The Penny Arcade Report plays Paint the Line
Paint the Line: Red Tide is a card game released by Penny Arcade, and of course this is the Penny Arcade Report. I played the game outside of the Penny Arcade offices, with no help, guidance, or notes from the people who designed or created it. Any notes on game play were given after my sessions. There are obvious ethical issues here, but people continue to ask for my thoughts on the game, and I'm lucky enough to have a preview deck. So heck, why not? The Escalation Deck in Paint the Line provides an ever-increasing difficulty level when returning shots to your opponent. You're required to roll at least a six on the include D20 to serve the ball, and then the other player has to roll at least an 8 to return the shot. There are eight cards in the escalation deck, ranging from 6 to 20. There is no room for you sit back and choose your moment to attack, as the escalation deck ratchets up the tension and danger with every shot. You have to play aggressively, due to the fact that your next shot is going to be even harder to return. Time is working against you. The cards in your hand offer a selection of shots that either give you a bonus to your roll in order to hit or exceed the number on the escalation deck, or to give your opponent a disadvantage when they roll. You draw a card before each round, and after playing a shot it remains in your arsenal for the rest of your game. The more stamina cards you pull from your deck and place on the table, the more powerful the shots from which to choose. There are further specialty cards that give your shots special bonuses, and there is also a rock-paper-scissors mechanic at play: The lobs are at advantage over spins, which have advantage over drives, which have advantage over lobs. You can also use a default shot, which gives your opponent the advantage with any return shot. You can play any shot during your turn, but having the advantage allows you to use the higher values on your cards, increasing the power of your shot. Still, when serving, you have a 25% shot of not rolling a 6 or higher, which is the beginning value of the escalation index. This causes you to lose a point, and my rolls were cold as ice during my first few games. I spoke with Steve Bowler, the game's designer, after my first series of games. “You get Advantage on serve, which we implemented not only to reflect real Ping Pong, but to encourage people to not use a default shot on Serve so you can give yourself an even lower chance to fail,” he explained. After the opening serve, once you've had a chance to build a few shots in your arsenal and a decent stamina pile, you shouldn't be using default shots anyway. If you play a card that gives you 2+ to your roll, then you only need to hit a 4 or above, meaning you have a 15 percent chance to miss your shot. Still, luck plays a part. “I know this analog doesn't make anyone feel any better when they're playing, but I mis-serve, like completely miss the ball, in real life at Ping Pong, which also makes you lose the point,” Bowler said. The game doesn't expect you to always beat the odds as much as it helps you find ways to mitigate them with smart play.
Playing the field
It took my friends and I about 30 minutes of play to understand the game well enough to play point quickly, and you need that level of understanding in order to feel the rhythm of the game. Rolling the dice for each shot adds an element of luck, and players who pull more stamina or certain shots early in the game are going to have an advantage against the other player, but that's why playing three games of 11 points each is important to really hash out the game. When you serve or return a shot that causes your opponent to miss their role's target, you get a point. Once play picks up it takes a minute or two to score a point. Rounds where the escalation deck gets close to 20 are tense, causing players and onlookers to sweat each roll and use everything they can in their deck to increase their odds of survival. The more powerful cards give a bonus to your roll while making your opponent's next roll more difficult. If you are able to play a card that has the advantage over the previous shot those values increase further. Once you begin to play specific shots with modifier cards that increase their power the strategy really opens up. I've been told that the strategy gets deeper still once you learn the ins and outs of the system, but I'm not there yet. The $30 Red Tide base package comes with 71 unique cards that make two 60-card decks and the escalation cards (128 cards in all), along with a single D20. It's also being marketed as an “expandable” card game, which are words that raise the hackles on the back of my neck. I hate collectible card games with a passion; I'd much rather pay my money for a complete experience without having to worry about another player beating me due to better cards he or she bought and collected. One of my goals with the first few games was to make sure that the base package included enough cards to keep you busy with a second player for a significant amount of time, and so far I'm happy with the base deck. You can buy the package, grab a friend, and happily play for a very long time. Expansions may add different cards and more flavor, but there are no holes that need to be filled in the base package. The escalation deck and the D20 are the two things that set the game apart. Introducing a random aspect into play helps to keep things exciting, but each player has enough tools to swing the odds to their favor with smart play. The constant 5% chance of someone rolling a natural 20 keeps everyone on their toes. That being, the last time someone rolled a natural 20 against me, I was able to play a card that could return any shot, but also required me to not only burn but discard the stamina needed to play that card. The people watching the game grew quiet during this volley, and after those two shots the escalation index was up to 16. That means that my opponent had a 75% chance of missing the shot, giving me the point, but that's before modifiers. A good play with the cards or a lucky roll and I'd be forced to return the shot with the escalation rating of 18 (meaning that, before modifiers, I'd have to roll an 18, 19, or 20 to succeed), and I was already facing a major disadvantage due to losing three stamina. These are the moments when the system begins to shine. I'm biased as hell, but I love this game.