Monday, 16 March 2015

Odyssey, the arena and why I want more of it.......

Sometimes I write loads for an update – and then realise I need to summarise - and sometimes that summary gets really long as well......

Case in point this hit four pages with a lot of background and explanation and asides before I realised – lord that is long and not finished.

So short version. The larp Odyssey is based around arena combat – it has stands – and I genuinely enjoy sitting in the stands with wine and sausage watching as people beat each other up with foam rubber swords for my amusement.

Sadly Odyssey is coming up towards the end of it's designed life (4 more events and it's done), it's not been a commercial success and so it seem unlikely that another company will choose to make something else based around an arena.   Which means no more arena fights for my entertainment because as far as I know Odyssey arena focused combat is as far as I now unique (do tell me if I'm wrong I might well break my “PD only” rule.

Since a picture speaks a 1,000 words I'll use this photo to show you why I want there to be more arena based larp.

Because from the looks on there faces something amazingly cool has happened – and they all got to see it. Apparently at the last Empire one of members had an awesome drag out fight with the opposing general – I know this because the person playing the general came by to thank him for it. I was on that field – I had no idea........

So following a couple of long conversations with some fellow Odyssey people my brain starting ticking over what you might do – game design wise to try and keep the arena combat but sort out some of the problems.

Problematically the bit of Odyssey I do – the god game – works (and works well enough to be moved into Empire as the Eternal game). So I have very little direct experience of the arena – this is based on conversations with people – so it's possible I've got the wrong end of the stick. I should also say that I've nothing but the highest respect for the people that designed Odyssey – that it works at all is a tribute to there vision. So it's very possible that more skilled game design minds have already look at this problem – but hey it's been rattling around my head so I best get it out so I can think about other things.

First step to solving a problem is working out what you think that problems actually are.

Firstly as a warrior the number of fights you can take part in is pretty limited. Basically you get to take part in one attack and one defence a day. Those fights are intense – but short – the great battle for Athens took 5 minutes for example. So you get twenty minutes of action over a weekend – which is a pretty low action to time ratio. There are quests as well but it’s an issue.

Secondly – at game release – the amount of stuff that warriors could do that was not arena based was limited – which meant people spent some time distracted. Profound decisions have worked hard on that area of the game to their credit – and I think somebody turning up who used to play but stopped would find a very different game. Some of this is that there are just more quests per player now (and they sorted out the issue where we once sent the whole of Persia to deal with some bandits – there were about ten of them – they very sensibly put down there weapons when the 80 or so players appeared and scowled at them).

Thirdly - while the arena seeks to give you epic combat where skill matters – it does not guarantee it. So you can turn up to a fight to discover your opponents have given up so they can concentrate on another fight or on the flip side you are the other fight and superior numbers are about to roll you into the ground.

Problem number 3 is especially bad when combined with problem number 1 – because only have four fight sucks when two of those are terrible. This then gets worse when you realise that number of people is a key factor in a fight, so of course you are going to do everything in your power to outnumber your opponents to win. The game does have a feedback mechanism for this – the Gods want entertainment – but that feedback mechanism is a confused channel compared to winning which is clear (made less clear because the Gods are also very keen on you winning as well….).

Fourthly – every epic moment requires that some other player fails. Some people are much better than others in a fight so some people are just going to keep getting those epic moments. One of the great things about Odyssey is that the truly great warriors stand out – there names are shouted across the arena but one of the bad things is that some people are just never going to get that moment and be an also ran.

Problem four might be solvable – magic/buffs/general shinies can be a great leveller. But there are two reasons that does not quite work – the in game reward cycle and rational choice. The reward cycle means that the really good people tend to get the shinies - the person that just dropped 4 opponents with a dramatic flourish is the one going to get noticed, is the one going to get the shinie toy (and lets me clear they deserve that reward). But the net effect of that is that the winner gets stronger while the loser has even less chance next time around. The second time is rational choice- magic only makes so much of a difference compared to skill. I’m not a brilliant fighter - bit of a flapper who hides behind a shield if I’m honest. You could magic me up the wazoo and I know I’d still get torn apart by anybody half way decent – so why bother magicing me up the wazzo in the first place? Save that for more useful people.

So what do you need to do.

There are two things you need to sort out more then anything else– the first is you need to get people more fights. The second is those fights have to be more balanced at least in numbers – because it's numbers that really determine if a fight is going to be a walk in the park or not. Fortunately I think the solution to both of those is the same – control the numbers going in. Have fixed numbers on each side.

They don't have to be the same number – because imbalanced fights can create epic moments – but they need to be 9 vs 6 not 20 vs 1 – and the people signing up to that fight have to know what they are getting into.

Background wise – you stop using the arena as a proxy from battles and treat it like an actual arena – with preset limits solely intended to ensure amusement to the crowd.

That removes some of the dead space that can exist in Odyssey – the sacrifice attack to force the opponent to burn resources – that takes 30 seconds but has a half hour slot because it was not clear what exactly was going to happen. If you've got a 9 vs 9 battle scheduled you can call that 15 minutes - and away you go. On the other hand if you've got a 30 vs 30 grudge match then give them the full 30 minutes slot.  You can also drive action by having a timer - attacker wins by the end or the defender does.  Means the attacker has to do just that - attack.

If you are controlling how many people then the cunning and manipulation has to be who is fighting each battle. Which means rather then the Odyssey 'War leader says we go here' each player needs to be involved in arranging where they personally are fighting. Which is good as it gives you something to do. You can make groups - I fight with my brothers only - but there smaller, informal and flexible.

