A Guide to Toytles: Leaf Raking – How It Works

This post is part of a series about Toytles: Leaf Raking, a game that lets you explore basic business concepts, challenges your strategic thinking, and teaches the importance of responsibility and keeping your promises. Get it for both iOS and Android.

Toytles: Leaf Raking

Toytles: Leaf Raking is a leaf-raking business simulation. You play the role of a young reptile who has 90 days before the first snowfall of winter to earn enough money to purchase the amazingly cool and very expensive Ultimate Item(tm).

Check the main page linked above to see screenshots and a quick description of the game, but over the next couple of weeks I will be adding a collection of tips and tricks.

The first page is titled How It Works, and it is a more detailed overview of what you can expect to do in the game.

Future pages will dive deep into the various aspects of the game. Armed with the knowledge from this guide, you should feel more capable at tackling your own leaf-raking business.

Toytles: Leaf Raking Player's Guide

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Announcing: Toytles: Leaf Raking, Now Available on iOS

I’ve finally gotten around to porting Toytles: Leaf Raking, my family-friendly leaf-raking business simulation to iOS, so now you can get it for your iPhones and iPads.

Download Toytles: Leaf Raking on the App Store!

Download on the App Store

Toytles: Leaf Raking

I originally created the game in 2016, and I’ve updated it a few times since then. My original announcement for the Android release of Toytles: Leaf Raking on Google Play was met with some enthusiasm (thanks, Mom), and I have been slowly making improvements and plans for newer features since its release.

I was quite proud of the game, and I had plans to update it sooner, but I had a few changes in my life occur. One request I received was to get the game out for iOS, and and I am happy to say that after only a few short years, it is now available.

I hope you enjoy it!

Toytles: Leaf Raking Player's Guide

Get the 24-page, full color PDF of the Toytles: Leaf Raking Player’s Guide for free by signing up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter!

Books I Have Read: A Social Strategy

Mikolaj Jan Piskorski’s “A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media” was published in 2014, which is quite a few lifetimes ago in the tech world, but I checked it out anyway.

A Social Strategy

It’s an academic text, looking at the success and failure of different social media platforms and a few companies attempting to take advantage of them through the lens of sociology.

It can get quite wonky at times, but I like wonky.

It also attempts to give advice to anyone looking to establish a new social network or use existing social networks to either save or make money.

In economics, there is a concept called “market failure” in which economic transactions do not happen or happen inefficiently due to some reason or another.

Piskorski notes that there are also categories of “social failure,” social
interactions that people seek and would better their situations if they happened but cannot accomplish in the off-line world. Social failures are about the interactions that do not occur, which is an interesting way to look at things.

For example, single people might find it difficult to meet others, and so dating platforms such as Ok Cupid and eHarmony provide social solutions. He analyzed how each differed in their approaches and how one succeeded due to providing a superior, more effective solution.

Besides “meet” failures, there are also “friend” failures, in which a person might find it difficult to share information or social support in an existing relationship. There’s a chapter in which Zynga is a case study that focuses on this context.

And much like how in economics there can be transaction costs as the underlying reason for a market failure, there are economic and social costs that prevent or inhibit otherwise good social interactions from happening. He categorizes them as breadth, display, search, and communication.

It’s a fascinating analysis, which is especially relevant if you are trying to create a new social app or platform. Piskorski juxtaposed Facebook and the Japanese social media platform mixi, as well as LinkedIn and Friendster, explaining how each tackled their solutions to the above social failures differently and how those different approaches created different results.

He argues that a social solution needs to address both the economic AND the social causes of interaction costs. Otherwise, it will be ineffective. In fact, he argues that social solutions that provide breadth, display, search, and communication functionalities will do better than others that only provide a few.

But, he also says that there are often trade-offs that need to be made. Some solutions increase the costs of certain functionalities. Facebook will never replace LinkedIn because Facebook would need to offer a way for people to meet strangers. In fact, Facebook once did offer a way to search and find strangers, but it had the side-effect that individuals in relationships used this functionality to cheat on their partners, which reduced the effectiveness of the “friend” solution that Facebook is offering. So Facebook removed the functionality, leaving LinkedIn as the dominant platform to meet people on.

Well, what if you aren’t setting up your own social network but want to take advantage of existing networks for your own business?

