Marvel Snap Week or The Joy of Digital Card Games on Release

Welcome to Marvel Snap Week.

You may be wondering if this is sponsored content. Or maybe if (like the last time I devoted a week to simping for a single brand) this is an elaborate attempt to get free shit.

Sadly, no and no. Marvel Snap Week is just the result of Marvel Snap being interesting. I don’t think Marvel Snap or Ben Brode is going to give me a hug for writing any of this. For starters, in the scale of influencers, “I’m just a little guy.” Secondly, one of these writeups is going to say some rude things about their progression model.

I’ve instituted Marvel Snap Week mostly because the game made me want to write about a bunch of things, and so now I am going to do that. Starting with…

The Joy of Digital Card Games on Release

In many ways, I think digital card games are best when they first release. I’m talking about games like Hearthstone and Runeterra, but non-digital native games like Magic: The Gathering Arena can also fit this pattern.

There’s a bunch of reasons that digital card games are best at the start. The company running the game hasn’t peeled back its upper lip to reveal a set of fangs uniquely designed to latch onto your wallet. Instead, just like Dracula, they’re graciously inviting you into their home, and right now they want you to feel welcome. The knobs for the value extraction machine are, for the moment, in the hands of the actual design team and not the C-suite.

The other reason digital card games are best at the start is that this first set is the longest the design team will likely ever have to make a set. Someone once said of music that you have 12 years to make your first album, and 12 months to make your second, and I think that’s true here. No other set is going to have that luxury.

In addition, though, first sets tend to have the most clang. If you haven’t heard the term before, it’s an industry term used to refer to the equivalent of “tasty mouthfeel” but for games. Clang is the dropshadow on every card in MTG. It’s the little cloud of dust and thunk when you pull a card from your hand to smack down in Hearthstone. It’s the special animations and voice lines for the rarer cards, and the carefully made background boards.

That’s clang, and it’s on full display currently in Marvel Snap. Virtually every card has some sort of custom animation thing going on. Ant Man is real tiny when you first play him. It’s the slashing and chomping of Carnage as he eats your other cards, and the missiles launched by Deathlok. It’s the jets firing out of a Sentinel, and Captain America’s shield bouncing from edge to edge of your phone.

And if it wasn’t clear from the last paragraph, Marvel Snap is currently brimming with it. As live service games go on, though, they slowly walk the path to becoming dead non-service games. Clang tends to vanish. Why bother creating voice lines and animations for a card that won’t be played? Why bother making a million clever details that might not be noticed, or if they are, are complained about for “Slowing down gameplay?”

Maybe it’s just so the graphic designers have something to do on Fridays. Maybe it’s so people who review games can write about it.

Maybe it’s because the people who make games like this have a deep and abiding love of these properties and stories. And more than embodying them in mechanics, they want to show them in every little detail. They want to personify not only the characters that get feature length movies, but also the little weird ones that hide in the edges.

Maybe there’s something to be said for what you can do with a modern mythos of characters, built over the last 90 years by hundreds of individuals, each adding their own takes to an incredibly creative tapestry. A tapestry that exists despite the constraints of things like the comics code authority, and its current ownership by Disney.

But it’s probably the graphic designers on Friday one.

Rubber Bandits

Rubber Bandits’ one good game mode, Heist, can’t carry the weight of the other seven.

I don’t like Rubber Bandits very much. I don’t recommend it. Before I get into reviewing Rubber Bandits, though, I want to talk about party games in general a bit. I’ve written about this here, but I’ll go into some more detail on why I do not trust the party game genre.

Doing virtually anything with friends can be a good time, or at least a good memory, assuming everyone makes it out unharmed. I spent a lot of time in college playing Magic, and I remember it somewhat fondly. I also remember the time I convinced folks to follow my example and run a lap outside around an area near our dorm with almost no clothes on and no shoes after a winter storm.

While freezing my feet off wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had, it was definitely memorable. Playing around and doing ridiculous things is just like that. The value isn’t from doing dumb shit, it’s from doing dumb shit with friends. Something can be dumb, questionably made, and only mildly amusing and still be a good time.

Which brings me to Rubber Bandits.

