Banished for a Year Each Day

Over the past few weeks, Banished has slowly become my preferred side game: the game I launch and keep running on the side (or in the background) while watching streams or chatting with friends. At first, I thought it was too easy of a city builder to keep my interest, but bumping the difficulty to Hard and trying to keep my town alive & thriving forced me to analyze its systems and see how it all works together. To break down my interest in the game (and encourage others to try it), I've decided to make a new town, play it for one year each day, and post what happens to this thread.

The first step of establishing Burgeto is choosing the settings and the seed. Note that you do not see the map the seed generates; you can play the same map again later, but otherwise you go into each map blind.

Here's my starting position. Notice I have a bit over a dozen people, 9 of which are old enough to work, and a Supply Cart. First order of business is to scan the surroundings and figure out what I want to build where.

I pop open the Minimap and zoom out to look around. We've started right next to the main river with a huge forest on the other side. On this side, several hills and a stream will hamper my town-building. There's plenty of hills I can mine, but where do I want to place them so they don't get in the way of my food-gathering and town-building?

Here's my long-term strategy: build the town on this side, slowly snaking around the various hills and streams. Keep the other side of the river pristine for lumber & food to feed my growing town. I'm still not sure where I'll put the quarries & mines, but they'll have to be out of the way; they reduce the happiness of nearby houses and permanently use up any space they're put on.

First, though, I need to make sure my town survives the first few years. Shelter & food are my first priorities. I'll need to worry about tools & clothing next year, but for now those can wait. I plant a few initial foundations and pause them so work doesn't start on them immediately; I'll activate them one at a time as I gather the necessary resources.

Starting from the left, I've placed a Fishing Docks and two Houses next to a Storage Site & Barn. A Woodcutter, Tailor, and Blacksmith have been placed next to the Storage Barn, followed by two other Houses and a Trading Post. (The Trading Post is important once you no longer have to worry about initial survival; it's the only way you can get seeds & livestock on Hard difficulty.) I've also plotted a bridge across the river to the vast forests on the other side; they'll be a vital source of wood & food.

My first problem is the greedy townsfolk: the moment their houses are built, they snatch up a stash of firewood & food. The 2 houses on the right got shafted on the firewood & food, hence the Cold & Hungry icons over them. I need to give them a surplus fast, else they'll starve or freeze to death while their neighbors stay warm & fed. (I don't know why the townsfolk won't share a bit of food with each other; maybe they were banished for ruthlessness?) I quickly built that Fishing Dock and prayed they'd get some food before they starved to death.

Luckily, they managed to get some fish during the winter and hold off starvation for a bit. By the next spring, our food stores are still nonexistant, and 7 of our 10 workers are trying to gather food (4 fishers, 3 hunters), which will severely hamper constructing other buildings. By next winter, we'll need a Tailor and a Blacksmith to replace the rapidly depleting clothes & tools. With luck, we'll also have a Gatherer's Hut to diversify our food. (If citizens only have 1-2 sources of food, they fall ill.) We've survived the first year, but we have even more goals to accomplish next year.

In the meantime, I've planted a few more foundations in the town: several more Houses, a School, and a Well. It'll probably be several years before I get around to building it, though.


Driving by Ash Lake

When Patrick finished Dark Souls yesterday, he missed out on one part of the game: the secret, optional zone of Ash Lake. People in chat recommended it, but he just shook his head:

"Nope, not bothering with it, want to finish up this game quickly."

In doing so, he missed out on a beautiful area that epitomized the Dark Souls themes of exploration and dark beauty. Ash Lake is a well-hidden secret zone with a haunting look, almost no enemies, and a surprising NPC. Most players never see it, but that's the point: how many games would hide one of their most beautiful zones behind 2 illusory walls? That says a lot about what Dark Souls tried to accomplish.

And Patrick just passed by it.

