Feb 15, 2016

Cities: Skylines: Walking around Jericho

In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho.
- 1 Kings 16:34

When I finished my master's thesis last fall, I took the plunge and got a new laptop. This led to not only an obsession with Crusader Kings II, but also to finding Cities: Skylines on the Steam black Friday sale. I've loved citybuilding games ever since I started playing SimCity back when it came out, so having had a look at Cities: Skylines before, getting it was a no-brainer.

Here's my first successful city:

And a more panoramic view:

I'll try to give you some idea how we got there.


Getting started

Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
- Joshua 2:1

Fundamentally, Cities: Skylines is a citybuilder in the classic mold. You start with a patch of land connected to a highway, you zone it into residential, commercial and industrial zones, and build service buildings and traffic connections for them. Where you build stuff does matter, though. For starters, each map has a distribution of natural resources, which you can see in the map mode below. The yellow patches are agricultural land, the green is forest, and the large grey area is underground ore resources. You can have your industrial zones specialize in making use of these resources.

Or just build a whole bunch of offices if you like, those are jobs too!

I wanted to make use of our natural resources in my city, so on the left, you can see ordinary unspecialized industy, and on the right farms.

Below, an area of timber industry.

Farming and forestry, which my city has specialized in, create lots of low-education jobs and don't pollute (no, I don't know how they farm), whereas unspecialized industry buildings can level up and provide more skilled jobs, generating more taxes, but also more pollution. Through the early years of my city, we were basically a farming community.

In addition to providing your citizens with jobs, shops and places to live, some basic services are also a requirement. The two most geography-dependent are water and power. Below are my sanitation plants, working almost at capacity to dump our sewage into the river in a form that doesn't transform it into a giant stream of shit. It's considered advisable to have your water pumps upstream of the drains, especially before you unlock sanitation plants.

As for power, Cities: Skylines has stayed true to the environmentalist ideology of the Simcity series, and the most effective form of power generation in the early game is wind. Obviously, for turbine placement, prevailing winds matter a great deal, but the game is fairly generous with those. The highway in the map below is where my city started out, and I was lucky enough to find some strong winds right next to it that powered our initial growth.

With these basic elements, you can put together the kind of city you want.


A walkable city

March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days.
- Joshua 6:3

Inevitably, most simulated cities will run into the same problem that bedevils real-life ones: traffic.

You can, of course, try to mitigate this by connecting highways everywhere and building the most complex freeflowing interchanges you can, but I wasn't really interested in solving my problems with motorways.

Instead, in keeping with the Simcity heritage of New Urbanism, I didn't just want to build a particularly efficient city, but rather one where people would walk as much as possible. The simulated citizens of Skylines, called cims, will walk very long distances if you give them the infrastructure to do it; someone's even managed to create an entire city where nobody drives. My goal wasn't that lofty, but I did want to put some effort into promoting walking. That starts with the layout of the residential areas.

Above is a fairly typical residential neighborhood in my city. The traffic view, below, makes it easier to see the road layout. The neighborhood consists of three main roads, with residential streets branching off them, which connect to a central roundabout, from which a broader street connects to the arterial road outside. A proper road hierarchy is key to a functional city!

Having only a single road connection to the arterial road eliminates through traffic from the neighborhood completely, as there's nowhere for it to go through to. To minimize the rest of the traffic, the whole neighborhood is connected to a network of footpaths, which you can see on the map as the grey lanes. While you can get to, say, the commercial zone on the extreme left of the picture by car, it's going to be easier and faster to just use the footbridge to walk across.

The footbridge below connects the commercial zone on the right to the residential area and metro station on the left; the footbridge coming toward the camera on the left connects to the industrial zone where many of the cims from that neighborhood work.

With this kind of infrastructure in place that promotes walking, lots of your citizens will use it. We know from studies that people are healthier and happier if they can make their commute on foot, but I'm not sure if the game models that, and anyway if the only thing you care about is optimizing traffic flow, every cim crossing that bridge on foot is one less car on the road. I've found that even from a purely gameplay-utilitarian perspective, putting some time and effort into incorporating walking infrastructure into your city is well worth it.


