Bugging Out

20 Sep

The screenshots in this post reveal which character I’m playing; if you’re part of the GD game and want to keep playing in total anonymity, either go back or try to avoid looking at the big colourful rectangles. Just sayin’.

For the past five days I’ve been locked in a battle of wits with staff and friends of Gaming Daily in Jupiter’s Folly, a browser-based boardgame that has twelve players racing to build the most efficient crystal-mining operation on the surface of a desolate but mineral-rich planet, building fragile alliances with each other along the way – knowing full well our friends could backstab us at any moment in the name of unchecked capitalistic greed.

And that a nice daydream I had. In reality, for the past five days I’ve been moaning on Twitter along with some staff and friends of Gaming Daily about the metric assload of hostile aliens in Jupiter’s Folly, a browser-based boardgame that has twelve players unexcitedly batting away/being devoured by swarms of the omnipresent bastards on the surface of a desolate but arthropod-rich planet, occasionally asking each other to borrow some pesticide or grenades – knowing full well that the other nearest player to a packed, impregnable nest probably isn’t putting as much effort into fighting it as they are.

I understand we’re still relatively early into the game. But these fanged twats have had an adverse effect on more or less every single one of my attempts at both mining and player interaction. I can’t spend any of my money on new mines because I need dozens of new soldiers to guard my existing sites from the oncoming horde. I can’t play the diplomatic route because the insect war is taking up so many resources I can’t use them to appease potential allies, and I can’t screw over people over because both myself more or less everyone else is sufficiently wrapped up  fighting bugs that causing additional problems during these crucial early stages would be a dick move so turgid that the recipient would, quite understandably, never speak to me again (especially problematic if that person turned out to be a fellow GD writer or, worse, editor).

Their purpose is, I think, fairly clear: they’re catalysts, an uncontrollable influence introduced early in the game to force us to try out interaction, trading and sabotage. They’ll be gone by the end of the game in a few weeks time (individual turns take hours to complete, so I’d be surprised if we finish before this time next month), but by then we’ll have been trained as devious industrialist geniuses and, deprived of cannon fodder, inevitably begin turning on each other. That’s the idea, anyway. Probably.

But here’s the thing: we’re human beings. We don’t need external forces guiding us to become scheming, self-serving villains (if you’re in this game: don’t give me that look, you know it’s true) as long as we know it’ll help us win the game a bit easier. Likewise, if we want to take the peaceful route, we won’t necessarily be strong-armed into joining forces by the threat of hungry insects – we’re perfectly capable of perceiving the benefits of co-operation in a cutthroat game world without, thank you very much.

So, as long as you and your friends have a modicum of initiative, bugs are ultimately an irrelevant addition. I wish that was their only problem. But:

– Swarm nests, vast strongholds of the alien menace that act as spawn points, are dotted seemingly randomly over the map. Considering you can’t take a look at the world before choosing a starting point, this means some players may be constantly bombarded with a never-ending stream of bugs from three or four positions while some lucky sods don’t even have to deal with one. Of course, the latter will shoot ahead in the race for crystal, riding on the coattails of his good fortune rather than any tactical skill. I don’t know each player’s situation in our game, but there are already some huge score discrepancies which the guys at the bottom have, if I’m honest, little chance of closing.

– Groups of bugs also move randomly around the board. While the temptation to say ‘And by random, I mean consistently towards me’ is great, the real problem with this is that it makes reacting to them extremely tedious. When moving a unit of friendly soldiers to what turns out to be the wrong map node takes over fifteen hours just to undo, never mind correct, these swarms’ greatest strength is often that it’s painfully difficult to adequately prepare for them.

– Going back to the nests a bit, sorry, but they are just complete fucking horseshit. Besides these being immune to certain offensive cards for no clear reason, they’re massively overpowered. The standard squad size for troops is twelve, with a single dice to roll in combat which adds to that number. Nests are generally at around 20o-strength, and gain an extra dice every time they spawn a new batch of bugs. To have a good chance of attacking and destroying a nest, you’d need at least 230 men, plus you’d have to level them all up by – yup – fighting smaller swarms in order to gain a competitive number of die. Oh, and every new swarm will usually have a strength of at least 16 and will inherit the nest’s rapidly inflating dice level.

Guys, that is just too damn big of a headache to have to deal with in the first week. And you will need to wipe out those nests in that time, otherwise  they’ll grow to too high a level and will simply continue pumping out laughably powerful units to come and break all our mining stuff.

In my ideal version of Jupiter’s Folly (it also begins by giving me a bonus 5,000 crystal and is actually called James’ Dashing Haircut), space bugs just wouldn’t exist. But, if they did, I can think of two distinct yet superior variations on how they should be implemented:

1) Bugs increase in level and swarm size over time, but you can see their positions on the map at a far greater distance, in addition to their travel routes. There are no nests – once they die, there are no replacements, so we can move swiftly on the much more enticing prospect of corporate espionage rather than playing a half-baked combat RTS. The idea here is that insects remain a considerable threat, but you have the foresight to be able to plan accordingly. Instead of a panicked scramble to drop some soldiers near an approaching cluster, we have a more cerebral goal of balancing our mining needs with the need for a very specifically sized and levelled army. If it rolls right over you, tough – you didn’t plan well enough. But at least you had the chance to plan.

2) Swarms are small and weak – any of the units you begin a game with could kill one without many casualties. But, they can reproduce, and create swarms of identical size whenever they’re in a darkened section of the map. In other words, if nobody has expanded to that area yet, there’s a good chance a number of these little pests will be emerging from them soon. This type of enemy wouldn’t require constant tactical considerations, but do encourage players to venture out into areas they might otherwise not have bothered to. Here, the risk of sending manpower out into the black is rewarded with the possibility of finding new crystal deposits, as well as eliminating the insect’s hiding places. Of course, this raises new issues to chew over – if you leave a darkened area alone, might it help your cause by sending packs of bugs at a competing player on the other side?

I can’t remember the last time I played a game with such grand possibilities for interesting, intriguing, infuriating interactions with other human players, nor a game where a single element (possibly intended to be gone by the halfway point) has soured the experience to such a degree. I can accept that we’ll never see a Jupiter’s Folly without bugs, but I’d settle for seeing them toned down to become the temporary distraction they’re actually worthy of being.

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