Valheim: Teachable Moments

Would have been nice for this to be a river and not an isthmus…

The bounty of Valheim experiences continues fast and furious. So much so, that its hard to find time not playing in order to share anything. Ultimately, I take that as a good thing. Valheim does a great job of sucking you in deeper and deeper. Most tasks are very accessible but inevitably suck you into deeper and deeper game play.

Case in point, harvesting basic timber (Beech) with a simple took (stone or flint axe) will cause basic crafting recipes to unlock. In the next higher difficulty Black Forest biome, Fir and Pine trees appear which can also be harvested with basic tools but Pine trees drop core wood which unlocks more crafting recipes. Even the incurious will likely get sucked into the lure of the pursuit of new gear to harvest new materials to make new gear/items to harvest more new materials to make more new gear, etc.

Valheim will often tease you with the upgrade path before you know its there. As we all know too well, falling trees cause a lot of damage (and are responsible for much early stage comedy as well). Falling Beech trees will damage adjacent trees as they fall. Sometimes that will completely break a tree into lootable wood. Even trees that you wouldn’t have been able to harvest with a stone or flint axe like Birch or Oak. That’s how some fine wood dropped for me and voila, a host of new mostly aspirational recipes unlocked for me, teasing me with more goals… etc. Maddeningly addictive. Just five more minutes until, something else…

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Valheim Creative Mode

As Wilhelm mentioned, over on Syncaine’s blog, I can be a bit particular about building. Back in Minecraft on Wilhelm’s survival server, Ula and I, got a bit obsessed with constructing a facsimile of a portion of Renaissance-era Firenze or something like it– Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi galleries (filled with art), Ponte Vecchio (with Vasari Corridor and shops) and the cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori. A walled city we turned into a village complete with villagers, shops around the plaza, the whole bit.

Minecraft Firenze in its heyday circa 2016.

What really set the hook with that effort was having a big goal/idea with an extensible theme that spun off countless smaller intermediate goals all connected by a theme. Italian renaissance castle was the big idea, which spawned the town idea which spawned the need for new materials, technologies and building techniques. Once set in motion, there was always something else to be done in pursuit of realizing the fuzzy vision.

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Resurrected in Viking Purgatory

A new world to explore…

So what kind of a game will make someone who hasn’t posted in seven+ years to revive their blog? Not Minecraft although Wilhelm, myself and others must have spent thousands(?) of wonderful hours there. Not even World of Warcraft Classic which we’ve been enjoying immensely since its launch 18 months ago. While I’ve enjoyed those immensely, I just didn’t feel I had much to say about those experiences.

Valheim is different though. It had all the hallmarks of something not worth seriously considering– a survival game that was a Steam early access title and charging money to boot. Ha! Ula convinced us all to give it a go and the rest is history as Wilhelm has dutifully chronicled being the Venerable Bede of our virtual adventures…

Its been a long time since I really got that “five more minutes” feeling and then slinked off to bed after midnight on a work night. Not posting in seven years also means I’m even less likely to miss my bedtime. So what seems to be working with Valheim? Exploration? Check. Progression? Check. Base building? Check. Skill-based progression? Check. Co-op multiplayer (but not massively)? Check. Private hosted server? Check. Beautiful environment? Check. I’m sure COVID fatigue is certainly playing a role in fueling my escapist enthusiasm, but its not the only thing. It seems I’m not alone in getting sucked in.

If you asked me how I’d improve Minecraft to suit my play style, I think I’d end up designing something very much like Valheim. So much so, it feels like someone has been eavesdropping on my brain.

One of the challenges our small group has always been the varied amounts of time that we all have to play a given game. Progression mechanics tend not to be very forgiving for someone with limited play time. No one likes to feel like they are “behind” or alternatively that they are being held back by the slowest member of the team. Our little group made the conscious decision to carefully limit our progression during our times in WoW over the last fifteen years, as painful as that can be, in order to keep us all at the same level so we can experience challenging and level-appropriate content as a group.

Minecraft certainly allowed players with different time budgets to play together and collaborate, but it was always more about building than true progression. Combat, for me at least, was never compelling and more of an environmental risk than playstyle.

In Valheim, there just doesn’t seem to be a right and a wrong way to approach combat. There are situational choices that are favored– I’m not looking to attempt backstabbing trolls yet– but by and large, there are interesting choices to be made and those can simply be based on one’s taste. Positioning and reacting (blocking and dodging) can matter but its not so twitchy that my age addled reflexes are overwhelmed. Rumor has it that content difficulty is scaled to adapt to how many players are involved. I have no data on that, but if that is true, that may be the killer feature of the game. So far, I can thoroughly enjoy/challenge myself as a solo or with several friends on the same content regardless of relative skill level. Whether this remains the case over the long haul, we shall see, but for now. All is well in Valheim.