A growing city

When David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.”
- 2 Samuel 10:5

As your city grows, it becomes bigger and more complex, and so do the traffic problems. As you provide more services, businesses will need more skilled workers, meaning people traveling across the city to get to high schools and universities. More people need more healthcare services, and as they age, deathcare. Basically, for most cities, when a city expands in one area, traffic goes up everywhere.

My biggest problem spots in Jericho were my commercial zones; several people work there, and almost everyone occasionally wants to visit them. Alexandria, below, had the biggest traffic problems.

It's easy to find congested sections of road in the traffic view, which color-codes heavy traffic as red.

Right now, one of the few read areas is an intersection outside Alexandria, leading to the commercial district, a residential area across from it, and the highway interchange at top right.

Ordinarily, I've preferred roundabouts; this was my first really high-traffic intersection:

In his seminal Cities: Skylines guide How to Traffic, real-life traffic engineer drushkey wrote:

Roundabouts are indeed pretty sweet. To be honest, you can ignore almost everything you just read and plop roundabouts everywhere.

Unfortunately, I find myself having to agree with his esteemed Japanese colleague, who's also written an excellent traffic guide: roundabouts don't solve everything, and if traffic becomes too heavy, they actually clog up much worse than signaled intersections ever can. I wish I had a screenshot of the time one of the roundabouts outside Alexandria was in total gridlock. Every incoming road was jammed full, and no-one could move. I actually fixed that problem by demolishing the roundabouts and replacing them with regular signal intersections of much lower capacity. This made the traffic jams go away, because counterintuitively, more roads means more traffic. This is a phenomenon you will experience in Cities: Skylines!

What is traffic? Luckily, in Cities: Skylines, we can find out. Click on any vehicle or person in the street, and it'll tell you who they are and where they're going.

Here, rounding a corner in Alexandria in her hatchback, we find Amanda Davies, a highly educated young adult. She lives at the Moore Residence; creepily, clicking on the name takes us to her house.

Zooming out, we find that she lives in the suburb of Cedar Forest. It's fairly well connected to the rest of the city by public transit, but she's still driving. Why?

It's unlikely to be her job, as she works at the Cedar Forest fire station, which is within easy walking distance of her home.

It's the last piece of information that's crucial: she's headed to the Gigastore to do some shopping.

The particular Gigastore she wants to go to, it turns out, is clear across town in Gethsemane.

That's going to be a long drive, and one where she's crossing some of the densely populated areas of the city. I have no idea why she's not taking the freeway; maybe she visited another shop or a park in Alexandria first.

So if Amanda wants to go somewhere that's too far to walk, how do we make her and everyone else stop congesting our roads? The answer is public transit.

One of the busiest walking areas of my city is on the south side of Alexandria, and not just because the footbridges there connect a high-density residential area with the commercial zones.

It's also the meeting place of no less than five metro lines. If everyone wants to go to Alexandria, the least I can do is get them there.

Cims really, really, really like taking the metro. The clumps of colored figures in the mass transit view are passengers waiting for a particular metro line. The white figures in the image below are pedestrians getting off a train.

This is what it looks like on the surface:

If not for that subway line, every single person in that veritable flood of commuters would be driving a car. Sure, you can create a massive network of high-capacity roads connecting every corner of your city. My aim has been to create a city where people can walk and take a train where they can't walk.



Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
- Luke 19:1

An interesting feature of Cities: Skylines are monuments, which are unique special buildings that provide a service for the whole city, rather like wonders of the world in the Civilization games. Each monument requires you to build certain unique buildings to unlock it, and both these buildings and the monuments themselves attract tourism, which brings income.

Since this was my first proper game, I decided to try unlocking as many monuments as possible. Since this meant building some potentially spectacular unique buildings, I got my Le Corbusier on and planned out a monumental ceremonial center focused in my city hall. After all, if you think about it, citybuilding games more or less are totalitarian regimes.

