeing the situation from a ground-level perspective and dealing with what’s right in front of me, planning ahead a few moves to set things up I can use later. That’s the sweet spot.

Fighting games fit here. I may not have sharp enough reflexes to count individual frames and hitboxes, but the general idea of action and reaction and positioning works for me. City of Heroes is nice since there’s not a lot different you can do in a fight, but the timing and your positioning and the order you do it in and to whom is critical. Team Fortress 2 works great here, as you have to plan your approach and then actively work your angle while trying to defend yourself. Puzzle Quest absolutely fits, with just the right mix of thinking ahead, taking it turn by turn, and having a luck factor keep you on your toes. Games like card battle fit there (although some are getting ridiculously complex lately; SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters Clash, the original ones, are much better.)

What’s not the sweet spot? Well, if the ONLY thing I have to decide is how to escape the current scenario and there’s no planning ahead required whatsoever. Rare, but there are games like that. Cooking Mama was a bit like that, just “Do this. Okay, done. Do this. Okay, done. Yay.” The adorableness gave me two days or so of fun but then I lost interest.

The real problem for me are the vast majority are sprawling, epic, 80-turns-ahead rapid paced strategy games where you need a macro-level understanding of the entire world and your place in it. RTSes with unit trees and building structures and harvesting resources while actively defending against the enemy and attacking them are just cerebral overload for me… too many things to do, too many things to keep in mind at once. Games like Civilization where you’re potentially playing for hours and dealing with a map the size of the world with dozens of things happening at once are also too much.

I like thinking strategically, but I like on your feet strategy, controlling small groups and selecting from a limited palette of options. That’s the right mix of action and thinking. You add fifty million options or fifty million units or fifty million scenarios to deal with simultaneously and you’ve lost me.

So, anybody know any other games that tickle that sweet spot of thinking, action, elegance, and challenge?

EDIT: And now they have a full demo. I’m so getting this tonight.

EDIT #2: Political humor in MMORPG patch note form.

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32 responses

22 01 2009
lirazel

Its visual appeal is limited (until you understand it), but maybe it’s time to learn to play Go? There are a lot of on-line places to play, and the level of courtesy is remarkable. Sure, there are bullies, and the number of really good people who will play you when you’re new is small, but I’ve found that just learning enough so that I can watch a good player defeat a bully is amazing.
Oh yeah, you can watch other people play, and comment on the action.

22 01 2009
jengagne

I’ve tried to make it to that “Learn to Play Go” class at Otakon for 3 years in a row now, and each time, something else supercedes it. Maybe this year. Or I could find some other way to learn, of course! ;)

22 01 2009
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

I thought Go was one of those games where you gotta be fifty moves ahead or you’ll be destroyed? Same reason I’m only so-so at Chess. I need to deal with the immediate strategic scenario, not be a precog.

22 01 2009
sptrashcan

I don’t know if it’s still in print, but the card game Brawl combines strategic thinking with a rapid pace not unlike a fighting game.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brawl_(game)
Guild Wars also falls into the right band in the action-strategy continuum for me, though a fair amount of the strategy revolves around choosing the right 8 skills ahead of time, and some classes require significantly more strategic thinking than others. (Dervish: complex enchantment manipulation combos. Warrior: GET ME CLOSER, I want to hit it with my sword!)
I tilt considerably toward the action end of the continuum, though. When the strategic aspect becomes too abstract, I get turned off.

