Thursday, April 27, 2017

Harmony and the Kludge in Game Design

[Originally appeared on]

Harmony and its opposite, the kludge, are fundamental to good game design. Games that lack harmony or have in-harmonious aspects have a handicap, though some succeed. Fortunately, most of the in-harmonious games are never published, or only self published. Players don't always recognize the in-harmony but its existence still affects the game. Designers may not recognize in-harmony if they think of the game as “My Baby.” But designers need to recognize it and get it out of the game.

So what is harmony? This is hard to pin down. It's like harmony in music, something you can hear and can recognize when harmony is not present. Here is a long quote from a 1997 lecture where this concept of harmony comes from:

Brian Moriarty:
It’s something you feel. How do you achieve this feeling that everything works together? Where do you get this harmony stuff? Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t come from design committees. It doesn’t come from focus groups or market surveys. It doesn’t come from cool technology or expensive marketing. And it never happens by accident or by luck. Games with harmony emerge from a fundamental note of clear intention.

I think Moriarty moves into the touchy-feely as he goes on, but you can look it up and see what he has to say. I'm using a simpler definition: “everything in the game feels as though it belongs there and contributes to the purpose and feeling of the game as a whole.” That's harmony. 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. The effect is not good for the intellectual and emotional impression.

Harmony is not the same thing as “elegance,” in fact I hesitate to use the word elegance because it's used by fans of certain kinds of tabletop games as a bludgeon to attack fans of other kinds tabletop games, who in turn react very negatively to the word. ”Elegant” is often used in much the same sense as “clever.” It's usually used in relation to abstract games or practically abstract games, games that are not models of some reality.

Harmony isn't cleverness, it’s something that affects the game as a whole. It's about appropriate fit. Now what's appropriate fit depends on what standards people are using, and those standards have changed and very much loosened over the years. Think about movies and TV shows over the years. What makes sense? The screen has always required a heavy “suspension of disbelief”, but those entertainments have consistently become less believable. People will accept all kinds of foolishness and huge plot-holes because the program is otherwise entertaining. and we’re getting the same thing in games.

I love Star Wars for the adventure, but when I first watched the original Star Wars I came out of the theater and said “this is dumb” and “that is a big plot-hole” but I (in the long run) accepted it because “it’s a movie.”

I still have SOME standards even for movies. The Starship Troopers movie (monsters in outer space) had us travel 80,000 light years and then forget that we can use tanks or helicopters! Monsters farted unguided missiles, yet the human fleet stayed tightly packed together in space to make itself a good target! It's just ludicrous. Yet it was a popular movie that begetted a couple sequels.

The same kind of loosening of standards of disbelief has happened in game design. People often treat games more as time killers or something mildly engaging to do while they socialize, than as actual entertainment or something worth *focusing* on. So they let things go by that would not have been accepted many years ago.

All right. What's the opposite of harmony? The Kludge. I borrow this term from software (“kludgy” is the adjective that's used.) A kludge is a tacked-on solution to a particular problem, or a solution that works but isn’t consistent with the rest of the program. In software though not in games it's also hard to understand and modify.

The Kludge is hard to define in game design because one man's kludge is another man's “nothing wrong with that.” How do you notice the kludges if the game is a model of something? The kludge will usually be inconsistent with the rest of the model, and may have nothing at all to do with what's being modeled. It may be there to fix some design flaw. When I play games I sometimes ask, why am I doing this particular thing? If the only answer I can find is “because it fixes a design flaw,” or “because the designer liked it,” or “I have no clue why it's here,” then it is probably a kludge.

What about kludges in abstract games? A kludge is less obvious because the game doesn’t represent anything (other than “a game”).  Abstracts are collections of mechanics, different from a model where the context should help people play the game, and the mechanics are expected to represent something that happens in a real world.  Nonetheless, in abstracts you can have a mechanic that doesn't fit with the rest, that doesn't mix well or doesn't seem to have a useful function, or clearly should've been replaced with something else, or simply should have been removed from the game.

Where do kludges come from? Often they are added to games to solve a problem that appeared in testing. Or perhaps the designer realized it would be a problem, and added it before the testing. Most of the time it's added to fix a demonstrated flaw, but at other times, it's in the game because the designer liked it, even though it doesn't fit with what he ended up with. (Remember, games often end up some “distance” from where the designer originally intended.) He or she isn't willing to take it out, isn't willing to “shoot their baby”. It could be the original idea itself, yet the game has developed in another direction. At that point, the designer should shoot the original, get it out of there, but it's emotionally hard for a designer to do.

Now some examples. These are from well-known, successful games, so that you’ll be able to relate to what I’m explaining. Games can succeed despite kludges; but the more you have, the less likely that the game will be good.

Catan, which used to be known as Settlers of Catan: both the robber and the monopoly cards. Keep in mind there’s not a lot of interaction in Catan between the players except for the trading, and there's little you can do to actually hinder another player after the initial setup.

I think the designer saw the difficulty of hindrance, and decided to add the Robber, which has *nothing* to do with the rest of the game. It doesn't fit at all in any way, shape, or form, but was added to provide a way for a player to hinder another player or at least have the potential to hinder other players. It has nothing to do with the settling model. If it represented mere bandits, a player’s soldiers would be able to do something about it, nor do bandits affect a budding newly-settled region the way they can an old, over-populated region.

Catan is supposed to be a game about trading, but I've seen many players who don't trade much. The monopoly card takes all of a particular resource from all the other players and puts them into the hand of the player who played the monopoly card. Then others are forced to trade if they want to get that resource, or wait a long time for more of that resource to be produced. Perhaps someone can come up with an explanation (not excuse) of how this would happen in the real world, I cannot. I think the designer added that card to make people trade, thinking of the groups where there's otherwise not much trading.

