Reviews

Blue Tea Games and the Dark Parables Series

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Not sure exactly how I got on to the Dark Parables series, or hidden object games, or the Big Fish games interface. All I know is, I started playing them sometime last year, tore through the whole series, and swapped part-way through to buying the extra-features collector’s editions. I started getting really excited for new releases and then… the excitement dissipated a little.

From the top:

Blue Tea Games is a game studio that puts out primarily “hidden object” games, where the plot is moved along by a series of small puzzles, most of which involve picking out specific objects from a cluttered scene. I find this a fantastic game genre for me, since it provides a very relaxing level of challenge and generally comes in games with beautiful art and music. What’s more, HOGs pretty commonly come with several different difficulty levels, of which I usually select the middle one. Many of the really good games have thematic objects hidden throughout, and discovering all of them is a fun extra challenge.

One of Blue Tea‘s most exciting series is/was the Dark Parables games. This is a series of adventures in which a nameless protagonist called “the Fairy-Tale Detective” investigates strange, magical occurrences all over the world, only to discover the source of the mischief to be a fairy-tale character run amok. The twist that draws you in is that the fairy-tales are mashed up, crossed over and fused rather liberally, which allows certain characters to serve multiple roles in different stories. If you were personally insulted by not being able to like Once Upon a Time, you might find these games comforting.

The games have a rough chronological order and playing them out of order gives mystery spoilers. Generally, though, that’s not really the main draw. They are beautifully drawn, intricate and rich with details and motifs. The visual language of the games is distinct and recognizable and truly, to me, the very best thing about them. Unlocking the titular “parables” gives a little insight into how the original tales were forged into an amalgam.

The characters are fun but not very deep. The villains are frequently heroic characters turned dark by adverse circumstance, and last-minute redemption is pretty common. In addition to the fairy tale amalgams, the games add some original characters, of which my favorite is undoubtedly Queen Ivy, Briar Rose’s sister.

I played the games out of order beginning with Rise of the Snow Queen, before tracking back to the first game, The Curse of Briar Rose to get the full experience. Given my love for the games’ aesthetic, the entries I remember most fondly are The Exiled Prince, about the curse of frog prince, and The Ballad of Rapunzel, which adds my other favorite original character.

After the Rapunzel game, Blue Tea apparently sold the whole brand to a game studio called Eipix. Quite coincidentally, while googling around for game information, I discovered that I am not the only fan of the games who was less enamored of their two most recent additions. A trailer for a third game has been released, so I am waiting to see if I feel better about that one.

Meanwhile, I replay some of the earlier games in an attempt to catch all of the extras and bonuses, and use earned credits to upgrade the regular versions to collector’s editions. However, I am due to replay The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tide, since I seem to remember very little of it. Of all the hidden object games that I’ve played through the Big Fish app, the Dark Parables games are still by far my favorites.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

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Tactics, Logistics and Chance: The “Game of Thrones” Board Game

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Yom Kippur is come and gone. Like every year I had grand plans of taking a serious, contemplative look at my life. Instead, I played the Game of Thrones board game.

If you play board games pretty regularly, or have friends who do, you might have heard rumor of this game. The rumor would likely be something about it being very long and very complicated to play. It’s all true. I spent almost six hours on it last night (and lost, badly).

The GOT board game struggles a little because it wants to maintain all the basic elements of a strategic territory expansion game, while still giving due to the core story elements form the books and show. It succeeds in parts, but the devotion to story elements is part of what makes the game so cumbersome to learn and play. The game’s initial set-up is still forced to stray from the story’s political dynamics, partly in order to give players freedom to form alliances and rivalries as they see fit, and partly for more obscure reasons.

Broken down, the elements of the game go something like this: each player plays one of the major houses and starts out with a roughly equal number of starting territories. Each territory adds one battle or supply action per turn. All actions on the board are revealed simultaneously, and acted out according to the order of the political power metric, which has a fixed initial setup and is periodically reshuffled.

To add an element of chance, cards are drawn at the beginning of each round to generate random events, such as Wildling attacks. The game goes on for ten rounds, or until one player conquers seven different castles. In our case, as I said, almost six hours (the full ten rounds).

