Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Last Night On Earth

Let's face it, I'm a gamer geek. I stand today as a video game playing computer programmer… but that pales in comparison to the path I took to get to be who I am today. In my days I've done everything from D&D to CCGs. And the sad part is that I played most of them in my head. Fellow geeks are hard to come by when you're young, so I spent more time thinking about these games than actually playing them. I think that's what defines a real gamer: someone who can fuel themselves with the mere idea of a game.

Everyone is familiar with board games. Whether it's Monopoly or Scrabble or Sorry, chances are you've played a board game with your family on a rainy day. In fact, for many people, this is what comes to mind when they hear the word "game." It's a socially approved, wholesome activity. But of course as you leave the nest the opportunity for family gaming disappears. So it is that I probably haven't played anything other than the odd game of Scrabble in a decade.

That is, until now. After all this time I'm playing a new board game and I'm experiencing something fiercely nostalgic. This game isn't anything like the board games I played in my youth. But with the pieces and the dice it connects me with some of the same sensations - physical things that you don't get from a video game. For me board games have always been a family thing, and as such I had no idea this whole subculture of adult niche board gaming existed. Hell, there's even a DOOM board game.

But enough rambling. Let me actually talk about this specific zombie-themed romp (which I mentioned earlier) called Last Night On Earth.

The board is a small village with a town square and surrounding buildings. The pieces around the square are random for every game, so sometimes there will be a police station, sometimes a high school. There isn't really a lot of variety in the board arrangement, but it's enough to keep things fresh.

The players are divided into two teams: zombies and heroes. The heroes are selected from a set of zombie movie stereotypes like the sheriff or the high school flirt. All of them have different attributes and abilities, making them feel more like characters than just board game pieces. Over the course of the game the heroes can accumulate guns, baseball bats, and other equipment to help them defend themselves, but of course the zombies make up for that in numbers.

The gameplay involves a mixture of standard rules for moving, searching, and fighting, a hand of cards to spice things up, and dice rolling. The heroes are tasked with some overall objective. This could be to survive until sunset, or it could be to fight back and destroy the source of the zombie infestation. The zombies have one objective: eat the heroes.

So, is it any fun? Definitely. The thematic element is key here, as that it wouldn't be the same game if you weren't living out some zombie movie survival scenario. As you play the cards and roll the dice you find yourself doing storytelling as well. That's where the real fun is, but the mechanics are just deep enough to keep you thinking about strategies for your next game, even if randomness is a large element.

One of the differentiating aspects of this game is that it's asymmetric: the zombie team and hero team are not playing the same game. The heroes are concerned with searching buildings and keeping the zombies at range. The zombies play a slow strategic game of swarming and surprise. Depending on the scenario it's likely that one team has more of an edge than the other. But personally it doesn't really bother me because the thematic scenarios are engaging enough to keep the minute to minute gameplay interesting, even if the victory condition is sometimes skewed.

I've definitely enjoyed the time I've spent with Last Night On Earth so far. I look forward to playing with more people, trying out other scenarios, and getting the first expansion when it rolls around. But more than that this game has reminded me of a whole genre of gaming that I've neglected for years. I've always associated board gaming with "family time," which is good and all, but I'm excited to see that there's an industry making board games for quirky people just like me.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Year of Blogging

Today marks the one year anniversary of my venture into blogging. As such it's a good time to evaluate how this whole thing has gone.

My goals as stated in the beginning were simple. I wanted to record my thoughts on games, movies, and whatever random topics caught my fancy, with the primary intended audience being myself. I also set an internal goal of posting at least once a week.

Well, let's look at some stats. I've made 78 posts this year. 60% of those have been video game related and 15% have been movie related. Over the whole year there has been an average of 1.5 posts a week (although clearly June through November I under delivered due to work craziness). It was never my plan to obtain readership, but over the year 938 unique people visited this blog, 393 of which returned at least once. Unfortunately these stats don't include hits on my feed, which is how a lot of people (myself included) read blogs, so I can't really paint a full picture of regular readership.

