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Cloudspire: a $130 MOBA for your tabletop?

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Enlarge / Look at everything that comes in the box. It’s mostly plastic and neoprene.
Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

Locating the perfect tabletop MOBA is a bit like looking for a unicorn. It simply doesn’t exist and no amount of begging or fist clenching will make it appear. While the “multiplayer online battle arena” genre remains popular in the digital realm, it seems impossible to nail its feel in cardboard form. Perhaps that’s why Chip Theory Games elected to go in a different direction with Cloudspire, drawing not just from MOBA games but also real-time strategy and tower defense as well.

DOTACraft?

Little cardboard can be found in this enormous box. Units are thick poker chips, while the game’s surface is neoprene tiles that interlock to form randomized configurations. The sheer quantity of stuff in the box attempts to justify its high price tag while threatening to make you throw out your back if you don’t lift with your legs. By the end of Cloudspire’s three-hour playtime, plastic discs will be scattered about the table as if a slot machine exploded.

There is a lot going on here. The various factions to explore include warrior birds, the cast of Avatar, Groot’s family tree, and a group of bearded men, because of course. These disparate cultures are warring over a bountiful resource that has been discovered in floating islands named Cloudspires.

The structure of play is as hodge-podge as the game’s warring factions. The MOBA genre is an easy comparison, as a lot of time is spent pushing stacks of minions along a path toward  your opponent’s base. Freedom of maneuvering is limited for the majority of troops, although your selection of heroes has more autonomy. Strategy intersects with tactics as you determine the deployment formation, the line order of your processional army, and whether you group troops to protect certain valuable units.

But calling Cloudspire a mere MOBA would be lazy. The game draws equally from the real-time strategy genre. You can purchase upgrades and new technologies, unlock new units to field, and even plop down defensive towers across various choke points on the map.

The game also draws a bit on tower defense. This style of play is made explicit through the round structure. Instead of a constant, mindless creep, your various troops are unleashed in waves which mark the four distinct rounds of play. Tempo escalates as players alternate between purchasing upgrades and the lengthier Onslaught phase. Eventually, troops push through defensive lines and start bashing the castle walls.

The moments where you break away from the battling to assess your growth and potential as a faction—these are the sweetest spots to be found in the game. You’re afforded time to breathe and reassess your direction as new powers are unlocked. Placing a little plastic peg into your neoprene faction mat and gaining some bonkers new ability is delightful. It’s a shame that the bulk of play actually comes from executing the rote movement and attacks that are better relegated to processors whizzing away behind the curtain.

How many players?

Cloudspire provides a mountain of additional features and mechanisms to explore. You can alter terrain on the map, you can explore many different vectors within your faction, and you can battle the neutral units littering the island. Yet I could never quite shake the feeling that the best bits of gameplay take place largely in scattered moments throughout the game.

This problem is most severely felt with three or four players, when game length drags. As dozens of units dot the field, you must juggle tiny stat lines printed on the surface of the chips. As you’re struggling to formulate your own strategy, you need to pass the various faction references around simply to understand their capabilities. The whole thing is simply too much to internalize over your first several plays, and you will have to be content in simply getting a small glimpse of the greater picture. Frustration lands as often as satisfaction; Cloudspire doesn’t always feel like it respects your time and effort.

Fortunately, the head-to-head format is much more personal. The field is narrowed and, with the burden lessened, there’s a stronger sense of control and agency. You can focus on exploring the depths of your faction instead of reeling from constant external surprises. This is where the game begins to show its potential.

That potential is most fully realized in the solo format. With a full suite of 16 solitaire scenarios, the game takes on a more narrative bent. The story of Cloudspire unfolds in a beautiful and gripping way. Each scenario functions as a puzzle, throwing scripted challenges your way with the goal of prodding your strategic thought to a certain solution. Some challenges require a specific style of play in order to best them, while others allow a little more freedom. Because of this, you will likely not want to replay a specific scenario once you’ve conquered it, and the design’s solution to this issue is to throw quantity your way. (The game even includes eight two-player cooperative missions against the built-in artificial intelligence.)

It comes as no surprise that this mode, along with other Chip Theory Games releases, was designed from the ground up as a solo endeavor. This isn’t to say the multiplayer format is slapped on, but it certainly feels as though the breadth of the system is stretched a good mile beyond its limits. As complexity collides with complexity, you will question whether there’s legitimate depth to plumb here—or whether it’s all just busy work to keep your noggin spinning. When you lower the player count and the Onslaught phase becomes leaner, these larger issues turn into minor quibbles and the fun is more discernible.

Those seeking an incredibly rich solitaire experience will find a fiercely dedicated product in Cloudspire. Its content is endless, particularly when you consider the game length, and the creativity of each faction warrants dozens of hours of exploration. While the definitive tabletop MOBA doesn’t yet exist, Chip Theory can still be proud of its creative output and outstanding physical product.