Tourists will use outside connections to enter your city; at first, this will mean the highways, but if you build train stations, airports or harbors, they'll arrive on those as well.

This all entails a pretty sizeable investment in infrastructure, and paying for its maintenance afterward. Unfortunately, even in a city with several monuments and a whole pile of unique buildings, all connected to each other and the external connections by rail, the number of tourists arriving by sea was a pittance.

Rail tourists are even worse: the game generates a seemingly endless number of trains going to every station you have that's connected to the outside line, all carrying as many as a couple of dozen passengers. Unless you completely separate your external rail links from any internal traffic, as I had not, the nearly empty tourist trains will totally jam your rail network.

At the end of the day, the tourists don't even produce enough income to pay for the infrastructure they need to get there.

So sadly, I'd say tourism seems to be a complete waste of time. The only reason to have external connections is cargo:

That constant traffic of trucks between the rail terminal on the right and the cargo harbor on the left means imports and exports for my commerce and industry: both less trucks on the roads and higher-level industrial and commercial zones, meaning more and better jobs and bigger tax incomes. As near as I could tell, a cargo harbor was an excellent investment, and cargo trains do seem to make life somewhat easier. Tourism, though, is much more trouble than it's worth.



At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: “At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates.”
- Joshua 6:26

Cities: Skylines is a really good game. This is pretty much the citybuilder that Simcity was always supposed to be, but never really got around to actually being. The level of detail and the way the city lives is simply entrancing. I must've spent hours staring at traffic and mass transit, working out who was going where and how to make the system work better. The info screens are admirably clear, while the general view is genuinely beautiful, both in the intricacies of the details and in the wide sweep of the whole cityscape.

Not everything is perfect, of course. The disappointing tourism mechanic was already mentioned; it sort of destroys the point of many of the unique buildings when they don't seem to be worth building at all. Similarly, the sheer railway chaos the trains can generate, and the lack of tools to deal with it, are a little disappointing. The building interface can be a bit fiddly, especially when building footbridges. These are fairly minor quibbles, though. The only larger shortcoming I think we can fairly lay at Cities: Skylines's door is that while it succeeds at being the citybuilder that we always wanted Simcity to be, it never really makes an attempt to be anything more. In a sense, it's like you're playing a perfect version of Simcity 2000: fun, satisfying, but you can't really help thinking that there's more to citybuilders than this.

Imagine a citybuilder game that made a real, intelligent effort to address the politics of developing cities, and the various economic and social problems in them.

Having said all this, the curse of Cities: Skylines is how damn good it is. Hours will vanish; days if you're not careful. I swear I had dreams about playing it for months. It's a wonderfully engrossing experience to design your city and start laying it out on the map, and so very rewarding to see it come to life. There's alwys time to do just one more thing before you take a break. If you've ever felt the slightest twinge of interest in Simcity or anything like it, it's a fair bet that you'll love Cities: Skylines. I highly recommend it.

Feb 8, 2016

LotR LCG: Elves and hobbits

The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose.
- Gildor Inglorion, The Fellowship of the Ring

Ever since Rossiel showed up in the Escape from Mount Gram adventure pack, I've wanted to try building a deck around her. Like almost all of the other female heroes in the game, she's a Fantasy Flight original character, because, well, Tolkien didn't really give them a lot of female characters to work with. She's fascinating because of her unique special ability, which makes use of cards in the victory display.

Way back in Road to Rivendell, in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, we got the first card that did something unusual with the victory display: Out of the Wild. Given that that adventure pack also contained what I think is still the single most murderous encounter card in the game, at the time Out of the Wild was pretty much a curious and expensive way of getting rid of that card. The first Angmar Awakens adventure pack, The Wastes of Eriador, also included a Lore side quest that did the same thing.

