Friday, October 19, 2018

The Barbarian and the Baby

(This was written for my Worlds of Design column at, but was rejected by both outgoing and incoming editors, because they avoid any discussion that might compare genders.)

I read a long discussion recently that started with a GM asking others how to cope with a player who wanted to be a female barbarian fighter who carried her newborn baby along with her at all times, including adventures.


A major point of RPGs is that they DO relate to the real world - they are not abstract. How does anyone think that a warrior could do this without the baby dying soon? Even if the fighter somehow managed to protect the baby in melee (yeah, right), the first area effect spell that caused damage would kill the baby with its one hit point. (If you’ve ever had the old D&D familiar with its two hit dice, you know that sooner or later as you rise in levels the familiar is going to be turned into a popsicle or a burnt marshmallow. At least you didn’t lose hit points permanently when that happened. My original MU character lost three by ninth level and chose not to have any more.)

Your response depends on whether your campaign is a game or a playground. If it’s the latter, you might want to accommodate extremely unusual requests of players, because there’s no danger of actually losing a game. And “all about me” is part of the package. If it’s a game, then the barbarian’s desire is a nonstarter.

Some players wisely pointed out that the player who wanted to do this was going to be a big problem in general, and would probably be very unhappy when the baby inevitably was killed.

As any student of history knows, female fighters in the world of melee (pre-gunpowder) were vanishingly rare. Even with the “great equalizer” of the gun, they have been extremely rare until quite recently. (Effective bows through most of history required a lot of strength and size for use, no substitute for guns.) This has nothing to do with females lacking courage or killer instinct, as anyone knows who watches some women’s professional boxing or MMA matches. It’s a matter of two things: women are much smaller than men on average, and their hormones don’t produce dense muscle the way men’s do. There’s a reason why there are weight classes in combat sports, because the bigger and inevitably stronger person almost always beats the smaller person if of roughly equal skill. In other words, size matters a lot and brawn wins out in a melee world.

Aside from the problem of physical capability, there’s second reason. Until recently it was difficult for a woman to have sex and consistently avoid pregnancy. A pregnant woman is an easy target for physical violence. Furthermore, after pregnancy someone has to take care of the children, who will depend on women’s milk for a year or even two after birth. The legendary Amazons solved the problem by having no men around and no children. But the Amazons never existed. Moderns solve the problem with contraceptives and baby formula, both fairly recent inventions.

I don’t run “all about me” campaigns, I run games that are semi-military and mission-based. So it would be easy for me to cope with someone like this. I’d tell them first that the baby would certainly die. Second, the barbarian fighter would realize this and refuse to carry a baby along even if the player wanted to (no, players can’t make their characters do “anything”). Third, the other characters (not necessarily players) would realize that the baby would jeopardize the party in many ways (especially if they needed to be stealthy) and refuse to have anything to do with it or its mother. And if those didn’t persuade, I would Just Say No. Every GM has to Just Say No at one point or another or the campaign will become a brain-fever playground as players do whatever they want, however little sense it may make. I draw the line sooner than some people do.

Remarkably enough, some of the respondents actually tried to think of ways to avoid the death of the baby: for example, having the baby and the mother somehow share hit points and armor. You must be kidding! Why make up bogus rules just to accommodate this peculiar (and wholly unrealistic) desire? But if you like “All about Me” campaigns, if you like playgrounds, or if you have some other reason to disagree with me, as always I’m describing what I do, not prescribing what you should do.

For a lengthy discussion of the biological differences between men and women that affect athletic performance, see some of the answers (by both male and female) to this Quora question:
Equality is legal and social, not physical.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Recent screencasts/videos

Recent screencasts/videos mid-July ‘18:

Nuts and Bolts: Analysis Paralysis, What it is and How to Avoid it:  via @YouTube

Top Eight Reasons for a Game to "Shine":  via @YouTube

About the Channel: What's a "Shorty"? Something like this.:  via @YouTube

Confusions of Game Design: Intuitive versus Familiar:  via @YouTube

Game design: art, engineering, science, all three?:  via @YouTube

What to watch out for in a game design contest:  via @YouTube

How much unit differentiation is needed?:  via @YouTube

Short, deep gameplay, simple: you can have two out of three.:  via @YouTube

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Recent Screencasts videos) May 2018

Recent screencasts May 2018 (previous list is at, Nov ’17)
I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent screencasts instead. Because there are so many (25) I’m not including the descriptions.
‏Confusions of Game Design: Context is not Modeling: 
Dice: when to use them in a design, when not to: 
Part 2: 10 "Need to Knows" about RPG design: 
 Pt 1, 10 "Need to Knows" about Role-Playing Game design: 
How important are formal game reviews, part 2: 
‏How important are formal game reviews, part 1: 
Must games be fair?: 
‏The Need for Imagination in Game Play - and Other Entertainment: 
‏CCG, TCG, LCG, Expandable Card Game - what are differences?: 
10 "Need to Knows" about History: 
Sunk Cost Fallacy can "Sink" Game Developers: 
‏Is there an ideal level of chance randomness in games? Of course not: 
‏Nine "Need to Knows" about (Strategic) Wargame Design: 
RPGs: Meaningless Quests vs Missions that Matter: 
Six reasons why wargames have plummeted in popularity: 
Conspiracy theories are nonsense, part 2: 
Conspiracy Theories are Nonsense, part 1: 
Nuts & Bolts: The Worker Placement Mechanism: 
Gaming and the gambling instinct: 
Violence in Games, part 2: 
Violence in Games, Part 1: 
Crashing Suns Design Notes: 
Nut & Bolts: Dead Cards and Losing a Turn: 
"Hasting 1066" Game Design Notes: 
What part of play, is games?: 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Formal Game Reviewing

(This was written for ENWorld, and appeared there recently.)

Formal Game Reviewing

(I read a review at ENWorld that reminded me that many reviewers of games dont quite know what theyre doing! I reviewed games and related materials for Dragon and White Dwarf a long time ago, but almost never have the time to do so these days. Ive modified a handout I created over the years for various students (college and grad, computer or game development disciplines) to whom I assigned a game or book review.  Maybe this will help.  LP)

You have to play a game before you can review it. I have a great deal of experience with some kinds of games, but I will not review a game I have not played. Some years ago I gave my impressions of a Britannia-like game that I owned, but as I had not played it, I was careful to say it was not a review, it was more about design, because I wasnt familiar with the details of the gameplay itself. In the end, its the gameplay that counts.

