Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mantic Open Day, November 2014 Part 2

The full title of the final seminar at Mantic’s Open Day, November 2014, was ‘The Future of Mantic Games with Ronnie Renton’, leading Ronnie to make a joke about what the future of Mantic would be without himself.
One thing he did want to be clear on though was that he sees digital products as a big part of that future. Geiger, the company that makes Mantic’s digital products, were represented alongside Ronnie and Stewart Gibbs to emphasise the point.
Here then are some of the key points and answers to questions from the room.

This post is about Mantic's pipeline.
  • There are no plans to do any kind of space battle game. The reason for this is mostly that there is already a very successful game out there with a very strong ip behind it. Ronnie did say that if he were going to do something featuring Plague and Enforcer fleets he would probably just ask FFG for a licence as they have a solid rule set that people know and like.

  • The Dungeon Saga Pledge Manager is on the way. Geiger said they planned a short beta test next week, then the proper release, and the KoW PM should come out straight after that. Ronnie was keen to stress all future Mantic PM’s would go through this one system so backers would only have to log in once. They would also remain fairly flexible so people could add stuff as they could afford it and pay instantly by credit card. He also joked there would be a paypal option for those that want to hide their spend from the other half.
  • Geiger said the Dreadball Playbook app is also still on the way. The delay, we were told, is due to waiting for DBX and seasons 5 and 6 to come out so they could be integrated. 
  • The idea of fantasy terrain came up and Ronnie indicated there was some tension between himself and Stewart over this. Ronnie thinks the 3” square model used in Deadzone can be transferred, Stewart is unconvinced. Really they need to be sure they can come up with something that will scale up from small villages to castles and the like. They also need to decide on a timescale to develop some kind of KoW skirmish game and there is definitely no room for it in the current KoW KS. 
  • Geiger talked a fair bit about Dreadball league software that will be open to testers soon. The idea is for people to be able to set up leagues, record games, and possibly transfer results to a central server. There would be various ways for people to log in, but the issue of people possibly inventing matches and results to inflate their standings needs to be dealt with.

  • Season 4 of Dreadball will be seen in January, then more Deadzone in February, then season 5 of Dreadball in March. I’m guessing the Deadzone in March will either be release to retail of stuff KS backers already have, or possibly even the first sign of the next KS.
  • Ronnie has plans for a world tournament of Dreadball. He would like to fly the highest ranked European player to the States to play the highest ranked American in a ‘Ryker Cup’. Perhaps they play seven games but have to have seven different teams to counter the ‘Nameless are the best’ problem.

  • On the topic of videogames, Ronnie said again they had been approached several times by serious parties. Games companies like that Mantic has good games with solid ip. But the potential cost and associated risk puts Mantic off committing to anything. This is similar to the answer Ronnie gave to the same question at the last Open Day. He would rather they held off doing videogames than risk the company on a poor one.

  • The topic of using Restic on big models in the current KoW KS came up. Ronnie said they would be waiting to see what numbers of certain models were ordered before deciding what materials to use for some things. Getting base troops into hard plastic is something that came up again and again during the day.
  • An app for Deadzone AI cards is done. Lots of work has gone into the algorithm to make it shuffle like a person. So you will see some cards get ‘stuck’ as it deals, becoming more random as time goes on.
  • Confirmation that Deadzone 1.5 features Vermyn and is next on the slate. Will also revisit and hopefully fill holes in current lineup like Asterians basic troops. Ideally this will get all armies ready for a vehicles-focused Warpath KS. Mantic believes the tech is now where it needs to be to do vehicles right.

  • There is also a growing possibility of non-KS funded projects. Azure Forest was held up as the example here. The only DB product that was not KS-funded.
  • Device compatibility of apps came up briefly. There was some support for more Windows device app support but the issue really is complexity. Even with Android. Geiger said the variety of devices to cater for was huge. Apple is simpler, but the hurdle there can be their approvals process. Ronnie joked the only certainty was that if you had the same phone as him, you could be sure Mantic apps would work on it. Good news for me as we both use Galaxy Notes ;)

  • There was a short discussion of the lack of hobby resources being produced by Mantic. Ronnie said this was really due to a lack of time. They have tried to do things like Dave’s Hobby Tips and Army Painter do the occasional painting guide. But there is also a fairly good amount of content being put out by the community. Personally, I like this. It feels more like Mantic to have the community produce things like painting guides and show what can be done with their terrain and models and the like.

That was more or less it for the Open Day seminars. Lots to look forward to including the next Deadzone kickstarter and maybe even a rollout of Warpath late in 2015 as well as more Dreadball, Dungeon Saga, and Kings of War. If you have any questions about what was said or seen at Mantic please leave them below. Let's close with a couple of pictures of what Mantic keeps on their bookshelves. Some suprising and some not so surprising sources of inspiration there...

