Curse on the Land

“Curse on the Land” by Faith Hunter is the second book in her “SoulWood” series. It’s bad, but in an interesting way. I rate it “readable”.

The main character fits the genre in an original way. She’s a former child-bride in a polygamous cult — naive, meek, inexperienced, but gaining confidence and trying to make her place in the world. This naturally gives her a large family of 1/2-siblings with problems. Nell needs to take time out as her younger sister needs guidance with her new magic powers, her sick father won’t see a doctor, her mother frets about her well-being, and an evil tree is taking over the church grounds. Side-bar: highly recommend non-fiction “Escape”, by Carolyn Jessup about growing up in a polygamous cult.

Sadly, she’s not a 1/2-vampire or 1/2-anything. But she’s a new weird thing, so it’s fine. She can interact with the woods around her house (named “SoulWood”) to sense everything for miles (yes, Harry Dresden did this 5 years earlier on his Island). Almost immediately we find her powers work on any old patch of land, but SoulWood is still special since she needs to feed it blood and human lives!?! (which she doesn’t do in this book, but did in the first one, but he was evil). Oh, she’s also immune to most magic, since Earth Power, and she senses she could tell the ground to suck in and devour people. But all she does is sense the ground, mostly saying “yup, this land also has a curse on it”.

Romance-wise there’s not much, but it’s fine. Nell was scarred by her underaged forced-marriage and is surprised when people think of her as sexual. She has a girlhood crush on her werecat partner because he’s around a lot and is nice to her. Good enough.

The required “banter” with her friend team is surreal. It’s trite, way-too-personal, way too much, and male were-creature friends hang out at her house shirtless. A few of them even turn into werecats in her driveway and when she gets home unexpectedly they almost murder her. So funny! Her boss even pulls her off the case to take her on a date to a movie. Wait, her boss? Yeah, the problem is that her “friends” are really her co-workers in an elite government X-Files division. The banter is disturbingly inappropriate here, even if it is how the real Department of Homeland Security behaves.

But another plus, she’s suitably impetuous: in chapter one she almost dies after using her ground powers to go deep and check out an unknown powerful thing. That happens again at a crime scene. The third time she’s learned her lesson, quickly gets a helpful read … and then goes too deep and is almost killed by an unknown powerful thing. She ignores her boss’s orders, but mostly since the whole team is ignored until we need them for the plot.

Yet one more plus, she solves the evil tree problem by just talking to it. Very genre-appropriate. Except this tree saved her life (in the first book, which we’re told over and over) and her first plan was to completely murder it, and she only tried talking after that hilariously failed. Oh, if you were wondering, the tree was acting evil because it was bored.

Now onto the funny parts. Her main job is to take readings with a super state-of-the-art magic detector. It has multiple dials for vampires, werecreatures, ummm, Frankensteins? The author gives a really nice explanation of calibrating to ambient levels so that we always get a reasonable result. But to raise the stakes, on every reading the meter “redlines”. Why did they explain calibration to us? After a few redlines we get a reading where one of the levels is a little shy of the top. But it was a fake-out. The next dozen reading are back to redlining. This is one of the few Urban Fantansy Detective Romances that had me laughing.

Around chapter 4 we meet a top-level agent: young, beautiful, and so important and cool that she ignores all of the agency rules. Everyone says so, and speculates about what she is and what her powers are. Two paragraphs later we’re just told she’s a dragon. Mega-girl announces to everyone that she likes our heroine for being a rule-breaker. She drops by twice later to sign their paychecks or something, and announces to everyone that she likes our heroine for being a rule-breaker. Most boring dragon character ever.

Late in the book a co-worker gains a new power after almost being killed — the power of infodump to advance the plot. I’m actually fine with it: the plot’s been very slow, I don’t have any confidence our heroine can solve it, so give me the outline.

This last funny part is hilariously summed-up in the book. After the plot is over she muses that she hasn’t followed-up on any of her family’s problems. Yes, we all noticed that and don’t know why you’re reminding us. Very little happens in this book.

