Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Intolerance Hinaglius

For the past few weeks, mainstream and social media have been pluth with all sorts of opinions regarding rising intolerance in the country. I won't dignify the whole thing by calling it a debate, as that would suggest that both sides are on the whole staying rather civil while gently pointing out inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the other's well reasoned and gracefully presented arguments. No. This resembles what the ancient Horomittes called a hinaglius - a savage free-for-all mostly marked by raised voices, nasty name calling and general idiocy.

I tried to stay out of it for a while, but now things have gathered so much innullen that I am compelled to try and bring some sanity and reason to the situation.

Actor Chiranjeevi reacts to the intolerance debate, beef bans and turning tracks bu turning his eyes green and growing fangs.

On the topic of "rising intolerance", it is important to understand the scholarly work of P. Somadhuva Kulothungan and Sons, who (apart from establishing a chain of high quality asafoetida merchants) in the early 16th century clearly laid down that a society that is intolerant is doomed to a fate worse than chericide. While we accuse each other of being left wing and right wing bigots, we are conveniently forgetting the role of top hats in greyhound racing. It is unimportant that the BJP and RSS are running amok, butchering minorities and threatening to send about 65% of the population to Pakistan (foolishly not taking into account that this would result in Pakistan eventually getting enough manpower to easily overthrow India, and hence defeating the whole purpose of Hindutva). It is unimportant that Sonia Gandhi, her bumbling son Raphael and the rest of the Congress party presided over the worst government seen in any country (with the notable exception of Berlusconi's Italy) in modern times. It is unimportant that the muslim world seems less interested in spreading the message of Islam and more interested in blowing up shit (including, ironically, large chunks of the muslim world itself).

What is important is to realize that without an atmosphere of reftery, moonslideness and pichuganthy, we as a nation are headed towards utter and total Roger.

Instead of pointing out flaws in the opposite side, we should stop and ask ourselves a few honest questions.

Are we falling into argumentative fallacies in our quest to be right instead of arriving at the truth? Were there really 101 dalmatians? Did Hirmesh Shah Jagtanandani make it home in time for juftaaj ? Forget what the nation wants to know, these are the things that the nation needs to know. Do you get that, Mr. Goswami ? Or are you too busy in the foot room ?

Also on the whole beef brouhaha. Why is everyone making a big deal about this? Nobody is saying that people shold not eat beef. It is perfectly fine if people eat beef, as long as they don't harm cows. Nobody is protesting against chicken-beef, duck-beef, pig-beef or fish-beef. Why is this wrong? When there are so many sources of beef available, why are people making a big deal about it? Even rhizomes can be eaten. No problem.

My humble request to my fellow Indians is to calm down and enjoy our progress as a great nation into further greathood. Instead of fighting with each other, let us join hands with our great leader Modhiji (who is the second great Dhiji to lead us, after Gandhiji) and usher in a new era of six hundred rupee notes with Modhiji printed on them.

Jai Hind. Purathiddhi Bhava Hoshanaha Mitha Saaskrunth. Buss.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

DISHUM - Department of Indian Superheroes. Issue 01.

This is an idea I've had bouncing around in my head for years. Finally got around to doing it.

Here are the rules I set up for myself in order to get it done :
  1. Finish it in 48 hours.
  2. Don't worry that I can't draw - find some crappy style that works and just complete the damn thing.
  3. Everything must be done completely in iPad. I used InkFlow for the drawing and Halftone 2 for the lettering, for those interested.
Hope you guys like it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

7 tips for the aspiring Prakash

By Anand Ramachandran. With equal parts credit to Vijay Sinha and C.B.Gupta.

Every day, many young students wake up with the dream of being a successful and productive Prakash. But unfortunately, most of them never realize this dream, and have to go through their entire lives as a mere Pradeep, Mathews or even Suresh-Balaji. 

However, this need not be the case. Even you can learn to become Prakash! Yes! By mastering these seven simple steps, you can break free of the shackles of being Kiran Kumar, Nitish, Saleem or whatever else your well-meaning but inept parents named you, and achieve the quality of life that only a true Prakash can experience.

