So Many Subscriptions!

Our household is currently prioritizing getting our entertainment / discretionary spending under control, and – at least for me – a big part of that is figuring out where the money is going. Sure, I could have just made a spreadsheet, or gone super old school and written things down in a pocket sized notebook, but I decided to grab an app for that.

Spending Tracker is a pretty bare-bones budgeting app, but it had exactly the features I was looking for. I did pony up the $3 to unlock all of the paid features (which is not a subscription, but just a one time charge). At the beginning of the month, it resets my budget, carrying over any excess from the previous month, and then, whenever I spend money in the categories we’ve decided are part of discretionary spending, I log it.

I was a little thrown off, however, by how much of my monthly budget is tied up in subscription fees! We are excluding from our personal budgets services we both use, so this doesn’t even include our TV streaming services, our Audible account, or our Spotify family plan.

Currently in my monthly expenses I have subscriptions to World of Warcraft, XBox Game Pass, Humble Choice and GooglePlay Pass under gaming, as well as Kindle Unlimited under books. While I’m glad to mostly not be acquiring more stuff, I still feel like I’m not utilizing most of these well relative to their costs. While I realize we’ve been lucky to have had continued financial stability through the past couple years, but as a result, I’ve been throwing money at anything that looked like we might be able to squeeze a little distraction or joy out of it.

Over the next few months, I’m going to be taking a closer look of how much value I’m getting from each of these services. Although I have more free time than most, this is still probably quite a bit more media than any one person needs to have access to at any given time, especially when you factor in the media services we share. I can only read so many books, play so many games, and watch so much television in any given month.

Do you have any subscription services you can’t live without, or are you still paying subscriptions for things you honestly aren’t getting that much value from? Or are you the type of person who just wants to purchase all your media? Tell me about it in the comments.

Quick Look – The Magister

I feel like mash-ups have become the next big thing in indie games. Take two (or more) genres of games that seem to be popular and smoosh them together. Sometimes, it works, but more often, it’s kind of a disaster, where none of the elements are particularly compelling on their own, but they also don’t fit together well enough to become something new and fresh.

I’m pleased to report that, at least for me, The Magister is a pretty successful mash-up. It takes one genre that’s already a bit of a mash-up – the card battling roguelite RPG – and adds a detective spin. I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up anytime soon, but it showed up in Fanatical’s Deckbuilder Bundle, which is still available as of the time of this post for a little more than another week.

Do not expect to win on your first play through. Not because of the difficulty; The Magister starts you off pretty easy as far as combat is concerned. Rather, it takes a little bit to figure out exactly how you go about solving the mystery. Sure, you absolutely can lose by failing in combat repeatedly, but you’re far more likely to miss things (or put them off too long) because you have to juggle a lot of different plot lines in order to discover everything you need to make a definitive accusation.

You play as one of three randomly generated Magisters, each which will have a different focus (Physique, Intelligence, and Guile) and a different flaw. I’m only two play throughs in, and I feel like the flaws are definitely under-balanced – some feel like they’re far bigger obstacles than others. As you progress through your two week investigation period, you will have the opportunity to pick up additional skills, and you aren’t restricted to the skill tree you start with, but you won’t get a lot of them, so you are never going to be able to get all the skills you want in a single playthrough. Some skills are pretty straight up buffs, others will change the way you approach battles or investigative sections of the game.

Battles are turn-based, but they move faster than I expected. You will have opportunities to recruit allies, but the only character you will have direct control of at any point is your magister. Some battles are unavoidable, but you may be given an opportunity to sneak past an encounter, or to talk your way out of it using Tactical Diplomacy (which is a different card game, only this time you have a limited number of turns to convince the other party).

In combat, you not only need to make sure the enemies die and you don’t, but you need to be aware of the time cost of cards. Each card you play that has a time cost will delay your next action by that amount of time. If it seems like a lot of things are happening in between your turns, it’s probably because you’re using a lot of time-cost cards each turn. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, if you pull all your heavy hitting cards in a single hand, you don’t want to send them to the discard pile! Still, it’s a quirky kind of system, and I think I actually prefer it over a more traditional resource management structure.

