Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 2014 Miscellany

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

A "new" Britannia-like game:
Wallace Nicoll has prepared a PDF edition of Roger Heyworth's game Conquest Europa.  Roger was the uncredited editor of Britannia for its original publication by H. P. Gibsons in Britain in 1986.  He passed away in 2000, unfortunately.  Wallace was involved in the testing.

The game covers all of Europe and North Africa, from the fall of the Roman Empire to Tamerlane and beyond.  With some 500 pieces, 35 nations, and 106 areas, it lasts 10-12 hours with experienced players.

When I began to think about doing a new edition of Britannia, around 2004, a 1980 all-of-Europe game I had done while developing Britannia.  Though not as big as Conquest Europa, it took 12 hours to play the first time, so I set it aside and then completely forgot about it.

One of the first new games I started when I came back into the hobby was an all-Europe game, which was playtested at WBC in 2008.  It turned out to be a natural five player rather than four player game.  Someday it may see print, perhaps in Against-the-Odds magazine or annual.  In the meantime I've devised another all-Europe game that lasts about two hours, and has been played in 1:40.

These games both end with the Mongol invasion, after starting with the fall of the West Roman Empire.

Before playtesting (of "D&D Next") started I wrote:  I don't see how WotC can accommodate  fans of 1e/2e and 3e and 4e, because gameplay depth was important to many 1e players, self-expression and one-man-armies was important for 3e (fantasy Squad Leader), 4e is all tactical battles, and variety has become the main interest in 3e and 4e.

And now that the public playtesting is done, I'll repeat what I said above.  I didn't even see an effort to accommodate such different play styles.  The game seemed to be an attempt to upgrade 3e with some 1e/2e, and very little 4e.

Am I the only person who is really distrustful of these pre-"reviews" I see on Kickstarter games?  This is such an obvious marketing tactic, and the reviews I've seen are so fulsomely (overflowingly?) positive, all of my skepticism receptors light up.

Convergence:  The broadest difference between traditional video games and tabletop games is that the former are used to pass the time (or kill time) while the latter are used to spend time with friends - socializing if you will.

"New" video games such co-ops, some Wii games, and some MMOs are going toward the "spend time with friends" side.

Why I fundamentally "never get" most Euro-style games (and I'm using the traditional definition, not the "heavy strategy non-wargame" definition now in vogue)

1) I prefer games of conflict and maneuver.  Euro games are usually designed to reduce and deemphasize conflict, and rarely use maneuver and geospatial location.

2) I try to design a game that someone can enjoy playing many, many times (there are folks who have played Britannia more than five hundred times).  Most Euros are designed to attract for a few plays only, after which the players will move on to something else ("the cult of the new")

3) I like games.  Euros tend to be interactive solvable puzzles.

I like people-watching in board and card games more than I like playing (in part because I gave up playing games against other people when I was 25).  If a game is good for people-watching, it probably has lots of interaction; Dominion, for example, is nothing for people-watching, there's nothing to see/hear really.

I was looking for a word to compare games where software is needed, to those where it isn't.  The former tend to be sports, latter heavily involve the mind.  Someone (my wife?) came up with software versus "brainware".

Some games require software.  Others (e.g. most tabletop) don't use software, just "brainware".

Some recent tweets

My talk "On the horns of a dilemma" at East Coast Game Conference (Raleigh NC): 3:15pm–4:15pm Thursday April 24, 302C

Two Kickstarter game groups: one susceptible to/attracted by "smoke and mirrors", the other doing pre-order "P500" via another medium?

Links to free versions of books that inspired Gary Gygax (Appendix N of D&D):

My video What are you trying to do when you design a level or adventure?:

Why do people pay $4 for a coffee, not for a mobile game? Maybe because no cost to making more of the game, there is to making more coffee

If I were a professional story-maker I'd never call myself "narrative consultant."  Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often not good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to.

If you're interested in RPG news, reviews, analysis, look at this near-daily column:

Commodity Game Design - Avoiding Clones.

My videa about PrezCon2014:

My video from "Learning Game Design" course: What is the player going to do?:

Gamasutra blog by Zachary Strebeck, Three contracts every game developer needs:

I have two new courses at
How to design levels/adventures for video and tabletop games ($19)
How to write clear rules ($15)
These are priced as though they were books, despite being audiovisual courses.  There are no discounts.  The same courses, when on Udemy, cost about 50% more.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

A&A 1941 $18.99 today (April 5) only

Axis & Allies 1941, which appears to have 160 plastic miniatures (five colors), is on sale April 5 for international tabletop day at Amazon for $18.99 (and if your order is over $35 you get free shipping).  You might consider this if you need a bunch of WWII plastic pieces for a protoype.

Many, many other games are being sold up to 45% off, as well.  Acquire for $18.99 e.g.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Generic plastic/wood game pieces you can buy for prototypes (or for full production?)

Generic plastic/wood game pieces you can 

buy for prototypes

(or for full production?)

Many game designers need 3D pieces to use in their prototypes, and some game publishers may want to make games with 3D pieces yet are not prepared to create custom components.  I don’t know whether EAI makes their own stuff, but one way or another, if the pieces can be bought by individuals at these prices, they must be available for much less at very large order prices.

I get most pieces from  They are a school supplies seller.  I’m looking at their latest “Spring 2014 Math” catalog (they also sell online, of course).  I use quotation marks around the names EAI uses.  I have listed their largest quantities, many are available at smaller quantities though higher cost per item.

“Stacking counters”. p. 15.   These are excellent, and I’ve already seen them being used in published games.  2,500 in a tub (10 colors, .75") $49.95.   So 2 cents each.

Plastic 1 “centimeter cubes”. p.22.  (10 colors).  5,000 for $79.95.  So 1.6 cents each.  (Cost more in a tub.)
They also have “interlocking centimeter cubes”, same page, more expensive.

You can also order single-color sets of blue, yellow, orange plastic cubes on p. 34, 1,000 for $19.79.

1 inch square “plastic color tiles” p. 21 (large enough to write numbers on) in four colors. 
4mm thick, 2,000 in a tub $64.50.  I use these a lot for prototypes instead of cardboard counters.
2mm thin slightly translucent, 400 for $10.95
They also list transparent, 48 for $3.95.  I haven’t tried these.
You can also get 4mm foam versions(“quietshape color tiles”), haven’t tried them.

“Two-color counters” p. 77 (red on one side, yellow on the other), 3/4" 1,000 in a jar for $22.25.  I use them for sites that must be explored, writing on the yellow side, sitting red side up.
You can also get 1" magnetic ones, and transparent ones (single color, I think).

“Double-sided black and red counters”, 1", p. 121, 200 for $5.95.

“Black and red counters”, 3/4", not double-sided, two separate colors.  480 for $8.95.

‘Plastic, 1", four color transparent counters’ packed in a sturdy plastic container.  5,000 for $73.95 (missed it in the catalog, online)

“Game pawns”.  P. 15.  300 in a jar for $8.95 (colors may vary, 5 shown).  These are classic fat-bottom skinny-top game pawns.  So 3 cents each.

“Blank playing cards”, decks of 54, $1.55 each of 36 decks for $39.95.  P. 77 2.25" by 3.5"
Also transparent and colossal and normal cards available.

‘1" wood color cubes’510 in a tub, $45.95 p. 3

“Hardwood cubes in six colors” 2 cm, (blue, green, orange, white, yellow and red). Packed in a tub.  510 for $43.95 or 102 for $8.95.  Also missed in the catalog,

Another way to provide 3D pieces is to use wooden blocks with stickers.  You can buy blocks individually from Columbia Games.  A more economical source is GMT, who often sell big bags of blocks very reasonably priced at conventions (such as PrezCon, WBC).  The blocks above can be used the same way typical wargame blocks are used, though they’re twice as thick as wargame blocks.

They have spinners, sand timers, plastic coins, dice (polyhedra), blank dice ( and so forth as well.

EAI doesn’t sell chips.  I get small ones from Rolco games, who make their plastic stuff themselves but sell direct to the public.
Rolco even sells blank game boards and boxes:
You can also get bulk rocket ships, tanks, and lots of other small pieces.

