GDBC May '18: Solar Settlers and Gwent

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#1
Welcome one and all to the first-ever Game Design Book Club. Here on the forums (and on the discord), we'll be playing and discussing two games: Solar Settlers (by @BrickRoadDX ) and Gwent.

We can and should talk about everything, but specifically the thing we ultimately want to be talking about is the game design of these games. I'm thinking we will talk about them and play them for the month, and then maybe at the end of the month I will compile our opinions somehow into some final, formatted thing that sort of summarizes how we feel about these games.

I'm really excited for this and I hope it goes really well. I've needed a good kick in the pants to just play one specific game for once, and now I have it. So that's exciting!

Looking forward to the discussion!
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#2
Might be useful to start out by talking about our "initial" impressions of these games, especially for those of us who haven't played the games or haven't played much of them.

Gwent: I am kind of dreading playing this. It looks like most of the stuff I dislike about Hearthstone, but with maybe a little more structure. The thing is that I feel like that little-more-structure might actually be a "worse for getting better" situation, where like I'd rather just play the totally random turn to turn thing that Hearthstone is. Whereas now there's a little structure so I actually do have to care about stuff, but it's still super random. Also I'm not sure but I might dislike the theme of The Witcher even more than I dislike the Warcraft theme? Not sure about that. So yeah my expectations are like really really low. The ONLY thing making them not so low is that I know @Nachtfischer has played a ton of it, so I feel like that has to mean there's something in here.

Solar Settlers: Obviously all of @BrickRoadDX 's stuff is good, like it ranges from maybe okay to great, but even in the "okay" cases it's always interesting. I've only played a minute or two of SS and I've watched a tiny bit of it and my biggest concern going in is that everything looks super incremental, like incremental resource management, or something. Like... I don't get a strong sense of a core mechanism from it? It has kind of that euro feeling of just fiddling with a bunch of numbers to optimize them. My biggest hope is the grid aspect, because I think there's a lot that probably can be done with that, and it does seem like there's a lot going on with it, so I'm excited for that.

I expect to play some Gwent today on my stream.
 

BrickRoadDX

Maker of BrainGoodGames
Staff member
#3
My gwent experience so far

1) no tutorial
2) destroyed my encoder for the stream
3) how do i choose a deck?

I guess I will watch some videos and try to get back at it? I was hoping to stream :(
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#6
Oh man Happy Snake having to interact with The Witcher theme! It's like the opposite of happy snake.

And yeah it's weird that it's so big. I think it's because they have 1.7 billion cards.

My initial thoughts:

GOOD
- Definitely better than hearthstone and MTG, for whatever that's worth. Mostly because of the lanes and because it doesn't have the huge 20 hit point health sack you have to attack. Also it's probably better that units aren't attacking every turn, what a dumb idea that is. Also it's better that it doesn't have mana or whatever, like you just play one card a turn.
- It's easy to, like, get into a game
- The matches don't last too long

BAD
- Seems like not enough space with which to do anything. I feel like I can't do anything when I play games like these. Just this sort of managerial squeezing of a little more value out of the cards I draw.
- I am really skeptical of the 3 rounds idea. I feel like having these huuuuge game-state reset points can't be good.
- It's a card game and you're drawing random cards and some cards are way better than other cards. So you can say it's "not that random for a card game", but the fact is that you will draw better cards some games than you do other games, right?
- The Witcher theme is like the worst. I will continue to try and think of if there's a single theme in any video game I like less. Maybe Manhunt, if anyone remembers that, for PS2, where you're just like going around murdering people in dark alleyways. That might be worse. Even Mortal Kombat seems better because it's sillier.
 

Nick

New member
#7
So I downloaded Gwent and played like an hour of it. Some really petty things that I've noticed:
a) it runs shockingly well on my machine. I have a somewhat lower-end laptop, and was a little concerned that all the super high-end production values behind Gwent would make it crawl, but it actually seems pretty smooth. So that's nice!
b) the game ran a tutorial for me as the very first thing after the CD Projekt Red splash screen. So, @BrickRoadDX, I guess there is actually a tutorial. I do not appreciate that the tutorial comes up before I could get my hands on a settings menu, though. That could have been a ludicrous mark against the game if it were to have booted up in a weird state (unpleasant audio balance, incorrect resolution, generally poor performance, etc...)

as for my actual experience w/ the game, I'm having a decent time, but I'm also a little doubtful about how far the game can really go. It seems right now that the start of each round is like a fairly simple puzzle of "what order do I play these cards in to achieve the optimal power," and the bulk of the decision making comes from choosing when to pass in your current round (meaning that, at most, you'll only make about 2 "big" decisions over the course of a match). I'm interested to see if the game starts to open up a bit w/ more interesting cards, though.

