Monday, June 8, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Orin's Turnip Thyme Chicken Sausage Time

I'm not a huge potato guy. Honestly I prefer turnips and feel they are underrated. But then I also don't like Mario 3 so what do I know?

-For this one, you're going to slice a purple top turnip into relatively thin slices, like the width of about four bar coasters. Not like the thick cork ones, why would you assume I meant those? Chop up an onion and start frying the turnip and the onion together at medium heat with a dab of butter so nothing sticks.

-Add a healthy amount of paprika and about a teaspoon of sugar, and mix in some spices to taste. I used a bit of salt, pepper, garlic, savory, basil, thyme and mustard powder. I'll probably play around with these, the sugar's important though because it nicely balances the strong turnip flavor. I also added a bit of hot pepper, but this is optional.

-Stir semi-regularly. When the turnip is soft and the onions are clear, add some chicken sausage to the pan. I had little ones, but if you have a larger sausage then cut it into bite-size chunks. Or at least don't take it out in public.

-Stir once more and enjoy your smug superiority over potato people (and/or people who prefer potatoes).

Takes about an hour depending on how soft you like your turnips. Yields about 3 servings.

Did you ever try adding an egg to the boiling water when making cheap cup ramen? It is not related to this recipe but it is a superior method of consuming cheap cup ramen.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Orin's Orange Pepper Rosé Rice Pasta Recipe

My girlfriend seems to function better when she avoids eating gluten, so we've been playing around with some recipes that avoid wheat, and I concocted one yesterday that we both agreed was worth sharing. The meatballs (Swedish) and rosé sauce I used was store bought. (Also this would work fine with regular pasta I'm sure, but that might result in horrific and NSFW consequences.)
-Bake about three handfuls of meatballs. (A "handful" is a scientific term for a "thwack.")

-Boils some brown rice pasta. (Ours didn't expand much, so you should probably put in more than you think you need, and it takes a fair bit of boiling.) Drain pasta when it's desirably droopy, drizzle with olive oil (to keep it from sticking) and a pinch of salt and mix.
-In a pan sauté half a copped union, a bit of green onion, and a bell pepper (an orange one will look nice). Onions should be translucent but not burnt.

-Add to pan meatballs, rosé sauce, a dash of pepper to taste, a dash of powdered ginger, and a very hot pepper. (The hot pepper I used was from the deli and stuffed with feta cheese, the both of us agreed that it was virtually inedible on its own, so I removed the also extremely hot feta and sprinkled it on the dish.)

-Stir intermittently for a few minutes over medium to high heat, then remove hot pepper. Serve over pasta (make sure both are still warm).

Takes about a half hour to prepare. Yields approximately 3 servings depending on hunger level.

I would have liked to include a picture as the dish was quite attractive as well as being delicious, but we gobbled it down immediately before the idea of posting it came up. Also since the hot pepper was only simmered for a bit and then removed, the dish isn't very spicy at all (and probablly wouldn't be described as "spicy" by someone who didn't see the hot pepper go in), but along with the ginger it gives a little kick.

Also if you stick the green union bases in water and leave them near sunlight, they will regrow and you can have LIMITLESS ONIONS! Bye-bye costly onion bills, hello sensible onion bills!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Le Gouffre

One of my uber-talented artists on Steampunk Rally, David Forest, has just released a jaw-dropping animated short two years in the making. Give it a watch!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Heart of Crown Review: Goofus and Gallant

Heart of Crown sports one of those euphonious names that only seem to result from sketchy Japanese-to-English translations (I just watched an episode of an anime that included the line "please stop the mystic power generator," spoken with great earnestness of course). It belongs to the "deck building" family of games which began with Dominion in 2008. The core idea of deck building, acquiring cards throughout play to beef up the awesomeness and combo-potential of your deck, has been taken in a lot of different directions since that unarguably seminal game: steampunk economics, a global warming post-apocalypse, epic space battles, the struggle for Canada, and superhero punching (or Alien punching, if you prefer). Heart of Crown may at first glance appear regressive since it hews more closely to the original Dominion than any other subsequent effort in terms of both theme and general mechanics. However, labeling it a Dominion knock-off would be a great disservice once you realize that it addresses each of Dominion's failings in a highly direct and effective manner, elegantly bending those flaws into powerful assets Batman.