You get bulk pricing on orders of 5,000 or more.

YouTube Game Design channel: 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?

Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?

Those who have read this blog for a long time know that I am a categorizer.  I try to organize things into categories in order to better to understand them and their relationships to each other. Recently it’s occurred to me that within the context of a game club meeting or even a smaller game session, different games have different uses, they fit into the session in different ways. This often is reflected in different price points, different lengths, different effort requirements, and so forth.

So the following are categories organized by how games are actually used at game meetings.

I’m sure other people must have done this at some point, although a simple search for “destination game” on BoardGameGeek yielded very little. Perhaps readers will let me know about other efforts to categorize games by usage.

First we have destination games. These are games that people look to play, or occasionally organize to play beforehand, when they go to a game session. These are usually games that take quite a while to play and may take some effort as well. Many of them are 2 to 3 hour games, while the ones that are just an hour are often serial destination games, that is, you expect to play two or three times consecutively, possibly the same game, or other serial destination games, in one game session. You expect destination games to be more expensive than many other games because they’re offering you more hours of use, and they’re often “more involved” if not “more complicated”.  If the term “weight” is used to indicate the effort involves, destination games are often heavier games (though the special occasion games, below, are usually the heaviest).  Serial destination games may be lighter.

Most destination games are for more than two players. Two player wargames are often serial destination games, two people get together and play the game two or more times, switching sides.

For serious chess players chess is a destination game although for some it will be a serial destination game.

Special occasion games take so long (or have such unusual requirements) that people schedule meetings just to play the game, enabling them to recruit players specifically for it. Sessions are organized days or even weeks beforehand, especially if a large number of players is required, for example Diplomacy with seven, History of the World with five or six, or Civilization (the boardgame) which requires a large number of players to work well.  Many RPGs are of this category, as they require both quite a few players and a referee as well as a lot of time.  For many people Britannia is a special occasion game (especially if players aren’t experienced, then it can be 7 hours instead of 3.5-5), though if your game club runs many hours it might fall into the destination category. A two player “monster” wargame is also a special occasion game - sometimes several occasions before you can actually finish it.  Miniatures wargames are often special occasion, though the smaller ones can be destination games.

At the other end of the spectrum we have filler games. These games almost always allow for a widely varying number of players because the purpose of the filler game is to let people play something before everyone has shown up for the destination game, or to play something after the destination game is finished. You never know in those circumstances exactly how many people you’re going to have, or how much time you’re going to have. Consequently filler games need to be relatively short, frequently under an hour and sometimes as little as five to 10 minutes. Some of the shorter serial destination games may be usable as fillers in the right circumstances.

I reserve the term “flexible filler” for games that can be played for 30 to 45 minutes but can also be played for as little as 5 to 10 minutes. These are often point games so that you can set a particular point target, or simply play in the amount of time available and then see who has more points.

Filler games are usually lighter games, ones without a lot of strategy to them.  People often use the term “beer and pretzel” games in this context, but I prefer to avoid that term.  It’s not unusual for a filler game, especially a longer one that can also serve as a serial destination game, to be a “screwage” game. (See “Competition, direct conflict, wargames, and screwage games,”

A subcategory of filler game is a convenience game. These are games that can be played in tight spaces (such as a vendor booth at a convention or in a car), or in unusual circumstances where it’s inconvenient to play most other games. Much of this is about the physical conformation of the game of course.

You’d expect fillers to cost significantly less than destination games, even though, in the end, you may play a filler for more hours during it’s “lifetime” than you will many destination games.  Given the “Cult of the New” that is so strong in the hobby, people tend to focus their attention on destination games but then only play them a few times before moving on to something else.  Popular fillers can actually last much longer.

Where do the old “micro” games fit? The micro category seems to have been virtually wiped out by CCGs like Magic: the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. Keep in mind that most micro games, and most CCGs, are two player games. Each individual play of a CCG can be quite short, but players tend to play several games consecutively, often for several hours.  So these might best be characterized as serial destination games - lots of people come to a game meeting specifically to play their favorite CCG over and over again.

Gateway games have come to be popular to introduce people to hobby game playing. Settlers of Catan is the most well-known, but Ticket to Ride also fits this category. Originally these games were serial destination games or long fillers (and again can be treated as both). Gateway games tend to be simpler than destination or special occasion game.  They also tend to be shorter because “the unwashed” often aren’t accustomed to sitting and doing something for long periods.

Sometimes what ought naturally to be a filler game becomes a destination game. For example, Munchkin ought to be a fairly short game if designed properly, but when played by serious gamers it becomes rampant leader bashing as everyone goes up to level 9 before somebody finally is allowed to reach level 10, and the game takes a couple hours.

In general, party games are filler games, the party is what's important, not the game.  Few people take party games seriously.

I’m not strongly in touch with game prices, though obviously they’re going up.  (I recall FFG’s Britannia in 2006 was $40, in 2008 $50.)  Destination games cost much more than fillers, and special occasional games probably cost more yet.  Serial destination games may be the cost of destinations or of fillers, or anywhere in between.  Gateway games, because of their large print runs, should be close to filler game price even though they often amount to serial destinations. 

So where does this get us as game designers?  It will probably help you to be aware of what kind of game you’re designing when you’re still in the conception stage.  It certainly won’t do to market your game as a destination game when it’s really a filler, or vice versa.  Also, a destination game may justify more expensive components than a filler, because the former is likely to sell for more by virtue of being a destination game.

Consideration of game usage may also affect how many players you design a game for.  Though nowadays, given the social nature of tabletop gaming, you’re limiting yourself anytime you design a game that cannot be played by at least four.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Avoiding Player Elimination in Multi-player Tabletop Games (video)

I've just added this to my Learning Game Design course, and in my video blog experiment here is the link  to the video.  It applies mostly to tabletop games where there are more than two sides, each with a human (rather than computer) in charge.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Future of (Tabletop) Wargames? Getting out of the wargame ghetto . . .

    “I didn't realize how out of my element I was until I had to listen to guys talking about their retirement and/or how they were retiring soon. Made me wonder if the hobby as I know it is going to slowly evaporate over the next decade or so.... (But no wonder I couldn't find players for wargames all those years...!)?
 - Jeffro Johnson (who is approaching 40 himself, as I recall) about his experience at PrezCon ’14

(Lest anyone have any doubts, I am one of those Baby Boomers who grew up with Avalon Hill games, and am more or less retired. )

I was asked more than once during my PrezCon talk (by a publisher of hex-and-counter wargames, no less) where the future of wargames lies.  The Charles S. Roberts/Avalon Hill originated hex-and-counter game style is a Baby Boomer hobby, and Baby Boomers are a shrinking group.  Tabletop wargames now sell 1,000-2,000 copies, typically, whereas in Avalon Hill’s heyday they could sell over 100,000. Even in 2004-5 when I came back into the hobby it was easy to see that there was a wargames ghetto (as I call it). People in the ghetto were okay with that but it did not and does not appeal much to people outside.  And it gets smaller over time.

So what is the future of hobby wargaming?  Practically speaking, the traditional market is disappearing.  What can replace it?

Video Games?

Tabletop wargames not only have to survive vis-à-vis other tabletop games but vis-à-vis video games. We always have to keep in mind the greater popularity of video games when we talk about any kind of tabletop game. Video games are easy to play, with the tremendous advantage that you don’t need to read the any rules, and video games are also becoming quite cheap with vast numbers of free to play and $.99 games available. Most video games that appear to be about war are actually closer to sporting events, as top RTS (Real-Time Strategy) game players must execute 200 actions-per-minute to succeed. But the capability to make two-player games primarily requiring thinking to succeed is there, and there are turn-based video games involving war (most notably, Civilization).

Yet the future isn’t video games, at least not the kind of simulation-like video wargames that have been produced so far by companies like Matrix Games.  These sell hardly better than tabletop wargames (3,000 is a number I’ve seen, minuscule for video games requiring that much effort to produce).  I don’t think video games are a threat or a salvation for tabletop wargames.

Multiplayer (Multi-sided) Games and “Losers”

The future of all kinds of tabletop games is in multiplayer (more than two player) games, because a great attraction of tabletop games that video games cannot reproduce is the social interaction.  Whether that interaction occurs within the game rules or not, it comes from people being in one place seeing, hearing, and sometimes smelling and emotionally (and sometimes physically) feeling other people.