Previously, Patrick talked about the difference between reviewers' quick playthroughs and fans' devoted understanding of their favorite games, and how reviewers can skim over aspects of the game that are vital to its popularity. Patrick skipping the secret zones of Dark Souls so he could "clear it from the queue" and begin The Banner Saga is a good example of this. Sure, he still enjoyed Dark Souls, and he'll probably write a glowing article about the game now that he's finished it, but he missed a vital part of the game that reveals just how much its developers reward exploration.

I hope he takes the time to visit Ash Lake in the future, and he goes through Dark Souls 2 at a slower pace to explore more nooks & crannies.


Difficulty Due to Being Different

I was reading a debate over whether Dark Souls is difficult or just different when I realized it was similar to my difficulties playing The Banner Saga: most of the difficulty came from wrapping my head around game concepts that felt contrary to years of tradition. Familiarity with other games in the same genre can be detrimental when dealing with such games, since you're fighting years of habit to play the game properly. Here's a list of games that have this type of difficulty, and my explanations for why they do:

Dark Souls: Probably the best example on this list. Dark Souls is notorious for being utterly difficult, but people who have played it swear it isn't that hard. The key is learning to slow down and not be impatient. Dark Souls teaches players to adopt a slower pace (and reverse years of rushing through action games) by brutally punishing them whenever they get reckless. Peeking around corners & waiting for a solid opening to attack is recommended, instead of charging blindly forth and wailing on enemies.

The Banner Saga: Focusing down one enemy at a time leads to defeat instead of victory here, thanks to the interplay between 2 mechanics:

  1. The strength of characters' attacks are tied to their health. A character near death will barely scratch its enemy.
  2. Turns always alternate between the two sides, no matter how many characters are on each side. (A side with 4 characters gets the same number of actions as a side with 12 characters.)

An enemy with 3 healthy, strong opponents will wreck your champions, while an enemy with 9 injured opponents will be quickly mopped up by them. I had to break my old habit of killing each enemy before moving on to the next one, encouraged by dozens of games where an injured enemy hits just as hard as a healthy one.

Counter-Strike: It's an old game, but I can imagine how much FPS players struggled with this game when it first came out compared to Doom, Quake, and Unreal. It had no respawning until the match was over, no weapon pickups, and attacks were more lethal. Like Dark Souls, it discouraged charging in recklessly by making death painful.

Other games that would be difficult due to being different: Genre-creators & any game that changed its mechanics in a way where previous experience hampers players. I believe Dune 2 (created RTS genre), Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War (squads, morale, gain resources by taking objectives), Ikaruga (you want to be hit by certain-colored bullets), and Disgaea (geo panels, stacking/throwing, purposely "broken" leveling) are other examples of this type of game.

Games that are not difficult due to being different: Games like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, and I Wanna Be The Guy are difficult, but they aren't that different from their predecessors. Gaming veterans can quickly adapt to their mechanics, rather than being tripped up trying to play counter to years worth of habits.

What other games do you think are difficult due mainly to being different like this?


MikeLemmer's Thrifty 2013 Games of the Year List

2013 was a rough year for me. Trying to find a new job was tough, and my savings dwindled into the triple digits several times. I couldn't buy AAA releases while I was worried about having enough to eat for the month, so I had to rely on free or cheap indie games for nearly all of my entertainment. In celebration of the new year (and finally getting a job), here's my Thrifty 2013 Games of the Year List:

10. Path of Exile: It's a miracle this game exists. It gives Diablo a run for its money with a dark setting and a meaty advancement system, it's free-to-play, and it doesn't have any pay-to-win mechanics. I've seen games half this ambitious practically begging for your money the moment you log in, while Path of Exile just goes, "Hey, if you're enjoying the game, why not support us by buying a nifty pet to follow you around? How about an effect that makes your sword drip blood? No? Okay, that's cool." I'm loathe to give any free-to-play game my money, but Path of Exile earned it.