Definitions of Prakash

First, let us examine some of the definitions of Prakash by various experts : 

"Prakash is one who is the very pinnacle of human creation. When compared to others like Sumant or Kabir, one finds that it is always Prakash who emerges in a favourable light." - J.T. Fingleton-Prabodh IV

"Prakash is the light and the darkness. Prakash is the beginning and the end. Prakash is everything and nothing. Prakash IS." - Swami Sirusemippananda Saraswathi-Saraswathy

"Prakash. What do you mean!"- Kishore Manohar

"WTF?" - Prakash Rao Kovelamudi

How to be Prakash

1. Dress the part

You cannot be Prakash without first dressing like one. The accepted dress for Prakash is either smart casuals or a full Bandhgala suit. Avoid wearing colourful clothes like those people in Malaysia and Sri Lanka or dressing like the Saudi royal family in ceremonial attire - these would mark you out as a non-Prakash instantly.

Also, if you are a Cosplayer, it is advised to restrict your Cosplay to some variety of Prakash only. Cosplaying as Kratos, Marcus Fenix or Arvind Kejriwal will result in immediate disqualification.

One of these men is obviously a Prakash, while the other is not. The right costume makes all the difference.

2. Watch K.Bhagyaraj's "Darling Darling Darling"

According to T.S.Shinde (1983) - "Every Prakash must, without fail, watch the all-time classic Darling Darling Darling by K.Bhagyaraj. If one does not have time for the whole movie, one must at least watch the scene where Bhagyaraj, cheered on by four girls, fights against some karate students wearing a yellow karate dress. After this, the heroine calls him a "Loosu". Most essential."

The film also features Kalapotti Singaram, in a cheetah print silk shirt and black bowtie, slapping a tied up mute man on a motorcycle, while a horse looks on. Here.
3. Own a parasol

Then it can be called Prakash's Parasol. Or Parasol of Prakash.

4. Be Roll Number 31

This is critical. An error of plus or minus one is sometimes allowed, but any greater you will face problems. If you only manage a roll number 28 or 29 then you risk slipping into being a Pradeep or Prabhas. Any higher than 33 and you risk becoming a Prasad, Prasanna, or worst of all, Praveen.

5. Be born in the 80s

Your best chance to be Prakash successfully is to have been born in the eighties or earlier. If you happened to be born in the nineties or after 2000 you are better off as a Vihaan, Aayushman, Aarav or some other name with an unnecessary extra A.

6. Be a man

Women need not apply. Unless you're so badass that you gave birth to Sunny Fucking Deol. And even then you may only qualify as the variant "Parkash".

7. Avoid Roger

Avoid him at all costs. In the words of Slattery - "Prakash always keeps a safe distance from Roger. It is most important".

It is hoped that these simple tips will help anyone achieve their dreams of being Prakash.   All you need is desire, discipline and determination ( 3D. Which is an abbreviation that is also useful in describing Darling Darling Darling). All the best.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

An evening spent watching MSG : The Messenger

MSG : The Messenger

Cast : 

Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan - Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan
Pitbull (Or maybe it was Vin Diesel) - Michael
Chick who looks vaguely like Bipasha Basu : Muskaan
Chick who looks like (and apparently is) a TV actress : Kasam
Random Eastern-European chick : Alice
The whole of Dera Sacha Sauda : Massive crowds

Last week was a tough week for me. Lots to do at work. Managing the household with my wife being away for a few days. Backache acting up. It was all rather overwhelming.

So I did what any rational person would do in my circumstances. I went and saw MSG : The Messenger in the cinema.

Turns out it was a great idea.

The film starts out on a positive note - by showing the trailer for MSG 2, the doubtlessly much awaited sequel to the classic that you're just settling down to watch. I haven't been so hyped for a sequel since CD Projekt Red announced The Witcher 3.

Having thus reassured viewers that the continuity of the MSG Cinematic Universe™ (MSGCU) is not in jeopardy, the film begins its 3 hours and 19 minutes of ultimate kvlt.

