Sunday, 11 July 2021

Genshin Impact - The 103% Review

There is a free to play videogame called Genshin Impact.

This is the logo for the videogame Genshin Impact.



This is the 103% Review of the videogame Genshin Impact.

(Get the game here)

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REVIEWING LIVE SERVICE GAMES

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A moment of sympathy for those who review video games on a deadline. A standard $60 boxed game with no DLC can easily require 40 hours of playtime for just one playthrough. You might be pushing closer to 60-100 hours for some of the meatier RPGs on the market. And that's not to mention user-generated content, expansions, and repeat playthroughs. Even if you're like me and have no particular deadlines to meet, the reviewer must eventually write and submit their review, omitting at least some non-negligible amount of the potential gameplay experiences offered by the game itself. 

A skilled games reviewer can usually hope to play enough of the game to develop some potential thesis statements that say something meaningful about it that won't be later overturned in a catastrophic fashion by someone else who played the game for a longer time. You don't need to have caught all of the Pokemon to give me a solid 900 word summary of the latest entry in the series. Just *how much* Pokemon the reviewer deems necessary to play is really down to their judgement. In the case of paid games journalists, deadlines also simply must factor in, especially if you're an outlet that does not benefit from access to review builds from major publishers. Part of the skill of a reviewer is judging how to best experience a potentially vast experience in a very limited time.

This is where we talk about live service games, also known as "games as a service" - or GAAS. These are often free to play games (sorry Nintendo, "free to start" doesn't seem to be catching on) but they don't have to be. They can be paid games with a free DLC roadmap, they can be paid games with additional paid content options released over time. And yes, they can be free to play games like Genshin Impact. Now imagine that it is your job to review Genshin Impact. The first question isn't even 'How?' here but 'When?'



I'm painfully aware that I've not said much about the actual game yet. We'll get to it.

Genshin Impact came out in September of 2020 and it has been updated on an ongoing basis ever since then. I started writing this review in May of 2021 and will probably complete it by the end of summer. I've never played it before, but I read a little about it when it came out. When I went to read reviews of the game from September of 2020 they often remarked about how much the overall look and feel of the game reminds them of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and how the sheer ungodly sum of money it seemed to be making. 

I see the writers behind these reviews making the shame shrewd choices they always have to make. What are the most salient points I can talk about before I have to submit this review? They made good choices. But the thing about GAAS products is that they are only ever in a complete state once the developers behind them stop adding new content. There is no one ultimate and best time to review a GAAS product. Anyone reviewing Genshin Impact has to just take the game as they find it and comment on what they find at that point in time, adding to the overall history of things people have said about it as it evolves.

For me, that involved starting at the very beginning. The game won't let me start anywhere else.

Now I have worked on a number of GAAS games in my time and I'm glad to see that Genshin Impact has a very generous Honeymoon Phase. The Honeymoon Phase is what I like to call the time you spend with a GAAS game where you are able to forget that this game is looking to monetise some of its players, potentially very heavily.

Download a free game with in-app purchases onto your phone at random and chances are that it will be painfully obvious how they intend to monetise your experience within twenty minutes. You almost certainly won't *need* to spend any money yet to continue having fun, but already you grok the gameplay loops and systems that will eventually start placing demands on your real-life cash money.  

I know in my heart that Genshin Impact *must* have something up its sleeve to make me monetise down the road. But at Adventure Rank 20 and several hours of having a mildly good time, I'm not even close to being there yet. I do not appear to be in any way stymied by economic paywalls or the feeling of being a second class player as a result of playing for free. 

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DEATH OF THE MILD

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To say that Genshin Impact is ripping off Breath of the Wild is to say that Fall Guys is ripping off Super Mario Oddysey. Just because two games are about platforming in colourful environments doesn't mean that they are trying to do the same thing.

A better comparison might be any film that was later adapted to a TV show. Think about Snowpiercer the movie versus Snowpiercer the TV show. The two products have a lot of shared characteristics and features, but their core purposes are so different that the end products naturally diverge a great deal.

Breath of the Wild was created to take gamer's breath away and redefine how we think of both open-world adventure games and how a Legend of Zelda game works. Given the whopping commercial and critical success of the Link's first Switch outing, it's reasonably safe to conclude that the development team achieved what they set out to do. 

When you explore the hauntingly empty wastes of Hyrule, very little is given to the player on a silver platter. There are very few quest markers to use as a crutch, and the player must rely chiefly on their sense of exploration and survival to gradually master the environment and piece together a network of fast travel points piece by piece.

Genshin by comparison isn't here to break new ground. It shouldn't be judged on its failure to do so. It's perfectly legitimate to criticise its lack of overall creative ambition, but not on its failure to reach new heights. It was never shooting for the moon in that way in the same way that The Big Bang Theory wasn't trying to redefine serial storytelling. Genshin Impact's core goal is to command your attention for long enough that you eventually spend money within its ecosystem, or persuade other people to play the game for longer so that they might spend money instead. 

Not surprising given that Genshin Impact is free to play, but that means that Genshin is completely unable to trade in the kind of player antagonising gameplay that Breath of the Wild routinely deploys. 



There's a whole lot of world here, but it's all about as foreboding as a theme park

Where Breath of the Wild will often leave the players fumbling around to define their own moment to moment short term goals, Genshin Impact strives with all its might to ensure that you always have something clearly-defined to do. Go to this place to advance the story. Here are four quick fetch quests if you don't have time for something more involved. Here's a scrapbook full of different achievements to chase after. Play Genshin Impact for just ten minutes and you'll be able to select a quest, go to the quest area, complete the quest, and get some loot and an 'attaboy' from the game's UX. 

In Breath of the Wild, it is highly likely that at some point during your playthrough that you will run around an icy mountain for twenty minutes and fight exactly one wolf to get exactly one piece of cold meat. You might not even know why you were there in the first place. Genshin has a lot of systems, sub-systems, and menus, but you never feel lost, stupid, or particularly challenged. If you need to be stronger, you usually need to upgrade your weapons, characters, items, or choose a lower level quest. 

You'll never truly be mystified with Genshin Impact, but that's the point. Being lost is uncomfortable, and Genshin Impact doesn't want that for you. It just wants to keep giving you a steady supply of dopamine hits. It's the gaming equivalent of binge-watching a TV show. I would argue that the whole genre of mainstream MMORPGs is to create the endlessly binge-able game. Comparing Genshin Impact to Breath of the Wild may have been what we all did when we first saw the two games side by side. 

A better comparison may have been World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, but I have decided that deep-diving into two subscription-based MMORPGs in order to review this free to play MMORPG is simply more time and money than I think is appropriate to spend on this review. If that bothers you I refer you to the previous segment where I have set out my case for why I have a perfectly good excuse not to do that.