That means you need to limit the number of fights people can have – otherwise you'll just send El Tasty the finest swordsman into every single fight (also you need to give everybody a go). But rather then a hard limit – use increasing resources – it costs more and more each fight you go into. So at some point you have to ask your self 'do I want El Tasty or do I want to save my money for another day?'

Finally giving people the chance to shine. Well the obvious solution is leaguing – split the player base up into skill ranks. Trouble with that is – what if El Pretty Good manipulates things so they stay in the bottom league and slaughter people? I think a better solution is to have sets of weapons – and then have some fights limit the sets of weapons that are allowed in that fight. So this character fights ambidextrous, this character fights sword and shield, this character fights with a two hander. This battle is only for two handers – that gives you a better chance to shine in your chosen field the one you are best at. It's not perfect but then neither is leaguing.....

The devil is in the detail – but a game based around an arena with those rules – provided you managed to make the stakes high enough (and one things Odyssey does do is make you care about those fights) might well solve some of the issues. Oh don't get me wrong the devil is in the detail – how much does each extra fight cost – how to do you manage the paperwork and ensure that somebody does not get missed out and end up with no fights at all?

But this is 'short version' is long enough I think......

Background wise – for some reason I think decadent empire with a gilded class (relatives of the Emperor perhaps) kept from the true power by utterly Machiavellian civil service but given this one route to struggle amongst themselves for privilege and status. Perhaps with the Byzantium fervour about chariot teams thrown in – a faction you support for the joy of supporting that crosses religious, economic, and social boundaries.

Edit - changed something about Odyssey life cycle because I'd got the wrong end of the stick somewhere.

Monday, 5 January 2015


Being one in a series of six monthly reviews of my favourite friendly games con.

Before the event somebody asked what our plans for the event was - so I thought I'd compare my answer to reality.

"Drink port, stay up to late, demand to know why they have not brought me prince charmings head on a plate, mock the bacon forge, buy a new game from Dave, reduce the size of my unplayed shelves, deliver 2 bundles of Essen joy, and start 2015 as I mean to go on......"

I definitely drank port.  Saturday morning was not a good morning.

I went to bed at 4.30 and 4 - and while I was never the last one up I figure that counts as late.

I totally failed to play Aye Dark Overlord and so never asked for prince charming head.....  I got sucked into a supper late night game of Kanban which might have been a mistake - see later......

There was some bacon forge mocking - but if I'm honest not that much - and it was better then I expected it to be.  This might indicate just how hung over/still drunk I was on Saturday morning.

I did buy one game from Dave - and while tempted by a 2nd I said no.

I played two unplayed games - my own Antike conversation pack, and Dice Vs Cards.  Which makes me down one over all.  Which is fine......

So I delivered two set of Antike update conversation packs from Essen.

All of which sounds like I managed most of my plan.

In addition I went out to a restaurant and eat a very tasty and frankly excessive quantity of meat.  Still not sure about the meal out - it's always fun but takes a chunk of the con out.  Not just leaving at 8 and back at 11 - but the fact you don't start anything in order to be able to do that.

Introduced some new people to aquasphere - and more evidence that it's not a supper complicated game it's just a really unforgiving game.  The fact that your actions need to be pre-programmed, are often mutually exclusive, and exploiting opportunities requires you to spend time to do so - makes for a very harsh game environment where you can spend a lot of turns achieving very little which feels crappy.

While slightly drunk and unable to choose between Dalmuti and Perudo (two stabcon late night favourites) decided to fire up the large games collider and invent Dalrudo, or maybe Permuti.  We never really decided.  Turned out this worked quite well - with senior roles looking at more dice then lower roles, with the merchants dropping there dice into a shared trade pot and only the highest merchant getting to see all of them.  Did lead to interesting situations - where people were playing while unable to see any dice at all......

Maybe we should try mashing Coyotte and Dalmuti together next time.....  :-)

Anyway - onto new games....

Antike 2 - an old favourite got a new version at Essen. I debated picking it up - a debate that ended when I learned there was an upgrade pack to go from version 1 to version 2. The improvements are minor, some improvements in balance and smoothness of play but it is a better version of the game which is a euro style war game. Got two games of that in and it was well received.  War is in nobody interests......

Arkwright - an epic game of industrialisation that basically eat all of Saturday day. Maths heavy - prone for causing analysis paralysis but it's system of quality, price and appeal is as smooth an implementation of a complicated system as you'll find.  I also like the use of shares and share price to provide a score system that allows different styles of play.  Not one I'm going to own not because of quality but because my opportunities to play would be very limited.

Cards against Dice this is a very quick little filler game with one cards worth of rules.  It's actually a game that could easily be played just using a few dice and a deck of standard playing cards and it is almost a classic pub game but a good and fun classic pub game.  Only one change I'd make to the rules is to reduce the amount of 'lucky' tokens need to win as I think otherwise it might drag a little.

Progress the evolution of technology -  beat described as 'civilisation without the armies and maps' just an epic technology tree to explore.  There is a distinct lack of interaction between players might well be an issue, and it might well be quite random with luck of the draw being the deciding factor but I want to play it again.  It looked like I was storming a head because I was playing tons of cards - but in the end it was much closer then it looked.

Kanban - the game of automotive design is sadly one that left me rather cold.  The idea amused me - it's based in an office designing cars - and you do lots of things but it ends with a scoring round which is you trying to talk about what you've achieved.  As a euro worker placement game with a good reputation I was very keen to play it. I found it baffling - I was unable to plan and every choice seemed worthless.  I described it as not being able to find a rhythm or routine for the game. Buy the end of it i was almost getting the hang of it so it's worth a second attempt.