22 01 2009
pyromaniac_ks

Guild Wars? :p
But seriously. Once you get into the higher end game positioning and power selection/use becomes very important, so you may find yourself enjoying that once you pick up a few more heroes and can put a good team together for yourself.
On the more Strategic side, Dawn of War 2 is going a bit that way, with more focus on your tactical/strategic thinking than your logistics wrangling abilities. Gone is the majority of the base building. Although DoW2 it is Shiny and New (and not actually out yet) and therefore Expensive.
I also like UFO: Afterlight, which is… Basically a spiritual successor to the X-Com games and good fun. Small squad tactics and all. The strategic game isn’t hugely involved, and you can set difficulty for tactical and strategic separately, which is nice if, like me, you want a challenge in the squad tactics but can’t be bothered micromanaging everything with strategic. It’s a couple years old now, but it’s on Steam.
On the free side, might I suggest The Battle for Wesnoth, which is a nice hex-map turn-based strategy game with a fairly simple and robust ruleset and small numbers of units which you can level up and call back on later maps.
Or, if you’re feeling up to some ASCII and learning wall, there’s always Dwarf Fortress. Which is great fun once you’ve got the basics down.

22 01 2009
lirazel

The go end-game requires the ability to look ahead. I’m lousy at it, myself, but even masters describe it as trying to see through fog. The people who are really good at it are able to look at a shape in the stones and see the number of spaces it will eventually contain if any and all options are played out to the fullest.
However, the early game requires creativity and intuition, a willingness to make patterns and break them. I’m a lot better there. (I don’t shine, but I’m better.) Within certain well-defined limits, there’s a lot of opportunity to confuse and bedazzle your opponent.
But then, I first took up Go because it has a set of requirements that I’m lousy at, as well as one or two at which I am quite good. For example, I’m excellent at pattern recognition, but (perversely) have a very poor spatial sense. Thus, I’m good at whole-board gaming, but often fail gloriously at tactics. I wanted something to wake up my middle-aged brain, and I found it. I can play for about an hour before I need a nap; it literally makes my brain tired.
(And I haven’t played in a very, very long time… need to get back!)

22 01 2009
pyromaniac_ks

The thing about Go is that the phase space of potential moves is vastly larger than Chess. You really can’t see too far ahead, because the number of potential games is considerably larger than the number of atoms in the universe. On a full size board, anyway.

22 01 2009
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

I’ve got a few Brawl decks. It’s right up my alley — but my disability makes it really hard to play, since it requires a lot of reach, physical space, and fast motion.

22 01 2009
lirazel

That’s true; but any one game limits itself very quickly. Every stone you put down trims the decision tree.
Shuusaku, one of the Go saints, is said to have been able to see 50 moves ahead. I’ve studied some of his games against his peers. Both players see so far ahead that they concede areas of the board to each other before I’ve managed to catch on as to why. It’s like being at the very beginning of studying a foreign language, and listening to two native speakers who are well-schooled in their own literature as they use idioms, slang, in-jokes, and prolonged pauses to discuss something they both understand well. On the one hand, you don’t really know what’s going on. On the other hand, you’re so pleased to grasp a sentence or two…
But I’ve also studied some of Shuusaku’s student games. Those, I can follow.

22 01 2009
sptrashcan

It seems like a videogame version of Brawl would be easy to implement and very playable. If I had the time and the perseverance, I’d give it a shot.

23 01 2009
raigne

While I agree with the above that Guild Wars contains a certain amount of strategy the way you say you like it, I think it suffers from something you’ve mentioned hating about pvp. Elitism is rampant in higher level pvp, which is where that strategy appears. In lower levels of it, you’re stuck with pick-and-pray, because most people rely on mindless, cheesetastic builds, and it begins to resemble Mortal Kombat in that someone frantically hitting the jump and kick buttons can own someone who’s memorized all the moves.
The only time I’ve ever seen thoughtful strategy prevail without elitism is in alliance battles. I used to be ambivalent toward them, but if you get a really good four man team going, with good communication, and synergy between builds, you can literally, completely turn the tide of battle, assuming the other two teams you get on your side are of average quality. And since you’re relatively anonymous and low stakes, you don’t have to deal with the “I’m better than you because…” attitude.

23 01 2009
kowh

Heh, you’ve pretty much described my preferred game type as well. Guess it figures we play most of the same games.
As to suggestions, I’ll suggest Demigod again. It seems to match up well with your description.
Another one that comes to mind is Star Control 2. They need to make a proper sequel to that already.