Sexism is completely botched. Putting up with, mitigating, and getting around sexism is a big theme in a real Urban Fantasy Detective Romance. In this book, one guy makes one sexist remark and he’s pounced on by everyone else. The heroine doesn’t even have time to be offended before he’s apologizing. That’s just boring wish-fulfillment. She didn’t have to overcome anything.

Finally, get ready — this is a spin-off! Nell talks to the Jane YellowRock character, from that series, twice over the phone in this book, and Jane saved our life in book one. Doing that makes no sense. The Jane character is a generic bad-ass male-fantasy filth kinkster with no inner life to speak of. It’s a different genre.

Oh, geez, the plot: a spell got out-of-control, everyone who cast it is just silently waiting to die, but Nell convinces them to shut it down. I can’t believe I forgot that!

Can it be less immersive?

The MMO Albion Online uses the new-style “economics and player-vs-player” format, and is also free-to-play. It’s a fine game, I guess, if you like that sort of thing, but two things jumps out. One is the sneaky way it incentivizes the monthly subscription. The other is the almost mathematical design, like it’s a board game.

Free-to-play MMO’s have a few options to make money. A common fair-seeming one is a free trial. Often it’s unlimited time, but content-limited — you can’t go past level X, or can’t play the latest expansion. The other way is using the cash shop to demonstrate how free players are lowly peasants — you can try the non-fun version to get a feel, then buy and subscribe to play the real game. Albion runs between these in a clever way. Buying the subscription gets you a personal chunk of land (an “island”, but not really). and triples your “crafting bonus points”. That doesn’t seem like anything to a new player. Only later do you realize the value, but then you still don’t really need it.

You can build crafting stations on your island, but cities already have them. Islands seem pointless. Later you realize the looms and smithies in cities have an extra tax which can be enough to make crafting unprofitable. But by then you’re using the crafting stations in your guild. Moving on, those “bonus crafting points” only give a small bonus — subscribing to get more seems pointless. But then you realize how the margins work. Your normal crafting can turn $100 of elm into $105 of elm lumber. With the bonus that becomes $120. It quadrupled your profit. Those daily bonus crafting bonus points are a big source of income. But even knowing that, you don’t have to craft. You can gather or fight. But then you find out you can farm on your island, which is very profitable if you use bonus crafting points.

Net, new players don’t feel any pressure to subscribe, but they might want a cool island. End-game players are still perfectly fine playing for free, unless they want to get into crafting. It’s a very clever fair-seeming system.

Onto players always fighting. 15 years ago Eve OnLine discovered the formula for meaningful player murdering. You make the game about the economy. Everything is made by other players, including the best weapons. They’re made from stuff other people made, down the line, with the bottom being miners and lumberjacks. They go into the wilderness, making longer trips for the more valuable stuff. Players fight to mug them, or protect them, or guilds fight to control areas with the best stuff to harvest. It turns out those games work — they attract a good mix of players who want to pirate, or fight pirates, or avoid pirates.

Most games in this style try to set this up in a realistic-seeming world. Albion Online ignores realism. They want a mathematically perfect design. The world is a perfect hexagon, made of smaller hexagons. Six perfectly-spaced cities are around it, with the big one in the middle. Player-vs-player restrictions are in perfect concentric rings. Resources are laid out with mathematical precision in pie-shaped wedges — all of the wood is in a 30-degree wedge, exactly opposite the one city with a crafting bonus to wood. The designers don’t pretend to understand why you’d want the world to feel natural.

Older games have semi-realistic crafting. You make brass from copper and tin, since that’s how you make actual brass. Albion doesn’t understand that. Every type of material uses the same formula, for example, crafting a Tier-5 refined material requires 3 Tier-5 raw materials and a Tier-4 refined material. Huh? That’s how they say that a cedar plank is made from 3 cedar logs and a pine plank. To clarify, in this game you create a cedar plank by improving a birch plank (Tier2) into a chestnut one (Tier3), into a pine plank, then finally into the cedar. That works for the game economy — everything will always be in demand — and Albion proudly doesn’t care how ridiculous it is.

Normal game worlds work hard for suspension of disbelief and a sense of wonder. Albion says to forget that stuff — it’s been done to death. What people want now is a world laid out with almost mathematical precision, without a lot of confusing dressing-up with how things work “for real”.

