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Why an Asymmetric Board Game Pissed Off Me and My Friends

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It’s Game Night and you know what that means: booze, board games, and belligerency (in that order). What better way to bond with your friends than by spending two hours in heated arguments, combing through rulebooks and forum posts to prove your points?

Modern tabletop gaming has reached a level of complexity that rivals video games. What that means, however, is that tabletop designers have had to adapt numerous mechanics and systems in order to support increasingly dense rule-sets. Due to its physical, player-driven nature, tabletop games have an inherently high learning curve.

Balance is already a messy can of worms. Throwing in asymmetric gameplay turns that can into a bucket. Balancing asymmetric tabletop gameplay turns the worms into rabid wolverines. That is to say, shit’s hard yo.

Fig. 1 – The proper reaction to a competitive asymmetric tabletop game.

Symmetry is for Chumps

Everyone knows the game “Tag”. One person is “It” and everyone else needs to avoid them. Whenever someone gets tagged, they become “It”. Simple, right? This is asymmetric gameplay in its most basic form: different mechanics for different players.

Asymmetric gameplay is typically any sort of multiplayer game where opposing sides use different mechanics and playstyles within the same rules and boundaries. One of the best examples is the Left 4 Dead series. On one side you have the humans: they have guns, can revive each other, and use a number of different items. On the other side you have the infected: they possess unique abilities, choose where to spawn, and have a comparatively shorter respawn timer. 

While both sides have the ultimate goal of “winning”, those conditions are different for each side. The humans win by reaching the end of the level, while the infected must prevent the humans from doing so and win when they all die. The different playstyles and mechanics reflect these opposing objectives.

If Left 4 Dead has received popular and critical acclaim, why haven’t more people tackled asymmetric gameplay? The answer: it’s freaking hard to balance. Power imbalance is already a large enough issue in normal competitive games. Effectively balancing completely different mechanics and playstyles requires massive amounts of work on the developer’s part.

Left 4 Dead’s well-balanced design resulted in a robust competitive scene that’s still active to this day.

“It’s a game that needs to be balanced, but fundamentals of the game are imbalanced,” said Adam Sessler in regards to Evolve, a game where four hunters  must chase down one super-powered beast. “You’re looking at a lot of variables. I think asymmetry at that point is doing a disservice, because it’s almost a cacophony of options of how this whole thing can play out!”

Developers for other games have expressed similar concerns. Crawl is a more recent asymmetric game that has one player dungeon-diving while the other three try to kill him and take his place. Powerhoof Games has said that “balance really is the hardest part of development on Crawl.” “We have a lot of tweaking to do!  … to make sure it isn’t frustrating for the hero or the monsters. There are a lot of possible ways to even the playing field a little.”

What’s nice about balancing for a digital medium is the ability to push updates and hotfixes with relative ease. The same can’t be said for tabletop games.

To the Table With You!

As a huge fan of tactics games and Star WarsImperial Assault seemed like a must-buy. Not only is it a classic Star Wars premise of daring rebels fighting the Imperial juggernaut, it also features Fire Emblem-like gameplay and progression. The novel idea of pitting four Rebel players against one person controlling the Imperial Army promised interesting and exciting combat. On paper, Imperial Assault was everything I ever wanted in a board game.

When ‘Star Wars’ meets ‘Fire Emblem’

In practice, however, Imperial Assault made it easy for me and my friends to get pissed off. The game tries to replicate the Fire Emblem and XCOM experience of objective-based missions by implementing scripted events. If a certain number of turns has passed or certain conditions are met within a mission, specific events will trigger.

While an interesting premise, scripted events and strategic asymmetric gameplay don’t exactly mix. There are three big reasons for this:

1) Perceived Player Agency
(or: “Well, what the hell do we do now?”)

Throwing curve balls at your players and keeping them surprised should be one of the goals of good game design. Players shouldn’t feel limited in their choices when they run into these obstacles. Tactics games like Fire Emblem use scripted events well because the AI will usually play at a set difficulty. You as the player have an idea of what to expect.

In the case of Imperial Assault, however, scripted events will usually give options and resources to the Imperial player. This presents a huge problem when the single Imperial player is more skilled and can leverage the most out of those events.

