My take.

General Discussion about Cryptic Comet's adventure strategy game

My take.

Postby Stunned Duck » Thu Aug 29, 2013 9:21 pm

The mechanics of the game are well-thought out, and I’ve encountered very little evidence of bugs. The card game isn’t compelling in and of itself, but it resolves quickly (which is crucial given the sheer volume of challenges), and there are subtleties to the edges and powers that make for interesting plays. There are also emergent strategic properties, such as the need for combat-oriented investigators to stand their ground against opponents lest they lose the courage tokens needed to fuel their special abilities. It’s a good take on the roguelike design.

I want to be clear that the above is not a cheap achievement on Vic’s part, because I’m about to spend a lot of text on constructive criticism, and that shouldn’t obscure the good work he has done to produce the game in the first place. This looks very smooth for a 1.0 release by a lone programmer.

I have three major problems with the game as designed:

1. The lack of a symbolic depiction of card rules and effects.

The game is crying out for a Race for the Galaxy-style shorthand to describe what each card does. The text descriptions of card effects are very hard to parse on the fly, as the player’s brain tries to keep track of the difference between “non-face played cards of the same suit” and “revealed non-face trick cards” and so on.

I would propose that each card description include, in addition to the rules text, a simple pictoral representation of what cards are being manipulated and how. The difference between revealed/unrevealed, face/non-face, trick/played/hand can be simply codified by miniature cards in different colors, with a black background for unrevealed/in-hand cards and white for revealed/played cards, a colored outline or edge stripe to differentiate trick vs. player cards, and a symbol on the card to denote face or non-face. Then, the X and Y cards affected or drawn can be a simple notation alongside the card symbols.

Result cards can then be depicted as plain color coded card miniatures (red for health, blue for sanity, etc.). And so on.

Examples:
Typhon’s Embrace
[Bone of Pentacles picture]: X
X [revealed face trick card object] -> X [revealed non-face trick card object] at X*2 (suited only)
Draw [unrevealed hand card object]

Trick Shot
[Bone of Swords picture]/[Bone of Cups picture]: X
Select [non-face played card object] +X
1 Random [unrevealed non-face trick card object] –X
Draw [unrevealed hard card object]

Such a pictorial shorthand would not be hard to learn and parse, since it doesn’t have to cover a large range of game concepts; but it would make comparing and remembering card processes and effects much easier.

I think something like this is crucial for the game’s accessibility.

2. Game balance

I’ve seen commentary posted on this already, so I’ll keep this section relatively brief. Mostly this area boils down to:
- The (naturally) greater frequency of horror/supernatural checks makes it hard to balance Sword and Cup class investigators. Some of this could be addressed by what I talk about in section 3 below; some of it needs to be handled by recognizing that no ODD investigator would ever have Wands 0 and Pentacles 0 at the current challenge difficulty ratings, and balancing the points accordingly (change the buying costs for them, make Wand/Pentacle challenges easier, give everyone Wand 1 and Pentacle 1 for free, whatever).
- Is there a real point to selecting a second bone in character creation? You almost never get to use it in the current design. Most backgrounds struggle because they are too one-dimensional. The uselessness of the second bone is the poster child for this problem.
- The courage penalties for fleeing are wayyyy too severe given the infrequency of earning new courage tokens; most combat/heroic feats end up sitting at 0 power more-or-less permanently.
- I would be in favor of giving investigators a few more abilities straight out of the gate, slowing down the rate of improvement during play somewhat, and making the challenges a little bit tougher across the board. The old D&D paradigm of the level 1 character being a pathetic pushover isn’t needed here when there are so many other ways to balance the challenges and create a sense of advancement.

3. Emergent narratives, encounter variance, and Lovecraftian style

Let me start by saying that I recognize Vic has a limited budget and only so much paid-for card art. I also recognize that the encounter texts are solidly written as stand-alone sentences/paragraphs. With those caveats allowed…

This game is a highly inelegant translation of the flavor of the genre. It plays like the Cthulhu carnival funhouse. You walk in the door and immediately encounter a whirlwind of randomness, “ghosts, zombies, demons, oh my!”, with no regard for the simple ODD backstory… everything is “horrifying” to you, despite the fact you’ve been in this business for some time. There’s no build-up, there’s not much connection to the final boss, and little sense of mystery.

