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.