In between battles, you are going to be looking for clues, doing favors for the townsfolk so that they will confide in your, and managing your finances. Run out of money, and you might be sleeping in the stables! Each area in the world that you interact with will advance the time of day, whether that be by talking to people, buying and selling items, completing a quest, or doing an optional objective. You only have two weeks to solve the case, and if you haven’t picked up enough evidence, even accusing the right person isn’t going to give you a win.

Successful runs will unlock higher difficulty levels, and although I’ve really enjoyed my first couple of play throughs, I don’t know how much of a rush I’m in to make the game harder than it is on the starter difficulty. I plan to spend a little more time learning the ins and outs of the different skill trees & flaws, but I did manage to succeed in my second play through (although not with 100% conviction). The story isn’t particularly compelling – in a lot of ways, it reminds me of the game Clue, due to the procedural generation. Still, it’s an enjoyable couple hours of mystery solving, and I’ve probably already gotten my money’s worth out of it.

Game Over – The Gunk

Coming off of a pretty significant binge of games where you clean things up, The Gunk seemed to be a good choice for something to ease me back into something, well, a little more game-like. I wasn’t completely sure about it going in – I’m notoriously bad at platformers – but I was pleased to discover that it leaned more towards story and exploration than either puzzling or platforming.

You play as Rani, half of a pair of down-on-their-luck space explorers who land on an unknown planet in search of marketable items. Your partner, Becks, is a little more grounded, focused on filling up the cargo hold, while the player character is more interested in exploration. The problem they both face is the gunk, a toxic slime that is sucking the vitality out of the planet. Conveniently, Rani’s power glove can suck up the gunk, clearing paths and reinvigorating the landscape.

It’s a fairly short game; I took just over five hours to complete it. The first half or so of the game is fairly simple, and if the story doesn’t manage to captivate you, there’s unlikely to be meaty enough game play to keep you interested. You wander around, sucking up gunk and resources, scanning the vegetation, and bit by bit, learn about this strange polluted planet.

When the landscape isn’t being smothered by gunk, it’s gorgeous. The platforming is basic, the puzzles aren’t terribly difficult to figure out, and the combat – at least in the early game – is barely combat at all. However, the game takes a sharp turn in the later chapters, and it goes from being almost too simple to a level of challenge that the first part of the game in no way prepared the player for.

As a result, the last couple of hours were a bit of a slog for me. Dying isn’t too punishing, thankfully, and despite it being a fairly recent game, I had no trouble finding a (text) walkthrough when I got stuck. In the final chapter, I honestly wasn’t having fun anymore, but with the finish line so close, I pushed my way through to the credits.

Overall, I felt like The Gunk was a decent little game, but could have definitely benefited from another balance pass. The easy parts are too easy, and the challenging parts feel too rough considering what came before.

So We Meet Again – Rusty Lake Hotel

I’ve found that, when starting a new project, it’s always good to start small. However, it’s also just a little bit embarrassing to start this series out by admitting I had never managed to finish up a game that takes less than two hours, end to end. So I guess I started very small indeed.

And here was the major problem for me. The last time I attempted to play Rusty Lake Hotel, I could not make the game save, no matter what I did. As a result, I ended up playing through the first couple of days multiple times, and never getting further along than that. This time, I went in with the intention of completing it in a single sitting if it still wouldn’t save for me.

Thankfully, somewhere in the interim, either the game got fixed up, or I got smarter, because it autosaved without issue.

Rusty Lake Hotel is a short, almost minimalistic point-and-click adventure puzzler. It’s also outrageously dark. You have been tasked with collecting the ingredients for dinner every night, and without giving away too much, that’s not as innocent of a task as you might expect. If you’re put off by cartoon gore in your adventure games, you should probably give this one a pass.

