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.


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 (again: your attacking troops) 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 most tense — you’ve got lots of exposed buildings being slowly retaken. You can either rush ahead and let them be recaptured, or conquer in more of a blob than a line. Dealing with recaptures is a big part of an attack plan.

The basic attack program goes after one connected building at a time, switching to the next when if captures a building. Your next program attacks all connected buildings at once, but with less power. You later get “shield” programs which make it more difficult to be recaptured. Each building only has so many program slots, so several attackers vs. using shields is a decision. And when a shield is destroyed the slot is freed up if you want to pop in a new 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 quickly “stealth conquer” a line of buildings. 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 (one type of attack program is specially made to beat this building). 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 blast through programs for a quick start, before anti-virus spreads much. Where to place that anti-virus building is also an interesting choice — further back is safer, but then it 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.


Might&Glory:Kingdom War (Nord Studios, published by 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

[Game]Caravan Wars

Caravan Wars is a clash-like with a new way of making your defense. That’s rare. Plenty of games play around with building types, where you can attack from, and so on. But making a completely new type of thing to attack is a tough nut.

In Caravan Wars, as you might guess, you attack other players’ caravans. They slowly, automatically, crawl through a section of windy road as you attempt to slaughter everyone in them. You have an army, plus some towers alongside. You’ll need both since the caravans are massive. There’s no special thing you need to destroy — winning and loot are based on percent destruction, before the caravan escapes.

The roads are 6 spaces wide and each caravan section is 10 spaces long. You can fill yours with 60 small troops, or larger more powerful units. Wagons, if you use them, don’t fight, but can hold a heavy weapon. As you level up, more 6×10 caravan sections unlock, with a small gap between. I currently have 3, for 180 slots total.

2 sections of a caravan make their way past an attacker’s mortar towers

You’d think that the caravan simply turns into a giant melee to the death as soon as it hits your army, making it all pointless. But the defenders tend to want to walk their route. Wagons never even stop — the weapons fires at everything in range as it plods along. Caravan troops will stay and fight by like to run and catch up when done. Some battles are your army trying to catch up with the undestroyed part of the caravan. Further, caravans, though long and thin, have many more troops than you do. Attacking it head-on can be slow-motion suicide. One of the intro missions encourages you to wait for the first big group to pass, and ambush the second. 50% destruction counts as a win, so that’s a fine plan. Attackers also gain turret points as they go. You’ll be able to toss more towers up ahead and sometimes harass your way to a win.

Placing defensive units in the first caravan section

There also seems to be quite a bit of variety in caravans. Some like a horde of archers surrounded by tougher pikemen. Others put tough paladins only in the front and back. Some enjoy mostly weapon-carrying wagons, with lasers, mortars, or just powerful single-shot guns. There are even healers. On the other hand, troops level-up individually. You can simply use all of your best.

In order to have something to attack, other players need to send out caravans. The game does a nice job with that. You naturally get lots of the “cargo” resource. Sending out cargo caravans turn it into gold, and gives other players something to attack. You’ve got a menu with multiple options for sending out caravans of varying durations, with quest rewards for sending enough. The reports even look good — a progress line with a dot for when (or if) you were attacked.

Now for the not-so-good part. You collect re-usable troop cards from chests. A common system and fun for a while. Later you find Epic and Legendary cards. You can merge them for level 2+ cards. It quickly becomes obvious that gem-spending players have an army of Mega Legendaries, much better than anything low-spenders can grind for. Another issue, attack towers upgrade nicely at first, but then their mega-upgrades unlock. You buy those by sacrificing massive amounts of extra troop cards (massive as in: you splurged on chests to get mega-troops, and these are the surplus commons).

Spells are strictly limited. You can’t brew them. The only way to get spells is by buying 4-6 each day from the shop (with regular gold). That will last you 2 battles, tops. The game front loads you with 40 of each spell, but when you run out, ouch. I have to respect the cleverness. That $5 pack for 100 of each spell pack is looking pretty good right now.

The amount they make you wait before attacking again is funny. After an attack you’ll need to wait for dead troops to heal. But winning a battle may activate a 15-minute “troops instantly heal” spell. It affects the troops you just lost, but you can’t count on getting it. So the best plan is fighting weak opponents until the insta-heal turns on. Then you can attack for real, all you want for 1/4th hour. It’s quite strange. You may plan to attack only once, but get the buff and decide not to waste it. Or you may spend 1/2-hour fishing for it.

There’s a steampunk theme, sort of. One wagon is a mini-zeppelin, and the healer is a tech-based artificer. But there’s also a skeletal lich, a rockman, and a charging knight (that stuns). And Griffons and so on. The famous all-themes theme.

SR:L isn’t boring enough

The collectable hero game Shadow Raid:Legends got me thinking about the complexity of mobile games, in two ways. One is the reasonable-seeming thing mobile games have gotten very good at — starting simple and gradually ramping up the complexity. The other is the total amount of complexity that players want.

I like to think I like complicated games — even where you have to take out a sheet of paper and plan. But I’ve quit games for having too much thinking. I open them up, remember I’d been trying to think of a team to fight the new boss monster, just wasn’t in the mood, that goes on for a few days, and I’m done with that game.

I’m fine with new features gradually unlocks — it’s good teaching. But we all know how it goes from good to bad. “I’ll let you play 5 matches with only these rules before I toss in new ones” turns into “I’ll force you to play 50 matches before you earn the new rule”.