As a Rebel player, it’s frustrating to hear the Imperial player say that he suddenly gets to deploy five Stormtroopers and close off doors around you. Because the Imperial player is operating with hidden information, the Rebels have to take him at his word that he’s playing by the rules. Naturally, when shenanigans like that happen time and time again you’re bound to feel like everything you do is useless.

2) Balance
(or: “THAT’S HORSESHIT”)

Imperial assault is brutal. A lot of the missions feel imbalanced because they actually are. After the end of a mission, we tended to look up what people were saying about them online. Most of the time we found people agreeing that certain missions heavily favored one side over the other.

The hard part of competitive asymmetric gameplay is that there are so many systems and mechanics to balance. Both sides need to have a unique feel to their gameplay while still being balanced enough to provide a fair challenge.

Oftentimes, the side with fewer players will have so much more to work with by virtue of playing against a team of unique characters with powerful abilities. The big AT-ST or the beefy bounty-hunter droid are powerful adversaries that give notable advantages to the Imperial player. 

3) Competition
(or: “y u heff to b mad?”)

For a game that’s so rich in flavor and lore, Imperial Assault misses the mark by being a competitive game. While it’s a neat idea to have a 1v4 scenario, it simply creates too many opportunities for negativity and bickering. The imbalance and lack of player agency work directly against a game that’s supposed to be competitive. Rarely does it feel like both sides are on a level playing field.

Asymmetric gameplay in tabletop gaming requires a massive amount of balancing and fine-tuning in order to not feel frustrating. The sheer amount of mechanics and rules in Imperial Assault took weeks to get down; even at our quickest games we were still referring to the rulebook. While the physical, tactile medium of a board game helps with the learning process, Imperial Assault reached a certain point where it was more frustrating than fun to manage. We spent more time arguing about the game than we did playing it.

‘Imperial Assault’ suffers from a hefty amount of rule-dependent scenarios that make a slow, tactical game even slower.

Leniency and You: How to Not Be an Asshole

Asymmetric gameplay has vast amounts of potential as a game design framework because it offers unique systems and mechanics not seen in traditional multiplayer games. However, it requires one of two things: finely tuned balance or some degree of leniency. As Imperial Assault proved, the former is hard to achieve (at least for a tabletop game).

Leniency is key to making asymmetric gameplay work. Competition between two sides is only fun when it’s on a level playing field. You can’t exactly have leniency when only one side can win. It’s for that reason that tabletop RPGs create the best asymmetric tabletop gameplay experience possible.

In tabletop RPGs like Shadowrun or Dungeons and Dragons, you have two groups of people: the players and the DM/GM. In Imperial Assault, these were the Rebels and Imperials, respectively. However, the big difference with TRPGs is that they’re collaborative, not competitive. The ultimate goal isn’t for one side to emerge as the victor: it’s to create a story together.

‘The Adventure Zone’ is a highly popular ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ podcast because of the stories that the players and their DM have crafted. The flexibility and leniency in using the rules have created a host of memorable and entertaining encounters. (Art by Carey Pietsch)

Hand-waving certain rules for not being conducive to fun is one of the best parts of playing a TRPG. The DM is there to create challenges for the players to overcome, but if every encounter were a life-or-death scenario gameplay would quickly get tiring. It’s easy to manipulate these challenges as the DM in order to create an experience that’s difficult but not punishing. The orc barbarian can “conveniently” roll a critical miss or the players can happen upon a helpful item when they’re bruised and battered. It’s up to the DM to decide.

Games Should Be Fun?!

The problem that Imperial Assault has is that the scripted events and pre-planned scenarios mean that the players are operating with the developers’ intended design. You can’t easily be lenient with the rules because everything is designed without much wiggle-room.

TRPGs allow for a healthy amount of freedom and collaboration that still brings out the best of asymmetric gameplay. Both sides play with unique and varied mechanics, so when they meet in the middle the result is fun and memorable gameplay. It might not necessarily be the most balanced, but that’s not important.

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5

It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist

Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding
: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Afterparty clip
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune

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‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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How Do ‘Pokemon Sword and Shield’s’ Max Raid Battles Measure Up?

Max Raid Battles are one of Pokemon Sword and Shield’s premier new features. Do they live up to their full potential? Let’s find out.