But to conclude this segment, I will say that as far as my overall experience of Genshin Impact has been on a personal level and the sheer financial success that it has so far enjoyed on the market. Genshin Impact seems to succeed by letting players get very comfortable in its world. It doesn't seem to be in a big fat hurry to extract money from me or direct me to storefronts that I don't want to see. 

If you've ever played a mobile game that seems to feel more like a mugging than a videogame. Don't worry. This game leaves you alone to have a jolly good time, and there's plenty to do.

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A FEW WORDS ON INDUSTRY-STANDARD IZEKAI ANIME STUFF

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One of my games journalism pet peeves is when a western reviewer encounters a game with an anime art style and spends a lot of time ensuring their presumed western audience that they are as distanced from that culture as possible, so much so that they find the idea of Goku to be simply baffling. Oh, those weird Japanese! What will they come up with next? 

I also don't care for the idea that you can't look at something like Genshin Impact and criticise it from any other point of view than a dyed in the wool lifelong enjoyer and expert of anime. As far as my own 'power level' goes as a consumer of anime, I would say that I'm far more powerful than a detached casual observer but far less powerful than the all-powerful otakus of the world who usually have a handful of different anime shows on the go at once. 

Rest assured that I am not here to shit on anime, nor am I here to advocate for anime. I'm here to tell you what the hell is going on with Genshin Impact.

Simply put: there's not much going on.



My partner asked me to explain what was going on with this character and I just said
"It's exactly what it looks like, what do you want from me?"

Anime isn't a monolith. It has a rich and varied history just like anything else in the art world. But just like any other genre of entertainment, there are different levels of risk that are tolerated by publishers. There's wildly experimental storytelling in anime, there's anime that pushes the technical limits of what animation can do, and there's stuff that's just absolutely baffling, even to hardcore anime fans.

Then there's stuff like Genshin Impact. I'm not going to use the phrase "lowest common denominator" in a derogatory sense here, because that's exactly what the product developers were aiming for here and they hit the nail squarely on the head.

Genshin Impact has a silent protagonist who begins the game by entering the game world due to a freak dimensional accident in another place. This protagonist also has a SPECIAL QUALITY which means that they have a SPECIAL DESTINY TO FULFILL in this world. This world is populated with every conceivable fantasy world character trope from mainstream, family-friendly anime products. Everyone may dress in conservatively racy cosplay outfits, and it may not be entirely clear how old everyone is in this world, but there's absolutely nothing in here that could cause all but the most conservative player to take offence.

Speaking as someone who has enjoyed anime for more than a decade, Genshin Impact is rammed to the gills with generic anime trash (GAT) and you already know if you're down for that or not. I end up skipping through almost all of the cutscenes, and I have no time for the entity known as 'Paimon' but it also doesn't get in the way of me having a good time with this game. I will also say that even if this is game is filled with GAT, it is a very well presented piece GAT. There's a generous amount of competent voice acting, the game is a pretty thing to look at. Nothing about this game will blow you away, but it is perfectly possible to have a chill time with it.

If you've ever re-watched old episodes of Dragonball Z for hours on end with some snacks, or mindlessly replayed Skyrim for the fourth time, that's the kind of experience you're going to get out of this. Go forth and binge!

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THE VERDICT

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Genshin Impact offers a very competitive value proposition to players looking to play something for free. From what I've played so far, the world is vast and dense with activities. Those activities may be simple and derivative, but there's an assload of it, it runs well on a variety of machines... and it's free. It's an all you can eat buffet that someone else has paid for so you may as well dig in.

Paid MMOs may offer richer experiences that cater for specialist tastes, and are usually the sign of a legacy game like World of Warcraft or similar. If you're looking to jump into a new epic fantasy world and either enjoy (or can stomach) the cutesy anime narrative stylings then I would strongly urge you to consider Genshin as the title to beat. By all means, pay subs for something that appeals to you more, but just make sure that you're getting a worthwhile deal! 

Genshin doesn't use dirty tricks to keep me coming back. What keeps me coming back is the promise of a massive world to explore, plenty of things to do, and a reasonable guarantee that I will be able to make progress even if I don't have a lot of time on my hands. Yes, they'll eventually want to try and squeeze some money out of me, but that feels a long way off from where I'm at, and if they keep showing me a good time, I wouldn't grumble at the prospect of giving this team a little of my money down the line. In the free to play the market, you can't really ask for a better result than that.

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THE EXTRA 3%

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Welcome back to The Extra 3%! I hope you enjoyed my review of Genshin Impact. It's okay if you didn't, but I hope you did. 

That's three reviews that I've done in this series now. If you liked this one, then you might also enjoy my reviews of Sludge Life and Loop Hero, especially since I'm currently BANNED from reviewing games published by Devolver Digital (at least for a good, good, while)

BANNED FOR ALL TIME (or at least for a good, good, while):

Published by Devolver Digital

I've reviewed games on the PC so far, so I should really strive for a console exclusive. Probably something on Switch? I don't know yet. We'll see, eh?

BLIND SPOTS:
A console exclusive

Please consider interacting with me on Twitter @jak1oh3 and explaining to me what the hell the entity known as Paimon is and why everyone accepts its presence uncritically. I'll wait. 

Otherwise, thanks again for reading, it goes a long way :)
Jak

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Loop Hero - The 103% Review

Free to play games on all platforms have an uphill battle amongst gamers who grew up in the same millennial generation I did. They barely stand a chance with people who are even older than I am.

The mere presence of *any* free to play mechanics is seen as a black mark against any game that would dare to include them. 

Microtransactions are the most obvious villain but energy mechanics, needlessly complex economies, appointment timer systems... these are all dead giveaways that gamers of a certain persuasion will use to dismiss a game entirely and move on from it.

But the truth of the matter is that free to play game designers, particularly those on mobile, know that they are fighting an uphill battle for your attention and some of their efforts to keep you hooked have already made their way into 'real games'. Games that you like. Games that you tell your friends to play.

Games like Loop Hero.

This is the 103% Review of Loop Hero.


(Get the game: Loop Hero)

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ENTER THE VOID

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Loop Hero was developed by Four Quarters and published by Devolver Digital. 

This also marks the second game in a row that I've reviewed that was published by Devolver Digital, so I shall refrain from reviewing another game that they've published for a bit. See 'The Extra 3%' in this reviews' postscript for more details on this, along with some other goodies.

Loop Hero is a very nice video game, and I've been playing it on PC via Steam. I actually paid for this one unlike Sludge Life, which I got for free on the Epic Games Store. I paid £12.49 for Loop Hero.

That's a pretty good deal whichever way you look at it. But where Sludge Life is a nice little exploration game to play between larger games. This is the game that devours any time you happen to have going spare. Just be glad this thing isn't on your mobile phone asking you for money.

So what is Loop Hero? 

