Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ramez Naam's "Nexus"

Mini-review/rant of Ramez Naam's "Nexus" - the first book in a cyberpunk, transhuman, singularity, sci-fi trilogy. Naam has some amazing ideas about emerging technologies and the ends to which people would put them. He can also write great action and has a great sense of pacing (which is beginning to be sorely lacking in modern sci-fi). However, he can't write interesting or believable characters for shit. All of the characters are walking tropes with very little about them for the reader to get interested in. The hacker with the heart of gold, the guild-ridden veteran, the government agent with a Past, the heartless bureaucrat. The other problem with the book is more political in nature. Naam belongs to a peculiar subset of tech geek libertarians - the singularitarian techno-fetishit transhumanists (phewph, quite a mouthful), and he has an axe to grind with everyone who thinks technological progress should be controlled. Personally I consider myself an optimist when it comes to future technologies, but Naam presents technological progress as a stark Us (the good hackers, libertarians, "information wants to be free" types) vs. Them (the bad nasty government that inevitably turns authoritarian), and that dichotomy starts to get tiresome pretty quickly. It ignores the fact that most of the important inventions that make Naam's setting possible have been made thanks to overwhelming government sponsorship - not the plucky V.C. types like Musk or Anderseen or whoever. His worldview (at least as presented in the novel) is too dualistic and naive. I hope the second book will present a more nuanced look at the ramifications of technologies that emerge at the end of the first book, and not boil it down to "technology good, governments bad".

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Dogs of War: A quick review

Just wanted to throw out a quick review of Dogs of War
Picture courtesy of Board Game Geek
, designed by Paolo Mori, published by Coolminiornot, and originally funded through Kickstarter, because it's a great game, albeit with not a lot of lasting power. This is a game by a European designer, it does have some Eurogame sensibilities, but it combines it with the quality of pieces and directly competitive cutthroat gameplay of North American games. The game is played out over the course of four rounds, each round the players (3 to 5 players, 4 or 5 players is best) buy soldiers, then play soldiers and captains (a soldier must be played with a captain and the number of captains the player gets is fixed each round - although opportunities to gain new captains exist, more on that in a bit), to support 1 of 6 noble houses. Now, each player controls a mercenary company that secretly supports one of the houses, but you don't have to support any particular house, so that adds more intrigue to the game. Each house is accompanied by an "Order of Battle" card which is randomized every round. When you play a captain, that captain is placed on a sport on this Order of Battle card which grants the player immediate bonus (extra money, extra troops, extra captains, victory points, etc.) but no one can they go on the same spot (going other spots on the same Order of Battle card is fine though). Players can support the same House, improving its chances of success, or throw down armies in support of opposing houses. So like the Game of Thrones game, there is a constant tug-of-war over which house has a higher battle score, which particularly desirable spots on Order of Battle cards (6 are in play in every round) are occupied and which aren't, and players are constantly at each other's throats. Combined with the fact that each mercenary company has its own special power, and also a deck of Tactics cards that let players perform some sneaky moves (one card is simply titled Betrayal - you can switch sides and even defeat your own captains thereby giving you more victory points!), there are lots of options and opportunities for players to claw their way back to the top.

What I really like about the game is how simple the rules are to explain and start playing, and yet
Picture courtesy of Dice Tower News
how much complexity exists in the game. There are so many different ways to collect victory points. Do you collect House influence tokens that are worth anywhere between -1 (yes, you can actually lose points) to 7 (depending on how well your House performs)? Do you hoard gold, tactics cards, or soldiers (all of which are worth victory points)? Do you throw down all you have to perform a crushing victory for a House and reap a bunch of victory points? Do you form lasting alliances, or stab a fellow player in the back just when he least expects it? Anyone who likes Risk, Game of Thrones, Coup, or Smallworld, would feel right at home. Another thing to like is how gorgeous everything looks. Each mercenary company has their own unique captain sculptures and those are gorgeous looking, the other components are sturdy and beautiful to look at. The manual is very well-written, the rules are very clearly spelled out, and half the manual is actually dedicated to the lore of the setting, the noble Houses, and the individual Dogs of War. I liked the writing and the illustrations are just amazing (reminded me a lot of Warhammer Fantasy with the more colourful palette of Cadwallon). Also, each game is quite fast once everyone understands the rules, a game of 3 players takes about 45 minutes at most.