Another advantage of multiplayer games is that they don’t put “the loser” on the spot, they don’t involve the ego nearly as much.  In a two player wargame, there’s a Loser with a capital L.   In a game for five, there are four losers, but an average player is only going to win 20% of the time anyway (assuming there are no draws), so you can lose and not feel “failure” - you’re in the same boat as almost everyone else, and “I’ll get ‘em next time”.  You can also feel that you were the best player but people ganged up on you.  At some point, there’s nothing you can do about that. (In the case where both/all the players are against the game, that’s OK - the humans are all in it together, essentially a single player game, and all lose or win together, no stigma involved.)

These games should not have player elimination, something that can unnecessarily bring out those feelings of failure.  Practically speaking, too, a game without player elimination is likely to be shorter than one with elimination.

Video games achieve this through single player games/campaigns that are often puzzles that you will sooner or later solve if you’re persistent. With save games and respawning there is no way to Lose.

SPI’s surveys indicated that 50% of play of their games was solo.  People who are inclined to solo play often like two-player, detailed wargames.  I think the solo player is much more likely to play video games these days.  Solo play is a mostly-dead-end for tabletop games.

So games that allow for the social aspects of face to face gaming, and don’t put the loser on the spot, are where wargaming has a chance to succeed.

“Peaceful” Semi-wargames

Games that allow for the possibility or even likelihood of war but recognize that peace is a better way to succeed are more broadly appealing than games that are out-and-out, cut-throat war. These games can be less directly confrontational. For example, a game about the Italian city states in the era of the Crusades can allow players to prosper if they can peacefully take advantage of the trade from the Far East and develop influence in foreign places, but can provide the ability to go to war. If a player can stay out of a debilitating war, or win a war very quickly, he or she will have a good chance to win the game. (I speak of this as though hypothetically, but my prototype Seas of Gold does just this.)

Sometimes games of this kind are given funny names that imply a cross between Eurostyle and wargame. But there’s a big difference between wargame and Eurostyle that I think needs to be preserved in the semi-wargames, as they might be called, that many wargames allow for great differences in playing style, whereas many Euro games assume a formalistic style where certain paths to success are well-known and blocking those paths is a common activity, where there are “generally accepted moves” that you’re expected to make, that you may even be criticized if you don’t because “that’s not the way to play the game!”  (I have to interject here, those who have decided that “Euro” only means certain heavy-strategy games that they like are going to disagree with me, because I use the older, broader meaning of Euro.)

To my mind, good multiplayer wargames are like open world video games, and Eurostyle games are more like closed world or linear video games. That open style is often lost in “simulations”, but simulations that force certain outcomes as the old SPI games often did are not going to survive on the tabletop - if only because they’re boring to most people and anathema to historians, like myself, who believe that what happened in the chaos of history is often not what was most likely to happen.  (And also because that kind of simulation is almost always a two-player game.)

Grand Strategic Wargames

I think we’ll see more grand strategic wargames rather than tactical games. First, grand strategic games are more believable for more than two players than tactical games. You can easily think of entire nations as competing in a multi-sided way, whereas battles with more than two sides are almost unheard of.  Second, tactical games in the wargame tradition are littered with nuts and bolts and details that hold much less interest for people in our fast living, imprecise century than they did in the glory days of Avalon Hill and SPI. There are lots of tactical games involving fighting, but they are individual skirmish games like Heroscape and many RPGs, not “nuts and bolts” games. Another aspect of grand strategic games is that ultimate success usually depends on building up your economy, as it does in almost any war. Games that build up have proved to be more attractive to many people than games that tear down. A grand strategic wargame can be one that combines the tearing down that’s involved in taking economic value from another player along with the building up that people seem to like, a combination of negative and positive. In contrast, a battle game, one without an economy, where the objective is terrain-based or simply killing lots of the enemy, is purely negative.

Visual and Tactile Appeal

It almost goes without saying that wargames need to be more visually appealing. Wargames with traditional half-inch counters aren’t even a starter except in the wargame ghetto. If you must use cardboard counters, they need to be a lot larger.  Three-dimensional pieces provide a tactile pleasure and feedback that you cannot get from video games, but it’s hard to get that from half-inch counters.  Some larger counters feel and look (and even sound) more like tiles, and that may work - I have in mind the FFG Britannia pieces.  3-D pieces and cards provide a visual appeal that standard wargames do not.  (I was told that Command & Colors was getting no traction for GMT, before publication, until they introduced the use of blocks as 3D pieces (not for “fog of war”).  Then it took off, and has proved to be very popular.)

Games with multiple numbers on each piece don’t have much appeal.  Players don’t mind having lots of information on cards, but not on pieces.  (NO lookup tables, either.)  3D makes it harder to put numbers on pieces, as well.

Stacks of counters are also a bad idea, though less so if only the owning player is allowed to look in the stack.  A good decision I made decades ago in Dragon Rage (which is a hex-and-counter wargame) was to prohibit stacking.  With the larger pieces in the 2011 edition, I’ve avoided the old problems of stacks of half inch counters.

Perhaps a reason for the popularity of “block games” beyond the fog of war is that they avoid counter stacks, and often have less information on them than do traditional counters.

Fewer Significant Decisions

The fundamental experiences people want in games have changed, too. People are much more interested in variety than in gameplay depth. They like lots of choices but they don’t like many difficult/significant choices.  They tend to rely more on intuition than logic, a reliance that’s often encouraged in the schools and society (“use the Force, Luke”, don’t depend on the computer to aim that torpedo). So a game with lots of choices but few decisions that make a significant difference tends to be preferred to the older kind of game, where there is not only lots of choices but lots of decisions, and decisions within decisions. (I’m sorry if that’s not entirely clear but my spiel about gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games is something like 10,000 words.  This will have to do.)

This trend is already enormously clear in video games.  Players want to be rewarded for participation, they don’t want to have to earn their rewards by making good decisions.

Hobby wargaming often involves studying the games. People don’t study games much anymore, especially casual gamers. Between cheap or free video games and the proliferation of many hundreds of new tabletop games each year, people are accustomed to playing a game only a few times before they move on to the next one in a kind of “Cult of the New”.  I know people who have played Britannia more than 500 times, but nowadays you’re going to find few newly published games that anyone will ever play 500 times, especially not one as long as Britannia.

I think wargames are still going to be a haven for people who want old-fashioned gameplay depth as opposed to simple variety, but if you want to reach a larger market you need to recognize that the number of significant decisions has to be reduced.  I’m put in mind of a young lady who used to attend our university game club. At age 18 she was exceptionally intelligent and focused, and when she played games she really put her brain to work (more than most), but because she was playing games to relax she did not want to play anything like a standard wargame where you have bunches of pieces to move in each of your turns. That was far too many decisions to make.  She liked tactical video games, where you have just a few characters to control. That’s the kind of person who can be attracted to strategic multiplayer games that involve war, but only if they are designed to be broadly appealing. 

Be sure your wargame doesn’t have a player moving dozens of units every turn!

Personal Stories

Gamers are also much more interested in personal stories and avatars in games than they were 40 years ago.  RPGs are an example, and many kinds of video games, both just coming into existence back then.  Wargames by their nature tend to be about nations and large units, though there are many games with individuals as the primary units (squad level games). The word “story” is in “history”, but the history of warfare tends to be impersonal. The kinds of personal stories people like aren’t about the Military, by and large.  I’m not sure how this is going to pan out, as the grand strategic games I recommend are not well-suited for the “you are there” mentality (think History of the World or Diplomacy).

People Games, not Math Games

What wargames need to focus on is the other people playing the game, rather than on the details of the game system. Britannia has some detail in it but it’s essentially a simple game to play, and the really good players are playing the other players, not the game system. You have to master the game system but that’s not the ultimate mastery, as opposed to chess and so many two-player wargames where mastery of the system is all that matters. (Oddly enough, mastery of real generalship is much about psychology, but wargames rarely reflect real warfare.)  That’s the kind of game we need, though Britannia is not the best example because it’s much too long for most players. One of the new versions of Britannia I’ve created can be played in 90-120 minutes and has been played in 84, even though the players were not hurrying.  Yet it is still clearly Britannia.