You play as the nameless Hero who has amnesia. Don't recoil from the cliche because the narrative of Loop Hero takes the amnesiac hero to its extreme limit. 

The whole world has amnesia. Not just the people either. The creatures, the towns, the very land itself. It's all been consumed and forgotten due to the machinations of The Lich. As the nameless Hero awakes in a void lit only by a campfire, a road spontaneously appears to form the eponymous Loop. 

Trapped in a reality with nothing but this Loop, the Hero automatically walks along the path and returns to the campfire at the end of each lap. 

You encounter a slime and start to fight it automatically. The game has lasted about 20 seconds at this point and you haven't actually done any gameplay yet. The Hero approaches and fights the slime with no input from you other than a few mouse clicks to advance dialogue. What's going on? When do I, the almighty player, get to do anything?




Eventually, things start happening, none are fully explained but all make enough intuitive sense to tease at the player's brain. A weapon drop from a slime zips over to an inventory, which can be equipped onto the Hero's strange loadout area. Strange playing cards depicting locations such as mountains, or meadows will appear in a sort of 'hand area' at the bottom of the screen inviting you to play it onto the black nothingness around the Loop, or onto the Loop itself. You do these things not because you have any strong sense of what the consequences should be but because this is a video game, and you do things in video games.  

You equip weapons, you play cards onto the Loop. You see what happens.

Things happen.

That graveyard you put down said something about 'spawning skeletons at the start of each day'. What is a day? Why would I want to start spawning skeletons anyway? You notice the day counter in the top left ticking up, you notice that the skeletons have their own loot tables for weaponry and resources. You notice resources. You notice that the enemies get stronger as you complete laps of the Loop. You notice a mysterious 'skull' meter that fills up as you place cards onto the field. You wonder what happens if you can fill it...

You die, most probably. You encounter a town. A town that you can develop with resources. The buildings in the town all have effects of their own. You venture to the Loop again but this time you notice that you can deck build. You haven't mastered each card's nuances yet, and you won't for some time. You experiment, you learn, you discover new cards, creatures, classes, secret interactions between cards...




You just keep going. You keep trying. You keep building, discovering and learning. 

For a game world set in an endless empty void, this game has a lot of systems crammed into it, and you'll want to master them all.

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THE (CORE) LOOP HERO

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And when I talk about 'the systems' of Loop Hero, what I really mean is 'the metagame systems' of Loop Hero. So I should make sure that everyone reading this knows what I mean by that as I don't think I can take that for granted.

Most games can be boiled down into two distinct types of 'gameplay' and the bridges that connect them to one another.

The first type of part is the 'base layer' which is usually what people refer to as the moment to moment 'gameplay' of a game. In Pong, this would be players moving paddles to deflect the ball. In Mario Kart, it's the driving and the firing of weapons in races. It's what you tend to show off in a 'gameplay trailer'.


(Any excuse to type 'Mario Kart 8 Press Kit' into my search bar, honestly)

The 'metagame' tends to be everything else. In Pong, as with most classic arcade games, the metagame layer is the high-score table on the arcade cabinet. Aside from entering initials and trying to secure a place on said board, the player barely interacts with it at all. In Mario Kart, the player earns trophies and star ratings for their performance in Grand Prix events, and time trial records act as a sort of local leaderboard. Again, not much interaction there. 

However, even these bare-bones metagames with next to no interactive parts provide a strong sense of meaning to the base layer. What would Pong be without a high-score table? Where would the tension be in single player Mario Kart without the pressure to get a gold trophy? Even a basic metagame adds a lot.

The ideal videogame gets the player to focus on the base layer for a short while, but not so long that they get bored or tired. Once the base layer session is done, the player is kicked back out into the metagame layer, which should hopefully persuade the player to take part in more base layer fun later. In the Pong example, you play Pong, see your high score and think "hmm, I think I'll try that again". This back and forth between base layer and metagame is typically referred to as a "compulsion loop".

A more complex game may have many such compulsion loops, but there is usually a dominant one. We call this the Core Loop. 

When games were new, and largely skill-based diversions, the base layer did most of the heavy lifting in establishing what made a game good or interesting.

Then complex stories were in games. A desire to see the plot and world of a visual novel became a metagame just as engrossing as the base layer verb of 'read text'.

Then RPG systems were in games. The term 'grinding' refers to often monotonous repeat battles of an often unchallenging base layer battles because the metagame of myriad character-building subsystems and a good story was worth it.

Then achievements were in games. Many a player has doubled down to play games they would otherwise have discarded long ago in search of trophies and gamerscore points, which in turn fed a 'meta-metagame' system of tracking progress across a whole library of titles on one platform for the purposes of showing dedication and skill in gaming.

At some time during all of this, we were told to catch 'em all. The Pokedex metagame layer became far more important than any single battle in the entire experience of a Pokemon player's career.

And of course, along came mobile, and the base layer was all but crushed in its wake, at least for a time.

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STEALING BACK FROM MOBILE

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Successful mobile games with a 'twitch skill' base layer are very rare. It's just very difficult to make that work on a small touch screen where real estate is at a premium. Not to mention that any given app needs to target a cornucopia of device types and screen sizes. Control schemes and camera placement choices are necessarily constrained so the base layer experiences on mobile tend toward simplicity, even when one isn't targeting a casual audience.

When it comes to designing for fun on mobile, the metagame layer ends up picking up a lot of the slack. Strategic games with complex meta-layers lend a sense of tactical cleverness to games where the player isn't actually doing a great deal with their hands. Even supposedly twitchier games like Temple Run rely heavily on their upgrade and mission systems for their staying power.

And of course, it's largely through the meta-layer that free to play mobile games monetise a small fraction of their player base. The laser focussed design works to establish a long term end goal for the player, much like a traditional boxed product video game. Defeat the final boss. Reach the final level. Build the most awesome secret base... that kind of thing. Except rather than design a tight 20-40 hour experience that gets you to that established goal, free to play games allow you to progress relatively unimpeded towards that goal over the course of 2-3 weeks and then start making it difficult to continue making meaningful progress at the same rate without either monetising or through grinding which would be above the odds for even the most punishing late-game challenges of JRPGs.


(*cough*)

To finally bring this back around to Loop Hero, we find a game that is part of a subtle movement to throw out the free to play bathwater from traditionally 'evil' free to play design and keep the delightful meta-heavy, input-light base layer design (babies) from mobile. Core video games do not need to be centred around complex input systems and combat to be a worthwhile challenge. Loop Hero engages your brain in its entirety in every run but still allows one to keep a free hand to sip on a brew or check what's going on in chat.

I've long maintained that there is a degree of snobbery from long-time gamers toward games that find popularity on mobile. They are dismissed as sub-par experiences for sub-par audiences who need to hurry up, smell the coffee and upgrade to a nice console/PC experience. Games like Loop Hero show us that even ardent PC gamers can celebrate core gameplay loops that have been honed in the mobile space, just so as long as the core business model reverts to a more traditional 'one-and-done' financial transaction and that the game lives in the more culturally accepted confines of their Steam library.
 
