Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dubai: Impressions and Tips

Having just returned from a Dubai vacation I'm naturally full to the brim with experiences and impressions, but I thought I'd focus on some overall impressions and some tips for new visitors to Dubai while they are still fresh in my mind.

Dubai is a very tourist-friendly city, everyone speaks or understands English and all signs are in English and Arabic, and you'll also notice many signs in Russian as well. It's a very multicultural and open city, but it's still a Muslim country so there are a few things to keep in mind. One being that it's hard to buy alcohol outside of hotel bars and night clubs. The other is that stores and such open a bit later on Friday than usual. Also, government offices and most government-run museums close at 2:30 so plan accordingly.

Getting around Dubai is very easy thanks to an excellent public transportation city. Don't get an Uber in Dubai! I've found that the taxis are very cheap, the drivers have all been very polite, and none have tried to cheat me unlike the taxi drivers in Doha. Also, getting around the city using the Dubai Metro is very cheap and very fast. 7 dirhams will get you to, or close to, most of the notable tourist and shopping locations such as Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and so on. To use the buses however, you need to get a bus card at one of the major bus station and then you can load money on it at the machines available at every bus stop (big or small). I only used the taxi three times while I was in Dubai, relying on public transport to get around and I didn't waste much time doing so. Oh yeah, when getting on a metro watch out for women-only entrance and the Gold VIP entrance. I'm not even joking.

Because it's so easy and fast to get to places using public transport don't be afraid to go out of Dubai City to find a cheap good hotel. You can find good cheap hotels as far away as Jumeirah 3 or out in Deira and still be able to go to Dubai downtown easily and cheaply.

Speaking of downtown, it's totally worth it. I'd say plan at least a day to spend just in Dubai Mall and nearby attractions. Dubai Aquarium in the mall is only 100 dirhams to go in and I personally enjoyed it. Burj Khalifa can be entered from the mall, and I highly recommend either booking the tickets online ahead of time or going up to the counter and booking them for later in the day. There's always a huge line waiting to get in and don't count on being able to just waltz in whenever you want. Also to note, you can go up to the 124th and 125 floors for I think 120 dirhams, or you can do the VIP treatment and go up to the 148th floor for 300 dirhams. The latter experience is still worth it, you don't need to stand in line waiting for your turn to go up, instead you get to relax in a nice lounge and get coffee and snacks (provided with the ticket), then go up and experience the amazing view with being plied with more drinks and snacks. Hey, chances are you'd only want to go up once anymore so might as well live a little. :)

The fountain show right outside the Dubai Mall is also unforgettable, but I also enjoyed a much more quiet nearby souq Al Bahar and a little park nearby as a way to wind from the busy and loud mall. Speaking of souqs, definitely try to get to some of the city's souqs to experience a less glamorous but also interesting side of Dubai. What I did was take the Metro to Al Fahidi station, got off, explored the excellent historical village, little museums and art galleries, the Al Fahidi fort and museum. I love this part of the city, it was especially charming and full of character. Then for just 1 dirham I caught a water taxi to go across the Dubai Creek to the older part of Dubai. Skip the Al Fahidi souq, it's really just a cheap indoor mall and not a souq at all, but definitely check out the Gold souq, Spice souq and Bur Dubai souq. They do get tiresome because of very pushy criers and salesmen offering Rolexes, Kashmir scarves, suspiciously cheap smart phones and less legal wares, but they do have character.

To unwind, I highly recommend Jumeirah public beach and in fact the entire Jumeirah (Jumeirah 1 that is) neighbourhood. It's a quiet beachside middle-class and small business neighbourhood, very lovely, lots of bike and running paths, you get to see pretty amazing Grand Jumeirah Mosque and the public beach was very lovely. I went on a weekday around noon and it was empty save for a couple of families and a few joggers and the water was lovely. Word of advice, if you see the famous Burj Al Arab tower in the distance (that's the famous super-posh hotel that's shaped like a sail and has golf courses on the roof) don't even bother to go see it. You can't get close it, you get stopped by security and you can't actually go inside unless you are a guest at the hotel or have an invitation. Don't bother spending your time and money.