A minor annoyance in Dominion is remembering how many actions you have left to play. Several cards give you additional actions, and then of course those cards require an action to play, so the math gets... yeach. It's not gamebreaking or anything, but it means a lot of counting on your fingers, which can be detrimental to managing a hand of cards (and Marduk help you if you lose count and have to retrace your steps).

Heart of Crown neatly solves this by simply putting an arrow on the right edge of cards that don't require an action, and a second arrow on the bottom edge of cards that grant an additional action, and require that each card (after the first) must be played with a arrow pointing to it. It's extremely intuitive, involves no counting, and also makes it easy for opponents to check your "math," and it allows the designers to easily balance the various card powers by simply giving them different numbers of arrows without requiring reams of extra text and rules exceptions for what does and doesn't require an action to play. (The arrow icon could be slightly clearer though, it blends in a bit until you know what you're looking for.)

Dominion utilized a clever system of adding purchased "Victory Point" cards to your deck, creating a catch-up dynamic wherein the players with the most points by necessity also have the most cludged-up decks, and forcing the players to make tough choices between improving their deck's functionality or actually gaining points. The problem is that the actual experience of drawing a hand full of useless 6-VP province cards is dull at best and incredibly frustrating at worst.

Heart of Crown expands on this dynamic to create difficult in-the-moment tactical choices. If you draw a hand with points cards, you can "bank" these cards and get them out of your deck (and in fact only banked cards add to your score), but you can't purchase any cards that turn. So a hand full of points cards, rather than a wasted turn, feels like an efficient opportunity to bank, and a hand with some useful cards and some points cards suddenly offers an agonizing choice rather than merely an inefficient turn. Furthermore, this mechanic allows you to better slim and hone your deck, reducing late-game randomness.

In Dominion, you can buy two cards that you intend to play off each other, and then proceed to never ever draw them both in the same hand.

In Heart of Crown, you can stow action cards for use on later turns (depending on how awesome your "kingdom" is).

In Dominion, all the purchasable cards are available right at the start of the game. This reduces randomness and allows for lots of long-term planning, but it also makes the turn-to-turn decisions less interesting since you mostly know what will be available and don't really need to react on the fly. An experienced Dominion player can look at any card setup and immediately say "oh those three cards are going to combo well," and then proceed to pursue that theory and potentially make few to no further choices throughout the game (aside from paying attention to how fast other players are accelerating the endgame). Also having to try and internalize what every action card does right from turn-1 can be a bit daunting if you're at all inexperienced.

Subsequent deck building games like Ascension and Marvel Legendary address this by having a limited selection of random cards to select from. This forces on-the-fly strategizing, but it also increases the random factor, and potentially limits the overall strategizing that a player can do. Heart of Crown finds an interesting middle ground wherein there are always eight different types of action cards available, but which cards and how many of each card shift over time, emphasizing both short and long-term planning (and also reducing setup time). I'm slightly concerned that, because you see a bigger portion of the action cards every game, certain combos might become known and always exploited when possible, but there are expansions to remedy that.

Dominion did not feature adorable anime handmaiden cards.

Heart of Crown addresses this by featuring adorable anime handmaiden cards.

In summary, Heart of Crown is basically Dominion 2.0, and I mean this in the best way possible. Dominion itself is a brilliant, important and innovative game, and Heart of Crown brings a whole host of improvements to the table (and I didn't even get into the fascinating game of chicken involving the Princess powers). There's enough diversity in this genre to justify owning a few different deck building games; Legendary Encounters is a pretty different game from A Few Acres of Snow, for example. But to be honest, given the choice between Dominion and Heart of Crown, I would pick Heart of Crown every time.