Each of these elements has a few layers of added complexity. There are three different metrics for political power, which allowed each of us three players to start on top with some kind of advantage. Now and then there would be a kind of auction where players bet power tokens on each of the three, to reorder the power dynamics and hopefully gain an edge. Battle and supply actions are divided into five kinds (movement/attack, defense, support, raid and supply/recruit), and then further subdivided for increased complexity. Battles are acted out using weighted character cards to supplement troops.

Honestly, that only covers about 40% of the complexity of the game. Or convolution, I should say, because that’s an important distinction. Tactics, strategy, logistics even — those are welcome kinds of complexity, because they vary by the playing styles and experience levels of the players. Mostly, though, this games adds complexity via memory tricks and rules-lawyering, with an added luck element in drawing three random cards per turn.

Our game started auspiciously and overall went quite well, but would have been more fun and less wearying if I, as the newest player, didn’t get as confused about which stage of the turn we were in and what was supposed to happen next. I played House Lannister and almost immediately formed an alliance promising not to invade eastward past a certain point. Then I started stockpiling, while my two co-players bickered over the same bit of sea throughout most of the game. The strategic element then is brought in by the players, which is about right. From then on, the game pieces and cards restrict the player’s ability to enact their strategy, which is also, in theory, how it should go. There were just… too many nitpicky little bits getting in the way.

A good conquest game, as far as I’m concerned, should only have two phases to each round. First there is a logistical phase in which resources are recruited. Then there is a tactical phase in which attacks for the round are determined. The GOT board game has many more variable parts than that. For example, increases in supplies are not calculated immediately, and power tokens are used not just to mark territories, but also to bid for political power on a separate part of the board, and to fight a third party on another part.

When I laid out some of my criticism, a fellow player asked if I would rather the game be “boring, like Risk”. I answered that I think there’s a great deal of middle ground between the two. Part of the added complexity is supposed to add an element of political intriguing that goes beyond troop movements and conquering territory, but mostly manages to support the battle portions of the game and otherwise be wearying. Any “diplomatic” elements are brought in by the inclination of the players to form temporary alliances, or not.

All in all, I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. Although parts of it were immensely frustrating, I did exit the game feeling like there was a reason I lost (other than being a first time player), and that if I played again, I might win. But I also left the game trying to figure out if there was a way I could house-rule the board and pieces to a more manageable proportion, so that future games would have the same amount of fun, but less frustration.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem

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Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem is a combination diplomatic sim/dating sim, where you get to balance ambition and emotion while angling for a good match. As the title implies, you play a princess from one of seven kingdoms. The backstory explains extensively why you, a young woman, are sent alone to negotiate a marriage for yourself as part of an improbably elaborate peace conference/meat market.

I was so excited when I started this game, I could hardly focus on playing. I haven’t even finished the demo and I have so much to say.

First: the game is fiendishly difficult. It has a “story mode” that makes things easier (and less fatal) which I haven’t tried yet. It resembles Long Live the Queen in more than one way, in this case, in the fact that you must resign yourself to failing some things. You cannot master all skills, you cannot befriend or seduce all characters. Some people (in the game) are just smarter than you. One way this shows up very clearly is in the matchmaker scene.

I want to talk a little about the matchmaker mechanic, because I think it’s brilliant. After delineating her personal history, her virtues and her weaknesses, your princess is assessed by a professional matchmaker. The game makes several skill and personality checks. No matter what choices you make (…I’m almost certain) the matchmaker will dismiss you as a disaster. This can be a little disheartening, but it serves a valuable function. On the face of it, it sets up the gameplay — where you build up skills, knowledge and connections in an effort of impressing and making a good marriage. More subtly, this scene is here to remind the player that there are no correct choices.

“No correct choices” means that the game, in theory, isn’t meant to have a single, successful path that counts as 100% victory. Success is subjective, to some extent. Death, obviously, is not a desirable outcome, but otherwise you forge your princess’s goals and skills likewise, and it’s up to you, the player, to make them compatible. Once again it resembles LLTQ in that it has a whole set of “princess” type skills and a whole set of “game protagonist” skills. The matchmaker is here to remind you that every choice you make has an upside and a downside.