Games where “Yomi” is needed, discerning the intentions of other players, reading their minds, are popular for many reasons (think poker, Werewolf, Resistance).  Wargames need to make Yomi more prominent, and the details of mechanical play less prominent.  Multiplayer, of course, immediately puts Yomi to the forefront in highly interactive games.

On the other hand, you can’t remove a fairly high degree of interaction from a wargame and still have a wargame, instead you have something that begins to approach a puzzle or multiplayer solitaire. I don’t see this as a route wargames can take because then you have a major disadvantage of a wargame - the tearing down - without the compensating advantages of high interactivity.

Where there’s a place for two player wargames is on tablets and PCs, so that those who like this kind of ultimately confrontational math-like game can find opponents, and can play in short sessions even if the game itself is quite long in aggregate.  For examples, see

Shorter and Simpler

Finally, all games are noticeably getting simpler and shorter (especially video games).  Wargames must as well. That’s quite a challenge for multiplayer games simply because the more players you have, usually the longer the game. I have pursued a quest for a “one hour (multiplayer) wargame” for many years, and while I usually end up with 2+ hours I do have one game that has been played in an hour by three players.  But that will remain exceptional, except in wargames that use cards rather than a board.

Card-based wargames are another possible route out of the “ghetto”, but when you use cards you usually (though not always) abandon maneuver, which is one of the salient aspects of war.


I’ve briefly alluded to where “simulations” are going. The kind of simulation that values the model before the game, that tries to force a particular outcome to match history, is rapidly going down the tubes. The kind of model that Phil Sabin calls a simulation - though I wouldn’t - that helps one understand history will still be around. If you’ve read Sabin’s book Lost Battles you’ll know that his simulation to help understand what really happened to during ancient battles is pretty simple, not at all the kind of highly detailed simulation we used to get from SPI.

On the other hand, wargames can never approach the abstraction of the typical Eurostyle game. Wargames have to be models of some reality, and anything that happens in the wargame ought to correspond to something that happens in reality. That’s rarely the case in Eurostyle games, which are frequently abstractions with some kind of atmosphere tacked on (yes there are exceptions). Eurostyle games are designed to have particular paths or actions that can be easily blocked by the opposition (without any actual destruction), and that’s not even close to the nature of warfare.


Will the “grognards” of the ghetto like these wargames? Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re gradually going out of the market for games and publishers have to look at younger markets.

Having said all this, I’ve described one of the kinds of games I like to design, so maybe I’m prejudiced. Or maybe I saw the need years ago and have been working on it ever since.

When I started this I intended to write something fairly brief, but many of the trends in games in general have come into the question of the future of wargames.  I’ll stop here before it grows any further! 


I will be a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, April 23-24 in Raleigh, NC.   Exact time or day as yet unknown.  The topic will be “On the Horns of a Dilemma” (Game Design).

I now host (through Fedora) my online audiovisual courses at . They are still on at higher prices.  They include “Learning Game Design”, “Brief Introduction to Game Design”, and “Get a Job in the Video Game Industry”.  I will very soon be opening a course “How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games”.  Some time after that I’ll open “How to Write Clear Rules (and Game Design Documents)”.

YouTube Game Design channel:

Monday, March 10, 2014

PrezCon 2014

PrezCon 2014

The first game convention I attended after my long hiatus from the hobby was PrezCon 2004. I used to go alternate years but I’ve been going consistently at the end of February for several years now.

[Justin wanted me to photograph the schedule posted on the wall. Virtually every line there is a tournament]

PrezCon is a relatively small friendly board and card game convention in Charlottesville Virginia at a Doubletree Hotel. There are no RPGs, no miniatures to speak of, no CCGs, no video games. Most of the players are gray-haired Baby Boomers, although there is a smattering of younger players as well. It uses the same format as the World Boardgaming Championships, you pay a single fee and play it in as many tournaments as you can squeeze in. There are not quite as many tournaments as at WBC, and they are generally smaller because the attendance is about 3/8 of WBC attendance (for example 15 in the Britannia tournament in a good year compared to 40 at WBC). But there’s lots of competition. There’s also an auction, an auction store (where I bought a 2008 copy of Risk for four dollars for the peculiar arrow pieces), and a large open gaming area. Where WBC offers half a dozen or more talks, there is only one at PrezCon (that I give, and that gets about half a dozen in attendance). 

[Some of the plaques awarded for tournament success]

[Part of the main tournament room. The vendors are also in this room, to the left. There are also several subsidiary tournament rooms, and a large room (ballroom) for open gaming.]

There are game vendors as well, some of them publishers such as Worthington Publications, GMT, and Mayfair Games. Two of those three are wargame publishers and that’s reflected in the tournaments and open play, with many more wargames and you would see at GenCon. The vendors are set up from Friday through Sunday though they are packing up by midday Sunday.

[Vendor area]

Justin Thompson and company have PrezCon running like a well oiled machine in its 20th year.  When Justin was temporarily laid low by illness his partner Grant Dalgliesh took care of things.

Owing to work reasons my friend and I arrived Thursday night instead of Wednesday night this year, and I miss the extra day to talk with people. (I don’t play games at conventions and never have: I can play games at home. And as some of you know I’m not that big into playing games other than D&D, which we definitely don’t see at PrezCon.) We usually stay until Sunday mid-afternoon because he usually plays in the Roborally finals (which he won for the fourth time). Just as at WBC and Origins, by that time almost everyone has left and it’s quite dead. I think GenCon stays alive somewhat longer though I have had to leave before noon because of a very long trip home. It’s a great contrast to the UK Game Expo a few years ago, where I had a talk scheduled at 1 PM on Sunday and the audience filled the large room, as well as for the talk after that. I suppose because Great Britain is relatively small and train travel is common, people don’t feel the need to leave as early as they do at American game conventions.

At one point I recruited a friend who had played the game the year before to playtest one of my prototypes with a publisher. He asked me privately whether he should go easy on the other player. I wouldn’t tell anyone to do that as it is slightly disrespectful to the other player, and in any case the publisher needed to see what the game could really do, so I told him know do the best you can. And he won the game fairly easily, showing that there’s something worth learning in the game (as opposed to some transparent games where experience doesn’t seem to make much difference).

[Britannia tournament]

[Playing my prototype Doomstar]

As I have observed at other conventions, especially those that are strictly board and card games, there are striking cultural differences if you take the time to notice. Non-white gamers are very rare at PrezCon, just as they are at WBC. They are much more noticeable at conventions that include RPGs, CCGs, art and written fiction, and so forth.

One friend saw a lot more “friction” in the game playing this year, though I noticed a lot less than last year. Friction as in rule arguments and even one occasion of possible cheating. Yet when a friend of mine played his first game of Britannia in the tournament he found that the players gave him genuinely good advice rather than trying to con him with poor advice, and he won the game. The wargamers are not quite like Eurostyle players who often seem to be collectively solving a puzzle and discussing what the best move would be, but they do want new players to enjoy the games.  I have a friend who doesn’t go to PrezCon because he doesn’t want to tangle with the “sharks”, the really good players, nonetheless I think it’s a pretty friendly and mostly laid-back group considering the level of competition.

My talk this year was about strategic wargame design. There were lots of comments and questions that my recorder couldn’t pick up so I need to edit it before I post it on my website for anyone who wants to listen. The PowerPoint slides that I made for it are already posted at  Don’t leave out that 1.

I now host (through Fedora) my online audiovisual courses at . They are still on at higher prices.  They include “Learning Game Design”, “Brief Introduction to Game Design”, and “Get a Job in the Video Game Industry”.  I will very soon be opening a course “How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games”.  Some time after that I’ll open “How to Write Clear Rules (and Game Design Documents)”.

YouTube Game Design channel:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Triptych II

Conventions and classes
I'll be at PrezCon in Charlottesville this weekend (beginning Thursday night). I'll be giving a talk about strategic wargame design (Strategic Wargame Design Sat  20:00 (8PM)    J. Madison room).  If you care to talk with me (which is why I'll be there), I am about 6'6", unfortunately over 300 pounds, glasses, mustache, balding on top (or wearing a cap), and over 60. Can't miss me.