Rubber Bandits is an up-to-4 player party game, with 8 competitive game modes, and 1 cooperative arcade mode. The game modes all share the same controls. You can jump, you can move with WASD or the controller, you can pick items up, throw them, and “use” them. The use function varies from item to item. Using a grenade pulls the pin, using a pistol shoots the gun, and using a chair beats someone over the head with it (just like in real life).

I have two important notes about these controls. First, characters control in a sort of wibbly wobbly way. I’ve had weapons I’ve picked up seemingly clip behind my character making them impossible to swing. There’s a jello-like feel to movement. Second, the game has a VERY heavy auto-aim system for projectile weapons. If you roughly point at another player and try to shoot them, you will likely hit. Not because you lined it up well, but because the auto-aim just works like that.

The result is a “combat system” that is fairly unsatisfying to actually fight with. Long range attacks are almost automatic hits, and short range attacks are a wobbly unfortunate melee. I’m not saying that a system of weird and wonky controls can’t be fun, but it doesn’t work here because the combat is so unwieldy. Now that we’ve covered controls, let’s talk about game modes.

First, you have the “Just Beat People Up” ones. These are Brawl, Team Brawl, Dodge Bomb and Snack Panic, and Carnage. Then you have Pork Pursuit (Hold the object) and Bomb Panic (Don’t be left holding the object). Finally, you have Heist and the co-operative game mode. The co-operative game mode isn’t very fun or interesting. It’s effectively just a reskinned version of the Heist game mode with extra NPC’s. Points are awarded after each round, and the first player to 21 points is the winner. Scoring is a bit weird, but I believe it’s 5 for a win, 3 for second place, 1 for third, and none for fourth.

Of these game modes, Heist is the only one that does something I haven’t seen before. If you’ve played Mario Party, Pummel Party, or honestly any mini-game based party game, you’ve already played something similar.

Heist is the only game mode with any sort of interesting tension. All players are dropped into the map. The map has a set of valuables to steal, and an exit. The exit only opens once all valuables are picked up. The goal is to get as much loot as you can, and then escape.

It’s a fun idea. Heist is the best Rubber Bandits gets. Most of the maps have some sort of switch or activatable object that changes up the play area. Grabbing all the money and running usually doesn’t work, because another player will just drop the floor out from under you. So even once you get the cash, you need to incapacitate your fellow players long enough to make your escape.

Even at its, best, though, it doesn’t always work. Some maps only have a single gem instead of multiple pieces of loot, so only one player gets any points. Some maps are just kind of janky and unfun to play, like the map where almost everything is dark. Other maps have the start of a good idea (the map where you need to mine down with pickaxes) but don’t really execute on it.

I’ve already made it clear I don’t recommend this game. Now I want to quickly run across the border from the land of opinion into the unoccupied territory of speculation. So if you want, you can stop reading this article here. Rubber Bandits is $5 for a copy, and it’s available on PC and Console.

The Land of Blatant Speculation

Anyway, now that we’re safely located in speculation, I want to share a theory I have about Rubber Bandits and how it ended up this way. There are a lot of little things that to me suggest Rubber Bandits was developed as a different experience, and that the 7 game modes that suck were sort of tacked on after the fact to fill space.

The first one is the camera. Rubber Bandits uses a locked camera that keeps all players in frame, instead of just focusing on your character. This would be fine for couch co-op or versus, but in internet multiplayer it’s pretty awful. In addition, because the camera has to always keep everyone in frame, it cuts down on a lot of the design space available for creating maps. Everything always has to face the player, there’s virtually no space to hide behind anything, and maps are a sort of “3D but only in one direction” affair.

This brings me to the second point about the game and Heist. When I was reading Steam reviews to find justification for my own opinions about the game for investigative purposes, one review stood out. Actually, it was one genre of reviews: a group of players who enjoyed an earlier demo the game had, but were disappointed by the full product. From what I could glean, that demo only offered Heist, but also offered an alternative scoring system. Remember when I mentioned different placements give amounts of points? Well, in the demo, apparently points were awarded based on how much money you escaped with, not your placement. To me, that feels like it would shift things up quite a bit in terms of both where the player pressure is, and where the player reward is.