(Ive encountered video game development teachers who graded student-made games on the basis of how good they were (or worse, fun) without (of course) having the time to play them. I just laughed. I graded primarily on the process of making the game, and sometimes seeing them tested, because I didnt have time to play dozens of games.)

Always keep your audience in mind when you write anything. Your audience for a review is not yourself: usually its someone who enjoys playing games but is not a hard-core gamer. (Does that describe you? Probably not.) This is, of course, the bulk of the gaming market.

The objective of any review is simple.  It should let the reader know whether he or she would like to read the book, see the movie, listen to the music, buy (or only rent) the game, and so forth. The review doesnt exist to make the reviewer look good, or to advance the reviewers agenda.

A formal review is not just opinion. Unless youre a well-known reviewer, readers dont care about your opinions because they dont know you. (I read enough Roger Ebert reviews to know what he preferred, so his opinion meant something to me. But that was Roger Ebert.) No, you have to explain WHY you think this or that about the game. Without that, youre just blathering like a typical yahoo on some comment site. Remember, comments on the Internet are subject to Sturgeons Law (90% [or even 99%] of everything is shit). (Varies by site and topic, of course.)

Any review, whether of movies, games, books, or magazines, ought to answer three questions:

          What is the author/creator trying to accomplish?  (Usually includes, who is the audience)
          How well did he or she or they do it?
          Was it worth doing? (which must include, Why it was or wasnt)

You've read or heard movie reviews that concentrate on the first point (the reviewer may recapitulate the entire plot), on the second point (ooh-ing and ah-ing about how good the direction or technical effects were--or how bad), or on the third point ("what a dumb idea" or "socially relevant!"). 

Which point(s) require the most detailed treatment is a decision the reviewer must make according to the nature of the work being reviewed. 

The most common mistake a reviewer makes is to try to recapitulate the entire contents/characteristics of the game in a short time.  Don't.  Listings of this kind are rarely interesting. It's not only hard to do, it's often boring, and it might annoy the person reading the review if you give things away.

The second most common mistake (amongst students), is to be very explicit and compartmental about these three questions.  Dont list a question, then answer it, then list the next question, then answer it.  The idea is to answer the questions in the course of a discussion without drawing attention to the fact that you are answering these questions.  When you read or hear a good movie review, the questions are usually answered, but youre not explicitly aware of it as you read or listen, are you? Reviews are essays, writing with a purpose, and as essays they need to be enjoyable reading.

  • Who is your audience?
  • Facts and reasons, not just opinions
  • Answer the Three Questions
  • Write a good essay that people can enjoy reading

                   Items often included in a review:

Title, author/developer, publisher, date of publication.

Background of the developer (and publisher).

Quotations from the backstory/setting.

What are the Best & Worst points of the game?

After I revised the above I discovered that I’d written a piece about reviewing specifically for gamers, published in The Space Gamer #45 in the early 80s (“Notes for Reviewers”). It’s longer and more specific than this. It will be in my books of reprints of my articles of yesteryear, sooner or later; or you can dig up that issue somewhere.

Lew Pulsipher

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Preventing Camping in World of Warships?

In a recent YouTube video “the Mighty Jingles” described iun an aside how he and several others created an encounter map for World of Warships designed to prevent a common mode of play that really frustrates most of the Youtubers and community contributors to the game.

World of Warships is a team game using arcade rather than realistic methods. The warships look great, the effects of combat look great, you can see the torpedo trails (yours anyway) in the water, and you can even see the shells traveling to the targets. But in the end it’s a remarkably unrealistic experience. There is no organization except to divide 24 players into two teams. There are lots of islands around and yet the maps are fairly small, so everybody mixes it up trying to destroy enemy ships and capture certain locations to score points. I say everybody, but it’s common that battleships will “camp” at the back of the map, shooting at very long ranges. This can be effective because visibility is almost always perfect, even at ranges where in the real world much of the ship would be under the horizon. As long as a ship on your side has spotted the opposing ship then you can also see it perfectly. But if no one has got within its detection range, it could be less than 10 km from your ship and be invisible despite the clear weather.

The clarity makes it quite easy to aim as well.

Battleships are more effective in winning the game when they wade in and take damage for their side (they have many heals to recover damage) and more effectively blast the enemy. But the majority of battleship captains won’t do that.

So Jingles and company designed the map with four point-producing capture points (which are large circles), one in each corner. (Ordinarily these are between where the two sides spawn.) This is a simple but clever way to be sure that there’s nowhere to camp.

At some point I decided to try to think of other ways to achieve this. First, if you want ships to melee, put them into a melee situation almost immediately, don’t give them the opportunity to camp. As the game stands now the 12 ships on each side spawn on one side of the map out of sight of the other side. The capture points generally are in the middle. I’d start each side in three groups of four ships in a sort of circle or hexagon alternating one side and the other. So if you imagine a clock face, one side would spawn at 1 o’clock, 5 o’clock, and 9 o’clock. The other side would be at 3, 7, and 11. This would put ships fairly close to enemies without much opportunity to fade back into the background. In effect it means there’s no “our side of the map”.

Second, and simple to implement, is to recognize that it’s much too easy to aim and hit targets in the game, especially a long ranges. There is a dispersion factor in firing, but nothing to model that visibility is usually much worse as you get farther away, even on a good day. So I would add an increasing factor that represented gun-sighting difficulties, so that someone shooting from very far away is much less likely to hit (quite apart from the actual quality of their aim) than if they were much nearer the enemy. At some point that means the ships very far back aren’t going to hit much of anything. They can still be “safe” but they can’t get enough damage to say so - yet experience points (to get more ships) derive considerably from damage inflicted. That will cause some of them to move closer, though I imagine others won’t change their behavior.

Computer game players tend to object to numbering schemes, wanting their skills to determine their success. But this is just compensation for the unnaturally good visibility that normally prevails. (Occasionally in the game there is a cyclone that reduces visibility to 8 km, so then camping is impossible.)