I will soon be offering my online audiovisual classes on my own as well as through Udemy. They'll cost more through Udemy. News at

Quote from a comment on BGG: "Unintuitive rules are rules that don't make sense given the game's setting, goals, and components. It has nothing to do with previous gaming experience (otherwise every new game that strays from a known formula would be unintuitive)."

Get some people together who almost never play board games, and try to teach them some light (but not family) board games. What "makes sense" to gamers often does NOT make sense to the non-gamers. "Make sense" depends heavily on previous experience.

The effect of prior experience is especially obvious in user interfaces in video games. Players expect things to work a certain way because that's what they're used to. There may be a more sensible way to do it, but if you write your game in that more sensible way you've created a barrier for those used to the old way of doing it.

"Intuitive" frequently ends up meaning "what people are used to", not "what is most natural or sensible." Which is why I won't use the word in game design context.

Let's go further. We might think that photographs and maps are "intuitive", but take an aborigine who has never seen such a thing (no longer likely, but it's been done in the past) and they cannot make sense out of either. It is too far beyond their experience. They can be taught to recognize photos and even use maps, but to them there's NOTHING "intuitive" about it.

"Intuitive" as used in games is still a synonym for "easy to use" or "easy to learn", but it comes from what people are already familiar with.

Now on the other hand, there are things that may be natural to humans. For example, when moving a mouse, it's a lot easier to point at something at the edge of a screen, where you cannot overshoot it, than if it's away from the edge. In this respect, buttons on the screen edges are "intuitive", if anything is.

I am @lewpuls on twitter. Some of these references from recent tweets may interest you:

Understanding Choice:… ( It is written primarily with math-style games, often solvable games (puzzles), in mind.

Some games require software. Others (e.g. most tabletop) don't use software, just "brainware". (Term courtesy of my wife.)

Contest: each competitor does something separately, without being able to affect the other competitors through gameplay. Compare results.

“Gamification” in practice amounts to scorification of *contests*, not use of actual gameplay techniques. There is no game. . .

An articulate and fascinating look into a budding game designer's head:… ( #gamedesign (

Jakob Nielsen's advice about on-screen instructions for mobile apps should apply to mobile games too:… ( #gamedesign (

KS: "A service that lets you customize your perfect miniature using our web UI and have it 3D printed just for you!"… (

Avoiding player elimination in multi-sided games: ( via @YouTube (

"Tech wars and talent shortages." How recruiting and working conditions have changed in the video game industry.… (

"Player count and scalability"… (

Learning from backer cancellations in Kickstarter… ( Anyone planning to run a KS should read Jamey's lessons.

Unusual, often artsy, dice:… ( And on KS,… (… (… (

Today is the 6th anniversary of Purple Pawn, a site for all kinds of non-electronic game news, BROAD coverage.… (

What makes my Game Design book unusual or unique: ( via @YouTube (

Sherlock Holmes: the Card Game, second edition… (

For those who have run their own studios this states the obvious, but not to newbies:… ( #gamedesign (

Diatribe against F2P games (with a couple of very interesting comparative videos by Nerd3 - beware, strong language):… (

Monday, February 17, 2014

Three kinds of games and game fans: Math, People, Story

Categorizing aspects of game design in groups of two or three frequently promotes critical thinking. Here's one attempt (via a short video) to categorize game players by the nature of the games they prefer.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Artisan, the Engineer, and the Mimic: Three kinds of game designers

I'm experimenting with use of video, from my youtube channel "Game Design". This was originally made for my online audiovisual course "Learning Game Design".  Blogger's YouTube search is defective, so I'll have to post the actual link:

Saturday, January 18, 2014

January 2014 Miscellany

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

In case you haven't seen a notice about this yet:

An anonymous survey about preferred topics for game- (usually game design-) related online classes

After writing a book about game design ("Game Design", McFarland, 2012), I've been spending a lot of time creating online audiovisual classes, as that seems to be where people want to go to learn.  This survey at Surveymonkey will guide where I go next.  (It has already helped me decide which talks to give at GenCon.)  The details are in the survey.

This survey will take you about five minutes unless you think a long time about the class topics.  Use this link:

Tom Vasel interviewed me for episode #27 of Boardgame University. Download the MP3 at I had no idea what he was going to ask me, so my answers are entirely off-the-cuff.

Corey Young @C_M_Young says on twitter, "BEST episode yet!"
Jeff Patino @osohombre says "and it was one of the most engaging BGUs!"
So I must have done something right.

Here's a little exercise for novice game designers:

Go to and pick a few movies, some with a good overall score, some with poor scores.  Rather than read the few "up front" review excerpts, read all of them for these games.  Notice how, almost always, there are professional reviewers who hate a movie with a good score, or those who like a movie with a bad score.  Only the most extreme movies get no really extreme score opposite the majority.

This is what it's like when you design a game.  You might think it's "the best game ever", but that doesn't matter; the majority of game players will NOT like your game, will NOT want to play it, and some will think it's an awful game.  That's the nature of creative effort.

What you need, of course, is for most people *in your target market* to like your game.  Even then, some won't, but if most do, you're in good shape . . .

Also remember that people often don't buy games because the games are good for them to play, but for other reasons.

Here's a strong indication that, despite the focus of many nuts-and-bolts wargamers on data - S&T magazine style - in the end it's about the game.  That indication is, we have lots of games about battles that we have NO CLUE about, such as Tours (Charles Martel and the Moors) and Catalaunian Fields ("Romans" against Attila).  And there's so many more we have next to no information about, such as Hastings.  But people still buy and play the games.

From, website of the author of the Dresden Files (which is very cinematic, quite unbelievable, and very entertaining).

"Jim goes by the moniker Longshot in a number of online locales. He came by this name in the early 1990's when he decided he would become a published author. Usually only 3 in 1000 who make such an attempt actually manage to become published; of those, only 1 in 10 make enough money to call it a living."

Probably those numbers are from pre-electronic publishing POD days.  When you had to sell to an actual publisher.  I think similar numbers may apply for game designers these days, which is why self-publishing is so common.

I don't know where Butcher got his numbers from, unfortunately.

Robert Heinlein’s Rules for Writers (which apply quite well to game designers)

First, you must write!
Second, you must submit what you write.
Third, you must never rewrite except to editorial prescription.
Fourth, you must continue doing this until you are successful.

Online book prices - mine, anyway - seem to change a lot over time, going both down and up.   (Amazon etc.)

One of the fears the author of a non-fiction book may have is that it will become dated, or worse, that he'll find himself disagreeing with his own work.  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, of course, but you don't want to feel that TOO much has changed.

At any rate, nearly two and a half years after I finished writing it, I find that my Game Design book has aged just fine.  I've thought of a lot more since then, but I don't disagree with what I wrote, when I have occasion to consult it

I have little interest in deck-building games because they have little to no "correspondence" to reality, - they're not models of anything, essentially abstract and mostly puzzle.  At least, that's absolutely true of Dominion, though I heard an interesting comment recently, that when you build a deck in Dominion then you're done, you don't do anything with what you've built, while with some other deck-building games you build the deck, then use it for another purpose.  Perhaps out of the hundreds of deck-building games, there are some that are models, though the entire deck-building structure is, to me, obviously abstract.

A comment on LinkedIn about my "Brief audio-visual game design class":

"Fantastic course, Dr. Pulsipher. I'm in school for Game Dev (which, of course, does involve programming), and while my last instructor is a veteran in the field, the textbook didn't emphasize the required aptitude for Game Design. This one nails it without sugarcoating it."
By Michael Thompson

As I now have a suitably cheap Android device I've been able to try the free Britannia application available on Google Play.  (I was unaware of during its development.) It's evidently a practice program that is far from finished. The computer opponent is an idiot, not surprisingly. I found it very difficult when using the Romans to invade to figure out how many Romans were in a particular area, and I also found that the Belgae don't submit. The Welsh went crazy and after their first turn the occupied only two areas. And I saw Brigantes attacking Picts and Picts attacking Hebrides 1 to 1. You also cannot choose the order of battles, the computer does that for you.