Are you hoping to fall in love? You are a foolish romantic with your head in the clouds. Are you here to amass power? You have a grasping air about you, dear, and no one likes a cynic. Leadership skills come at the expense of charm and manners. Academic prowess comes at expense of finesse. Everything that makes you desirable to one prospect will also make you repulsive to another. No matter which nation you come from, some of the delegates (and marriage prospects) are your country’s sworn enemies, and these rivalries are based on deep philosophical gulfs.

I… still have so many secrets to unlock. But this game makes me so, so happy. I could (and will!) write a critical post about the weaknesses of the writing and the worldbuilding, and I want to note in advance that the game is unfinished and the temporary UI is simply appalling. Despite its shining potential, the poor choices in layout and fonts may well make the demo unplayable for some players.

The full demo for Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem can be downloaded from their official site, here. Read [personal profile] alias_sqbr‘s non-spoilery review (which drew me into the game) here.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Love Is Turning Towards Danger Instead of Away from It — Naomi Novik’s Uprooted

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I actually finished reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik quite a while ago. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over my review, trying to figure out what I want to say and how to say it.

I can tell you that the reviews I’ve read are all positive, and they’re right. This is a very good book, and well worth reading. It has everything that you could want from a novel in that it’s tightly-plotted, full of compelling characters, and the world-building is both creative and coherent. You’d be surprised how rarely that’s true. Written in first person from the heroine’s perspective, Agnieszka has a strong, clear voice that makes itself known from the very first sentence.

Strangely enough, I didn’t give much thought to the book’s title until I was about a third of the way through it. This was a mistake. The name Uprooted encapsulates the heroine’s journey, the backstory of several characters, the mythical underpinnings of the fictional world… I’ve rarely read a book that has a theme so thoroughly and expertly woven into every aspect of it. It’s that theme that I most want to examine in my review.

This is the story of a peasant girl living in a village on the brink of a vast, menacing, mystical forest. the feudal lord of the valley is a magician whose role it is to keep the wood’s malevolent influence at bay. Agnieszka, naturally, gets caught up in this mission when she discovers after much resistance that she’s a naturally gifted witch. The first portion of the book recounts the struggle between Agnieszka and the Dragon as they both attempt to master her magical education. What I love about it is that it contrasts the Dragon’s academic style of magic, of the sort that I’ve become accustomed to as a reader of modern fantasy, with his student’s more haphazard, intuitive style, more evocative of old fairy tales and folklore.

But the major conflict between them is over the ties that Agnieszka has to her village and her people. The magician lives alone in his magical tower, he’s rude and short-tempered and isolated, partly because of his magic and his preternatural longevity, but mostly by choice. Although the discovery of her magic puts Agnieszka on a similar route, it’s a road she refuses to follow. She passes the inspection by the council of wizards, but she insists on keeping her name, rather than allowing them to give her a magician’s title.

These two conflicts also manage to become interwoven. Like a good fantasy protagonist, Agnieszka insists on doing everything that’s she’s been told is impossible, and succeeds at it. That is at the root (pardon) of every mythical hero, not just the ability but the irresistible pull towards doing the impossible. She saves people who are supposed to be beyond hope, takes on challenges that ought to kill her, and antagonizes figures of power in a repeated — and highly satisfying — way. To become a magician she has to give up her home and her personal ties, so she becomes a hedgewitch instead.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that by the end of the novel, Agnieszka has failed to become an ivory tower magician, living for centuries detached from the people around her, including her own far-removed descendants. What’s more interesting to me is that her powerful capacity for attachment, which is both personal and mystical, is both the engine of the plot’s central conflict, as well as its resolution. Gradually revealing itself behind even the most innocuous choices, that feeling of connectedness and belonging damns many characters to certain death. As a heroine, Agnieszka succeeds where others fail, not in resisting the pull but in choosing to examine it to its core.

Everyone has struggled with a feeling of belonging. I know I have. That’s part of what makes Uprooted so compelling. It doesn’t gloss over the dark undertones of blind loyalty, whether it’s to a person or to a homeland. As a heroine Agniezska loves her home in the valley, or perhaps she is merely so attached to it that she’s become insensible to its faults. For better or worse, the pull of the valley never lets up, and she never struggles against it. It’s toxic or it’s beautiful, but it can’t be resisted.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth