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Papers, Please

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Ever wondered what it's like to be a bureaucrat behind the Iron Curtain in 1982?  Well, now you can find out!  You get to man a border station and decide who gets let into the fictional country of Arstotzka.

The game is both mindnumbingly difficult and mindnumbingly tedious, but that's the whole point.  This is not a game that is out to wow you with gameplay, this is a game that is going to make you feel what it's like to be a border guard in a Communist wonderland.  You're part of a system that you have little control in, and beholden to superiors you almost never see, but who push increasingly arbitrary restrictions upon your work.  And of course, because it's you who interacts with everybody who is coming through your station, you have to make the hard decisions.  It's up to you to reject those seeking political asylum, who will be killed if they go back.  It's up to you to decide if you want to take a little bit of graft so that you can feed your family tonight.

This game is absolutely fascinating.  It's game as art, out to show you that games can be affecting, and can make you think hard about your political reality.  It's hard to say enough positive about this game.  Easily one of the most thought-provoking video games I've ever played.

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Cart Life

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Cart Life is an adroit little simulation of running a cart.  It's not your grandpa's lemonade stand simulator, though.  Although it has hallmarks of the genre like being able to set your prices, seeing how much money you made at the end of the day, and the ability to buy more and better things to sell, it's not really the point of the game.

The game is an art piece.  The first thing that stands about it is the visuals, which are done in black and white pixelated style.  However, this isn't just a few sprites moving about on a flat background, this is rich atmospheric visual design, set in a city that is by turns yuppie and industrial, run-down and bustling.  You spend a significant portion of the game walking, just taking in the atmosphere.  When your character talks or dreams, rich visual overlays are used to reflect their internal voice.  These touches really set the game apart. 

The gameplay is, by design, boring repetitive drudgery.  It folds in with the point of the game, which is that making a living and starting a business is hard, and it's boring, and much of the time it's not fun.  The game is unforgiving, as well.  Forget to pick up your daughter from school, or pay your weekly hotel bill, and your game will take a turn for the worst.  Manage to take care of all of these things successfully?  Congratulations, you get to do them all again next week.

I'd definitely suggest giving this a download and a play.  The game is Windows only, but it's free for the basic version.  The deluxe version, which offers an additional character, is available if you want to support the designer.

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A Bit of Analysis of Airport City

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I've been playing a lot of a silly little city-building game on my phone, called Airport City.  I wrote about it earlier.  For anybody who doesn't care about the game, you can stop reading now, because there's not going to be any real content here.  No, you can chalk this entry up to one of those frivolous things that I get obsessed with from time to time, kind of like my Tecmo Super Bowl FAQ.

The basic idea in Airport city is that space is limited, and buildings that you build on that space will accrue passengers or money based on timers.  Buildings that have quick timers have few passengers to collect, but buildings with long timers will have a lot of passengers to collect.  Once they are ready for collection, their timers will stop, and so they won't accrue any more passengers.  For instance, the Cottage has a 2 minute timer, but only provides 1 passenger, while the Brazilian Cottage can only be collected every 60 minutes, but provides 6 passengers.  I could conceivably get 30 passengers/hour from a Cottage, but only if I collected them immediately every time.  

In practice, I check the game when I think about it and have time, and this makes it not immediately obvious which is the better building in terms of space efficiency. When I haven't checked in a while, the Brazilian Cottage is better, but when I check many times an hour, the plain Cottage is better.

So, I did what any OCD gamer obsessed with a ridiculous little game would do: I recorded how often I checked for a few days and did some number crunching to see what buildings provided the best return in exchange for space.  

There are other slight issues that make the problem harder.  Buildings come in different sizes, either 1x1, 2x2, or 3x3.  Almost every building needs to be connected to a road to work.  Each building has an electricity cost which requires building power plants to support them.  In addition, (almost) every building needs a road adjacent to it.


The method

I recorded when I check Airport City for three days.  I did this as faithfully as I could, and though I had to recreate a few checks from memory, I think I got just about all of them.  A few of them I had to guess after their time, when I realized that I had forgotten them, but I don't think there are that many.  Where these checks lasted longer than two minutes, I recorded two consecutive 2 minute checks, so that the quickest buildings wouldn't get punished for continuous play.  After I got the times recorded, I counted the number of times that each building would trigger according to those times.

After this, it was a relatively trivial series of calculations to come up at space efficiency.  Where

  • s is space efficiency measured in passengers per space or money per space
  • z is the size of the building,
  • r is 1 if a building needs a road or 0 otherwise,
  • c is the count of how many times the building was collected in that time,
  • p is the number of passengers/money that a building provides for each collection
  • e is the electricity drain of the building, and
  • 15 is the electricity efficiency per tile of coal power plants (60/4, the best space efficiency of the non-greenback power plants) 

The equation becomes

s = c*p / ( z + r*1/4 + e/15 )

Or in simpler terms

s = total passengers collected / (size of building + road dependency + electricity drain)

I then normalized this for the best building purchaseable with coins, for ease of comparison.  The best building scored 100, and all other buildings scored less.  A few bill-based buildings scored higher than 100, but were left out of normalization because they are usually bad purchases (See below)

Anybody who is interested in the specifics can view my Google spreadsheet.  Feel free to copy, repost, and modify that for use for yourself.