Those two things combine in a weird way. Many games start out too easy, but we know that means nothing. Many stay easy for quite a while, but we know that means nothing. A month may or may not be long enough. There’s this weird situation where we never know the “real” game. Maybe it gets good later, or maybe it’s fine now and gets too complex later.

Shadow Raid: Legends is one of the most boring genres of mobile games — collectable heroes. It starts like them all — you have a Common hero, find more and better heroes, find better armour and weapons, unlock the “ring” slot and start finding better rings. Always growing in power. Pretty soon you’re watching them fight the same monsters 100’s of times, hoping for a helmet with at least 4 stars and a +defense stat. And that’s fine. It’s almost like a slot machine — today I killed monsters for only 14 minor force potions, and no major ones, but there’s always tomorrow.

The weird thing is, it does get complex. After a slow start, in a genre where the players never expect anything special, it gets complex. After a while you realize the red/green/blue color system actually matters — you prefer green heroes against red bosses, and so on. At first you were equipping just whatever you found, but then you realize it’s completely mix-and-match — you can make someone absurdly hard-to-kill, or all offense and extremely fragile. You start meeting boss monsters with special abilities requiring specially-made teams to counter them.

Here’s some paraphrased advice from the game: to beat this area it helps if you have one of these 3 super-rare heroes. Otherwise there’s an adequate one by playing a certain dungeon about 100 times. Then play these other areas 100’s of times for about a week for a full set of +speed equipment. Next … .

I was thinking back about other games like this, and realized how hard they worked to not have a strategy. For example, healing characters are tough, do pretty good damage, and don’t heal all that much. Special abilities tend to be minor and difficult to coordinate. Equipment is pre-set. Those game work hard to make nothing matter. You can always play a bit, win something that shows a green “this will make you more powerful” up-arrow, use it, and eventually be able to beat slightly tougher monsters. You never have to ask someone how to beat X. The answer is always the same — get bigger numbers. Those games never get complex, which is on purpose, and the point.

Plarium makes SR:L. To me, they’re known for copying mechanics from other games, scrambling them together in a “see what sticks” style. They’re original, in the sense of never having seen those particular things combined. SR:L seemed pretty well thought-out for them. Then I realized how insane it was: a game for people who like to plan, but are happy pressing the same button for an hour, every day for a week, for a chance to try that plan.

I have to mention the art department. I’m always surprised, even through I shouldn’t be, by how completely separate it is — like a movie with beautiful costumes and sets, but terrible dialogue.

The 100’s of 3D heroes are divided into various factions. The good guys are Telarians and the neutrals are the Gaellen Pact. That sounds like something. There are lots of knight heroes, but divided into the Sacred Order (not that interesting), the Banner Lords (banners? what kind of banners?) and the evil Knights Revenant (undead former-knights). We never learn anything more, but it draws you in. There’s an entire faction of rock trolls, and another of lizardmen. They did a really nice job with variety, but making them look related. The next is the Skinwalkers — whoa! — minotaurs, devil dogs, and other abominations. I think they had a ton of fun designing them, and it shows. The worst thing is the name — there’s nothing about Shadows or Raids in this game.

I can’t recommend it (well, if you’re never played a collectable hero game and want to try one, once, and have a high tolerance to electronic addiction), but if you see someone playing it, ask if you can look through the screens where it shows every hero in the game. Really pretty.

The Black Parade

The best part of The Black Parade, by Kyoko M, are the heroine’s feelings for her ex-boyfriend. He’s a Mr. Right who treats her well and wants a family. But she’s terminally poor, since her supernatural job pays nothing; an orphan – her mom died in an asylum – and drinks too much. He’ll eventually realize she’s not good enough. It’s sad when we find out that she’s the one who broke it off. The second best part are the 3 men fighting for her love: the ex-BF comes back and still wants her; she saved an Angel’s life and now he’s falling in love with her; and an evil demon, who originally needed to human-sacrifice her, is now sending her sex dreams to convince her to be his slutty eternal queen. Third best part: her platonic angel friend watches her put on a slinky black dress to go on a second date with Mr. Right. On the way she’s cut-up all over by a monster, forcing her to cancel the date and go back to the Angel. He’s forced to magically heal her by kissing and licking her entire body, during which time they realize they love each other.

So, obviously, the book is totally a paranormal romance. A later one in the series even has a cover from the “bare-chested faceless man” stock photo collection. If you care about a plot, or anything unique, skip this series. But it’s interesting since it seemed to start as a real book.

The jacket tells us she needs to help 100 ghosts find peace in two years, or she’ll be sent to hell. OK, it actually starts with her having 2 days left to save the final 3 ghosts. Even so, that could be fun – a tense 3 days. We see her scrambling to work at the diner, the manager with a soft spot for oddballs like her, her best waitress friend who knows not to pry and is mid-divorce anyway. It turns out ghosts are easy to save, but you need to be ready at all times, work quickly and be a good listener (you don’t get “Dead Like Me”‘s notes with the time and place). She meets an oddball ghost, who gets more and more mysterious… . Then we toss all that away. It’s like someone took over 1/3rd of the way through. The plot is now incompetent demons chasing her and her angel bodyguard, as they “banter”.

I’m going to say that the author isn’t trying for a genre – she’s just writing what she feels like, which is an urban fantasy for a few chapters, then a romance where the action jumps around much more than usual. I can’t even figure this one out: at the end of the book, after being only about her and her magically buff angel lover, the heroine goes to ex-boyfriend Mr. Right’s funeral. His mom never liked her, but his sister was always really nice. They catch up before the service, and make plans to stay in touch. That makes no sense in either genre. But it’s kind of fun.