But let's not kid ourselves, Loop Hero is a game that raided the treasures of the mobile space and dressed up the loot for a self-described discerning PC audience.

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THE VERDICT

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Loop Hero isn't designed to monetise its players, but there are times where I would be tempted to spend gems or some form of premium currency to pick up the pace a little. There are plateaus in progress that can seem almost too much like a mobile game. That being said, I often find that the game rewards those that are willing to think deeply about optimising their builds towards key objectives. The game doesn't shower you with praise for figuring these things out but provides something of a neutral laboratory environment for players to test our strategies and praise themselves for their own cleverness.

I've only played this game in small doses, rather than longer sessions full of back to back runs, so I will admit to something of a blind spot in my research here. The game provides a tight 15-20 min experience that will fill up the back half of a lunch break, or as a welcome break from study. I can easily see the game satisfying a much longer gaming session much in the same way that one may decide to watch a single episode of a TV show and end up bingeing the whole season. The core loop of this game simply is that compelling.

As I said earlier, I'm very fortunate that this thing isn't on my phone. If you're looking for a new obsession, you would do well to consider Loop Hero. It's a mobile game for people who don't like mobile games.

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THE EXTRA 3%

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Welcome to the back pages! Thanks for reading this far. I hope you enjoyed my Loop Hero review!

My previous review in this series was Sludge Life, another game published by Devolver Digital. To keep things fresh my next review will absolutely not be a game published by them. 

BANNED FOR ALL TIME:

Published by Devolver Digital

Although if you're not entirely familiar with Devolver Digital's offerings, they're a label worth looking out for. Games in their portfolio are rarely boring, often very good, and always worth the price of admission to find out. If there was a fringe arts festival of games, Devolver Digital's acts would be the one's that get talked about by the less insufferable hipsters. 

If you like what I'm about please do consider interacting with me on Twitter @jak1oh3 and continuing the conversation there. I love talking to people who make and play video games so I look forward to hearing from anyone that fits that description :)

Thanks again for reading, it means a lot to me,
Jak

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Sludge Life - The 103% Review

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild invites players to scale mountains and towers to make it easier to discover the hidden secrets of a serene post-post-apocalyptic Hyrule. 

Bowser's Fury invites players to scale lighthouses and brightly coloured abstract geography to make it easier to gather the Cat Shines of the inviting and generous waters of Lake Lapcat

Sludge Life invites players to scale sewage processing buildings and ruined dock equipment to make it easier to vandalise everything, smoke cigarettes, and get the mother of all vibes going.

This is the 103% review of Sludge Life.

(Get the game: Sludge Life)

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ENTER THE SLUDGE

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I've been claiming freebies on the Epic Store for a long time. Not exhaustively. Not selectively. I've just been stuffing free games in my cheeks like the grubby little hamster that I am.

Now finally, after months of hoarding, I'm actually playing one of them. I'm playing Sludge Life 

Sludge Life was developed by Terri Vellman and Doseone and published by Devolver Digital. You can get it for PC and Switch.

Sludge Life is a very nice video game, and it was made better by the fact that I got it for absolutely nothing. You can get it for free on the Epic Games Store until the end of May 2021 so get it while you can, even if you put off playing it for months like I did.

You play as a vandal named Ghost.

When you first enter the world of Sludge Life, and indeed each time you enter the game world from the main menu, you will start out in Ghost's home. Ghost's home is a shipping container in a lake of sludge.

When you leave your shipping container domicile for the first time the game softly hints at a goal. You may wish to vandalise a highlighted wall and get a point for doing so. You may feel compelled to set a more self-directed goal and explore and climb your way to one of many vantage points. 

Your self directed goal may be one of immersive roleplay. You're a street artist living precariously near a sludge processing facility. Who says you necessarily care about being a productive artist today? You may spend any given session of Sludge Life trying to find strange beauty in your surroundings, or take pictures using your infinite supply of single-use cameras.

Like I did that one time:

A picture of a building enjoying a giant cigarette

It's a sludge processing station enjoying a giant cigarette. The street art was delayed in favour of photography.

Your goal may not even be to *solve* anything or even *produce* anything. 

The goal may just be to *vibe*...

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VIBE CHECK

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As an elder millennial, I can't truly claim to have ever truly perceived any moments of my life as a 'vibe' or a 'mood' as they were happening to me. Once I felt like I had a good grasp of what these terms meant, I was only able to retroactively apply these labels to past experiences and even as I did this, I did so with minimal confidence.

When I played Sludge Life, I experienced first-hand and in real-time, an unmistakable feeling of vibing in this virtual environment with its cast of laid back NPCs. I climbed to the top of the tallest pile of trash this side of  Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy and smoked a cigarette.

I vibed with this bird person.


This bird person had a 'take a seat or don't, I won't judge' aura when I met them. I joined the bird person and took a load off, holding the crouch button down so we could interact at eye level. 

There are many opportunities to vibe in this game. I have spoiled one of many. I will resist the urge to spoil more of these moments, but I could easily populate a sturdy list of vibes and moods from memory alone. 

These vibe moments, whether they be constructed set pieces like 'couch bird' or those that are spontaneously created by players as they frame their own experiences with Sludge Life. That is not to say that Sludge Life doesn't have a hand in shaping what those experiences will be. 

The world of Sludge Life is uncaring and determined to grind its inhabitants down, including Ghost. At times it feels as if there is no escape at all, but Sludge Life offers players a chance to forget their troubles in between their hunts for tag locations. You will experience the phenomenology of vibe at least once during your playthrough of this game.

Vibing in this environment is a form of rebellion. But what against? Glad you asked.

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BROKEN WORLD

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The revolution may come tomorrow, it may come in forty years' time. It may never come. We may all burn to death on a planet that is beyond repair. In a world where billionaires control more and more of the world's wealth and power than ever before, it seems that things will get a lot worse before they even stand a chance of getting better. This can be distressing, depressing and leave the human mind in a state of existential misery.

But the human spirit can also be trained to set all of their worries aside and seek out the best experiences possible given the circumstances. One can spend their free time and energy worrying about corrupt politicians and the dire conditions to which we subject our least fortunate workers. Sludge Life argues that this energy and time is wasted. Sludge Life says why not squeeze every last drop of joy from your environment.

Go talk to weird people. Drink fizzy drinks. Smoke. Risk life, limb, and liberty for the sake of creating art. Engage in outsider culture. Smoke again. Waste more cameras than Joseph Joestar. Piss with lacking accuracy at someone else's toilet. Piss off the edge of the world. Swim in toxic sludge. Listen to great music.