Not even ten minutes in to the movie, you're already seeing burning Barbie dolls that talk and warn Guruji of impending doom, Guruji weaponizing and flinging burning tricycles at bad guys, a cameo from Doraemon, some pole-vault-fu, a flying lion, a villain named Chillum Khurana and Guruji using his powers to turn paper swords into rice and a hail of bullets into a pretty tiara. I exaggerate not even a little.

MSG is 3 hours and 19 minutes of the craziest spiritual guru fashion show ever.
I have no idea why that caption is on the screen.

The movie slows down a notch after the frenetic start, and for the next three hours or so, we are treated to Guruji (with a little help from his friends - about ten million of them) going about the noble tasks of rehabilitating sex workers and transgenders, battling the drug mafia, organizing blood donation camps, cleaning up the roads and being a 'youth icon" - all while dressed in impossibly flamboyant outfits.

Because of all his good work (or maybe because of his fashion sense, which makes Bappi Lahiri seem like Arvind Kejriwal), some people want to assassinate Guruji.

To get this job done, they send out :

1. Pitbull
2. A female assassin whose identity is so mysterious, even THEY don't know who she is.

Since Pitbull is even more incompetent as a hit-man than he is as a musician, his efforts are easily negated by Guruji, who beats the snot out of him as a side-show during a game of Guli-stick before a packed house. (What is Guli-stick you ask? A sport invented by Guruji himself (take that, JK Rowling) which is a mix of cricket, Gulli-Danda and fancy-dress. Sheesh. This film requires its own internal Wikipedia).

Guruji playing Gulistick. More people in the crowd than in a typical England - Sri Lanka ODI.

This leaves only "The Girl" to get the job done. Since we have whittled down the suspects to one of three possibilities (as there are only three major female characters in the film), the audience is left to guess which of Guruji's three devoted adopted "daughters" is plotting to kill him. Not just the audience, even the courier who is supposed to deliver the "bomb" to the killer has no clue as to who she is - leading to a mildly comedic sequence where he wanders around a wedding scene trying to give the bomb to any mildly suspicious looking woman who happens to pass by.

The police cannot help, of course, as there are no cops in the MSG Cinematic Universe™. This is the only logical explanation for why, despite repeated attempts on Guruji's life in fronts of hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of witnesses, nobody bothers going to the cops with so much as a complaint.

Guruji adjusts his cooling glasses before using his exploding bicycle to dig a well to save a village.

Lots of stuff happens. Guruji saves a man who is trying to commit suicide because his village has no water by solving the water scarcity problem by nonchalantly using an exploding bicycle to dig a well. People enjoy donating blood so much that they spontaneously break into Bhangra. A group of terrorists is levelled by a single blast from Guruji's harmonica. Guruji foils the final assassination attempt (the world's first failed assassination attempt at a "Rubaru night", no less) by flying a Harley-Davidson into the sky and disposing off the bomb by blowing up a hot-air balloon miles above, then stage-diving back into the stadium against the backdrop of a flaming explosion.

MSG possibly holds the world record for the maximum number of extras in a film. #nocg

At various points during the film, we are reminded that the Dera Sacha Sauda has five crore followers. Judging by the film’s crowd scenes, I have little difficulty believing that. Protest marches, rock concerts, sports events - MSG is full of scenes that feature a truckload of people, and it pulls them off remarkably. While Peter Jackson would probably resort to special effects to populate his crowd scenes, Guruji packs them with actual followers. There are probably more people in this movie than there are in the cinema halls watching it.

Of course, no review of MSG would be complete without a few words on the fashions, and the vehicles. So here goes.

It's widely known that Sant Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh Insaan does not dress conservatively. In MSG, he wears some outfits that even Lady Gaga might politely refuse on the grounds of them being a bit too outlandish.

I totally want to see this in the next Mario Kart

This is a GREAT helicopter. Possibly the GREATEST helicopter.

Patriotic Segway-riding on par with #gzhand in Dashavataram.

