Wednesday, February 27, 2008


In continuing my exploration into zombie tabletop gaming, I decided to give ZombieTown a spin. From the reviews I knew that this was one best played with more people, and thankfully I had a set of patient friends willing to fill out a six player session. Unfortunately I didn't anticipate the poorly written rules that turned the entire night into one big confusing… something. I want to say "tornado," but that implies fast, which it was not.

The primary objective of ZombieTown is territory control. The zombie hoard is spreading out from the cemetery, and you need to secure the homes of the town before they get overrun. At the end of the game, you get points for the number of homes you control. Unfortunately the rules for transferring control are confusing. It's not enough to be present in the home; you need to either erect a barricade or post a survivor in order to technically get credit. Survivors die quickly and barricades are easy for other players to bypass, so you'll definitely see control switching around a lot. Unfortunately the rules aren't so crisp about what happens in these scenarios. Intuitively I would think that control means you have a warm body in the house, and that barricades exist to keep it that way, but apparently it's not so simple.

Combat is resolved by drawing cards instead of rolling dice. In theory the card determines the range of your shot, but in a six player game there are so many zombie moves between your turns that combat is almost always a reaction of a close range attack. And even if you are being aggressive, you're better off firing your gun in close quarters because the odds are against a ranged hit. Thematically it's a little odd to have all these guns, but not be able to pick off zombies before they're on top of you.

The biggest flaw in ZombieTown is that there are no rules to keep defeated players in the game. If you die early in the evening you just have to sit and watch until the game is over. Given that the whole point of a board game is to give some friends something to do together, this is flat out unacceptable. Give the player a point penalty, bring them back as a zombie… just do anything to keep them involved. It's no fun to sit on your duff while everyone else keeps on playing.

If there's one trend I'd like to kill, it would be games where the rules are in a book when they should be on the cards. There are cards in ZombieTown that have nothing but a picture on them. You have to go look at the rules sheet to figure out how that card works. There are also rules about "event" class cards, but there's no indication on the cards themselves about what's an event and what is not. Sure, after you've played the game many times you won't need to fish around the rules to figure out what a card means, but until then it's a huge barrier to entry.

Some of the rules of ZombieTown seem a little half baked, with a great example being the barricades. These come in varying strength, with each given a number that determines how many zombies it can keep at bay. According to the official rules, you're supposed to keep that number hidden. I guess the goal is to prevent other players from strategizing about exactly how many zombies they need to divert to take down a house. The bizarre thing is that barricades can have traps as well, but if the strength number is hidden then the trap number is clearly visible. I'd think I was reading the rules wrong, but the cards are not designed in a way that would allow you to hide the trap number. This was the only rule that was so obviously impossible to follow that we immediately threw it out the window.

I'm truthfully trying to be reserved with the criticism I'm giving here, because I don't think I can say with confidence that I've actually played ZombieTown yet. I've played some interpretation of it, but given the outcome I'm sure that we got several parts wrong. It's not like Zombies!!!, which was so broken out of the box that I had to go get alternate rules before it was any fun. No, ZombieTown may be awesome as it was intended, but I still need to go online to figure out exactly how to play it. I'm not ready to write it off entirely, as that I really do like a lot of the ideas behind it, but I'm going to let this one sit until I can do some hardcore research.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up

There are some action movies that feature a rich storyline where rampant violence is contextually appropriate. But most are riddled with half-baked plots that are a weak excuse for a series of action set pieces. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, unless they take that plot seriously, which for some reason almost all of them seem to do. Thankfully some action movies realize that the whole genre is ridiculous and leave the plot behind entirely. Of course your enjoyment of these is gated by whether you can consider excessive violence funny.

Shoot 'Em Up is bound to be a polarizing movie. It's intentionally shallow and gratuitous. There's a plot, I guess, but it only kicks in after you're already knee deep in over the top gunfight choreography. And if you think a movie of guns and one-liners sounds awesome, then you will enjoy Shoot 'Em Up. If you don't, chances are you'll be mortally offended. There's not much more I can write to sway you one way or the other, because all of the quality of this movie is visual and/or contextual. I guess I could describe it as a cousin of Hot Fuzz but darker and less obviously funny, if that helps. Or you can just go watch a trailer. Or I could just sum it up with one statement: "multiple vegetable-related fatalities."