Catan is very popular and is a decent design that was in the right place at the right time, although technically speaking it has these kludges.

How about Risk, the US pre-2008 version, not the newer version based on missions? Some of those earlier versions had mission cards, but they didn't work well. In 2008 Risk was revised with missions to make it quite a different game. In old Risk, the territory cards are kludges in two senses. First, they were an artificial method, and by artificial I mean there's no correspondence with reality, of encouraging players to attack. You have to a conquer a territory to get a card; it was something to try to discourage turtling, which is nonetheless quite common in Risk.

Second, you turn in the cards for armies. That's there to bring the game to a conclusion, because you have an increasing number of armies that can get very large. The game is pretty long as is, but it's very long without increasing numbers of armies, which I have played a number of times. Instead of going up to 50 armies and more I used 4-6-8-4-6-8-4-6-8, but that makes it a very long game.

Two kludges to solve (or at least mitigate) a fundamental problem in the game: the game didn't naturally come to a conclusion. The game didn't naturally encourage people to attack. So the cards were added for those purposes.

Let’s consider the online video games World of Tanks and World of Warships. In big video games like these both harmony and the kludge become obscured. We could probably say that it's easier to make a harmonious game that's relatively small and focused rather than one quite big.

In World of Tanks the entire idea of 15 versus 15 randomly assigned teams is a kludge, in the sense that it has nothing to do with real warfare, but it's necessary to make the online game practical for a very large audience. In World of Warships the overall kludge is to play in a small area, usually amongst lots of islands, places where real world battleships and aircraft carriers virtually never went. In both games we have the bizarre mix of nationalities of equipment: German and French and English and Russian tanks or ships on the same side, and possibly 15 different tanks or 12 different ships on a team. It's also a necessary kludge but has nothing to do with reality. So both games break down as models of reality, and the kludges are obvious.

But in video games there are many conventions, normal modes of design, that are ridiculous kludges but necessary to make a game of it. (Consider the ammo and medpacks sitting all over the place in shooters, or even respawning itself - awful kludges.) When is a kludge no longer a kludge? When almost everyone accepts it as necessary, I guess.

Let's take a tabletop game such as Eclipse, which is ostensibly a Euro-fied 4X space game. It's almost a wargame, almost an exploration game, almost this, almost that, but ultimately unsatisfactory (for me). The major kludge in the game is that players are awarded hidden-value victory points for fighting, and fighting early on tends to give you higher value points because you draw a number of VP pieces and throw some back into the supply. You’re encouraged to fight repeatedly as you can draw again whenever you fight. I think this was added when the rest of the game resulted in little fighting, because people didn't gain enough from fighting. What they were likely to lose in assets was more than they were willing to risk for the possible gain. So the victory points were added well.

Rewards for fighting make no sense in the 4X model, or any reasonable model. Your surviving units gain experience when you fight, yes, but you lose a lot of ships and people, and that experience in the overall context should not be worth a lot (if any) of victory points. Military forces are a means to an end, not an end in itself. In a game I watched, about half of the overall points for five of the six players came from fighting, which is ridiculous. They were roughly equal to the points for holding the solar systems that had been discovered. In the long run what do you think is more important? Wars are economic, after all.

There are other flaws in the game. For example, the results of exploration are that space is mostly impassable. I think that's deliberate, to avoid and out-and-out wargame, but it doesn't fit one's idea of space as wide-open territory. That makes the extermination part of 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) ineffective even with the fighting points.

Again, how do you recognize a kludge? I’d say it's easier to find things you think are kludges in a game you don't like than ones you do like. Also we have the limitation that some designers of puzzle-like games, whether they’re single player video games or solo tabletop games or cooperative games, tend to add things to make the puzzle solution more difficult. I come in heavily on the side of this 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.” I think that’s an alternative definition of harmony. Given that motto, I see many of those puzzle-maker additions as kludges.

This is not something you can rigidly define or easily pin down, it requires self-critical thinking.  It doesn’t matter what specific mechanics you use, whether already very popular or brand new (the latter very rare). What matters is how they work together as a whole. Designers need to recognize the in-harmonious, and excise it!

My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Recent Screencasts (24 Apr 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.

What do I wish I'd been told when I started designing games?
I was asked this question in an interview. It doesn't much apply to me, I started more than 50 years ago, but I describe the advice I'd give people starting out today.

Nuts & Bolts: The Drafting Mechanic
Drafting (almost always, card drafting) is a common technique in games involving more than one side. The mechanic gives players a greater feeling of control, but takes time.

Foolish saying: "You get what you pay for"
"Conventional wisdom" sometimes isn't at all wise. Especially in games, but really in all facets of life, the saying "you get what you pay for" is foolish.

Elementary Statistics (Averages!) in Game Design
Game designers (tabletop or video) should understand elementary math, statistics, probability. So many people don't understand that "average" can have different meanings, that I've described the differences here.

 Is game design about software? Heck no!
Many schools, colleges, universities, whether deliberately or accidentally, equate “game design” with “game development”. The first is about how the game is supposed to work; the second is about creating game software. Why deliberately confuse the two?

My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

My online audiovisual courses about games design (and games in general) can be accessed at
Discounts available on my website,

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Triptych 9

Triptych 9

Three separate topics in one post

Why $200 for passing Go?
Game Components
Characterizing the Colors in Britannia

From a Quora answer to
Why there's the $200 reward in Monopoly for passing Go.

The $200 income increases the amount of money in play, in an otherwise virtually static economy (really a negative economy, since prices paid for properties and improvements go out of play). Whether that increases or decreases game length is uncertain. Properties have variable pricing (via auctions and inter-player interaction), but houses and hotels do not. A lack of additional funds might lead to “nibbling forever”, players collecting and paying small rents because none had enough money to buy many houses, and so no one would go bankrupt.