The focus is almost entirely on problem solving, and in order to find the problems, expect to click on absolutely everything you can click on. There is minimal dialogue, and the majority of the story is environmental. Each meal will require one mandatory and two optional ingredients. If you miss something – and it’s easy to miss something – you can proceed serving less than perfect dinners, or you can reset the entirety of the game. I would have liked the option to go back a single day at any given time, but even a complete restart isn’t too punishing due to the game’s length. Once you understand what you’re meant to do, each section of the game probably takes 10 minutes or less to complete.

There were a couple of puzzles that – at least for me – were really challenging even once I understood the idea of the thing. There is no in-game hint system, and once you enter a room at night, you cannot leave until you’ve gotten the required item. That said, for the truly stumped, a walkthrough isn’t difficult to find, and having to consult one a few times didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the game.

I’m not entirely sure where Rusty Lake Hotel fits into the greater Cube Escape / Rusty Lake universe. If it turns out they cannot really be played in any order, then I’ll likely have spoiled something for myself because I’ve been, over time, collecting all the paid titles in the series.

It took me just under two hours to complete the game with all stars, including a couple of resets when I realized I had missed an ingredient. I managed to only miss a single achievement. As someone who enjoys a good puzzler now and again, I found the entire experience to be very satisfying, and I’m glad to have revisited Rusty Lake Hotel and played through to completion.

Steam Winter Sale 2021

It seems like I’ve done a whole bunch of planning and debating for the past several major Steam sales. For me, part of the fun is poking into the hidden corners of Steam and looking for the best deals and the hidden gems. Normally, I play around with whatever my budget is, and end up hitting that check out button at least one more time than I had planned on.

This time around, I just wasn’t feeling it. I plucked a shopping cart directly from my wish list, and didn’t spend all that much time reconsidering my choices. I usually only grab one “bigger” (read, more expensive) title whereas this year, I picked up both Craftopia and The Colonists. The only really cheap title I picked up this go around was Alchemist Simulator, and I rounded out my shopping cart with Lamplight City, which has been on my wish list forever but has stubbornly refused to dip lower than 40% off, and Penko Park, which I’ve been wanting to pick up since enjoying both New Pokemon Snap and Alekon so much this past year.

Of course, I also never get away with just one cart full, but even my afterthought purchases were far fewer than average this year. I grabbed Keplerth (another title that spent a considerable amount of time on my wish list) after noticing it’s due to leave early access sometime this month. Finally, I bought Stolen Realm after my co-op partner and I decided to play through that next.

Outside of Steam (and of course, the Epic freebies that I picked up almost every day they were available), my only Winter-Sale-season purchase was the Deckbuilder Bundle on Fanatical. I grabbed that one mainly for The Magister, which is almost twice the price of the entire bundle on sale. I also activated Mystic Vale, and held onto the keys for System Crash, Cat Lady, and A Long Way Down. The rest I gave away on my Discord before wrapping that up for the time being.

I usually allow myself about $100 for each of the major sales, and I came in pretty significantly under that amount this year. Now, I just need to put some time aside to play all these games.

I also received a few gifted games during the sale. I’ve already talked quite a bit about PowerWash Simulator, which I’m enjoying far more than I expected to. Satisfactory is another title I’ve been keeping an eye on, and I expect I’ll lose quite a number of hours to in the future. I don’t find myself reaching for puzzle games as often as I once did, but Gorogoa looks amazing, and I’m not sure why I hadn’t picked it up before now.

Nerd Girl Goals – January 2022

No matter how early I start thinking about something, I feel like I almost never have all those thoughts properly sorted before it’s go time. Well, it’s go time on 2022, and I realize that I had yet to decide on my goal format for the year! Apologies for how scattered this may turn out to be!

Out With the Old

I mentioned it briefly in my November wrap-up, but I’m ducking out of the Community Game-Along this year. I’ve really enjoyed dabbling in the past 24 months worth of themes, but as time goes on, it’s harder and harder for me to get excited about games in genres I don’t usually enjoy. It’s a great community of folks, but I’d like to refocus my energy on some other projects going forward.

