Battlegrounds: Final Thoughts

The final chapter of Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds consists mainly of fighting all the bosses from the previous chapters a second time, making a mockery of that “Thank you for setting me free” business from earlier. (Poor communication between the scenario designers and the cutscene animators, perhaps?) After that, the game dutifully executes the standard videogame plot twist and the player squares off against the final foe, Mishra.

Mishra uses a five-color deck and doesn’t seem to have a limited mana supply. Fortunately, he’s kind of stupid, and doesn’t take advantage of this by just casting Scorching Missile over and over until you fall down. Instead, he’s fond of summoning big powerful flying creatures, and counterspelling your own attempts to do likewise. A note about counterspell: For it to work, you have to cast it before the opponent finishes casting the spell you want to counter. Since the amount of time it takes to cast a spell seems to be proportional to its mana cost, it’s easier to counter strong spells than weaker ones. This seems kind of backward, but it does generate an interesting point of strategy: when facing an enemy with Counterspell, it makes sense to come up with a strategy that mainly uses weak spells. This generally means summoning fragile creatures in quantity, so that they do a notable amount of damage in total before they die in quantity. The problem is, Mishra also casts Liability, an enchantment that does a point of damage to either caster whenever one of their creatures dies.

After some false starts battling Mishra with Blue (hoping to counterspell the worst of his summons), I wound up using a pure White deck, containing both cheap flying Suntail Hawks (capable of nibbling Mishra’s demons to death, or at least of getting in their way) and various healing effects to help me survive Liability. It strikes me that this may be what the designers were going for here — triumphing with the power of Good. Or maybe not; there could be other effective strategies.

In some sense, I haven’t really finished the game. There’s a single-player Arcade Mode, apparently also winnable, in which you can use whatever colors you’ve unlocked by completing chapters in Quest Mode. (More support for the Quest-Mode-as-tutorial idea.) I’ve tried the beginnings of this, and may even try to win it if it proves easy enough, but as far as I’m concerned, finishing Quest Mode is enough to get this game off the Stack.

And honestly, if I decide I want more single-player M:tG-like experiences, I’ll probably go back to Etherlords. I know I said I was through with that, but a day or two later, I found myself wanting to try the final battle with a black deck. I haven’t really been thinking about Battlegrounds when not playing it or blogging about it, but Etherlords got a firmer grip on my mind, possibly because the realtime aspect of Battlegrounds gives it a chaos-and-confusion aspect that makes it hard for the mind to grasp it in return.

Or maybe it’s just the music. Usually, when I’ve been playing a game for a while, I have the music going through my head throughout the day. After playing Battlegrounds for a few days, I still had the music from Etherlords in my head. Here’s an example of the music from Battlegrounds:
Battlegrounds, blue arena 1
Compare this, from Etherlords:
Etherlords, blue arena 2
Now, I’m not saying that I’d buy a soundtrack CD for either game. But the the music in Etherlords is at least coherent, providing discernable melodic and harmonic structures, while the music in Battlegrounds is a bunch of musical sounds thrown into a blender. This may have been intentional, of course. It’s ambient music, “furniture music” as Satie called it, written with the goal of setting a mood without distracting from the action. And there’s certainly a case to be made for not trying to overlay music with strong patterns of tension and resolution on a game that isn’t gong to fit them. (I remember being strongly struck by the way that the music in Quake II kept on screaming “ACTION SCENE!” while I just stood there in an empty room.) Nonetheless, the end result is that the music in Battlegrounds is so forgettable that you’ve probably already forgotten it in the time it took you to listen to the Etherlords sample and read the rest of this paragraph.

Next post: IF Comp ’08.

Battlegrounds: Game or Tutorial?

With the start of Chapter 6, Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds finally stops leading the player by the hand. There are no more hints, and you never get a suggested (but overridable) set of spells to bring with you into each fight. Nor does the system still force you to use a particular color of magic — in fact, it finally allows the player to create mixed decks. It all feels like this is the moment when the tutorial finally ends and the game proper begins.

It may seem odd that this moment comes in the last and shortest chapter of the game. (Shorter in terms of number of fights, that is; due to the need to do more experimentation to discover an effective deck for each foe, it may well take longer to finish than the other chapters.) I’m guessing that this is because the designers regarded the entire single-player campaign as a tutorial for the two-player game. If so, it seems like they put an unusual amount of design effort into it, defining all those special gameplay constraints and trick duels that I wouldn’t expect to appear in two-player mode at all.

