Category Archives: Turn-Based Strategy

A Lesson in Early Game Difficulty

This post isn’t really going to be me pointing out a general trend in Video Game Difficulty, but an interesting difficulty spike that I recently ran into. Games start off easy and simple, and then gradually become difficult, right? Well that’s not necessarily true, especially if your resources are more limited than you expect.

I lost to the first Pokemon Gym in Pokemon White Version a couple of days ago. Not only did I lose to the first real obstacle in the game, but I lost more than once and tried multiple strategies before I won.

“But how?” you ask. “The first gym is built to get players used to gyms, so how can the very first one be that hard?” Sure, I was stubborn and only wanted to use a couple of Pokemon at the very beginning to cut down on grinding, but my main Pokemon was of equal level to the Gym Leader’s strongest one. The answer is a combination of a lack of plentiful EXP and the power of boosting stats at the right time.

Starting with Pokemon Black and White, EXP, or Experience Points, are no longer gained based on the level and species of the Pokemon defeated. Instead, the points gained are now altered based on how higher in level your own Pokemon is. For example, defeating a Pokemon at the same level might give you 500 EXP, but defeating one 5 levels below yourself will cause you to gain less. This drop continues until the gap grows large enough to make battles pointless. In theory, this is an anti grinding technique to try and get players to not just steamroll everything with one Pokemon. But before you defeat the first Gym in Pokemon Black and White, you are stuck in an area with finite encounters that are actually worth fighting.

Once you’ve defeated all the trainers available, your Pokemon will be stuck with fighting low level random encounters, which take far too long to realistically level up with. As an example, my main Pokemon at the time was pretty much stuck at Level 14 when I went to the Gym.

And this is where the Striaton City Gym’s strategy comes into play.

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There are three potential fights in the Striaton City Gym: Chili, Cress, and Cilan. The one you will fight is based on who you chose as your Starter Pokemon. The game always makes you face the one with a type advantage.

This gym already puts you at a disadvantage, since their strongest Pokemon will have the elemental advantage against your starter Pokemon. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but because of the EXP problems you have before this gym, it’s difficult to raise more than one Pokemon and have them at a high level. You either get a diverse team and split the EXP, or stick with a smaller party and have less options. The game does give you a Pokemon with a type advantage against the gym for free, but it’s at Level 10, meaning it won’t do a huge amount of damage unless you train it. But the thing that really adds to the difficulty is one move the gym tends to use quite a bit: Work Up.

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Both of the Gym leader’s Pokemon know Work Up, which boosts their Attack and Special Attack stats every time it’s used. Stat boosting and lowering techniques are powerful in the early game, because the player doesn’t have many attacking options, and once Work Up is used a few times, it’s very easy to get one or two hit KOed. The longer the battle goes on, the more dangerous it becomes. And since it’s nearly impossible to quickly defeat them without a lucky critical hit, the AI is nearly guaranteed enough turns to set up their stats.

And that is how I lost 5 times to the first Gym. What would be a fair fight becomes far more difficult just by restricting a few resources and giving the opponent something you don’t have access to. Later on, Gym Battles aren’t nearly this hard simply because you have more options to consider, making this very first gym one of the tougher fights. An unexpected Difficulty Spike.

-Alyssa

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Engaging The Enemy, A Roll of the Die

In most games, combat is rather straightforward, the player launches an attack from the character and the game checks if the attack has landed, if so, the enemy takes damage and vice versa. Turn-Based Strategy handles this mechanic much differently, and more often than not, relies on a Random Number Generator (RNG) to calculate various things.

For a first example, let’s take a quick look at the Fire Emblem series and how it approaches how units engage in combat.

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In the Fire Emblem series, the game takes into account several different things for combat, first of all, the game calculates the strength of the attack through various modifiers. The “Atk” stat changes based on the nature of the attack, either physical or magical, and scales off of strength or magic, respectively. Additionally the attack value decreases the higher an enemy’s defense or resistance. Lastly, Atk checks if its super effective against the specific enemy unit.