In addition to Rossiel, Escape from Mount Gram gave us Leave No Trace, which adds itself and a location to the victory display. None Return, from Across the Ettenmoors, did the same for enemies. As soon as I get my hands on The Treachery of Rhudaur, I'll add The Door Is Closed!, which lets us cancel and discard any encounter deck that has another copy in the victory display. So here we have a whole battery of Lore events that will not only let us remove bothersome cards from the encounter deck, but also provide Rossiel with nifty bonuses and give us some cancellation as well. The other ace in the hole, if you're willing to extend that metaphor to seven-card stud, is Keen as Lances.

So basically every card that the above events and side quest deliver into the victory display makes Keen as Lances cheaper, as does every copy of Keen as Lances you play. What makes things even better is that multiple players can include copies of Keen as Lances as well; since the victory display is shared, they all benefit from each other. This has enough potential that I've almost gone and bought a second copy of Escape from Instant Gram.


That's pretty much the state of the art for a Rossiel deck at the conclusion of the Angmar Awakens cycle: 15 events and a side quest. I wanted to build a deck around this core; such a high amount of events means that the rest of the deck is going to have to mostly be attachments and allies to avoid becoming completely unbalanced. As ever, I'd be thrilled if this build worked solo, but I'm mostly designing it to complement my partner's Tactics deck. Since Rossiel is a Lore hero with the Silvan trait, I'd like to pair her with another Lore Silvan hero to make use of their trait synergy, and help pay for the various Lore events. To sort of keep my Amazons theme going, I picked Mirlonde as my second hero.

With only three hit points and a defense of one, she's a bit fragile, but she can pitch in on questing and usefully lowers my starting threat. My original idea for a Silvan deck had been to include Legolas as my third hero, but since my partner won't give him up, it'll have to be a Lore elf with a bow instead.

Haldir's hero incarnation lets us make maximum use of Mirlonde's threat-lowering ability, giving a starting threat of only 22. Although his ability to attack at 3 into the staging area isn't brilliant without some choice Tactics attachments to back it up, he's a competent enough attacking or questing hero with Silvan synergy.


For the rest of the deck, we'll start with the special stuff. To get the maximum utility out of Out of the Wild, like eliminating nasty treacheries, we'll need some form of encounter deck scrying. A Palantír would be really neat, but I haven't included any Noble heroes, so keeping with our Silvan theme, scrying will be provided by the ever-reliable Henamarth Riversong. Since I hope to know what the encounter deck's going to be throwing at me, I'm also including three copies of Needful to Know for some threat reduction. To finish this somewhat backwards way of building a deck by picking events first, three copies of the mono-Lore must Mithrandir's Advice bring my events total up to 21.

For attachments, I raided my Amazon deck for its copies of A Burning Brand, another card useful enough that I've seriously considered getting a second copy of an adventure pack. Now that we're also being Silvan, Cloak of Lórien also becomes an obvious choice.

With a cloak and a brand, Rossiel has the potential of being one hell of a defender, and because both can be attached to characters, not just heroes, we can also potentially field some pretty tough defending allies. Since, mercifully, no-one in our group uses Snorefindel, we can include Concorde Asfaloth; I'm curious to see if he's worth including on his own!

Since this is an event-heavy mono-Lore deck, I did consider Scroll of Isildur, but most of my events are hopefully going to end up in the victory display rather than the discard pile!


That's 33 cards, by the way. Including Scout Ahead gets us to 34. I've understood it's generally thought that allies have a place in decks, so maybe some of those next.

We won't go very far wrong starting with the keystone of Silvan synergy, the Silvan Tracker. They can contribute to questing, are potential recipients of both Cloak of Lórien and A Burning Brand, but crucially, just one Tracker will provide free healing for my entire deck. On the attacking side, an old stalwart of my Amazon deck, the Mirkwood Runner, is a must-have. The damage-bypassing ability is simply excellent.

