Archive for May, 2018

Steam Spring Cleaning Event

I feel like paying attention to special promotions on Steam these days loses you some cred. Steam had something special going on back when they weren’t the incumbent, but Itch is what’s hip now. Plus, Steam’s special promotions just aren’t that interesting any more. Back in, say, 2011, they had grand metagames, things for which they’d get developers to put new Achievements and even new secret levels into their games. Today, it’s all predictable annual sales and things to do with trading cards.

Nonetheless, this past Memorial Day weekend, there was a Steam promotion that I think bears some scrutiny. Billed as a “Spring Cleaning” event, it offered a trophy (which is to say, a badge, worth 500 Steam XP if fully leveled) for completing certain tasks. The interesting thing is that the tasks weren’t designed to convince you to buy more games. On the contrary: they were all about playing the games you already have, with tasks like “play a game that you’ve played for less than an hour” and “play a game you’ve played for more than two hours, but haven’t played in a while”. Each task, when clicked on, yielded a list of suggestions — one task, which could be claimed afresh on each day of the promotion, was simply “Here’s a few randomly-chosen games that you own. Play one of them.”

There was a task to play the very first game you ever acquired on Steam — in my case, this was the Orange Box, so I had quite a few choices. Another daily task asked you to play a game that’s in your library but that you haven’t played at all. For me, this was not a problem — I have many games I haven’t played yet; that is the entire premise of this blog. But I was curious to note that the list of games it recommended for this task included several that I had in fact played, and even ones that I had Achievements for. A bug triggered, perhaps, by having too many games? It tried to pull up my play history and gave up after the first hundred thousand lines? Who knows?

At any rate, the reason I’m describing the event here is the big question it provokes: Why? Why is Valve, as a corporate entity that’s not primarily concerned with encouraging people to finish their backlogs for its own sake, bothering with this nonsense? I guess they’re in favor of anything that keeps the players engaged. I also have a sneaking suspicion that it also serves analytic data-gathering. In the Bundle Age, it must be difficult to discern a person’s actual tastes, so here’s a random assortment of games that you already own; which will you click on?

But also, this is a remarkably backwards-facing promotion. It showed me a bunch of games that I haven’t thought about in years, and that made me think about how great they were back in the day. And that serves Valve well. Recall what I said about Steam being past their peak hipness. Well, if they can’t have hip, at least they’ve got a near-monopoly on several years worth of PC gaming nostalgia.

Gearheads: Meet the Toys

OK, let’s enumerate the toys. The manual contains a list giving their basic stats and special behaviors, so I’ll try to make observations not found there.

In approximate order of increasing interestingness:

Ziggy, the cockroach: the fastest and lightest of the toys, capable of crossing the screen with the least winding, provided it doesn’t run into anything. Which it likely will, because it tends to veer wildly left and right. If it gets bumped, it flips over on its back until it gets bumped again. Still, when it’s available, it can be the easiest way to sneak in a few extra points. The real fun comes in when the opponent is using Ziggy as well, because you tend to get large clusters of supine bugs that way, and it turns into a sort of tug-of-war (push-of-war?) with both players trying to push it past the goal line — toys don’t have to cross the line under their own power to score. Even toys that have completely wound down stay on the screen for several seconds, and score you points if they’re pushed through the goal.

Big Al, the bulldozer: The polar opposite of Ziggy. Powerful, heavy, slow, takes a whole lot of winding, moves completely straight. Once set on its path, it cannot be diverted. It can only be slowed down, preferably by another Big Al. This can produce more push-of-war situations, with both sides sinking their winding time into putting more pushing power into a single row of Big Als. Such things seldom go anywhere; eventually they just wind down and vanish. So the best way to deal with it is to cut out early and set off some fast stuff elsewhere.

Disasteroid, the gold mecha-anime-looking robot: Slow, heavy, moves straight, and has the ability to blast other toys directly in front of it, destroying them instantly. The only toy that’s immune is Big Al, which is the game’s most blatant and artificial rock-paper-scissors-ism. The blaster takes a good long while to recharge, though, so once you’ve sacrificed one toy to it, you’re safe. When two Disasteroids face each other, one of them will be destroyed — I think the one with more energy remaining wins, but I’m not sure of this.