The “Hit” stat is largely the biggest source of RNG, in Fire Emblem’s combat. Hit is calculated by the unit’s skill stat and increases the chance to hit an enemy, while the defending unit lowers his chances of getting hit with a higher speed stat. Both those stats together are calculated into a percentage chance for the attacker to land a hit.

“Crit” is another equally RNG dependent aspect of combat, perhaps more so than hit as when a unit successfully crits they deal triple the damage of their Atk. Because of this a successful crit often leads into an instant death. This stat is raised exclusively by a unit’s skill but not as aggressively as it raises the “Hit” stat.

With all these in mind it becomes clear that Fire Emblem is heavily reliant on RNG for its combat. The randomness lends itself into calculating risk for the player, as they must think about the “what if” scenario if a unit fails to land an attack that is crucial in a strategy to keep the rest of the units alive. Or if an enemy unit’s 25% chance to hit miraculously lands and now puts a unit into a dire situation. These are all scenarios which lend to the difficulty of Fire Emblem that each player must take calculated risks on in order to proceed. Although at times the randomness of the RNG can truly be rather unfair to the player, when an enemy unit not only lands a 13% chance to hit, but also successfully crits off of a 1% and instantly kills one of the player’s units. Players must take the good and the bad of Fire Emblem’s system as it is a fundamental style of the game.

 


 

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The XCOM series handles this very similarly to Fire Emblem with the exception that damage is not calculated by an outside factor but is instead tied to the weapon a unit is using in its attack. So the damage will likely fluctuate if the unit is wielding a rifle, a rocket launcher, or a pistol sidearm.

Additionally while crit is still handled in a % chance it is not nearly as strong as it is in Fire Emblem, where a crit only amplifies damage by an extra 50%. While still strong, a crit doesn’t often lead to an immediately dead unit, but can put that unit into a very dangerous position at low health. Increasing the crit chance is also much simpler in the XCOM series as it too, is not handled by an outside state of the unit, but takes into account if the enemy being fired upon is being flanked by the attacker, the weapon’s own crit modifier, as well as any skills that might change the crit chance.

Hit % is calculated by a soldier’s own aim, which raises as they gain more experience, as well as the effective range of the weapon being used, and the cover the target unit is behind if any. These come together and add up to a percentage chance of hitting your target.

Similarly to Fire Emblem, XCOM’s combat often feels up to RNG as players have felt that a 75% chance in XCOM, might as well be a 0% chance to hit, with how often these shots regularly miss their mark. This in itself lends to a harsh difficulty and requires the player to orchestrate a strategy to ensure the highest chances of success, instead of taking the luck of the draw.

 


 

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Valkyria Chronicles takes an entire different approach to combat. There are no displayed % chance to hit, no relaying of how much damage is dealt and no random crit modifiers for the combat. Instead Valkyria simply displays the amount of shots that are going to be fired, how many shots need to land to kill the enemy unit, and what types of units the weapon is effective against.

Instead of having a % chance to miss like the other two I’ve discussed, Valkyria Chronicles relies on the player’s own accuracy and how well they can aim the crosshair on an enemy unit to ensure the most amount of shots landing. Unlike First Person Shooters, the bullets fired aren’t pinpoint deadly and accurate, instead they will spray quite a bit in the large circle area displayed. This proves to be the main RNG the game employs in its combat, as some bullets can go off their mark and barely miss a target, making you miss a few key shots on a target.

Effectively this system is much more reliable, and less RNG dependent, and feels more fair to the player as their is a clear visual indicator of bullets landing or flying past their targets. Additionally, because it requires the player to aim at their intended target, when vital shots miss it feels more like a failure by the player for taking a sub-optimal shot or not trying to ensure the crosshair is fully covering an enemy unit’s body. While randomness can still screw you over by throwing a shot in the one tiny area of the crosshair not covering an enemy causing you to miss an exact lethal strike, it is not nearly as punishing of a combat system as the likes of XCOM and Fire Emblem.