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max raid battles

One of the most heavily promoted new features of Pokémon Sword and Shield have been their Max Raid Battles. These gargantuan fights are both a key part of the online experience and likely the first taste most players will get of Dynamaxed Pokémon in-game. So, how’d this take on Pokémon Go’s raid system pan out in the series’ first mainline entry on console?

Well, on the plus side, getting into the thick of a raid is super straightforward. After the opening hour or two, players are introduced to the Wild Area and can access Max Raid Battles straight away by walking up to a pillar of red light on the field. From there you can invite others, challenge the raid with NPCs, and choose which Pokémon you want to use.

Real Friends Raid Together

Playing with friends online, though, is a bit more convoluted. There’s no “Invite Friends” option to be seen. Instead, all social features are handled through the Y-comm (literally accessed by pressing the Y button). It’s here that players can Link Trade, Link Battle, exchange player cards, and more.

After actively connecting to the internet–which has to be done each play session and each time the Switch is put into sleep mode–it’s up to the host of the match to find a portal and send an invitation to everyone. A notification will pop for friends on the side of the screen, and then it’s up to everyone to join the match directly through the Y-comm interface.

If players want real people to fill in any remaining slots (all raids are four-person affairs), they’ll need to join before the room fills up. Setting a Link Code avoids this hassle by creating a room but, unlike Salmon Run in Splatoon 2, only computer players can fill remaining spots after friends finish joining this way.

After some experimenting and fudding about, my buddy and I were able to hop into matches fairly quickly without much issue. Nonetheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that creating friend lobbies is only such a headache because it had to be tied to the Y-comm. Pair this with the fact that battling while waiting for a friend to create a room can cause the notification not to pop, and getting a group together is a bit more painful than it should be.

Max Raid Battle Rundown

The raids themselves are a surprisingly engaging twist on the classic Pokémon battle formula. Groups of four challengers work together to take on a Dynamaxed raid boss. Each raid boss has a different star rating, and even the 1-star battles are no joke the first few times around. These boss Pokémon are merciless, and regularly one-shot lower leveled ‘mons with ease.

To combat these monstrous foes, one random trainer in every group is granted the ability to Dynamax their chosen Pokémon and lead the charge. The Dynamaxed Pokémon gets the benefit of having extra-powerful moves and increased HP, though it’s rather disappointing that there only seems to be one Max Move per move type (one Grass move, one Dark move, and so on). Each of these has a secondary effect on the battlefield; some trigger sandstorms, others trigger a health regeneration field that heals everyone a bit each turn. Regular moves with type advantages deal a significant chunk of damage, but it’s Max Moves that can truly turn the tide of battle.

If one of the group’s Pokémon faints, that trainer has to sit out for a turn before it automatically gets revived (a smart design choice to keep all trainers actively involved). However, the fainting of each Pokémon triggers the storm above to become more and more vicious. After four faints or ten turns, everyone is booted out of the raid sans rewards.

max raid battles

The Fruits of Victory

Two of the easiest ways to better your odds are 1) Choose a Pokémon with a type advantage going into battle, and 2) Manage who Dynamaxes when. Each trainer’s Dynamax meter grows periodically and, though only one trainer can use it at a time, multiple players can activate it over the course of a raid. It also seems like each raid’s star rating is tied directly to the raid boss’ level, so bringing a generally powerful Pokémon to a lower-level raid is another viable strategy for success.

Aside from the chance to capture the raid boss itself (and some Pokémon are Max Raid Battle-exclusive), winning a raid nets players some very worthwhile rewards. These include everything from EXP candies and berries to nuggets and TMs. It’s not so much of a haul that it hurts the overall balance of the game, but there’s enough to make getting a few friends together and grinding raids for a couple of hours worth it.

max raid battles

Though Max Raid Battles are just a small part of the overall Sword and Shield package, they’ve ended up being a rather fun take on Pokémon’s traditional multiplayer offerings. For as unnecessarily complicated as playing with friends is, there are also a few cool ideas here, like being able to join a raid from anywhere on the map as long as the host is at the raid pillar. There’s some good fun to be had here if you prefer to battle alongside your friends instead of against them.

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