Walking Timebomb, the walking timebomb: Moves straight ahead fairly quickly, and as such can be used as a point-scorer. More importantly, if it runs out of energy, it explodes, destroying everything within a radius except Disasteroids, which are therefore the best defense against them. This is the one toy you have a strong incentive to underwind, although figuring out exactly how much to wind it is tricky, so I haven’t used it much. Fortunately, the computer isn’t very good at using them either, and tends to throw them out in clusters that blow each other up before they reach your guys.

Zap-Bot, the wacky-looking robot with electrical plugs for hands: Another offensive unit, but in a different way. When it runs into a toy, it zaps it, draining its energy and slowing it while it zaps. What’s more, it moves diagonally, allowing it to sneak up on things like Disasteroid that focus on what’s directly in front of them. Its big weaknesses are that it’s hard to aim and that it’s undiscriminating about what it zaps — if you release two Zap-Bots from the same spot, and the one in front pauses to zap something, the one in back can run into the one in front and start zapping it. So the main use I’ve gotten out of them is just taking advantage of the diagonal movement to wiggle them past blockers for points.

Deadhead, the skull: Very slow-moving, and requires maximal winding to get it across the screen under its own power, but that doesn’t matter, because its purpose is primarily defensive. When any toy bumps into it, it pauses to scream, scaring the toy into reversing direction. Note that “any toy” includes toys moving in the same direction that bump it from behind, so Deadhead imposes some pretty severe limits on the person who launches it. They’ll even scare other Deadheads, and can get tangled together in a perpetual scream. They wander a little, so it’s important to keep them separated. Probably the best way to use them is to wind them just enough to scare one thing before they wind down, although this can be difficult to control. Still, turning the opponent’s toys around is a very powerful move, especially for fast-moving types that can recross the screen and score you a point before the opponent reacts.

Krush Kringle, the Christmas-themed professional wrestler and single weirdest toy idea in the game: Moves slowly, periodically thumping the ground to make toys within a certain radius reverse direction. Two Krushes side by side will repeatedly reverse each other, forming a sort of vortex that other slow-moving toys can’t escape. There’s a timing element here that’s difficult to use effectively, but also difficult to combat — with the right timing, you can get a Disasteroid in to kill it between thumps, but you risk giving your opponent a free Disasteroid that way.

Orbit, the flying saucer: Just as lightweight as Ziggy, but a little slower and needs a little more winding. Orbit moves straight forward until it hits an obstacle, at which point it tries to navigate around it. It’s the only toy that knows how to do that. Effectively unblockable, the only good defenses against it are Disasteroid and Deadhead.

Presto, the magician: Moves forward at a moderate speed, but periodically teleports to a different lane, apparently at random. Can get stuck for a while between teleports, but is ultimately not very blockable. Not the fastest way to score points, but sometimes the only real option you have.

Kangaruffian, the boxing kangaroo: Moves diagonally, like Zap-Bot. When it hits something, it punches it. If it’s something light, like a Ziggy, it can send it flying backward with enough speed to get it past the finish line and score you points. But it’ll add some momentum even to the heavy things, and can be used to break a Big Al stalemate. I haven’t been using them much, and have only recently started to appreciate how useful they are.

Clucketta, the hen: Basically a toy factory. Flies forward in bursts, passing over other toys, then settles down for a while to lay an egg, then repeats. The egg hatches into a Small Fry, a little chick that rushes forward. The really impressive thing about Clucketta is the way it can come to dominate the board. Because they don’t move forward very often, you can wind up with a whole bunch of them together for a long time, clogging up the board and getting in the way of everything else. I suppose this is what the Walking Timebombs are for.

Handy, the glove: Rushes forward straight, faster than anything else except Ziggy. When it runs into any toy other than another Handy, it attempts to lock onto it and start winding it. This can bring depleted toys back to life, or give extra power to insufficiently-wound ones — if you summon a blocker in a hurry, you can put a Handy behind it to extend its life. The big weakness is that it will wind your opponent’s toys too. If it weren’t for that, it would make an ideal point-scorer, moving both fast and straight, but you don’t dare put it own in an empty lane where the opponent can co-opt it. Its best use, then, is to follow behind the similarly straight-moving Disasteroids and Big Als, like a Heavy/Medic pair. And once you have that, why not launch some more Handys in their wake, letting the guy in front keep the lane safe for point-scoring?