I don’t have any evidence for this theory, but given the game’s whole theme around stealing money, jailbreaking, and robbery, it all makes me feel like Heist was a primary game mode. But then Heist got sidelined when the other modes were added. If that’s the case, I think it’s a bit of a bummer. Heist isn’t some world shaking innovation, but at least it’s interesting and different. Every other game mode available is something I’ve played before in a different game, and burying Heist under all the crap is just unfortunate.

Sector’s Edge

Sector’s Edge is a fascinating combo of Battlefield and Minecraft, even if the beta still has some rough spots.

I generally like Sector’s Edge. I think I should probably make that point early, because I’m going to be complaining about it a fair amount. But overall, I enjoy the game, and recommend it.

Sector’s Edge is a free to play FPS with fully destructible terrain, and building. On the sliding scale of FPS’s, it plays much closer to something like Call of Duty or Battlefield than Halo or TF2. What this means is that time to kill is low, and getting one-tapped is pretty common.

Let’s also talk about the F2P element real quick as well. I’ve played 10 hours, and as far as I can tell, money only buys you cosmetics. There’s no way to buy more powerful guns in the cash shop.

There’s also a point-based loadout system. The game gives you a bunch of starting loadouts, but you can also build your own. Loadouts consist of weapons, armor mods, throwable items, and your digging tool. These can all be customized with various attachments, and even the digging tool can be upgraded or downgraded to change the number of available points. Sector’s Edge has some of the worst grenades I’ve ever encountered in a video game, but all the other weapons I’ve tried have felt pretty good, so I’m going to call it even.

Okay, now that we’ve covered both of those, let’s talk about the biggest difference between Sector’s Edge and other shooters. The fully destructible terrain and ability to build. Every Sector’s edge map is effectively made up of Minecraft-style blocks, and players can also place blocks.

Believe it or not, not only did the stairs and hole not exist at the start of the game, there used to be an ENTIRE BUILDING.

You can build by placing blocks one at a time, or by putting them down in configurable structures that can be designed in sort of home base area called the Ship.

This means that maps will start out nice and pristine, and depending on how things progress, they will end as combination sunken crater and modern art installation. In one of the most memorable games I’ve played, an entire section of the map ended up being so destroyed that there was a literal air-gap between attackers and defenders, with both sides trying to build across, but also not let the other team cross.

One big difference between Sector’s Edge and Minecraft is that you can’t build floating structures connected to nothing. If a building ends up connected to nothing, it comes down hard, usually leaving an impact crater. These moments are surprisingly smooth (even if the audio can go a bit nuts) and fun to watch. But it does bring me to my biggest problem with Sector’s Edge.

Now you see me.

Not all of the game’s maps are set up in a way that takes advantage of the destructible terrain, or is even fair to both teams. As an example, I’d offer the desert map. It’s a large flat map, with two bunches of smaller houses on opposite sides. If the game mode is capture the flag, one team’s flag starts atop a small house within a cluster of chokepoints, and the other team’s starts in the middle of the desert, with no cover or obvious defenses.

Additionally, because the map’s so flat, and the “houses” are packed with an incredibly hard to destroy material, digging and destruction feels pointless. And while you can tunnel a bit, it often doesn’t help.

Now you don’t.

This is my biggest issue with Sector’s Edge as it is right now. Some maps feel incredibly fun and interesting, and some are boring slogs where individual contribution feels meaningless, and whichever team is better at not running into the meat grinder wins.

I still have some other small issues, which these are the sorts of things that might change in a beta. Let’s go through them real quick.

First, there’s almost no indication you’re being shot except for your health decreasing. Second, the game has a movement system that allows sprinting and then crouching to slide. But since you can’t hit both keys at once, you can’t really use the slide without rebinding keys. Third, and this is just a personal dislike, I wish there was more support options like droppable ammo-boxes available. I get why they made this choice (probably to discourage snipers that never interact), but right now when you run out of ammo, you’re pretty much useless.

Ignoring all of those, though, there’s one really big thing that the game needs: some sort of squad system. The game’s 12 v 12 pacing is pretty chaotic. When I play with friends, I’d like to be able to actually play with them. Right now, it feels like we’re just playing parallel on the same map. And when I’m playing with 11 randos, I’d like to be able to find my friends, squad up, and be able to work with them. To be clear, I’m not asking for the ability to respawn on them or anything. I just want to be able to pick out specific teammates whose location and status are highlighted on the map.

