There are a few games that I really enjoy and have put over a hundred hours into, but I’ve never actually beaten. These hours have been accumulated over multiple playthroughs and while I may know how some of these games end, I’ve haven’t made my own way to those endings. This is different than losing interest in a game and not finishing it as a result. It may be tangentially related, I’ve lost interest in my current playthrough, but then why would I want to start again. Wouldn’t I just get back to a similar point of progress and just lose interest again? That would seem to be the case, so what possesses me to keep starting over? I’m hoping a more introspective blog post will help me find out.

There is Something Compelling About the Early Game

Oxygen Not Included is a sandbox colony management simulation game where the player gives orders to these human clones or “duplicants” in an effort to keep them alive. This goal may seem simple and straightforward, but it ends up being dynamic with the frequent addition of smaller connected short term goals such as, the colony needs a food source or our oxygen production has stopped because we’ve run out of algae.

One thing I really like about the game is that worlds are randomly generated upon startup, so that every game is different. A fog of war style mechanic prevents players from seeing parts of the map their duplicants have not been to and as a result there is a lot to discover when playing a new game. Each world has a number of geysers or vents buried beneath various types of rock and it can be exciting to figure out what each one is and how you can use its output to your colony’s advantage.

Another reason I enjoy the early game is that I have played enough to learn and execute a strategic plan or “build order” for it. I know a fairly optimal way to play the early game and running through such a procedure is satisfying to me. It’s almost like it’s a way to demonstrate competence or mastery over skills that I lacked when I first started playing the game. Having proof that one has learned from their mistakes is powerful.

Building rockets is something I haven’t done because it’s a part of the late game. – Steam Page Image

Familiarity Brings Comfort

If I’ve gotten so good at the earlier parts of a game, it could be said that it no longer challenges me. Shouldn’t something that no longer challenges me leave me bored or less interested? Perhaps I don’t replay these games for a challenge, but to do something less mentally taxing, to relax. Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based Role Playing Game about the psychological stresses of adventuring. It is a difficult game that is likely supposed to be the opposite of relaxing.

However, I have played enough of the game to have a good understanding of how the enemies work so that I can plan ahead, and build good party compositions to counter the types of enemies and hazards each dungeon location has to offer. I can play through the early game without feeling the tension that comes from having one or more of your heroes coming close to death, and I’m able to keep the stress levels of both my heroes and myself low.

The halls of my lineage once familiar have become quite familiar to me. – Steam Page Image

Will I Ever Finish These Games?

Based on the historical evidence I have, probably not. The later parts of these games get rather challenging and while it is not impossible that I find myself wanting to brave and conquer those challenges, lately the being challenged isn’t really why I play these games. I think that as long as I’m still having fun there is no harm in playing these games in such a way.

There are other games that I’ve played significantly less of that I wonder if I’ll ever come back to and finish those games. Pyre is one such game. I do want to know how the story ends and I’ve yet to spoil it for myself. It’s been so long since I’ve last played it however, that if I do ever come back to it, I know that part of me will consider starting over from the beginning.

The potential of an unfinished journey, calls to me. – Steam Page Image

While I’m aware that this question is subjective, I think deck building games that have river-style markets are more enjoyable than deck building games that have non-river-style markets. This post is my way of exploring why I feel that way.

A Bit of Context

The premise of a deck building game is that players start with a small deck of cards that is fairly weak and over the course of the game they are able to improve the strength of their deck by acquiring better cards and potentially removing some of the bad starting cards from the deck. Different games may have players use their cards to pursue victory in different ways, but all of the deck building games I’m aware of have this basic premise. I want to focus on the mechanic of acquiring new cards and adding them to one’s deck. More specifically, the options available to a player when choosing which new card to acquire on their turn.