9. Reus: A god game about connections and synergy that sucked more time from me than I care to admit. You place plants, animals, and minerals which interact with each other to produce enough resources to meet each village's goals while dealing with limited space, time, and upgrades. It might have been a bit obsessive to sketch out resource placement on graph paper to figure out how to maximize my food harvest when I invested all my upgrades in minerals, but I enjoyed it.

8. Drox Operative: Try to gain influence in a randomly-created, constantly-changing space sector using just a single ship and skillful manipulation of the factions there. It's so chock full of stuff happening it's nearly overwhelming. Systems are conquered, planets are destroyed, and races are exterminated as you speed from system to system, trying to twist the tempest to your advantage. Its ambitions remind me of No Man's Sky. It may fall a bit short of what it aimed for, but it's a tantalizing look at what games could be.

7. Shadowrun Returns: A short-but-sweet RPG set in a unique future meshing magic & cyberpunk, it gave the Shadowrun community the tools to make their own adventures and left me hungry for more. It's like Neverwinter Nights for a fantastic noir setting, and it gives me high hopes for the other Kickstarter RPGs coming out.

6. Monaco: This heist-with-friends game is just as interesting when you're deftly pulling off robberies without anyone the wiser as it is when things go horribly awry and you're all trying to escape as hell breaks loose. There were screams, tears, and laughter. The best co-op video game I played all year.

5. Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves: Take Rainbow Six's planning phase, then tack it onto a first-person trap defense game set in the wilderness of 1800s Canada to folk music. Interesting gameplay with a setting that oozed character. My favorite surprise of 2013; I still hum the theme occasionally.

4. Saints Row 4: My one AAA splurge for the year. Gloriously stupid, gleefully broken. The most utterly joyful game I've played all year, full of stupid shit and hilarious moments. The Dubstep Gun is my Weapon of the Year, and this is the reason I play What is Love? whenever I'm flying a spaceship in other games.

3. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire: The best Star Wars game to come out in years is a tabletop RPG focused on the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. The goal? Make money on the edges of society; there's a million ways to do it and a millions ways to get into trouble doing so. Try to cash in on a Hutt's bounty, broker arms deals between crime lords and the Rebellion, smuggle spice past Imperial blockades, and race against other scavengers to loot a wrecked Star Destroyer. The mechanics encourage improvisation and lucky/unlucky twists to the story, and the personal tales of success & loss on the galaxy's fringes are more interesting than a dozen world-saving plots.

2. Dark Souls: "Welcome to 2011." Yeah, I know. I'm still counting it. If anyone had released a game in 2013 that caused the same awe and frustration and sheer determination to beat the damn game, I'd nominate that instead. But they didn't. After 2 years, Dark Souls is still a unique beast, and it would've made as big of a splash if it had been released this year. It's a game that deserves the renewed interest of the GiantBomb community; I'm glad I finally got around to playing this damned game and I hope Dark Souls 2 blows it out of the water.

1. League of Legends: I know it's 4 years old. It's still sucked more time out of me than any other game on this list, and its developers aren't scared to mix things up each season. The Season 4 changes? A complete revamp of the ward system, turning it from a gold race to a rock-paper-scissors interaction between the different wards. More variety in support items. Changing the layout and pacing of the jungle. I've played League of Legends for 2 years and I'm still just as interested in it as I was when I started. That sounds like Game-of-the-Year material to me.

Just how thrifty is this list?

With the Steam Christmas sale going on:

Total Cost: About $150


Prepare to Be Humbled

Jeff Green started playing Dark Souls as a joke, an old man playing the hardest game of the generation. He didn't expect to enjoy it. He didn't expect to continue it. He certainly didn't expect to get better at it. But after a dozen streams of the game, the "Mr. Magoo of Dark Souls" is making progress and improving his gameplay. Alongside the backseat driving and rants about him doing something wrong, a good chunk of the audience is cheering him on. "You know I used to chortle into my neckbeard thinking what would happen if he got to Smough and Ornstein, but he's getting better so quickly." "That was better than my first try at the Gaping Dragon. Jeff will be forged into a videogame warrior of steel by the time this is done."