Gearheads: Quick Update

I’ve played Gearheads a little more, but I can’t honestly say I’ve made any progress in the “One-Player Tournament” mode. This isn’t the sort of game that saves your progress. It’s the sort of game that keeps a high score list. It gives you a limited set of lives for each session, and expects you to start over whenever you run out — a play pattern already antiquated in 1996, when even the fading coin-op games let you buy your way past death. You don’t have to start from the very beginning of the sequence, mind you. You can start at level 1, 13, or 25. (This is part of why I think there are 36 levels, something not actually stated in the docs.) I’ve been starting at level 13, and haven’t yet made it to 25 from there. I suppose it might be worth it to start at level 1 for the sake of accumulating extra lives if you’re not just doing a practice run, but at the moment, practice runs is all I do.

Every third level is a special one, where you can use only one type of toy. (This is the other part of why I think there are 36 levels: that’s exactly enough to have one special level for each of the game’s 12 toys.) The opponent also has only one toy type, which might be the same as yours or might be a different one, depending on the level. These special levels are a little puzzle-like — there’s always some specific tactic that will let you pull ahead, but depending on the toys, it might require confrontation or avoiding confrontation, winding up your toys fully or only enough to get them across the screen. Still, there are only so many possibilities to try out, and once you’ve found something that works, you can just remember it for the next time you play that level. Generally speaking, the special levels are a relief.

The regular levels are harder. They give you a level-specific set of four toys, but the opponent’s toys seem to be randomized. You can’t memorize a per-level successful strategy when you’re facing a different enemy every time you play the level; you have to learn to be reactive, to use the tools available to combat whatever happens to come up. Usually the opponent releases a bunch of toys of the same type in sequence — I could probably find patterns by counting them, if I need to go that deep. So there are opportunities to see what the opponent is doing and counter it — sometimes launching one toy on your side can counter a whole bunch of the opponent’s. But on the other hand, sometimes the opponent has a toy that I just plain don’t know how to counter with the ones I have, and I just have to hope that the random number generator will be kinder next time. I’ll go into more detail in my next post.


At a recent board game night, I had a chance to try a game called Quantum that used dice to represent spaceships with different capabilities. The box credited its creation to Eric Zimmerman. “That’s a familiar name”, said I, and looking it up online afterwards, I found that, sure enough, it was the same Eric Zimmerman that co-founded Gamelab, the company that developed Diner Dash, among other things. This is a person who is partially responsible for creating a genre. But also listed in his ludography was something I didn’t expect to see: Gearheads, a 1996 game about wind-up toy battles, co-created with Frank Lantz of Universal Paperclips fame. Apparently it was Zimmerman’s first published game. And it just happens to be on the Stack.

So, obviously I had to dig out the CD and give it a play. Windows gave me some guff about that, complaining simply “This app can’t run on your pc” when I tried to run either the executable or its installer, even in Windows 95 Compatibility Mode. This was a new one on me, but apparently it’s how 64-bit Windows 10 reacts to 16-bit Windows programs. Apparently there are ways to enable 16-bit support in Windows 10, but I opted to play it safe and instead run it under the copy of Windows 3.1 that I had installed in DOSBox back in 2010, which I still have around thanks to file-sync apps. This worked with no problems.

The game is essentially two-player, with both players using different parts of the same keyboard simultaneously, but the computer can fill in for one player, and it has a “One Player Tournament” mode, a sequence of 36 increasingly-difficult levels that I’m taking as the basis for completion. Gameplay consists of letting loose wind-up toys on one end of the playfield in an attempt to get them across to your opponent’s end, while your opponent does the same to you. You get to choose where to set each toy down and how much to wind it up, but you don’t control them after they’re placed. Each level gives you access to a different subset of 12 toy types, each with its own virtues and special powers. For example, there’s a wind-up cockroach, which moves very quickly but erratically, and tends to get flipped over on its back; a bulldozer, slow-moving but capable of easily pushing other toys backward; a chattering skull that scares other toys and makes them reverse direction. There’s an element of extended rock-paper-scissors to it, but also some opportunity for combos, like using boxing kangaroos to punch depleted cockroaches over the finish line.

I hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s a lot like Magic: the Gathering – Battlegrounds. Both games are all about summoning creatures that automatically march across the screen to score points and/or block your opponent’s creatures from doing likewise. And a lot of the same tactical considerations apply to both, like choosing whether to try for a mainly defensive summon to keep the opponent away or just try to outscore them with a horde of small quick things. I think the gameplay is more chaotic here, though. Nothing is entirely predictable, and there’s a lot of it going on at once.