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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

ENWorld RPG Column

I have been writing a column about game design and RPGs at ENWorld for nearly a year. Here are latest entries (missing numbers: too large for current word count, or waiting to be published).

#6 Three Acts and the Hero's Journey

#7 Pure Innovation is Highly Overrated

#8 Fun and the Flow in Games

#9 Power Creep

#10 RPG Combat: Sport or War?
Oct 14 17

#11 What makes a game great?
Oct 21 17

#12 Loops in RPG Game and Adventure Design 11/1/2017

#14 The most important design aspect of hobby RPGs is the Pure Avatar

#15 Fundamental Patterns of War

#16 Tension, Threats, and Progression in RPGs

#19  What do you mean by "fun" in your RPG?

#20 Don't Lose the Forest for the Trees

#21 "Atoms" in Game and Adventure Design 680

#22 Tastes in Heroes and Heroism have Changed as "Heroes in Shades of Grey"

#23 Difficulties of running a low-magic medieval-style campaign

#28 Spelljammer's Game Design  As "How would you design for spelljammer?"

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Forthcoming Games

A friend asked me at PrezCon what games I have coming out.  Understand, what’s planned and what happens are often different. You don’t know your game is published until it’s in your hands. (And even then, in one case I wasn’t paid a dime because the company collapsed for reasons having nothing to do with their boardgames.) Given that:

Hastings 1066, originator of the “Break the Line” series, a simple 30-45 minute card game that nonetheless reflects the maneuver and geospatial relationships of warfare, has successfully Kickstarted. The KS says the game will be delivered this May.  It is still available via Worthington Publishing’s  preorder system for $24 (list $35). Lots of dicing in this game.

From the same publisher, Crashing Suns, first of the Diceless Wars series of diceless, cardless block games, is on preorder at Worthington Publishing. This game, and this series, is as good as my best. They are two-sided (and sometimes three-sided) games, 15-60 minutes.

Plastic Soldier Company (PSC Games UK) aims to publish Pirate Captain by GenCon, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that slip. People enjoy this game as much as any of my games. It is not (at least, not yet) part of a series. Lots of dicing here. It’s a combination of historical and romantic pirates.
PSC is also publishing Germania, NOT a Britannia-like game despite the title. It is a hybrid peace/war game, a game of Germanic tribes surviving many invasions after the fall of the Roman Empire. It uses battle cards rather than dice.
Strategic Decisions (S&T and other magazines) has two Britannia-like games, Barbaria and Frankia. They are on the preorder system. I don’t have much information about what’s happening. Barbaria uses dice, Frankia uses battle cards.

Seas of Gold, another peace/war game that’s first of a diceless series (Viking Gold, Stars of Gold), is at Excalibre Games. It is one of my best games. Whether they will be able to publish it is another question.  The publishing business is hard, especially for independents.

That’s all I can think of. I have lots of good, playtested games (especially space wargames), but I’m poor at marketing (licensing) them, especially the non-wargames. (I don’t self-publish.) I keep telling myself I need to do more, but there are videos to make, books to edit, a bi-weekly column to write, life to live. 

And, someday, Britannia 3rd edition.

Ones nearly ready? Lots. But my present favorite is Mandate of Heaven, second of the diceless wars, Doomfleets, freeform and somewhat chaotic Britannia in outer space, and Annihilation, a co-operative space wargame where, even if you win, half the galaxy is destroyed!

I also have two or three video courses “almost done”, and several books in various stages of needing editing. *Shakes head*.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hastings 1066: How to make a board game that costs you a lot less (microgame)

A Board Game that only Uses Cards, OR,
What Matters is Function, not Appearance ORHow to make a board game that costs you a lot less

My game Hastings 1066, about the famous battle where William of Normandy conquered England, is a board game in disguise. It functions as a board game, yet uses cards, with the result that it costs buyers a lot less than if a physical board were included. Yet I’m told by a publisher that wargamers don’t generally care for card games. I think I understand why, but the objections do not apply to Hastings 1066.

When most gamers think of “card games” they think of Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Pokemon. These are a combination of slick marketing scheme and appeal to children, so it’s not surprising that wargamers (who tend to be older people, often Baby Boomers, who don’t “get hooked” on things) are put off. Moreover, these games make more revenue than all other kinds of tabletop games put together. MtG alone makes more than all board games combined. (Figures from IcV2, US and Canada only.)

Moreover, collectible card games (CCG), certainly the three I’ve mentioned, are far from depicting warfare. There is no maneuver, next to no geospatial relationships. Perhaps that makes a little sense in a wizard’s duel (though I don’t think so), but you cannot depict battles that way.  "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill

If you’re not depicting maneuver (and the geospatial relationships that make maneuver meaningful/possible) then you can’t depict battles – and it’s hard to depict wars. We can’t model wars in games, we model generalship, but without maneuver there is no generalship.

Wargamers may also feel that card games are “taking over,” and they don’t like it. I recall walking around the dozen tables in use at a big meeting of the NC State Tabletop Gamers, noticing that every game being played (none of them a CCG) was primarily a card game, and the only board game was the one being playtested at my table.

Not surprising that wargamers would rather not have deal with card games.

The Board Function

The fallacy of this perception is that you can use cards without a physical board to depict maneuver and geospatial relationships, as in my game. In practice, Hastings 1066 is a board game, not a card game, that happens to use cards for units rather than using blocks or tiny counters.
The purpose of using a board in games, originally, was to depict maneuver (or placement) and geospatial relationships. Think of Chess, Checkers, Go, even race games such as Pacheesi and Backgammon. They’d be very difficult or impossible to play without a board. What’s important is not the physical board itself, but the depiction and control of maneuver/placement and spatial relationships. It’s the function that counts in the game, not the appearance. (Computer Civilization, for example, is a board game.)

A board game isn’t a game that uses a board; many games that use a board are only tracking various statuses that could be tracked as easily in other ways. For example, some of the recent Munchkin (deluxe) versions have a board, but all it does (in Zombie Munchkins at least) is to track the experience level of each player. This has been done in other (non-board) ways for many years. Is Zombie Munchkin a board game? Not only no, but “Hell No.” The appearance is of a board, but the function is not.