Only playtesting could tell us whether the game would be longer or shorter without the reward; I’d bet on longer.

Game Components

I'm apparently in a minority who believe that quality of components does not matter provided a minimum standard is met.  Chess is the same game whether you use a $100 set or a $5 set.  I may also be in a minority in thinking that particular design elements such as "no player elimination" are closely related to generational preferences rather than to any absolute standard of "game goodness", and consequently you cannot identify a great game by the nature of its individual design elements.

To make an analogy, a movie that is slickly professional may still be a poor movie, nor is slick professionalism a requirement for a movie to ultimately be judged as great.

Notice that formal reviewers often talk about a game's worth in terms of what's in the box. Isn't the gameplay far more important? If it's a dud game, does it matter if it has attractive bits?  Or is that a fall-back against disappointment with the gameplay?

E.g., of  Risk Game of Thrones: "That's a ton of stuff packed in there, and worth the price of admission.”
But the writer says nothing about gameplay.

Seriously, I should buy a game for the contents? I thought we PLAYED games, not just looked at them. Or maybe nowadays, some people do buy them just to look at them . . .

Characterizing the Colors in Britannia

Idle thought.  I tried to characterize the colors in Britannia (second edition) to match real-world styles of warfare.

Red - American: obvious, "in your face", smash 'em. Overwhelm at the point of attack.

Pre-WW II Germans thought the American army followed the style of American football of the time, roughly “four yards and a cloud of dust” in the T formation. Passing? Nah.

Blue - strategy of indirect approach (English), nibbling, just enough force for the job, requiring a "delicate hand"

Green - patient defense, almost guerrilla warfare, until ready to attack.  Chinese?

Yellow - conquest followed by recession and watchful care.   15th-16th century Spanish? 17th-18th century Russian?

My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

My online audiovisual courses about games design (and games in general) can be accessed at
Discounts available on my website,

Monday, March 27, 2017

“Not with a Bang but with a Whimper”

(From my answer to a Quora question.)

The West Roman empire “fell” “not with a bang but with a whimper”. Historians have arbitrarily chosen 476 A.D. as the date of the fall of the Empire because that’s when Odoacer deposed the last Emperor (who spent the rest of his life comfortably in a seaside villa). The West Roman empire decayed and faded away rather than going down in fire and blood. The two dates that would most stand out to inhabitants of the Empire would have been the two sacks of Rome in 410 and 455. But even then, the first sack was “polite”: Visigoth Alaric wanted to be appointed to high military position within the Empire and threatened Rome to exert leverage (unsuccessfully). The second sack, by the Vandals coming from North Africa by sea, might be a more appropriate date for the fall, as the Vandals dominated the Western Mediterranean. Some might choose the death of the “last Roman”, Flavius Aetius (who had put together the coalition that defeated Attila in France) in 454. But even later than that there were occasions when some recovery might have occurred, with better luck.

Notice I said “coalition”. By 451 the Visigoths had been living in southwest France for decades, and had conquered most of Iberia from the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves who had occupied it soon after the breakdown of the Rhine frontier in 406. (The Vandals were carried to North Africa by Roman ships to take part in an intra-Roman dispute, but ultimately took control of North Africa and many Mediterranean islands.) The Franks occupied northeastern Gaul and were also part of the coalition that defeated Attila. But the “barbarians” did not come to plunder, they came to take advantage of the benefits of Roman civilization, and relied on the Roman administration. They did not intend to destroy the Empire.

Many reasons have been posed for the decay of the Roman Empire, but many of them don’t make much sense because the same conditions prevailed in the East, yet the East Roman Empire lasted another thousand years. For example, the famous historian Gibbon blamed Christianity, but the East was more Christian than the West. Some blamed the lead in water pipes, but all of the Empire used the same kind of pipes. More likely, constant waves of disease depopulated the West, while the much more highly populated East (where most of the big cities were) managed to overcome this. The East also had geographical advantages in defense.

The Empire had been in serious trouble on and off since the crisis of the third century. I suspect people expected Rome to continue because it had always been there, from their point of view, even with barbarian invasions and succession problems such as blighted the third century. Think about this: the Romans beat the Carthaginians in the First Punic War 264–241 BC. From then to 455 is more than 700 years. Go back 700 years in our history and we are at 1300. That’s a very very long time.

So to return to the original question, I doubt that many people thought to themselves “the Empire has fallen”. If they did, it was probably at the sack of Rome in 455. Yet in Italy itself, the real devastation and destruction occurred during fighting between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths in the early sixth century. Even then, there was some prospect that Emperor Justinian of the East would be able to reestablish the Empire in the West, but that prospect was destroyed by devastating plagues that may have been worse than the Black Plague (often called the Justinianic Plagues). The Roman administration (by another name) may have persisted in Iberia until the conquest by the Muslims in the eighth century.

The Empire became a story of the good old days, the golden days, told by older folks to younger folks who had never encountered it. It just gradually faded away, yet the ideal remained even for the Frank Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor in the early ninth century, much to the disgust of “the” Emperor in Constantinople.

(One place where the absence of Rome was very obvious was in Britain after the Romans pulled out in 410. This is a major event in my historical game Britannia. Britain was the only place where Christianity disappeared along with the Roman administration, to be reintroduced from the continent and from Ireland via Scotland.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Forthcoming (with the usual caveats) Games

Someone on Board Game Designers Forum asked for a preview of my forthcoming wargames. So here it is.

Now, when these will be published, whether they will actually be published, is something I never count on until it has actually happened. I’ve experienced enough failures of intent to be careful. (For example, I was never paid for the original (1982) Dragon Rage, though it sold quite well, owing to circumstances far beyond my control and having nothing to do with board games. And Law & Chaos was at Mayfair for many years (I was paid an advance), then the people who bought it moved on to Catan Studios and I now have it in hand once again.)