Why are they so understanding? Because they've all been there.

Dark Souls veterans admit it isn't as hard as people think, it's just different. It tests your patience & caution instead of your reflexes. It's easier for novices to learn than the twitch reflexes needed for Call of Duty or Street Fighter, but gamers have gotten so used to throwing caution to the wind it utterly trips them up. Dark Souls is an antithesis to the era of quick saving, zerging, and Leeroy Jenkins. Novice and experts gamers alike are unprepared for the challenges Dark Souls offers, but the experts have the arrogance to think they can handle it. "I've played and beaten plenty of games. This'll be a walk in a park."

Dark Souls promptly humbles them. Rush into a fight? Death. Get too impatient? Death. Get a bit sloppy fighting next to a cliff? Death. The moment you act like you've got everything in the bag, Dark Souls brutally corrects you. The veteran gamers, not used to such punishment, declared Dark Souls "the hardest game ever", and the legend was born. And it is, in a sense.

It's hard to toss out years of gaming experience and start back from square one, to admit you're clueless about how to play, to unlearn and then relearn how to play a game. Dark Souls makes novices of us all. Its challenge shows no favorites, it's equally difficult for everyone. The comparisons to Legend of Zelda are apt; that game was the first action-adventure game for many of us, and Dark Souls replicates that feeling of playing something new & unknown.

It also provides a shared experience: the game makes fools of us all. We've all fallen off a cliff, or gotten backstabbed by an enemy we didn't see, or died to some trap we should've expected. No one got through their first run of Dark Souls easily; everyone took their bumps. When we see people like Jeff & Vinny stumble their way through the game, proclaiming they're "not that good", we emphasize because we all "weren't that good". We watch and encourage them because we also know what happens next: you take your scrapes, you learn your lessons, you improve, and then you beat a game you thought was impossible.

Dark Souls breaks you down & humbles you to build you back up. There is no gap between experts & novices in a game that makes novices of us all. Everyone can relate to that one stupid death, that one surprise, that one boss you finally beat after hours of attempts. That's why we want others to struggle through the game and beat it; if we can work our way up from scratch to defeat it, everyone can.


Steam Summer Sale Suggestions: 5 indie games for $25

Last day of the Steam Summer Sale, and I finally have my list of great indie games narrowed down to 5 indie games you can get (while they're on sale) for under $25 total. I posted the list proper on Nightmare Mode here:

...Where it links back to reviews I did of said games on GiantBomb. (The great cycle continues.) If you don't feel like reading my takes on the games, here's the bullet point list:

I hope you find one or two gems among that list worth buying.

Start the Conversation

Steam Indie Reviews: More Official Now!

Well, it's been over a month since I've quit my weekly habit of reviewing every Steam indie game that came out for $10 or less. What have I done in the meantime?

I got hired by the gaming website Nightmare Mode to continue reviewing Steam games as a weekly column. I present: The Steamroll.

The format's changed a bit: instead of writing a full review for each game, I write a column of first impressions after playing each game for an hour. However, it's still the same elaboration on indie games you may have missed you've come to expect from me. Head on over & see what I've reviewed lately, and watch in the future for even more articles by me.

Once again, thank you, GiantBomb, for getting me started on this opportunity.


Steam Indie Reviews: Change of Plans

Well, after a 2-week hiatus, I've posted up a review of the not-on-Steam game Diablo 3 (link leads to review) and have an important announcement to make: my weekly Steam Indie Reviews will be postponed until further notice. Why? Because a gaming website has hired me as a writer, and they're interested in doing something with the Steam Indie Reviews. I'll post more about it once the details get hammered out, but this may be the start of something grand.

Big thanks to the GiantBomb community for their support as I took on the challenge of hammering out several reviews each week, and to GiantBomb itself for the framework that made it possible. It's been one heckuva ride, and here's hoping it gets more exciting.