Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Someone Else's Tale - Review of Megacon's Myth

The defining narrative Megacon put out, of a game of the players' experience, falls short.

With their rhetoric and rules gaps, it certainly didn't feel like much of a story, and definitely not my story.



Heroes
Attacking is a pretty simple pool of d10's (+ gear and bonuses) vs. target number(s), with special effects on "fate dice." The general system, however, is fairly unusual in that there's no vanilla move or attack: everything you do requires you use cards.

Each hero has a deck of 25 cards comprising all of your options (attacks, bonuses, running, etc.), a hand of 5 cards, and can play 4 a round under most circumstances and is allowed to keep one between hands. Cards have action points, which upset the Darkness (the baddie AI system), which, when aggravated enough, will interrupt the free-form heroes' turn to retaliate.

The problem is mainly that I find there's just a bit too much luck here: with barely more options than you have slots and no initial deck customization, there are times when you'll effectively have no useful moves. You can wind up surrounded but with no attack cards, or you could be completely out of position but with a bunch of strong attack cards that make no sense to burn on movement, since it'll aggravate the enemies into attacking without actually gaining you your strong attacks. Every session, there have been at least a few situations where we've drawn our hands and one player has said "okay, guys, sorry, I can't help this turn."

Game AI
The baddie AI system is pretty lean: when aggravated, you draw a Darkness card. There's some effect, another effect that penalizes parties that haven't balanced their aggression properly, guys attack with a pretty straightforward system of priority, and then more guys appear. It's very well defined, and I don't think we've had a problem with it.

I'm still trying to figure out how this scales depending on party size (because it definitely isn't linear), but so far I've played 3- and 4-player parties without much difference in feel. The combination of player rounds and baddie rounds with different timing makes for some useful granularity in goals.

However, generating things is another story. Where baddies start, how many there are, and what types of treasure drop are often very nebulous, and often they involve things that boil down to "do what you feel like." Well, this is a co-op, non-tournament game that will probably always involve casual play. Of course you can do whatever you want. You can home-brew enemies, or use playing cards for items, or adapt the game as a WWII sim, or determine combat through Scrabble if you really want to. It's generally been pretty easy to agree "Okay, do you want to fight orcs or spiders here? Spiders? Sure, let's go," but it also feels lazy from both a balance and game design perspective for there to be such a loose system of assigning things.

AI, compared to other systems
When I wrote much of this review, I hadn't played as many co-op games, so I didn't have a ton to say. Returning to this, now I have, so I do.

Pandemic and Ghost Stories have a grueling AI system that's pretty simple and somewhat predictable, but it just keeps respawning heavily, so it's about overwhelming players. Their merit is basically quantity. Their downside is they're more forces of nature than enemies (which is more thematically fine in the case of Pandemic, though still not mechanically my favorite).

Sedition Wars' single player variant is complex but basically plays like a smart player, with some numbers to pad. It's hard to speak objectively on this since I worked on it, but in retrospect, I'd say the merit is a smart AI and the downside is overcomplexity, since it's essentially a mod of a game designed with the inactive player (now AI) being able to react.

Journey has spawn points and limited means of shutting them down, with random events instead of some spawns. I think it's a pretty middle-of-the-road system that runs smoothly but has no particular strong or weak points, other than a movement system I don't like (but that's not a flaw of the AI). I guess it's kind of repetitive.

Kingdom Death has extremely varied AI due to a monster being composed of two different decks, modified by health and level. Strong points are variety, downsides are randomness that can lead to bad loops that can get a monster particularly strong or weak near the end.

And we're back to Myth.

It's a sandbox, with extremely predictable and not very tough enemies, no substantive structure, and not much sense of urgency. I guess the advantage is you can do whatever you want, but I think the most apt comparison is Age of Sigmar (another more recent experience): in both systems, at the end of the day, if I want to play pretend, I can use my own imagination or play an RPG. If I'm playing what amounts to a fighting game, I want a reasonably balanced structure, and a lack of that makes it feel half-assed. I guess it's fun to rampage through chumps?

One of the last games we played before we gave up on the system, we had a boss where having a table or something in the way, as written, made it unable to attack but perfectly vulnerable to ours- we sat back and plinked it to death with no chance of threat.

The Quest System
Usually too complex, generally impetus for fighting 'round the world, with more than average flavor text, usually with a humorous or dark sensibility.

Some of these are drawn randomly, some only appear if you've completed another one (success or failure can determine options), some you choose out of the rulebook or expansions (the Kickstarter came with a pamphlet of additional scenarios). Some of them are strictly set up with maps, some are loose with only a specified end point and free choice of location and enemy class. It's clearly designed to be flexible based on which expansions you've gotten.