Hastings 1066 uses cards for double duty, as units and as the board (in conjunction with two strips of cardboard). The layout looks like a grid.

I could have used a board with that same grid, but that would have raised the price of the game drastically.  A board is the most expensive part of a board game, and if it’s a mounted board, it requires use of a much larger box. Mounted boards are printed in 11 by 11 inch segments; that requires an 11.5 by 11.5 inch box. The larger box costs significantly more than a smaller box.
Moreover, Hastings is not only a deck of cards. There are the map strips, the cubes for marking arrow wounds, and the markers for William and Harold. Those components would be the same if it were a “board” game.

CCGs vs Hastings

A comparison of Hastings with CCGs shows great differences. CCGs are usually “special powers card games”, as I call them for lack of a better name. Each card has a different exception to the standard rules. They tend to be tactical games, and rely on combos for much of the interest. My game uses no combos or exceptions, though it is tactical as any game about a singe battle is likely to be. It is much more like a board game than a CCG.

In appearance, CCG cards have tiny text and numbers. Everything you need to see in Hastings is in large print on an uncluttered card.

I’ve designed a number of card games, but none of them in the CCG category, nor in the special-powers-combo style. Yet wargamers may tend to assume that a card game is CCG/combo style.
As an example of the latter, recently a game called “Tears to Many Mothers” (really?) that is ostensibly about the Battle of Hastings was Kickstarted. But if I can judge from its Kickstarter, it’s a special-powers game with virtually no maneuver or geospatial relationships. That is, it cannot be a wargame despite the supposed topic. But with gorgeous artwork, and an audience on Kickstarter that tends to like gorgeous art (and special powers combo games), it Kickstarted very well. Wargamers, however, might point to it as “what’s wrong with card games”.

Pay attention to the components of a game that count. It’s function, not appearance, that determines whether it’s a good game to play.


Another topic that comes to mind is microgames.  These were popular board games of the 1970s and eighties.  The most popular was Steve Jackson’s Ogre in 1977, while my game Dragon Rage (1982) was another.  These games had thin, tiny unit counters and cardboard boards, and originally came in a plastic bag (DRage was in a small box). You could carry them with you and play (most of) them in less than an hour. Yet they were fully functioning board games, usually for just two players.

Microgames disappeared a long time ago - people no longer accept thin, tiny cardboard units. They have largely been replaced in the market by card games, CCGs and otherwise. DRage cost $10 in 1982, which is equivalent after inflation to $25.42 in January 2018. A $5.95 game from 1970 would be $37.82 today (big inflation in the mid-70s). The pre-order price for Hastings is $24 (same as the Kickstarter price), MSRP is $35. Hastings 1066 is an example of a “new” microgame, something you can carry with you and play quickly when you have a little time.

Dragon Rage was reissued in 2011 with large, thick cardboard pieces, a mounted board, and an additional map and scenarios on the other side of the board. It cost more than three times the $24. Hastings 1066 could have been made much more expensively, but it would no longer fit that niche of a board game microgame.

The Kickstarter for Hastings 1066 ends tomorrow (Wednesday Feb 28).
Preorder (version with black core French Linen cards only available via KS) at:

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Should Games Cope with Resignations and other forms of Quitting?

This is a very good question sent to me by someone I didn’t know. He’d designed a “Civ Lite” game for 5 or 6, where he’d written rules for resignations. But he was told that was “outdated” by an experienced designer.

I don’t believe in “outdated” rules or concepts in game design, that’s pointless snobbishness rather than clear thinking. What’s good is good whether it’s old or new, and it always depends on the situation. If it’s bad, it doesn’t matter if it’s new or not.

If a game can be designed so that a player can leave the game, whether it’s an official resignation or for “life reasons” (emergencies, rides, etc.), that should make it a more flexible, and consequently better, game.

Similarly, if a game can be designed to allow people to join in after it starts then that should make it a better game. I have some simple games using cards that allow the latter, in fact someone recently came into one soon after the start and won.

But I don’t think I have any game with rules for what happens when someone quits. I do have games (other than Britannia) with submission rules so that a player who would otherwise be wiped out can continue to participate in the game, and perhaps if things fall his or her way, can do fairly well in the end. I’ve seen it happen.

Go back far enough, and resignation was an option in a two player game only, but most games were two player games. If a player thought he or she wasn’t going to succeed it made sense to resign, end the game, and play something else rather than continue futilely. But in a game for more than two, players are usually expected to do the best they can for the entire game. In that sense of expectation, a resignation rule is irrelevant for a game with more than two players.

I confess I see it my duty as a gamer to fight to the bitter end rather than give up, and from that point of view you could say a resignation rule should not be written into a game because it encourages players to give up. But that doesn’t cover the life reasons, which I think are more common than a simple desire to quit.

I encourage rules that cope with the player leaving the game for whatever reason, when there are many players in the game - but I wouldn’t in those rules encourage the mentality that if you are not doing well it’s okay to quit, quite the opposite. Unfortunately, many players who feel
“trapped in a bad situation” and want to quit are simply weak players and don’t realize how many options are available to them that might bring them back into contention. Another way to say this would be that many players are lazy, but that’s the nature of contemporary hobby game players.

For me, a serious game is not “an engine designed to convert effort into fun” (my correspondent paraphrasing someone else). This is an attitude common to the Age of Comfort, when no one ever wants to be “uncomfortable”. There is more to it than that. You might be able to say that about a casual game, and very likely about a party game. But in serious games there’s more than mere fun involved. And expectations are different.

(Keep in mind, I don’t myself use the word fun, because it means such different things to different people. Some games are intended to be funny-fun, but others certainly are not.)

“Resignation” rules are relatively easy in incorporate into a game with low player-to-player interaction such as most Eurostyle games, where people are really solving their own puzzles with little or no reference to other players. It’s likely to be much more difficult when the game is a high player-to-player interaction game where what players do depends heavily on what other players do, as in wargames especially.