His stable of vehicles is even more spectacular. Gurujji uses all manner of transportation - scooters, bicycles, segways, buggies, cars and helicopters. All of them look like something that may have been designed by a three year old Dilip Chhabria, experimenting with Play-Doh for the first time. It's like Mario Kart, but with lips.

But for me, what stood out was his reasoning why. When a reporter asks him why a supposed Fakir dresses like a rock-star, his simple response boils down to  "My name has Insaan in it. I am just a human being, with likes and dislikes and tastes just like everyone else. I like these clothes, so I wear them". It was a disarmingly honest response that took me by surprise.

Actually, there were many things in the film that I found surprisingly well-framed. It has one of the most positive depictions of transgenders I've seen in an Indian movie - in tune with the film's recurring theme that all God's creations are equal. At every turn, the film resists the temptation to villify any single group of people - indeed, by the end, everyone, including Chillum Khurana, Pitbull and the rest of the bad guys are forgiven, and there is redemption for all. In his monologues, Guruji repeatedly raises the pertinent question of why the media always questions the motives of anyone who is trying to do a little good, without ever bothering to question the folks who let things get so bad in the first place.

In fact, apart from one slightly creepy scene with a throwaway reference to some "miracle cure" type thing, and the (probably well-intentioned but debatable nevertheless) idea that the only way to rehabilitate sex workers is by getting them married, I found absolutely nothing wrong with the film's central idea - equality of religions, love, forgiveness and work for the benefit of society. It's a fairly noble goal, and Sant Ram Rahim Singh Insaan delivers it with an impossible combination of flamboyance, sincerity and badassery. I wonder why the censor board wanted it banned. Perhaps they were objecting to the costume designs? Of course, the film is a barely disguised advertisement for the Dera Sacha Sauda. But the last time I checked, that wasn't illegal. And no more offensive than a film with Vijaykanth depicting Lord Shiva.

Of course, I’m aware that there are all sorts of allegations against the DSS chief. And those will be resolved in a court of law. If Sunjay Dutt is still allowed to make movies, I see no reason why Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan should not be.

In the end, in spite of some well-intentioned messaging, MSG is a spectacular train wreck of a movie. But it’s the only one of its kind. And it features a lead actor who, in one stroke, knocks Rajinikanth, Sunny Deol and Bappi Lahiri off their respective perches.

And for that alone, it’s worth a watch.


Postscript : 

I saw the movie in the following company :

1. Naren Banad
2. Some random young folks who came to troll Guruji
3. About 30 sincere Dera Sacha Sauda faithful of all ages

It was actually a surreal experience. We quickly realized that the people we were sitting next to were totally into the film, and would not take kindly to us sniggering and joking. So we swiftly moved to some empty seats (which were surprisingly few in number) farther away. Wise move.

The DSS folks enjoyed the film in exactly the same way that Rajinikanth fans enjoy a Superstar starrer - clapping and cheering Guruji's "punch" dialogues and "stunts", singing along and dancing to the songs, and generally investing in the belief that the man on the screen is some sort of god.

Towards the end, they were a bit annoyed (quite justifiably) at the younger group behind us, and asked them, very respectfully but sternly, to stop mocking and let them enjoy the film. Fair enough - many of us would not take kindly to a bunch of people mocking and trolling when we were trying to watch some serious Oscar awards type film. To each his own.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Can a Role Playing Game be a mirror of your soul ?

I used to find it difficult to kill innocent people, you know.

One of my earliest memories of having a profound gaming moment is of trying to kill a random NPC farmer in the original Fallout. I wanted to try Fallout's famous freedom of choice, where the world and storyline would adapt to choices you make (really adapt, not Peter Molyneux adapt) , so I just walked up this character going about his life and shot him in the kneecaps (V.A.T.S. is so much fun).

His response was game design genius. He immediately pleaded "Please! I have children! " It shook me. I reloaded a previous save, and left him alone.

A simple pre-programmed response from an NPC made me think deeply about myself. And I realized that, even in make-believe world of role playing games, I couldn't willingly hurt innocent people.