Do not descend into despair.

This world is broken, but it can not truly break you. You get to decide how broken you want to be. Sludge Life invites you to define your own rules.

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THE VERDICT

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For a game about exploration and finding hidden surprises, Sludge Life can leave you at a loose end sometimes. As it became harder to find new tag spots, Sludge Life often left me without a clear goal. Ludic Boredom and anxiety set in quickly and I almost turned to guides (or straight-up putting the game down) a number of times. 

But I didn't. I explored the world again. I talked to those quirky NPCs again. I scoured the sludge for clues and leads again. I had Eureka moments as I managed to squeeze just a little more out of Sludge Life and I did get to the good ending eventually. 

But there were long stretches of nothing. These moments gave me an opportunity to succumb to a seemingly inescapable world. I vibed. I thought about this fictional world and how it made me feel about my own place in the real one. I found my own fun until I could make tangible progress.

I have my reservations about recommending such a jagged experience to anyone. There are games that give you more dopamine for your time and money. But this is a short game, and if you're seeing this at an opportune time, you can get it for free. Download it now, and play it before starting your next Big Game.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

How to Win at Codenames (Part 2: Field Operative side)

Welcome to the second half of this ruthless, no holds barred, ultimate guide to beating people at Codenames. We’ll cover the Field Operative side this time. (Read Part 1 here!)

I have listened to your feedback. I accept again that Codenames is designed as, and is most often received as, a light-hearted game for casual gamers.

You want to hear another game which was originally designed for casual gamers? Super Smash Bros. Melee. It’s all a matter of how much you want to take something seriously, design intent be damned.

That being said, let’s get into some hot Codenames advice action!

-- Field Operatives --

Field Operative Overview

-- Listen, Listen, Listen --

As with the Spymaster side, keeping engaged with what players are saying is key. I won’t beat this argument to death, but it is worth saying a few things specific to the Field Operative side.

The most obvious difference moving from the Spymaster side to the Field Operative side is that you don’t know which tiles belong to which of the two sides. Your main source of information about this comes from the Spymasters. Your own Spymaster tries to herd you toward correct answers, but the rival Spymaster (and the rival Field Operatives) are actively trying to expose their own team’s tiles.

I want you all to channel the listening skills of this CREEPY-ASS emoji

If you can solve the rival Spymaster’s clues better than your rival Field Operatives can, you will gain some advantage in a crunch. It could mean the difference between a miss or a hit at a critical point in the game. Getting a hard read on your opponent's clues will also help you avoid falling foul of Fucker Tiles (tiles with related meanings that happen to belong to opposing teams) so keep listening!

But one party that we haven’t covered yet are your fellow Field Operatives. If you have them, they can be a help or a hindrance depending on how you all work together. That’s worth considering in it’s own section, so we will.



--  Get your Teammates Talking! --

If you’re playing with some fellow Field Operatives, you’ll probably have a difference of opinion at some point during the game over one of your Spymaster’s clues at some point during the game. You’ll be at an impasse until you come to a consensus.

At this point it can be tempting to turn this discussion into an adversarial debate where your theories about the Spymaster clues are placed in opposition to the theories of the other Field Operatives. This is often not the most productive way to conduct the discussion.

I’m taking huge cues from Edward de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats when I say that trying to get everyone on the team speak their piece without fear of failure or chastisement is the way to go.  

Image result for six thinking hats book
I overthink casual games, so you don't have to!

Keep a mental note of what proportion of the theories has come from which members of the group and try and get theories on the table. This achieves two big things for your team. First, you are allowing possibly excellent theories to enter the discussion from people for whom the high stakes adversarial debate style just does not work for.

Secondly, it improves the overall quality of the discussion by encouraging people to talk through their theories, which is a lot easier to do in a welcoming environment. Talking through these theories allows other members of the team to benefit from any insights that previously only existed in that player’s head beforehand. You’ll also build up a better toolbox of reasoning for your future sessions with Codenames.

Tl;dr be a co-operative and likeable human being to succeed.

-- Feedback should be Limited, but Constructive --

Playing as the Spymaster is often incredibly frustrating as you cannot meaningfully comment on the guesswork that your Field Operatives are doing. Not so much as a ‘Nice One!’ or a ‘Dammit!’ should be appear on the Spymaster’s face.  Field Operatives, on the other hand can have a field day.

As a field operative, you should have an idea about how well you personally know the Spymaster. How well do you think you can read their clues? Do you know how they think? If you and your team all have a deep psychic link that reliably produces wins for you, then ignore this section of the guide, then ignore this entire guide, and congratulations on your dominance of your local Codenames meta.

For the rest of us, read on. 

You ever have that moment where your Spymaster appears to just give the most outlandish, impossible clue? The kind of clue that makes you say ‘What!?’ out loud? That reaction, on its own, is of no use to your Spymaster. Vocalise your thought process as you struggle to find a valid answer. Don’t just ‘Pass’ the turn huffily. Do your best to enable your Spymaster to do better next time.

tl;dr for this section

When you give this feedback out loud, you are practically giving info away to the other team, but I wouldn’t let this concern you. If your Spymaster isn’t delivering top tier clues yet, the trade-off ends up being in your favour. You’ll not solve your communications problem by letting it fester.

-- Wrap-Up --

The Field Operative job involves a healthy balance between going with your own gut, communicating with your team-mates, and considering all the angles. Overconfidence can lead to missing out on better possibilities, but overthinking clues often leads to talking yourself out of sound intuition. Achieving this balance is something that comes with practice, but this involves some introspection. Do you need to believe in yourself more? Can you listen to others better? Or do you need to hold your horses and practice some more caution? All these skills are worthwhile both in Codenames, as they are in life.

Simply put, playing Codenames, will make you a better person. I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to winning at life.




Tuesday, 17 April 2018

How to Win at Codenames (Part 1: Spymaster Side)

Vlaada Chvatil's Codenames is a very bankable board game. If you are going to a board game meet up with a bunch of randos, you could do a lot worse than having the orange Codenames box in your bag. It's a very easy game to teach, and very soon your whole group will have got the hang of it. You'll be playing it all evening.

Then of course, you'll want to fucking win. I acknowledge that a more casual, rules-light, happy-go-lucky game like Codenames probably doesn't warrant a ruthless, expert level guide. But I've made one, and here you are reading it. I'm just glad that there is someone else who also wants to win this fun, friendly game with devastating aplomb as often as possible. DM me.

The guide will be broken into two posts. The first post will cover winning tactics that one should employ as one of the spymaster, and the second post will set out some best approaches when playing as a field operative.

Let's get into it!

