Archive for March, 2008

Looking For A Challenge?

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

I should have pointed this out a while ago. Cults had me practically running around with blinders on. GregDan has been posting some Mutant challenge scenarios for some time at the Wargamer. They are really a blast to play and very clever. If you are looking for a narrative framework to put a campaign together for AE you need look no further. Check all the scenarios out at Toxic Blog

Rewarding Whimsy

Friday, March 28th, 2008

I’m a big MST3k fan. A lot of times I like to code with background noise if I’m not playing my iTunes. The most comforting background noise I’ve found is an episode of MST3K. I’ve got some personal favorites: Outlaw Return to Gore, Puma Man, Anything Hercules, Fugitive Aliens etc. I’ve heard them so many times in the background that I can recite lines in my sleep. I’m odd. I know. Anyway, there is an old MST3K episode where one of the bits in between screenings has Dr. Forrester enamored with the word “whimsical.” The good Dr. uses the word quite liberally, almost whimsically.

A dictionary definition of whimsical might be: determined by chance or impulse or whim rather than by necessity or reason

An incident of whimsy while recently playing Medieval II: Total War got me to thinking about how game designers should reward whimsical choices. I had decided to try the Holy Roman Empire scenario and very early in the game a Great Crusade was called with the objective of recapturing Jerusalem. At this point my coffers were empty and I had a mission to capture some back water village in what is now Poland. I was planning exactly where my main armies were going to be stationed and they really needed some work. I was half tempted to let the rest of Europe worry about it and get on with waging war against my Christian neighbors. Then it hit me. Some whimsical mood that is. I aborted the siege on the backwater, gathered my best knights, some spearmen and archers and formed a crusading army. The Milanese were already making money demands but I would deal with them in due course. About 5 turns later the Holy Roman Emperor himself was sitting in Jerusalem, and the streets were running red with blood and a huge column of smoke was rising to heaven. I now found my self with a new epithet “Emperor Heinrich the Crusader”, Peter the Hermit as a member of my entourage, a holy relic and substantial holdings in a distant land. Acre and Gaza soon fell to my crusaders as well.

It remains to be seen whether or not I can found a Crusader Kingdom that lasts as long as its historical counterparts did. So the risk vs. reward outcome of the choice has yet to materialize. But I had fun all the way there. I also want to build these type of odd ball tangents into my games. Yes, you could make a great argument that Crusading wasn’t whimsical but had all sorts of social, political and religious underpinnings and root causes. But I had a strategy at one point that was jettisoned because something unexpected knocked on my door and offered me another path…..and that made all the difference.

Whimsical Dr. F

Back to the Future

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Now that Cults is out, I’m shifting back to work on Brimstone. I’m fixing bugs here and there for a follow on 1.07a but thankfullly most of them are not crash bugs and the few that are have been the result of very rare confluences of events…..stuff you would see 1 in 1000 games maybe. But I return to Brimstone not having been poking around the code for a while and it’s both refreshing and daunting. Design patterns are something that software engineers use to great effect. They are templates for approaching specific problems that can be reused over and over. I’ve established a bunch of design patterns during my work on Armageddon Empires and that is proving to be a tremendous help for Brimstone.

Since Brimstone was first a boardgame that I designed, its rule set is nowhere near as complex as AE’s. That’s not to say that the decision space is less rich or challenging… it’s not. But from a programming stand point implementing the rules is proving to be much easier. Simultaneous turns is a big help. Here the biggest challenge is offering the player the ability to construct orders that are stored/executed sequentially. You don’t have to worry about another player interrupting the order at any point. The player needs access to the game data and a menu system that lets him build the correct order. Say you want to move an agent across the map. You can select move agent from a list of orders and then select the agent from a list and then view the map and click on each hex you want to move the agent into. An arrow tracks the progress of each click and paints a movement track. Or instead of initiating the movement from a general orders list you could just click on the agent’s symbol on the map and select “March Legion” from a list of other possible orders.