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're jaded and desensitized like me, Shoot 'Em Up is freaking awesome.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I think I was in middle school the when I took a test to find out my Myers-Briggs personality type. It's the sort of thing they made people do to figure out what career they were best suited for. Hell if I can remember what I tested as, although I can say with confidence that it started with an "I." Well, a lot of time has passed since then, and we have this whole internet thing, so thankfully you can go take a Myers-Briggs approximation online in no time.

This time around I tested as an INTJ. I can't compare that to my younger self, but my guess is that I haven't changed much. Certainly the Judging/Perceiving dichotomy is the most loaded of the four pairs, as that I doubt few people would rather be designated as "judging." But apparently it refers to your preference for structure, which I'll concede that my neuroses require. I think I might have fallen more on the open ended "P" side when I was younger, but I've probably benefitted from the slip (at least professionally). But I wonder if there's a natural personality progression here. Kind of like becoming set in your ways, which for me is the most terrifying aspect of Becoming Old.

Of the four temperaments I'm placed with the Rationals, which apparently are in short supply (6%). That means that 94% of the people out there are irrational, right? Well, at least the description seems to match me pretty well. I do oppose to my specific designation of Mastermind, which of course implies that I should live in an underground lair somewhere. In general I'm in the same bucket as a bunch of boring scientists, but I do take comfort that I have the company of both Hannibal Lector and Gandalf the Grey.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


After my first foray into zombie board gaming, of course I was excited to try out Zombies!!!, another entry into the genre. Unfortunately I walked away with a decidedly mixed experience.

In Zombies!!! the objective is to be the first player to make it to the helipad and escape the zombie infested city. The players don't have any direct conflict, but they are competing over the same resources. The city layout is completely random every play, with the helipad not being placed until late in the game. In the end it boils down to a race, except with mobs of zombies between you and the goal. And due to the randomized layout you don't actually know where the finish line is going to be. Which unfortunately means that you don't really have anything to do until the helipad comes into play.

To combat the lack of something to do in the beginning of the game, there is an alternate victory condition for killing 25 zombies. The problem is that killing zombies without dying is hard. Combat is resolved by rolling a die, where you can use ammo counters to increase your roll or a life counter to re-roll. Statistically you're going to need to cough some of those up every other fight, and you potentially could blow through all of them on one zombie. If you die your zombie kill count is halved, making it very difficult to amass the required 25 zombies (especially because all the other players will gang up on you if you get anywhere close). The only way you can refill your ammo and life counters is to venture inside buildings, which always come infested with a host of zombies. The risk vs. reward is dubious unless you've got some sort of edge to tilt the extreme randomness in your favor. But even if luck is on your side, combat fundamentally isn't very satisfying.

You get a hand of cards to add some strategy. In general the cards seem to lean more towards inhibiting other players than helping you out directly. Almost all of the weapon cards require that they be played in specific buildings, which results in them very rarely being played. So you end up filling your hand with smack-down cards in a hope to win by being the last man standing. There's a limit to the mayhem you can unleash, as that you are only allowed to play one card per round. So what really seems to happen is that everyone saves up some uber cards until the endgame, where chaos erupts on the mad dash to the helipad.

If there's one thing this game does well, it's creating the feeling that there are a crap-ton of zombies swarming the city. The moments after the helipad is placed when everyone is scheming about that last rush are truly great. I like the theme, I like a lot of the ideas, but this game seems broken without some significant gameplay changes (which are hard to make confidently without playing lots of games). Thankfully the issues are well documented and there's a good set of alternate rules available. But I'm a little shocked that the second edition release of this game hadn't fixed more issues out of the box.

My first night of Zombies!!! Was disappointing. The second time, with more players and alternate rules, was much more satisfying. I'll happily play it again, but it's clear that the game has some fundamental issues that'll prevent it from being a favorite.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Tabula Rasa (PC)

I've been struggling to figure out how I feel about the MMO genre. I love the epic worlds and character persistence, but I hate so many of the game mechanics that slow enjoyment to a crawl. I definitely have the capacity to enjoy these kinds of games, but the concentration of good stuff is extremely diluted. I feel like I'm in denial about a failing relationship because once in awhile we connect and I forget about all the arguing and apathy.

I've learned to trust Rock Paper Shotgun over the months. The blog is well written, unapologetically subjective, and written by people who get me as a gamer. So when they started talking about Tabula Rasa, a rare combination of MMORPG and FPS, they had my full attention. Richard Garriott may come off as a nut job, but he created one of my favorite games of all time. So I pushed aside my MMO fatigue and plopped down $40 for Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa.

