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Starcraft Remastered – A love letter to balance

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Starcraft’s getting a remastered version! This is very exciting news, if you’re a fan of real-time strategy games. Although some readers are probably wondering why Starcraft needs a remastered version if it only just came out.

I’m referring to the original Starcraft, Starcraft 1, or Brood War…the old Starcraft. Although, Starcraft 2 is getting old now too, isn’t it? One of the main faces of Battlenet, it’s been five years since its first iteration and it continues to go through a lot of patches, updates, and sometimes even improvements.

Did I say BattleNet? I meant Blizzard. Blizzard is the company that makes things like Warcraft and Diablo. BattleNet was their service for online gaming, but now they’re just calling it “Blizzard”, since everything is online now anyway and they shouldn’t confuse people with multiple words for their game client. The times are changing, but the coming of a remastered Starcraft is very good news for nostalgic gamers.

Why am I nostalgic for Starcraft? Well, old games are sort of my area, being a very slow gamer. I’m an extraordinarily lazy gamer. Everybody’s running around, having strange sorts of fun in Breath of the Wild and Mass Effect: Andromeda. But I still gotta finish Mass Effect 3. I got lost in the multiplayer, logged a thousand hours, and never got around to beating the game. Don’t pressure me. I’ll get to it. It’ll probably take another thousand hours.

I haven’t gotten off that freaky first planet, uh, that Earth one.

Okay, I don’t play many games outside of my comfort zone. This way, I can never fail. Remember, don’t do anything new because then nobody can hurt you. Starcraft has always been in my comfort zone, ever since it came out. Which wasn’t that long ago. Well maybe it was. I’m not old, if anybody’s old, it’s you.

Starcraft came out like two decades ago, back in 1998. It received an expansion called “Brood War”, and a few patches to fix a few balance things and the normal glitches and stuff. This is back when patches were optional if you just chose to never hop on to Battlenet to fight other humans.

Not everybody has played Starcraft, so let’s go through some background as to why this was such a definitive game for Blizzard and RTS games in general.

Starcraft came without a historical background or fantasy theme. It didn’t draw upon an established narrative; instead, we were thrown into a different galaxy with no particular frame of reference. The story felt as new and futuristic as the technology and the characters. It wasn’t polished like Star Trek or mystical like Star Wars, but it felt like outer space with aliens ranging from awe-inspiring to terrifying. And of course, it came with those good old rule books that had like, art and stuff. We don’t get those anymore. No more CDs, no more CD cases, no more random extra materials with funky art that you’re not sure ever appeared in the game….

I still don’t know who this dude is.

The real part I want to focus on is the gameplay. Starcraft set itself apart in a lot of ways, but it got to the top of the competitive gaming scene (and the top of my heart) through its consistent balance and capacity for strategic play. Like other real-time strategy games, you would gather resources, build up an army, and then kill everybody. Unlike other RTS games, it had three unique factions to choose from. And not just unique like what had come before. What had come before? I have to explain a lot of old stuff just to get to my point.

A contemporary of Starcraft was the Microsoft game Age of Empires. It was released some months before Starcraft and was a lot of fun for everybody, letting you build up ancient armies and kill your friends with them. Age of Empires evolved in sort of a parallel manner to Starcraft, getting sequels and improvements and even its own remastered version on steam these days.

Battle of the Anachronisms

There were about a dozen different civilizations you could play as; compared to the 3 races of Starcraft, you would think that Age of Empires would have the edge in diverse gameplay. However, in AOE, the uniqueness of the factions was not due to different units. Every single civilization had the same tech tree, the same soldiers, the same towns. The differences were in what technologies or units they might be missing, or what bonuses they got. They weren’t unique, they were just a little different. And it was not noticeable. Oh, I’m sure there’s a few experts in my audience who insist that one civ is clearly overpowered or broken or whatever. But was it noticeable the first time you played it? The second time? The fiftieth time? Or only after you had mastered the game?