So, how do I feel about all this? Well, I'm happy, because I'm still here. I've actually persevered and kept this up for a whole year. I'm proud of that. There's a larger percentage of gaming posts than I would like, although in my opinion that's more due to an under-posting of other topics than over-posting on gaming. For me games are easy to write about, because they are generally long enough to elicit lots of interesting thoughts. They are also something I'm very knowledgeable about. In contrast, movies are much shorter and I don't always come out of them with some revelation. I have no problem producing a star rating, but coming up with something to say about every movie that doesn't sound like a book report is difficult.

I'm definitely disappointed in myself for not delivering over the summer and early fall. I should have made more time for myself. But I think I've found my groove again. And I've definitely decided that this is something I enjoy doing and will continue doing.

It's been interesting watching the blog's traffic. You can definitely see my slump in the graph (Unique visitors per week):
(This graph and all my stats come via a lovely tool called Stat Counter)

The top ten posts most hit directly (doesn't count main page readers or feed hits):

Top ten search terms that landed people here:

  • top 25 gamecube games
  • glein
  • chris glein
  • chris glein's blog
  • ff3 ds strategies
  • superman sucks
  • defend barricade from zombies
  • vehicle limitations
  • does the ps3 have gamertags
  • top 25 gamecube titles
  • lf1m
  • wow online profiles

I've got all this nifty data, but it doesn't tell me what I really want to know: What do you think? What was your favorite post? What would you like to see more of? What would you like to see less of? How do you feel about the style (tone, post length, etc.)? If you respond to any post on this blog, respond to this one. I started this blog for myself, but it's grown into more than that, and I care about what you guys think.

That said, I look forward to another year of blogging. Thanks for reading.

Zombie Board Game

I've been doing quite a bit of ranting about a potential zombie video game over the last couple months. And after all of that, I randomly came across a zombie board game at a store downtown. I had no idea such a niche existed. There are people out there that are so dedicated to their zombie apocalypse scenarios that they actually carry them out in real space with miniatures and everything. In other words, my kind of people.

Not only did I stumble across a zombie board game, I came across a whole genre. There were no fewer than three games to choose from, so I ran home to go do some research.

Zombies!!! (photo)
In this game the goal is to be the first survivor to make it to the helipad and escape. The twist is that the terrain is completely random. You actually build up the town as you go, with a new piece of it being added every turn. As the oldest of these three zombie games, Zombies!!! has six expansions to it, providing a large set of possible environments spanning everything from a mall to a military base. The most common criticism I've read is that the game often runs too long.

ZombieTown (photo)
A newer game by the same creators as Zombies!!!, ZombieTown exchanges the dynamic board for more varied objectives. The goal of this game is to survive for 10 days while barricading properties, finding survivors, amassing weapons, and killing zombies. The catch with this game is that it really requires four people in order to hit critical mass, and without a steady gaming group I can't really guarantee that. Plus a good deal of the tension in the game comes from the players turning on each other in the fight for territory, and I'm not sure if everyone would be into that. But certainly this one looks to fulfill a lot of the survival objectives that I've been talking about.

Last Night On Earth (photo)
Instead of pitting the players against each other as fellow survivors, Last Night On Earth divides players up into a zombie team and a hero team. The board is a fixed shape but is made up of random modular pieces. The scenarios range from killing a specific number of zombies, to escaping in the truck, to smoking out the cult leader. One of the key draws for me is that it is designed to work well with only two players.

In doing my research there were a couple of other names that popped up that I hadn't seen in the store:

I went back downtown and snatched up Last Night On Earth, because it seemed to be the most favorably reviewed and was recommended for two players. I've had the opportunity to play a couple games by now, and it definitely scratches some of that zombie gaming itch. Expect a proper review sometime soon.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lord of the Rings Online (PC)

When is the appropriate time to evaluate an MMO? I usually post a review of a game after I finish it, but MMOs are designed to have no end to them. I could give a first impression, but many of the finer gameplay elements are not immediately available or apparent. In fact, MMO systems are generally so large and complex that I might not understand the "bigger picture" until the time I've invested is approaching triple-digit hours. So it is that I've gone so long without saying much about Lord of the Rings Online.