Lastly if you are a geek and want to do some shopping or just geek out, I highly recommend checking out Kinokuniya in Dubal Mall, and Battlezone in Jumeirah. Battlezone has great staff, great playing spaces for miniature, board game, and CCG gamers, and very reasonable prices (by Gulf standards).

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time in Dubai, I did have to spend quite a lot on entertainment and shopping, but I found that transportation and food were cheaper than I expected. Great city to visit!

Monday, January 25, 2016

How to introduce games to beginners

Last few gaming sessions it fell to me to introduce relatively new players to games they've never played before. Of course explanation of the rules was in order, but I think there's a much more important part of the introduction that's going to set how the game is going to go - selling the game.

It's not a surprise to anyone who plays boardgames or has seen the filled to the brim shelves of a boardgame collector or a serious games store that many boardgames look intimidating. The size of the boxes, or the unappealing art, or titles that suggest ponderous industrial machinery
Doesn't he look like he's having fun?
may turn players away from what could actually turn out to be a really great experience. So selling a game involves both convincing players that it can be a fun experience and setting the mood of the game. So what I like to do when introducing a game isn't to throw out a bunch of terms like "it's a worker placement game" or "it's an area control game", or to immediately launch into a rules explanation ("in this game we are going to be collecting resources and then trading them!") but to describe the theme of the game and what the players are supposed to play as (not what they DO in game vis-a-vis moving tokens or playing cards, but what their characters/nations/merchants/whatever are doing in the game). So here are some evocative (or at least somewhat evocative) ways that I described some fun introductory games to new players.

Pandemic: there are viruses spreading unchecked! We are a bunch of scientists working together to cure those viruses before the human race is doomed!

Puerto Rico: we are governors of New Spain lording over towns and plantations, competing to see who can build the best city and send the most goods to Spain!

Francis Drake: we are English privateers sailing to the Spanish Main and then burning and looting right through it for a chance to win the favour of the Queen!

Orleans: we are French lords and we are building the best damn Medieval society we can! (this can also work for Castles of Burgundy)

Race for the Galaxy (or Roll for the Galaxy): we are developing our own unique galactic civilizations and creating an epic space opera.

Galaxy Trucker: we are building awful rickety spaceships, loading them up with goods and then racing them. Horrible hilarious things will happen to our ships!

Lords of Waterdeep: we are a scheming cabal working against each other to control a city from the shadows. We are going to send a lot of adventurers to their doom!

This tells the players the theme and get them interested. Now arguably the gameplay is more important than the theme (there are some really theme-less or bland-themed games with amazing gameplay, and some games with great theme but crappy gameplay), but the theme is what gets the players interested in trying the game in the first place.

The second thing I do is compare the boardgame to a video game or a movie or a book or a TV show that the players are familiar with and that invokes the mood of the game. Instead of comparing to another boardgame, compare it to Firefly (Galaxy Truckers or Xia), or Battlestar Galactica (Battlestar Galactica game or Resistance), or Apocalypse Now, or Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings and so on. When I bring up this comparison I also try to point out WHO in this movie/book/video game the players represent ("so some of us are going to be like humans, and some of us are going to be like Cylons").
I know at least one of you is a Cylon. I mean government spy!
 It gets players invested not in the gameplay mechanics but in what the game is like - what the experience promises to be. Why do I think setting the mood is important? Because that's what's going to carry the game. Introduce the game as something silly and fun and that's the mood that'll prevail at least with some players. Introduce the game as full of intrigue, paranoia and secrets and players will be more likely to mistrust one another. Mood makes people play a role (you could almost say ROLE play...?) and immerse themselves in the game. For example in Puerto Rico you build plantations and warehouses and put things on ships. Hardly immersive right? And yet, right off the bat the players - once properly introduced to the game - started playing the roles of a corrupt governor, scheming merchant, declaring vendettas against each other (even though the game doesn't have any overtly aggressive mechanics) and it was just FUN!