There are a number of Quests where it's clear that either they didn't test their scenarios or they played very casually/assuming the players would make a lot of assumptions, but it's a casual and co-op game, so that's largely forgivable (in that everyone needs to agree on an interpretation of what sounds reasonable; you're not arguing with your opponent on something that could cause one of you to lose).

With the exception of one such quest that was particularly ambiguous and basically added up to "here's this idea we had, now you try to guess how you're supposed to play it, because all models' rules and AI is based on elements which aren't present," the Quests have been pretty fun. 

Leveling Up
Within a quest/session, your characters pick up new gear and currency pretty quickly.

However, this doesn't stay around long, in general. Between sessions, you lose all your currency and, until you level up sufficiently, all your items. You're only allowed to keep gear or other upgrades based on completing story quests (which are supposed to be around 6 hours each) and then
choosing a title (permanent upgrade, one active at a time). If you don't choose this option, you can swap one card from your deck out for a veteran card.

Outside of completing Story Quests, you have very little control over your characters' progress, as quality of item drops is the only thing that you can actually effect that persists (until you've completed one story quest so have at least one permanent item slot).

I'm guessing this is designed so characters don't level up too quickly/to avoid balance issues, but it does feel futile at times to reset a lot of features each game. For those of you who remember Majora's Mask, it feels a little like resetting time: when you're done, you only keep a little of your progress.


The Rulebook
So... part of why I picked up Myth (since I've been somewhat wary of KS rules sets) is that Megacon had already done a game (Mercs) so I expected a well-enough designed rulebook.

What I found was a 60-page jumble. It began with a somewhat ambiguous glossary, wound through the general flow of the game, had confusingly alternating sections on gameplay, characters, and gear mixed together with no rhyme or reason, and ended with some campaigns and finally an okay index (which wasn't great, but I've come to expect poor indexes in games, so don't particularly fault Megacon for that one). The Kickstarter supplement came with a few additional campaigns.

Megacon needed to release PDF errata to include such relevant details as
-starting the game
-ending the game
-how to move (after a FAQ entry and a walkthrough, I still needed forum members to clarify)
-how one of the (five) heroes' staple items work
-how free play works
-how campaign play/keeping progress works
-how non-combat actions work
-how treasure works
-how clearing a tile works
...which I find pretty embarrassing. This is in addition to the pages-long document of clarifications and corrections for regular old typo/mistakes, which has become all too common recently- feels like, ever since FFG showed up, board game companies have often started treating games as works in progress rather than complete products. A month after the game came out, the 60-page manual had been supplemented by 33 pages of clarifications.

Moving past the structural problems with this, the rulebook has solid graphic design and is easy to read (within a given section), and has some decently clever quotes (...though they often wreak of academia). Within any given section, the rules are pretty well done, though they could have had more callouts/better emphasis on some material that's easy to overlook.

Finally, this might be something some people like, but it kinda' pissed me off... enough that half my rulebook section is about it. The very last page is an acknowledgements page, in the form of what comes off as a ridiculous ramble, with four paragraphs that jabber on about family and friends in unnecessary specifics for far too long (that's generally what the "thanks" and "special thanks" credits are for), mentions "you," the player,  (literally) a dozen times in thanks, and Kickstarter a few times more, and unless they have a lot of friends with the same names, repeatedly thanks the same people.

Then, it goes on to mention "glory to God" and "Christ is my savior."

First, this comes off as fawning and redundant: Keep "thank you"s short and sweet, and it's nice to mention people, but there's no need to prattle on. Second, it's just arrogant: I don't like religion being rubbed in my face.

While I might not agree with you, you can believe whatever you want and I won't get in your face about it (unless it's hurting someone), however, when you start pushing beliefs on others, it's obnoxious and leaves a bad taste in my... uh, sense of taste.

A Note on Philosophy, continued
Along with the acknowledgements page above, I have one other issue with the creators' perspective.

The Kickstarter and game box both emphasize how much it's the players' tales, but the game is a bunch of set stories the designers came up with. The players' part of the tales are if they decided to fight goblins or bugs or skeletons on the way to the boss, how many and where they spawned, and whether the players were lucky or dumb, or not. As in, it could have mostly been covered by a random number generator plus a very simple AI. Actually, a number of the scenarios seemed pretty specific, where I'd wager they're references to the designers' friends.

Again, returning to Age of Sigmar, "we didn't feel like fine-tuning the rules" isn't the same as giving the players substantive choices. I'm not actually sure what might have felt like real choice, maybe something where you chose between fighting hordes vs. elites, or a cascading theme change based on opponent types? IDK, but it wasn't here.

The Models
These come pre-assembled in a couple bags. They're assembled decently, though were twisted rather than clipped off the sprue, which is slightly annoying for the perfectionist or hobby-centric player. Also, the slots don't fill the textured slotted bases in many cases, so if you're planning on painting them, you'll need to find a way to patch unsightly gaps, which isn't hard but is very time consuming. Finally, the Crawlers come with awkward tabs and their legs stick out past the edge of their bases, but these aren't that noticeable on the table.