Once this order has been created you have to also offer the player the ability to review it and cancel or modify it. I’ve come up with an interface pattern that I am calling a universal viewer. It’s a fixed dialogue box of dimensions 800 by 600 pixels. The fixed resolution means that I can offer multi resolution support more easily. The info viewer will always be the same size but more or less of the map can be displayed according to the resolution that is being supported. 800 by 600 fits nicely into the smallest resolution supported for the game in full screen namely 1024 by 768. Tabs run across a tob bar that allow you to select what type of information you want to view or actions you want to take. The bottom bar contains buttons for actions that are contextual based on which tab is selected. I’m hoping this all plays out as very intuitive. Here is the really bad placeholder art that I am using for the top tab bar….remember this is place holder art that I made in photoshop. The real bar will be quite ornate and lovely.

Universal Viewer Tab

Let’s Talk About It

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

I’ve put up a forum for discussion of Armageddon Empires. It’s a bit of a ghost town right now so hurry over and stake your claim!

Cryptic Comet Forums

Right now I’ve got an AE section organized into several sub categories. But I’m hoping to announce the details on Project Brimstone in the next month and I’ll put up a forum for that as well.

The reception of Cults of the Wastelands has been very good. I think players have enjoyed the surprises and built up some grudges against some of the cults…which is a healthy thing.

The Vernal Equinox Is Here…

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

And so is update 1.07 Cults of the Wastelands. The website will be updated sometime today with the download links but until then you can grab them here

PC Version 1.07

Mac Version 1.07

If you are using the Color Blind mod be sure to update it here so that it is 1.07 compatible.

A big word of thanks to all the testers who helped me out.

Brief Designer Notes:
Close Air Support is something that indies are in a great position to do and it’s a real competitive advantage despite the small scale of the operations. In this new age of 900 lb. consoles, being able to evolve and expand a game slowly also plays to the PC’s strengths as a platform. Armageddon Empires is still the same core concept that it was back on release day in July 2007 but it’s a much better game now 8 months later. Cults of the Wastelands came about because of a convergence of factors. Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s a marketing ploy. Just like in Sea Lab 2021 when Sparks gives Stimutacs away for free that’s what I am doing with my demo. The promise of not only seeing Marduk when you buy the full version but Marduk and the Cults should be enough to push any fence sitters right over the edge and maybe even create some new addicts as well.

Beyond simple greed, there were some other factors involved as well. I originally had an idea of releasing free promo cards every couple of months. This had to be cut like so much else. I tinkered around with adding the capability to the existing architecture but when it became clear that it wasn’t going to be trivial I shelved it. I’m a collector myself who struggles with collection addiction. I’ve had some real victories going cold turkey off MMO’s, collectible this and trading that. But the endless possibilities of another expansion block are captivating and seducing. Even if that promo is a lame card/mini it’s still satisfying to add it to the collection. Does the man with the most toys at the end win? I don’t know but I liked the idea of adding something more to AE.

I also wanted to thank customers who had taken a chance and supported me. AE is a modest success because people take the time to talk about it to other people. Word of mouth is what has put me in a position to contemplate and start working on a second strategy game. Even the wonderful press coverage I have received is due in large part to reviewers and opinion makers talking about the game at their secret meetings in the Reviewer’s Guild. It has to be because my PR efforts have been pretty half-a**ed. In my defense, it’s not an easy task and I expected progress to be slow and measured so I’m not complaining. But the bottom line is that I want to send a message to supporters of Cryptic Comet that I appreciate the vote of confidence and you can expect good things like Cults of the Wastelands from me in the future.



Herb Tarlek vs. the Devil

V 1.07 Cults of the Wastelands Update – PC version 3/20/2008 (Mac is identical except for install directions)

This update should be applied to earlier versions 1.1a, 1.1b, 1.1c, 1.02, 1.03, 1.03a, 1.03b, 1.04,1.04a, 1.05, 1.05a, 1.05b, 1.06 and 1.06a. All previous save games are compatible.

Instructions: Double left click on the Zip file to unload the files to your Armageddon Empires folder where the game was installed. The default installation location is C:\Program Files\Cryptic Comet\ArmageddonEmpires. The default location for the update unzip program corresponds to the default installation program. Two files should be overwritten AIScripts.cxt and MainInterface.cxt. Windows Vista users may have to perform this operation by first unziping the files to a location like their desktop and then copying the files manually.