    My book-length audio visual course "Learning Game Design" now open.  $10 off coupon ($39 instead of $49): 30 day money-back guarantee.

    Audio-visual course Get a Job in the Video Game Industry, $15 (or use this coupon URL for 20% off):
30 day money-back guarantee.

    Brief, free audio-visual Introduction to Game Design course:  (I have had to change to an official charge of $9, but the link makes the course free again.)

    YouTube Game Design channel:

    New Sweep of History games community on google+

Friday, January 10, 2014

A survey about preferred topics for game- (usually game design-) related online classes

 A survey about preferred topics for game- (usually game design-) related online classes

After writing a book about game design ("Game Design", McFarland, 2012), I've been spending a lot of time creating online audiovisual classes, as that seems to be where people want to go to learn.  This survey at Surveymonkey will guide where I go next.  The details are in the survey.

This survey will take you about five minutes unless you think a long time about the class topics.  Use this link:

Lew Pulsipher

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Gosh, I supported ANOTHER Kickstarter!?

Another very interesting Kickstarter: "gripmats" that keep tiles, cards, and other game objects in place on tables.  Great idea.

(I ought to say that Mark Frazier of Designs In Creative Entertainment, LLC. (DICE), publisher of 18xx games, pointed me to this one.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is a “sweep of history” game?

What is a “sweep of history” game?

I just started a community on Google+ for "sweep of history" games, so it's reasonable to work out a rough definition “sweep of history game” (also called “fast forward history” games). Sweep of history games are large-scale games, especially in time where the game covers several centuries to more than 1000 years. They are also fairly large-scale geographically, covering regions varying in size from Great Britain, Iberia, Russia, and China up to the entire world. They are historical, so games such as Risk, Vinci, and Smallworld do not qualify because they are so abstracted that there is no history of those games.

Another aspect of sweep of history games is that they are virtually always for more than two players. I cannot think of a two player sweep of history game although they may exist. Typically they are for four players, especially the Britannia-like games, or even more than four as History of the World really needs six (or less desirably, five) to work well. Civilization is another game that requires around six to work properly.

Could a game about a fictional history qualify as a sweep of history game? I don't see why not if the history is sufficiently detailed and well known. So your typical 4X space game (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) may cover centuries and certainly covers a very large area but probably isn't a sweep of history game because there's very little history, albeit fictional, in the game. On the other hand, what about a game covering the 3,000 years of the Third Age of Tolkien's Middle Earth? I think it would be hard not to call that a sweep of history game. There is no such published game, but I did once devise a Britannia-like prototype of that era and played the game once solo. It turned out that not only are rights expensive, but the rights granted by Tolkien did not include the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, and much of the information about the Third Age is in the appendices. The movies cheat more or less and use that material anyway, nonetheless it is not part of the official license.

We can also add that some sweep of history games are primarily wargames, while others involve a strong civilization building component. The wargames originate in the ancient Near East (Ancient Conquest I) and in Great Britain (Britannia), while the civilization component comes from Civilization (Mediterranean world). Britannia certainly covers an era when there was very little civilization building and a lot of warfare. Ancient Conquest I covers an era where civilization was built up and sometimes torn down, but that's not depicted in the game: the game is almost entirely a wargame, right down to hexes and numbered factors on the pieces. Civilization on the other hand - the original boardgame Civilization - is much more about civilization building than it is about warfare although warfare can be involved. Because many sweep of history games are based on Britannia there tend to be more wargames than civilization building games.
Most sweep games are “war games” rather than battle games, that is, there’s an economic production component, and warfare is as much about the economy as about the forces immediately involved.  Battle games have an order of battle but no economic component.  Many sweep games also have an order of battle (appearance of new invaders, for example).  History of the World is unusual in that it only has an order of battle, with no economic component.

Sweep games are frequently regarded as “epic”, usually in the sense of national epic rather than personally epic, and in the sense of an epic (noun) rather than “an epic game” (adjective).  (I’ve discussed this aspect of games in my book “Game Design”, excerpted here on GameCareerGuide.)

These games are never going to be very popular in the current market because there is no avatar-like role for the player, nothing the player can literally or even figuratively point to and say "that's me". Many wargames, for example, use a marketing pitch that “you are the commander and you can change history.” There is no single commander in a sweep of history game because nobody lives that long, not even close. And the history changes slowly on that scale, not the way it can change drastically in a single battle. Furthermore, sweep of history games tend to require lots of players and lots of time. It's hard for many gamers to get four players together for one of these games, let alone more than four, and that's exacerbated by the time required. Britannia is a 4 to 5 hour game, and as much as seven or eight when people play it for the first time. History of the World is even longer. Civilization is at least as long as History of the World. I have devised sweep of history game prototypes that have been played by ordinary players in an hour and a half, and these may become more common in time, but they inevitably lose some of the epic sweep of a longer game when they only take an hour and a half.

Board wargames are essentially a Baby Boomer generation hobby and don't attract nearly as much attention nowadays as they did 30-40 years ago. That's another reason why sweep of history games aren't likely to be as popular as in the past, unless they incorporate more civilization building elements and less warfare elements.

What about computer games? Civilization the computer game is certainly a sweep of history game, at least when played against other people. The limitation of computer games is that a single player game really doesn't provide the same kind of opposition as a game with several humans participating because the computer opponent cannot duplicate the guile and unpredictability of a human. There's also the video game industry tradition that a computer opponent is intended to put up a decent fight and then lose. Also, a player can go back to his saved game and try again when playing single player and so effectively he cannot lose. Large-scale turn-based computer games, though, often resemble boardgames in many respects, and that's certainly true of the computer game Civilization.

Computer real-time strategy games are more like sports than games because to be really good at it you have to be able to perform 200 actions per minute and practice many hours a day - I'm talking about competing in something like StarCraft tournaments. In any case the Google+ community is likely to be largely about boardgames - and cardgames if anyone devises a sweep of history card game, which I have not yet seen. (I have actually designed but not played a card game version of Britannia. But cardgames will tend to abstract so much history out of a game, if only because there's no board and little or no maneuver, that I'm not sure they really qualify as sweep of history games. Who knows.

Is Diplomacy a sweep game?  No, primarily because it covers only a single war, whether it lasts five years or fifteen.

What about some of the Middle-earth Diplomacy variants?  Many are intended to depict only the War of the Ring, hence too short a period.  But one intended to depict a much longer period, a significant part of the Third Age, would qualify IF you accept a fictional history.

Many years ago I began to design games that combined war and peacetime activities that we would now call civilization-building - and neither uses dice.  One or two of those may see print next in 2015.  One is Germania, a game about survival: civilization-defending as well as building.  It’s about the German tribes that brought down the West Roman Empire, then had to survive the depredations of invaders from the east, south, and north.  Another is a game about the Italian maritime states in the era of the Crusades (just before the Renaissance began), when they came to dominate the Mediterranean through control of the far eastern trade to northern Europe.  Both games fit the sweep of history definition but are much different from any of the games I’ve mentioned above.

Summary of definition:
●    Boardgame or boardgame-like computer game
●    Covers several centuries to more than a thousand years of history
●    Covers fairly large geographical region
●    Virtually always for more than two players
●    Warfare and (sometimes) civilization-building
●    Tend to be long games, often epics in themselves  I am @lewpuls on twitter. 
Brief free introduction to game design audiovisual class ($9 if you don’t use this link):

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I supported a Kickstarter project!?


I expect that the new edition of Britannia (perhaps multiple versions) will show up on Kickstarter sooner or later, as the majority of publishers now use it.
I have not been a KS denizen in the past, not being cursed with the desire for Instant Gratification and not feeling a need to participate from the ground up.  However, I have just supported my first KS. This is a project to create d6s using 12-sided molds ("Doublesix Dice: Roll Better").  I need lots of dice at times for prototypes, and the unusual dice may help attract someone's interest.  I took the bulk deal for $25, which with the many unlocked stretch goals (it's more than 13 times oversubscribed) amounts to 70 dice of three colors.  Interestingly, the idea was patented long ago, but the patent has expired.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Quotes related to Game Design (But not specifically about it)

Quotes related to Game Design

(But not specifically about it)

 "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 gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

This is my guide to game design, but I do not design puzzles.  When you design a puzzle you may want to make it more complex, so that it will take longer to solve.