What did I learn?

Small buildings are always better than their identically-timed larger counterparts.
For example, look at the Brazilian Cottage (1 tile, 6 passengers every hour) versus the Mansion (4 tiles, 18 passengers every hour.  Even if you factor in that the larger building has better road efficiency and electricity efficiency, it's not enough to outweigh the extra passengers for the Cottage.  Removing the number of collections from the equation since they will be equal for both, a Brazilian Cottage has a space efficiency of 4.34 passengers per space, and the Mansion only 4.04.  That's repeated every time that a small building has the same timer as a larger one.  

The tradeoff is that single buildings are slightly harder to fit into the plots given, but if you work at it, you can virtually eliminate that concern by cleverly arranging your buildings.  For instance, I've worked it so that I only have three spaces that aren't connected to a road in my city, and those are filled by power plants, which don't need roads.

If you have spare bills, buy space, not buildings.
Bills are very hard to come by.  You can get them by leveling up, participating in promotions, or purchasing them using real-world money (Anathema!).  Though there are buildings that you can buy with bills, the better return is probably to buy a city expansion.  After all, an expansion gives you 16 extra tiles, and even though some of those bill-based buildings are the most space efficient buildings, they're still not as efficient as 16 extra tiles, particularly if you can manage to buy an expansion when they're at half cost.  

As an example, take the Townhouse, the best of the bill-based population buildings.  For my playing habits, when normalized against the best non-bill building at 100, the Townhouse scored 134.0 pop/space, while even the most sluggish non-bill building, the Tower Building, scored 9.3.  If you had 16 spaces of Tower Building, you would have 148.8 pop.  If you could apply that to the best building, the Side Wing, you'd score 1600.0 pop/space.  Unless your expansions are prohibitively expensive, it's almost certainly better to apply your bills to more space and then fill that with new buildings, rather than purchase one of the expensive bill-based buildings. Theoretically, there's a point at which expansions are too expensive to justify this, but even at my current cost of 20 per expansion (non-discounted), I'm much better off using my hard-earned bills to gain space.

The best building is going to depend on your playstyle.
This is obvious, but bears repeating anyway.  Above, the conclusions are strictly math-based, and are independent of how much you play.  Below, they are only applicable to my playing style.  I'd suggest that anybody who wants to find out what their best buildings are should copy my spreadsheet and repeat the experiment.  It might be wildly different, depending if you check your app once per day or once per hour.

There's a much wider spread in passenger efficiency than in money.
The Side Wing scored 100 pop/space, while the next best building that's generally available, the House with a Pool, scored only 59.47.  By comparison, the Coffee House only outperforms the Grocery Store 100.0 to 89.6 money/space.

Timers 60 minutes or less are better for my playstyle (except for the Eatery).
The Side Wing is easily the most efficient population building, at 5 minutes.  It outperformed everything else by almost 2 to 1.  After that, there's a cluster of buildings between 45 and 60 pop/space, all of which are under 60 minutes.  All the remaining buildings fall under 21 pop/space.

On the money side, all the buildings of an hour or less performed at 64 money/space or better (except the Eatery), and all the buildings of greater than an hour are less than 37 money/space.  The Eatery's terrible return of 26.1 money per space is due almost entirely to how little the accumulation curve changes for longer timers.  The Eatery gives you 2 coins on a two minute timer, while the Grocery Store gives you 9 coins in 10 minutes.  To put that in context, the only way you can beat the Grocery Store with an Eatery in a ten minute period is to check the eatery exactly every two minutes.  Money buildings with longer timers show the same type of return.


And that's almost 1500 words on a silly little phone game.  Well, hopefully somebody learned something.  Should you wish to gainsay anything I've got here, or ask me any questions, don't hesitate to use my contact form.

Assassin's Creed III

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I don't play too many computer games, but I've been eager to try out Assassin's Creed III since I read about its rich grasp of history.  It's obviously not particularly high on my priorities list, as I received it for Christmas, and it took me about a month before I even began playing it.  I've since taken a three week hiatus from it to go to Puerto Rico, and while I anticipate picking it up again soon, it's still on the back burner for right now.

I'm not particularly far into the game, only about 20% according to the game's progress meter, but I have gotten to a bit more of the open-ended gameplay, with special quests and more people.  The basic gameplay doesn't do much for me, though I wasn't really expecting it to -- there's only so many ways you can do the "walk around and kill people" game, and I've seen them all before.  Stealth has yet to factor into any missions, though I have a feeling it will later.  Right now the game is still walking me through baby steps to get used to the mechanics.