It didn’t really affect your play style if you didn’t know that your archers were getting +1 attack against buildings as this civ, or that your workers cost 15 less food as this other civilization. As a beginner, you probably wouldn’t even notice these differences. It certainly was not important in playing against the computer (though as always, PVP is an entirely different animal.) In Starcraft, the differences between the factions were in your face from the beginning: unavoidably affecting how you played the game from the first time you play it.

This probably isn’t a human base.

Starcraft was designed from the beginning to have incredibly unique factions. This was partially due to Blizzard trying to get away from their previous title, Warcraft. It apparently wasn’t enough to change one or two letters in the title. The designers had to get CRAFTIER.

Blizzard’s Warcraft, much like Microsoft’s Age of Empires, had factions that were basically identical. You might have a human footman, and I’d have an orc grunt, but they had just about the same stats. Unless you care about a difference of 1 or two damage, it wasn’t noticeable at the beginner level. It was cosmetic. Nobody in the history of the world has cared about differences on the cosmetic level.

For a differing opinion, see “The entire history of the world”

Starcraft started out the same way, in its design phases. But after being told the game just looked like “Warcraft in space,” they decided to rework it from the ground up. The factions weren’t different enough, so they pulled it apart and got creative. When they finally released it, the three factions of protoss, zerg and terran were radically different from each other. When a beginner sits down to play as terran, they would absolutely have to play differently than when they play as zerg.

The game forces you to place buildings differently as protoss, and everything is grown from the same central hive as Zerg, not trained at factories as other factions. Each was intrinsically unique: it wasn’t just a reskinning of another. The theme permeated every aspect of the game, from resource management to base-building to obliterating your enemies. This wasn’t like Age of Empires, where you could get by without noticing the differences. You were reminded of who you were playing every time you clicked on a soldier, a little zerg creature, or a psionic warrior.

Let’s play “Zerg? Or pasta?”

From the ground up, Starcraft looked like it would be absurdly unbalanced. Yes, I’m going to get into numbers, but I’m not going to go crazy. If you don’t like numbers or even the barest hint of math, just skip this section. I won’t judge you. Just skip to the part with the picture of the checkerboard now.

Aw yeah, baby. Look at those bad boys.

In Age of Empires, the first actual military unit you could get as you built up your cute little empire was an axeman. The dude cost 50 money. What kind of “money”? Go away, I’m keeping it simple, call it what you like. He did 5 damage, and had 50 hit points. So if an axeman whacked another axeman ten times, that guy is dead. 5 damage x 10 hits is 50. The end. Very simple.

Look at those beautiful, intuitive numbers. 50 money to 50 hit points to buy a guy who does 5 damage. Same basic thing in say, Warcraft. Doesn’t matter if you have a human swordsman or an orc axe grunt as your starting unit. They cost the same, and your opposing unit is about the same as you.

Now enter Starcraft. JUST the first unit. For Zerg, it’s a zergling. Simple so far, and what a creative name. Costs 50 money…great. They do 5 damage…so they’re an axeman. And they have 35 hitpoints, so they’re a weak axeman. And every time you buy one, you get two of them…Wait, what? Some sort of two-for-one sale is going on. That seems unbalanced. How can the other factions keep up? Well let’s look at what the next faction has.

Protoss zealot. 100 money…Okay wait. Already, Zerg is getting a two-for-one situation, and here Protoss is, with their very first military unit, costing twice as, quadruple as much. Not looking great. How much damage does he do? 16, okay, that seems high, but hey. He’s twice as expensive, so he should get twice as much damage. Wait, 16 is more than 3 times as much as 5. And they get 4 zerglings so he’s really 4 times as expensive. Wouldn’t they need 20 damage then?