“Never use a long word where a short one will do.” - George Orwell, 1984.

George Orwell is talking about writing, but for game design this amounts to the same advice as in the first quotes, keep everything as simple as possible. Stephen King puts it another way: “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”


“You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” - Jack London, Call of the Wild

Many beginners think that ideas will just come to them, that success will just come to them.  No, it's more like how Jack London describes writing.


"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."
- Bertrand Russell.

I suppose it depends partly on personality, but I'd argue that if a game designer is absolutely certain that he is right no matter what other people tell him, he's almost certainly wrong.  If you’re full of doubts about your game, but playtesters from the right representative group like it, then you're in pretty good shape.


"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare."
- Japanese Proverb

Too many beginning designers wait for things to happen, they daydream. You have to DO something, not just dream about doing it.  Much like Jack London’s admonition above.


"Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish." - John Quincy Adams

Especially applicable in the Age of Instant Gratification.

"The greatest motivational act one person can do for another is to listen." - Roy E. Moody

If you're the designer in a team of game developers, take this to heart.  Everyone wants to feel that they contribute to the game, as well as to the software.  They want to know their ideas are seriously considered.


 “Complicated programs are far easier to write than straightforward programs.” - John Page. 

The same is true for games: but it's usually the straightforward ones that are really good.


"My thing is that most scripts aren't bad scripts, they're just not finished yet."  - Michael Arndt (scriptwriter for Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story III, etc., and initially for StarWars VII). 

The same can be said for a great many published games nowadays.


"A lot of people say, 'Well, I like a challenge.' I don't like challenges.  Life is tough enough without any challenges."
  - Jackie Gleason (a very successful actor and comedian, among other things, you might recall)

People don't want their entertainment to be frustrating these days.


"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." - Terry Pratchett (Diskworld)

Don’t worry too much about all the details, get a prototype together to play as soon as you can - it’s a first draft, not a final draft.


“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
   Senator Dan Moynihan

Reality is what counts, not what you think reality is.


"The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition." - Carl Sagan

Just because you want it or like it, doesn’t mean it will happen.


"If you want to write better songs, write more songs. If you write 20 songs, ten of them will be better than the other ten."  Martin Atkins (of Public Image Limited, Killing Joke, et al)

Not, *listen* to more songs (“play more games”), *write* more songs.  Design more games.  There’s no substitute.


"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."  - Henry Ford (cars)

Even less on what you intend(ed) to do.  Important especially for younger people who, these days, tend to confuse intention with action.  Intention alone counts for very little.

"The way to succeed is to double your failure rate." - Thomas Watson (founder of IBM)

In game design it’s often called “fail fast”: try what you think will work, figure out if it works, get rid of it if it doesn’t, and do this quickly so that you can move on to something else that might work. 


"A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow." - General George S. Patton

There’s little place for perfectionism in game design.  You’re never perfect, practically speaking, because even if you’re perfect for a moment, the tastes of your audience will change over time.  The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns applies: at some point, the time it takes to improve a game will not be worth the minuscule value of the improvement.


"If everybody's thinking the same thing, then nobody's thinking." - General George S. Patton

This especially applies to large teams of video game developers.  Beware of “groupthink”.  It’s a major reason why we see games released that are widely regarded as just awful.  What was the team thinking?


"I am Loki, of Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose."
- Loki, in The Avengers movie

Sounds like one of those "atriste" game designers to me.  You know, the guys who think they’re great artists, and that they’re gifting the world with their brilliance, and they’re sure they’re right . . . and so forth.

Maybe you can actually be that artiste someday, but not when you’re starting out.  You have to earn it.  Games are entertainment (even educational games, we hope).   Don’t lose sight of that.


Here are a few more:

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit." - Plutarch

 "A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."  - Douglas Adams

"You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." - Mark Twain

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." - John Wooden

"A goal is a dream with a deadline." - Napoleon Hill

" . . . Picasso told the story, which I can only paraphrase, that when art critics get together, they talk about light and color and form; when painters get together, they talk about where to buy cheap turpentine."
- Peter Perla

Keep firmly grounded, don't get lost in "meaningfulness" of games.

 “Beware of self-indulgence. The romance surrounding the writing profession carries several myths: that one must suffer in order to be creative; that one must be cantankerous and objectionable in order to be bright; that ego is paramount over skill; that one can rise to a level from which one can tell the reader to go to hell. These myths, if believed, can ruin you.

If you believe you can make a living as a writer, you already have enough ego.”

- David Brin (novelist)

The same applies to game designers.

"It is the motivation to pursue excellence, a work ethic that reflects the determination to solve problems, the attention to the smallest details, and the desire to be the very best that distinguishes students who make a difference in their given professions."  - Candice Dowd Barnes and Janet Filer

Game designers as well.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Online game design course now open

My book-length audio visual course "Learning Game Design" now open.  $10 off coupon ($39 instead of $49):
(Expires 28 Feb.)
30 day money-back guarantee.

I say book-length because, in number of words, it's longer than my game design book. There is upwards of 15 hours of material made for the course, plus another 11 or so of bonus material (most of it recordings of my talks at game conventions, "bonus" because it's already on my Website).  Many of the same topics are covered as in my game design book, though there are very significant differences.

 If you'd like to see the "what you'll discover" video/screencast, it's on youtube at:

A few of the 137 "lectures" can be viewed for free, at the class site.

Lew Pulsipher

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Consultants, Evaluators, and Agents

Not long ago someone wrote to me out of the blue and offered to pay me to act as a consultant to evaluate his tabletop game.  He’d read my book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish.”  He had been working on his game - I assume a tabletop game in the circumstances - for 20 years, and evidently felt that my advice would be worthwhile.  However, he was coming from somewhere else to Duke University for a visit, and that’s 70 miles from my location.

The game consultant or agent is in the same legal situation as a publisher, facing the possibility that someone will become litigious if the consultant/agent/publisher is associated with publication of a game that could in any way be misconstrued as similar to the game that was submitted to them.  One reaction to that is a release agreement which the designer must sign before the consultant/agent/publisher will look at the game.  This release agreement essentially says that even if the game is published later that is very close to the one that was submitted there is no legal liability.

That’s because even though (in United States law) game ideas cannot be copyrighted, there are many novice designers who will spend money anyway to start a lawsuit, even though they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding.  And there are lawyers willing to take someone’s money to do something even though they know they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding.  (All you need to do is look at the ridiculous “games” and game ideas that are patented (all available online) to recognize how many lawyers are willing to take advantage of “game designers”.)  Defending against that lawsuit costs money.


But is evaluation practical otherwise?

It’s relatively easy to tell that a game isn’t very good.  There are so many obvious ways to screw up that there are plenty of ways to identify huge flaws.  But once something is judged better than the obviously poor, it becomes far more difficult to recognize what’s exceptionally good.  You might think that publishers can do that, but if they could, they’d be making a lot more money than most of them make!  No, no one can tell, really.  (Heck, there’s enough disagreement even about games that have been in publication for quite a while.)

And if that’s true, a consultant or evaluator is of more limited use than you might have thought at first.

(I especially remember a teacher of game design - online - who said that student games would be graded on how much fun they were.  Ridiculous!  The teacher didn’t have the time or players to play all the games even once, quite apart from the great variation in what people think “fun” is (I won’t even use the word “fun” about a game, preferring “enjoyable”).  And the teacher was not a lifelong game player, had only recently started playing games: she was a programmer.)

My general advice about game evaluators is the same advice most people give about job head-hunters.  If a headhunter wants money up front, he’s probably not really legit, it’s more likely a scam.  Good headhunters are paid by the hiring company when they find someone who fulfills the company’s needs.  Similarly, a good agent (or evaluator, or marketer) will get his money as part of the successful licensing when your game is published.

Many “evaluators” offer to evaluate your game for a fee, and perhaps list it on some website that publishers will never look at.  Once again, I don’t recommend any evaluator who wants money before you are paid by a publisher.