Also, due to changes in the way my household is dealing with budgeting around entertainment costs, I’ve decided to drop the headers announcing which paid MMO and subscription game service I’m choosing each month. With a set dollar amount set aside for entertainment, there may be months I do neither, or months where I choose two (or more!) of one or both.

Lastly, since I recently activated a paid WordPress plan, I’ve been giving some serious consideration to giving this place a bit of a makeover. January is usually a pretty quiet month for me overall, so I’d really like to work on that this month.

In With the New

Probably the most important change I’m hoping to make for the blog in 2022, however, is content planning. I know, it’s a little crazy, but I’m going to give it a whirl. Honestly, over two years in, and I am mostly flying by the seat of my pants. As a result, that’s led to some seriously unbalanced months as far as posts go – I get my goals out, maybe make another post or two throughout the month, and then try to cram all the stuff I’d procrastinated into the last few days. I’ve realized that isn’t really working for me; it’s too sporadic. I’d like something a little more structured, unfortunately, I still haven’t worked out all the details!

That said, first priority is to post more regularly, with a goal of getting out 2-3 entries per week, and giving me a minimum of 10 per month. In order to do that, I’d like to start a couple of new series, mostly (but not entirely) gaming related. I’d really like to tell you about all of those right now, but … you see where I’m going with this, right?

… I promise, as soon as I get all those ideas polished up, I’ll be talking about them here.

That said, one is ready for prime time. I’ll be doing a monthly series called “So We Meet Again” where I revisit a game I’ve played in the past. Sometimes, it’ll be a game I bounced off of – sometimes, just a game that I wandered away from before I meant to. Either way, it’ll be a second chance for some games to get played to satisfaction.


Gaming

In another bit of a departure from the norm, I’m not pre-planning my gaming this month. I’m still working my way through Career Mode in Power Wash Simulator, and our guild resumes our regular raid nights starting on the fifth, so there’s a couple of things already determined, but mostly, I’m going to wait and see what looks good to me as I sort through the incredible mess of I’ve made of my Steam library the last few weeks. Not only was there Winter Sale shenanigans, I also added a lot of titles while sorting through the last two plus years of unreedemed keys from bundles, as well as a handful of titles from the latest Yogcast Jingle Jam bundle.

The only other thing I am reasonably sure is going to see play time in January is Stolen Realm. It’s an early access party-based RPG that my co-op partner and I have decided to tackle next. I am absolutely charmed by the art style, and reviews seem to indicate there’s already a pretty significant chunk of content available to play.


Other Nerdstuff

Books: Despite not even coming close to my Goodreads 2021 challenge (I ended with only 20/48 books read), I’m setting myself the same goal for this year. I’d like to start getting my money’s worth from my Audible and Kindle Unlimited subscriptions, so making time to get back into reading is going to be a priority for me. I’ve also solicited some book recommendations from folks on Twitter, and although I didn’t manage to fill out all twelve slots, I’m going to make an effort to read those books this year as well.

Food: Now that I don’t have contractors in my house (ok, so I haven’t for awhile, but go with it), I’d like to get back to doing more in the kitchen. My two major points of interest when it comes to making food are soups and baked goods. I’d like to talk a little more about that stuff, but that means I’m also going to have to remember to take photos of the process as well as the results. In particular, I’d like to do more with baking and confections – I actually looked into the cost of pastry school, and then immediately decided I can probably teach myself enough to bring me joy.

Crafts: I’m still spending a significant amount of time doing crafts, mostly cross-stitch, although I expect to also be doing some painting and yarn-work once I’ve made a little more progress in getting my office / crafting space set up. This is another thing I talk a little bit about, but I’m considering going into more depth with.

All Things Streamed: For the most part, this is TV shows and movies, but I’m leaving the category open to also talk about things I might watch on Twitch or YouTube. Another thing I don’t have much planned for, but something I want to be cognizant of going forward.