And hot damn, this game is actually good.

Like most games, MMORPGs are basically about killing stuff. Surprisingly, killing stuff in Tabula Rasa is fun. Not fun in the typical MMO sense where after you kill lots of things you get a pat on the back and a minor statistical gain which appeals to your obsessive emotionally crippled self… which confuses it with fun. No, this game is fun for reals. In the same time it would take you to down some boar in another MMORPG you've rushed a squad of enemies, taken down their shield drone, shotgunned them onto their backs, and mercilessly clubbed them with the butt of your gun. Similar to how Puzzle Quest replaced the drab turn-based RPG mechanic with something more engaging, Tabula Rasa has replaced the drab real-time RPG mechanic with action packed goodness.

The whole game feels an MMO in fast forward. Many of the time consuming standards have been streamlined. Travel from zone to zone in Tabula Rasa is free and instantaneous. If you want to explore all eight of the game's classes you won't have to play the game eight times, thanks to the cloning system. And each run through is going to take less time, because twinking your alts (clones) is actually a supported process with shared storage between characters. Questing is streamlined, with mission goals clearly indicated on your map (sorry Raph, figuring out where you need to go is not the fun part). Hell, you don't even have to take the time to click to loot, as that looting is accomplished by merely walking near your defeated foe. Pretty much all that filler crap has been thrown out the window.

One of the largest wastes of time in MMOs is looking for a group of people to play with. Extreme level/gear banding splits up the population up so that not everyone can play together. To make things more difficult, you're going to need a specific number and specialization balance in your party in order to be successful. To find a viable group you have to wait around until the right people all magically materialize at the same time, which can take hours. Your only other option is to join a hardcore guild with a regular play schedule, which of course comes at the expense of your real social schedule flexibility. For a genre that's supposed to be about multiplayer gaming, it sure is frustrating matching up with other people.

Tabula Rasa somewhat addresses this problem by automatically scaling the difficulty of instances to party size. Even if you can only find one other person to play with, the two of you can happily duo the encounter and still have a good time. In fact, the entire game can be played solo. Grouping is fun, and increases your overall survivability, but it's not forced upon you. Which works well with my preferred play style, which is essentially "singleplayer with the option to become multiplayer at any time."

There's this concept in MMOs of "pulling," which is the act of choosing an opponent from a field of many to engage in single combat. It's a miniature puzzle to figure out how to attract the right combatants without adding others. You can pull aggressively, but given that the penalty (death) is high, your success is generally tied to your ability to balance risk. That's right, MMOs are essentially risk management simulators. Well, Tabula Rasa makes managing risk very difficult, because there generally aren't fields of baddies milling about. It's quite common for a drop ship to plop down enemy reinforcements in the middle of your carefully planned assault. Pretty soon you realize it's better to throw caution to the wind, spin up your chaingun, and have fun. Embrace unpredictability. The game actually rewards recklessness, giving you an experience bonus if you keep up a steady combo of kills.

As I read what I've written, this article could also easily be titled "Everything I hate about MMOs and why Tabula Rasa is different." It's because of this that I'm so forgiving of Tabula Rasa's flaws. It replaces the typical fantasy fare with a sci-fi setting, which is refreshing, but the details of this world are forgettable and generic. Everything from the character design to the architecture to the landscape you've seen done better elsewhere. And it doesn't do a good job of easing you into the world. There's a decent intro tutorial, but after that you have to figure out everything for yourself. In particular the crafting system is a completely mystery until you do some online research, and then you realize that it has potential but is severely crippled by insufficient UI. Outside of the core combat, a lot of things about Tabula Rasa are rough around the edges.

For me, two main things are critical for a game to be enjoyable: gameplay (basic mechanics and incentive) and setting (into which I'm lumping story, characters, and environment). Good games create a synergy between those, which is essentially the connection between intellect and emotion. Tabula Rasa is thoroughly mediocre when it comes to setting, which I suspect will limit its long-term appeal. But it totally reinvigorates the genre's archaic gameplay. Which is a very exciting thing, because gameplay, unlike setting, is transferable. If the MMO developers out there start taking notes from Tabula Rasa we'll have a much brighter online gaming future ahead of us.