Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#9: Ticket to Ride Online - Cheap Train Fare

I hope you're ready for some steamy train action, because this time I'll be talking about Ticket to Ride. I picked it up as part of an indie game bundle on Steam during the recent summer sale.

Typically, Ticket to Ride is played as a board game. It's a relatively well known board game to boot, particularly among those who have advanced beyond the occasional game of Settlers of Catan and hunger for even more European-style board game fare. It's no Monopoly or Risk though as far as infamy goes, so if you live in the USA and haven't heard of Ticket to Ride before, I can't really blame you.

If I saw that portly guy with the mutton chops and the purple tux at any point in history, I'd consider my day a success. You have to have serious #trainswag to pull that off.
In two sentences, the game consists of collecting quantities of different color "train cards" so that you can place a train linking two cities on a track of the corresponding color and length with the ultimate goal of completing your "tickets". Tickets are cards that task you with connecting two cities and give bonus points if completed, but subtract the same number of points from your final score if you fail to connect those two cities.

The people throughout the menus (such as the fellow on the left here) are all terribly voice acted, so much so that the first thing I did was go into options and look for a way to shut them up. Aside from that, the interface is basic but effective at getting you into the game quickly.

You can play the game online or against AI, and at least for someone of my competence the AI seems adequately difficult (which is to say, I played two games solo and went 50/50). For online, there's matchmaking or custom game lobbies for 2-5 players, so whatever floats your boat is available to you.

Initially the game can appear overwhelming, but it actually takes all of two or three minutes to learn. Unsurprisingly, the claim "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master!" features prominently on their Steam store page.
Let's take the above screencap of one of my games online. This is basically the entire game, so I'll go clockwise around the screen, starting in the top left, describing what we see. 

We've got a back/leave the game button, mute sound button (which you'll want to do, because the background music is beyond terrible), and a help button that can succinctly explain anything you need to know to play. After using it to check how exactly the game ends and the rules for the two-lane tracks, I pretty much figured out the rest of the game on my first try.

Anyway, next, we've got the little profiles for your opponents. You can see how many train pieces they have left, how many cards are in their hand up to a point (after 8 it just says 8+, which is a big chunk of the time), and how many tickets they've picked so far (I'll address that in a moment).

On the right side, we've got the the different cards you can draw on your turn. You may use your turn to draw 2 train cards total, each from either the top of the deck or one of the five that have been flipped face up in play. If you choose a wild card from in play, it uses both of your draws. When you choose one of the revealed ones, it will be replaced by the top card of the deck immediately. If you draw from the top of the deck, your card is essentially random, but you have a chance of getting a wild card for the price of only one card draw. 

Alternatively, you can draw three tickets from the ticket deck and choose to keep a minimum of one of them. You will probably not do this too many times per game if at all; as I mentioned earlier, each incomplete ticket deducts points from your final score.

The bottom right shows how many tickets you've kept so far, and how many you've completed. The bottom-middle is your hand, showing the various colors and quantities of train cards you currently have. While, for example, four yellow train cards could be used to place a train route that is yellow and containing four or fewer train spaces, it is also important to note that any color train cards can be used to place a route that is grey colored. These are opportunities to screw your opponents over if their intended goal is too obvious by clogging their train routes with your own trains and forcing them to build around.

Bottom left shows how many cards are in your hand and how many train pieces you have left, as well as a large and pointless picture of "you". 

Finally, going back up the left side, we've got a chat log (I almost never saw this used at any time, I guess the online board game crowd is a silent lot) and a chart explaining how many points you earn for placing routes of different sizes. While you don't get many points for placing routes that consist of 1, 2, or 3 train pieces, you get a veritable jackpot for 6 pieces and above.