-- Spymaster --

The spymaster is often thought of as the ‘harder’ role to play. It’s certainly the more daunting role. The spymaster assumes the most responsibility for the team’s overall success. They cannot confer with an ally like the field operatives can, and the field operatives’ potential for success is limited by the performance of the spymaster. The pressure can get into your head and mess up your game. Here are some tips to prevent this:

-- Eavesdrop like there’s no tomorrow --

James Bond’s spymaster M would relish the chance to be fully aware of their highly irresponsible agent’s movements in real time. They don’t have that luxury, but you do. You’re instructed to maintain a poker face while your field operatives deliberate, but you can ‘react’ through your moves.

An example. Your team misses one of your clues on Turn 1, but also talk about the correct answer at any time before Turn 2, you should know that your team are prepared to hit that missed answer on Turn 2, so it may be wasteful to give them a second clue that points toward that missed clue again. 

Meditate on this image and you will succeed at Codenames

It’s not just your allies either, if you overhear that the opposing operatives are considering selecting on of your team’s tiles on their next turn. Don’t do them the favour of setting a clue that leads directly to it if you can possibly delay it. Why waste a perfectly good opportunity to have the opposing team waste one of their turns and give you the additional tile?

If you’re not listening intently, you’ll miss this stuff. Spymasters don’t get to talk much, but they damn well get to hear an awful lot. Don’t waste this opportunity and channel your inner M.


-- Take Risks If You Are Behind --

Almost every Codenames team that I’ve played with or against falls into a familiar pattern of going for conservative pairs of two words at a time and simply communicating an association between two words. This tactic works if you’re either ahead on points already, or if you can rely on the opposing team fouling up on their turns. In my view, this is less of a tactic to win more games, and more of a tactic to pass fewer turns to the other team.

Tl;dr: Hitting safe pairs is wuss tactic, so try and find opportunities to pull ahead.

All of this being said, it is your job as Spymaster to gauge the bravery of your field operatives by Eavesdropping like there’s no tomorrow. There’s no point giving a bold clue that connects 5 tiles if your team buckle under the pressure and pass the turn. Wuss clues for wuss field operatives, I guess!

If you are going to ‘go wide’ on a clue incorporating 4 or more words, be very mindful of the potential for your Field Operatives to get it wrong. Try and rule out any possibility that a player will accidentally hit the Assassin or a tile for the opposing team of spies. It’s perfectly okay if there’s a slight chance that the player hits a Miss Tile though, as they can recover from that in future rounds. Don’t be afraid of passing one turn if you can potentially communicate over half of your tiles to your team, even if you are behind.

You can do this!

Also, with larger amounts of tiles being connected, you can afford to be a little broader. Cat and Dogs are ‘Animals’, but Beard and Kiwi are not ‘Animals’. However, all could be considered ‘Furry’ with a slight tilt of the head.

Another good way to find connections is to look at all of the other tiles that are not yours and see if there is something that they all have in common, which your words do not. It might be that you give an exceptionally vague clue to your Field Operatives, but they should be able to get the clues by process of elimination. The words 'Well' , 'Fridge' and 'Binoculars' may not have an obvious meaningful connection, but they could be easily be connected by the word 'Manmade' if all of the other tiles relate to things found in nature.

Just try and be on the lookout for larger connections. 3 is a world of difference away from 2 in a game which is first to 8 or 9 tiles.

-- Leave “Fucker Tiles” on the Board As Long As Possible --

This is the last big tip I have for the Spymaster. Before I get to it I have to emphasise that the first two tips are already a lot of work.

Paying attention what everyone is saying and then using that information to formulate a picture of what you think everyone remembers, and how brave everyone might be feeling is a lot to be engaged with at once. This is of course in addition to trying to figure out how to draw connections between tiles of your colour for your Field Operatives!

If you have any room in your head though, I would cast your eye to what your rival Spymaster is going through, because my god they are going through some shit!

If you have time to look at your opposing team’s tiles. You might find what we call a Fucker Tile.

A Fucker Tile is one of your own tiles, which could very easily make it way more difficult for your opponent to make a solid connection between tiles because there is a very good chance that it overlaps with one of yours.

Aim to be the purple guy: victorious and unliked

For instance, you see that the opposing team has ‘France’ and ‘Germany’ as two of their words, but you have ‘Italy’ and ‘Plumber’ as two of yours. You have an easy-ish 2-connection with ‘Mario’ but in doing so you make it a lot easier for the opposing team to get an easy-ish 2-connection with ‘Countries’ if you take ‘Italy’ off the board.

The ‘Italy’ tile in this instance is a Fucker Tile and you should leave it on the board for as long as possible. There’s a chance that the 'Italy' tile will be accidentally selected by the opposite side, and at the very least, you’re making your rival Spymaster’s job just that bit more difficult.

Try to look for Fucker Tiles the next time you’re playing Codenames!

-- Wrap-Up --

I hope that these three tips vastly improve your success as the Spymaster in Codenames. Next time we'll cover the game from the Field Operatives side. Until then, may all your games be good!


Monday, 12 September 2016

How To Win At The Game Of Thrones Board Game: Part 6- Taking the Win, Meta-Game and Alliances, and Alternative Ways to Play

Hello, and welcome to the final part of my guide on how to win at the Game of Thrones board game. If you have missed any of the previous parts, they can be found below:

Part 3- Stark and Greyjoy
Part 4- Lannister and Baratheon
Part 5- Tyrell and Martell

7: Taking The Win

“In War.
Prize victory,
Not a protracted campaign.”

Sun Tsu, Waging of War

So, having discussed general strategy and potential issues for each house I am now going to look at making the winning move. There are two ways to win; take a 7th castle, or hold the most castles at the end of the game. Depending on the house you are playing is as the best option will vary.

Obviously taking 7 castles is a safe and instantaneous win, but you are unlikely to be able to reliably do this. Since hitting 6 castles makes you a big target you should try to hover around 5 castles and then aim to take two in one turn. Obviously this means splitting your resources more, and requires careful timing of housecards to give guaranteed or probably victories. Bear in mind that ties are initially broken by number of strongholds, followed by supply track position. This has an important bearing on what each house should attempt. For example, if Greyjoy are sitting on 5 castles, 3 of which are strongholds, and every other player is on 5 or fewer castles, they are probably a strong contender to win the game in turn 10. Conversely, if Martell hold 5 castles they are unlikely to be holding more than one stronghold, meaning they should probably push for a 6th or 7th castle.

The best time to make the push to 7 castles is turns 8 or 9, as other players will not necessarily be prepared for this when compared to turn 10. Another great time to do this is if the Westeros cards deal a “no support orders” card, as this allows territories considered “safe” to be taken (Crackclaw Point, Storm's End etc). If making the push for 7 castles it is important to put the rest of your orders down in a defensive strategy that mitigates risk; unless you can be certain of the victories required to take your final castles then you need to prepare for the worst.