Types of Card Acquisition Markets

Dominion is a deck building game that has an open card acquisition market. During setup, players decide which unique cards will compose the pool of available cards to acquire or purchase during play. From the start, players know exactly what options are available to purchase and each unique card gets its own supply pile so that multiple copies of it can be bought over the course of the game. Clank! is a deck building game with a river-style card acquisition market. The difference here is that there is a deck of purchasable cards, but only six are available for purchase at a given time. If a player buys cards on their turn, cards are drawn to replace the ones bought at the end of their turn. In Ascension, cards are replaced during the player’s turn as they are bought so different games can vary in terms of rules, but the important part here is that new cards become available to buy that weren’t available before.

A Simpler Vocabulary

“Acquiring cards from a river-style market” is just too long of a phrase to use in common conversation. The group of friends I play games with had come up with the phrase “river drafting” to mean the same thing while being much shorter. It is important to note that “drafting” in card games is a completely different mechanic, but the appending of river in front of the word gave us the context we needed to understand the difference. I think the word river here is used because new cards are unveiled in a way that makes the deck flow like a river, but I always thought the term was a reference to the final card the dealer turns over in a hand of Poker, “The River”. Either way, river drafting is not a widely used phrase and there is no real companion phrase for non-river drafting deck building games. I suppose to keep the analogy going, it should be something like “lake drafting”. Perhaps if I use it enough, someday it will catch on.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Lake Drafting

The biggest strength of lake drafting is that the contents of the lake are known and available during the entire game. This allows players to make a plan of what they want to do in order to pursue victory, essentially develop a strategy. Executing said strategy can vary based on which cards you draw from your deck and when, but for the most part the strategy is sound and remains intact. Another benefit that Dominion capitalizes on, is that the contents of the lake can be changed from game to game to provide variety or replay-ability. Or it could be kept the same and players can play again to put their strategy to the test with the same starting conditions. This is sort of like replicating experiments to find out if the strategy is consistently good or not. The downside of lake drafting is that player’s purchases don’t directly affect other players. People who are less enamored with the game may describe Dominion as four separate games of solitaire that has one winner in the end. This isn’t really true as there are cards that have abilities that affect other players, but the purchases are a bit solitaire-like.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of River Drafting

With river drafting comes player interaction. Purchasing a card on offer means that other players won’t be able to purchase that card. Since the contents of the river are changing every turn, players have different decisions to make from turn to turn. I’ve heard it described that this is an example of tactics rather than strategy. Tactics involve making an optimal choice in the current situation while strategy is more about the overarching plan. Some people may argue that the ever changing river ruins the player’s ability to have a strategy and that one can only live in the moment. This idea stems from the notion that flipping over cards that were previously unknown makes this more luck-based than they would like it to be. I’d argue that one can still have a strategy and make tactical decisions to support that strategy, but some situations may lead to a pivot in strategy. I’d also argue that despite the added element of chance, there are still ways for river drafting to be skill testing. Sometimes it’s an obvious choice to buy the card that supports your strategy, while other times it may be correct to buy a card that doesn’t help you, but it does keep it away from an opponent who would get a huge benefit out of it, I refer to this dynamic as “hate drafting”, or perhaps the cards in the river won’t help you right now and it is correct to not buy anything this turn. Knowing which choice to make is a skill and I like the challenge of making the best out of a bad situation. If some lucky flips give my opponent first crack at all of the best cards in the game, I change my goal for the game to be to figure out how well I can do despite the fact that I won’t win, or perhaps I’ll find a way to stage a comeback and surprise myself.

Why I prefer River Drafting

I think that the extra layer of player interaction that river drafting provides keeps me more engaged when playing. One has to pay attention and watch what other people buy on their turns to not only monitor how they are doing, but to keep tabs on who bought the card that you wanted. In addition, the element of chance that it brings doesn’t have to be seen as a pure negative. It can act as a way to level the playing field between players of different skill levels. It has the potential to give less skilled players a better chance to win. With that chance, they may be more inclined to keep playing and with more play they can get better at the game. In this regard it could be argued that river drafting games are better for introducing newcomers to the genre.

Obviously both types of deck building games have their place in the world of enjoyable board games and I don’t dislike Dominion. As the deck building game that created the genre, it deserves a lot of respect. I just happen to derive more enjoyment out of playing deck building games with river drafting.