You see how, already, the comparisons are falling apart? We can’t intuitively grasp how the units were designed. It was constructed in a linear sort of way for the earlier RTS games: This guy costs 50 and does 5, my enemy’s unit costs 50 and does 5. It’s clear-cut, but in Starcraft, your guy costs….25? And does 5? And mine costs 100 and does 16? Is that balanced? Are the protoss just wild like that?

Nah, this guy looks pretty chill

I’m struggling to explain the zealot’s damage. How’d they get to the number sixteen? It doesn’t fit into a nice, “double the price, double the damage” narrative either.

Let’s move on to their hit points. Zerglings had a strange number of 35, so what could this zealot guy have? Oh, 160. One-hundred and sixty hit points. This guy does sixteen damage to the poor zergling, who will be mauled in 3 hits. The zergling does 5 damage to this 160 HP heavyweight. 160/5 = 32 hits to kill the zealot. Well at least we’ve got four zerglings for the price of one zealot, right? So it’s probably balanced? I don’t know! It’s a dangerous sort of balance.

And wait, we’ve got one guy left, the human faction. Oh sorry, Terran. Whatever. Their basic guy. Costs 50 money. Okay. sounds simple, but we’ve been fooled before. How much damage? 6. Okay. unimpressive. Except it’s ranged. All these other examples were melee. As in, i gotta walk up to my enemy and touch them. This guy has a gun. Who brought a gun to a swordfight? The humans, of course. He’s got 40 hit points. So that’s not much more than a zergling, and we get two-for-one zerglings, remember? Is that balanced? Well this human dude has a gun, i mean, couldn’t he shoot them without ever being touched? I don’t know. You can’t tell from the numbers.

I can tell we need more space marines, though.

This is what I’d call a dangerous sort of balance. You can’t know for sure until you’re testing it. And it has to be balanced, because otherwise the players won’t have fun. You need to feel it’s balanced enough that your decisions make a difference—in an unbalanced game, the only decision that matters is picking the right team.

You’d have to be crazy to take a 160-hp unit, match it up against a 40 hp unit, and say, yeah. This looks good, ship it.

We haven’t even gotten into how these units are produced, or how upgrades increase their effectiveness, or how quickly they attack in this real-time sort of game. We have an entire army we could go through, examining every level, comparing the units that couldn’t possibly work together in the same game. But it did work. The game was balanced, or at least balanced enough to make you feel like it was strategy that decided the outcome of the game. Starcraft succeeded in an unprecedented sort of way for a strategy game.

Whatever happened to the days of simple, nicely-balanced games?

So when Blizzard publishes this remastered version, you can get into Starcraft for free—the original games, without the updated graphics, will be free to download. With the remastered version, they won’t be touching the gameplay, so all those wonderful statistics I described above will be the same. No changes, despite the years it’s been, because like I said, it’s sort of complicated.

You might think that they’ve probably learned something about how to improve the balance of the game, maybe take some of those units and tweak it a little bit? But I doubt anybody fully understands the ramifications of changing the Starcraft system at this point, and they would only alienate many classic (or lazy) gamers who like things to stay the same.

The other major improvement will be multiplayer matchmaking, bringing Starcraft remastered into the modern age of PvP. If you’ve never played Starcraft before, or if you’ve just lost track of it, or if you just find numbers inspiring, then maybe this summer is a good time to give RTS a shot.

this is really just a quick summary i didn’t even get into the romance of the attack-move command so count yourselves lucky


Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment and EA Games

A casual fan of many nerdy things, Kiernan is a casual reader who's written casually from time to casual time.

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Gaming

Keeping Kosher In Monster Hunter World

David

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Monster Hunter World is the best selling game in its series, with over 7.5 million units shipped. There are many reasons for this: The game is more accessible for new players, it’s not just on a handheld console anymore, there was actually some marketing push for this game…the list goes on.

However, I personally think one of the reasons the game is so popular is its food eating cutscenes. Before you go on a hunt, you can eat a meal at a canteen that gives you buffs. You’re also treated to an adorable and very tasty looking cutscene of the Palicoes (a cat like race that helps you hunt monsters) making your meal. The details are so lavish and the end product looks so good I couldn’t help thinking about it off and on for weeks. And one question that kept recurring was, “Would any of this food be Kosher?”