Obviously, adding all these other things to what has – thus far – been mostly a gaming-focused blog might not work out for me, but I’d like to see what other kind of posts might work here, whether that be for my audience, or for my own records.


In Summary

To Do In January

  • At least 10 blog posts.
  • At least two blog posts on non-gaming-centric topics.
  • Nerd Girl Thoughts will get a bit of a cosmetic overhaul.
  • Figure out a method of content planning that works for me, and implement it.
  • Choose and play a game for the first So We Meet Again post.

It’s actually a far heftier to do list than the length implies, but man, I do enjoy a good organizational project!

In Review – December 2021

Data taken from ManicTime.

I was all over the place this month (not surprising), and my gaming hours are down slightly (also not surprising). I definitely did not get my money’s worth out of my World of Warcraft sub this month, logging just under 5 hours, but I did manage to get a Sylvanas kill under my belt, so I can walk away from this tier of raiding satisfied, no matter how much or how little else I do while waiting for 9.2. I did play The Good Life on XBox Game Pass, but yet again, I downloaded far more titles than I ever loaded up.

My co-op partner and I have also finally wrapped up the currently available story content in Wildermyth, so I expect I’ll be doing a little write-up about that experience in the next week or so, but man, the end of the month really snuck up on me. In fact, I ended up with a handful of post ideas that didn’t make it into December, but with a little bit of focus (which has been in short supply around here lately, I admit), I should be able to start off 2022 with a bit of a sprint.


What I did do during December was something I’ve wanted to do for ages, but never had the gumption to put together until now. I finally organized all my unused game keys from Humble Choice/Monthly, as well as other bundles, and … I just gave them away. Not all of them, not by a long shot, but I probably decreased the size of my digital dustbin by half or more.

Setting up the Discord was easy, and once I settled on a method for listing them all (thank you Sesh for being such a fantastically useful bot!) I was able to do all the listing and the actually distribution in about 30-60 minutes per day. I started putting up listings on the 6th, and gave away my last key on the 29th.

It was kind of a big time commitment in a month where I probably shouldn’t have been looking for more things to do, but I really enjoyed sending a whole bunch of video games to their new homes, where hopefully they will be played and adored.


I have done a lot of thinking about the direction I want to go in with this blog, and you might have noticed that I’ve ponied up a few bucks a month to make the ads go away. I have ideas for a few new semi-regular features, and I’d like to see my post count and consistency go up. As a result, my monthly book-ends might take on a bit of a different look in the new year.

All in all, I’m really okay with December being over, and with leaving 2021 in the rearview mirror.

Wrapping Up #SimulatorGameDec

Considering that it’s December, which is normally my month of absolutely nothing going according to plan, I really went hard on this month’s Community Game-Along theme. However, as the latter half of the month was pretty scattered, what with all the holiday shenanigans taking up a good chunk of time, I managed to play more games than I got around to writing about.

Earlier in the month, I posted some Quick Looks at The Good Life, Spellcaster University, and Planet Zoo. Since then, I have put some time into three more Sim games, so this is going to be a three-in-one quick look to talk about each of those a little bit.

I feel like it makes sense to combine these three particular games because they all fall into that subset of simulation gaming – Chore Simulators.


House Flipper

Hours Played: Just shy of 12.

House Flipper has been on my wish list for quite awhile, and is the main reason I didn’t pause November’s Humble Choice. The game starts you with some small repairs and renovations, and as you make money, you can use that buy houses. Then you can completely renovate those houses to your taste before “flipping” them, but if you’re trying to appeal to specific clients for the purpose of completing achievements, you’ll have to pay close attention to what they want. When you auction a property, it always goes to the highest bidder, so if you’re a completionist, that’s a lot of customers you have to cater to.