The last thing I do in the introduction is give an example of something cool that a player can do in the game. Long before explaining the actual rules I can tell the players "Oh yeah, and you can totally double-cross people or totally play it straight and still win" or "you can marry the King of France and then have him assassinated and it's GREAT!" or "you can summon this huge monster that can kick everyone's ass!" I believe that what people get excited about in a game isn't necessarily the actual winning but other things you get to do. You can accumulate victory points in nearly every boardgame nowadays so there needs to be something else cool about your game to get players (especially new players) excited.
"Sometimes I get hard thinking about victory points." Said by no one ever.
 I don't think that people get excited about play Monopoly (although I don't know anyone who does get excited about playing Monopoly) because they get to roll dice and the object of the game is to bankrupt your friends. They get excited because they get to hold big wads of cash and plop hotels down and gleefully tell someone to pay their rent for a change. So single out one cool thing you can do or have done in the past in the game and tell new players about it. It will also give them a potential strategy to think about when they start playing and I think that's more important than explaining every single rule in minute detail.

So TL;DR for introducing a game to new players:
A. Tell them who they are playing in the game and what is the theme of the game.
B. Compare the boardgame to a book, movie, comic book or TV show that has a similar theme.
C. Tell the players what cool things they can do in the game.

What do you think? What's the best way to "sell" a game to new players?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why I am worried about Tom Clancy's Division and you should be too (if you're a gamer)

Lately I've been on a huge first-person shooter binge, sinking a lot of time into Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (which I am enjoying immensely much to my surprise, but maybe that's another blog post) as well as a few old-school shooters (like Republic Commandos, Counterstrike 1.6 and the first Jedi Knight), and a bit of time with Star Wars Battlefront (which - thank God - I didn't buy, but borrowed from a friend instead). This coincided with a huge amount of information dropped about one of the most anticipated AAA games of 2016 - Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's The Division (and you can see a bunch of collected game media impressions here on Kotaku). You might also enjoy this impression by a very popular YouTuber AngryJoe.

I was tentatively excited about The Division when it was first announced. It looked like a blend of persistent world MMO, with heavy shooter elements, some MMORPG-style abilities, and a bleak near-future apocalyptic story, all set in a 1 for 1 recreation of New York. Since then the game received its share of controversies, suffering form delay after delay, clear visual performance downgrades (at least on consoles - there has been no footage of the game running on PC in an unscripted setting) and confusion regarding what this game is supposed to be. However, with the media embargo regarding hands-on impressions lifted (as witnessed by the links above) a lot of that confusion has been clarified. On the other hand it also got me worried about the game quite a bit.

The first thing that's got me worried is how hard most game media journalists who have played The Division are trying to both make The Division sound like Destiny ('it's just like Destiny you guys! But you're fighting hobos and looters with realistic guns, instead of fighting aliens with sci-fi magical guns!') and NOT make The Division sound like Destiny ('it's nothing like Destiny other than both are shooters with RPG stats and damage numbers!'). So that's a first warning sign as they (game media and Ubisoft) are trying very hard to sell the game to both fans of Destiny and those who either hated it or never tried it (for the record, I still haven't played a single minute of Destiny and doubt I ever will). Granted, The Division was announced before Destiny actually came out, but it's still weird to see how much effort is spent on fitting The Division into the meta-narrative of the evolution of shooters and RPGs on consoles.

The second thing that makes me doubt the game's staying power is that there doesn't appear to be a huge variety of enemies or environments. You're shooting hobos, looters, criminals, what looks to be rogue cops and army dudes, some weird hazmat-wearing flamethrowing guys and so on. You're shooting them with real-world guns and using near-future but perfectly plausible tech (rolling micro-drones, personal radar systems, etc.) but you are essentially just shooting people with your gun. In games like Call of Duty that's totally fine because: a) the single-player campaign is usually quite short and ends before it gets too repetitive, and b) when playing matches where you shoot other people with your guns, personal skill, map awareness and knowledge of the game count for far more than the stats on your gear and the DPS of your gun. So there needs to be some kind of a greater incentive (both in terms of loot and in terms of narrative) when 'shoot people with guns' is dropped into an MMO-esque RPG. Destiny achieves it (to my knowledge) with having many different-looking worlds, big variety of instanced missions or dungeons (so that you're not just shooting people or the same race of aliens all the time), big variety of enemies and just big visual shifts between areas. The Division appears to have none of that at this moment. You're fighting in urban areas and you are shooting people all day long. It's kind of weird to see that a boss in a mission is some guy named Rudy (or Joe or whatever) but he still looks like the rest of the hobos around him while acting like a giant bullet sponge as if he was a raid boss from World of Warcraft or Destiny. It just doesn't seem like the Division would be able to sustain my interest for too long. Now, maybe the developers are a lot smarter than this, and maybe New York is just the FIRST stage and there are other cities or locations you travel to later on in the game, and maybe later on some weirder enemy types get introduce (robots, or infected or something) and they are just keeping this under wraps. However, given Ubisoft's previous track record with story telling and keeping surprises under wraps I find this difficult to believe.