Piskorski also talks about the concept of the “social strategy.” In general, organizations use either low cost or high willingness-to-pay strategies. If you can lower the former without lowering the latter, or if you can increase the latter without increasing the former, you have a competitive advantage. Piskorski goes one step further to say that a social strategy involves leveraging people willing to take on business tasks for free in order to indirectly lower costs or increase willingness-to-pay.

A social strategy is different from a digital strategy, which is basically taking the familiar activity of broadcasting content at an audience and applying it online. A social strategy involves identifying and implementing a solution that solves unmet economic and social needs. In short, if you can introduce people to each other AND get them to do things for you for free, you are leveraging social media for your organization’s benefit.

The generalized framework used:

1) A viable social strategy seeks to increase a company’s profitability
2) by improving interactions between people
3) if they undertake a set of corporate functions for free

Piskorski discusses ways an organization can develop a strategy that fits the framework, as well as identifying what problems can occur if the strategy does not focus on how the proposed solution can both provide business value and social utility.

I am not sure exactly how different the social networking world looks in 20202 compared to 2014, and I would love to see if Piskorski has a new, updated analysis.

But “A Social Strategy” provided a set of principles and a framework that I think I can use to figure out how to more effectively market my games. Instead of randomly tweeting and posting on Facebook and wondering why I’m not getting the results I want, I can be a bit more analytical and thoughtful. I can be more purposeful and deliberate. And I can recognize when a strategy isn’t working that doesn’t involve merely noticing a lack of sales.

Games I Have Played: Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns

In November 2019, I was listening to podcasts in my car, and I was catching up on Three Moves Ahead, a fantastic podcast about strategy games. There was a 2012 episode in which the Kohan series was discussed, and it intrigued me.

Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns

I knew Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns was an older real-time strategy game, released in 2001 and ported to Linux-based systems by Loki, but I had a hard time finding a way to buy it to play on my Ubuntu system in 2019. It was only available on Steam if I didn’t want to try to get an old copy on eBay or something like that.

I don’t normally play Steam games when non-DRM versions of games exist, but as I really wanted to experience Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns myself, I will say that Valve’s Proton, a fork of WINE, made the game work seamlessly on my system. I mean, periodically it will crash inexplicably, losing progress on a mission I finished, but when it doesn’t crash, it runs seamlessly.

Well, mostly. Apparently any screenshots I took are missing, and I managed to get to a mission that I can’t start because the game crashes when I try, but by then I think I got a good sense of the flavor that the single-player campaign provides.

Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns did some interesting things differently from other RTSes of its time. I am not going to pretend to be an expert on strategy games of that era, though. Around that time I had just discovered PC gaming as a colleague introduced me to Total Annihilation, and I eventually found myself playing Starcraft with coworkers at the help desk I worked at. I eventually played one of my favorite games Original War, and I fell in love with Homeworld: Cataclysm. All this is to say that my experience with strategy games in general is fairly limited, and so I am trying to play catch up by playing older games.

In this case, I wanted to see for myself what the Three Moves Ahead panel described as an “evolutionary dead end” for strategy game innovations which somehow also has influence on future games such as Company of Heroes.

First Impressions

  • The voice acting is kind of awful.
  • The enemy AI is not only putting up a fight but kicking my butt.
  • Oh, I don’t create individual units, I create companies? Interesting.
  • The economy is a bit confusing.
  • The dragon looks awesome!
  • Oh, geez, run away from the dragon!
  • Oh, geez, the dragon is giving chase quite beyond where I expected it to run!
  • HOLY COW THE DRAGON’S FIRE-BREATHING ATTACK HAS A HUUUUUGE RANGE!
  • Ok, wait, so I just tech up to grenadiers and mow down my enemies?
  • Why are my unstoppable grenadiers getting decimated so easily by the enemy all of a sudden?

I had a really cool screenshot involving a dragon just incinerating entire companies, but I can’t find it now. You’ll have to take my word for it.

So what makes Kohan special?

Let’s start with companies. You don’t create individual units like you would in Starcraft or Total Annihilation. You create an entire company of units at once by assigning a set of units to the front line and two support units. Each company has a captain, who can be some generic anonymous person or a Kohan, one of the immortal sovereigns who have amnesia in the campaign’s story but still insist on leading people to war.

What might not be obvious is that an individual unit is more like a symbol of recruited soldiers. If you lose units to battle but at least one member of the company survives, you can resupply and eventually get back your full company. The only exception is that the death of a Kohan in battle turns them into a medallion you can activate for 50 gold back in town. What this means is that if the company somehow survived while the Kohan died, it now has a generic captain in charge, and you can resurrect your Kohan to lead a different company.