The last aspect of endgame to talk about is turn 10. Turn 10 is different to the rest of the game, mainly because no one has anything to lose. As such, players will be much more reckless and will throw units and house cards at any problem. How you respond to this will depend on your position; if you have a comfortable lead you should play defensively and aim to prevent all attacks. If you are slightly behind you should prepare to march on the loser in any large battles. A particularly good strategy can be suddenly mobilising units that have existed all game as power token farmers. A sudden march from the Arbor or Dragonstone can be unexpected and allow you to easily taken an undefended castle.

I had to get a picture of Stannis in somewhere, and here is as good as anywhere.
Generally if you are in a strong position you should be aiming to end the game in turn 9 and avoiding the unpredictability of turn 10, as it is easy for the rankings of all players to change in the final turn.

8: Meta-game and Alliances

“Words of peace,
But no treaty,
Are a sign
Of a plot.”

Sun Tsu, On The March

One aspect of the game that is often linked to it that I have hardly touched on is the table game, including alliances and deals. Obviously this is not a formal part of the rules, but is thematically encouraged. Depending on the group you play with will depend on how often alliances come into play. That said, once two players make an alliance in a game it is only a matter of time until other alliances form to counter this (for more information, see World War 2).

Generally the most effective alliances are not made between neighbours. Greyjoy and Lannister may make an alliance in good faith, but having a large military presence on your doorstep is something that can only be ignored for so long. Rather, alliances can be mutually beneficial between houses that lack common territories. This could include:

Baratheon/Tyrell
Stark/Lannister
Stark/Martell
Greyjoy/Baratheon
Lannister/Martell
Greyjoy/Tyrell

All these focus on a “pincer” attack on a common enemy. Of course, if you find you cannot trust other players with even this kind of alliance, another option is an alliance that only lasts for a certain time. For example, an alliance up until the start of turn 6. This means both players are aware of when aggression is acceptable whilst not worrying about being the one to be stabbed in the back.

"I did warn you not to trust me"

How alliances work will likely develop between any group of regular players. Another aspect that normally develops between a group of people who regularly play together is a local metagame. This means that there are certain strategies or moves that become the expected move amongst that group. This, in turn, leads to those moves losing value due to being predictable. For example, if a group always used my suggested Lannister opening then the Greyjoy player would likely use a different opening in response to this. This is something that will inform your strategy when playing with this group; how this manifests depends entirely on who you play with.

9: Alternative Set-ups and “House” Rule Suggestions

The last area I would like to discuss is some suggestions for alternative ways of playing that either give the game some variety or help address balancing issues. These are of course not official set ups but give variety to the game.

Rumble In The South (4 players): Block off Pyke, Moat Cailin, Greywater Watch, Flint's Finger, and everything north of them. Houses in play are Lannister, Baratheon, Martell and Tyrell. This set up lets Tyrell have the Valyrian Steel Blade and puts Martell second on two influence tracks, making Doran a more interesting card, as well as giving each house limited space to work in. This also works for groups who want to use Tyrell and Martell but don't always have 6 players.

No Salt Or Sand (4 players): Block off Pyke and Dorne (Prince's Pass, Yronwood, Starfall, Salt Shore, Sunspear), and have Lannister, Baratheon, Stark and Tyrell in. This is less claustrophobic than Rumble but does not give any one player too many resources. It also means Lannister have some breathing room without having too easy a time of things.

All But The Lion (5 players): Block off Lannisport and remove Lannister. This 5 player set up keeps the middle of the board empty, meaning that Baratheon, Tyrell and Greyjoy expand further than usual and get into blows with each other. Since Lannister do not have a lot of uncontested territories this does not substantially change the goals for any house, but does remove the house that suffers most in a 5 player game.

Custom House Decks: The Dance With Dragons expansion adds a new set of house cards for each house, and this can be used to create custom decks. The most balanced ruling is that each house chooses a 4, a 3, two 2s, two 1s and a 0 from the two decks, and these are not publicly announced until the cards have been played. This allows for a lot more strategy and planning for players, who can tailor their house to their play style. This can create some ridiculously powerful house decks, which can put a greater focus on combat. A second alternative to this is to randomise which house gets which cards (e.g. Baratheon use Lannister cards etc).

Army Building: Each house in the base game starts with either 5 or 6 mustering points worth of units. This set up allows players to choose how these are deployed. Each player in turn must place a land unit on their home territory. They can then place on any territory they own or any adjacent territory (with boats required when crossing the sea). Each player places a unit each turn until they have used their mustering points up. Players cannot place into a territory that contains any unit belonging to another player. This allows players to mix up the starting set ups, and thus the starting moves. There is also strategy in deciding how much land to take versus having a stronger army.

Pre-Game Influence Bid: Rather than using the usual influence track positions, each house is given 10 power tokens and a round of bidding occurs before turn 1. This means each player can decide what they want to prioritise, as well as how many power tokens they want to hold on to. This gives some variety to the opening of games, as well as giving each house different opening options.

Messenger Ravens: One group I play with came up with the idea of using “messenger ravens” to send messages in secret to other players. These are written on scraps of paper and handed directly to the player you wish to message, with all players seeing who is messaging who but not the content. This creates a lot more depth to the table game, as alliances and coordinated moves can be created in secret. One optional rule with this is to only allow players to use ravens on alternating turns, meaning private communications are limited.

Summary:

That is about everything I have to say about the Game of Thrones board game. Due to the size and complexity of it it is a game that allows for a lot different ways of playing. I haven't really discussed either of the two official expansions, nor have I talked about the innumerable fan expansions that seek to add various houses. I hope this has been useful and provoked thought and discussion. Thank you for reading, and thank you to all the people who put up with playing this game with me and helping form this article.

Monday, 5 September 2016

How To Win At The Game Of Thrones Board Game: Part 5- Tyrell and Martell

In this article we will look at the strategies for the two remaining houses, Tyrell and Martell. If you have missed any of the previous sections they can be found below:

Part 1- Territory Control and House Cards
Part 3- Stark and Greyjoy
Part 4- Lannister and Baratheon


Tyrell:

One of the great things about the Game of Thrones board game is the focus on strategy over luck. That said, luck is of course a factor, and nowhere is this more obvious than with Tyrell. Starting with abysmal placings on the influence tracks, Tyrell can't do much about their lot until the right cards come up. If they don't get a mustering or a influence tracks bid they can't get any new units. The same is true of Greyjoy, but they at least have the Valyrian Steel Blade, giving them a substantial edge in combat. Tyrell therefore must start with a defensive set up with a focus on building up power tokens and capitalise once the cards turn in their favour.

In terms of positioning Tyrell are in a decent position. The Redwyne Straits provides a position for a strong naval defence, and Oldtown is effectively free, meaning Tyrell get 4 muster points from Highgarden and Oldtown each mustering which will almost certainly never be threatened. There are also plenty of barrels and printed power tokens for Tyrell, meaning they are not short of resources early game.