However, I found the that deeper I got into the game, the less fun I was having. I liked the quicker jobs missions, and eventually, there aren’t any more. I really liked all the mechanics of cleaning, repairing, and painting, but I hated picking out and placing furniture. In a last ditch attempt to bring back the magic, I picked up the Garden Flipper DLC.

This had precisely the opposite effect. I appreciated (finally) being able to mow the unruly lawns, but almost every other mechanic was either tedious or annoying. I didn’t like planting, I hated gravel, and I basically stopped weeding once I realized the lawnmower could handle almost all of them.

I did like the skill unlocks and that they were related to how much of a specific sort of work you had done. There’s a good sense of progression, but once the jobs dry up, and you’ve acquired all the skills, I couldn’t find much reason to keep playing. That said, a dozen hours isn’t terrible even if I never revisit it – which I probably will.


Viscera Cleanup Detail – Santa’s Rampage

Hours Played: Just under two.

Viscera Cleanup Detail: Santa’s Rampage is a Christmas-themed DLC level for Viscera Cleanup Detail, which is usually about cleaning up after alien and monster attacks.

However, in this festive level, you’re cleaning up Santa’s workshop after he finally snaps. There are so many dead elves, but there are also a lot of really clever bits of not-so-hidden story here.

Unlike a lot of chore simulators, this one is heavily physics influenced, so you actually have to think about how you move, and where you hold objects you’re carrying. Most items are disposed of by throwing them in the fire, but if you accidentally (or not so accidentally) toss something explosive in one of those boxes, the consequences can be pretty serious (and also pretty gross). If you bump into a mop bucket, you will spill it, and if you drop some … biological waste … it’s going to splatter.

Viscera Cleanup Detail is a game that I wander back to every now and then, and although I enjoy my actual playtime, I almost always walk away unsatisfied. No matter how well I think I did, I always seem to miss enough to have a poor performance review. That said, this might be a new holiday tradition for me, so I’ll likely be back at it next December.


Power Wash Simulator

Hours Played: Over fifteen with no sign of slowing down.

True confession – I had Power Was Simulator on my wish list figuring I’d pick it up when it drops to bargain bin prices because I didn’t see the allure, but so many people who I generally think of as having good taste have been raving about it.

And thus, one of my friends who likes to play Steam Sale Santa with me nabbed it for me for Christmas. I wanted to try it right away, because if I really hated it, I didn’t want to waste someone else’s money and I knew I could return it.

… I have barely touched another game since Christmas Day.

Now Naithan (another person who I think of as having generally good taste), liked House Flipper more than I did, and Power Wash Simulator considerably less. It’s imminently logical – out of all the chore sims I dipped into over the past couple of weeks, it has the least interesting premise on paper.

Over the last couple of days, I have really gotten sort of introspective about why this one is proving more satisfying and having more staying power than the others, and I’ve pinpointed a few things that are really working for me (and as always, your mileage may vary with these points).

First & foremost, I adore the sound of this game. You might be expecting some happy little tunes, but what you actually get is a little bit of ambient noise appropriate to the location where you’re working, and a whole bunch of glorious water sounds. There’s a reason that you can buy a lot of different recordings of moving water in all its forms – moving water is a very relaxing sound. Once I put my headset on and turn the volume up, the chaos of everything else just disappears in the soothing sounds of flowing water.

(For those who aren’t as big of a fan, there are no critical sound cues that make listening to your own music, a podcast, or an audio book a poor choice.)

Secondly, watching things go from dirty to clean in a predictable manner (and without all the accompanying aches and pains that deep cleaning brings in my actual life) is super satisfying. I do admit the basic tools you start with make things a little tedious, and two of the spray heads are borderline useless no matter how good your equipment is unless you like washing the same area four or five times, but it isn’t long before you can be buying equipment and upgrades that improve the experience quite a bit. I tackled the first few scenarios kind of willynilly, but I have now fallen into a comfortable process for tackling different sorts of jobs.