It all reminds me of a hypothesis I’ve held about certain games with disproportionately tough end bosses, where a major proportion of the time spent playing the game to completion is spent at the very end. (Jedi Knight comes to mind.) The hypothesis is that the designers must be approaching it from the perverse perspective that the boss fight is the real point of the game, and that the rest of the game is just a lead-up to it, to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible so the player can focus on what’s really important.

So, from that perspective, I’m positing that the role of the end boss in Battlegrounds is taken by other human players. At least, I hope it is. Obviously there’s a real end boss to come, and I don’t know how tough it’ll be. But I’ll know for sure by the weekend.

Battlegrounds: Nearing the End

Well, it’s that time of year again: the judging period of IFcomp 2008 is underway. But before I dive into that, I want to wrap up Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds, which, when I started it, I honestly expected to have finished by now. Currently, I’m up to the last fight in chapter 5.

Difficulty fluctuates wildly between levels in this game, so it’s hard to predict how long it’ll take to reach the end. The last level I finished wasn’t very hard, but the level before that was a real toughie, even after I had received all the in-game hints. The hints said to summon Carnophages 12/2, does 1 point of damage to caster every time it survives a fight to weaken the opponent’s Gorilla Chieftain 23/3, regenerating, and then cast Infest 3gives -2/-2 to every creature in play to finish it off and prevent it from regenerating. Which is fine as far as it goes, but that only takes you through the very beginning of the battle, and if you try to just repeat the same tactic against subsequent gorillas, you spend mana as fast as you get it, and wind up unprepared for the stronger creatures that follow.

The required spell for that fight — the one that you have to cast at least once for victory to actually count — was Hellfire, which destroys all non-black creatures, but has a large mana cost and damages the caster. By the time your mana pool is large enough to cast it, the opponent can cast Avatar of Might 48/8, trample, which more or less necessitates casting Hellfire immediately. So by that point you have to (a) have enough mana remaining to cast Hellfire, and (b) have enough health left that casting it doesn’t kill you. These requirements are in tension: conserving health means spending mana. The only way I could manage to cast Hellfire soon enough to avoid a devastating blow from the Avatar was to selectively allow the enemy’s creatures to hit me. Add in the blowback from Hellfire and I’m in a grave position from that point on.

The Avatar is the turning point of the duel. If you manage to kill it, you can last indefinitely by playing defensively, and maybe even switch to offense after a while. (But not too soon. That’s the mistake I made the first couple of times I survived past that point.) But you have to kill it right. One of the many big differences between this game and the card game that inspired it is that in Battlegrounds, slain creatures drop mana crystals, in quantities proportional to their casting cost. (Mana crystals partly replenish your mana reserve, but cannot increase it above its maximum.) In a level with lots of big strong creatures like this one, harvesting the dead like this is a more significant source of mana than just letting it regenerate over time. When the enemy summons a powerful creature and sends it toward you, he’s potentially giving you a gift. This mechanic makes the location where a creature dies significant, because the mana crystals go to whoever manages to pick them up first. If you cast Hellfire too soon, the Avatar will die in the opponent’s half of the arena, and he’ll just cast another while you’re depleted. But obviously you don’t want to wait too long and get killed either. But if you get it right, you can tilt the balance of mana toward yourself.

So, that was actually a pretty satisfying level. It actually required nontrivial strategizing, and when I failed, it was generally because I had made a poor decision, not because I had failed to perform my intentions. And, of course, it was satisfying to beat it after failing so many times — I was just about ready to give up and turn the difficulty down when I lived past the Avatar for the first time. I’ve only made a few sallies at the level I’m on, but it seems like it may be similar. This game may finally be hitting its stride. Shame it’s almost over.

1 2/2, does 1 point of damage to caster every time it survives a fight
2 3/3, regenerating
3 gives -2/-2 to every creature in play
4 8/8, trample

Battlegrounds: Genre

Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds is a difficult game to classify. It’s hardly just an adaptation of M:tG. It’s got too much of a strategic component to be easily labeled a fighting game, but requires too much of the player’s reflexes to be easily called a strategy game. Mobygames pegs it as “action” and leaves it at that.

It certainly looks like a fighting game. It’s got a side view of two opponents squaring off, attempting to drain each others’ life bars. And if they’re doing this through spells rather than martial-arts moves, well, surely that’s just a matter of emphasis. Fighting games as old as Street Fighter let the players throw balls of chi energy at each other, and in Battlegrounds you can actually hit an opponent with a hand-to-hand attack if they venture across the virtual net into your half of the arena. It may seem fairly superficial to base so much of the genre judgment on where the camera is placed, but, well, consider the well-established “first-person shooter” genre.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I’d be fairly comfortable assigning this to the fighting-game genre, except for one thing: playing it feels a great deal like playing Battlemage, which was so much more clearly RTS-influenced!