Which brings us to the concept of Zones. Each zone could have its visibility on the map toggled on or off.

Companies have a Zone of Control, which I always left visible because when ZoCs overlap with enemies, a battle ensues. You don’t micromanage the battle, as the units fight on their own. It’s actually very enjoyable to watch since the 2D artwork and animation is gorgeous. The only things you can do to influence a company in battle are flee to a specified location or flee in whatever direction your company captain randomly decides to go. There were multiple formations you can put your company in, and each influences the ZoC. The terrain also did so, although I never understood why desert terrain would shrink instead of expand your ZoC.

Your settlements aren’t just places where you can invest in upgrades or create your companies. If your company has hurt or killed units, being within the Zone of Supply will heal them.

There is also the Zone of Population, but that mainly shows where you already have influence and where you can’t build settlements. I almost never paid attention to it since I never built settlements.

Extending your Zone of Supply is actually a key strategic point of the game, one that the AI knows how to handle well. If you start to send your armies against your enemies but don’t build settlements and outposts along the way, your companies will have a long retreat each time they need to heal up. Instead, I’ve found success in some tough missions involved leapfrogging ahead with soldiers to fight off enemies while my engineers built an outpost, which extends the range of my domain’s Zone of Supply. As a bonus, those outposts field their own guards, which means I don’t necessarily need to worry about using one of my precious companies to play defense. Then my advancing armies can retreat a bit to heal up and ready for the next wave of attack.

If you leave a company idle, it eventually fortifies its position, which increases its defensive bonus. It can often tilt the tide of battle, especially if the enemy is making its way towards your capital city and you need time to create a new company to fend them off.

Other bonuses come from attacking or defending from certain terrain, so an entrenched company in the forest will have a much easier time defending against an attack than a moving company marching through the open plains.

When a company’s Zone of Control overlaps with an enemy building, a siege occurs. The building’s guards appear automatically, and the battle ensues. When a building is under siege, it can’t upgrade or build companies, and the Zone of Supply for that building is disabled for the length of the battle, which is another reason to have outposts nearby.

The economy is interesting. I understand when I’m short on wood or iron that it prevents me from creating a company, but at some point even though the number is negative I apparently produce enough gold to pay for it anyway? I think it makes sense, and fans seem to love it, but it was hard to know what caused deficits in certain resources (was it the fact that I have too may outposts or companies which require maintenance/upkeep costs?). I never felt like I knew exactly what to do to make the economy go a certain direction. I basically invested in making enough gold that it covered everything and hope I did it right.

The individual units and makeup of companies has some intricacy I didn’t see initially. I found cavalry to be frustratingly weak, but they did allow me to explore the map much more quickly. I thought that grenadiers were both very strong and very armored, and creating a company of them was an “I Win” button. Eventually I learned that there is a bit more of an elaborate rock-paper-scissors mechanic, and I found battles were more likely to be won if I had a combination of archers, pikemen, and others fighting together. Unfortunately, much like the economy’s complexity, I didn’t feel like I understood exactly what did well against what.

Diplomacy between factions you meet on any given map looks like it should be more intricate, but other than one map in which I tried to bribe someone into liking me, I didn’t see it used as anything but a status indicator. Yep, that enemy is at war with me. That ally is not. Maybe there was more planned for this feature?

I haven’t played multiplayer, but I imagine it is potentially a different game?

Summary

The battles are enjoyable to watch, especially when magicians attack each other with explosive fireballs and demons expire by going back to wherever they came from. Since you don’t control individual units and the companies fight on their own, you are free to work at a higher level of strategy. I found the focus on Zones and their interactions made the game both manageable and enjoyably complex. I really, really liked the dragons, even though they were an optional part of any map they were on and didn’t play much of a role other than as a provider of a danger zone and a potential reward if you decide to take them on. I wish I understood the economy and the unit interactions better, and unfortunately it is difficult to find any guides or tips online that might shed some light on these key things.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time with Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns, and I wish it was more stable to play so I could finish the campaign. I also want to play games such as Company of Heroes to see where some of these interesting ideas went, but I think I’ll play the rest of the games in the Kohan Warchest first.

Books I Have Read: Tools and Weapons

A colleague at my day job lent me a copy of the book Tools and Weapons by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne.