All in all, the 3 turn-based strategy games I’ve covered share very similar difficulty mechanics, partially due to the genre they share, but just as often these games take an independent and varied approach about how to implement these challenges and change a tried and true formula for something new and unique. That’s all for now regarding turn-based strategy games, I’ll be returning sometime later with a new topic, until then have fun!

-Michael

 

Flight of the Valkyries

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Valkyria Chronicles, much like the other games I’ve talked about so far, has a very good approach on handling game difficulty through strategy. For example the chapters in Valkyria Chronicles give you a rundown of the basic level layout and of the objective, as well as at least a rough estimate of the enemies you will be encountering on the battlefield. As such players can individually choose the different squad members’ starting positions where they would be most useful.

Having Scouts up at the front would allow them to move in to battle quickly and provide more information to the player about enemy positions and movements. Lancers would be most effective closest to enemy armored units to take them out as quickly and efficiently as possible before they put the rest of the squad in danger. Shocktroopers would be most beneficial in areas with large amounts of enemy infantry. Snipers would best be placed in the back lines away from the heat of the battlefield in relative safety. Lastly, Engineers are best placed surrounding the player’s Tank to provide support.

Full knowledge and use of the each unit’s strength is an important strategy, that levels are designed to challenge the player to come up with an efficient strategy using these different units. For example there is little reason to bring Lancers into a mission with no enemy armored units. Nor is there much reason to bring Snipers into close quarters combat.

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Other important mechanics that Valkyria Chronicles employs is effective range, cover, and line of sight. Different classes are equipped with different weapons that are effective in different ranges. Snipers are deadly and accurate at far range where no other class can fire off an accurate shot. Lancers boast large rockets, while deadly, are rather inaccurate at hitting targets that aren’t the size of a small tank. Scouts and Engineers have rifles which are effective at both close and medium range with a falloff the farther the target. And Shocktroopers are extremely effective up close, and effective at medium range but have a very large drop off the farther the target gets. Knowing how to navigate battlefields so that these units are always within their own effective range but are not put in danger by an enemy unit with superior range is important.

Cover is also very important in formulating a strategy and adds to the game’s difficulty. Cover makes it substantially harder to be hit by an enemy but not impossible as exposed body parts can still be hit. While effective, cover does not make the unit invulnerable as even cover can be blown away and destroyed, leaving a layer of strategy that the player must account for. First, can the enemy destroy the cover my unit is using? Second, can I destroy the cover the enemy is using? Third, can another enemy unit flank my position in an upcoming turn? Lastly, can I flank the enemy unit with another one of my units before he has a change to move said unit. Cover adds an interesting layer of difficulty, that the player must account for in their strategy.

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Line of Sight is an important aspect of Valkyria Chronicles, after all, a player can not fire upon, or be fired at, when enemies are not in view. This is extremely important as when a unit’s turn ends it is extremely important for the player that the unit is within as few line of sights as possible, as that drastically limits the amount of enemies that can immediately fire upon them. Additionally, if a unit starts a turn with a large amount of enemies within their line of sight this can prove difficult because of intercepting fire. What this essentially means is if you try to fire upon an enemy or move your unit from their starting position, enemy units that are close enough and have you within their Line of Sight will immediately start firing upon that unit and dealing damage to them. So the less enemy eyes on each unit, the better.

While I’ve talked rather extensively about Fire Emblem, XCOM, and Valkyria Chronicles individually there is a shared mechanic between the 3 games I would personally like to get into, namely how each game calculates attacks from unit to unit and how the different approaches lend themselves to that game’s difficulty. I’ll leave that all up to a post for next time where I go into detail. For now this is all I have.

 

-Michael

An Alien Arms Race

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XCOM and XCOM 2, are two turn based tactics game that rely on randomly generated levels and environments for the different missions the player takes on. As a result the game’s difficulty curve has a slight slant of randomness to it, as the game’s various walls of cover can be a help or a hindrance. Despite this element of randomness, the game tries to keep the various levels relatively balanced by providing efficient cover for both the player and the enemies.