More Bang for Your Buck

There is this idea around games that some people think they should get a certain number of hours of playtime or enjoyment out of a game to justify its price. A one-to-one ratio of hours to dollars is not unheard of. This is a notion that I disagree with because there exists short games with gripping stories that make the games worth their prices. For example, I really enjoyed playing Ori and the Blind Forest. It is a twenty dollar game that I finished in nine hours and I have no regrets about the purchase at all, quite the opposite. In fact, I’m really excited for the sequel that will come out in March.

Ori and the Blind Forest – Steam Page Image

For some reason, however, I find myself falling into the trap of this idea when it is in the game’s favor. For instance, I purchased Slay the Spire for around fifteen dollars in 2018, slightly cheaper than the current price because the game was in early access then. I’ve since played the game for almost three hundred hours and one could say I’ve certainly got my moneys worth. I want to be able to just say that I had fun playing the game and so it was worth getting, but I can’t help but want to support my statement by bringing my hours played into the equation.

Slay the Spire – Summary of One of My Favorite Runs

There are also the occasional games that I feel guilty about how little I paid for a game compared to how much fun I had. One such example is Hollow Knight. This mostly has to do with the developers of the game releasing multiple extra content updates for free since the game came out. Those updates had so much content that I found myself thinking that I would have paid for these updates in the form of a DLC. I look forward to this game’s upcoming sequel, not only for what I imagine will be another great game, but also as a convenient opportunity to pay the developers for the work they have done.

Hollow Knight – Steam Page Image

The “Protest”

Terraforming Mars is without a doubt, my favorite board game. I’ve bought every expansion and played it quite a bit solo and even more with friends while I was in Undergrad. I played it so much with those friends, that one of them is near burnt out on the game, saying that we play it too much. At the time, once a week, every week was enough to tide me over. Now that I’m in Grad school and have moved away from those friends, I’m in withdrawal with regard to playing the game enough. Back in 2018 when we found out a digital version of the game was being made, we were optimistic that we would have a good way to play the game together without having to meet in person. Myself and another one of the friend group got access to a beta for the game and long story short, we found ourselves disappointed.

Terraforming Mars – Steam Page Image

A digital implementation of the base game, with no expansions, a plethora of bugs, only some of which were game breaking, and no draft variant implementation led to us making a sort of pact that we called “the protest” where we wouldn’t purchase the game until we saw some major improvements. Where it was at and the twenty-five dollar price did not match up for us. Something that was interesting was that the first time a steam sale lowered the price, we noticed that the base price was changed to twenty dollars immediately after the sale ended. There was a specific sale last year that had the game at eight dollars, the cheapest it had ever been and yet even with bug fixes and adding draft functionality since launch, neither of us purchased the game. The “protest” continues to this day.

Kickstarting Expensive Board Games

More recently, I’ve started Kickstarting board games I’m interested in. It’s been an interesting new experience for me, because instead of purchasing something and getting it right away or shortly after, Kickstarting a board game is more akin to putting money down on a distant preorder. Divinity Original Sin the Board Game is likely the most expensive game I’ve ever bought. Pledging for the definitive edition set me back over two hundred dollars. And since the game won’t be shipping until at least October, it will be awhile before I can get the chance to find out if my purchase was worth it or not. I have a feeling it will be, but I can’t yet know for sure.

Divinity Original Sin the Board Game – Kickstarter Page Image

Miscellaneous Musings

As a tangent to the hours of enjoyment to money spent idea, I could certainly pay the price of a game to see a movie in theaters, with popcorn, get far fewer hours of enjoyment out of it, and not question the decision, assuming I liked the movie. I’m not sure why, but at least for myself the idea or fear of buyer’s remorse is more likely to show up with regard to game purchases, even if I rarely regret purchases I make.