They're made out of a decent plastic. Nice for boardgames, okay for miniatures. Some sort of PVC, or "restic" to some gamers.

As with their repetitive gameplay, it's equally repetitive to paint bunch of the same 2-3 poses, and even those aren't enough guys for many scenarios- it feels like they expect you to have more than the core quantity. I liked the heroes pretty well.

Non-model materials
The game comes with a bajillion counters made of thick gaming cardboard (the heavy stuff, around 2-3mm thick). It's a game that takes a sewing box to organize, but that's just the type of game, not a flaw in my opinion. What is a flaw, is that a lot of components aren't for the core game. There are numerous counters and rules and references of things that don't exist in the game. It makes the entire thing feel somewhat incomplete. For example, some quests link to quests that aren't included, and the miniboss has a rule that only interacts with an enemy that doesn't come with the game (the skeletons in the box art).

The game tiles are nice enough, and clearly labeled.

The box is decent, though has already shown some decay with only moderate travel and use. The manual almost immediately scuffed since they didn't spring for a durable cover, but this is okay (I guess), since the manual was almost immediately outdated and is being replaced.

Replayability and core game
The modules feel unrelated and don't really form a cohesive sensibility.  Having played both RPG and board game campaigns, this felt pretty muddled. The aforementioned problems with leveling up I think are based on it being so heavily modular, with no obvious arc of power levels or stakes (i.e. even much of a basic low-powered beginning; middle-game with increasingly strong baddies; end game with god-like bosses), let alone what felt like a meaningful story, despite their attempts at such.

The core game comes with essentially two types of little baddies; two types of thugs; a couple boss-type guys. This was nowhere near the variety to make a lot of replayability: a half-dozen games in and we were already bored. The small enemies were faceless, and the large ones were too few. Also, it looks like the game was at one point intended to have another class or two of baddies, since the box art has another type of grunt, and there's a missing class of grunt and boss, which would have really filled things out, especially since a boss interacts with an absent set of grunt rules.

Much of this could be expanded, with better campaign features and more variety in the expansions (notably the ones that allow higher-end characters), but if there's one thing I hate in a game, it's a core that feels incomplete. I mean, obviously I like games to provide expansions that add content, but the basic product should feel like a solid game that can stand alone. Just like house rules should improve an experience, expansions should, and neither should be necessary for a good experience.

So, either the whole game's blandly repetitive, or just the core is and you're supposed to buy more.

Conclusion
This is one of very few games I've been offended by. I waited several months before finishing this review, because I wanted some perspective, and to not get on a rant because I was pissed off. But, with some more time it just has no redeeming value in my opinion. Actually, having played some nice co-op games in the interim, I'd say that it lowered my opinion of the game even further, even though I'm not mad about it any more.

I'd been on the fence when I bought in to this game- I eventually decided I thought it would be fun enough, and at very least good for gobs of generic fantasy critters even if it wasn't great, but my ultimate experience soured me to it enough that I didn't want to keep the basic materials, even if they were decent for RPGs etc.

The creators' attitude was extremely entitled, and I prefer not to generally bring social politics into my critiques, but this wreaked of the hubris. They assumed so much, that they made an incomplete, uninteresting, and ultimately just plain bad game.

I'm not one to write off games very easily. I like to be sure I'm getting the experience both for a fair review and because I don't want to ignore a good experience due to a bad first impression, so, despite being turned off by their rhetoric and poor rulebook, I wanted to give this game a fair shot, and ended up, despite really trying to enjoy it since I'd put a lot of work into the minis, finding the experience increasingly lackluster as I grew familiar with them.

There are cheap, little $10-30 games I've bought and thought had poor rules, and there are of course plenty of "classic" board games with trash rules, but this is by far the worst rules set I've ever run across for any high-production modern board game.

Someone used the analogy on another game, so I'm unabashedly stealing it (mostly because I can't remember who they were to cite them properly): Myth is a litterbox game: like a sandbox game, but you get some nasty surprises.

Afterword
Well, since it's not very productive to just criticize, the solution: What would I recommend instead?

If what you want is a fun, light weight narrative, RPGs would be your ticket. Find a prefab campaign if you don't have the energy to make your own. They span from a single campaign to months. I like Black Crusade's system, and there's always the classic D&D (I play 3.5, mostly 'cause that's the set of books I have). You can tailor them as much as you want, but they have real stories and real progress, and dodge idiot AI.

If you want a good thematic co-op that's got replay value and reasonably straightforward rules, I'd suggest Pandemic (if you like your games abstracted), or my new favorite, Kingdom Death (for a fantasy sandbox the way it's meant to be played).