I’m a little worried I made it sound good, so a warning: it uses click-to-move with a top-down camera. There. Now you’re either scared off, or just have to play it.

Black Desert of Content

The MMO Black Desert Online hasn’t done too badly, and I don’t know why since it doesn’t have anything fun to hit with your sword. Then it somehow makes up for that by having one of the most painful ways of upgrading your sword, while it continues to be no fun to use.

Technically the game has world player-vs-player, which is fun if you like that stuff. But it really doesn’t. The killed player loses nothing and doesn’t even respawn that far away. Meanwhile, the attacker loses good-guy points. To make it worse, PvP assumes everyone is on South Korea’s blazing fast local internet. It doesn’t account for lag well enough to keep world PvP from being guessing and luck.

To annoy players more, once you reach high level the game changes your skills. The archer gets it worse — they change to a swordsman; but everyone gets to relearn a playstyle they didn’t want. Years after release the game added the option to keep your old skills, but still messed it up. You switch over to the new set, but you can now check the internet for how to switch back.

Upgrading gear uses a not uncommon money and luck system — a week of income spent at the auction house for stuff giving you a 70% chance at another +1 bonus to your gloves. BDO’s is even more poorly explained and complicated, which is somehow a point of pride. For example, there’s an item to store enchantment failure bonuses. Huh? It turns out that each time you fail to enchant an item you get a small, cumulative bonus towards the next attempt. That’s common enough. But a clever BDO player can exploit that by failing to enchant a cheap, low-chance item, building up the failure bonus, then switching in the item you really want. Or, the ultimate — save that failure bonus in an item until you have several. This is somehow fun.

To sum up, I get how MMO’s have fun parts interleaved with boring grinds. I don’t get how BDO cuts out the fun part and is still popular. It’s endgame is making money by farming, fishing, crafting, and possibly spending hours running in a circle mowing down monsters like wheat. Then spending that money to be slightly better at farming, fishing, crafting and running in a circle mowing down monsters like wheat. There are perfectly good games like that — constantly playing with systems to get the highest cash/hour. It’s just weird for an MMO to turn into that.

Mercy Thompson series; Iron Kissed

Amazingly, this one is almost literary. First the details. “Iron Kissed” is the third book in the “Mercy Thompson” series, by Patricia Briggs. The cover is off-putting: a woman bent over with low-cut jeans and high-cut top showing off her tramp-stamp lower back tatoo. The other covers in the series highlight her breasts. I’m not sure if that means anything.

The backstory is a bit blah, but also new. We’ve got mostly peaceful werewolves, dark fairies and a few vampires, plus a reference to a sorcerer in a previous book. They’ve been public knowledge for a medium amount of time — pro-human/anti-monster groups are forming, laws are about to be passed, and so on. The supernatural creatures would probably be on the losing end of an all-out war, so tread lightly. The fairies are actually on a reservation, but one where not-all-is-as-it-seems.

Our heroine is a unique coyote-shifter. She’s not a werecreature, but she was raised by them. Due to her mysterious native American ancestry she can turn into a coyote at will (she’s naked when she turns back. She’s naked a lot in this book, but not in a sexy way). Her coyote powers are hiding and a really, really good sense of smell, letting her tell who was in a house and so on. Oddly for this sort of book, she has zero body issues. Men seem to fall for her, but we never get a description and she never thinks about her inadequate looks. She’s also the first female urban fantasy detective who can keep from mouthing off to every single authority figure she meets, which is refreshing.

The Romance element is ultra-traditional and a bit boring (but I’m not complaining). Two werewolves love her — one is funny, musical and picked her out as a good breeder when she was 14. The other is an aggressive pack-leader and terrific kisser who believes in sex after marriage. We’re told she must choose in this book, or things will explode. So far, so good. But then she figures out that the first guy has lost interest in her. Over a few scenes where it’s established she can keep her independence, she decides to be the Alpha female of the pack with good-kisser #2. It ends with her in coyote form in the lap of her new sexy werewolf husband, petting her lovingly (but she’ll be naked when she changes back, so that’s sexy, right?)