Cults of the Wastelands Mini Expansion Pack

A new toggle exists on the options/create game screens that activates or deactivates the new Cults of the Wastelands content

The first five new games started when the Cults of the Wasteland toggle is selected will offer a unique cult that attempts to accomplish a special cult agenda while active on the map.

After the first five games the option to selecte a specific or random cult is presented

The player must eliminate the cult as well as the other AI players to win the game. Eliminating the cult results in a 100 point bonus to the player’s score.

If all the AI players are eliminated and only the Cult remains, then each turn you will receive a base of 14 Action Points plus any modifiers you are currently owed. If you initiate a battle but do not delay the resolution until the end of the turn, the turn will finish and you will continue on to the next turn with a fresh 14 Action Point base plus modifiers.

Update Notes 1.07 Cults PC Version

Fixed bug where subgoal request for top goal’s target hex coordinate could return a void instead of a point

Fixed bug where Xenopods were trying to deploy egg from eggchamber and test for garrison already being full was not correctly implemented

Fixed Minefield bug where de-stealthing in minefield could cause error

Fixed bug where desperate measures goals to retake stronghold were not using correct siege or attack decision function

Fixed bug where desperate measures goals were not rating hero led armies high enough because the input factor of the combat power vs. AP cost ratio was being dragged down slightly by the hero.

Fixed bug where AI cycled between goals to deploy a collector to a hex and probe a hex for enemy activity in preparation to deploy a collector because the same army was being chosen for both goals

Fixed bug where stealthed hero controlled by human player could use AI facilities to create tactics cards

Fixed bug where Garrison could be destroyed even though defender kept control of hex after battle was finished

Fixed bug where Garrison was destroyed but goal did not fail when trying to move unit card from destroyed Garrison

Fixed bug where when AI had zero of all resources in stockpiles a divide by zero error could occur for certain heuristic algorithms

Fixed bug where multiple infantry supports on same infantry card would cause error when transitioning to next battle

Fixed bug where canceling Air Assault could returned more Action Points than had been expended

Fixed bug where +4 Espionage Bonus from Viral Homonculi was not being applied correctly

Fixed hotkey bug where using hotkey on AI responding dialogue could fail to clear modal lock and cause buttons to be disabled

Fixed hotkey bug where multiple capture kill attempts after a battle could occur on same hero

Fixed bug where unit cards with the steadfast special ability could be targeted by confusion attacks

Fixed bug where changing map size during the start game phase did not disable the start game button when no opponents were selected

Fixed bug where deploy costs for created or discovered cards did not match the printed cost

Fixed bug where facility could be destroyed by HARM attack and aircraft would proceed to attack it without recognizing that it had already been destroyed

Fixed bug where AI could try and move back row unit forward even when no space was available

Fixed bug where if both sides had all units committed because of assaults, the program flow resulted in an error instead of just proceeding to a new round

Fixed very hard to find bug where during AI vs. AI battles the wrong army could be retreated during multi army battles causing an error

Fixed bug where AI would not rate God Soldier or EVO unit high enough for Tactical Nuke use.

UI Additions and Changes:

New toggle on options screen gives AI players starting resource cache to expedite early game growth strategies

Implemented hex coordinate identification pop up when player left clicks on hex on map when no interface menus are visible

All tile resource locations are now displayed when inspecting a map at the end of a game

Added AP cost to deploy card to card description info in Deck Builder

Rules Changes

Armies besieged and acting as the defender in a battle get an additional defense die (+1) to each unit card in the army

Armies that are attempting to lay siege to an outpost/stronghold hex but are attacked by the defending armies in a breakout/lift siege attack DO NOT get the terrain bonus for the hex in which they are located

Good News Everyone!

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Cults of the Wastelands is nearing release. March 20th looks good for launch. I’ve had a crew as fine as that of Planet Express testing away for the last two weeks and my goofs and gaffs seem to all be rolled up into a giant ball and ready for launch into the sun. I’ve asked the testers not to post anything until after the 20th but that doesn’t mean that I can’t. Here is a little snippet from one of them:

“I go way back to C64 days, and I’m not kidding when I say this is easily one of the best games I’ve ever played. Replay value is second to none. The addition of the cults made it that much better. You’ve really got to adjust on the fly and stay on your toes the whole time. Cooping up and letting the AI destroy each other isn’t much of an option anymore. Now they’re coming to get me. That’s also a good thing.”