Possibly as soon as late summer we’ll see Germania, which despite the “ia” title is not a Britannia -like game. It’s a game of (Germanic) tribal survival in the ruins of the West Roman empire, a combination of wargame and peace game with many Euroish characteristics, but without the fiddliness of huge numbers of bits currently in vogue. (It’s not a puzzle.) A key to a hybrid like this is that the best way to success is to be peaceful, but sometimes others will see that you’re successful and attack you. It has been played where the players never attacked each other directly, but it has also been played where the players constantly attacked each other and had a great time doing so. There are always indirect attacks, that is, invasions of non-Germanic peoples, controlled temporarily by one player or another via the play of cards or other considerations.

The only involvement of dice in the game is in famines and plagues, which are fairly common via event cards. In combat the players use battle cards, choosing secretly and adding the number on the battle card to the strength of the unit(s) in the fight.

Each player has six action points per turn which he can use to create new settlers, improve the land, play event cards, convert settlers to soldiers, and convert units to horse (cavalry). A consequence of using action points in a multi-sided game is that it’s difficult for any player to dominate, even if he has much stronger forces, because he can only move a maximum of three pieces in a turn in the action points system.

When I originally designed the game more than 10 years ago, (it was with another company for a very long time) I tallied the score only at the end of the game. But it makes more sense to tally the score at the end of each player’s turn because, if you play the game long enough, success becomes cyclical, and you might be at a downtime of your nation at the end of the game. You score for holding territories occupied by settlers, and also for improvements built on your territories (or even a town if you can swing it). So the game involves both survival and a simple civilization building aspect. There are only 20-some areas on the board so it can become quite crowded, with a maximum of five players. There is no player elimination because, if your nation is really at a nadir, you can take over one of the external invaders and become the Moors, or the Slavs, the Byzantines or Magyars, or even the Norse or Danes. I don’t recall now if anyone has ever won after taking over an invader, but I recall lots of mayhem caused by player-adopted invaders.

The game uses plastic figures, and can take 2 to 3 hours, or more if you’re like some testers who just kept playing so they could slaughter each other further! (But it’s not really a wargame . . .)

Sweep of History Game

Another game that might appear this summer is presently called Eurasia but may have a different title like Surge of Empires. Again despite the “ia” name it is not Britannia -like, but it is a game where you control a succession of empires on the supercontinent of Eurasia (with North Africa tadded). It is a game of the rise and fall of empires, so over the course of the game a player will control four or five empires, no more than two at a time. There is a card for each empire detailing location of appearance, location of scoring, number of starting armies, and special characteristic. In the standard game they appear more or less in historical order, though there’s an option to have them appear randomly.

This is a game for 2 to 6, though it may only include components for five.

For a long time - this game is many years old - the game was diceless, using a deterministic combat system which is included as an option. But I finally decided that in this particular game the deterministic system was too sterile, too pat, so I replaced it with a simple dice system: roll a die per army, highest sum wins, ties go to defender. Loser loses one army and must retreat. So in a 2 to 1 the two usually win - but not always.

Space Wargame

Instead of Eurasia I might have a two year old space wargame published by the same company. I love space wargames, and this one is, if I do say so myself, “quite elegant”. The result is a two player (or partners, which works very well) civil war for control of a star cluster.

This is a block game but without dice. Any number of blocks can be in a hex but only four can move in a turn. Movement is along wormhole/jump lines, or via hex, although hex movement is usually slower as most of the jump lines are longer than one hex. The blocks are numbered from 1 to 7 except for the leader, but the conflict is not hierarchical (as in Stratego). Instead you sum the strength of the units and the stronger force wins; the winner loses their weakest piece, the loser loses their strongest piece and must retreat. 20 blocks per side in the smaller version, more with partners.

The victory criteria lead to a back-and-forth game where players can threaten victory several times before there’s a conclusion. Some games can be quite quick but up to an hour is more likely. There are 11 valuable systems out of the 27 on the board; if you hold at least seven and your opponent cannot reduce you to less than seven in their next turn, you win. However, each player has a home system, and if you take the enemy home system and he cannot retake it in his next turn, you win. It happens that one player achieves one criterion, then the other achieves the other criterion, and the game continues.

It is very much a game of maneuver, that’s what excellent generalship is about. "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

The game has an entire set of technology rules that I really like, but they have rarely been tested; they’ll have to be an expansion, if they ever see the light. This is part of the simplification that is becoming more and more common in games: you design a game and then, even though it works fine as is, you try to find ways to make it smaller and shorter. In this case the removal of technology simplified, and made the package smaller.

It’s difficult to provide titles for space wargames, but this one may be called Crashing Suns: Civil War in the Hyades Cluster.


My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

My online audiovisual courses about games design (and games in general) can be accessed at
Discounts available on my website,

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Do’s and Don’ts of RPG Monster Design

[This is adapted and improved from screencasts available on my “Game Design” channel: - search for "monster"]

Fairly close to my heart is devising role-playing game monsters. What expertise do I have in this subject? In the 70s and 80s I made up a lot of monsters that were published in White Dwarf and Dragon magazines, as well as for my own campaign. I designed several monsters that are in the original Fiend Folio. The Princes of Elemental Evil are particularly well-known and even have their own entry in Wikipedia (archomental). I'm also relying in this piece on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon 2015 early on a Sunday morning with, among others, Wolfgang Bauer and Jeff Grubb up front.

Now I'm talking about monsters primarily for tabletop RPGs because there's a big difference between tabletop RPGs and video games. In video games, you have the boss mentality: boss monsters, really big, bad-ass, lone monsters that are very, very dangerous. I have never thought in those boss terms as I'll explain. I've always used a large number of monsters in a big climax led by some powerful leader. But the leader is not individually nearly as powerful as the character group. It's just that with all the other monsters around both the monsters and the leader collectively become very dangerous.