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Creator or Creature? A Nightmare Wakes dramatizes the birth of Frankenstein

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Alix Wilton Regan stars as Mary Shelley in the throes of creating her timeless literary masterpiece in A Nightmare Wakes.

It’s one of the most famous origin stories in literary history. One summer night in 1816 in Geneva, Lord Byron hosted a gathering of his fellow Romantics, including Percy Shelley and his lover (soon-to-be wife), Mary Godwin. The incessant rain confined the party indoors for days at a time, and one night, over dinner at the Villa Diodati, Byron propose that everyone write a ghost story to amuse themselves. The result was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the classic Gothic horror tale of a mad scientist who creates a monster—arguably the first science fiction novel.

That fateful summer is the subject of A Nightmare Wakes, the first feature film from writer/director Nora Unkel. It’s been portrayed before, most recently in a 2020 episode of Doctor Who, but Unkel’s film delves particularly into Mary Shelley’s inner state of mind and the process of creation, as the world of her imagination begins to bleed into her reality. Per the official premise: “While composing her famous novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) descends into an opium-fueled fever dream while carrying on a torrid love affair with Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello). As she writes, the characters of her novel come to life and begin to plague her relationship with Percy. Before long, she must choose between true love and her literary masterpiece.”

(Mild spoilers below)

Born August 30, 1797, Mary Shelley had a nontraditional upbringing. She was the daughter of William Godwin, an anarchist political philosopher, and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after Mary was born. Driven by a great desire for knowledge, she was educated by her father and various private tutors, and she first tried her hand at writing during a stay with radical William Baxter and his family Scotland.

Mary likely met the aristocratic poet/philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley in late 1812 or 1813; they were most certainly involved by 1814. Percy had separated from his pregnant wife, Harriet, and that, plus his radical political views, had estranged him from his wealthy family. Legend has it that Mary lost her virginity to Percy in the cemetery where they regularly met in secret. William Godwin may have had radical views on politics, marriage, and “free love,” but these attitudes did not extend to his daughter, it seems. He disapproved of her relationship with Percy. So the pair eloped to France in July 1814, taking Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont (by then Byron’s mistress), with them.

Many travels followed, during which Mary became pregnant and miscarried, and Percy may have taken up with Claire. Mary ascribed to free love in principle, but she seems to have remained faithful to Percy for the duration of their relationship and was secretly jealous of Percy’s dalliances. Her writings reveal that Mary struggled with depression and visions of her lost baby, but Mary gave birth to a son, William, in January 1816. That summer, she, Percy, their son, and Claire joined Byron and a young physician named John Polidori in Geneva.

Byron proposed his famous challenge while the group was sitting around the fire at the villa reading German ghost stories. Polidori ended up writing a short story called “The Vampyre,” but Mary struggled to find inspiration, until a chance discussion on the nature of life and the science of galvanism stirred her creative juices. In the early hours of June 26, Shelley experienced a “waking dream,” as moonlight “struggled to get through” the closed shutters in her room.

As she recalled in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was initially a short story, but Mary expanded it to a full-length novel at Percy’s urging. It was published anonymously in January 1818, mostly to critical acclaim. Mary was not identified as the author until the publication of the second edition in 1823, so many people initially assumed it had been written by Percy.

Despite her literary success, Mary’s life was checkered by multiple tragedies. Both Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, and Percy’s estranged wife committed suicide—Fanny by a laudanum overdose, Harriet by drowning. Percy and Mary got married shortly after Harriet’s death, but despite several pregnancies, only one child survived to adulthood: Percy Florence. In the summer of 1882, while in Italy, Mary miscarried yet again and nearly died from loss of blood. A quick-thinking Percy placed her in an ice bath to staunch the bleeding and likely saved her life. Alas, Percy drowned in a boating accident later that same summer, devastating an already depressed Mary.

Frankenstein is the book for which she is justly famous, but she built a fine literary career as a writer and editor. Shelley never remarried, despite the occasionally suitor, and died on February 1, 1851, at 53, possibly from a brain tumor.

Most of the above aspects of Shelley’s life find their way into A Nightmare Wakes—Unkel strove to be historically accurate even with regard to the lighting and production design—albeit reimagined and condensed for narrative purposes, since most of the film takes place in the summer of 1816. In this telling, Mary is pregnant with her first child when she, Percy, and Claire arrive in Geneva, and she tragically miscarries. Out of this tragedy comes the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein, driven to create a Creature stitched together from dead cadavers and “reanimated” during a dramatic thunderstorm. Philippe Bowgen plays Byron, Claire Glassford plays Claire Clairmont, and Lee Garrett plays Polidori.