Unfortunately, quitting when things aren’t going well is a feature of modern life. I’d say my correspondent did well to include rules to cope with someone leaving the game, but I ask everyone to encourage the players to stick with the game all the way to the end rather than quit. Don’t encourage quitters, as players aren’t likely to become better players if they quit when things don’t go their way. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Triptych 11

Three subjects in one blog post

•    Where did we start out with in games?
•    "Why should designers avoid these two extremely popular mechanisms?
•    Catch-up Mechanisms - Why?

Where did we start out with in games? I suspect games started with players using their physical bodies, for example, in wrestling or running. Wrestling is the ultimate direct conflict between two sides. Running is the ultimate parallel competition, if you're running in separate lanes, because you can't do anything to hinder or help the opposition.

The first games, then, were likely "athleticware", depending primarily on athletic prowess and skill.

Games of chance probably preceded board games. Even where dice are unknown you can have a game of chance, as long as you can find objects that are two-sided that can be flipped or thrown. For example, you can throw a bunch of sea shells or throw a bunch of stones, you can even split a stick lengthwise and then throw a group of sticks to see whether they come up flat side or round side. We know from some games that use these methods that the ancients were poor at probability in relation to these two-sided questions. At some point someone invented a boardgame, if only to put holes in the ground for some form of mancala. Card games (and tile games beginning with dominoes) came vastly later.

So the ancient Greek Olympics involved everything ranging from direct competition to entirely parallel competition, but it was all using one's body. In that respect. These are athleticware, as opposed to thoughtware/brainware which occurs when you play a board game where good thinking is your path to success.

With video games, we’ve veered back toward athleticware (especially in AAA, not so much in casual).


Comment on a forum "Why should designers avoid these two extremely popular mechanisms? (Worker placement and deck-building)"

Why would I use a mechanism simply because it's popular? Especially a mechanism I dislike personally? I adapt mechanisms to the situation the game represents, or I devise my own mechanisms. That is, I might design several games using the same base system that I've devised, but I don't go out of my way to use a mechanism devised by someone else (though I have nothing against that, I just don't intend to do it). Long ago I did adopt other systems (Stratego, though quite modified). Not these days.

Now, there are SO many worker placement games, and SO many deck-building games, why would I want to make yet another one?

Many years ago (when it was still new) I did consider adapting deck-building to a Zombie apocalypse-style game, but it didn't work for me.

Comment on a forum: "But a board game should not be too punishing either. I despise board games where you just can't catch up when someone has an early lead, and where you already know far before the end that you will lose."

"Should" is a slippery word, different people have different opinions. Nor does every game need to be the same. So "punishing" mistakes is more appropriate in some games, less in others.

It's more often puzzles/parallel competitions where you can't catch up, than opposed games. Because in the former you have no strong way to affect the other players.

Nonetheless, there will be times when one player will play much better than others (or be much luckier): should that player be punished by having to put up with (from their point of view) bogus catch-up mechanisms?

Lew Pulsipher

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

“Mechanics Salad”

Some tabletop games are collectively categorized as “Point Salad”. Many things enable you to score points in these games, and there is no apparent logic to what scores and what doesn’t, other than what works for the game, that is, “the designer said so.”

This is very different from a game that is attempting to model something. Then there ought to be some logic to what scores points and what does not, certainly in a good model. (Sometimes these are called “strongly thematic games”.)

Abstract games are by definition not models of any particular reality. Which mechanics are used is only a matter of arbitrary choice for the designer. Classic abstract games like Chess and Go are also simple games, games that reflect my motto:  "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  -Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Another form, about Japanese art-gardening, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

In other words, simplicity is a virtue in itself, because it enables the player to easily understand the mechanics and be able to focus on the tactics and strategies of the game. You could say that abstract games are naturally minimalist.

Point Salad games are almost always abstract. But there's a category of games that may not be Point Salad, but still seems quite arbitrary: "Mechanics Salad". A completley abstract game is a small collection of mechanics, but in Mechanics Salad there are lots of mechanics. Sometimes it seems as though it's a game made up entirely of exceptions to the rules, except there don't seem to be any basic rules, just lots of individual cases. I don't care for Mechanics Salad because they are abstract games without the main benefits of abstraction (from a gameplay standpoint), and all the disadvantages of puzzles (I dislike puzzles).

This makes the game hard to learn: we don't have the context provided by a model to help us understand how the game works, but we don't have the fundamental simplicity of the classic abstract game.

The other problem with Mechanics Salad is that it's hard to bring harmony to the game. (Read for my extended discussion of harmony; briefly, everything in the game seems to fit with everything else, nothing in the game sticks out as not fitting or not belonging.) It's much easier to bring harmony to simple abstract games.

Okay, then why would you make a Mechanics Salad game?  Because you want to make a parallel competition puzzle, not an opposed game. In a parallel competition the players can do little or nothing to affect the other players deliberately, and perhaps not at all.

Puzzles that are more complicated are often harder to solve. In practice, it's difficult to make a really simple game that actually has much depth to it. (And I mean depth, not variety.) It's much easier to make a more complicated game, though it's much harder to make a more complicated game that's really good.

Yet Mechanics Salad is a popular kind of game. More people like puzzles than like games, I think.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Is it Wrong to make a Game too Challenging (or too Opaque)?

(Originally published on Gamasutra.)

I watched some videos the other day about the videogame Cuphead, a game that is very difficult to play successfully. One gameplay video showed that you needed really fast and precise reactions. The question was whether it's wrong to create a game that's too challenging for some or many people.

Maybe it's my age (66), but I cannot imagine someone saying such a thing about a game. No matter what the game, some possibly small or possibly large number of people won't be able to play successfully. I suspect it's part of Rampant Egalitarianism, which is behind most of Political Correctness, that requires everything to be reduced to the lowest common denominator so that no one is ever left out no matter how incompetent or lazy or simply unfortunate they may be.

On the other hand, I've advocated for many years that video games include an "autopilot", so that when it IS too hard, the player can let the game play the game through that difficult patch, in order to let the player experience the entire game. Simple. But the outrage from hard-core players against my suggestion in the past has been remarkably irrational and often virulent.