Another thing of note is that the bulk of my points have been made from the consumer’s perspective. The developer’s of the games will likely have different answers to the question how much a game should cost. I think it is likely a difficult balancing act. On one side, they need to price the game high enough to make enough money to cover the cost of paying the people who worked on the game, or the material cost of components for board games, while on the other side they need to price the game low enough that people will actually buy it. This balancing act will likely leave the profit margins small which leads to needing a specific number of people to purchase the game before it is successful.

Unfortunately, I’m left thinking that the cost of games should vary depending on the game. I know that is essentially a nothing answer, but it is the best I have; a sort of gut feeling that can be put to the test by playing the game. I do think that this conclusion does bring into question why most console games are exactly sixty dollars. I think this one price fits all model is likely one that should be moved away from. Some games might need to cost more, while others have no business costing sixty dollars. Personally I think the collection of mini-games that is 1 2 Switch is still overpriced at fifty, which is probably why I never bought it.

1 2 Switch – Box Art Image From Nintendo’s Website

While I cannot currently remember where I first heard it from, sometime last year I heard the line “our game respects your time” as one of the selling points of the game. Essentially, it was designed in a way to allow players to play the game for exactly as long as they wanted to. Whether that is an extended multi-hour play session or a brief half-hour distraction is up to the player. Most games nowadays allow the player to save and quit or at least pause the game and leave it suspended whenever they want so they can continue playing later. This quality of life feature could lead one to believe that games clearly respect people’s time and that there is no issue here. My main problem with that line of thinking is that when a player is having fun playing a game, they are not going to want to stop playing until they really have to.

People who have played a Civilization game have probably heard of the phrase “just one more turn”. It is a good example of how fun keeps a player playing irrespective of how much time has passed. Turns in Civilization are relatively short, they can get long if you’re involved in a war, bits of playtime that the player can partake in and stop on any turn whenever they are ready. Perhaps because the turns are short, players think that just one more won’t add too much more time spent to their current play session. It is when this idea is repeated that players suddenly have the urge to look at the clock and find that hours have passed.

Another thing that makes it difficult to put a game down is the idea of being at a good stopping point. Over the past few years I’ve played a handful of rogue-like games. These types of games have their core gameplay loops set up to be relatively short, perhaps a half-hour to an hour, and repeatable. I like to think of these loops as “runs”. To me, and likely to many others, the natural stopping point in a rogue-like game is after one has completed a run. Many of these games allow the player to save and quit in the middle of a run, but I find myself not taking advantage of that feature. I find that the experience of coming back to the game after a few days of not playing and finding myself in the middle of a run to be a bit unpleasant. There is a period of confusion as I have to remember what was happening during this run and re-acclimate myself to whatever play-style I was engaging in at the time. While this is generally not that big of an issue, it is enough to make me get into the habit of finishing runs when I start them.

Something that is tangentially related to the above point is that there are certain games I have that I know I will get very invested in and play for significant amounts of time. Knowing this actually causes me to be hesitant to start or avoid starting to play these games in my free time because I know they will take up so much time. This behavior leads to me not playing certain games I really enjoy and want to play more of because I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have time for them right now and it disappoints me to think that I don’t know when I will finally get back to them.

Some games do put in extra effort to try and respect the player’s time. I’ve played a game called Book of Demons that has a built in system called “Flexiscope” that allows the player to choose the length of a stretch of content they will play before they delve into the dungeon and play it. Choosing small might be 18 minutes while big could be 41 minutes for example. These are time estimates that will become more accurate the more the player plays, because the game has more data with which to analyze the player’s play-style. I originally thought this system was mainly meant for respecting the player’s time, but on further research it was actually designed to allow players to tell the game how long they want to play and the game, in response, generates an experience that still flows well in that given length. The flow increasing with moments of tension where there are many enemies to fight at once and decreasing when there are moments of reprieve with few or no enemies to fight. This makes sense as I could often find myself choosing to play another small experience just after finishing one, so it still has the just one more aspect to it.