Kosher foods, for those of you who may not know, are foods that conform to the Jewish kashrut (dietary law). The word treif describes any food that does not abide by this law. Determining what foods are Kosher or not can get complicated since different groups of animals have different rules. At its most basic though, there are three groups of animals: land, flying, and fish (invertebrates as a rule are treif). Conveniently enough, most monsters in Monster Hunter World could fit under the same categories. We’ll go through each category and examine a few monsters from the game to decide if any (or all) of them can be Kosher.

Before we begin though, I’d like to give major props to one of our editors, Gretchen. Before I wrote this article, I knew next to nothing about what makes a food Kosher or not. Gretchen not only educated me, but did a lot of the heavy lifting, and for that I am grateful.

By Land

The first monster up for discussion is called Uragaan. Uragaan lives mostly in volcanic regions and is identifiable its large chin, its shiny, lustrous golden hide, and the spikes along its back. It consumes mostly bedrock and those large spikes on its back are actually crystals. It produces a sticky, tar like substance on its stomach, which it uses to attach explosive rocks to itself as a means of defense. If someone were to knock down or kill Uragaan, they’d be able to mine the vast mineral wealth on it’s back…but they wouldn’t be able to eat it, as Uragaan isn’t Kosher.

Not Kosher

In order for a land animal to be Kosher, it has to meet three basic requirements. First, it can not be a carnivore or a scavenger. It can not eat meat. Second, it must have a split hoof. Horses aren’t Kosher, but animals like cattle and sheep are. Finally, the animal must chew its cud. Pigs have split hooves, but they don’t chew their cud and thus are not Kosher. Uragaan meets the first rule, but fails with the second and third. As such, Uragaan can never be Kosher.

The next monster up is Kirin. Kirin resembles a unicorn or (more accurately) a Chinese Qilin. It has a single large horn growing out of its head, with a white mane and tail that seem to stand on end from static electricity. It’s body appears to have fur, but those actually are scales. Kirin also seems to crackle with electricity as it walks. Looking at the picture we can see clearly that it has a split hoof. The game doesn’t tell us what it eats or if it chews its cud, but if we extrapolate what it looks like and compare to say, an antelope or a deer (both of which are Kosher) we can safely assume that Kirin is Kosher as well, right? Wrong.

Also Not Kosher

Kirin fails to be Kosher not by the quality of the animal, but by the quality of its behavior. You see, Kirin belongs to a group of monsters called Elder Dragons and these monsters, in addition to being tougher the ordinary monsters, are immune to traps and tranqs unlike other monsters. This presents a problem, as in order for meat be Kosher, the butchering must happen in one swift action using a sharp knife. Shooting the creature with an automatic repeating crossbow is not the way to do it. Kirin, unfortunately, is not Kosher for this reason.

We come now to the last land based monster in this article: The Kelbi. Kelbi, unlike the monsters mentioned thus far, are not aggressive. They are small, and the males are usually green in color while the females and juveniles are blue. Males also have large, prominent horns while female horns are smaller. In-game, Kelbi horns are medicinal, and players make potions out of them. I’m also happy to report that Kelbi might be our first (possibly) Kosher monster.

Kosher! (maybe)

Like Kirin, Kelbi has a split hoof. We also know that Kelbi are herbivores, but it is unknown whether or not Kelbi chew their cud. Extrapolating and comparing them to real world deer and goats though, we can have more confidence that Kelbi are, in fact, Kosher.

By Air

Now we will discuss birds. According to Jewish tradition, animals that fly and are not insects are birds. Thus animals such as bats are ‘birds’ in regards to Kosher rules. The rules for birds themselves are fairly simple. They can’t be predatory or scavengers. This rule immediately rules out the next monster on the list: Rathalos.