Also, regarding the theme, I agree that it doesn't work great for a card game. I've never actually consumed anything from the Witcher Brand before, but I'm given to understand that the core games (and the books they're based on) are very much about trying to subvert a lot of fantasy tropes. Like, it's not just trying to be "gruff, gritty, generic fantasy" for the sake of being gruff and gritty. I think there's probably a bit more humor and cleverness in the narratively focused Witcher products than the promotional material suggests. It's just a shame that so little of that (if any) comes through in Gwent.

(( I also bought and installed Solar Settlers. Will probably learn to play that on Friday and see what it's all about ))
 

Ryt

New member
#8
Played the tutorial and about 20 matches of Gwent. So far every match goes like this.
Round 1, try to get the opponent to invest more resources than myself. Which usually means I pass pretty quickly and lose the round.
Round 2, find the optimal order to play my cards, then do it. Which I usually win because I got an advantage from last round.
Round 3, I played all my cards last round, so did my opponent. Whoever draws the better card wins.
Maybe I'm playing it wrong.

- Lane system is a good idea, but the game doesn't utilize it nearly enough.
- No mana is cool. One card per turn is nice and simple. Also means you can't do one turn kills, which I've always been annoyed by.
- My opponent's moves only very slightly adjusts my strategy. This would be much better as single player.
- The rounds system is a nice idea to adds some nice medium arcs, but the game resets way too much. Cards need to have more influence past just one round.
- Round system means you want to win the round, but not too much. I like this idea, but really this means you're trying to read your opponent. Game should really be single player.

So far the game seems to be, find the optimal order to play your cards, then do that. Hope your optimal order is better than your opponents.
Game also seems to have tons of untapped potential.
 

Nick

New member
#9
Have you had a chance to play w/ the dwarf deck, yet? It contains a lot of cards with a 'resilience' trait that allows them to persist into the following round. It's not quite enough to really generate a strong cross-round arc, but it at least shows promise for the future w/ a more diverse card set.
I think the biggest hole in Gwent's boat is definitely your point that opponent moves rarely interact with my own moves. Even worse, the handful of plays that an opponent can make that does interact with my cards feel really swingy. I think all the base decks have the 'Dudu' card in them, which lets you copy the power from an opponent's card. It has tremendous potential strength that really just cannot be planned for or countered. It just comes up out-of-the-blue sometimes to flip the scores.
 
#10
Yeah it seems like Gwent is an auction game that removes most of what makes auctions interesting. The object that players are bidding on (a point) has a basically static EV (half a win). And, as a player, I know exactly how much currency (strength or whatever the game calls it) is available to me for that entire auction, but not what my opponent has available to them. This is basically opposite of most great auction games, where I probably know exactly how much money my opponents have available, but the objects on offer have highly asymmetric EVs for each player, and they're probably going to be rather difficult to valuate in the first place--valuation becomes the central skill of the game, in this case.

So since Gwent is structures as it is, you end up playing this odd threshold-y game of chicken, where you try to coax your opponent into over-committing without over-committing yourself. Which is... fine, I guess.

I find it odd that you can bid without raising, and that you're forced to bid on your turn even if your opponent didn't raise your previous bid. I can see that it forces a tense kind of hand management, but I'm not sure it's really producing any kind of worthwhile decisions. I think Keith's comment about it feeling managerial and "value squeezing" is on point, at least to my beginner's experience with the game.

I'm still just not sure what skills Gwent is really testing. It seems like the important skills to get better are going to be: guessing what my opponent is capable of (meta-knowledge, trivially keeping track of relative hand sizes); coaxing out important pieces of my opponent's big combo, without playing my big combo pieces (meta-knowledge, draw probability calculation?); having ways to interact with/nuke my opponent's combo pieces (meta-knowledge and deckbuilding, trivially playing attention to the text on my cards/my opponent's cards); understanding what each card I play reveals to my opponent about my capabilities this round, and predicting how that information will influence their play (meta-knowledge, psychology).

I feel like I'm missing something. Because it seems like every path to getting better at the game is just knowing the card pool and common deck archetypes better. What "strategy game skills" do I need to develop to become a better player of Gwent? I'm not sure.

I stopped playing Gwent a month ago, after playing for a week or so. This is basically where I ended up on it. I guess I'll go open the program up again and see how it goes.

EDIT: I forgot to mention, Reiner Knizia made a truly great game some years ago called Blue Moon that seems (to me) to be an actually good version of the game Gwent wants to be. It's chiefly a physical card game, but Keldon Jones made a neural-net AI for it, which you can download here, if you're interested. You'll need to read the rules, though. It's a game I genuinely admire.
 
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#11
Hm, I'll have to look into Blue Moon. That'll certainly make an interesting point of conversation over the course of May.