The XCOM series’ main point of influencing difficulty, is by slowly ramping up the difficulty of enemies and introducing them at a pace, where if the player never focused on improving their soldiers, they would easily be overrun. So the game starts off an arms war, as you race to keep up with the ever increasing hostility and effectiveness of the alien encounters, up until XCOM’s endgame, where the last new enemy is introduced and your soldier’s are equipped with the best gear. At this the main point of XCOM’s difficulty comes from the player’s battle strategy and how they react to the enemies’ own movements and approach.

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A major mechanic that is employed in each level of XCOM, is the “Fog of War,” the areas of the map that are shrouded in darkness and hide anything within. Because the player is left with limited visibility of only the areas surrounding the player’s squad, they must advance carefully into the unknown with the fear of running into a crossfire. This adds a staple of difficulty to the XCOM series, as the player must be vigilant and prepared to deal with an unsuspecting ambush or moving to what was supposed to be safe cover, to all of a sudden becoming flanked by an enemy squad you had no idea was there.

Ultimately XCOM is a clever game about putting together a strategy and knowing how to counter an opponent’s own, when it exposes your own plan. So the player must constantly keep on their toes, as a sudden appearing squad of aliens on the rear flank can prove deadly to even the most fool-proof plan.

Indirect Strategy: Tactics and Difficulty

RPGs that have you control more than one character as a group or “party” are fairly common for the genre.  You decide what action each character is going to do, and then they follow your commands when their turn in battle arrive. What’s a little less common is when you are given team members that you can’t order around directly.

In a situation like this, you have control over the designated main character, but everyone else you can only give suggestions to. One of the few games that I’ve played extensively that has this restriction is Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 of the SMT Persona series.

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One of many much harder than average games Atlus has produced over the years.

In Persona 3 (in the original PS2 release and FES versions), you are given control of your main hero who you can fully tweak and customize the battle style of to fit the role you want to play. However, you can choose between a variety of around 8 other party members with their own fixed strengths and weaknesses and elemental affinities. With a maximum party of 4, including yourself, you can construct a very well rounded or focused group to kill the creatures known as Shadows as you climb Tartarus together.

 

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It’s quite a few floors of exploring to reach the top, but as long as you play smart with your strategies, you can fight in just about any way in this game. But just like real people in a life threatening battle, you can’t just order your team members around and micromanage their exact moves every turn. Instead, Persona 3 gives you a Tactics menu.

The default tactic for every party member is Act Freely, and your AI friends will fight alongside you in whatever way they think is efficient. Sometimes they will heal the team or attack an enemy’s weak point without your guidance, but maybe you want them to do something more specific than “kill the shadows and try not to die in the process”. That’s when you open up the Tactics menu as you decide your actions for that turn. Changing tactics does not use up your attack for that round, so you can switch them around and take your time deciding what you need everyone to do. Be wary that you can’t mess with them once you take your action, and you’ll have to wait until it’s the main character’s turn again to change tactics once more.

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Here’s a screenshot of Persona 3’s UI when fighting enemies.

You start out with a small list of Tactics, but as you defeat bosses, the trust between you and your team will rise, and they will learn new tactics to take advantage of. Persona 3’s AI system is actually more complicated than it looks, and your team members will even behave differently when you make an effort to scan shadows with your navigator’s ability, taking advantage of any revealed weaknesses if they can.

Here’s a basic list of Persona 3 Tactics that apply to all characters. There are a few more that are special to certain characters you can have in your party, but we can just stick with this list for simplicity.