The gameplay isn't why I bought it, though.  The history is why I bought it.  And on that front, it's pretty good.  A lot of effort went into making the game feel historical, even if it mixes fantasy with history pretty liberally, and it's often difficult to discern between the two.  I particularly like the text asides that are present for historical figures and sites of interest.  Video gamers aren't exactly renowned for their attention spans for dialogue and text, so it's nice to see that the developers are willing to throw a bone for those of us who aren't just playing the game to kill stuff.

The plot is probably my least favorite part.  I know that I'm a dinosaur, but I still mostly want my video games to provide a single-player narrative experience, and it leaves me cold when I feel that the plot is thin.  There's plenty of dialogue here, but little of it is of much use beyond establishing just how much of a badass the main character is.  Of course the main character is a badass, he's an assassin in a secret society guild and he can travel through this matrix-y world, and he can kill people mostly at will.  It's not really necessary for the game to keep reminding me that I'm hard-fucking-core.

Assuming that I get back to the game, I'll either update or publish a new review.  Until then, chalk this up as flawed, but worthwhile game.

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Airport City

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Yes, I have fallen into the clutches of one of those stupid little time-management games again.  This one takes a Sim City style approach.  Thing is, it's almost perfect for a phone game.  It's quick to play, has something to do without taking a long time almost any time I want to engage with it, and has just enough optimizing to keep it interesting.  What's more, it doesn't have the conflict that so many of these games have, which almost always turns me off.  Instead, this is a pure building game.

I can't really recommend this game, because it's such an incredible time-sponge and doesn't really feel like a great game, but it does do exactly what I want it to.  As an activity, I've definitely gotten into it.

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Spaceteam is a ludicrous little iOS app that is the first reason I have been jealous of anybody who owns an iOS device, which speaks to how ingenious it is.  It's a co-op game that is so much ridiculous fun.  There's a great sense of humor, a wonderful challenge, a great ramping up feeling, and plenty of difficulty.  It's fast, it's easy, and it's short.  I only wish it would get ported to Android.

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Guardians of Graxia: The boardgame crossover that couldn't

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Guardians of Graxia is a computer game that caught my eye as a board game adaptation of a card game of the same name, bought way back when in Steam’s summer sale when it went on deep discount. I figured, as an appreciator of turn-based strategy games, I’d take a flyer on it.

GoG is a small budget game, and it really shows at times. There are typos in the menu, and sometimes bugs in the gameplay (one of the abilities on the dragon on the last level almost never worked properly, for instance). The worst thing, however, is the high-level CPU that this game seemed to take. My computer is no great shakes, for sure, with only the rudimentary on-board graphics card, but it can handle most games of the era, if at least in a scaled back version. However, whenever there was an animation, (which is constantly), the computer would grind almost to a halt, even at the lowest setting.

The card-based system of this game is moderately cool, but I can’t really see it being satisfying as a board game. I don’t think it’s significantly simpler, and thus we have a lot of tracking that’s done manually. Not sure I’d recommend this franchise unless the theme is really appealing.

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Portal 2: The Portalling

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New review topic: video games!  I'm not going to do very many of these, because, hey, I don't play that many video games.  The days where I used to play tons and tons of games are gone.  I pick up one here and there now, but for the most part I ignore the medium.  Still, there's nothing like a buffoon whose unfamiliar with the current state of the industry commenting on it?  I already do that with movies and TV shows.  While I'm self-appointing myself an expert, what's another category or three, right?  Just wait until I start reviewing snowmobiles or something.

Anyway, Portal 2 is on the docket for this review.  Everybody and their very hot mother has already finished this game, so it's not like I'm breaking anything new, but I played the single-player mode of this with Tara (yeah, I'm too cheap to shell out for the second copy for co-op).  We really enjoyed playing the first one together, so we tried the second one.  Tara seemed to like this one just as well, but I wasn't quite as enthralled.  And I think the 'why' comes down to pacing.  The first Portal is a very, very simple game.  It's almost minimalist in how simple it is.  And because it's minimalistically simple, it is necessarily short.  It gripped me from beginning to end, and I never wanted to stop playing it.  When it was over, I was sad, because I wanted more.  So when Portal 2 comes along and gives me more, that's good, right?  Not so much.  The lovely pacing that was there in the first one is gone.  The ending, particularly drags on and on and on.  You're going to fight the boss!  Nope, just another puzzle.  But after this one, surely!  Nope.  Eventually the tension dragged away from me, and the game felt almost like a chore.  I felt the drive to finish it so that I could say I beat it.

One thing about Portal 2 that did not change from the first is the fantastic voiceacting.  You get a second voice actor, and he's great.  He delivers his lines well, he plays up a part, and he's just as compelling as GlaDOS.  The story, too, is pretty compelling.  The whole retro section is amazingly well done.  Sure, it's completely implausible in scale, but it's cool enough that I'm not going to complain.

The puzzles, too, mostly are good.  But there's a ton of new gadgets and doodads, like bouncy material, and light bridges, and laser beams.  It starts to get away from the series' roots.  I lost interest in these fancy new toys, and found myself wishing for the good old drop puzzles and the like from the first game.  Sometimes more features is not better.

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