...sadly Heart of Crown is not available in English, and as far as I know there are no specific plans to remedy that, which renders this review ...entirely pointless! On the other hand, it gave me the opportunity to type the phrase "please stop the mystic power generator."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2,400 Free DOS Games!

DOSBox can be kind of a pain in the butt, and some DOS games had copy protection that was just as irritating as the stuff EA puts out (particularly when you don't have the instruction manual that came with the specific starmap with the coordinates you need!). Luckily you can now play 2,400 classic DOS games right in your browser for free! Let's celebrate videogame history by falling in love with dying of dysentery all over again.

My Game Design Course (Winter 2015)

In the Fall I ran a game design course in Mount Royal's continuing education department, and it went quite well! In class we developed a tabletop adaption of Minecraft and an interesting alternate-history WWII game which is still under development (among other things). I'll be doing another run-through on Tuesday nights starting February 3rd and running until March 7th (seven classes total). Course content will be similar to the first iteration.

If you're in Calgary and are interested in learning about game design, you can find the course on MRU's website by searching Course Registration Number: 30941

Spread the word, superfriends!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Steampunk Rally - Most Anticipated Games of 2015

Voting is now open for boardgamegeek's most anticipated games of 2015, and Steampunk Rally has been nominated for seven categories. We're currently in the coveted top 20 overall, but it looks like it will be a tight race. If you have a moment before January 18th (and a bgg account), please consider heading over and voting for us! ...that is if Steampunk Rally is one of your most anticipated games of 2015. If not, then never mind. We hope to do better by you another year.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Steampunk Rally - More Shameless Promotion!

Steampunk Rally has been nominated on boardgamegeek as one of the most anticipated games of 2015, and right now it looks like we're at #6! If you want to go give it a thumb, we could use a hand to push it over the top!

I also did a followup to my earlier interview with The Inquisitive Meeple if you want to check that out.

Currently we're hard at work playtesting the 16 unique inventor powers and the Hoverdrome so we can finalize the art for the print 'n play files. Hope you like them as much as we do :)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sonic Retrospective: Gotta Go Fast!

I was raised as a Nintendo kid, so I didn't really grow up on Sonic The Hedgehog. Sure I have a few fond memories of the Genesis games from when I was younger, but mainly I was in the Mario camp. (Actually I was in the Donkey Kong Country camp, but that's another topic.) It's widely accepted among most gamers that Sonic games were fantastic until he tried to go 3D and, to put it mildly, failed to make the transition with the seemingly-effortless aplomb of Mario (though he undoubtedly fared better than some mascots).

Long ago I played through and quite enjoyed Sonic Adventure 2, but the other 3D entries I've attempted to play over the years, specifically Sonic Heroes and Sonic and the Secret Rings, turned me off them faster than almost any other games I can remember. SatSR was brave enough to attempt adapting the formula to motion controls, which for me wasn't the issue, nor did I have a problem with jumping required first doing a ducking-slide-thing. The issue was that this pre-jump slide thing, which you needed to do constantly, slowed Sonic's speed to a crawl (thus making the jump feel pretty wimpy), and worse, it took him an extremely long time to accelerate to full speed when allowed to run interrupted, making the whole experience feel a bit like trying to run through molasses or perhaps navigate rush-hour traffic.