This has had the bonus effect of greatly decreasing how much time I have to spend on a 99% clean level looking for the last few spots of dirt I’ve missed. I did really appreciate the less-than-1-percent leeway you get on each individual item requiring cleaning, because you cannot end a job prematurely – you’re there until every tiny item has been checked off your list.

Which brings me to the last thing that makes Power Wash Simulator work for me – you have a discrete set of tasks that must be completed. You can choose which nozzle to use, whether or not to use soap, and the order in which you choose to clean, but you need to clean it all, and you need to clean it well. There is no real lose condition. You’re not timed. You won’t be penalized with dripping filthy water if you choose to clean the roof last instead of first. You can hit TAB at any point and the game will show you all the dirt remaining on the level. There is no question of being able to complete the task you’ve begun.

And maybe this is a result of being someone who’s been living with a chronic illness for awhile, but knowing that I absolutely can finish the thing I have started, even if I have to walk away 20 times, even if I only have five minutes to wash something, is incredibly fulfilling. Even if it is just fake chores in a video game.

… did I mention you can save at any time? I love games where you can save at any time.

I find that I don’t want to play for more than an hour or two at a time – which isn’t anywhere near enough time to complete some of the levels – but I also find myself dipping in an out whenever I have a few minutes throughout the day. I can make meaningful progress, whether I have five minutes or fifty.

Now, despite my lack of enthusiasm for the concept, I realize that I’m a lot closer to the target market for this game than probably most gamers, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to explain why this weird little game is appealing to so many people. What I can say is that it’s a pretty excellent example of it’s genre, not overly bloated, with upgrades having significant benefit, but almost never feeling mandatory, so there’s no hard punishment for choosing a “sub-optimal” upgrade path.

Quick Look – Planet Zoo

I procrastinated on picking up Planet Zoo for quite awhile – partially, because I expected it to show up in a bundle eventually, partly because Frontier Developments adores dropping a million piecemeal DLCs, but mostly because I suspected I wouldn’t actually like it, even though I really wanted to. I’m about five hours in now – getting full stars on the three tutorial scenarios, and full stars on the first actual scenario – and I am afraid I was right. The game is great, but I don’t much like it.

I have a lot of trouble with spatial relations, both in real life and when it comes to video games. Building things from parts that don’t just snap together tends to cause a lot of frustration for me, and because Planet Zoo really exists around assembling components in your own way, there’s a big part of the game that I feel ill-equipped to deal with. It does have Steam Workshop support, and you can download just about any kind of something you might need, however, sorting through to find items that don’t require DLC you don’t have might feel overwhelming. For me personally, I just want the game to give me some basic blueprints for whatever I might need. Sure, it obviously could be better if I customized it, but give me something I can plop down that my animals, staff and/or guest are going to find acceptable and let me move on.

It is pretty, though, and the basic mechanics feel good for the most part, although I admit to getting absolutely flummoxed by where to adjust something a time or two while playing. There’s a pretty heavy focus on both education and conservation, which is great. However, like Planet Coaster before it, it leans heavily into letting you build something that looks really great to the detriment of the actual management side of things. You’re given more money than you need for the basics, and I was never losing money for more than a few minutes at a time at any point.

I’m not saying I would never revisit Planet Zoo, but for the time being, the itch is scratched and my curiosity is satiated. Honestly, if I had a little less freedom in setting up my zoos, I think I’d probably still be playing. However, despite the game telling me I was successful, my hodgepodge of ugly exhibits certainly didn’t impress me.

Quick Look – Spellcaster University

I fully admit that a big part of what I enjoy about gaming subscription services is the opportunity to try out things that intrigue me, but that I don’t actually think I’ll like. Rather than keep them on my wishlist forever, I will play them on Game Pass or Utomik, and then move on. But sometimes a game surprises me, and Spellcaster University definitely surprised me.

The reason I thought I wouldn’t like it all that much is that, like every third game released in the past two years, there’s a card mechanic, and I am so over card games. Otherwise, it sounded right up my alley – you manage a magic school, building classrooms and services, hiring staff, and creating houses to focus the studies of certain students. Meanwhile, you need to make nice with various factions, and you’ve got to work quickly, because the Forces of Evil are coming, making it necessary to move on to a new location and start again.

