Archive for the ‘Gaming’ Category

Loki’s Awesome Draft

Wednesday, 1 December, 2010

I play Magic: The Gathering a lot with friends at work during our lunchtimes. Mostly we tend to play draft format tournaments, in which each player opens three new packs of cards (15 cards per pack) one at a time, picks one card, then passes the pack around the table. You continue picking one card per pack and passing the remainder, until you have 45 cards of your choice, with which you build a deck. We then play a round-robin of 3-game matches, played to completion (i.e. if you win a match 2-0, you still play the third game). Your tournament score is the total number of games you win, with ties broken by countback. A tournament like this takes us about 3 or 4 weeks to finish off, playing at lunchtime.

Anyway, most of the tournaments we do use the brand new card sets that Wizards of the Coast print a few times a year. These are fun and exciting because they involve newly designed cards from the ever-expanding imaginations of the experienced and clever professional game designers.

Another thing we’ve done a few times is to design our own sets of original cards, print up copies, shuffle them into “packs” of 15 random cards each, and draft with those. Our first effort, which we dubbed Inventica, was a joint one, in which we all contributed an equal number of our own card designs. Let me tell you, experience playing Magic does not make you a good card designer. Many of the cards from that set were either just lame and dull, or severely broken in ways that destabilised the game balance. It’s gone down in our joint gaming experience as one of the most severely broken events ever, though it was amusing in hindsight and somewhat fun at the time. We learnt a lot about designing good cards form that experience.

The next invented set was Asgard, which was the product of one of us (Loki) working in secret. This is a daunting task, designing enough cards for 7 players, making them interesting, and trying to make them balanced. Again, it was fun, but the design was perhaps too ambitious, with many new mechanics that didn’t have enough breathing space to really gel. It was nowhere near as brokenly overpowered as Inventica, and in fact probably went the other way.

We began design on another two other joint efforts: Horrifica, for which we decided on a unified theme (which Inventica didn’t have), namely a horror theme. The plan was to design the cards communally, with people submitting ideas and letting everyone comment and tweak until we had a finely tuned set. Alas it never really got off the ground, though we still have the early notes somewhere. The other effort was Thriceborn, which had a theme of three-colour “guilds”. This built on the concept of the two-colour guilds introduced in the official Ravnica block. We came up with this idea before the official Alara block was released, which did three-colour “shards”, and were only partway through the design when it appeared. Thriceborn has been on hold for a while, but it’s about 50% designed and we hope to finish it off some day.

The next creative effort was Draftikar, designed by me. This set used mechanics that actually interacted with the fact that we were using the cards in a draft tournament format. For example, there were cards that, when you drafted them – before any games were even played – did things, like letting you draft an extra card, or pass packs to different players. And when we draft we put the cards into card sleeves that are numbered A1 to A15 for the first pack, B1 to B15 for the second, and C1 to C15 for the third, so we can later record the drafting order and do statistics on it and so on. This means each card has a visible number on it (on the front, not the back) – so I created mechanics that used that number. For example, a spell that does D damage, where D is the draft number of that card. These were somewhat self-balancing, because people didn’t pick them at numbers that were underpowered, and then drafted them at numbers before they became too powerful, lest later players grab them – though in practice the decisions were complex enough that some rather overpowered cards got through. It was fun, but some of the cards were truly broken. More lessons learnt.

Another two players are now working on entire set designs of their own, and we hope to play them some time soon.

But then another thing we are now doing is creating “cubes” of cards, which are simply sets of the necessary numbers of cards gathered from our various card collections, shuffled, and made into “packs”, which are then drafted normally. A cube can have some theme uniting the cards selected. The first one we did was a Dross Cube, made of the weakest and most over-costed cards from one guy’s collection. These are cards that serious players reject and never use, because there are simply better cards in existence. It was amusing to have to build decks comprised of cards that we’d never normally use, and generated some very fun interactions and effects that we never would have seen otherwise. And because it was made entirely from real cards, it was balanced in its own way, and nobody really had an overpowering advantage like in our invented sets.