Tools and Weapons book cover

The main premise of the book is that technology is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it has the potential to do so much good for individuals, organizations, and societies. It can ease our lives by automating drudgery, help us make and keep connections with friends and family, and assist us in solving some huge problems in healthcare, conservation, and business.

On the other hand, technology has the potential to do a lot of harm, especially in the area of human rights. It makes it easier for totalitarian governments to identify and spy on political enemies. Our privacy is at risk as organizations find ways to take disparate pieces of data and find correlations that give insights into who we are. Inequality can get exacerbated.

I found myself impressed with Smith and Browne’s ability to tie modern day conundrums back to analogous situations in the past. The late 1800s gave birth to the modern U.S. government when it started to regulate railroads, an interstate technology with a scale and scope that was unheard of in an era when states were almost exclusively the ones doing the regulating. What does our modern Internet require?

In the early 1900s, combustion engine technology put horses out of work in firehouses all over the country. The need for food to feed these horses also dropped, which had knock-on effects for other areas of the economy, from farming to packaging to shipping. What will AI do to today’s workforce, and how much can we reliably predict?

When it comes to making broadband Internet available for rural residents, what can we learn about the initiatives to spread the benefits of electricity throughout small towns and farms?

And as Smith is an executive at Microsoft, I also enjoyed getting quite a bit of insight into the company’s approach to dealing with the world and governments over the last few decades, especially when juxtaposed with newer tech companies such as Facebook.

While I don’t doubt Microsoft led some initiatives to work with governments, I did find myself rolling my eyes at reading how moral the company supposedly was and is. There was a lot of name-dropping, including U.S. presidents and major figures in technology and political science, and I appreciate that there were discussions about how a large and influential tech company such as Microsoft needed to create policies to ensure that they did as little harm as possible to society, but then again, this is the same company that for years liked to spin their monopoly as natural.

But now I also know that this is the same company that provided their technology to organizations such as ICE. I mentioned the name-dropping earlier because I wanted to emphasize how weird this one passage was:

A glimpse of what lies ahead emerged suddenly in the summer of 2018, in relation to one of the hottest political topics of the season. In June, a gentleman in Virginia, a self-described “free software tinkerer”, also clearly had a strong interest in broader political issues. He posted a series of tweets about a contract Microsoft had with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, based on a story posted on the company’s marketing blog in January. It was a post that frankly everyone at the company had forgotten. But it says that Microsoft’s technoloygy for ICE passed a high security threshold and will be deployed by the agency. It says the company is proud to support the agency’s work, and it includes a sentence about the resulting potential for ICE to use facial recognition.

The next paragraph goes on to talk about how that supposedly forgotten marketing post took on different meaning in the context of the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from parents at the US border, and it goes on to talk about employee activism, but wait…

A gentleman from Virginia? Why didn’t we name this individual like we did everyone else? Well, there was an endnote:

Taotetek (@taotetek), “It looks like Microsoft is making quite a bit of money from their cozy relationship with ICE and DHS,” Twitter, June 17, 2018, 9:20 a.m. https://twitter.com/taotetek/status/1008383982533259269.

While Smith makes it sound like the relationship between Microsoft and ICE/DHS was this forgotten quirk, here’s a thread in which this “gentleman from Virginia” gives more context to this section of the book, including pointing out that a Microsoft executive got a job at DHS and shortly after a number of contracts between Microsoft and DHS were established.

All this is to say that while I found a lot of insight into how major tech companies are starting to recognize that great power requires great responsibility and how they are doing more to work together with governments and society to make it happen, I’m also taking the “we’re trying to do right by everyone because it’s the right thing to do” line with a huge grain of salt. When big companies seek out regulations, it is often to make it easier for them to compete and not out of some moral character.

Still, the book tackled privacy, the ethics of AI, inequality, cybersecurity, and modern society’s dependence on technology to live and work while discussing the repercussions of data moving across borders into data centers and the laws that regulate them.

In the end, even while Smith talks about the needs of a “Digital Geneva Convention” to protect civilians against cyberattacks by nation-states, and privacy regulations to protect people against rogue companies (it sounds like Europe is way ahead of the world in terms of pushing technology companies to respect individuals and their privacy rights), I worry about a world in which most of our technology is seemingly dependent upon Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook doing the right thing by everyone. In each case, they’ve shown that there is a priority for them, and it isn’t my or your interests.

Twitter: gbgames