I recognize that I have a lot of complaints here, but I want to stress I still like the game. The main reason I have these complaints is because I played it for 8 hours straight yesterday. It feels like a good game. There are things about it I like (most of the guns, the destructibility) and things I don’t (some maps, grenades being uncookable and on a microwave timer), but overall I enjoyed Sector’s Edge and recommend playing it.

If this got you interested, you can find it here on Steam.

Tricky Towers

Tricky Towers is the bastard child of Tetris and a physics system. It’s also a ton of fun and great in multiplayer.

If I had to summarize Tricky Towers in one image, this is what I would use.

Artist’s conceptualization of Tricky Towers. Stolen from XKCD, by the eternally funny Randall Munroe.

Anyway, that would pretty much do it. Article over. You get the idea. Except that Tricky Towers has multiple modes, and is multiplayer, and… hmm.

Y’know, maybe you could read the rest of the writeup.

Anyway. Tricky Towers. Tricky Towers is kind of like Tetris in that it’s a game that consists of stacking tetronimos on top of each other. It’s unlike Tetris in that instead of lines disappearing when you fill them, they just sort of sit there. This is because your goal is different. Unlike Tetris, in which you try to clear the maximum number of lines possible, in Tricky Towers, you are trying to build a tower. (Okay, in most game modes, you’re trying to build a tower. More on the other game modes in a bit.)

Also unlike Tetris, where pieces are always aligned on a grid, you can move your pieces in half block increments. Oh, and there’s a physics system! And these two additions combine to turn everything into utter chaos.

Because there’s no easy way to remove placed blocks, you just sort of have to live with the consequences (much like how I’ll have to live with the consequences of how shit this writeup is!). Did a L block fall over? It’s now time to play some sort of warped sideways Tetris. Did a critical part of your structure just end up with a bit too much weight? Time to watch as your dreams crumble, and joy turns to ash. And also as your opponents build right past you!

Oh, yeah, opponents, and game modes.

Tricky Towers has variety of game modes, including single player, score attacks, and multiplayer. The first two are fine, but I don’t care about them much as I almost always only ever play multiplayer with friends.

Yeah, I’m sure you really did get a score that can only be expressed with scientific notation you cheating fuck.

Within multiplayer, there are multiple modes for games and types. Usually I play the Cup setting, which works kind of like Mario Kart scoring. You play a set of challenges, and get points based on whether you finished first, second, etc.

Within those, there are 3 different modes, somewhat analogous to tracks. These are Race, Survival and Puzzle.

Race is the most straightforward: be the first person to build a tower that reaches the finish line, and have it stay stable for 3 seconds. There’s some very clever design here as well, as the finish line actually moves toward the players. This makes it so even if you’re absolutely terrible, or the ratio of modern art to engineering embodied by your tower tends towards Jackson Pollock, the game will still end.

Survival is somewhat similar, except your goal is to just last the longest. In this game mode, whenever a block drops off the side of your tower, you lose a life. Lose all your lives, and you’re knocked out. It’s also possible to win by placing all 66 of your blocks before your opponents, but in the 12 hours I’ve played, that has literally never happened once.

Puzzle is the most unusual. Each player is given a starting block, and the same lineup of pieces, and the goal is to place as many of those pieces as possible, without going over a line. The catch is that if you drop a piece, the base of your tower is moved up, and when you place a piece that crosses the aforementioned line, it’s removed, and the number you placed beforehand is your final score.

Overall, these three modes in multiplayer are why I enjoy Tricky Towers. And the multiplayer is non-negotiable. I play a lot of games, but Tricky Towers is one of the few that everyone in my group will actually want to play on game nights.

Tricky Towers is $15.00 on Steam, but you can probably wait for it to go on sale, and get a few copies to play with friends for a bit cheaper.


Boston FIG 2022 Writeup – Part 1

They say to strike while the iron is hot, and it’s been like a day since Boston FIG wrapped up. So if it actually was iron, it probably wouldn’t be very hot anymore, and now I’ve lost the thread entirely.

If you haven’t heard of Boston FIG, it means Boston Festival of Indie Games, and it’s a smaller game convention that takes place in Boston. I find it to be a really good place to find games that I might not otherwise hear about.

That’s what this writeup is gonna be: a list of all the stuff I saw and played at Boston FIG, some notes on which things I liked, and where to find out more info about those games.