Not Kosher

Rathalos is known as the “King of the Sky” and is the male counterpart to Rathian, another flying monster.  Rathalos are bipedal wyverns, primarily red in color, with sharp, poisonous claws that they use to hunt with. In addition to that, they have a flame sac that they use to produce flaming projectiles from, and their long thick tail has a club at the end of it. But as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, no birds of prey can be Kosher.

The next monster on the list is one of the oddest in the game. Pukei-Pukei resembles at first glance a giant chameleon with frog like eyes, wings, and green scales covering its body everywhere except around its wings and neck, where it has feathers. The Pukei-Pukei is an herbivore and it will eat poisonous plants so it can produce a poison to defend itself. Despite all of these peculiar traits, Pukei-Pukei appears to be Kosher.

Kosher! (Surprisingly!)

I was surprised to hear Gretchen tell me this, as I thought there would be no way a monster as weird as Pukei-Pukei could be considered Kosher. But as she laid the case out it began to make more sense. Despite some reptilian traits, Pukei-Pukei has more avian traits, and that classifies it as a creature of the air under the kashrut. As a creature of the air, it has to meat a few specifications. It does not scavenge like a vulture, nor does it hunt like a bird of prey. Thus, Pukei-Pukei meets the requirements.

And By Sea

There aren’t very many sea monsters in Monster Hunter World sadly. Only one of them really seems like it would count. And this one is Jyuratodus. Jyuratodus resembles nothing more than a bipedal coelacanth fish. It has two dorsal fins, two pectoral fins, two pelvic fins, and a long, thick tail that it can use to defend itself. It also covers itself in mud and other ooze, to act as another layer of defense and to possibly keep its gills and scales damp. Fortunately for us, practically the only water based monster in this game is also Kosher.

Kosher, and think of all the sushi.

For a sea animal to be considered Kosher, it must have fins and scales that can be removed. This generally means that the stereotypical fish is allowed, but not animals such as eel, lobster, squid or crab. Jyuratodus, despite its size and aggression does have fins and scales and would be Kosher.

The Hunt Goes On…

So what are we left with from this list? Two monsters that could be considered Kosher, three that are not, and one that might be, if it chews cud. And this is only a small sample of the monsters in the game. Not only that, but Capcom has plans to release more monsters as free DLC over the upcoming months. When the PC version of the game is out, I might revisit this article and expand on it. Until then though, happy hunting and bon appétit!


Images Courtesy of Capcom

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Analysis

Hopes and Fears for Deadfire

Michał

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The release of Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire, the sequel to an old-school RPG that’s close to my heart, was pushed back a month. An unfortunate state of affairs, to be sure, but tolerable if it gives the developers the time to eliminate bugs. It also gave me time to undertake another play-through of the original. This time, as a female dwarf druid from the Deadfire Archipelago, just to see if it becomes relevant.

And for those of us who appreciate traditional, yet forward-looking RPGs as I do, I’d like to talk a bit about what I hope and worry about in the sequel. Unfortunately, I was unable to get into the player beta that has been going on for some months now, for brutally fiscal reasons. So while I kept close tabs on the testers were saying, I must avoid making authoritative statements.

Instead, I’m going to cover some big topics that occur to me as I play Pillars of Eternity again and wait for Deadfire. Those are, in no particular order…

Spells: rest or encounter?

First things first: since I play a full spellcaster as my main character for the first time, I already can’t wait for Deadfire’s upgrade to spells with per-encounter uses, rather than per-rest. Having spells that only recharge on a full rest stunts the game’s pacing and makes balance very difficult. What we have here is three situations:

  • The caster doesn’t use any of their per-rest spells and doesn’t contribute much.
  • The caster does contribute without per-rest spells, using per-encounter or passive abilities. Each main casting class has those.
  • The caster dominates the encounter with powerful spells.