What followed was about twenty years of playing RPGs as a paragon of virtue. Ever the hero with a heart of gold. I would always take the "good" choice. Bend over backwards to make sure everything in the world was just peachy, doing sundry side quests that involved rescuing lost sons and daughters, brokering peace between warring factions to avoid senseless violence, refusing monetary rewards for helping poor farmers (of course, the XP was admittedly more useful) and so on.

Some of my favourite gaming moments from RPGs are the emotional payoffs from undertaking arduous and long, though entirely optional, quests just to do the right thing. Helping the ghouls by rrepairing the reactor in Gecko in Fallout 2. Taking the long trek the temple of Ilmater to purify Yoshimos heart and set his soul at rest in Baldur's Gate 2. Sharing a drink and chat with Letho at the end of The Witcher 2, simply because I was tired of all the bloodshed and wanted to avoid any more. All fantastic emotional moments.

Even if this meant forgoing all the cool stuff you got if you played as an evil character (lots of insane powers, equipment and loot in many RPGs is available only to evil characters), I still couldn't bring myself to make evil choices in games. 

And then something interesting happened.

Today, I am far more ambivalent towards the ideas of good and evil. I increasingly believe that it's all simply a matter of viewpoint, and what seems abhorrent to one set of people is perfectly acceptable to another. I hesitate to judge other people's actions (not in a graceful, Buddha-like way, but rather in a more shrugs-shoulders-and-gives-no-fucks way) because I looked deep into myself and saw a person just as fucked up as any other human being, capable of the very acts of pettiness and cowardice and foolishness that I was so quick to judge other people for when I was younger and quicker to jump to conclusions.

And suddenly, it's easier to be a bad guy. Or at least, a neutral guy who does bad things.

The superb ending to the Witcher 2, where you can choose to fight Letho to the death, or talk about things over a beer. Would I have played it differently today ?

Recently, when playing morally ambiguous games like Shadowrun Returns and Sunless Sea, I find that making gameplay choices that affect the game world in "evil" ways are no longer difficult to make for me. In Shadowrun, I play a consummate professional Shadowrunner - what's important is the contract and the mission. Anything that jeopardizes the mission must be dealt with - no time for moral judgements or thinking about consequences. I regularly refuse to help poor ordinary citizens because I don't want to waste time and resources that distract from the main mission. I go through with the mission even if circumstances emerge where I would previously stop and consider the moral aspects of going through with it. Now it's more important to honour the contract and pick up the payment. Because I don't believe the "good" NPCs anyway - my present world view that everybody is equally fucked up helps immensely in making these in-game decisions.

The way that I make choices in games has changed.

And that is most interesting.

Can role-playing games be a mirror of your soul ? 

Does the way I make choices in RPGs tell me at least a little about my attitude to life in general ? Does looking at how I play videogames tell me about what I am capable of in real life ?

Let me quickly iterate here that I only refer to games where there is a moral choice to be made - typically RPGs. I do not refer to games like Call of Duty or GTA which are so often called out as examples of games that influence or cause violent behaviour. That is not a debate I am interested in addressing here.

I am currently a few hours into another playthrough of Baldur's Gate - but this time I'm playing as a true neutral character. So my in-game choices look beyond simple black and white "good vs evils" morals into pretty much "I don't give a fuck about anything other than what is best for me right now "category. I help NPCs if I feel like. I don't if I don't. And I don't lose sleep over what happens to them - because I'm buying into the fiction that they are responsible for their own fates. That's my mind filling in the blanks in the explicit narrative of the game with whatever it likes - the essential fabric of buying into the fiction of a typical RPG world. You invest the world and characters with back-stories and qualities that aren't actually present in the explicit fiction - just so that the world feels more like a real world than like a film set. It's the way we play RPGs, it's why we enjoy them so much.

But what's interesting here is that we can fill in these blanks in whatever way we want. Because what goes on in the gameworld when your back is turned can be whatever you want it to be. Even the most bleak of worlds like Fallout can be imagined to be full of hopes, dreams, aspirations and goodness. Even seemingly prosperous high-fantasy worlds with lush forests and mighty cities can be imagined to be full of perversions, betrayals, pettiness and deceit. And whatever we choose to fill in these blanks with colours our experience of the game.