That said, before I start the rest of this glorified listicle, I want to make two quick notes:
1. I only played board games at Boston FIG, and of those, I played or listened to pitches for almost 75% of the pool of the games. I didn’t get a chance to see the digital side at all, and there’s a whole quarter of the board games at the show I didn’t see at all. So if your game/a game isn’t on this, I apologize. I just may not have gotten to it.
2. I think of myself as a someone who enjoys lighter board games, but even more importantly, I prize demos far more than pitches. For a digital convention this can be difficult, as not everyone has the time or effort to make something that can be played digitally. And some games (thinking of you, Crash Factor) would probably be near impossible to make a cheap digital version of. Thus, the longer paragraphs are pretty much exclusively for things I could actually play at the show.

Retrograde by Resonym

Retrograde is a roll and write, a genre that I think could be better named. I assumed “roll and write” meant some sort of word game, like Scrabble. As such I had kind of avoided it until someone explained, “No, it means a game where you mark stuff to score.” So Retrograde doesn’t involve writing any words. Instead, you roll dice in real time to try to get sets, then draft one of a series of cards from a shared pool to determine which of the invading droids on your sheet you can actually blast. The primary tension comes from trying to get a perfect roll vs. getting the draft card you want before someone else snags it.

You can find more about Retrograde here, and I believe it comes out next month or so.

Dyna-Boom By Entro Games/Chris Backe

Dyna-Boom is a set collection and movement game by Entro Games, which is actually just one guy named Chris Backe. I’m not throwing shade here, that’s his description from the site. Anyway, Dyna-Boom. You move around a playing field of randomized tiles, flipping them after you pass over them, and collecting them when you pass over flipped up tiles. There’s a bit more to it than that, but I very much enjoyed playing Dyna-Boom, and I want to play more.

Chris mentioned to me that he’s currently looking for a publisher for the game, so I guess maybe check out his site if you’re a publisher?

If, like me, you’re also not a publisher, don’t worry. You can play the Tabletop Simulator version of the game, and you can download the set of rules from the Entro Games site under the games page.

Speculation

Speculation is a number guessing game. Everyone gets a hidden number, and then takes turns drafting face up cards that give away various pieces of information about that hidden number. Nick Federico, the designer, mentioned to me that he thought of it as like trying to count cards in Poker. I’m inclined to agree with him that it’s a lot like Poker, because just like Poker:
1. I am very bad at it.
2. It made my head hurt.
Speculation was not my favorite, but if you want to try it, it has a Tabletop Simulator implementation you can grab here.

Lab Meltdown by Zerua Games

Lab Meltdown is a co-operative… hmm. Writing “Co-operative Board Game” seems like kind of a cop-out. But I’m not sure what genre to place it in based on what I played.

Players are a group of astronauts on a space station, working to stabilize various chemicals compounds and keep the station from turning into a ball of gas and flames high in the sky. It has some very neat movement mechanics, with the same cards being used to both run your astronaut around, and also stabilize chemicals.

It did feel like it might end up suffering from quarterbacking, where one player ends up directing everyone else on where to go, and what to do. But it also isn’t out/published yet, so it’s also possible that might change.

While Lab Meltdown isn’t released, Zerua Games does have a bunch of other games out, and you can see those on their website here. (Tack was also at the show, and supposed to be very good, but I didn’t get around to playing it!)

Rapid Fire Round – Some Other Stuff

All the games listed below are either one of two things: I didn’t make it to their booth, or they just had a pitch deck and not a demo.

The Worthy – Grand strategy/area of control game. Lots of minifigs.
WarBonds – Grand strategy fantasy wargame. Apparently fully deterministic. Not really my thing.
Persuasion – Supposed to be good. Didn’t get to play. No idea how it plays.
Critical Care – Won a bunch of awards. Didn’t play it. Also supposed to be good.
The Genetic Code – Genetics themed builder/trick taker. Didn’t have a demo.
Plague House – Non-worker misplacement game. More stuff by author here.
Crash Factor – Manual dexterity/placementgame with a board designed to allow structured placement and strategies without having great dexterity.

That’s all for this section of the writeup. I think there were enough games to do 2-3 more of these, so expect more as the week/day rolls on!