I am the green kid this time. I didn't end up winning this game, but it was close. My opponents clogged several of my planned routes and left me with a meandering mess of a train system that missed several tickets and made me lose tons of points.
The game ends when any player reaches 2 to 0 remaining train game pieces. All players then have a chance to play one more turn. This can result in a viable strategy being "end the game as soon as possible" because the person who ends the game will logically have the most trains on the board and therefore a point advantage. It also makes sense to just place trains as soon as possible to end the game if you don't think you have enough time to complete another ticket, in order to deprive other players of the chance to earn more points. Plus, if you can put them in a long chain, the person who controls the longest continuous train route gets a bonus 10 points!

The results screen for that previous screenshot's game. It was close primarily because my opponents screwed with eachother's plans as much as my own, but red pulled ahead for the win with the longest train route bonus at the end.

Some observations from my 12-to-15 games of Ticket to Ride:

  • Grabbing lots of tickets in an attempt to tie together a bunch of east coast cities seems high-risk, low reward. Simply grabbing lots of train cards and building the long routes on the west coast seems to generate the same amount of points before even adding in ticket bonuses, yet that plan also seems safer.
  • Always grab from the top of the train deck unless you urgently need a specific color and it's available in play at that moment. By grabbing from the top of the deck, you can accumulate wild cards to fill in any holes in your train color assortment anyway.
  • Don't underestimate how badly you can screw someone over by simply placing a 2 or 3 train piece route in the way of their goal. You might waste a turn and a few trains, but they will waste several turns and several more trains than you did trying to go around it.
  • Sometimes, you just get lucky or unlucky. It's a board game. There's a strong element of luck on purpose. The bright side is that the game does a fairly good job of not letting you feel like your fate is being controlled by anything random.
  • As someone who has played a decent number of board games, playing it online with automated shuffling, hand sorting, illuminated route goals, and other small conveniences probably cuts the playtime of this game in half, if not more. I rarely take longer than 15-20 minutes to complete a game of Ticket to Ride online, with no setup or putting it back away into the box.
The bad news of course is that in order to play with friends, they will need to fork over $10 each to buy it at full price. It doesn't stop there; in order to play any map aside from the USA, you'll need to fork over a few more bucks. There are four additional maps listed on the Steam Store, with a cumulative cost of $15. 

There are numerous pros and cons to investing in a board game's online version instead of the physical version, but I think I will save the subject of video game adaptations of board games and card games for another blog entry entirely. Hopefully you'll see it go up soon.

As always, thank you for reading, and may your trains always run on time without a fascist dictator taking control of your country.

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

#8: Crysis - Hands Like Gravity Guns

Please keep your bodily appendages inside the blog while in motion, because this week's game is Crysis, and there are going to be a lot of screenshots this time.

Here's some box art, you moochers.

Extra big picture for extra big cool.
A quick rundown of what I knew about Crysis when I hit the launch button:

1. Crysis has a reputation for being one of the most gorgeous games available if your computer is powerful enough to run it on max settings (mine is).

2. You have a power-suit thing vaguely reminiscent of Master Chief (oh, so this game has regenerating shields and HP. Check.)

3. There's some kind of jungle. (It turned out that there was, in fact, some kind of jungle.)

So the first thing I do, of course, is max out my settings. Then I start a new game. 

My nano-suited super marine special ops guy code named Nomad parachutes onto an island with a few fellow nano-suit troopers to recover some archaeologists being held hostage by those darn evil Koreans. Of course, on the way down something that looks an awful lot like an alien goofs up your descent, and you land on a beach. 

And then this happens.

But. . . But he's probably a protected species! 
Why would I want to pick up a tortoise?

Go! Be free! Fly with your fellow tortoises!
Oh, because this is a wildlife hurling simulator. Got it.

I follow the map a bit more and encounter some bad guys, who I shoot with my gun in a radical divergence from FPS norms. The game has introduced the basic concept of my suit having "modes" at this point, those modes being Armor, Speed, Strength, and Stealth. Strength in particular lets you jump higher, punch harder, throw harder, and hold weapons steadier (lame).

Knowing this, I save a special kind of death for the last enemy Korean.