I suppose what it really comes down to is the self-control of the player. Games give them the power to stop whenever they want, so the ball is in their court. When a player finds they are having fun playing, they are less likely to want to stop and since games are designed to be fun, I lean towards thinking that they can’t respect your time and I think that is okay. From a business perspective, games want as much of your time as they can get. In today’s day and age businesses are competing with each other over people’s time and attention. I think the lesson here is that it’s up to the individual to respect their own time.

The Curse of Lavagedara is a game that resulted from Round 5 of my Building Virtual Worlds class during my graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. I was a part of a team of five which consisted of two programmers, two artists, and a sound designer and we were given three weeks to make a game for the Valve Index VR device with the addition of four computers. The Curse of Lavagedara is an asymmetric multiplayer game where a single VR player uses spells to slow or prevent the four PC players from getting to the center of the maze. The curse is that the player who defeats Lavagedara is the player who, in time, becomes the next incarnation of Lavagedara.

In the first iteration, the maze was square shaped and composed of smaller colored squares. The VR player had the power to rotate all squares of one color in an attempt to thwart the PC players’ progress. The maze proved too complicated to navigate and the VR player was too powerful. The latest iteration involves a circular maze divided into layers where each layer is made of four quadrants. The VR player can drop spells into a quadrant to unleash harmful effects on the PC players who happen to be located in that part of the maze. I specifically worked on the design of the maze and focused on getting as close to a balanced multiplayer experience as we could.

The Ring Toss experience is more of an interactive experience than a game which resulted from Round 4 of my Building Virtual Worlds class during my graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. I was a part of a team of five that consisted of two programmers, two artists, and a sound designer and we were given two weeks to make the story focused experience for the Occulus Rift S VR device. The player plays as a father who does not give enough attention to his daughter who wants him to win a specific bear at a carnival. An argument leads to the daughter running into the street and get hit by a food truck. Filled with immense regret, the father jumps at the miraculous opportunity to be a time travel test subject. Given a second chance, the father makes sure to win his daughter that bear. While not the most successful world I’ve worked on, it was still a good learning experience. I specifically did more timeline work to have various story events happen when they were supposed to happen.

Safari Pinball is a game that resulted from Round 3 of my Building Virtual Worlds class during my graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. I was a part of a team of five which consisted of two programmers, two artists, and a sound designer and we were given one week to make a game for Leap Motion attached to an Occulus Rift S Headset. The game on the surface is a simple pinball game, but the thing that makes our game unique is that the player’s physical hands are the flippers with which to hit the ball, and board or play area of the pinball game completely surrounds the player rather than merely being in front of them. I specifically worked on layout of the play area and the code for the points and lives systems.

Unearthed is a game that resulted from Round 2 of my Building Virtual Worlds class during my graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. I was a part of a team of five that consisted of two programmers, two artists, and a sound designer and we were given two weeks to make a game for the HTC Vive VR device.  Unearthed is a short story driven experience where the player digs to find shards of a mural that detail a tragic love story. Once the mural is complete, it turns into a mirror to convey that the player is the protagonist of that story. I specifically worked on timelines that were used to have the world change around the player as more shards of the mural were dug up.

DIEt is a game that resulted from Round 1 of my Building Virtual Worlds class during my graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. I was a part of a team of five which consisted of two programmers, two artists, and a sound designer and we were given two weeks to make a game for the Magic Leap AR device. DIEt is an area defense game where the player uses a fork (controller) to prevent unhealthy foods from being eaten by your friend who wants a midnight snack. This is done by either stabbing the foods before they get to the plate or swiping them off of the plate before your friend eats her next helping of food. I specifically worked on the food spawning and movement which affected game balance.

Glyph is a tabletop game that resulted from my participation in the Pittsburgh’s chapter of the International Game Developers Association’s Annual Board Game Jam. I was part of a five person team, two students programming background and three students with an art background, who prototyped and iterated a four-player stone placing puzzle game where players try to maximize points by filling personal shapes, that represent different language characters, with colored stones that are worth more to them based on a randomly assigned color value sheet.