None of those situations are optimal. If we have either the first or the last, it means two extremes. If the second or the last, then it means those classes’ performance is similar to those with per-encounter or passive abilities, but they also sit on tactical nukes.

There’s really no way to balance it against classes whose abilities are available a number of times every encounter, or entirely passive. It will inevitably swing in the direction of some classes having more impact on the battle than others.

Resting as a pacing mechanic is notoriously unreliable, because the game can’t really control how much we rest. It can dole out camping supplies and make some areas impossible to rest in, but players can bypass it all. In a tabletop game, per-rest encounters will rely on the GM’s willingness and ability to enforce a particular pacing. In a video game…there’s no GM to do that.

This change has met with mixed reception. Aside from those who think it’s dumbing down the game, there have been concerns over insufficient quantity of spells and the fact that they take too long to cast. Meaning the battle might be over by the time you fire off that spell. The latter two are legitimate, and I hope the developers address them.

But regardless of what issues arise from a shift to a per-rest resource management, I really think it’s for the best. Per-rest spells are a relic of old-school D&D that has stuck around by inertia. We can’t be rid of it in D&D, so let’s at least remove it from Pillars.

Health and safety

The health system of Pillars of Eternity is somewhat controversial. Its removal in favor of a more traditional health in the sequel, perhaps more so. The original system measures two health “bars”: endurance and health.

Every time you take damage, you lose both, but while endurance regenerates by itself and through abilities, health doesn’t. You have at least four times as much health as endurance, which means it drops slowly. Once your health becomes lower than maximum endurance, the latter is also lower. Dropping to 0 endurance knocks you out, dropping to 0 health maims you, then kills you.

In theory, I like it. It’s a compromise between old-school unforgiving attrition and a more modern style where everyone gets back to full strength after each battle. But I’m not sure it works so well in practice.

Sometimes it does, and introduces slow sapping of your characters’ strength and forcing you to rest. But at other times, you either avoid damage enough for it not to matter or one character is focus-fired by enemies and their health drops dangerously low. So you have to rest even though everyone else is fine.

This particularly punishes characters who get into the thick of it without necessarily being tough and wearing heavy armor, but also back-like casters or shooters who end up target of enemy attacks. There’s no “taunt” mechanics that would straight-up force enemies to attack certain characters instead of others, either.

Deadfire will remove this duality and simply have health that acts like endurance did. Once you drop to 0, you’re once again knocked out, which results in maximum health dropping by 25%, in addition to injuries. But if it didn’t drop to 0, it will return after the fight just fine.

While I wish they could have tried to strike some sort of compromise and refine the health/endurance system, I can see why they did this instead. The old system was fiddly, random and many players didn’t understand it. Although in the last case I think the problem was with insufficient explanation. The game never tells us in plain terms how it works, so of course it confuses people. But other than that, I can respect their choice of predictable simplicity over continued tinkering.

Matters of romance

We don’t know a lot about romance in Deadfire, only that it will be there. It will also include non-heterosexual relationships, something rather conspicuously absent from the original – with the exception of openly lesbian Maneha and her crush on Pallegina. Whether or not Pallegina reciprocated it is less than clear. She’s flustered by Maneha’s attention, rather than threaten bodily harm as she usually does, so maybe?

This has drawn some ire from people. Some complaints stem from elitism, believing that romances are something from a BioWare game and Obsidian should be better. Others come from a place of homophobia, believing that the existence of non-heterosexual romances are a sign the SJWs are coming.

An actual concern one might raise is accidentally getting our character tangled up in a romance. The developers promise a complex system of inter-personal relationships, where all sorts of interactions will influence them. That’s great…if it works. I expect that they will still be predictable to some degree. But I also worry about accidentally making an NPC attracted to us.

Relationships developing in a way we didn’t expect or plan for is natural, of course. In fact, that’s what the supposed complex network of influence is meant to accomplish. But when it comes to romantic or even sexual matters…I feel it’s different. Having someone suddenly display such interest in your character can be uncomfortable.