  • Act Freely: The AI is free to do what it wants. If there is an enemy that can be killed with a normal attack, it will use a normal attack against that enemy. If more than one ally is in bad health, it will use a party-healing spell. If they only have a single heal spell, it will use a single target healing/item on the one with lowest HP. If an ally is in bad health, it will use a healing spell. If low on SP to cast a spell, it will use a healing item instead. If there is an enemy weak to an element, it will cast that single-target spell to that enemy. If no enemies can be knocked down with weaknesses, it will proceed to do multi-target attacks if there is more than one enemy, or the most damaging attack if there’s only one left.
  • Heal/Support: If more than one ally is in bad health, it will use a party-healing spell. If they only have a single heal spell, it will use a single target healing/item on the one with lowest HP. If an ally is in bad health, it will use a healing spell. If low on SP to cast a spell, it will use a healing item instead. If everybody is in good health and they can raise the party’s stats or lower the enemy’s, they will cycle through their available buff and debuff spells. After everyone is buffed or all debuffs are in effect, they will attack as if on Act Freely, except they will use a break skill if the enemy nullifies an element  they want to use.
  • Conserve SP: The AI will try not to use SP, so no magic spells will be used.
    If an ally’s in bad health, they will just use healing items, and as long as the enemy doesn’t null physical attacks, the AI will use the strongest physical spell they have. If an enemy does null every attack, they will waste a turn by choosing to wait.
  • Knock Down: In this Tactic, the AI is determined to put every enemy into ‘Down’ status. Doing this to all enemies in one round will allow a more powerful group All Out Attack.
    If an enemy is weak to an element, it will use a single-target attack of that element.
    If no enemies are weak to any attacks available, they’ll use a physical attack hoping to score a critical hit to knock them down. If the enemies null every attack available, even the physical attacks, and there is an ally in bad health, then the AI will try to heal with a spell or item, with the same priority as the Heal/Support Command. If nothing else is possible to do, they will wait.

    Using this will ensure the The AI will never attack an enemy already knocked down (allowing them to get up again), use a spell that doesn’t knock the enemy down, use a multi-target attack or spell, or use buff/debuffs.

  • Full Assault: In this Tactic, the AI will focus on dealing the highest possible damage.

    It will act the same as in Act Freely if an enemy has a weakness they can exploit, but if no enemies are weak to elements available, then they will attempt to use spell combos and physical moves that will do the most damage. The AI will prioritize multi-target skills if there is more than a single enemy. If the enemies nulls everything, they will either use a spell to buff themselves, try to inflict a status effect, or do nothing.

  • Same Target: This is Full Assault on the same target you are currently attacking.
  • Assign Target: You select an enemy to focus on, and they will act on Full Assault rules until it dies, and then switch to a random target after that.
  • Attack Fallen: This prioritizes killing enemies that are currently Down and unable to attack, acting on Full Assault for the most possible damage. If nothing is knocked down, they will act as if given Knock Down tactics until they have a target that fits the Attack Fallen parameters.
  • Wait: This just tells them to skip their turn manually. It’s good for waiting out an enemy’s negative effect or protective shield, or timing attacks for a strategy.

Using these preset AI strategies, you can guide your team mates into doing what you think is best for a situation. Some players think this is a tedious way to create artificial challenge, and end up personally covering for their teammates by customizing their main hero to fit in any role, but I personally found this a really interesting system to use.

It makes the various characters you fight with feel more like other people instead of your minions to boss around, and it forces you to predict a little farther ahead in battles to figure out what the best tactic is. Instead of just using everyone as puppets, you have to have a sort of genuine teamwork going and trust that they will do the right thing. It made your party members appear more alive and aware, in my opinion. They had personalities and skills I had to take into account when using them, and that really adds to the RP part of an RPG game.

And if anything is focused on in Persona 3 and the sequel games as a recurring theme, it’s that you can’t be strong by yourself. You need the bonds you spent so much time cultivating between the people you met on your journey if you want to make it out alive… mostly. You’ll still probably die a lot, but it’ll be more fun if you make friends to soften the blow.

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Memento Mori: An old Latin expression that means “Remember you must die.” This is most of the Shin Megami Tensei series in a nutshell, so… good luck with that.