The big difference is that in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a save game to go back to. Bosses are designed with the idea that there's a save game to go back to. They are designed to kill you several times before you succeed. You can't play tabletop RPGs that way, even today with all the easy healing, because if you die you’re dead (more or less). So in video games the purpose of any monster can be to kill the characters the first several times, whereas in tabletop the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening their characters in some way, but not by actually killing the characters. Death may happen occasionally (just to keep everyone "honest"), but it can't happen frequently, or you're not going to have much of a campaign.

So video game bosses tend to be much tougher in relation to the adventuring party or individual than the monsters you meet at a climax in a tabletop RPG. This is a fundamental difference. Video gamers would be disappointed if almost every time they had a climax they win the first time. They'd feel cheated, that it was too easy. It's a matter of expectations is much as a game functionality.

Of course, there are many ways tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs and many of those are because of "save games" or lack of same. When you're making up monsters I think you should focus on the element of surprise, not just on making them super tough. Some game designers, including R. Knizia and S. Miyamoto ("We want to entertain people by surprising them ...") espouse this view. Likely Miyamoto would say that a major objective in any game is to surprise players, so perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players, and many of my suggestions derive from surprise. A specific surprise is only going to work once, but that's one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters, to provide new surprises.

So what do we look at? Here's a list, then I'll discuss each one:
The Unknown
One Unusual Characteristic (kind of a loop)
Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
Characteristics from two types combined into one
“Worse things than killing you”
Really Smart Enemies
Time Pressure
Relentless Hordes

Fear of the Unknown is the first one. A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with something they don't already know. The players will probably feel it's more fair and perhaps more true to life if they can derive some of the characteristics of the unknown monsters from past experience or from appearance. "It looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant." "With those big teeth, I bet it bites HARD."

Sometimes it'll be just one unusual characteristic. This may work particularly well if you take a well-known monster and give it a single surprising quirk. The obvious that comes to mind is regeneration. Regeneration is very powerful and should be used sparingly, but if you have an ordinary monster that regenerates, it will surprise the heck out of players, especially when a monster gets back up off the dungeon floor.

A single characteristic can be a focus of an unknown monster as well. Some refs won't want to go to extremes such as flying orcs or regenerating orcs, on the other hand, we don't mind the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.  I once made up a group of several kinds of lightning spitting monsters roughly analogous to military tanks (in my mind), although the players never realized that. They were big and they looked dangerous, and they were even without the lightning. The catlike ones were faster, sluglike ones really hard to kill, and so on. But it was lightning that set them apart and scared the players, in many encounters with them.

You can take two types of monsters and have them cooperate. Keep in mind the truism, there's hardly anything original under the sun; but combinations of things can provide new experiences, and that can surprise. We see this kind of cooperation whenever a monster type is said to normally employ a different monster type as guards. Of course, powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters and those weaker monsters can nonetheless provide good interference when our heroes show up.

We can also take the characteristics from two monster types and combine them into one. There's the classic owl bear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtle, and so forth. You can take normally unintelligent monsters and provide them with human intelligence or normally intelligent monsters that aren't intelligent now. Some combinations may not be very believable, and I like believability in games and try to avoid them, but in this the age of TV and movie silliness not too many people care. The standards have changed over the past half century, so you can do things that would've been laughed out of the building, so to speak, 50-60 years ago, which now most people shrug at and accept.

Another way to make monsters interesting is misdirection. Play on the expectations of the players: change the appearance of the monster, pretend to be another monster, change stats (although it's easy to overdo that so I try to avoid just changing the stats of an existing monster).

There are worse things than killing you. Monsters don't have to kill to be frightening. They can turn your bones to rubber. The rust monster eats equipment. Permanent level drain, even temporary can be bad. Characters can be captured - slavers are monsters too. Theft  - lots of monsters that nick your items such as leprechauns. There lots of things you can think of that are not death but will frighten the players. Threaten their characters' well-being, their possessions.

Foreshadowing is something you can do with any monster. It helps foster fear of the unknown.  You can provide clues signaling danger - tracks, even something as simple as noises. Maybe the players will find something in writing that indicates that some intelligent monster is around - somewhere.

Really smart enemies.  Face it, classic movie enemies are often stupid. This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists, and if you haven't read the Evil Overlord list I strongly recommend that you do so. . Relatively dim monsters can be cunning: the great boxer Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim brained man, but he was a cunning boxer. Consider though, you have to put your brain into the monster preparation. If you're not trying to be smart, how can the monsters be smart?

Time pressure is the classic videogame way to make monsters more dangerous. There's just not enough time to do all the characters want to do. But you can do this in tabletop games as well. Time stress leads to mistakes. “Watch out, it’s going to blow up!” or the enemy has diverted water into a room that's filling up with you trapped in it, or there's a fire spreading or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it. There are all kinds of ways to implement time pressure even if you're playing strictly on a turn basis. You know there only so many turns before something happens, you're still under pressure.

Positioning is another thing you can do with any monster. The classic is that you have a balcony that protects otherwise vulnerable archers because they're up there and you're down here on the floor or on the ground. Simple barricades, very low ceilings with/for short monsters: you're going after Duergar and they've kept their ceilings low so that humans have to bend down and are much less effective in every way, especially in a fight. Burrows of monsters can be hard to move around in. Water barriers can make a big difference. You can think of lots of ways to do this, but you have to think of it to make it happen.

You can have societies or factions or groups where the group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts. I've often found that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster, especially if they're subordinate to a leader that organizes them, a commander or "mastermind."