Now, we’ve just begun another cube – the polar opposite of the Dross Cube. This is the Awesome Cube, made of a collection of some of the most overpowered and insane cards that Wizards have ever printed. Loki went to the effort of buying several cards online to put into this cube, and we are all in awe of what he has assembled. It doesn’t have any of the Power Nine – cards so overpowered that they command prices well over $100 each – but it does have plenty of cards from the next tier of legendarily broken cards. There are cards so powerful they have been banned from official tournaments. But there are dozens of them – in fact pretty much every single card in this cube would be an automatic inclusion in a deck in any other limited format tournament. It was staggering to see packs being handed around during the draft with the best ten cards already taken, and seeing the remaining cards still presenting the dilemma that you wanted to keep 3 or 4 of them because they are just that good.

I’ll talk more about this cube later. I don’t want to say much more now because we’ve just started the tournament and I don’t want the other guys to read what astounding things I have in my deck. My deck is, frankly, awesome and completely and utterly broken. My fear is that everyone else’s deck is at least just as overpowering. :-)

Fighting robots

Friday, 12 March, 2010

I do semi-regular Magic: The Gathering draft tournaments with friends. For anyone who doesn’t know, this involves getting packs of randomly sorted game cards and the drafting them, usually in the following fashion:

  1. Each player opens a pack of 15 cards and picks one card to keep and play the tournament with. The remaining cards are passed to the next player around the table (to the left, initially).
  2. Continue picking one card and passing the rest until everyone has 15 cards.
  3. Repeat for two more packs of cards, reversing the direction of passing each pack.
  4. Each player now has 45 cards, with which to construct a deck to play in the tournament. You typically use about 23 of the cards and add enough basic land cards from a common pool to total a deck size of 40.

So obviously choosing which cards to draft is an important tactical part of the overall tournament performance. It’s also a lot of fun in itself.

One of us had the idea to write a computer code framework to handle the administrative details, with an API that allows it to talk to other programs. Then each of us would write a program to make drafting decisions based on card details given to the program by the framework. We’d abstract a lot of the fiddly details out of the actual Magic cards and work with a much simpler system that basically gives certain card combinations scores based on properties of the cards. Then we’d run about 1000 drafts using the programs and analyse the statistics. The goal is to see which of our programs can draft a “better” deck in this system.

This was proposed to us in an e-mail, suggesting we might want to do this for something fun. The e-mail concluded with the following lines:

* Creating robots to fight each other is always fun.

* Complete waste of time.

I thought this was amusing… but also slightly inaccurate. After all, something this unutterably geeky should be a complete waste of time in order to be worth doing!

Anyway, since the proposal was made – less than 24 hours ago as I type – one of us has already written a framework program to enable this AI robot card drafting tournament. You can’t keep a good geek down! If we get some interesting results, I’ll be sure to share them.

Reality and unreality

Thursday, 18 February, 2010

A while back I ran a roleplaying adventure for some of my friends. It was a scenario I wrote myself, with a sort of X-Files vibe to it. The PCs were FBI agents, investigating what at first appeared to be an ordinary case, but which turned a bit weird once they uncovered what was really going on.

At this point the game bogged down a bit. I was ready and waiting for the agents to start kicking butt and attacking the problem with guns blazing. After all, Mulder and Scully would leap right in. But my players didn’t. Instead they did the considerably more realistic thing of sneaking around and trying to gather evidence. It was only when I finally threw a rampaging Unseelie horse at them that one of them fired a shot in self-defence. From there the cat was out of the bag and all Hell broke loose, as I’d been hoping it would for about an hour of game time.

The chaos that followed was a lot of fun. But I was just a little mystified as to why the players took so long to get there. Then when the game was over, a couple of them explained that they went into the game taking their roles as FBI agents seriously, determined not to step out of line and to do things by the book. Which was fine and understandable from their point of view, but not what I was expecting.

My assumption was that the PCs would be “TV style” FBI agents, not realistic ones. I expected them to ignore the rules and get their hands dirty to get the job done. The problem was I hadn’t told the players that. I hadn’t run a game for some time, and it felt really bad to have made such a fundamental mistake. But I’ve learnt the lesson now. Make sure your players know what you’re expecting of them. Surprise and secrecy about what is going to happen in the adventure are vital to a roleplaying game, but more important is making sure everyone’s playing under the same assumptions before you begin.

If I’d just said up-front, “You’re flamboyant, TV-style FBI agents who get away with breaking the rules when necessary” as opposed to “realistic agents who do their work silently and never fire a gun,” the game would have run much more smoothly. Ah well. Here’s to experience, and not making the same mistake twice.