The subplots are nice. The werewolf’s daughter was beaten up by some angry humans and our heroine has to calm down the testosterone-raging dad, support the daughter emotionally, and resolve it without bloodshed. Near the end, a guy appears to commit suicide, but it was actually mind-control magic; she nicely decides to let the brother know the true story, for closure and stuff, even though he’s one of the guys who beat up the daughter. We also learn the names and a little history of every werewolf in their small pack. And of course, we get a summary of the last book — she killed some mega-enchanced vampires or something.

The plot works in a low-key way. She’s brought in only to smell around some murder scenes. She smells-out the killer, her father figure goes to confront him, but the guy, a human, has just been murdered. The fairies want to cover it all up by letting her father-figure take the fall. Even he wants to. But she’s just too darn stubborn. After hearing her first lover play a great set at a big music festival and hearing everyone say how great he is and how any women he loved would be soooo lucky, she uses her coyote powers to sneak into the dead guy’s house and get a good sniff around. Thankfully, her powers of super-smelling aren’t used as a plot device in every scene, and she’s stumped, for now.

More super-powerful people tell her she really has to stop, but she’s too stubborn. A bad guy chases her and she leads it to the werewolve’s house, but she sort of helps fight it off. Then she’s following up on either a subplot or possibly a new love interest when, wham, it’s the killer! I can’t decide if that was a clever misdirect, or overly-manipulative writing. Her big effort here is that even though he’s mind-controlling her, she tricks him into going somewhere her werewolf pack will be. Then kills him anyway by tricking him some more. The big finale is getting the ultra-powerful creatures to compromise so everyone’s happy. So basically, she solves it in proper UFDR fashion: by being stubborn and using her head.

A really odd part, the bad guy mind-controls her into wanting to bang him. We’re vague about how far they get, but then afterwards we learn he’s definitely raped her. Then one of her boyfriend’s pals gives him a long explanation of people’s reactions to rape and how he can best support her. You don’t read that every day.

All together, the urban fantasy part is a bit bland. But there’s 12 books in the series and there are lots of loose ends in this one to use later. The character is a bit boring. Sure, she has 2 gay best friends, but they aren’t in it much. She also owns an auto-repair business but it seems tacked-on (and this is the cover with her fixing a car, tatooed butt hanging out). At the same time it’s missing lots of the schlokiness of other books like this. We don’t get pages of pointless banter, deranged arguments with anyone not completely cooperating, or long descriptions of what she and her unique pet do to relax (she doesn’t even have a pet). Her motivations and the way the story moves actually makes sense. I’m a little curious how she relates to her new werewolf pack in her new role. This series seems very readable.

SPI Files series: The Ghoul Vendetta

“The Ghoul Vendetta” is the 4th book in the 2013 “SPI files” series. It features a female agent in a global, government sanctioned monster-hunting agency. She’s human (booo!) but is an ultra-rare “seer” who can ignore illusions and in general detect magic (which we’re told is a big deal in this world since all badguys have easy access to illusion spells). Does she go rogue after not being allowed on the big cases since she’s a woman? Nope. Is she about to be fired for making friends with the not-so-bad members of the bad guys? Also, no. She’s pretty much a team player contributing to the overall sucess in her own small way. Huh.

But what about her boyfriend? Well, he’s a sexy David Bowie-style dark-mage goblin. At the start they’re on what may be a date. Before one fight they kiss for the first time. Then again for the first time before the big battle. Then a wise all-knowing ghost tells her boyfriend “you have already chosen this world over your own because of your love for this woman”. That would be pretty hot if anything led up to it. We’re told he’s a big shot in his world, but don’t really see it. We also can’t see why he loves her — she seems to be just doing her job. Her over-protective alpha-male ex-special-forces partner (who has a steady GF) and her goblin lover face-off — very hot in a “you may have fooled her but you’ll have to do better to get my aproval” way — but then he’s kidnapped. We’re left with the SPI beauracracy deciding he’s worthy of a Visitor’s pass since he seems to really love her. Be still my heart.