What frustrates me here is that the game already has the mechanisms in place to make the experience much more sophisticated.
- Why not have “flash” encounters that produce a horror check and then disappear? The encounter text files demonstrate that this kind of procedure is constructable, even easily moddable. These would allow the creation of something like ominous suspense on the upper floors, where the investigator notices signs and portents without necessarily coming face-to-face with Class III Full-Roaming Vapors and the like. Searching bookshelves could lead to benefits *and* a horror check, as you discover various occult texts that shouldn’t be lying around. Some quest encounters could be restructured so that you need to find things (ritual instructions, focus objects, ectoplasm, etc.) to summon the quest giver, rather than having them automatically appear. Etc. Frankly, it’s possible to write up an entire replacement set of encounters for the upper floors where no apparations/undead/henchmen/whatever automatically appear. Your investigator is uncovering clues, evading traps, shuddering at ominous signs, and yet doesn’t have to get down and dirty with the big boys until he/she heads below ground.
- Why not have the less offensive quest-givers, like the cook, the baker, the cigar-smoking gentleman, etc., proceed straight to the main challenge option with no horror check at all? You’re an ODD agent, not some dweeb off the street. You’ve seen this stuff before. Same logic for the ghost boxers… once you’ve adjusted to the existence of the boxing manager, why would each boxer cause you further mental distress? Even better, to integrate with the suspense encounters above, you could put a simple counter on the player’s total horror checks so far, and have each encounter’s horror check phase rated with a “maximum horror checks taken so far” value; if the investigator has succeeded at 20 horror checks in this mission, the gentleman ghost is no longer a frightener, but you’d have to succeed at 50 horror checks before the demon baby becomes passe.
- Why not put a delay clock on the random encounters, so that the investigator’s movements and actions gradually “stir the house up”? In addition to helping with the atmosphere, this would also reduce the number of times your game goes belly up in the first 10 rooms because you ran into a pack of mummies and had no way to handle them.
- Given the lack of options for additional random encounters (again, only so much card art on hand), I would advocate for tying each random unit (zombies, henchmen, mummies, etc.) to a particular mission, rather than having a selection of most of the randoms showing up in all the missions.

The ultimate (and in practice, unattainable) goal here ought to be to generate suspense on the upper levels while you gather information, cascading into hard-core fear effects in the lower levels, creating an emergent narrative as if you were reading a Cthulhu mythos story. Because this is a roguelike, that ideal cannot be realized in full; but the game as constituted doesn’t even try. Worse (for my desires, anyway), it doesn’t even try in a way that suggests that Vic isn’t interested in going there.

For me, this makes the game fundamentally disappointing. Well-constructed mechanically, but largely unsatisfying. It’s not something I expect to spend a lot of time playing as it stands right now. Since Vic has already stated he has plans for several updates and improvements, I’ll certainly come back and have another go once he completes those. I think there are excellent possibilities here, and even if his vision doesn’t match where I would take this game if I were doing the work, it could turn into something quite strong and entertaining.
Stunned Duck
 
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Re: My take.

Postby Xenophon » Mon Sep 02, 2013 5:09 pm

Great critique. Spot on.

I'll pick just one aspect of the above (out of many good points) to emphasize - the the repeated horror checks are boring. I find myself shrinking away from starting another game due to the necessity of clicking through so many horror checks (after all, they are roughly 50% of the card games).

I think I am in the same place as Stunned Duck with regards to the replayability. As a fan of both AE and roguelikes, I was enthused about the game before it's release, enjoyed playing it a couple of times, but not into it at the moment and hoping for some kind of change.
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Re: My take.

Postby Frothy_mikhael » Thu Sep 05, 2013 1:53 am

This was a very insightful, very well-written piece. Vic said he would spend a few months working on improvements for the game, so hopefully he will be able to take this into consideration.

I agree with your overall assessment. When I got this game I played it obsessively for about a month, but then I lost interest and doubt I'll go back more than once or twice to see how 1.06 compares to what I played. Other Cryptic Comet games had much longer lifespans for me - I still play SI, and AE and SGS draw me back in every month or two. Maybe that says more about my genre preferences than it does about OC though.
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Re: My take.

Postby Frothy_mikhael » Mon Sep 09, 2013 5:42 pm

On reflection, I wanted to add a bit more to what I said previously, in particular there are a few points on which I realized I disagree or would add nuance.

- The extra bone is actually quite useful. Thieves, for example, start with a knife and a cup bone, so they can't use its special ability unless they get an extra bone. The extra bone will also help you increase the chance that you will be able to use all of the gear you come across in the mansion. I often pick up a wands bone in the hopes of getting a wands item or a psychic power and being able to use it without having to add another profession.
- In thinking over the atmosphere that Vince is going for, it seems to be caught in tension between, on the one hand, creepy Lovecraftian horror, and on the other, Indiana Jones-style pulp action (or alternatively Ghostbusters style action-comedy). You raise an interesting point about the mix of monsters making the game seem like a carnival funhouse, which is bad from a Lovecraftian perspective. But I wonder if Vic was actually leaning more towards the Indiana Jones/Ghostbusters feel? The same remarks apply to your suggestion of a non-combat upper floor - I think that Lovecraft may have been only one of several sources of inspiration, and the pulpy feel requires more action.
- I agree completely that the game needs fewer horror checks, especially the ones related to questgivers that are non-hostile. My personal preference would be to remove horror checks from non-hostile creatures, then create a rule for wandering monsters in the above-ground levels such that once you pass a horror check for that kind of encounter, you do not need to pass a horror check for that encounter again. Horror checks would have to be harder or have harsher consequences or both in order to balance this. The basement creatures would remain horrifying even after you passed a horror check, if only for balance reasons.
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