The last one is relentless hordes. Sheer numbers can be terrifying even if the monsters are individually weak. The Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition "minions" rule is quite brilliantly simple. Any damage kills a minion, but you can have lots of them and they're easy to keep track of (tabletop) because either they're doing fine or they're dead. Relentless hordes are the opposite of the videogame boss syndrome where an often-lone monster is super tough, but try it, you may find it interesting.


I have talked about the Do's and not the Don'ts, now let's look at the other side. The general principle is, give the players a chance, don't spring something on them. Don't rely on them having to die to find out something. (Some people have given a name to that particular characteristic but I don't recall what it is.)  You don't ever want to force the players to die to learn something. I'm thinking in terms of a large set of players of many different attitudes, and trying not to really piss off any of the subgroups.

So, no "invulnerable to everything but X," though that's not so bad IF players know about it ahead of time. For example, we know about iron golem invulnerabilities in the older versions of D&D, which is to say virtually nothing hurts but +3 or greater weapons, and so we have time to prepare or avoid. We don't always manage to do that, but we've got the chance. At least that's what counts.

Another is sudden, unwarned-about death as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the carnivorous bunny kills in one attack. (Yes, "Tim" warned them, but it was not a believable monster so the warning had no effect.)

Another no-no: take an innocuous looking thing and make it a super monster, which turns out to be (again) like the Carnivorous Rabbit from Monty Python's Holy Grail. You may think that's funny, but serious players won't think that's funny when they're the victims. (As with everything else, "it depends".)

The golden rule applies. In fact, both golden rules, the general Golden Rule and the golden rule of RPGs. The general Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is pretty good. Ask yourself how you'd feel if such-and-such happened. The RPG golden rule is, "what's good for the players is good for the monsters and vice versa," that is, if the monsters can do something wild or drastic shouldn’t the players also have a chance to do it? And if the players can do something, shouldn't the monsters be able to as well? Think about it. Try to be at least halfway sensible and always put yourself in the shoes of the players and ask yourself how you would react if this happened to you.

Someone sufficiently steeped in the myriads of RPG rules published since 1974 could probably write a book (with many examples) about monster design. But this is enough to provide a guide for the inexperienced.

Lew Pulsipher

Friday, March 03, 2017

Recent screencasts (videos_

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.

Nuts & Bolts: How a game can derive from a bit of another?
It's not unusual for a game to use a system that's been successful in another game. But sometimes one game grows out of a small bit of another.

Constraints in games from a player viewpoint (two parts)
Though contemporary gamers (especially video gamers) tend to dislike constraints, practically speaking games ARE merely sets of constraints. Properly specified constraints can make the game especially interesting. for the player(s).

Digital Game Pricing (2 parts)
Some people suppose that there's a "solution" to (over)saturation of the downloadable game market. There are lots of schemes, but I don't see any solutions in this detailed examination.

RPGs: Stifling Creativity?
It seems too many DMs are guilty of letting players push them around, resulting in a waste of time while a player tries to convince the MD that such-and-such wildly unlikely occurrence should be assigned a decent chance of happening. When you enforce the game rules (and physics) you simply the game and keep it moving along, you aren't stifling creativity.

Yes, the dead-kobold wielder actually said "You're stifling my creativity." Poppycock!

Practical vs Reality
Game design is a series of compromises, and major compromises can occur when reality and what's practical in a game clash. Some "practical decisions" result in behavior that has next to nothing to do with reality.

My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

RapierCon and Prezcon 2017

Odd how the focus of game development can move quickly from one game to another. I don’t try to force testers to play any particular game. I bring a half dozen or more games to any game session or convention, and while I may mention first the one I am most interested in playing, I give players a choice.

Just before RapierCon (Jacksonville FL) I had played Rex Anglorum (about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Dark Ages Britain) several times solo. But for Rapier, which allows you to schedule a game for a articular block, I chose four: freeform (Intro) Brit, Epic Historical Brit, Doomfleets, and Conquer Britannia. In the end, only Doomfleets was played, twice, with the maximum five players each time, and players said they really liked it.

I created Doomfleets to remove many of the constraints that some players (especially Scott Pfeiffer) dislike in Second Edition (FFG) Britannia. And as it had been played - four times solo, then once by others - I’ve compressed it more and more into a shorter, more chaotic game.  The same thing happened after two games at Rapier, as I reduced the standard game from 10 to 7 turns, and the short game from 6 to 5.

At PrezCon, with so many official tournament heats and semis, it’s pretty hard to get several people together for two-three hours to play something like Doomfleets, or even Britannia prototypes. But at Rapier, I’d hauled out my very old (35+ years) two player galactic space wargame to try to remedy what I saw as a problem. It had always been a perfect-information game. I think I must have had chess in mind when I originated it, down to having 16 pieces on a side. But when I last worked with it, maybe 8 years before, I’d feared that it was a solvable game, and that the “solution” might involve the first-mover always winning. (In fact, there are 93 spaces, and unusual movement rules, so it’s probably more complex than checkers, which has not formally been solved though it has been solved by brute force.) My solution was to use blocks to hide the identity of pieces (though not the color, important for movement), and I’d made a new set, but had not tried it.

So at Rapier (or maybe at home?) I tried it on half a board, and it worked very well but needed a little more room. At PrezCon I put it on “my” table and persuaded some gents to play. Four games took about half an hour each including teaching time (the game is quite simple). I also showed it to a publisher, and despite some adventure (one of them doesn’t like having to choose his setup, even though the setup is part of the gameplay) the simplicity and short length were very attractive. But they asked about three players, and about four (which would only work in partnership, I don’t believe in four player competitive block games, too easy to see opposing identities). So Jim Jordan and I worked out strengths for the partners game (down to 7 pieces per player). And now I’m making more pieces.