Then there's the whole loot gathering and crafting progression. Basically I have no time or willpower to play another MMO. Even if, as the developers claim, most missions in The Division can be completed in under an hour. The point is that all of the gameplay videos released recently (see links above) show that the game progression is hugely dependent on gathering or crafting increasingly better loot. It's the same grind as in WoW, FFXIV or (as I am told by hardcore Destiny players) in Destiny and I have no time or patience for that. Especially if, as the developers and game journalists are constantly stressing, The Division will be a kind of game you'll want to play with friends. If my friends outpace me in terms of gear and levels, what am I supposed to do then? Also, I just find gear grinding to be very boring.

The other big concern for me is the tone. The cut scenes, the environment, the music and the ambient dialogue all paint this grim Tom Clancy-ish setting which is utterly at odds with the focus of the game on loot, DPS and shooting a bunch of people. So you're supposed to be restoring law and order in New York in the wake of a deadly epidemic and breakdown of society, but it seems that the primary motivation of the players is to get better guns and gear. Woo! I got a better scope/backpack/gun holster/laser sight! In other words, I feel like there's a big disconnect between what the game is about and the actual gameplay. Also, this disconnect between the narrative and the gameplay coupled with modern day realistic setting raise some rather ugly questions. The looters you shoot in the early stages of the game all wear "urban" clothing (read: African American hiphop influenced fashion), the National Guard elements helping you seem uniformly heroic, the US government (in a typical Tom Clancy military fiction fashion) generally means well and is prepared in some fashion and that society in the absence of the long arm of the government will inevitably break down. But you know, all of it is just an excuse to shoot a whole bunch of people with realistic guns.

Finally, Ubisoft is rather notorious for dropping post-launch support for titles that have no sold so well or that have lost a lot of player base post-launch due to various issues (poor story, buggy gameplay, poor performance). For example Watch_Dogs or Assassin's Creed: Unity. I pity anyone who had bought a season pass for those games because both games have received very little support post-launch. Ubisoft seemed to have dropped both like a hot potato and resolved to never ever speak of them again. Heck, I seem to recall even some sort of apology for Assassin's Creed Unity (and the excellent Assassin's Creed Syndicate seems to have swept Unity aside as a true next-gen Assassin's Creed). Basically, if
a) The Division fails to sell the number of copies that Ubisoft is hoping for, and/or
b) The Division fails to sell the number of season passes that Ubisoft is hoping for, and/or
c) The Division fails to retain the number of players post-launch that Ubisoft is hoping for
Then I am not holding out much hope for the post-launch support or Ubisoft's willingness to invest into the future of the game. Ubisoft needs to realize that MMOs and MMO-style games need constant post-launch support and that no online games come out of the game perfect. WoW didn't start out with 10 million subscribers, FFXIV has not become the huge commercial and critical success until Sony made the gutsy move to first shut down the game, then completely rebuild it, and then provide big monthly updates and an enormous expansion.

So what would make me pick up The Division after it launches (because I sure as shit ain't pre-ordering it or picking it up on day 1)? One, the launch has to be smooth - some server issues are expected, but it better not be a complete shit show. Two, the game needs to feature more than just New York - other cities or at least non-urban environments are a must for me to avoid the tedium. Three, the grind for decent gear should not take as long a time as FFXIV or Destiny. Four, Ubisoft needs to be very clear upfront as to what future additions (via season pass) will hold and approximate dates when they will come out. Five, they seriously need to add a persistent clan option and more social support. For a game that's supposed to be enjoyed with other people it's surprising to me that it has such limited emotes, no clan support, and awkward grouping.

Then again, maybe it'll be an amazing game from day 1. :P