We’ve seen it in RPGs before, particularly those from BioWare. That studio eventually adopted a system of making it absolutely clear we’re pursuing a line of dialogue that may develop into a relationship. What will Deadfire do here? Regardless of how they handle it, I do look forward to this new way of tracking relationships and influence among our companions.

Class relations…

One of the major features in the sequel is the ability to mix and match classes. Or, well, not mix and match, really. You can pick two classes and get abilities from both, but at a slower pace. While you will have a broader repertoire, you will get new tiers of abilities later than a single-class character of the same level would get.

I’ve been excited and worried about it ever since its announcement. It has so much potential for customization, but also for breaking the game. The balance team certainly has their hands full with it. By some accounts, single-class characters feel not so much weaker as constrained, compared to multi-classed ones. There’s just not enough abilities to pick from, or ability points to use. There have been some hints on how they plan to fix it, so I hope they do. This is a tremendous opportunity and I look forward to playing a greatsword-wielding Fighter/Rogue.

…and many more

There’s a good deal of other innovations Deadfire will include, but it would really take me a while to discuss them all. The new system for damage reduction and penetrating it, managing your ships, exploring the vast archipelago… this game promises to be huge, and what I discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg,

Whatever happens, Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire promises to stay on the same course of marrying old-school gameplay with innovative, fresh design. I have high hopes for it, with the usual trepidation over their getting dashed to the ground. But that’s just how it goes when a series doesn’t just repeat the same things over and over.


Images courtesy of Obsidian Entertainment

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Gaming

Dialect is an amazing game that asks if dying languages should be saved

David

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Greetings readers! Today will be the first of hopefully many reviews of tabletop role playing games. Some of them more mainstream, and others somewhat obscure. Today’s review is going to be about one of the more obscure titles. The game is Dialect and it is made by Thorny Games. Dialect is about language. Specifically, how languages are born, can grow, change your way of thinking, and how they can die. The team working on it has quite a pedigree, and includes people like David Peterson, who created the fictional languages on Game of Thrones.

Now, full disclosure: This game was on Kickstarter, and I did back it. My review will be based on the initial digital copy of the game I was given after the crowd-funding campaign was successful. I played Dialect with three other people: M, T, and V, none of whom backed the crowd-funding campaign.  

The Game

Dialect itself is different then a lot of “traditional” tabletop RPGs in that there are no dice, and no GM running the game. All you need are index cards, the five different decks of language cards that come with it, and the rules. Dialect requires three to five players as well, counting yourself.

The first thing the players do when they begin a game of Dialect is picking a backdrop for the game. The backdrop (called an “Isolation” in-game) is what separates this group from the wider world. These Isolations range from the physical (A new colony on Mars) to the cultural (A thieves guild). The Isolation is what lets them develop their language. The language also changes with the Isolation as well, as the next step is to define three different “aspects” about the Isolation. These shape the language, and will vary from game to game. In one example from the book, an aspect for a colony on Mars might be the ever present dust storms. After that the players have to answer questions about their community. These are smaller than the aspects, but still can define how the language will grow and change.

Once the players have answered all the questions, they draw three “archetype” cards, choosing one of them to use. These cards define a role in the isolation, and range from Innocent to Zealot. Leader to Jester. Each archetype has a different relationship with the different aspects. Some relate to only one aspect, some relate to them all. After selecting an aspect, giving a bit of backstory to the character, and determining their name and what others call them, the meat of Dialect can begin.

Each player starts with three cards from the first language deck in their hand. These cards have different word ideas on them. They range from ‘Greeting’ to ‘Bad Omen’ to ‘Filler World’. The player then ties this word to one of the aspects, explaining how the aspect gave rise to this word. It’s at this point that the players can discuss what word fit the best. In the end though, only the person who played the card can decide what the word is. After that, the final step is to have an in-character conversation either using or conspicuously not using the word. The final step has the player draws a card from the second language deck, and play passes to the next person.