I decided only at the last minute to take my co-operative space wargame to PrezCon.  I’d hosted a few four and five player games some months before, but wasn’t sure how my latest changes would work out.  In the end, Jim Jordan and I played it four times (working from more than 2 hours down to less than 90 minutes). It was a rarity, me playing on of my own game after the initial solo play, and I enjoyed it. Fundamentally, I strongly prefer good co-op games, hence D&D where you have human opposition. Programmed opposition often leads to the game being a puzzle that can be solved, e.g. Pandemic or Shadows Over Camelot. But casting the co-op as a wargame, complete with significant chance (especially, dice resolution of battles) makes a big difference. It’s a longer game, with more variation, but you’d expect that from a wargame. It worked much as co-ops are supposed to work: we got better, were stomped in first game, barely forced into a draw in second, won third (barely), handily won fourth. We didn’t get to the point of escalating the difficulty (escalation is remarkably easy to do, you just increase one number). Definitely a success at this point, but needs a lot more play, of course (total of only nine so far).

Never a sniff of Rex Anglorum at either con. Never a sniff of the Britannia 3rd edition games at PrezCon, either.I had other games with higher priorities.

I needed some spaceship pieces to replace one of the sets I was using in Doomfleets. (Different shapes for each of four species a player controls.) I couldn’t find my plastic rocket ships (look like V2s). But I stumbled upon Star Trek Risk in the auction store at PrezCon, and was very pleased - and can replace two of the piece sets. I also bought Risk Halo and Clash of Cultures for the pieces.

Jonathan Hagmaier is a recent addition to the Britannia (and History of the World) players at PrezCon. Old enough to have a daughter in college, but not nearly as old as I am, he’s full of cheerful enthusiasm, though occasionally reminiscent of the notorious Mark Smith. This year he lost a very close Britannia final to Rick Kirchner (the most laid-back man I know), with Mark (the least laid-back) a close third. Jon arranged for the participants, plus the GM Jim Jordan, plus myself, to receive a pint glass etched with part of the Britannia cover! Thanks!

People asked me how 3rd edition Brit is going. I could only say, the three games are pretty much settled, but lots of testing for balance is required (the curse of highly asymmetrical 3 and 4 player games). And right now I’m focusing on other things, unfortunately.

PrezCon seemed less crowded than usual, but Justin has been trying to alleviate crowding for some time. The Britannia tournament had two boards in each of two heats (a bit low), and Robo-Rally (my roommate’s favorite) participation was way down. There were 50 in Smallworld, however.

I had it from Justin Thompson himself that more people were at PrezCon than anytime before, which would mean somewhere around 700. Rapier, by the way, which switched from summer to February a couple years ago, had 150; they don’t want more than 200 because the hotel won’t accommodate more.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Two+ Weeks Away at WBC and GenCon 2016

I wrote most of this last year, not long after returning from these two conventions. But as you see, I didn’t finish it until now. When I say “this year”below, I usually mean 2016, and “next year” is 2017. Because the conventions were on successive weeks (unlike 2017) I was able to go to WBC, then to my sister’s, then to GenCon, then to my brother’s, and home - more than 2,000 miles.

Going away for an extended period is, incidentally, a way to get rid of some unproductive habits.


WBC was at a new venue in a new location this year, a ski resort in Seven Springs Pennsylvania. In fact the resort is the town, there is no town of Seven Springs. Someone purchased a lot of land and set up a resort in the middle of nowhere, more or less, and takes advantage of the monopoly pricing that goes along with that. I know there were many people who had reservations about the new location, including me. As it turned out, the convention is very spread out - I overheard one person say his hotel room was over 1000 paces from the open gaming area at the other end of the complex - but the facilities are also much newer, and much more interesting to look at, then at the Lancaster Host where the convention has been for some years. (As the Britannia GM, Jim Jordan, put it: "Seven Springs is a really nice place and the game spaces were terrific compared to those we’ve had in the past."

Housing and food were very expensive (compared with Lancaster) owing to the monopoly nature of the location. Because the location in Lancaster is a tourist area, there were lots of hotels and restaurants short distances from the convention. At Lancaster I used to camp - a campground is only 400 yards from the Host, with a river running by and only cornfields on the other side of the river. One year I waited too long to reserve, and I'm getting older, so more recently I stayed in a decent (and cheap) Knights Inn a mile away. Nothing like that in Seven Springs!

My early impression was this: Yes, some things will likely be improved next year. But some things cannot change: the fundamental situation is that you're in the middle of NOwhere, and subject to a monopoly, with all the potential for slackness that a monopoly often entails.

The resort did try harder, evidently feeling a need to host conventions in the summertime because it doesn't get many people coming to the resort when skiing is not available. While I was scouting out the convention on the first day I was there (first Sunday) I discovered that part of the area where wargames were being played was not air-conditioned. I didn't visit there again, but I'm told that the resort put nine portable air conditioners into the area the next day.

There are other leisure activities available at the resort such as bowling, waterslides, zip lines, etc. But these are not cheap, the best deal being $30 a day to use any or all of them.

The nearest gas station is at least 9 miles away, and only one hotel slightly nearer than that. But I suspect more people will stay in that more-distant area next year than this year. My roommate and I were in four-story wooden buildings for skiers. (No elevator in sight, but if you're fit enough to ski then hauling baggage up three flights of stairs won't bother you.) While the literature said we'd be within a mile of the convention center, that was as the crow flies (or as the skier skis), driving it was over three and half miles one way. No ice, not even shampoo - but 6 bars of soap!

When you're already driving 3 1/2 miles, 9 miles doesn't sound so bad. I encountered someone at midweek who came up just for a day and night, and he had been told that the resort hotel, despite having 10 floors and something like 70 rooms per floor, was full.