It's not completely perfect however. For one thing, there are six Houses, but other than being a different colour, there is no difference between them. The Dogs of War (mercenary companies controlled by players) only number 5, I hope they'll come out with expansions to add more, or a way to customize the special ability of each company. Furthermore, with three players it's possible that the Houses players secretly support do not directly oppose each other, which leads each player to simply throw support behind her/her house every round, and no conflict thus arises. The game is better with 4 or 5 players, when it forces players to directly oppose each other. There are only 8 Order of Battle cards (6 random ones drawn every round), I feel like more Order of Battle cards or more variety of options on each of these cards would inject more variety that would add staying power to the game. Otherwise, I feel like a group that played Dogs of War 4 or 5 times would quickly play out the game's appeal. Finally, as great as the components look, the soldier and Tactics cards use this tiny card size format (I think Arkham Horror used them too) which is hard to handle and pick up, but that's a very personal preference. Other than these relatively minor problems, I highly recommend Dogs of War if you're looking for something that lasts longer than Coup, but shorter than Game of Thrones, and has the same cutthroat conflict gameplay.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sid Meier's Starships - First Impressions

Spent some time with Sid Meier's Starships (once I got it working on my gaming desktop - it still crashes every few minutes on my laptop). I'm not refunding the game because I expect (as was the case with original Civ V and Beyond Earth) that it will get better, but not even the relatively-cheap price of $16 dollars makes this game worthwhile at this point. The fleet action grows quickly repetitive, because there simply aren't enough different options in combat or different components (there is Stealth, Sensors, Launch Fighters, Launch Torpedoes). Moreover, you could conceivably cram all of the different components into a big enough ship so there is little reason to build specialized ships. Heck, you can't even toggle between different weapon systems like lasers or plasma. There is a decent variety of different missions and maps but you can pretty much experience all of them in a single play through.
There is no attempt at a story or even a kind of grand narrative of Civ games and the victory conditions are a joke: it's either a tedious slog to conquer every planet on the map, or to just click end turn a few dozen times so you can buy every science advance or build the required number of cities. There is no diplomacy to speak of - there is either a state of peace or war, there are no defensive alliances, trade agreements, sneaky gang-ups, or espionage. There is no science progression either - you just buy the science advances you want, and you can just buy all of them. Furthermore, planetary improvements do not have any kind of maintenance cost so there is never any reason not to build each improvement on each planet.
Basically there is no feeling of depth or strategy to the game because you can build every improvement, research every science, construct every wonder in whatever order you want on a single playthrough (something that would be impossible in Beyond Earth and nearly impossible in Civ V). It makes me wonder why the game even provides an illusion of choice when the choice of what to build does not even matter.
Then there are the minor annoyances about the game: you cannot rename your starships or planet. When you purchase a new starship you have no control over what kind of ship you will get. The civilopedia is a joke - it is devoid of any kind of background about the setting (I was one of those rare players who enjoyed reading all the entries in Beyond Earth civilopedia), so there is no interest in the universe. The starships are never permanently destroyed (they just have to be repaired between missions) so there is never any sense of tension. Go on, the game says, if you don't feel like being tactically clever just repair your ships and try the mission again and again and again until the AI makes a mistake or you have enough resources to upgrade your ships. Much of the art and sounds are recycled from Beyond Earth. The only factions in the game are human factions - would it kill them to put in an interesting alien race to play against? And the biggest gripe is that the game could still be a fun diversion if it had multiplayer (especially local hot-seat multiplayer since it's made for tablets) but there is NO multiplayer whatsoever - online or local.
Despite all of these problems, there are some redeeming factors. The fleet battles are actually fun in small doses and feel like playing a board game. The art and graphics are very pretty, and it's fun to see how a starship grows and changes its looks throughout the game. The premise is neat and there is much potential in it. I hope Firaxis will make significant changes and/or drop the price.