Mantic Open Day, November 2014 Part 1

Wow, what a long and hectic day. Once again I made the pilgrimage around the M25 and up the M1 to Mantic HQ for the Open Day. It’s a long way to go, but worth it for all the cool stuff you get to see and hear
Including new boxes!
But not everyone can make that journey, of course. So, here’s my recap of what I heard in the seminars and saw on the tables and cabinets and a few thoughts on what’s going on and likely to happen at Mantic in the near future.
This time round there were three seminar sessions. This is, I think, the first time this has been done at Mantic’s current HQ building. The seminars were also somewhat specialised in their content too, another first. I missed the title of the first one and didn’t sit in on it either. Apologies, but it was probably about Kings of War and I used that time to catch up with friends and hit the shop.
The second talk was focused on Jake and his games. An important point to make here – Jake wouldn’t actually talk much about Kings of War or Warpath proper as these are not games he works on.He had quite a lot to day about Dungeon Saga, Deadzone, and Dreadball though. Here are a few key points he made in response to questions from the audience. Ronnie also sat in for a while so there are some titbits from him too.
Lots of new orcs.

  •  Jake would love to do a fantasy version of Deadzone and a Warpath version of Dungeon saga. Its really a question of time though, that being that Jake doesn’t have enough of it to fit in everything he would like to do.
And other monsters.
  •   The idea of Dungeon Saga (DS) downtime was discussed at some length. This would be dealing with the time between missions in DS for players to choose what their character does. Ideas like visiting a market to look for new gear or a temple to get a blessing were floated. Jake wants there to be at least five things you want to do with your character but only have time to do one. It’s a flavour of RPG mechanics without going all the way in.
  •  Ronnie said DS components were being shipped in one load and they planned to send it all out in one go. This would mean two boxes for most pledges though as the contents would be too heavy for one box. I’m afraid I missed whether he was categorically saying everything in the KS was going to be in this one shipment and I didn’t back it so I’m not sure if that is even possible. But it did sound that way. Ronnie also joked about waiting to see what thing would inevitably go wrong. 
  •  There was talk of expansions and sequels to DS. The initial campaign takes players up to defeating Mortebris who flees. On the way out he raises a demon for players to fight.
  • The next expansion would be a prequel of sorts, allowing players to start with a brand new level one character. The possibility of two new characters being written was raised and then joining with two from the original game to form parties.
  • Jake and Ronnie want the game to do really well at retail. In the second seminar Ronnie said Dreadball had sold twelve thousand copies at retail, compared to two thousand KS backers. DS had six thousand backers so, if it performed as well, that would mean more than thirty thousand sales. Reading between the lines, Mantic is aware of the importance of looking after retail as much as KS backers.
  • Jake wants to see lots of scenarios being created by the community and the game is built to do that, what with the companion manual being put together containing stats for all the models in Mantic’s range. He would like to have seen more player-generated stuff for DKH.
  • Jake is working on a new campaign for Deadzone. He is also aware the rules were not presented in the most accessible way in the original rulebook. The next Deadzone release will feature the Vermyn and will give missions that ease people into the rules.
  • There is little chance of any expansion for Mars Attacks! The problem is that pretty much everything in the original i.p. is already in  the game. The Novas Virae were practically made up while the campaign was running.

  • As far as Jake is aware, there is still a plan for annual tournament packs for Dreadball in the manner of Azure Forest. Ronnie had left the room at this point but things like this did come up in the next seminar as well.

  • Jake is also still not happy with Jacks in Dreadball and is still working on a fix. The game is by no means broken as it plays now. My guess would be there will be a second edition of the rules at some point in the reasonably near future. He would really like people to try the experimental rules he floats on Quirkworthy and report back on them.

That was pretty much it for Jake’s session. The next talk was entitled, ‘The Future of Mantic Games with Ronnie Renton’ and I will cover that next.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mantic's Deadzone: AI Edition

There have been a couple of surprising developments in the world of tabletop gaming over the last couple of years. Firstly, how successful many new games have been on Kickstarter. Who would have thought there were thousands of gamers out there willing to front up millions of dollars to advance the production of a multitude of games and gaming accessories? Secondly, how much demand there has been for single-player versions of many of these same games. Who knew gamers wanted to play with themselves so much?

Well, I always did. I'm one of those guys single-player gaming can really appeal to. I get out and play, don't get me wrong. But with a working wife and two kids to take care of, one trip a week to the local club is about as much as I can guarantee each week. So the opportunity to play many of the games I have spent hundreds of dollars on while at home and alone is very welcome.

Deadzone, mantic, Plague, battlezones
She made me buy this table to 'eat' on. Hah.
This week I received my second-wave shipment of Deadzone from Mantic games. Deadzone is playable solo in two ways; with zombies which are also useable as npc's in two-player games, and with the purpose-built AI card deck.