Ultimately, it’s kind of foolish to insist that everything fit into a pigeonhole. Some things are sui-generis, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes such a thing forms the seed of a new genre, although I think that’s unlikely here. But the concept of genre has one big effect on the player experience: it affects expectations. I purchased this game expecting an experience similar to playing Magic: the Gathering, and was disappointed. Suppose some fan of fighting games decided to give it a try on the basis of the screenshots on the package. Would such a person be as disappointed as me? In the same way?

Battlegrounds: Quest Mode

The single-player campaign of Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds is a series of duels, with no overland map or other in-game context. Some variety is provided by trick duels with goals other than simply killing your opponent — for example, killing your opponent within a time limit, or gaining a certain number of hit points before your opponent does. The premise, as communicated through cutscenes, is that the nameless player character, a young woman in a bikini, acquires a powerful talisman with five empty slots for gemstones. You can probably see where this is going: there’s a gemstone for each color of magic, and each is held by a master of that color. So there’s a chapter for each color, and apparently a sixth chapter after you complete the amulet, although I haven’t gotten that far yet.

However, the color theme of each chapter is not the color of its boss. Rather, the player has access to only one color of magic per chapter. In chapter 1, you have only red spells, and the boss is green. In each subsequent chapter, the player uses only the color of the last-defeated boss. Not all of a particular boss’s underlings will be the same color as the boss, but so far they’ve all been monochromatic, even though the docs say that you can use two colors at a time.

At the start of each chapter, you have access to only one spell. Each duel you win grants you one more. Consequently, the first few duels of each chapter are a bit more like tutorials than challenges. In fact, there’s an element of that in every match: “Here’s a new spell. Here’s an opponent whose tactics are best countered using that spell.” This is part of the reason for the trick duels: it lets them give you goals that exhibit your new spell’s strengths. (For example, given a spell that grants your creatures Haste, they put a time limit on the duel.) Except that in some cases they just force the issue by requiring that you cast the new spell in order to win the match, even if you have some other tactic that works. But once you have a large enough repertoire, the most effective tactic can be a combination, and the game takes on a puzzle-like aspect, as you try to discover a chord that works.

The thing is, you can have the right idea but fail on execution. Even with the controller that the game was designed for, I fumble sometimes. Sometimes the pace is too fast for me — there’s a level or two that relies on casting Counterspell, which is extremely time-critical, as you have to cast it before the opponent finishes casting something. Some enemies just have a spell or two that they cast over and over again in a cycle a couple of seconds in length, requiring you to react constantly, until you have enough mana to do something that breaks the cycle — and when you do, timing it wrong will probably get you hurt. If you lose a certain number of times in a row, the game starts giving you hints, and these hints are usually elementary enough that they can feel insulting if you’re in a frustrated mood.

At the end of each chapter, the protagonist gets one more gem for the talisman and a little additional clothing. Clothing is something that she and many of the other duelists (particularly the female ones) desperately need, but the articles chosen are pretty ridiculous: you get gauntlets while you still lack trousers. There’s also a FMV cutscene showing each boss’s defeat. They generally thank you for setting them free, which I suppose is supposed to morally justify beating up even the putative-good-guy white-magic specialist — the initial premise establishes your whole quest as being for the good of the land somehow, but I’ve forgotten the details, because they’re never referred to again. I assume that chapter 6 ends in defeating the mastermind who’s bent the bosses to his will and forced them to guard the gems.

Battlegrounds: Comparison to the source

The Battlegrounds manual contains a list of things that are different from M:tG. Some key items, with comments in square brackets added:

  • You do not draw and discard cards — all of your spells are available at all times. [All those you brought with you, that is. You can bring at most ten spells into a duel.]
  • There are no artifacts.
  • You have a shield. [That is, you can press a button just before something hits you to reduce the damage it does.]
  • You have a duelist attack. [That is, you can press a different button just before something hits you to do 1 point of damage to it.]
  • Creatures fight until they are dead.
  • Damage is permanent.
  • Most creatures attack, but some block. Others run to the back and perform an ability. [That is, what a summoned creature does is not chosen by the player, but determined by the creature’s type. Despite the reduction in player agency this represents, I consider this to be an improvement over Battlemage, because it simplifies the UI and gameplay so much.]
  • Flying creatures do not interact with ground creatures. They attack only other flying creatures or directly to the enemy duelist. [So ground creatures can bypass air units just as easily as the other way round. This is a drastic change to the dynamic of flight.]