The Tyrell house cards are simple but strong. Margaery and Ser Axell are standard 1 strength cards, and Randyll Tarly and Garlan Tyrell provide decent attacking opportunities. The real strength of Tyrell is their more tactical cards. The Queen of Thorns is fairly situational, but is the only 0 strength card that can actually deliver a win by cancelling support. Obviously this requires a specific situation, but being able to cancel a large support is very damaging. Even if it does not deliver a win itself, by cancelling a support it can set up for a stronger march later that turn. It also works brilliantly for taking out consolidate power orders (ideally a starred one). Mace Tyrell is also excellent, as when used correctly is effectively a 5 strength card. Being able to deliver a guaranteed casualty is very dangerous and will disincentivise a lot of marches against Tyrell. And then there is Ser Loras Tyrell. 

*swoons*
Although not having the reliability or brute force or Mace, Ser Loras' effect of being able to move a march order into a conquered territory can win games by itself. Effective use requires careful planning, but he is a lethal card for several reasons. Firstly, assuming you win the first combat you are likely to be able to march on the routed army immediately afterwards, meaning he can kill off a lot of units without a single sword. Secondly, he can reach areas that would normally be out of reach, making him very hard for other players to defend against. Finally, if used as the penultimate card in a house card cycle, Tyrell can initiate another combat elsewhere to refresh their hand, and then march with Ser Loras again, meaning they can move a single army across 3 areas in a single turn. Again, if used at the right time this move can push on to a winning castle amount. The only thing Ser Loras needs to fear is Arianne Martell, as the ruling is that her effect cancels his, meaning he is effectively wasted in any combat against her.

The Tyrell strategy is very likely to involve conflict with Martell sooner or later. Similarly to how Riverrun eventually tends towards Greyjoy, Starfall tends to fall towards Tyrell, as it is in a difficult position for Martell to defend. This is particularly dangerous for Martell, as once Starfall is taken Ser Loras can make a quick march on Sunspear, effectively taking them out of the game. Once Starfall and the Reach are taken Tyrell need to consider where to make their push. King's Landing is a possibility if Baratheon don't get set up early, and Lannisport is only a Ser Loras double march away. Lannisport is actually one of the easiest home territories to take, due to the above issues Lannister have with Greyjoy. This can open up Harrenhal and even Riverrun if Lannister are flailing; perhaps the best approach is to take the Blackwater and see where Lannister's defences are weakest; if they are in a strong position use this as an opportunity to attack Baratheon

Tyrell should play an initially conservative game, as they have a reasonably defensive position which allows for easy farming of power tokens from the Dornish Marches, Prince's Pass and the Arbor, as well as an easy 5-6 barrels. Tyrell should then focus on reinforcing their position until they can grab position on the influence tracks. Overall Tyrell are one of the most straightforward houses to play as, and, aside from their terrible opening positions on the influence tracks, have no major weaknesses.

Suggested Openings:

Redwyne Straights: Support (no other march orders available)
Highgarden: March 0, knight into The Reach, footman into Oldtown
Dornish Marches: March -1 into Prince's Pass

OR

Redwyne Straights: March -1 into West Summer Sea
Highgarden: March 0, knight into The Reach, footman into Starfall
Dornish Marches: Consolidate Power


Martell:

Whilst not always the most exciting house to play as Martell rarely do terribly either. They have decent influence track positions and average resources. One thing Martell lack are options for expansion; unless Martell play an exceptionally aggressive navy they are unlikely to expand more than 1-2 territories away from Sea of Dorne for the whole game. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as the Sea of Dorne makes every area around it very defensible for Martell. As such, Martell's first focus should be building a strong navy there, whilst also having single boats in the East Summer Sea and the Sunspear port for raiding and consolidating respectively.

The Martell house deck is one of the least tactical, consisting almost exclusively of swords and forts. The two cards that do have some strategy are Arianne and Doran Martell. Doran is a great threat to other players, working in a similar way to Patchface, although maybe not quite as dangerous early game. Whilst Baratheon losing the Iron Throne does not directly benefit Martell they will be keen to not lose it and as such will normally delay aggression towards Martell until necessary (also fearing the plethora of swords). Arianne Martell is probably the best defensive card in the game (sorry Blackfish), and is best saved for siege engines and Ser Loras, ideally both. If used carefully she can also be used to effectively march your units for free when retreating whilst also not conceding territory by retreating them into a new area.

"Come on baby; don't fear the Viper..."
The major disadvantage Martell have is a lack of strongholds. The nearest ones are King's Landing and Oldtown, which are likely to prove very difficult to take. This means Martell will often be mustering fewer units than other houses. As such, an early priority is grabbing 4 castles to reinforce their position, and then mustering from Sunspear as often as possible. Yronwood and Starfall are both easy for Martell to grab early, although Starfall will need reinforcing eventually. Storm's End should also be taken as soon as possible. Having a single boat in the East Summer Sea gives raiding opportunities against both Tyrell and Baratheon, which helps hold Starfall and Storm's End. This is particularly useful for the latter, as Martell can still support from the Sea of Dorne, making it very difficult for Baratheon to take it as they cannot rely on naval support.

After taking these 4 castles it is a long way for Martell to take a 5th. The obvious choice is the Reach, although it will take effective and sustained aggression against Tyrell to push them back. Also, the Reach is not easy to hold, so should either be taken suddenly and then abandoned, or ideally taken as a 7th castle. As already discussed, Martell cannot practically reach 7 castles without taking a home territory, and the Tyrells are probably the easier target. Martell should try to push aggressively into Tyrell lands early in the game, as if Tyrell fail to set up properly, as above, they may lose too much ground and not be able to recover. This would put Martell in a strong position to take the win. Alternatively, Martell can offer an alliance with Stark against Baratheon; this works well for both players, as they have no common lands but a common enemy, and a coordinated naval assault can be devastating for Baratheon, opening up Dragonstone, King's Landing and Crackclaw Point as possible castles for Martell. Without northern support this attack is unlikely to succeed, but Stark have nothing to lose by siding with the opposite end of the board.

Martell are another average house, and as such there is often a back and forth between Martell and Tyrell that does not go anywhere for either player. Martell are very unlikely to take 7 castles, and as such should make their corner as defensible as possible whilst making calculated attacks on Tyrell.

Suggested Openings:

Sunspear: *Consolidate power (muster two ships into Sea of Dorne)
Salt Shore: March +1 into Starfall
Sea of Dorne: March 0 into East Summer Sea

OR

Sunspear: March +1, knight into Storm's End, footman into Yronwood
Salt Shore: March -1 into Starfall
Sea of Dorne: March 0 into East Summer Sea


In the final part we will look at taking the win, allances, the meta-game, as well as some house rules and alternative ways of playing. Thanks for reading and see you then.