The equivalent in tabletop games may be the impetus to make games highly transparent, that is, make a game so that by the time someone has finished playing it once they know, or at least think they know, how to play well. (That usually means, make it a shallow game rather than a deep one.) Then they typically play the game one to three times and move on to the next game. When you make a highly transparent game you can rarely put significant depth into the game, so we have a sea of shallow games that mostly don't deserve to be played even three times. But making the game transparent and shallow means a lot more people can play without becoming "uncomfortable." The entire situation where the majority of tabletop games are puzzles turned into parallel competitions is a way of making the games more comfortable for everyone.

It's the Age of Comfort after all, young people are taught that they should never be uncomfortable, and those who are "different" are made to conform to a supposed majority. A lot of people are evidently uncomfortable with the notion that Cuphead is too hard for them to "beat". I haven't played it but after watching an extended play by a YouTuber, I know I wouldn't have a prayer - yet that doesn't bother me. Why would it?

Not everyone can play basketball or football at a high level, not everyone can be good at chess. It's the natural order of things. Each person is different and has different strengths and weaknesses, and if playing a video game that is heavily Athleticware doesn't work for them, it doesn't diminish them or harm them. Only when rampant egalitarianism rears its ugly head would the question ever arise of whether a game was "too hard."

I find that some people have no idea how different rampant egalitarianism is from the idea that all people are equal under the law.

Political Correctness is aimed at squashing merit, squashing capability, squashing any effort to be better.  Political correctness is an attempt to interfere with the American right to free speech.  It is an attempt to impose the "tyranny of the majority" which the US constitution is designed to avoid. It is part of rampant egalitarianism:  make everyone be the same, including their opinions. This is entirely different from the Founding Fathers' idea that all people deserve equal opportunity, rather it's the idea that everyone must be the same. The Founding Fathers didn't want the next Beethoven to be stuck toiling in a field all his or her life. Rampant Egalitarianism doesn't want anyone to be Beethoven (who it must be said, was a pretty strange dude), that's much too different.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Convention Attendance

As I have retired and gotten older, and now moved to Florida which is farther from the major game conventions than my old home, I’ve had to pick and choose which conventions I go to. I stopped going to Origins quite a few years ago because it had diminished, and I’m not convinced yet that it has recovered sufficiently to be worth my time and money. It appears I will not be going to the UK Game Expo again (it is more than 4,200 miles). (Keep in mind, being retired means you have more time than money.) Last year I didn’t go to GenCon because I wanted to avoid the 50th anniversary insanity but mainly because the schedule just didn’t work out. I try to attend WBC in Pennsylvania (880 miles from here) and then go to GenCon, possibly with a few days with my brother and sister-in-law in DC in between. In 2018 I should be able to do that.

I also like to go to Prezcon in Charlottesville Virginia at the end of February. I know a fair number of people at both Prezcon and WBC, whereas at GenCon I might see a few people I know but everyone is so busy there’s rarely time to talk.

I attend small conventions here in north Florida – there aren’t any big game-only conventions nearby. Dice Tower con is the big convention in Florida, but Miami is 368 miles from here, and the Dice Tower caters to the “oh shiny” generation and games that are often puzzles disguised his games - not my interest. There’s a prototype con 2+ hours away, but I can’t go to both it and Prezcon because of scheduling. I went to the first one and it was, once again, just about all about parallel competition puzzles disguised as games.

In a few years GenCon and WBC will be at the same time, and I’ll surely prefer WBC.

Keep in mind, I have never gone to conventions to play games, I go to talk with people and listen to people and learn things, and possibly pitch games to publishers. Pitching at GenCon doesn’t strike me as fruitful because you’re competing with so many other people pitching at the same time, to the point where some publishers are almost punchdrunk from seeing one game after another. At WBC and Prezcon there aren’t many publishers but I do have the opportunity to talk with them at length and possibly play my games with them. Most of the small conventions don’t have any publishers in attendance.

Friday, December 01, 2017

BF/CM/Christmas sale - when the discounts are gone, they're gone until next November

I have been offering courses on Udemy for about four years. When I signed up to teach, I opted out of the  "kamikaze" marketing that just cheapens everything about online education. I won't ever be offering a "$200 course" for $10, or any course for 75% off, as Udemy has. (Most instructors participate in that marketing, btw.) Nor do I participate in affiliate marketing.

I come from actual full-time college teaching (now retired). Big discounts insult the intelligence: if it's only worth $10, why are you listing it at $150? Furthermore, I don't like the idea of someone paying nearly full price for one of my courses, only to see others sign up for $10. I know that would annoy the heck out of me, if I were the student.

But even I realize that "Black Friday" is the time for a big sale - my *only* sale of the year.

Here's how it works.  I have two deeper discounts than I normally offer. There are just four coupons at Level 1 (which is about 63% of the list price), and seven coupons at Level 2 (68-77%). When they're gone, they're gone, no more offered until next November. Any unused will turn off before the year ends. I offer them here first, and tomorrow I'll post them on my website and G+.

So if you wait, the coupons might be used up.

I have two courses that are listed for $20, because that's the minimum price Udemy allows, but I distribute free coupons for both.  If you are one of the very few people - a handful out of 10,000+ - who pay for the course, within 30 days you can get a refund, and use the free coupons (below).

Level One (best discount, about 63-64%% of list):

Learning Game Design, Part 1. $29 (list $45)

Learning Game Design, Part 2:  $26 (list $40)

Playtesting: the Heart of Game Design. $19 (list $30)

How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games $22 (list $35)

How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) $22 (list $35)

Brief Introduction to Game Design $16 (list $25)

Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design $13 (list $20)

Level 2 (68-77%):
Learning Game Design, Part 1. $34 (list $45)

Learning Game Design, Part 2:  $30 (list $40)

Playtesting: the Heart of Game Design. $23 (list $30)

How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games $26 (list $35)

How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) $26 (list $35)

Brief Introduction to Game Design $19 (list $25)

Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design $15 (list $20)


The following are always heavily discounted (because I had to raise the list price when Udemy required all courses to be at least $20):
Get a Job in the Video Game Industry $12 (list $20)

$10 off Joys of Game Design $10, list $20) (for hobby designers rather than aspiring pros), Coupon Joys10,

FREE "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences" Coupon ConventionsFree, URL:

Free "Conceiving a New Game: Tips for Aspiring Designers". This is actually a compilation of some screencasts from my YouTube channel, rather than a formal class. This is just another way to make them available.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Recent Screencasts (Video)

I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent screencasts instead.