Unfortunately, most of the other Silvan allies are in different spheres. The only useful one we can include is Defender of the Naith; although useless for questing, the defense of 2 is decent, and their Sentinel ability means we can help out other decks as well. The only real downside is that we can't get A Burning Brand on them. However, with the Silvan Trackers already on defensive duty, I don't think the Defenders are worth it.

That's the end of our Silvan allies! Including Henamarth, that's a measly eight allies. Adding the obligatory Gandalfs only gets us to 43 total cards. Clearly we still need some fairly robust thematic allies to round out the deck.

Three Wandering Ents will fill that niche perfectly. Finally, I'd love to also include a couple of copies of Treebeard, but we didn't own The Antlered Crown yet when I first put this deck together, so in the mean time, I'll fill his spot with two Wardens of Healing to help the other players out. And speaking of ents:

To my shame, I have to admit I'd just plain forgotten how amazing Wellinghall Preserver is. Those stats and healing, all at a ridiculous three resources? Ents it is!

This would make a total of 52 cards, but since our local store didn't have any copies of the Treachery of Rhudaur, I'm still missing The Door Is Closed!, so two Galadhrim Minstrels will temporarily make up the difference.


So here's the first version of my Silvan deck:

51 cards; 44 Lore, 6 neutral; 3 heroes, 22 allies, 7 attachments, 18 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

Haldir of Lórien (TiT)
Mirlonde (TDT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 22 (19/3)
Mirkwood Runner (RTM) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Galadhrim Minstrel (TiT) x2
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x2
Henamarth Riversong x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 7
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3

Events: 18 (15/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x3
Needful to Know (TRG) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
Mithrandir's Advice (TSF) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)


Having built the deck, it was time to test it, and what better test for a new deck than A Journey Down the Anduin? First time around, a deeply unfortunate staging started a threat spiral that knocked out the Tactics deck, leaving me to face the Hill Troll on my own, which didn't go well. Our second attempt was a success! I memorably got to bust out Rossiel's full defensive ability against a Marsh Adder, having previously sent some Wargs to the victory display with Out of the Wild, and also travelled to the only forest location in the whole encounter deck, Enchanted Stream, for a total defense of 6.

We next took on Hills of Emyn Muil to see if we could muster up the questing to pass it with just Concorde for location control, and we did! Fun was also had when I introduced a new player to the game with our Leadership deck, and we decided to try Into the Pit. With some absolutely awful shadow effects around, I was quite pleased to get A Burning Brand on Rossiel! She was absolutely excellent, seeing off Patrol Leaders with a shrug and questing for 4 on our big pushes. Haldir, too, was worth his weight in gold at East-gate. Despite a horrendous logjam of locations and enemies in the beginning, we eventually squaked through the last stage with the Leadership player's threat at 49. So at least my first attempt at a Silvan deck isn't completely useless!


Meanwhile, because two separate people showed interest in a Hobbit deck, we went ahead and picked up the Black Riders saga expansion and the Encounter at Amon Dîn adventure pack, which allowed us to put together this Hobbit deck, based on this deck from Tales from the Cards.

52 cards; 15 Leadership, 16 Lore, 15 Tactics, 7 Neutral; 3 heroes, 21 allies, 15 attachments, 14 events; starting threat 20.

Sam Gamgee (TBR)
Pippin (TBR)
Merry (TBR)

Allies: 21 (9/5/5/2)
Bill the Pony (TBR) x3
Keen-eyed Took (THoEM) x3
Naith Guide (TDT) x3
Gildor Inglorion (THoEM) x2
Barliman Butterbur (TBR) x3
Beorn x2
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM)
Farmer Maggot (TBR) x2
Gandalf (Core) x2

Attachments: 15 (3/7/3/2)
Hobbit Cloak (TBR) x3
A Burning Brand (CatC)
Elf-stone (TBR) x3
Fast Hitch (TDM) x3
Dagger of Westernesse (TBR) x3
Song of Kings (THfG)
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 14 (2/3/6/3)
Sneak Attack x2
Take No Notice (TBR) x3
Halfling Determination (TBR) x3
Unseen Strike (TRG) x3
Hobbit-sense (EaAD) x3

Multiplayer sideboard:
Dúnedain Cache (TDM) x2

As with the Tales from the Cards deck, the idea is to get the super-expensive allies like Gildor into play via Elf-stone. In the case of Beorn, he can Sneak Attack in for the combat phase to do his berserk thing as usual, and make use of Merry's readying ability to attack twice! In multiplayer, Dúnedain Cache will let Merry use his ability to ready Legolas.