After each player has had a turn, the “Era” changes. Now the isolation will have to deal with hints that their way of life is ending. There are three eras. By the end of the third, the Isolation has ended, and the language (Or at least the culture that spoke it) dies.

THE GOOD

One of the goals of Dialect is to create a language based on what the players want. And in this, it succeeds spectacularly. The language cards are clear and concise. The round table nature of the game also makes sure that every player has a say. As ‘V’ puts it: ”The floor is pretty much always open for discussion, but it prods every player into the spotlight so nobody gets unintentionally left out. The ‘this is 100% your choice’ questions make you feel more attached to that element of the game.”

Another, smaller aspect of Dialect I particularly enjoyed was how the book (and by extension, the writers) were concerned about player’s comfort levels. They stress repeatedly how the group should know it’s limits, and to avoid situations or scenarios that might be triggering to other players. A lot of games do this nowadays, but few do it as frequently or as early as Dialect does.

Dialect is also open ended enough that it can be useful when used with other settings to define specific cultures. ‘M’ agreed with that sentiment, and added: “I feel like it was less a game in and of itself than one of those generators I see every now and then, to help build a setting or a space marine chapter or whatever else.”

One of the strongest aspects of Dialect is the re-playability. With the randomness of the cards, the different selections of Isolations, and even the contrasting moods of the players, you will have a totally different experience each time. ‘T’ put it best, saying: ”A lot of the games will be different each time. Between the scenarios and the players and the cards, everyone will have a different perspective.”

THE BAD

Dialect is not without its faults. The most prominent of which is the very thrust of it’s premise. A game about how languages die can be very high concept, and that can scare some players away. Another thing that can scare players away is the group role-playing and decision process. Some players are just naturally more timid than others. In ‘T’’s words: “as it stands someone who isn’t comfortable at the sort of ‘rping’ it out probably wouldn’t get the same enjoyment’

Another fault with Dialect that stems from its focus on language is that nearly all it’s focus is on the language. There is very little to help new players get used to roleplaying. There is also very little that helps distinguish between the language creation and the roleplaying aspect. ‘V’ had a bit to say on this: “I think the game’s biggest weakness, from what I played, was the actual roleplaying part. It’s 90% meta, OOC [Out of character] discussion of your language, then you suddenly have to scramble into character and improv on the spot.”

The final criticism I have with Dialect is that there are places in the rules where there is ambiguity. Some rules errata will fix that issue though.

FINAL VERDICT

Before I give my opinion on the game itself, there are a few things I would like to mention. The first is that the Isolation does not have to be literal. It can be as simple as a boarding school, or even a website where people go to congregate. I even noticed some parallels to a few of the Isolations and the early LGBT movement. Not that the LGBT movement is dead, but that the language of it has changed since the early days.

The second thing I want to tell you about is a story from the test game I ran before writing this review. The players were members of a thieves guild in early 19th century London. They were con-men, swindling rich aristocrats out of their money by selling them ‘Mummy dust’ that was actually just dirt scraped up off the side of the road. One of the words the came up with was the word ‘Stone’ to refer to a bad omen. Named after the newly discovered Rosetta Stone, the word took on new meaning in a few turns, and began to be a term for anyone who wouldn’t fall for their tricks. It became one of my personal favorite words that session. When the game ended, I realized that the word was dead. Only a game like Dialect could make me feel that way about a simple word.

Dialect is an amazing game. I highly recommend it for people curious about language, those who are looking for a tool to help flesh out their own worlds, or for anyone just looking for a unique, fun game that doesn’t require a lot of set-up. Everything from the art design to the rules to the cards all helps bring the main focus of Dialect into perspective: What is lost when a language dies? Are dying languages worth saving?

Having played Dialect, I can tell you the answer to the second question. Yes.


Images courtesy of Thorny Games

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