23 01 2009
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

This is why I’m not planning to PVP on Guild Wars. Hah! Problem solved.
PVP tends to encourage bizarre min-maxed builds doing things way outside the scope of a character’s role or intent. A COH example would be Blapping — taking a ranged character and playing them exclusively in melee. It works, and it works great, but it works great because of a twisted up playstyle that’s contrary to the whole point of being a glass cannon that stays in the back row to pound on the enemy from afar.
The instant I heard that the best Ranger build for PVP in Guild Wars focused exclusively on running into melee and Vampiric Touching people, I knew it wasn’t for me. It’s the domain of people who bend, break, and exploit every single gap in the system, and that’s not my bag.

23 01 2009
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Dawn of War 2 looks interesting — Warhammer in general does, because at least in tabletop form, it consists of A) point-buying a bunch of units, and B) using them to kill the hell out of each other. No mining, no resources, and in the right type of skirmish, no worldwide theatre of battle to spread your focus across. (Polar opposite: Supreme Commander.) If they’re bringing that spirit to the PC game instead of just making a Starcraft clone, I’m game. (Yes yes, I know, kill yourself and topple the dark master because WH40k came first. I mean the whole “Mine For Fish” mentality.)

23 01 2009
pyromaniac_ks

It’s worth noting that Blasters are not now and have not ever been solely intended as ranged only. Blasters are intended to do damage. Lots and lots of damage. Wherever they are.
And the ranger build mentioned is a PvE build. There are melee ranger builds, just like there are melee using tank god Elementalist builds or bow using warrior builds. Because Guild Wars has no defined archetypal “point” to the professions. There are broad spheres of competency and focus, some broader than others. The professions only define playstyle in the broadest of senses. I can build an elementalist to do anything, you want control? Sure. You want AoE death? Sure. You want a tank god? Sure. You want ST DPSing? Sure.

23 01 2009
pyromaniac_ks

I was speaking solely of the PvE game. I barely touch GW PvP, myself.
Compared to CoH, there is a lot more strategy involved. CoH is basically just running at things and whacking them until they fall down. GW requires actually paying attention to build, positioning and what your enemies are doing.
Although this may just be because I play Mesmer, and almost exclusively in Hard Mode.

23 01 2009
pyromaniac_ks

Also, because I just caught that: No. It’s not ‘the best’ ranger build for PvP. There is no ‘best’ Ranger build for PvP any more than there’s a best ranger build for PvE. It depends entirely on situation and what you’re fighting.
You could also go for a Ranger with a big hammer and a pet wolf to pressure through knockdown and daze. Or a degen ranger focusing on spreading conditions around with various poison/burning/bleeding arrows. Or an old fashioned arrowspam damage build designed to keep a lot of arrows in the air between you and your target of choice. Or an AoE barrager for taking out Minion Masters and clusters. Or an interrupt ranger for anti-spellcaster. Or a pet focused ranger. Or… Well, I’m sure I’m missing some. But you get the point.
Guild Wars is a game with an active dev team who care about PvP. There are no glaring imbalances between professions. I can understand how you wouldn’t be used to it. :p

23 01 2009
cmdr_zoom

All of the above, plus I don’t have to pay GW a ton of money for plastic minis and then paint them – I just click a button and a few seconds later, out pops another squad of Fire Warriors, ready to fight for the greater good.
(That’s the other thing – the Tau, by breaking with the overall Crapsack Universe tone, have finally made WH40K palatable for me.)

23 01 2009
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

GW has two major advantages, though — nearly infinite respec (hop into town, swap out your powers, swap your STATS, everything) and very little death penalty. If you’re brick-walling on a mission you just leave, restoring your morale and health, and try again another time with a different approach. I think that helps balance out the difficulty, since if your build and tactics are failing, you aren’t simply screwed.

23 01 2009
jengagne

So basically it sounds like yet another game (like chess) where if I’m not playing against someone who’s at least as brain-dead as me, I get owned for not seeing X+1 moves ahead. ;)

23 01 2009
jengagne

I can see how you’d like the respeccability, considering how much you agonize over builds in other games.
(Would I like this? Fill me in tonight when I visit.)