The plot doesn’t gel. Some bad guys have been stealing random artifacts to drain later as magic-power-batteries. Some of them are the bones of ancient vampires, which apparently all vampire families secretly keep as their most precious treasures. The opening scene has the bad guys kidnapping a very well-protected vampire child who is quickly killed, but also slowly tortured for info on where the bones are (which we later find out he wasn’t trusted with). We meet a vampire head-of-household, but then the vampire angle fizzles out — the bones are just generic “power” for some ritual. At the end the good guys just return them, to the vampires.

We get a tour of SPI’s CSI-like many high-tech labs with quirky specialists, where they discover the bad guys were only disguised as teleporting ghouls (“ah yes, ghouls are well-known teleporters”, no one said) but are really disguised evil sea-monsters trying to break the ancient curse which banished them. They don’t seem very banished to me. The main character helps figure this out, and at the end saves the day with a rash action, but otherwise we pretty much just watch a government agency functioning from her point-of-view.

We never get much of a feel for the bad guy. He seems to delight in taunting her partner. We find out the bad guy ate her partner’s ex-partner 5 years ago, right in front of him. The big baddie even gives them what turns out to be a super-magic spear artifact enchancted to kill badguys and attuned to her partner which awakens his racial memories of being a descendant of one of the good guys who originally banished them. You’d think that means big baddie needed him to “awaken” for some spell to work — nope. He merely thinks giving your enemies a priceless artifact is a way to really make them angry. The big battle has dragons out of nowhere which don’t really do much, and is saved by ghosts of the ancient good-guys, riding in Lord of the Rings style, completely out of left field.

I’m at a loss. The series isn’t about a woman doing things her way in a man’s world. It’s not about a single woman able to hunt monsters and have a full life on her terms, including romance. It’s not even close to a Romance novel — it has less of that than most non-Romances. The secret world part is bland — werewolves and vampires and generic magic (the bad guys here are the Irish “Fomorians”. Nice, but been done before). I’m going to refer to an earlier comment — this series is for people who wished CSI-Miami had a magical spin-off told from the perspective of a junior female investigator. Which is apparently a thing people want.

[Game]Hackers

I tried the clash-like “Hackers” (by Trickster Arts) because there’s no way a decent one can be made with a computer hacking theme. Boy was I wrong! The mechanics of this are original, feels very computery, and results in interesting choices and tense battles. This is a great game.

Before getting to how fights work, the theme: other players are rival hackers. That actually makes sense — they’re your natural enemies, and can be attacked around the globe. The two currencies are credits (money) and bitcoins. Clever — as we know, some businesses want one and won’t take the other. It’s also fun how they scaled bitcoins down by about 20x — you’ll have some things that cost 30K credits next to others costing 1.5K bitcoins. Both amounts are as difficult to get.

One more neat non-combat feature is having a limited number of total buildings. As usual you can buy 2 of one type, 3 of another, and so on. Maybe adds to 18 buildings, but you’re limited to 16 total. You’ve got to decide which you can live without. I like it. It makes every base just a little different. I skimp on buildings that make money — I prefer to steal.

A typical base showing connected buildings

Now on to combat. Your buildings are “nodes” in a network. You connect each to 3 or 4 others — not just to your neighbors — to anywhere. Nothing happens “outside” of the nodes or network: your troops (programs) are placed in buildings and only attack along the connections. Instead of destroying buildings, you conquer them. Programs can’t be moved, so you’ll need to place new programs in newly conquered nodes to attack out from those. At first, bases tend to be a straight line of nodes and attacks aren’t very exciting, but it gets interesting quickly.

Defenses are doing the same thing as you but in reverse — attempting to retake connected buildings. Special defensive buildings are better at it, but all nodes have some counter-attack. When you capture a new node it will eventually be retaken unless you capture everything connected to it. Midway through attacks is the worst — you’ve got lots of exposed building being slowly retaken. You can either rush ahead and let them be recaptured, or attempt to capture pockets. Dealing with recaptures is a big part of an attack plan.

The basic attack program (your troops are “programs”) attacks one connected building at a time, switching to a new one when the old one is captured. The next attacks all connected buildings at once, but with less power. You later get “shield” programs which make it more difficult to be recaptured. A fun thing about shields is how the defender wears them down first, then they pop out of existence, freeing up the program slot. If you were paying attention you can quickly replace it with another shield program.