As for consultants, my response was:

    I am not sure how much I talked about consultants in the book.  My usual statement is something like "you won't make enough with a tabletop game (barring fantastic luck) to make consultants, agents, or even lawyers worthwhile (unless you're completely 'at sea' about contracts and law)."
    I also say that even publishers have trouble recognizing good games (just as book publishers have trouble recognizing good books, sometimes).  So I cannot pretend to be able to tell you how good your game is.  Moreover, it's difficult to evaluate some games without playing experience, which requires both time and players.
    Furthermore, just as many publishers won't listen to any idea about a game without legal protection, I'd have to require you to sign an agreement that released me from any liability should I later publish/have published a game with any similarity to yours.   Not that I would, I have many dozens of games in various stages and rarely start a new one, but the legal protection has been shown to be necessary.
    That's also why I have the following statement on my Website:  "Disclaimer: occasionally people send me unsolicited ideas or concepts for games.  Be aware that when you do this you acknowledge that I may use your ideas in any way I wish without legal obligation.  (I'm unlikely to do this, but I may have the same idea already, and I have no desire to be sued by someone who doesn't realize that ideas are not protected by copyright law in any case.)"
    So I generally don't act as a consultant for a variety of reasons.
    Moreover, Duke is about two hours away from my home, a consultant has to charge for travel a well as "face time".
    So I'm trying to talk you out of the idea in a variety of ways.  It's more important to get a large variety of people to play the game, watch them, listen to them, than to talk to any "expert" about it.

Evidently I convinced him, as I did not hear from him again.

What about asking your friendly neighborhood game designer for advice about your game?  If a game is “out in the open”, e.g. at a game club, then you would hope that any observer who happened to see it would be unlikely to be sued.  If the meeting is a game designers’ meeting intended to enable designers to get advice from other designers, one would hope that any suspicion of “stealing” ideas would be gone.  Unfortunately, given the extremely litigious climate in the USA, and a court system where anyone willing to spend money can get a day in court even when their situation is hopeless, caution is necessary.


So why use an agent?  To approach Hasbro or some German publishers you must go through an agent. The publishers use agents to winnow out all the obviously bad games that the publisher would otherwise have to deal with.   (There are thousands of wannabe designers who think that if they slightly modify Monopoly or Blackjack or some other well-known game they’ve got a great idea.  A glance at patented games will show you lots of worthless ideas people come up with that they think are so valuable they spend $3,000-$10,000 patenting the idea.)  Last I knew there were about 300 designers who could approach Mike Gray of Hasbro directly, rather than through an agent - but you probably aren’t one of them.  So an agent can be necessary in some circumstances, though not most.

Literary agents are much more common than game agents - most fiction writers have an agent.  They function the same way in the book business as for games, saving the publisher from many books that otherwise hit the “slush pile”, manuscripts by unknown writers submitted to the publisher.  (Publishers hire someone from outside the company to read the slush pile; in many cases, the reader can tell a book isn’t suitable after reading a page or two.)  I may be out of date, but last I knew a literary agent tended to take 10% of what the author made.  Game agents are likely to take much, much more.

When I lived in England, knowing little about the publishing situation there (this was long before the World Wide Web, in the late 70s), I did use an agent to place my first game with H. P. Gibsons, which was a major game publisher at the time.  (They later were the original publisher of Britannia after Avalon Hill rejected it with “games of this era don’t sell”, but this was for Swords & Wizardry, a somewhat Stratego-like game.)  That cost me 50% of the proceeds, but in the circumstances it was worth it.  As it would be to get a game published by Hasbro. 

So for most beginning designers, evaluators, consultants, and agents are to be avoided.

Brief, free audio-visual Introduction to Game Design course:  (I have had to change to an official charge of $9, but the coupon code BriefFreeIntro makes the course free again.)

Audio-visual course Get a Job in the Video Game Industry, $15 (or use this coupon URL for 20% off): or use the coupon code: VideoGameJobs20%Off
30 day money-back guarantee.

YouTube Game Design channel:

Twitter: @lewpuls

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ruminations about Magical Numbers (and processes) in Card Games

Not long ago I wrote some ruminations about magical numbers and boardgames, ( and Steven Davis suggested I should talk about this in relation to card games, such as card hand size.  I’m not a person who plays standard card games, though I have played Old Maid, Canasta, Euchre, and even Poker in the distant past, and still may play Oh Hell once a year.  But I’ve never played Uno, let alone Hearts or Spades or Gin Rummy.  But lately I find myself designing games that use cards, though not the standard deck.

One of the benefits of cards is that there is a natural limit to play that does not exist in boardgames, that is, the exhaustion of the draw deck.  And card games naturally fall into relatively short sessions (one hand), though most traditional card games are played through several hands.

Hand size varies a lot in card games using the standard deck of cards.  One of the smallest hands is an Texas Hold ‘em (two cards) though more typical in poker is five cards.   Magic: the Gathering starts with seven.  I have made a brief list of hand size in some card games, and I’d judge that a hand size of five to seven cards is most common.  (I’m not counting games like Bridge and Old Maid where all the cards are dealt out.)

I like to design screwage games, which are pretty popular at the university game club I attend, and there I’ll start with somewhere between five and seven cards.  If I don’t have a strong feeling about where to start I’ll pick a larger number because that gives players more choices within the context of the usual card game limitation that there are typically fewer choices than in a boardgame.

When I design a boardgame that uses event cards I typically start players with five and see how it works out.  In one case, for a space wargame with three to five players, I reduced the number to four, three when there are five or more players, because the event cards had too strong an influence over the game.   Event cards are there for variety and uncertainty, not to dominate the game.  (I will write a separate piece about uses of event cards.)

The number of starting cards also depends on how many cards are available in the deck and on how many people typically play.  It doesn’t take much time to work out approximately how many rounds a game will take if players are drawing one card at a time and there are a given number of cards.  Multiply the hand size times the number of players, subtract that from the number of cards available, divide the result by the number of players to get the number of rounds.

Obviously, the more cards players start with, the more options they have.  The question may be at what point are there too many options for your target audience.  One way to broaden the appeal of a game is to reduce the number of decisions players have to make.  (Another way is to reduce the number of exceptions to the rules that people must keep in mind.)  So a hand of seven cards gives more options and decisions than a hand of five cards, but the question is, is it the right number of options and decisions for your game?

As a practical aspect as well, as the hand gets bigger people have more trouble coping with handling it, with keeping track of everything, even with being able to hold it in their hand so they can see all the cards.

In many games I don’t have a set hand size, or even a size limit.  A few players like to collect lots of cards to get a big hand; but they rarely win when they do this, because they’re expending actions to draw while other players are doing something potentially more productive.

I find that people so often forget to draw cards, especially in games where you occasionally use a free-to-play card that you don’t replace, that in some games I have a simple rule that if you find yourself with fewer than five cards at any time you draw back up to five immediately.

What about deck size? I tend to stick to the old standard governed by printing capabilities of 55 cards per deck (or 110, or 165 . . .).  A standard deck is 52, plus two jokers, plus a logo card.  (I understand there is more variation now in printing machinery.)  55 is a lot of cards for many purposes, such as Event Cards.  But a game that is purely cards often demands 110 cards or more, to provide sufficient variety and versatility.

I may as well make this observation about the card game process as well.  The paradigm for standard card games is that a players plays a card, and draws a card, each turn.  But which comes first? If the player draws the card afterward then he has time to think about how to use it and what to do next before his next turn.  If the player draws to start the turn then everyone waits while the player thinks about what to do with this new card.  On the other hand, if the player feels he has a poor set of cards then he’ll be happy to draw before he plays in hopes that he’ll draw something more satisfying.  Also it may be easier for players to remember to draw before playing than to remember to draw after playing, especially if playing one card can result in some additional actions.  But it’s so important for games to be shorter nowadays that I usually choose draw-after because that speeds up the game.

Of course, you can have games that use cards yet don’t follow the standard pattern of play one and draw one.  For example as I recall, in Fluxx the number you draw varies according to cards that people have played during the game.  In other games, drawing a card is one action among many possible actions, with a player taking two or three actions per turn, so he or she may draw two or three cards, or even none.