A big thanks to all the mutant volunteers who took the time to help me iron the kinks out.

Finally, I have an AAR submitted by a player named Brian that is another real treat. This time the story is from the Machines’ viewpoint and it reads like a DK illustrated book. It’s a pdf weighing in at about 4 Mbyte and you can grab it here.


Friday, March 14th, 2008

A big thanks to CALTROPS for selecting Armageddon Empires for the #9 slot in their Top 100 Indie Games feature. They weren’t big fans of the AE backstory but all I can say is that they should be grateful I canned the first version where the Tribbles were locked in a 10,000 year war with the Ferengi!

Fierce Tribbles I like Money!

Just Another Bug Hunt

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I had dropped onto the planet’s surface and made my way to the rendevous point. That’s when it came over the TacNet “Bugs Mr. Rico, zillions of them.”

This last week has sort of felt like that. I have been testing 1.07 Cults of the Wastelands. First I was on my own. Then I hooked up with a small group of Mutants who were foolish enough to recently have sent me a save game bug and wanted a taste of the action. Now, I have 10 maniacs I recruited from that dodgy outfit that hangs out in the Cryptic Comet corner of the Wargamer bar.

This is the humbling part of being a programmer. You get to see just how stupid or lazy you are. Gross Conceptual Error (GCE). It’s a term I learned in the US Navy and it basically means you simply have no idea what you are talking about. Sometimes the light bulb just pops on and your limits are illuminated. GCE is responsible for some of the bugs but laziness can be as well. The bugs generally fall into the following categories:

Black Box
This is the I have an idea of how this is working or at one time I understood it (probably right after I coded it) but right now I look at it and all I see is Spaghetti type of situation. There is a problem happening and it could be in the black box or the black box could just be showing the symptoms. Maybe I just didn’t understand the code as well as I thought when I first made it. Combing back through it is certain to be fun.

Sherlock Holmes:
These can be the worst and the GCE is often the culprit here. You stare at the code and stare at it and nothing seems wrong. This can’t possibly be happening according to the laws of physics. I remember being in the computer center circa 1984 with a terminal on a VAX 11780 and the Pascal program I was running was not working. I had myself convinced that it was the computer’s fault. Then the Sherlock Holmes rule kicked in from the Sign of the Four: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Sure enough, the universe is a logical place and the fact that I could doubt that at the time made me laugh and cry hysterically…. it was now 5 am. Guess you had to be there.

I’ll Be Back
You stub something out because you really don’t want to even think about that right now. Problem is unlike the Terminator you don’t come back.

Copy and Paste
Ctr-C and Ctr-V and the variable names look close but they don’t really match anything else above them. Surgery like this can save time and cause problems.

Life is a Strange Loop
Whenever I get a program not responding situation I usually know where to start looking. Always suspect the loops first. Especially the Repeat While x = false types.

Law of Unintended Consequences
Just had one of these that caused a bunch of problems. I moved a single line of code up a couple of lines so that it would execute before another line. That fixed one problem but I moved the darn thing up above another couple of lines because there was some nice free space there and making space above the key line would have just been too much extra work I guess. Its new position ended up causing its own problems and I had a new bug to fix.

I could go on. At any rate, the shoe is making that noise it makes when insects meet their doom. A March 20th release for the Cults of the Wastelands is looking good. Salvation is at hand!

Playing For Keeps – Tomb of Horrors

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

The passing of the Gary Gygax, the Master of All Dungeon Masters, this last week put me in a very introspective mood. Reading the web tributes and forum posts that popped up like candles at a remembrance ceremony, it got me to thinking. The thinking was like that old history/documentary show from the 70’s called “Connections” by James Burke. Each episode Mr. Burke followed a flow of historical/scientific events that were all linked in some fashion. The “connections” were some times a bit of a stretch but the show was always fascinating and often illuminating. Creating a game where your brain had to make those types of slightly “outside the box” connections would be a great idea. But I digress.