Later you get a program which can copy itself. At first it slowly copies into all slots of the building it’s in, then copies to every open slot in connected buildings. That seems incredible, but it only makes copies when there’s nothing left to attack. It’s still pretty good, but will need a lot of help from other programs.

Much later the powerful Kraken program can be placed in a start node and will attack all the way through to the HQ. But then it stops. It won’t attack anything past it, or off that one path. More fun, if 2 or 3 Kraken beams meet, they get extra power. This makes Kraken great for punching through those “all tough defenses in front” set-ups. But you’ll need other programs to help it.

Then they add “stealth” programs which can only be used at the start of an attack. One type can quckly “stealth conquer” a line of buildings. Then another drains the cash from a stealth-conquered building. A 3rd will permanently neutralize one building which has been stealth-conquered to help with your real attack. Much, much later, you get an expensive program allowing you to start stealth mode from anywhere, not just an official entrance.

Defensive buildings aren’t that exciting, but don’t need to be. One attempts to reconquer adjacent buildings, 1-at-a-time, with a so-so attack. Another does the same, but with a slow but strong pulse. One is just very tough with an extra shield (and one type of attack program is specially made to beat this). One is extra good at detecting stealth (it speeds up the “stealth will end” countdown).

The most interesting defense is the anti-virus building. It starts with “anti-virus”, which slowly spreads to adjacent friendly buildings (which then spread it to others, eventually to every building). Any building with anti-virus active attempts to recapture all adjacent buildings. So I lied when I said all buildings counter-attack. They do, but only when the anti-virus building spreads it to them. This is neat since it encourages the attacker to “waste” programs for a quick start, before anti-virus spreads much. Where to place that anti-virus building is an interesting choice (further back is safer, but takes longer to spread it to the front areas).

Play-wise, you can get to early mid-game relatively quickly. The stealing and being stolen from isn’t too stressful but keeps you working. And the recapture tug-of-war is really something to experience.

[Game]Might&Glory

Might&Glory:Kingdom War (Nord Studios, published by My.com) starts out as an uglier more boring Clash of Clans. It has some terrible monetizing ideas, a few neat new things, and amazingly, has people playing it. I have no idea why.

Right off it’s got a link to one of those old pages where you can get gems by signing up for a credit card or answering a survey. Who knew those still existed? After the first few levels of the clash-clone stuff, you get this new customizable weapon … which turns out to be a cash-only building. Upgrades to it cost gems. Lots and lots of gems, and lots and lots of upgrades to make it good. The game allow you to create customized “totems” with various bonuses — also cost a ton of gems to upgrade to where they’re useful.

Besides cash-only items, which is very unclashy, there’s the bad game-play. Air defenses are tuned way too high — nothing flying stands a chance. Wall breakers are very stupid, running to the nearest wall even if it’s right next to a hole they just made. After suffering with your pitiful army you finally unlock a must-use super-troop. The rest of the game is simply using this one troop (it looks like a goblin with a bazooka, but don’t upgrade your goblins hoping to get it. It’s actually a dark elixir troop).

On to the neat ideas: you get a defense building that pops out 4 archers (and then wizards). Those are much more effective than the usual warriors which run and and die quickly. Your 2-5 heroes march around the entire base instead of just standing there. A end-game weapon spawns tiny spiders who also roam the whole base. This eliminates the “plinking” part of attacks (where you drop archers in safe spots around the base to “trim” it) which I never cared for.

There are some nice new troops. One is a clever ghost; fast, hits hard, goes through walls and runs around the building while attacking. That looks so cool and helps it avoid traps and mortars. The next is even cooler — an invisible beetle which runs at and kills traps for 7 seconds (at which point it becomes visible and is instantly killed, which is also pretty cool). Finally you get an expensive but long-range barbarian who freezes his current target. He’s in the perfect useful-but-not-overpowering range. But again, use the goblins with bazookas if they still exist.

On a neutral point, you get a building which can make tiny 8-hour boosts for some defenses. You get it late and it’s very expensive to upgrade. I like the idea, but the way it’s done here seems pointless.