Sonic's mission statement of going really fast was originally a gimmick to sell kids on Sega's “blast processing” (which arguably was not a thing). Leaving aside the issue that Sonic's capabilities don't really measure up to the hype, this focus on speed has been a constant difficulty in terms of game design. A fundamental issue has always been the struggle to find reasons for the player to actually want to go fast. Like most platformers, the Genesis entries rewarded patience and precision (i.e. not barreling into enemies and spike traps), which made for enjoyable gameplay but sort of ran anathema to the alleged central concept. Over the years, Sonic Team clearly realized this issue and has attempted to resolve it in two ways: give players time restrictions (e.g. something chasing them or a reward/pat-on-the-back for finishing a level quickly), give Sonic abilities (like the spin attack and homing attack) that reduce his vulnerability while going fast (to try and counter the inherent loss of control and response time), and add on-rails section where players can "cut loose" and go really fast without worrying about randomly running into a hazard (popping up even in the early 2D entries as pipes and loops).

Which brings us to near-present day and the game that not-so-subtly prompted me to contemplate Sonic's history: Sonic Generations. Despite everything I'm going to say, the game's really not bad (certainly superior to Star Trek: Generations). There's obvious visible effort in terms of honoring the character's history (without overly bogging it down with drawn-out cutscenes), catchy remixes of old songs, pleasingly rendered environments that pay homages to earlier entries and effortlessly transition between 2D and 3D, and even plenty of clever level design. Trust me, if Sonic Team were as incompetent as some people believe, these games would be virtually unplayable. It's obvious that they understand the difficulties associated with the character and continually work hard to try and ameliorate them. (In fact to be honest I'm having more fun with the 3D levels than the traditionalist 2D levels, which sort of runs counter to the popular narrative that the designers have somehow "lost their way" since transitioning to 3D, as does the lukewarm response to Sonic the Hedgehog 4.)

Yet those inherent Sonic-specific difficulties are definitely on display as well. In order to give that sense of speed, the game makes use of extended on-rails sections. I have no inherent objection to on-rails gameplay, in fact it can be extremely enjoyable. The problem is that combining on-rails gameplay with regular gameplay poses a number of additional challenges. If a player's control is removed entirely (e.g. the Genesis pipe sections), the sections are basically nothing but cutscenes: flashy but meaningless, and devoid of actual tension. But to give the player even a modicum of control invites the possibility of disaster. In one section of Generations, Sonic was intended to bounce off a spring and land on a grind rail, but because I was trying to help and was pushing the control stick towards the rail, Sonic somehow managed to overshoot it and die. As expected, on my second attempt Sonic made it onto the rail when I made no inputs with the controller. In essence, the game was punishing me for trying to play it at all. Yet just as often, Sonic will fall to his doom or barrel into an obstacle because I failed to give an input in time. Thus, like an ornery housecat, the frenetic action in the game has so far repeatedly come down to a central challenge of trying to deduce when the game wants me to play and when it wants me to leave it alone.

The other continued frustration in Sonic games throughout their history has been that the punishment for screwing up, aside from losing rings or potentially falling to one's doom, has been stopping Sonic dead in his tracks, which is extremely frustrating in a game about going fast. An important tenet of game design is that failure should be fun. It should be glorious and spectacular and perhaps darkly satisfying. But the way Sonic games punish you after every minor screw-up by abruptly halting the action is far too understated. Despite the power rings colorfully flying from Sonic's sprawled form (which does help a bit. Try and picture how jarring it would feel without the ring effect), the loss of momentum, in the context of a Sonic game, is anything but fun. It would be like if every missed note in Guitar Hero caused the music to momentarily halt rather than triggering entertainingly-dissonant notes to play. Instantly halting the action is the reason Bit.Trip Runner failed to reach the heights inherent in its premise (though Rayman Legends eventually made good on the concept simply by relaxing the required precision). Put more straightforwardly, it breaks flow. And by this point, Sonic Team must recognize that Sonic is best when he's going fast (*cough*werehog*cough*aka hedgewolf*). At slow speeds, his controls feel slippery, like he can't wait to get back on the open road.