Time for a crabs epidemic.
They don't need to be half-life headcrabs to be just as deadly. At least when thrown at high speeds.
I call this one "The Deadliest Catch".
So here's where I need to come clean: a large chunk of my screenshots are just me presenting new and exciting ways to kill people by throwing things at them. I did not realize the extent to which I was doing this until I looked through my files after the fact.

What does that mean to you, the reader? It means you're about to get a photo album of all of the ridiculous thrown projectiles that I murdered Koreans with.



Look at the shell-shocked expression on that chicken's face. He's seen some seriously messed up stuff. And he's about to see more.

That blurry frog-shaped object is a frog. Sadly, the frog was not fatal to anyone I threw it at, and resulted in several deaths while trying.

I'm actually not positive what this is, but I think it's a locker. And I'm pretty sure that I killed a few guys around the corner with it.

To my surprise, I could carry and throw an entire dumpster as long as I tilted the screen upward so that I wasn't dragging it along the ground.

I went deep sea diving for more exotic items to throw at people. Sadly, I could not pick up fish or brain coral.

They seem tired.

Alright, enough of that. I suppose I owe some serious analysis and explanation of the "actual game" of Crysis.

Crysis tries really hard to be realistic when you aren't using your suit powers to launch fatal crab-missiles at people. This is actually one of the coolest things about Crysis. You actually feel like a normal human in a world full of other normal humans, except you have a super cool nano-suit that lets you occasionally break the rules. Where you shoot people matters, objects seem to have the proper amount of "heft", the physics on driving vehicles makes sense and your tires can be blown out, and considering we're in a world with nano-suits the guns are surprisingly similar to modern ones aside from a few late-game additions to the arsenal. 

While the game is futuristic, you still do the pretty standard "aim down the sights with the submachine gun in cover" style stuff. They even got the focus right. The guys who made this graphics engine are pretty talented.

Adding to this realism is the fact that the game rarely funnels you down the "proper route" to defeating a group of enemies. The environments are some of the most plausibly laid out that I've seen yet in a first person shooter. There's tons of open space, you can approach from a multitude of directions with a multitude of methods in most cases (with varying effectiveness), and if you so choose you can even avoid the enemies entirely with many of the objectives. I will say, however, that you will probably have to do it by juking from point to point at breakneck speed with Speed mode, because the Stealth/Cloaking mode is pretty weak and never seemed to fool enemies when I used it even with cover.

As an aside, I don't think Stealth mode counts as "working really well" just because it's dark.

Essentially, you're a futuristic ninja marine who fights off hordes of Koreans. And later, aliens. I don't consider that a spoiler because it should be obvious to anyone within the first couple minutes of the game.

Don't worry, it's really not much like Halo at all.

This realism occasionally has its downsides, however. There were several times where I could have done without it, such as the time I shot down a helicopter and it landed on the building I was in resulting in my death, or when I was driving a Humvee, hit a big bump pretty fast, and dealt about 30% damage to my own vehicle and blew up. Crysis also does a remarkably poor job of communicating your cause of death, which depending on your perspective is either cool or terrible. I know at one spot I walked into mines a few times before realizing the reason I kept spontaneously exploding and dying, and there are many spots throughout the game that I will never actually know why I died.

The first half of Crysis plays almost like an entry in the Call of Duty series, whereas the second half takes a decidedly sci-fi turn with the aforementioned aliens. I have to admit that the first half was a bit bland for my tastes, but it got much more interesting over time. Driving a tank and a helicopter can help in that department as well.

Game design lesson learned: tanks are fun.
Overall, I enjoyed Crysis precisely because it was so realistic in so many ways, yet it tried to make you feel like a superhuman in the same setting. It takes you through a decent amount of different environments (though you spend too much time in the jungle at the start in my opinion), and has a relatively satisfying plot arc. Of course, it had a cliffhanger non-ending that practically screamed "we were already starting the sequel when we made this". That's fine though, because I own Crysis: Warhead and Crysis 2 as well. I'll get to them.


Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well.