What is a planner's game (No, not Tsuro!)
Brief comment on what a planner's game is, with Tsuro as the example of what it isn't.

Common errors in explaining how to play a game
I've seen so many people, when explaining face-to-face how to play a game, make big mistakes in their approach, that I felt I had to talk about the right way.

Number of Players
This video from an as-yet-unfinished Intro to Card Game Design makes sense for other kinds of games as well.

Game Contenders. Game Surfers, Game Bathers
Trying to understand game players. I tried my usual method of dividing something into two extremes with lots in between; but this time I had to go to three extremes.

Requests from fans to game designers
Stories of requests from fans of my games, some straightforward, some a bit odd.

Pulling from a bag vs Drawing from a deck
Sometimes pulling something from a bag is no different, in gameplay terms, than drawing a card from a deck. There are practical differences to be considered, though. Sometimes one makes more sense than the other.

14 milestones in the evolution of games
Just what it says.  Please help me pay the bills for all this free information: my Patreon is at:

How team sports cope with "board" size problems
As athletes have become bigger and faster, in effect the playing fields become smaller. How have sports coped with this (or not)?

Game design is never-ending compromise
Many novices think they can "have it all". But that's not the nature of game design (or of  life).

How I develop cards for a new game
This is part of a course still being created, about specialty card game design. But it applies to all games that use cards.

Two reasons for all the online arguments about games and platforms
For years I was surprised that people insistently argued with me when I said there were games I don't like/don't think much of, even when I explained fully. I've finally figured it out, and here's why.

Ideal FTF tournament game characteristics
With GenCon about to occur as I write, this seems an apropos topic. What characteristics make for the best tournament games at tabletop game conventions?

Adapting game systems to other topics
It's common to use the same game system for more than one game. At some point, adapting a system to a different game (different subject, objective, etc.) won’t work well.

Where do we draw the line?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Simplifying a Game Design

Almost always, when I talk with groups of people about game design, I quote Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Another way of saying this is about Japanese art-gardening "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

I make games that are models of something, or are “pure” abstract games, that is, games that are very simple in conception.  But there is an opposite philosophy of making a puzzle-like game more complex so that the puzzle is harder to solve. Simplification is quite a different matter in that situation, and something I can't address specifically both because it's the opposite of my philosophy and because I dislike that kind of so-called "game."

I try to be simple throughout, but it's common for designers to start with something simple and keep adding things to it, until they realize that they weighed the game down too much and need to go back toward the simple. When I see a problem in my design I try to find a simple solution, possibly a simplification, rather than add something to the game, but many designers will usually add something to fix a problem. And then those additions can become too much weight.

As I answered questions after a session at a convention, someone told me about an RPG he'd designed and tested, that all the testers said was too complex. "How do I simplify it?" he said.

An assumption here is that the testers, by and large, aren't able to say exactly what must be simplified, they just know that currently there's "too much."

First, I said, try to write down the "essence" of the game in a few sentences. This can take some doing, believe me. Ideally you've done it already, but if you had, perhaps you wouldn't be having the too-much-complexity problem to begin with.

There are different ways to characterize the essence of a game, sometimes structurally, sometimes according to what the player does, sometimes in another way or a combination. But be sure it's a unique essence, not just a list of mechanics, because the list the mechanics doesn't say anything about what's important or what the impression on the player is supposed to be.

Example (Britannia): "On an anvil of blood and terror they forged the destiny of an island!" In this epic wargame four players each control several nations playing at different times with different objectives throughout the Dark Ages history of Great Britain. Romans, Britons and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans - they all play a part in the history of Britain. Combat is resolved with dice. This is a strategic game of achieving objectives, not of conquest, though many invaders conquer large parts of Britain at different times. 4 to 5 hours for experienced players. "Invade Britain. Rewrite history. Rule." (The quoted phrases are tags devised by the publishers of the first and second editions of the game.)

Then think about the various aspects of the game in relation to that essence. If something doesn't contribute to the essence, can it be removed? Surely, at the least, it can be simplified, abstracted, or combined with something else. Every game (tabletop or video), at bottom, is fairly simple, and your job is to retain its simple heart and remove what doesn't contribute enough to that heart.

Second, make a list of the major features or elements of the game, perhaps 10 to 20 of them. Consider again how they contribute to the essence, and how you can remove or simplify or combine as appropriate.

After you have (in your mind, at this point) removed or simplified what you confidently can, give the list of the (now remaining) major features to some of your playtesters and ask them to decide which could be removed entirely, and which should be simplified. (This may not help much if testers disagree about whether the game is too complex.) Don't ask people to rank each feature in comparison to the others, as that can be very difficult. It's much easier for people to divide a group into four parts, in this case from most important to the game down to least important. You might even want to write each feature on a separate 3 by 5 index card to make it easy for the playtester to sort them.

Whether you ask playtesters individually or in groups depends on what you think they'll be most comfortable with.

Then consider how you can get rid of the items in the bottom quarter, or even the bottom half if the game is much too complex.

Then playtest the result, of course.

I've listed these in an order beginning with what you can do on your own, to what you can do in conjunction with your playtesters.

As for some details:
Perhaps you can simplify a game by combining two things together into one. You don't actually eliminate either, you just streamline.

An obvious way to simplify is to find decisions players must make that have no significant effect on the outcome of the game. In other words, if it doesn’t matter what the player chooses, if it's trivial, why make them choose at all?

Similarly, there can be choices for particular decisions that no one ever chooses. Get rid of them, if that's possible.

You can resort to abstraction, that is “remove a more accurate and detailed version of that aspect or function and replace it with a less accurate and detailed version or no version at all” (Adams and Rollings, Fundamentals of Game Design).

Automation is often a means of simplification in video games. While we cannot exactly automate anything in a purely tabletop game, we can take something onerous for the players, and turn it into something that happens in the background or automatically, from their point of view. (Yes, some tabletop games include smartphone apps to automate.)

Some games, including virtually all RPGs, are models of some situation, even if it’s a fictional situation as is often the case in RPGs. When you’re modeling something it’s a little easier to simplify, I think, because when you take something out of the game you can try to judge how that affects the correspondence of the model to the situation. When you’re simplifying an abstract game, and that includes a game with a tacked on theme such as many Eurostyle games, then you don’t have that guide.