I don't know about you, but I tend to fill in the narrative blanks with qualities that I perceive in the real world. So earlier on, I used to look at every random filler NPC and assume that they are basically decent, honest, hard working folk. Now, I assume the same NPCs to be greedy, petty, mean and nasty. And this makes them easier to shoot in the kneecaps. Or at least, to refuse to help.

Even more interestingly, it applies only to random NPCs. Not to party members or team-mates. In Shadowrun : Dragonfall, I did a bunch of quests specifically to help out Dietrich, Glory, Eiger and Blitz. I actually got pretty attached to the squad (they're beatifully written charatcters) and was willing to go the extra mile to help them. Which again to some extent mirrors the way I feel about close friends.

The classic standoff with Urndot Wrex in Mass Effect. I tried my best to reason with him - but to no avail. Today, maybe I wouldn't bother and just shoot him and get on with it. I don't know.

The way I play RPGs has changed to reflect my changing attitudes to the world around me. I don't go out of my way to fuck with people in RPGs, but I no longer go out of my way to help them either. Ditto in real life.

Which makes playing RPGs scary as fuck. Because maybe, just maybe, like really good mirrors, they'll reveal things that I'd rather not see.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Design Lessons from Star Realms

I recently purchased the Humble Card Game Bundle (one of the coolest Humble Bundles in ages) and had immense amounts of fun with it. Mojang's non-minecraft game Scrolls, Magic 2015 and SolForge are all great fun for fans of card battlers (real card battlers, not the Rage of Bahamut inspired super casual crapware that's so common these days). 

But the game I'm addicted to right now is the fantastic Star Realms, a digital adaptation of the physical deck-building game from White Wizard Games.

Star Realms is available for free on iOS and Android.
It's a space-combat version of the familiar Dominion mechanic. I won't spend time discussing the basics of the game here. If you want to know more, there are excellent reviews here, here and here [video]. 

I'm more interested in examining the design elements,including some specific to the digital game, to try and understand what makes the damn thing so accessibe, compelling and addictive.

1. Simple to understand

You'll take five minutes to understand the game and start playing ( the digital version has an excellent tutorial to put you through your paces) . And well after a 100 games, you'll still be evaluating new strategies and tactics. This is what makes Dominion a gold standard, and Star Realms succeeds spectacularly in using the old design principle of "simple to learn, difficult to master" to create compelling gameplay.

Let's look at the core rules in Star Realms : 

  1. You draw exactly five cards from your deck and play them every turn. Every card you play gives you trade, combat or hit points.
  2. Trade is used to buy better cards to put in your deck and play in subsequent hands.
  3. Combat is used to attack your opponent and damage his hit points. Bring his HP down to zero and you win.
That's all you need to know to start playing the game.  It's even simpler than Dominion - which has limits on actions and buy per turn. In Star Realms, if you draw the card in your hand, you can play it. No further rules.

Simple, clear instructions on each card explain the effects of playing it

But what makes things interesting is the "faction"system. Most cards belong to one of the game's four factions (colour coded yellow, green, red and blue). Playing two or more of these faction cards together triggers additional abilities on the cards - giving you additional trade, combat or HP, allowing you to draw more cards, forcing your opponent to discard cards, acquire cards without paying costs and so on. Some cards are "bases"which stay on the board when played, providing the player persistent effects until destroyed by the opponent.

That's pretty much it.

By adding a few interesting interactions between cards using very few simple rules, the game delivers enjoyable emergent gameplay of great depth and complexity.

2. Simple choices with complex consequences

Every single turn of Star Realms proves Sid Meier's most famous quote right. When you're playing Star Realms, you're always thinking something like : 

  • Should I buy the most powerful card available or one that aligns with my existing factions ?
  • Should I attack my opponent or his base?
  • Should I scrap this card for a short term benefit or keep it to strengthen my deck ?
The simplicity of the rules ensure that the player is always focused on the decisions that feed into her strategy or tactics. Instead of worrying about figuring out complex interactions or obscure rules, the player's attention is always on simple choices which have complex consequences.