I've mentioned before my transition from World of Warcraft (WoW) to Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO). There's no mistaking the influence the former has had on the latter. Out of the box the familiarity definitely worked in LotRO's favor; I was immediately about to jump in and concentrate on the content. As time went on I think the similarities accelerated my fatigue, as it was very clear that although I had not "been there" I had indeed "done that." All of this invites comparison, and there's no doubt in my mind that WoW is a superior game. But when you've exhausted all of WoW's content, and you haven't written off the genre as a whole, you can do worse than to slum it out to LotRO.

I'm going to say some not-so-nice things about LotRO, so I really have to preface it all by reminding you (and myself) that I like LotRO. It has some really excellent moments in it. I'll never forget the time I wandered into the Barrow Downs and encountered my first shrieking screen-shaking undead. Or when I got thoroughly lost in the Old Forest. Or when I turned the bend and saw Weathertop, and refused to do anything else until I had climbed to the top of it. Or when I snuck my way into the valley of Rivendell, far earlier than I really should have. These moments where the game connects you to the fiction are amazing. Unfortunately they're few and few between.

As powerful as the Lord of the Rings license can be, it is also the source of many of this game's flaws. You see, the books are primarily about travelling, and as such the world of LotRO is huge. The developers have done an excellent job of honoring the scope of the fiction, such that if you were to walk the footsteps of Bilbo or the Fellowship, it would be an appropriately epic journey. Unfortunately, you can't really do that. For one, like WoW this world is broken up into level banded regions. Four Hobbits could not make it from the Shire to Rivendell in this world without having their asses handed to them by any number of bears, spiders, and orcs on the way. Instead they would have to stop every mile or so to grind until they were ready for the next leg. I'm beginning to see why Bilbo had to travel with thirteen dwarves and a wizard.

But I can forgive all of that and write it off as a gameplay necessity. I mean, that's how WoW does it and it works. WoW's locations are extremely varied, each with their own palette, landmarks, and local fauna. The world of Middle-Earth is certainly full of amazing locations, but unfortunately as LotRO exists today you're only getting a very small percentage of them. The currently available land mass covers from the Shire to the Misty Mountains. Comparing to the fiction, this basically only allows access to locations where events started to get interesting. There's no Lonely Mountain, no Moria, no Isengard, and certainly no Mordor. Spending hours of your time grinding through a field that the Fellowship breezed through doesn't exactly leave a heroic taste in your mouth.

I hit my first real slump somewhere shy of level 25. I had reached Weathertop but wasn't really high enough level to push much further beyond. I stopped playing for some time until the game got patched to increase the viability of my class (minstrel). Reinvigorated, I powered through the next ten levels relatively quickly. I hit the landmark level 35 and spent all my hard earned cash on a mount. Getting my mount had granted an amazing feeling of freedom in WoW, but now that I had mine in LotRO I quickly realized that I didn't actually have anywhere to ride to.

I sit now at level 37, not too far from the level cap of 50. And I'm having a hard time mustering up the willpower to get through those next 13 levels because I know that I've already hit all the landmarks that are most important to me. I want to see the Misty Mountains, sure, but that's about it. It'd be different if I weren't so invested in the fiction. I'd probably be more excited about visiting some random ruin if I couldn't think of a dozen more intriguing places I'd rather go to. Spending this much time tooling around in Eriador just feels wrong. Long travel times are okay for a one-way trip, but when you're doing all the back and forth grunt work of your typical MMORPG, travelling around becomes a chore. And this is where I think the license is working against the game: In trying to own up to the epic size of the world the developers have created an epic amount of work for themselves. If it's taken this long to get us to the Misty Mountains, how long will it be until we're at the steps of Mount Doom?

I'll see my character through to 50, but it's mostly for the potential of what's to come. The developers of LotRO have done an amazing job with the material they've presented so far. The environments are truly gorgeous. I genuinely look forward to seeing how they interpret the rest of Middle Earth, but I hope they establish better pacing so that I can see it in this lifetime.