In either case, harmony has to be one of your guides. I discussed this at length on Gamasutra ( and I’ll try to summarize here. Harmony: “everything in the game feels as though it belongs there and contributes to the purpose and feeling of the game as a whole.” This is like music harmony, it’s easy to recognize but not so easy to create. It's important because games are not just collections of mechanics, not just data, not just metrics. Games make intellectual and emotional impressions on players, and lack of harmony is noticeable, sometimes clearly, sometimes in subtle ways.

So the question is, what can be removed because it is inharmonious with the rest of the game? Or when you’re going to remove something, what will is do to the harmony of the game? And that’s going to apply whether the game is abstract or a model.

Sometimes a game's interface will get in the way, much more often true with video games than with tabletop games. Is there a way to make the interface simpler, to provide information in more accessible ways or to make it easier to manipulate the game?

Let me give you a drastic example of simplifying a well-known game: Monopoly.  Unless there are few players in the game, it's standard practice to buy whatever property you land on as you go around the first few times. This becomes a trivial decision, especially because most people incorrectly play the game without auctions; so it should be removed from the game. Why not shuffle the property cards and deal three or four to each player at start of the game, and let them decide whether to buy those properties or to put them into auction? (You might want to give players several hundred dollars extra because they're not Passing Go in this situation.) Once that's sorted out then you get on with the game. The game is not (should not be) about going round and round randomly, it's about trading properties and making monopolies. At least, that's what the game is for adults, for children the going round and round might be an enjoyable part of the game.

This simplification should make it a significantly better game, yet the effect of most simplifications is not as obvious. It's the accumulation of simplification that helps polish the game and get from the 80% point (well, it works) closer to the 100% point (it's a good game).

Always beware that you don't take something out that's essential to the game. While you can simplify a game into oblivion (a bagatelle), it's much more likely you will complicate a game into oblivion (a train-wreck). And always keep Harmony in mind.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Designing Stock Market Games

Buying and selling stocks is fundamentally predicated on a forecast of how well the company is going to prosper in the future. In olden days this was based on the price to earnings ratio, where you wanted to pay not more than 15 times the annual dividend you would expect to get. Nowadays some companies do not pay dividends, so it can be based on your expectation of how much the stock price is going to rise or fall, for example if you bought Microsoft stock early on you would have a lot of money per share now (the stock has split several times I think). Same for Amazon stock (though it has not split).

But that’s the long term view. There’s also a short-term view, the view of “day-traders” who want to buy a stock at a lower price than they expect it to be in a few days or weeks and sell stocks at a higher price than expected to be in a similar amount of time. Day-trading in particular is susceptible to good or bad news, for example when the British voted to exit the European Union it had an immediate strong effect on the stock markets even though it was expected to take two years for them to actually withdraw.

I am strictly a long-term stock buyer and see day-trading as a form of gambling/insanity. But it’s also a kind of game, and for some people it’s their favorite game.

A former student wants to make a tabletop game to reflect how the day-trading stock market works. We had a long discussion about the other day at the North Florida Game Designers’ Guild meeting and this is a result.

The typical defect of a stock game is that the events causing stock prices to rise or fall are randomly generated, and unforeseeable. But there are exceptions. For example, the venerable and excellent Sid Sackson game Acquire uses the growth and mergers of hotel chains, which are controlled by the players, to strongly affect the final value of stocks. Some railroad games use the success or failures of railroad companies to cause stocks to rise or fall in value. The game Imperial uses a World War I like struggle among nations to govern the rise or fall in value according to how well the nation does in the war. The players are controlling/playing the railroad part of the game or the war part of the game, but the outcome of the game depends on stock ownership of successful entities.

But this is all a long-term point of view, and my former student was interested in the short term, the day trader point of view.

A perhaps not explicit assumption here is that game players want to feel that they control what goes on in the game, that they succeed because of their own efforts. Random fluctuations in price don’t allow that. So we need something that enables players to influence the price fluctuations in the short-term rather than the long-term. What I suggested is that each player could have an identical set of cards to use to influence the price of certain stocks. Among other things there could be a reckoning for a stock where each player would play a card face down, the cards would be collected and shuffled under the table so that no one knew which card came from which player, and those cards would collectively determine what happened to the stock. The obvious thing would be to have each card simply say, company does well, or company does badly, or company stays about where it is (neutral). There could also be the occasional card that represents some news that causes a fluctuation in prices, for example an international crisis.

So if the plurality of cards is success for the company than the price will go up, and if the plurality is poor results for the company than the price would go down. From that point further price changes would depend on the players, so if they sold a lot of stock the price would go down and if they were bought a lot of stock the price would go up. It would still be the case that any stock that was bought a lot would go up in price even if the company results were not good. (We do see that in the market.) While I’ve never thought much about making a stock market game myself, I think this was the method I came up with for enabling players to affect price in the short run.

The method I’ve seen for having buying and selling prices change is a simple ladder. As players buy or sell stock they put cubes on the spots on the ladder, and when the spots are filled on a rung they move to the next higher rung (when buying) where the prices they pay are higher compared to the base price at the start of the turn, or to the next lower rung (when selling) where the price they get is lower.

This method also offers the players the opportunity to collude to drive a stock price up or down, but if the “voting” is truly secret then there can be “backstabbing” insofar as a player may make a deal to vote for a company to prosper and yet play a card of some other type.

If all negotiation is over the table, however, it will be difficult to collude in a meaningful way. But to have lots of regular secret negotiation sessions, as in the game Diplomacy, means it would be a much longer game. The alternative is to give each player a certain number of tokens that can be played to enable them to have a brief secret negotiation with another willing player. The very fact that the two players are talking together can help make the other players paranoid, if nothing else, two or three minutes of talking ought to be enough to allow for collusion or other deals. When the player runs out of negotiation tokens then the only way they can have a secret negotiation of’s of someone else plays a token in order to talk to them.

I like this so much that I even thought of doing such a game myself for about five seconds, but I have so many other relatively new games with good prospects that I’ll have to put it aside.