In campaign mode, at the end of each level, you will be awarded a spellbook to use in all future levels, the strength of which depends on how many quests you were able to complete in the previous level. You will also get a new curse, which makes things more difficult. The seventh time you do this, you need to complete a series of quests to defeat the Forces of Evil once and for all. Or at least for 274.5 years.

There are five difficulty levels, five game speeds, and challenge rules that you can mix and match to customize your experience. I played on the standard difficulty (Sorcerer), but I decreased the game speed in order to have more time on each level, and it was still challenging to try to knock out all the necessary quests. I’m just shy of 14 hours in, and have not yet managed to beat the campaign. If you fail the final scenario, however, you are given the option to replay just that level, however, I elected to start over with all the knowledge I’d gained from my previous playthrough to see if I could set myself up for success a little bit better.

It’s a quirky take on your pretty average management game fare. As I suspected, the card mechanic is my least favorite part. When you have adequate funds or mana built up, you can draw three cards from the respective deck, and choose one to keep. On the upside, it’s not actually a deck-building mechanic, rather just a vehicle for some RNG. On the downside, it’s a lot of RNG for a management game. Often, I would need a specific classroom or service, and I just couldn’t seem to draw it (or obtain it through other means). On one level, I couldn’t manage to get my hands on any of the Arcane magic classrooms, so for the majority of the level, I wasn’t producing any Arcane mana. Naturally, it was a level where more than one of my quests required me to use Arcane mana, so it didn’t work out so well for me.

Each of the available decks have an assortment of card types. Early in the level, you’re probably going to want to focus on classrooms, but you can pull decor items & pets that provide unique buffs, as well as items that buff students once they reach a certain proficiency in the related schools of magic, and cards that will improve your teachers. Pets & decor can only be placed in certain places in your available rooms, whereas items are just dropped on the school and then given to students as they earn them. Teacher items are applied to their classrooms rather than on the character sprite. If this was well explained in the tutorial, I missed it.

If that was all Spellcaster University had going on, it would probably be enough. However, there are still a couple more mechanics. During play, you may get a quest that will open up a dungeon. When you travel there, you can take four students, and progress through until all your students die (which isn’t great for your school’s reputation, by the way) or until you decide you’ve gone far enough. Each level you progress adds to the threat level, and makes the encounters more difficult. Initially, I was really bad at dungeons, so I stopped doing them for awhile, but once I got the hang of it, I realized they could really be beneficial. Dungeon encounters can reward just about any card you could get from any deck, as well as gold, mana, prestige, and reputation.

There are items you can receive for your school that will grant you reagent cards at random while you’re working on everything else. Once you have three different reagents, you can combine them in the cauldron to create a potion. There are potions that grant each type of mana, potions that grand gold, potions that grant prestige, and a couple of other utility potions. In most levels, potions probably won’t be your focus, but eventually, you’ll run into factions that pretty much require you to work with potions, so it’s worth learning what combinations do as early as possible in each playthrough. Potion recipes are randomized at the start of each campaign, so it’s not possible to go into a new campaign knowing what combinations make which potions.

Students will eventually graduate, assuming they survive that long, and you will have the opportunity to see what career they pursue after graduation. Every student that graduates has a chance to reward you with resources and prestige, and if you are displeased with the future a student receives, you are given one chance to reroll. On most levels, one of the quests you’ll have is to have a certain number of students graduate into a certain profession. While that quest is active, any student who meets the qualification of that profession will automatically be placed there, which was a welcome change to the many parts of the game play that require a certain amount of luck.

Spellcaster University is a fairly solid management game, with a lot of customization options, but it isn’t without its flaws. I’ve found myself frustrated a few times, but it’s compelling enough to keep bringing me back. I initially played through Utomik, however, it is also one of the games available currently through Prime Gaming.