Given such radical changes, you might be wondering: What’s left?

Well, some of the creatures from the card game are kept — or at least, their names are. Those ubiquitous Llanowar Elves are around, but instead of increasing the amount of mana you have available to spend, they let you replenish it faster. Or consider the Raging Goblin. As in the card game, it’s a 1/1 red creature with haste, costing 1 red mana. From its stats alone, you’d think it’s identical to the original version. But “haste” means something completely different in the two contexts: in the card game it means that it comes into play untapped and can attack immediately after being summoned, while in Battlegrounds, which doesn’t have a summoning-sickness mechanic or anything like it, it just means that the goblins move more quickly than normal creatures. And a lot of the creatures are just made up from scratch, with no direct counterpart in the card game.

But such things happen when you translate a work from one medium to another. Have the designers at least succeeded in preserving the flavor of the original? I think I have already been clear that they have not, except in superficial matters of theme and setting.

So let us imagine throwing those superficialities to the winds. Suppose this game had been made without any obvious M:tG branding. Would I have at least been reminded of M:tG?

I suspect so, because I was reminded of M:tG by Puzzle Quest, which is at first blush even further removed from M:tG‘s gameplay. And yet… Puzzle Quest is at least turn-based, and that goes a long way towards recreating the M:tG feel. It also has a strong random element, like M:tG and unlike Battlegrounds. So I’m really not sure. At the very least, Battlegrounds has the five colors of magic — and, that being the single strongest vestige of its source material, they naturally make it the entire basis for the minimal plot of “Quest Mode”. More about that next time.

Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds

mtgbg-duelIn writing about Etherlords, and before that about Puzzle Quest, I made mention of how much they drew from Magic: The Gathering. Well, there’s one sort of game you’d really expect to draw from M:tG, it’s a game specifically based on the M:tG license. There have been several.

The most straightforward adaptation is undoubtedly Magic: the Gathering Online, which is exactly what it sounds like: a system for playing M:tG against other humans over the internet. Before that, there was a single-player RPG-like title, called simply Magic: the Gathering, that used straightforward M:tG duels for combat, and before that there was Battlemage 1Or, more fully, Magic: the Gathering — Battlemage. It seems to me that Richard Garfield kind of painted himself into a corner with respect to names for derivative properties. “Magic” is a generic enough word that you really need the subtitle “the Gathering” there to positively identify the franchise, which results in these multiply-subtitled derivatives. I don’t know what I’m going to do about naming these blog posts., a realtime variant.

Since M:tG itself is about as realtime as chess, Battlemage was a quite loose adaptation, and perhaps better described as an action game inspired by M:tG. It kept the basic notion of a duel between wizards who summon monsters at each other, and a mechanic of regenerating mana, but the mere fact that it was realtime changed the character of the game fundamentally, and not for the better, in my opinion. Where M:tG is essentially about showing off how clever you are, the hectic pace of Battlemage basically prevented me from thinking while playing it. As I remember it, my mind was mostly occupied with trying to remember how to use its user interface, which seemed unbelievably awkward to me for time-constrained use, ignoring obvious mechanisms, such as using the mouse to select spells, in favor of paging through lists with the arrow keys. (I didn’t understand this at the time, but the whole UI was just a minimal conversion of the Playstation version.)

Battlegrounds, released in 2003, was the last attempt at a new M:tG-based title. It’s essentially a remake of Battlemage. This isn’t obvious at first, because the presentation is so different — Battlemage used an overhead 2D view and a largish scrolling map (probably intended to give the player time to react to the opponent’s summons, but it also had the effect that you never knew what was going on outside of your current window), while Battlegrounds has a smallish side-viewed 3D arena more reminiscent of a fighting game like Mortal Kombat, or possibly tennis. But it’s still realtime and hectic, and the whole thing is obviously designed around the PS2 controller, even in the PC version.

Maybe I’m mellowing, but it seems to me that Battlegrounds is more successful than Battlemage was. Duels are typically over with quickly, one way or another, and seem to be turning puzzle-like — you may not have time to think during a battle, but you can certainly devise tactics between times. However, it’s definitely not as faithful to M:tG as Etherlords.

1 Or, more fully, Magic: the Gathering — Battlemage. It seems to me that Richard Garfield kind of painted himself into a corner with respect to names for derivative properties. “Magic” is a generic enough word that you really need the subtitle “the Gathering” there to positively identify the franchise, which results in these multiply-subtitled derivatives. I don’t know what I’m going to do about naming these blog posts.