I had more time than I expected this evening and had a chance to look into Solar Settlers. I quickly moved through the tutorial and played about an hours worth of matches. My initial impression is that there's really just too broad a possibility space, so it feels almost impossible to really plan out any kind of strategy. I just do whatever I can to feed cards into my hand and hope that some of those cards have settlements on them, at which point I can focus the next few turns on just putting together the resources I need to actually build the relevant card. Feels very reactionary, like "okay, I got the card that costs 3 metal and provides 2 settlements. Guess I gotta go build some metal real quick so I can settle." Then immediately go back to farming for cards and hoping for the best.
I think the biggest issue is that what you get from the draw deck is so crucial to your success, but also wildly unpredictable and uncontrollable. I can't help but recall how smooth the deck system was in Axes and Acres. Between the deck being quite tiny, and the player having a good amount of input about what goes into the deck, it became really satisfying to build strategies around regularly using certain cards. In Solar Settlers I can't really plan ahead at all by saying "I'll get either card X or card Y next turn, so I want to set myself up to take advantage of either of their powers." It feels closer to "I can get literally any card with an unpredictable power that gets built in an unpredictable place for an unpredictable cost, so I guess there's not much use to be gained from trying to think ahead at all."

Maybe this feeling will change when I reach the higher ranks and decisions need to be made more carefully, but I have some doubts. It seems like the card pool continues to expand as I level up, which kind of exacerbates the problem. As the possible range of cards I can get in a given draw increases, the merit to thinking ahead decreases dramatically.

(On a loosely related note, I'm not loving the random events that sometimes play out when you explore a military space. They're so wildly unexpected that there's no way I can plan for them as part of a strategy, and they only ever seem to be helpful, so they can't force you to re-evaluate an existing strategy, either.)
 

Ryt

New member
#12
That Dudu card is a good example of how flat most of the cards are. Like just play it last and pick the highest power opponent.
I've played the dwarf deck a bit, and yeah the resilience is a good mechanic. But still so much more could be done with the round and lane mechanics.
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#13
I played Blue Moon once and thought it was one of the dumbest rulesets I had ever seen, I was shocked that it was a Knizia game. So now that I'm seeing someone else recommend it in this way I am wondering if I maybe missed something huge?

Hoping to play some SS and Gwent this weekend !
 
#14
My biggest complaint about Blue Moon is how opaque it is. It seems super arbitrary on its face, but I promise it's not unfamiliarity with the content that's causing that. The systems are structured very strangely, but it's really just a weird auction with two currencies (and it feels like a trick taking game in the way that some auctions can). I think the main thing that separates it from other Knizia games is it's a very complex game structurally, which is not his typical bag. Every piece of it is integral to the game, though, and feeds directly into the core mechanism. It does take some time to get familiar with the systems before you can see how to exert control over them.

Anyway, it's a pretty polarizing game, and I think it's largely because it's so opaque up front. It's worth the time, though!
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#15
Hey hey, I played some SOLAR SETTLERS tonight. Here is my GAME DESIGN BOOK CLUB FEEDBACK for day 1 of playing.

- Better than Gwent by a lot
- System is just generally fun to play with in a Uwe Rosenberg kind of way, doing stuff with the resources, getting passive bonuses going etc.
- I learned it pretty quickly.
- I like that you can trade out cards for resources, that provides just enough wiggle room.
- I'm excited to play more, I'm now rank 4!
- The theme is good
- Game is a little more random than I would like but it's not a HUGE deal. Actually I'm not totally sure how random it really is but some things felt kind of random to me.
- I don't think you should have to pick your quests. I think with a resolution of "QUEST A or QUEST B", this is rarely going to ever be an interesting choice. There's always gonna be one that just goes way better with whatever you're doing. I'd prefer just a random quest.
- There's a few tension problems, I think? The one big one is the "you can only lose at turn 10" (or whatever the last turn is) issue, which means on most turns the tension feels kind of low. Another is maybe something about how the colonists sort of "disappear" into the pods.
- It might be good if there was like, something that "came at me" and sort of shook up the game state a tiny bit, mid game. Yeah, I do get random cards drawn and uncover random tiles, and that's good. But it would be more dynamic if something BAD happened to me sometimes too, like colonists got BRUTALLY MURDERED by Alien Rock Monsters, or some of your colonists got shot in the head by evil marauding vicious alien Deathtroopers, etc. (could also be Death robots I guess)
- It's kinda fiddly. Same issue IMO as Axes and Acres, where I just feel like I have to click too many things every turn. I don't know what but I feel like something in here should get automated or something? Or maybe there should just be a way I can play with the keyboard? I did have a "next colonist button" idea.