I cannot figure out why people play this game. At first you want to unlock the weirdly-named buildings just to see what they do. Then you can’t believe a base with terrible air-defense still killed your flying army. Then you want to see what those freaking powerful goblins with rockets are. But after that? Sometimes the game rains down fireballs on every troop I place. Same spot or different spot, all get blasted. I’m a little curious what it is, but not enough to bore myself to death trying to unlock it.

[Game]Battle of Galaxy

Besides a kick-butt name, “Battle for the Galaxy War Game” has got some great clashy inventions. And it mixes that with the most sneaky, inventive monetization tricks. I don’t mean bringing in old tricks from other games, I mean “whoa, I never even thought to charge for that!”. First the good stuff:

This is minor, but a keeper. Clash of Clans (and all copies) has one barracks for all regular troops, and later a Dark Barracks for troops made from dark elixir. GftGWG says “why not have different types of barracks, just because?”. So in this game you get a building for People, then Light Machines (robots, drones, small tanks), and then Heavy Machines (big tanks). It’s surprisingly fun. And besides unlocking new troop types they also perform upgrades, so you’ll actually use them.

Next are the daily and weekly Events. For the daily, you and 9 other people attack the same base with a pre-made army — often a strange mix of very powerful troops, trying for the best % destruction. The top 6 out of 9 win something so it’s worth trying. You can even retry every hour. Being able to test-out crazy high-level troops for prizes is pretty fun.

The weekend event is even more unique — a “speed-base”. You start a new game in a new area running at 20x speed. You get prizes for how far you can build it up and for completing little missions. It also randomly turns some troops into super-troops with mega-upgrades. The ultimate reward is a 1-of-a-kind Artifact (a permanent bonus) for your real base. There’s no possible way to get to the end without spending money, but you can carry over points. If you play it a dozen weekends in a row you might save up enough to get the grand prize. In practice you’ll get bored after the 3rd or 4th time (each weekend you restart from nothing), but this idea has a lot of potential.

This game has a clever solution to the clashy problem of not caring whether you “win” an attack, as long as you get lots of gold. BftGWG wins give a random equipment card (a permanent small bonus to some troop type or building). You’re never done (2 more equipment cards gets the next small bonus, then 4 more…) so it’s a constant small incentive to try to look for battles where you may not get quite as much gold, but can win.

BftGWG has a better way of handling back-up armies. A modern clash-like allows you to pre-train one extra army. BftGWG says “why not 2 extra?” “why not start with no extra armies and let the player buy up to 5, through buildings?”. That’s a very clash-like thing to do, and seems obvious in hindsight. They do it by having attacks come from a Starport building. Inside, only in the menu, are up to 4 upgradeable spaceships (your Army Camps). To train a back-up army, buy another Starport. You can have up to 5. BftGWF is then devilish: each Starport independently levels up its spaceships, which is a huge time-sink. But another game could easily change that.

Onto the monetization. You start with 4 builders instead of the usual 2. But after a week you’re down to one! It turns out 3 of them were temporary for new players. Yowch! Your extra Starports can only be bought with gems. The building that houses a hero character is also gems-only (but is 50% off the first week. Seriously). Independently none of this is too bad, but together it means you’re behind if you don’t buy gems. They keep up the pressure nicely. By the time you’ve won enough gems for those buildings the game unlocks a second hero pedestal that you can’t afford.

The third currency, anti-matter — what would be dark elixir in clash of clans, is diabolical. Immediately you’ll see options requiring it — your 4th cannon, 5th machinegun, and so on. Those bonus buildings glow bright pink in the bases of people you attack, mocking you. It turns out you can only get anti-matter from the special events (or the cash shop). Since those buildings are also upgraded with anti-matter, you will always need more than you can get. Worse, anti-matter can buy a unique infantry squad which joins you in every attack. That’s BftGWG’s way of giving paying players a leg up.

That equipment you get for winning is also a cash sink. Normal equipment gives very small gains, which a normal player will tend to get naturally. But as you may recall, the game teases just how good mega (“legendary”) equipment is. You can’t get that by playing (even though an evil tooltip suggests you can). It only comes from paid loot chests.