I’m going to offer some connected observations but they are no where near as elegant as Mr. Burke’s shows. Maybe that’s even a bad “connection” to make. This might end up more like a James Joyce novel.

The catalyst of course is the sense of loss that accompanies the news that Gary Gygax has passed from this universe and faced whatever awaits us all, that which we mortals must all someday face. Although I never met him, Gary Gygax had a huge influence on my life like he did on the lives of many others. He was as much an artist as any writer, poet or painter. I was 12 years old in 1977 when I first was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons. It was like opening a door to another plane. I stepped in and never looked back.

Reading other peoples tributes on how Gary affected their lives, my thoughts shifted to the basements in which I spent a good part of my teens. The basement was a sanctuary. Not that my childhood was bad. It was actually the best that you could hope for but the teenage years are crucibles of human emotions. Most of the time spent in the basement was not even used up by sitting at the table rolling dice, shouting, eating Cheetos and Doritos and moving badly painted metal miniatures around the table top. No despite the halcyon memories, classic P&P playing was an infrequent (but great) thing. And when it did happen you found out that some key player had bailed for real life and often it was just 2 of you. Nope, most of the time was spent reading the books, scribbling on graph paper and dreaming about these other imaginary worlds.

These were make-believe worlds that drew from your imagination but making a dungeon/campaign is hard work. So there were modules that you bought that formed a canon of sorts. You could read them for hours. You could imagine the surprise on your friends faces when you sprung the hideous trap on them. I don’t know whether most kids really completed G1-3, D1-3 and Q1 but my fluctuating group never did. I was always the DM so I read every one cover to cover and dog-eared them all.

Thinking about traps and modules unfinished got me to thinking about S1……..the infamous “Tomb of Horrors.”

The Tomb of Horrors - Horrible Death Awaits with mean nasty sharp teeth

It is simply put the ultimate death trap dungeon. You can read about its history here. Thinking about the Tomb, I suddenly remembered an interesting blog piece by Brenda Brathwaite You’re Dead, or I Wish You were It’s a great observation about death and games and the progression in design from insta-permanent death to near immortality. Now S1 was a tournament challenge of skill and not meant originally to be something you ran your P&P group through in the course of a campaign…although it became that. But any game is a narrative arc and killing the protagonist usually ends the narrative unless you are The Nameless One. And yet the threat of death and playing for keeps heightens the enjoyment of the game. I’ve read that many combat soldiers never felt more alive than when they were in a fire fight and death was close and present. Insta-perma death however has to deal with the reality that the player stands up from table/computer and is still there…now frustrated and angry. Save, Reload and Learn is one way of dealing with this troubling problem of real life after death. There is a lot better discussion of this than I can provide but I just wanted to note that these thoughts passed through my transom.

It then occurred to me that as a game designer (or DM) you have to tread that fine line in the Tomb of Horrors. You have to make the players believe they can lose their character and hours and hours of work that went into it, but still guide them safely through the Tomb and ultimately to victory over the Lich. It’s a challenge that any narrative faces unless you are a character at the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing (And even there you die but you have a chance that you destroyed your enemy as well). So like Soren Johnson recently expounded on at at the GDC, you the narrator/game designer must play to lose.

Playing to lose got me to thinking about what I have spent the last 6 weeks working intensively on. The Cults of the Wastelands free mini expansion pack has turned out in a small way to be a Tomb of Horrors. It’s become a challenge mode for players. I’m tweaking it right now but the worry is that it is too hard. And one cult requires that you basically lose the game to see some new content. Is that a good design choice? It just sort of happened that way. But I think Gary might approve.

May You Always Make Your Saving Throw

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

May your blade be Vorpal
May your foes taste your cold steel with a natural 20
May you never roll a critical miss
May your Cheetos never touch the basement floor
May you always roll for treasure type Z
May you fare well Against the Giants
May you survive the Descent, Conquer the Kuo-Toa,
Vault over the houses of the Drow
And Slay the Queen of the Demon Web Pits

My First Players Handbook

Thanks Gary!