QUESTION:
Did you ever consider forcing me to pay the oxygen costs for ALL my colonists, not just the exposed ones? I ask because if I had to pay for all of them the game would have more of a ramping up feeling.


(Also I played more Gwent. My current rating for it is pretty low. In some ways I actually think I prefer hearthstone?!)
 

Nachtfischer

Moderator
Staff member
#16
So, I really like Gwent and have been playing it for more than 600 hours over the course of a year. There were ups and downs in terms of how its design evolved (currently we're probably pretty low, I expect the big "Homecoming" update to be a major step up), but I think in any version there was, it was by far the best turn-based strategy game you can currently play online (that also has enough players to properly work etc.).

I like the elegant core system, which gets a lot of mileage out of its structure. The passing game is highly interactive and one of the most nuanced mechanisms I've seen in games. You have to consider board state (engines, threats, setups), point difference, carryover effects, hand management (Is my hand good for a long round? Is there stuff I'd rather play now? Can I afford that in terms of tempo considering the passing game?) and what's left in your deck. That's why round end is actually not a "reset point" (except for most of the board).

The game is pretty low on RNG apart from the coin flip (which will hopefully be fixed later this year). There's little card draw, small decks and lots of hand management and deck-thinning effects. Since I started seriously playing Gwent, Hearthstone really seems like a total clown fiesta. Hearthstone RNG made me angry (or just not care about the game) in regular intervals. Gwent barely does.

Gwent strikes a pretty good balance in terms of hidden information. There's enough to not make it super calculatey, but not so much that you can't plan. In fact, forming a plan based on your starting hand (and then adapting it depending on your opponent's plays) is one of the most important things in the game. In other words: it hits a sweet spot "between Hearthstone and Prismata".

Most starter cards, like the mentioned Dudu, basically don't exist on higher levels, because they don't support any synergies. Like in most CCGs many of the starter cards are deliberately dull and easy to understand. I guess I wouldn't like the game either if I started today without prior knowledge.

Lastly, I hate the CCG model, but I love Gwent. Am I crazy? Well the thing is, I don't feel the F2P/content bloat issues anymore cause I have all the cards and know all the decks. At this point it's more like "picking a character" almost. It of course sucks that you don't just start at this point though. If "progress" doesn't work on you (which is probably true for many people around here) and you don't think it's worth it to get into high-level play, then it's just rough to recommend sticking with (or even investing into) the game.

Personally, I definitely don't regret it.

---

I have to play Solar Settlers some more. Impressions of what I've played of the game are it's really cool generally, I like the "Race for the Galaxy with spatial meaning" feel of it. Also it's pretty neat how varied the game plays out with the different races.

Now, I didn't like the clicking to "settle everyone" in the endgame (like, I knew I won but I had to click around like 20 more times), which I think the new hardcore mode is currently trying to target. Also, it seemed like the strategy was most of the time "desperately try to find military cards, once you have enough farm the board's edges". There are probably other approaches I'm not aware of.

From what I've seen so far, Solar Settlers is another strong entry to the amazing BrainGoodPortfolio. However I liked Minos Strategos more. It made me feel clever more regularly, I could set up "big plays" etc. Also I could play it on mobile! :D I'll definitely play Solar more though.
 

BrickRoadDX

Maker of BrainGoodGames
Staff member
#17
QUESTION:
Did you ever consider forcing me to pay the oxygen costs for ALL my colonists, not just the exposed ones? I ask because if I had to pay for all of them the game would have more of a ramping up feeling.
The original design intent was actually that you're settling throughout the game as a way to reduce oxygen burden (and then theres a push pull between that and having the extra actions. It doesn't pan out that way for everybody in the base game, but hardcore mode and some of the later designed cards (that trigger on settling) are an attempt to address that.
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#18
it was by far the best turn-based strategy game you can currently play online
What are even the other contenders for this position? I guess just other CCGs. If Puzzle Strike still was playable online I'd submit that as another possibility.

I like the elegant core system, which gets a lot of mileage out of its structure. The passing game is highly interactive and one of the most nuanced mechanisms I've seen in games. You have to consider board state (engines, threats, setups), point difference, carryover effects, hand management (Is my hand good for a long round? Is there stuff I'd rather play now? Can I afford that in terms of tempo considering the passing game?) and what's left in your deck. That's why round end is actually not a "reset point" (except for most of the board).
Yeah, I think some of why it feels dumb to me right now is that I don't know any of the cards *and* even the cards I'm interacting, I think are like the less-interesting ones, or so I've been told.

Is this resource accurate / active?: http://gwent.wikia.com/wiki/Gwent_Wikia

Would be cool to sit down and read the dang cards.

Also I just realized maybe we should have TWO threads for each game design book club month so we're not talking about two games in one thread like a bunch of silly guys.