Most platforming games don't suffer from these particular issues because they're not about going fast, but there is another genre that generally is: racing games. In F-Zero GX, a particular favorite of mine (and ironically published by SEGA), a player's race car is rarely stopped dead in its tracks (and if this does happen, the amusing novelty of it helps make up for the irritation). Instead, when a player screws up (e.g. runs into the side rails or other racers), they maintain much of their velocity but lose shields. Because the shields double as the boost gauge, the game tempts you into tense push-your-luck moments where the more you boost the more likely you are to run into obstacles and the more able to destroy you those obstacles become, so the central challenge becomes "how much?" which is a lot more interesting than Sonic's central challenge of "am I supposed to?" I've brought up the brilliance of this system before, but the relevant feature here is that screwing up and running into hazards doesn't put a damper on the action, rather it heightens the tension. It makes you think "maybe I should slow down a bit" while the racers around you immediately push those doubts from your mind and tempt you to boost just one more time. (Interestingly F-Zero GX also features the sideways dash which is so crucial to Sonic Generations' controls.)

So to summarize, if I could offer any advice to Sonic Team, it would be:

A) continue to try and find compelling reasons for Sonic to want to go fast. (Getting a final grade for finishing within an allotted time is not a very compelling reason.) Chasing or being chased (ala F-Zero GX) are good reasons. Letting Sonic smash through certain enemies/obstacles when he is going sufficiently fast (with clear visual indicators) would be another good incentive, as would enemies that punish tardiness (e.g. guided missiles) like in Sunset Overdrive.

B) find ways to punish failure that don't mean stopping Sonic dead in his tracks (losing rings is fine, though running in circles collecting them is irritating in 3D). Even having him sent flying in an unintended direction would be preferable (though I realize this pose level design challenges). Having him lose some velocity would also be acceptable, and could be very punishing were it actually necessary to go fast (though it's best if he has ways to quickly get back up to speed e.g. a dedicated "go-really-fast" button). Triggering things (e.g. alarms) that increase the perils of stopping or slowing down (e.g. the quantity of enemies chasing you) might also be a fun dynamic, forcing you to choose between proceeding more cautiously and facing the tidal wave of things you've triggered or doubling down and shooting the moon.

The other realization I came to is that, in my opinion, Sonic is best when he's racing through recognizably Earth-like environments. That's not because I want realism in my Sonic games but because it's much easier to get a sense of how fast Sonic's really going, and be awed by it, when he's running through an environment that you intuitively know the general scale of. For all it's myriad failings (including even having a freaking name), Sonic 2006 recognized this I think, and the real-world environments impart a good sense of speed. (Though perhaps they just did it for the sake of "gritty realism"; this is the team that brought us Shadow the Hedgehog after all.) Proper use of camera also gives a sense of scale and speed, though I realize how challenging this probably has been in the series (it was one of primary downfalls of Sonic 2006 and for what it's worth the camera only killed me a couple times so far in Generations, which is not bad considering). Showing off what's ahead better might not only help show off how quickly Sonic traverses it but also focus the gameplay more on timing and frantic choices rather than sheer reflexes.

Admittedly I'm only a couple hours into Generations which is why I made this more of a retrospective than a review, and perhaps the pulled-back camera angles and real-world environments come in later, but my short time with the game (and the frequent transitions between old-school and new-school) helped clarify for me these fundamental issues that have always plagued the series through both good times and bad. So far I've enjoyed my time with Generations, but I suspect this will diminish as the difficulty rises since I've mostly been able to cheerfully breeze through everything, and the moment I've encountered any sort of adversity the above issues rear their ugly heads and tip things over into frustration.

Rather than restrictively categorizing Sonic as a platformer, thinking in terms of racing games might help point to (less-band-aid-y) solutions since he feeds similar aesthetics (and yes I realize that Sonic has been in actual racing games, but that's incalculably stupid on the face of it. Why does Sonic need a car! That's as dumb as the Flashmobile!!). And racing against no opponents, stopping the player on a dime, having their inputs screw everything up... all starts to sound suspiciously like Big Riggs: Over the Road Racing!

And that's no good!