I have built up thirty zombies and even found time to paint twenty of them and will be trying them out in a game with a friend later in the week. But I also managed to get in several games alone using the AI deck and this post will be concentrating on that experience. Rules for using them come in the 'Contagion' expansion book.

In the classic AI game you set up your own Strike Force and an opposing Force of matching points. The game board and cards are then set up, pretty much like in a two-player game, but with a couple of important changes.

For a start the AI team gets two mission cards, both of which you can see from the start. This helps you work out what move the AI models will take as the game progresses.

Deadzone, mantic, battlezones
They also tend to only start out where you can reach them without getting up.
When it's the AI teams turn you draw the top card from the AI deck. All the Deadzone models have been allocated to one of five classes, Command, Assault, Heavy, Support, and Line, and most of the cards will tell you to activate one of these classes, choosing the qualifying model either closest to or furthest from the enemy. Once you have figured that out, each class has a list of activities they can carry out, arranged by priority. So a Command-type model will first make sure it cannot be assaulted by an enemy model. If it is in a safe spot it will then attempt a Command action. Assault troops will prioritise closing with the enemy, Line troops shooting at them, and so on.

So, the big questions: does it work, and is it fun? Well, the answer to the first one is 'most of the time'.

Knowing which models to activate is generally straightforward and easy to do. It can get a bit murky though when you get to figuring out which action that model will prioritise though. The rules tell you AI models will essentially gravitate towards objectives and choose sure-things over maybes and when they will use cards and so on. But you can still find yourself in some complicated situations.

Having two missions often doesn't help as their objectives can be contradictory.

Deadzone, mantic, battlezones
You guys go for killing the enemy, I'll do guarding this bit right here.

In one game, for example, the AI Plague drew a survival mission and an infiltration mission. For assault models this was ok as they just raced across the board towards the enemy. For the slower moving guys though there was the difficult decision of which way to go when it was their time to move. Should they move into firing positions where they might be able to shoot the enemy but risk getting shot back? Or follow the 3d's across the board, but more slowly, thus also risking getting shot down?

Deadzone, mantic, Battlezones
Only the Leader understands 'Cover'.

Using the cards also gives your AI models a distinct lack of tactical nouse. Whereas a human player would be willing to build forces in one location to provide overlapping or overwhelming fire on an objective before sending a model out to capture it, the AI will sometimes suicidally rush towards the nearest objective on the board. If they're unlucky in the activation order this can leave models all alone and easily picked off. Sometimes shooting at the enemy is the sensible option, but the rules still tell you a model runs off to sit on an objective.

Deadzone, Mantic, Battlezones
We knew you were going to charge us. We just don't care.

Knowing what the enemy will do next is also a big advantage. In the last game I played as Orx I knew I did not need to move my Commander to a safe position out of charge range of two Plaguehounds because they had the Infiltrate mission and would run straight past my model to get off the board. Instead I could do a Command action and leave him where he was behind a corner.

All that said, I think the answer to the second 'big' question is still 'yes'. Yes, that is, if you understand and accept this is not like a two-player game.

Games play out faster than two-player ones and the AI models can be dumb. They will not supply the same tactical challenge of a human opponent. Sometimes you will need to roll off to decide which action a model will take or you will find the action priorities nonsensical. Let it go. Sometimes human players do daft things to or catch you off guard.

Most of the games I played were still surprisingly close. Even though I, the human, won them all, several times the AI came within a couple of points of beating me.

With  two mission cards the AI can score points very quickly. The first game I played the AI was getting a VP on each card for every turn they got through with fifty percent of their points on the boards. You also get 'bonus points' VP cards in the AI deck and can choose to start the AI with one, two or three, points from the get-go. The AI then, was getting up to five VP's just for surviving the first round.

The challenge becomes in achieving your goals as fast as possible while having to hold off the enemy from achieving two of theirs.  The game knows the AI is dumb and it is weighted towards giving them fast easy VP's. Be faster.

Think of the bonus cards as a kind of handicap. Give them one if you want a fairly easy expedition, three if you want a real test of speed and tactical awareness.

 A couple of tactical notes:

  • avoid giving your AI faction points-heavy, high command total type models. With their default action, assuming they are in a safe position and they should be if you set them up fairly, is Command. Plague Stage 1's get six points in their Command pool and will most likely just stand on the spot using them.
  • choose factions you know well for the AI. You have twice as many cards, dice, counters and models to keep track off than usual. Knowing your AI faction's special abilities and stats will help.

And a suggestion:

  • prioritise one of the AI faction's missions over the other from the start. Still let them score points for both, but deciding for example whether infiltrating or capturing is more important will make their actions easier to determine and possibly make a tougher opponent.

I like Mantic's AI system. It is not perfect but its a good start. I think it could do with a few tweaks, but we have a great community who tend to be good at that sort of thing.

I have all six Deadzone factions, but have only played games using three. I'm looking forward to using the AI deck as an opponent to help me learn the others.