“Shelley’s struggle with love, loss, abandonment by society and family, and her own sanity, had yet to be captured fully on-screen,” Unkel said of what drove her to make the film. “She lived a colorful life of love, drugs, and freedom, alongside some of the most celebrated artists of her day.” Ars sat down with Unkel to learn more.

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Report: Stadia undershot to the tune of “hundreds of thousands” of users

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Enlarge / As we learn more about Stadia’s inner workings, we’ve begun adding some “flair” to this Stadia-branded PUBG parachute.

PUBG / Getty Images / Aurich Lawson

In the wake of Google shutting down its Stadia Games & Entertainment (SG&E) group, leaks about the underwhelming game-streaming service have started to emerge. A Friday Bloomberg report, citing unnamed Stadia sources, attaches a new number to the failures: “hundreds of thousands” fewer controllers sold and “monthly active users” (MAU) logging in than Google had anticipated.

The controller sales figure is central to the story told Friday by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier: that internally, Google was of two minds about how Stadia should launch. One idea looked back at some of the company’s biggest successes, particularly Gmail, which launched softly in a public, momentum-building beta while watching how it was received over time. The other, championed by Stadia lead Phil Harrison, was to treat Stadia like a console, complete with some form of hardware that could be hyped and pre-sold. In Stadia’s case, the latter won out, with Harrison bullishly selling a Stadia Founder’s Bundle—and this worked out to be a $129.99 gate to the service. Without it, you couldn’t access Stadia for its first few months.

As Schreier reports, Harrison and the Stadia leadership team “had come from the world of traditional console development and wanted to follow the route they knew.”

Stadiamagotchi?

As part of his Stadia-launch mission, Harrison approved deals costing “tens of millions of dollars” to woo publishers like Take-Two and Ubisoft to launch their games on Stadia, Schreier reports. Exactly how many millions of dollars Stadia spent on these deals is unknown, but Schreier claims that “the amount of money Google was willing to spend came as a shock to veteran game developers,” which implies a figure larger than $10 million.

Even with such a financial incentive in his pocket, however, Take-Two CEO Stauss Zelnick eventually admitted to shareholders that gamer uptake for Stadia didn’t meet his previously optimistic expectations. As he said in June 2020: “The launch of Stadia has been slow. I think there was some overpromising on what the technology could deliver and some consumer disappointment as a result.”

The article mostly retreads the messy, public history of how Stadia missed the mark with critics and potential buyers, including the service’s lack of transferable game ownership and its lack of a clear à la carte subscription option made popular by video-streaming services like Netflix. The report hints at least one game project that was canceled as part of SG&E’s dissolution earlier this month: “a cross between a Google Assistant and a Tamagotchi pet, allowing players to interact with smart creatures in all sorts of fun ways.” This digital-pet game would have leaned in part on Stadia’s server infrastructure and would have “only worked on a cloud platform,” Schreier says.

Also on Friday, Wired’s Cecilia D’Anastasio published a report citing additional, unnamed sources on the woes of Stadia development. According to that report, Google forbade game developers in the SG&E group from “using certain game development software,” which D’Anastasio likened to “roadblocks on the very fundamentals of game-making.” Additionally, she reports that Stadia’s ambitious goals for internal game studios were hamstrung by serious issues with Google infrastructure:

Google’s famously long and involved hiring process can take six to nine months. And it took time for Google to broaden its hiring standards to accommodate skill sets necessary for game development rather than its traditional fields. The goal was to bring in 2,000 people over five years to work on developing games for Stadia, two sources say.

That “five year” count aligns with previous SG&E Director Jade Raymond’s claim that Stadia needed “four years” to turn around ambitious games, far beyond the less than two years those teams were actually given.

D’Anastasio’s report also backs up Schreier’s allegations about Stadia user counts, claiming that the service “did not meet internal expectations in 2020” and amounted to “unremarkable subscription numbers.” And both reports go into detail about how unique Stadia features, particularly the “State Share” option to jump directly into a mid-game moment, were hyped and advertised well before any game had actually implemented them, thus depressing fan interest.

Savage launch for Savage Planet

This news follows a messy interruption to one of SG&E’s only game launches before its dissolution: a Stadia port of the PC and console game Journey to the Savage Planet. The game was developed by Typhoon Studios, a studio that Google acquired in late 2019 and folded into SG&E, but days after the game’s Stadia version launched as part of the Stadia Pro paid subscription service, SG&E had shut down. In the days that followed, Stadia Pro subscribers began complaining that the game would freeze on its opening “press start” menu, and players had no recourse in terms of changing the game’s save file or toggling other settings.

Questions mounted about who might be able to fix the issue, and one Reddit thread catalogued how Stadia support pointed fingers at the game’s prior publisher, 505 Games. This prompted a 505 representative to tell an affected fan, “Reach out to Stadia support again and inform them that the publisher for that version of JttSP is actually them.”