This also ensures that the players feel in control, that their choices matter. And delivers the critical freedom to the players to attribute it to skill when they win, and bad luck when they lose.

2. Clarity of information

Specific to the digital version - Star Realms has almost no hidden information. At any state in the game, you can clearly see

  • Your deck
  • Your hand
  • Your discard pile
  • Your bases
  • Your hit points
  • Your opponent's deck and hand
  • Your opponent's discard pike
  • Your opponent's bases
  • Your opponent's hit points
The only hidden information is what exact cards are there in your opponent's hand and which ones are left in the deck - and even this becomes easy to guess when there are very few cards left in the draw pile.

You can look through the cards your opponent has at any time.

Being able to see your opponent's build is something I've never seen in any card game before - and it has some very interesting effects on the gameplay. Because you know exactly what cards are in your opponent's deck, Star Realms becomes almost chess-like in it's strategic play. You are always seeing what your opponent is doing and responding strategically. Opponent stocking up on Machine Cult cards? Will you respond with a Blob rush or play defensive with Trade Federation and heavy bases ?

The whole idea of making all the information about the game state clearly visible to the player gives the player a strong sense of ownership over the outcome, and a much larger sense of satisfaction when victory comes.

However, there is enough that is down to luck : 

1. In what order cards from both players'decks are drawn into the hand.
2. Which cards become available to buy each turn
3. What choices your opponent makes.

Contrast this with Dominion, where all cards are always available to buy at all times - thus removing one element of randomness - making the game deeper strategically, but a little less fun tactically and less approachable overall.

So there is just enough randomness in Star Realms that I can attribute it to luck when I fail. This is absolutely critical - one of my favourite principles of game design is making the player attribute victory to skill and defeat to bad luck. Star Realms nails this.

3. Simple but effective UI feedback

Another design rule I often harp on is the "make the most frequently performed action feel juicy (Huzaifa Arab takes a pepsi-shot) and fun" chestnut.

And Star Realms actually is a superb demonstration of what to focus on to get this right. It isn't a superbly polished game like Hearthstone or Magic The Gathering, but it does a few simple things when you perform the basic action of "playing a card":

  1. Clearly indicate, with colour coded floating text, whatever resource (and how much of it) you got for playing the card - combat, trade or authority (hit points).
  2. Play a short sound for each resource type - trade has a satisfying "coin"sound, combat has a sharp laser blast and authority has some appropriate space blip.

Floating text and sound effects give the player great, clear feedback without being too fancy.

These two simple effects combine to do two things : 

  1. Even playing a fairly useless card like a Scout or Viper gives you at least SOME positive feedback.
  2. The act of playing monster card combos is doubly satisfying as the text and sounds combine into a deeply rewarding audio-visual cacophony that usually means a butt-kicking for your opponent.
There are also other touches - hitting your opponent for damage plays an explosion sound, but hitting him for more than 10 points in one turn plays a more explosive sound that lingers on for a few seconds, making it more enjoyable and rubs it in a little.

It's important to note that none of these effects individually are really very polished or exceptional in any way. But they're effective nevertheless - evoking the right emotions in the player even without offering any significant aesthetic value.

Design lesson - instead of obsessing purely about how your game looks, focus on whether the player is experiencing the right emotions frequently enough.

4. Short play time

The simplicity of the design and the elegance of the game's balancing ensures that the typical game is nice and short - typically lasting no more than 25 - 35 minutes for a 2 player game. And that includes time for thinking, and pauses between asynchronous turns.

Thanks to the simple, clear rules and uncluttered UI, the majority of the time is also spent thinking about strategy and then quickly executing your hand. No fumbling around in the UI or breaking your head over complicated rules.

Just fast paced, crisp turn based gameplay. So there's always time for one more quick game.

If you're at all interested in card games or turn based player vs player strategy games in general, Star Realms is an essential purchase. It takes the classic Dominion formula, makes a few tweaks and slaps on some cool space sci-fi fiction - making it far more fun and accessible for less hardcore players.