A couple of the cards, like the single copies of A Burning Brand and Descendant of Thorondor, are there because we had single copies of them hanging around; Song of Wisdom could be used to get A Burning Brand on Sam.

Should none of these shenanigans come together, the rest of the deck should still provide a broadly functional whole with lots of cheap cards to make the tri-sphere build work even without resource smoothing or generation. The hobbit heroes themselves should be able to make a significant contribution, and most of the events and attachments only cost 0-1 resources.

I have to admit I wasn't particularly interested in Hobbit decks at first, but building this one for other people to use got me excited to try it myself!


For the moment, though, we got a new player to try the hobbit deck. A four-handed swing at The Hunt for Gollum turned out to be a salutary reminder that Eleanor is a really, really good hero. Our first attempt didn't get far when Old Wives' Tales exhausted all of our heroes in setup, followed by Massing at Night. Our second try ended in consecutive pairs of Goblintown Scavengers and The Old Ford. Terrible luck, but at least the art is nice.

Having been utterly annihilated by Hunt for Gollum twice, we gave it a third shot and pretty much sleepwalked through it. If the previous two attempts highlighted the value of treachery cancellation, this was a pretty good example of how the difficulty scheme developed over at Tales from the Cards is so much better than the official difficulty level system. This quest, for instance, is very easy, but also very random; it doesn't really require specialized deck-building. Conflating these three considerations into one difficulty number isn't very informative.

Having surprised ourselves by succeeding at Into the Pit earlier, we took the hobbit deck along for an attempt at The Seventh Level. My expectation was that we'd struggle here because of the massive number of enemies with low engagement thresholds, which would negate many of the hobbit deck's advantages and simply swamp us in goblins. We got off to a terrible start, drawing two copies of Watchful Eyes on the first turn. At least Book of Mazarbul allowed Rossiel to quest, but Mirlonde ended up sitting out the rest of the scenario. Despite this inauspicious start, we actually did remarkably well; undaunted by the swarms of goblins, the hobbits took out a Cave-troll in a single attack! We worked our way through the encounter deck until a final massive questing push saw us through, and we won. I have to admit that I'm very happy with both decks.


Based on what we've done so far, the hobbit deck seems to be working all right. As for the Silvans, for whatever reason I've never really managed to use Needful to Know, or for that matter make any proper use of Henamarth, either. Another card I could try for scrying would be Ravens of the Mountain, which inexplicably depicts a Mega-City Judge hanging out with a bird.

Given our recurring trouble with locations in The Hunt for Gollum, though, I'm seriously considering an old standby, Strider's Path, to help out with stuff like The Old Ford.

I'm still waiting for our local store to restock the Treachery of Rhudaur; when it shows up, Elf-friend might be a good card to add as well to extend some Silvan Tracker healing. The Nin-in-Eilph would provide Wingfoot for Haldir, letting me use him for questing as well. On the whole, though, I'm really happy with this deck!


The moral of this story is that deckbuilding is great fun! Coming up with a deck is a good intellectual exercise in itself, and putting together a deck for other people to use can be really rewarding. It bears repeating that on of the great qualities of this game is that deckbuilding is never about identifying the best cards and shoving as many of them as possible into a deck box, but rather about figuring out what you want a deck to be able to do, and trying to come up with the best combinations of cards for that task. I do feel that the game could do more to enable different styles of play, especially ones that don't focus prominently on combat, but as it is, there are almost always different ways to tackle a problem.

Next time: the Dwarrowdelf cycle.