23 01 2009
sptrashcan

Thus far with my Warrior, I’ve had quite a bit of success with the “running at things and whacking them until they fall down” strategy…

23 01 2009
lirazel

See, this is where the civility comes in. I’ve never, ever, even on-line, seen a winner talk about “owning” a loser, and someone who claimed to “pwn” another would be shunned. At least, that was true on the server I used to frequent.
You can’t preserve the atmospherics of Go in the on-line world. (For that matter, you can’t preserve them IRL, either. The ancient cherry trees from which the best Go boards were formed are nearly gone, as are the special clams from whose shells the white stones were formed.) But the courtesy of the contest seems to prevail. For example, in a game between two player known to be unequal, the lower-ranked player always goes first and plays black (a huge advantage), and always places the first stone near the more-experienced player’s side of the board, so that the more-experienced player, who most likely is older, doesn’t have to reach as far to counter it.
You may lose, but you will not get owned.

23 01 2009
jengagne

Interesting history!
No worries, I’m not really concerned about how the other player treats me in terms of civility. It’s nice to know people seem more civil in Go!
It’s more about my inability to strategize super-far into the future, and therefore having zero chance if slated against Go players who can see much further into the X+23 future than I can and are also willing to compete to their full level of ability. ;)
(or to be more succinct — it sounds too much like chess in that regard for me to enjoy it…)

24 01 2009
meagenimage

Yes, I had a similar impression during my brief flirt with Go. Me and a guy would put down stones, and eventually I’d lose, except I had no idea what I did wrong, or how I could see it coming, or what else I could’ve tried. And if I wanted to find out, I’d have to dig my way through a bunch of books.
Also, there’s this very Eastern mindset of “you have to sit just *so*, and put the stones down with your fingers just *so*”, and I was far more annoyed that the stones already on the board were not *quite* aligned right, and I kept fiddling with it to make them more even. To a computer geek, it’s the elegance and harmony of the *result* that matters, not the *process*. :)

24 01 2009
raigne

The touch ranger has been tamed, somewhat. It’s still hard to beat without having some sort of game plan, but outside the Random Arenas, people have some kind of game plan. I think I see a toucher in one out of every ten battles in RA? Which may seem like a small amount, but really isn’t. It’s not meta anymore. You see those at least every other match.

24 01 2009
raigne

This is sort of why I like playing a mesmer. They aren’t the best you can get at everything you mentioned, but they are competent enough to do it satisfactorily, and they can counter anything. And they piss people off, which is the big bonus for me. But I’m a bit of a pvp sadist/masochist. I like to be the person who gets their first combo off and automatically becomes target number one. Partcularly I like to make my enemy kill them selves in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenarios.

24 01 2009
raigne

You’re missing the spear chuckers and the trappers :P

24 01 2009
raigne

This is why I am always hesitant to try other games. I like how unlimited you are in GW. It wasn’t always that way though. In the first six months of the game, you had a certain number of redistribution points, and after you spent them all, you were stuck with whatever you ended up with. And thus you had people with four different eles, one for each element, and several accounts and all sorts of silliness.

24 01 2009
raigne

And thus we get bad pulls while the wammo runs in and aggros everything, the mobs ignore him and beeline for the support classes, and finally, once the party’s dead, and the wammo’s outlasted everyone, we learn he brought healing hands instead of res. :P

24 01 2009
sptrashcan

1. I don’t do this on teams, at least not ones where everyone isn’t 5 levels above me.
2. I do understand the principle and mechanics of pulling.
3. It’s my first week. Give me a break. Thank you.

24 01 2009
raigne

It was entirely a little bit of guild wars humor. Everyone in my guild is self-deprecating that way. Our tanks get flak all the time whether it was their fault or not. I realize humor doesn’t translate well over the internet though.
If it helps, I play a monk, so if the party wipes, it’s always my fault. :P

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