The Intricacies of a Battlefield

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The Fire Emblem series has always had a knack for well put together level design, crafting some well designed and challenging levels and some not so great maps riddled with gimmicky challenges. But the main drawing factor is that Fire Emblem knows how to construct a level full of challenges that require you to navigate a level by formulating a strategy before you begin to act.

This is most notable on the Fire Emblem series’ higher difficulties such as Lunatic, a mode notable for enemies’ increased stats and powerful skills that are capable of wiping out an entire party. In a mode such as this where a careless move can derail an entire strategy and cause it to collapse in on itself, it is of extreme importance to learn how to play the map effectively and use the level design to your advantage.

If in a game like Fire Emblem Awakening on the Lunatic difficulty, maps where nothing but empty space filled with enemies and your platoon of soldiers. You would be quickly overrun by the heightened stats and terrifying stampede of enemies. To alleviate this the map design softens what would otherwise be a terrifying difficulty curve by placing various obstructions and different types of terrain to modify the course of battle.

Forest tiles give extra defense and a chance to avoid attacks to units standing on them but require an extra move point to navigate through, desert tiles slow down movement of all units except for fliers and reduces mounted unit movement to 2 tiles. Several different terrain modifiers like this exist with the intention of challenging the player as well as allowing the developers to control the flow of difficulty.

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In a map like the one pictured above, the player is confronted by a large group of enemies, normally the player would be overrun, but because of the desert terrain, this slows down the attackers allowing the player to slowly pick them off in waves, as long as the player plans accordingly by biding their time.

In a similar situation, fairly early on in the Lunatic difficulty, enemies are very difficult to deal with, so the developers give the player a pre-promoted class that is much stronger than the rest of the party. This unit is designed to be used to alleviate some of the early game as it would be near impossible without them. Specifically in chapter 5 of Fire Emblem Awakening there is a point with multiple enemies unit that will slowly collapse upon the player. The starting position of the player’s units allows for the enemies to approach from two different directions, one through a tiny one unit wide choke-point, and the other a fairly wide open area that requires units to zig-zag to get to the point which is a much longer route than the choke-point.

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Because the way the AI is programmed they try to take the shortest path possible to get the player, this naturally puts most enemies towards the choke-point. While initially put into a difficult situation, this easily becomes manageable by defeating the small handful of enemies in the open area and using the pre-promoted unit to block the choke-point, essentially stopping the flow of enemies and preventing them from quickly overwhelming your small army. While this seems like a clever exploit from players, the map was designed in such a way to enable this strategy for the harder difficulties as playing the map in other ways would be much harder as it leaves several of your units exposed and vulnerable.

The Fire Emblem series has various other great examples like these of maps and levels inside of them. As well as some not so great ones, but Fire Emblem manages to make each and every level an entertaining balance of strategy and difficulty.
In my next posts we’ll be seeing how XCOM and XCOM 2 manage their difficulty.

 

-Michael

Taking Things One Turn At A Time

In the grand expanse of video game genres, ranging from fast paced action games, to more casual and soothing simulation games, there are games for just about every type of person out there. Whether you enjoy a thrilling challenge that pushes you to the edge of your seat, or a narrative focused calming experience. One thing for certain is that each of these games have its difficulty fine tuned and orchestrated to match its genre and tone, all the while attempting to deliver a fun and entertaining experience for the audience.

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Narrowing the scope a little, I’ll be taking a detailed look at Turn-Based Strategy/Turn Based Tactics games and the overarching work that designers put through to craft a challenge for the players, as well as all the minute details into creating a challenge that requires players to formulate a plan before charging in. While there are a plethora of strategy games that come to mind with several different approaches to difficulty, I’ll be taking specific looks at the likes of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its sequel XCOM 2, the Fire Emblem series, and Valkyria Chronicles.

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While all three can be described as Turn-Based Strategy, they are all stylistically different in terms of game mechanics, art style, and more importantly how they all approach creating a challenging experience for the player. I’ll be analyzing the three different approaches these games take over my next few posts. There’s a lot of interesting tricks and strategies designers employ and I’m looking forward to exploring them thoroughly.

 

-Michael