The net effect is that by midgame things are clearly dominated by paying players. You can see they’ve got plenty of anti-matter to keep up with the best buildings, likewise gem-costing buildings, and they’ve got a few gold-colored troops stronger than anything you can field (which you know since you’ve used those same gold troops in your weekend speed-bases). Beyond that, the units just plain need tuning. Defenses get too tough, too fast, the mortar is far too powerful, the giants can hardly soak any damage, and the healers’ AI is bad. But someone should definitely copy some of this game’s good ideas.

[Game]G.I. Joe:War on Cobra

The GI Joe clash-like (GI Joe: War on Cobra) actually has some nice ideas for base design. Ultimately the game isn’t great because troop upgrades come from random chests and paying players have vastly better troops. But that’s not the base designers’ fault.

The basic set-up: you start at the bottom of the enemy base, going up a long semi-wide area, with the lightly-armed HQ at the top. A strip of usable ocean runs up the right side, giving the option to try your few naval forces. The 2 resources, gems and oil, are at fixed spots along both edges. Defenders have a few short indestructible wall sections, but they can be fired over. Otherwise they place the usual array of guns and defending leaders.

Placing your attack troops costs energy, which you get more of for destroying buildings. You’re allowed only 1 of each squad, but can place it again when it’s destroyed (if you still have the energy). It’s easy enough to completely destroy a few defenses with spells, but that’s expected — they have lots of defenses. It’s the Boom Beach style: part of your plan is “I could zap those 2, or those, or a bunch of those for extra energy… .”

Making it so you can’t move around your gem and oil mines works well, It encourages more spread-out defenses to avoid giving the attacker free points for destroying them. Troops can be controlled pretty well. It’s clever, you drag the troop’s icon over to the new target. You don’t need to use this often since troops are fairly smart, and prefer killing defenses. This makes the game somewhat un-clashy.

I’m not sure this next thing really helps. All weapons need to be within a few spaces of a tough energy generator building. You get lots of those, but not one for each gun. It mostly prevents you from setting one lonely gun to guard your ocean-based oil wells.

This game uses the terrible feature where troops are always ready but need to be repaired when damaged, which is very expensive in this game. It really penalizes losing and encourages you to attack only weak bases. Luckily, the game does a bad job selecting opponents and you can often find suitable targets. In return, your base will only be steam-rollered by players far out-ranking you. Both of those get old, fast.

As a bonus, if you’re a big GI Joe fan the characters here vaguely resemble the real ones.

Army Camp math

Some of the fun in clash-likes is how the rules use the buildings as explanations, which then influence the rules. Army Camps are a particularly neat example. Your army is really just a number for how big it can be. Since it’s not used in defense, it doesn’t need to be displayed on the base at all. But it’s so fun to have open-air army camps with the troops wandering around them. Freshly made troops walk from the troop-making building over to the camps. Donated troops walk out of the camp and off the map. That all looks just terrific. It’s even fun to look at other peoples’ bases to see what kind of army they have.

At first things align just fine. But the rules of a clash-like say you don’t just make one army camp get bigger and bigger. Instead you should get more of them. So now our building logic is telling us the army size must suddenly double at some point. Our one army camp slowly grew from 20, to 25, to 30, to 35. But then adding a second jumps our total army size to 70. That’s a big jump, but it’s fine. We can work with that since we don’t want to break our Army Camp logic. But our visual depiction of the rules is now making the rules. Neat.

An army camp, currently holding sorcerers and treants, from Castle Clash

Here’s another fun one. Suppose we have three 35-space Army Camps, 105 spaces total, and dragons cost 25. How many dragons can we have? It’s 4 since 4*25 is less than 105. But it’s also 3 since only one can fit in each camp. Hmmm… . It turns out players hate doing complex math, so we get 4 dragons. How we’re stuffing in that 4th dragon might break suspension of disbelief, but the alternative is worse. The rules win over the visuals here.

Then we come to the back-up army. To be nice, the game allows you to train 1 extra army if you have time left from training the normal one. When you open the game after a long enough time you get to attack twice in a row, with no delay between since your back-up army trained overnight. That’s nice. But where is that entire extra army kept? Nowhere. But if we can keep troops nowhere, why is our army limited by how many fit into the Camps? Best not to think too much about it.

Final score: Abstract rules: 2, Army Camp logic: 1