On Monday, February 22, weeks after the bug was first discovered (and days after the Reddit thread spread far and wide), the game received an update fixing the issue. Stadia representatives declined to answer Ars Technica’s questions about who exactly patched the game or whether the game’s original developers at Typhoon were still employed at Google.

That work to keep the game maintained is a reminder, at the very least, that Stadia continues to operate as a home for third-party games streamed from Google’s servers to players’ homes. Paid $10/mo Stadia Pro subscriptions include access to a library of over two dozen games, while “free” accounts can either buy Stadia game licenses à la carte or access free-to-play software like Destiny 2.

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Netflix drops extended Shadow and Bone teaser, announces release date

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Jessie Mei Li stars as Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone, a new Netflix fantasy series adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s worldwide bestselling “Grishaverse” novels, premiering April 23.

Netflix unexpectedly dropped an extended teaser trailer for its forthcoming fantasy series Shadow and Bone during a panel at IGN Fan Fest. The hotly anticipated series is adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling “Grishaverse” novels and will premiere on April 23.

(Mild spoilers for the books below.)

Bardugo published Shadow and Bone, the first of a trilogy, in June 2012, followed by Siege and Storm in 2013 and Ruin and Rising in 2014. She told Entertainment Weekly in 2012 that she deliberately avoided the usual medieval fantasy motifs and drew inspiration instead from the Russian Empire in the early 1800s. “As much as I love broadswords and flagons of ale—and believe me, I do—I wanted to take readers someplace a little different,” she said. “Tsarist Russia gave me a different point of departure.”

Inspiration for the menacing Shadow Fold—the trilogy’s Big Bad—came from her decision to not treat “darkness” metaphorically, but literally. “What if darkness was a place?” she said. “What if the monsters lurking there were real and more horrible than anything you’d ever imagined beneath your bed or behind the closet door? What if you had to fight them on their own territory, blind and helpless in the dark? These ideas eventually became the Shadow Fold.”

In Shadow and Bone, teen orphan Alina Starkov of the Kingdom of Ravka is sent on an expedition across the Unsea (aka the Fold) to bring back provisions for her wealthy patron. Her best friend, Malyen “Mal” Oretsev, is also on the expedition. When monsters inhabiting the Unsea (called volcra) attack, Alina saves the day thanks to previously unsuspected “Grisha” powers—people who can manipulate the elements as weapons. This catches the attention of Grisha leader The Darkling, who brings her to the city of Os Alta, where she begins training with other Grisha to control her powers. But her tutor, Baghra, warns Alina that The Darkling cannot be trusted, and many harrowing adventures ensue.

In 2015, Bardugo published Six of Crows, followed by a sequel, Crooked Kingdom, the following year. The Hollywood Reporter has described the duology as “a blend of Ocean’s 11 and Game of Thrones.” These books are set in the 17th century equivalent of the Dutch Republic. Teenaged Kaz Brekker, aka “Dirthyhands,” is a thief in the city of Ketterdam, who is hired to rescue a scientist from a fortress known as the Ice Court. He recruits members of his street gang, the Dregs, to assist him, given the difficulty of the heist, and once again, many harrowing adventures ensue.

The Netflix adaptation will reportedly cover the events of the Shadow and Bone trilogy and serve as a prequel to the Six of Crows duology. Eric Heisserer (Arrival) heads the project as creator and showrunner, and language expert (“conlanger”) David J. Peterson (Game of Thrones, Doctor Strange, Thor: The Dark World) and Christian Thalmann, who helped Bardugo develop the fictional languages for her Grishaverse novels, will consult on the series. Bardugo herself is an executive producer. Per the official premise:

Shadow and Bone finds us in a war-torn world where lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkov has just unleashed an extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her country free. With the monstrous threat of the Shadow Fold looming, Alina is torn from everything she knows to train as part of an elite army of magical soldiers known as Grisha. But as she struggles to hone her power, she finds that allies and enemies can be one and the same and that nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. There are dangerous forces at play, including a crew of charismatic criminals, and it will take more than magic to survive.

Jessie Mei Li (Last Night in Soho) stars as Alina Starkov, Ben Barnes (Westworld, The Punisher) plays General Kirigan, aka The Darkling, Archie Renaux (Hanna, The Gold Digger) plays Mal, and Zoe Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) plays Baghra, Alina’s tutor and mother to The Darkling. There are also several characters from Six of Crows who will appear in this first season: master thief Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter, Pennyworth); acrobat and knife expert Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman, Doctor WhoThe Outpost); sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young, Endeavor), former brothel worker and “Heartrender” Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan, Game of Thrones), and former witchhunter Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman). Two major characters from the Six of Crows duology will not appear in this first season: Nikolai Lantsov and Wylan Van Eck, a merchant’s son and demolitions expert.

Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix on April 23, 2021.

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

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