Given the statistics (1 of 4 Americans over 60 is diabetic), many people at WBC must be diabetic.  But the food on offer did not feel accommodating. Then again, they're geared for skiers, not lots of older folks.

With the uncertainty and "exclusivity" of the venue, you'd expect attendance to be down. Yet it seemed to me that there were about as many attendees as in previous years. For my Thursday evening talk I had about as many people as I would normally expect at that time. The Britannia tournament actually had more unique individual players than the preceding year (35). But I overheard GM's of other tournaments asking one another for help in voting (to get approval next year) because their attendance was so down, and I was told of another tournament that had something like 50 instead of 100 participants. Someone at my talk, sounding as though he had certain information, said the attendance was down.

So it has proved:  “the overall paid headcount was down 22% from 2015 totals, attendees arrived earlier and stayed longer in the nine-day conference that no longer was split between pre-con and WBC week activities. 25 events drew triple-digit participation - up one from 2015 - as the average tournament field declined by only .7 player from 59.6 to 58.9 and 14 returning events actually posted their largest fields of the past decade. 152 of the scheduled 154 events achieved tournament status with fields ranging from a minimum of eight to 288 players for Splendor!” (Attendance in the past exceeded 1,500.)

As is typical of boardgame conventions such as WBC, it's a rarity to see a black person amongst the players. Lots of women and youngsters, though. As always, WBC is very family-friendly. The problem with family friendly is bawling kids (3 weeks old in one case!).

As many readers know, I do not play my own games once published. That's because I design games for other people, not for myself. But also my favorite game is the game of designing games, and playing my own published game rarely advances my game design. (I do play variations of my published games when I'm considering revision for a new edition, of course.)

At WBC this year I broke my streak, playing in the third heat of the Britannia tournament so that two other people could play (including the GM, who played twice to make up the numbers, and who had not been able to play in the first two rounds). I managed to win as green, but later announced my Retirement Undefeated rather than playing in the semi final! Mission accomplished.

I have never claimed to be a top class Britannia player. And some people would say that game designers are rarely very good at playing their own games.

More than 10 years ago, when I was just peeking back into the hobby I'd ignored for 20+ years, Brian Carr told me about some of the remarkable people who played Britanna, even though it had been out of print for some years. There are still remarkable people playing, and I once again enjoyed a "traditional" dinner with them at WBC.

The somewhat out-of-the-way vendors area at WBC was reasonably populated, though my friends from "Against the Odds" magazine didn't come citing the costs, and Worthington Publishing didn't come because one of their daughters was getting married. Still, GMT was there (and they're not at GenCon), Academy Games, Lost Battalion, and a variety of other vendors. One small publishing company told me he earned more in sales from Friday at WBC than he did all last year at GenCon. I bought the usual bits such as stands for cardboard pieces, a bag of unusually shaped blocks (I already have lots of normally shaped blocks), and even a counter sheet to make some counters for "free-form Britannia in outer space", which I'd conceived at the convention.


There are higher proportions of women and  minorities at a convention as you add other kinds of games such as RPGs and CCGs, and story-games of all types, along with other geek hobbies such as film and comics.  GenCon seemed more crowded and yet more spread out (they added the indoor football (Colts) stadium). But it turned out that attendance was about the same as the previous year, about 61,000 unique individuals.

I don’t go to conventions to play games (though occasionally it happens). I figure I can play games a lot closer to home! I go to talk with people, especially game (and book) publishers. I did play four games this time, all of them my designs.

So I arranged, ahead of GenCon, to discuss a few of my games with publishers. Generally one makes an appointment, turns up at the booth (or other agreed place) at the agreed time, usually with a prototype, and you talk. Occasionally you might play the game with them, if it’s fairly short.

Where do these prearranged discussions take place? Sometimes we leave the enormous exhibit hall (which is crowded, rather loud, and rarely private) for an adjoining game hall, sitting at an empty table. I’ve even sat on the carpeted floor in the concourse outside the exhibit hall to show a game to a publisher. Occasionally a publisher has set up a (roofless) enclosed space as part of their booth, and the discussion takes place there. Or it may be at a table within a booth that’s open to the rest of the exhibit hall, so that we can actually play the game.

I don't attend the standard auction at either convention but I do look at the auction store, trying to find cheap sources of pieces. I couldn't find any copies of the boardgame Exalted (lots of Mediterranean galleys) but I did buy a copy of Risk Godstorm at WBC. (In case you haven't heard of it, and auction store involves people registering games with three prices which depend on the time of day, and these games are laid out on tables through which potential buyers circulate. Someone can buy at the current price or wait until later and hope that the game will still be available at a lower price.)

As you may know, GenCon applied "diversity" principles (that is, reverse immoral discrimination, not better than any other kind of immoral discrimination) to choose the Industry Insiders this year, with the result that I only recognized a couple of names. Add to that the problem that the Insider panels are added to the event list long after people have signed up for courses. When you find you've already signed up for something in the time slot, it's hard to get out of that one so you can sign up for another (there ought to be a single button to do that).

But this year I found I was sufficiently busy that I attended none of the seminars I'd signed up for, and only three altogether. One was really useful, one good, one a bust. None were Insider panels, for the second year in a row.

GenCon also made a subtle change that reduced free seminar attendance (most are free). They did not list, in the convention catalog distributed on site, the events that were already full. I can understand this for paying events, but for free events such as seminars, it was a mistake. People often attend seminars when they have a non-busy interval - that’s how I attended the three I made it to - and look in the catalog for what's available. The theoretically full seminars weren't there. Yet only perhaps a third of the people who sign up for a free seminar actually attend, and without the attendance of the browsers, overall attendance was down significantly.

I was told the smartphone app did list the theoretically full free ones, but many people rely on the catalog.

My not-officially-full seminar had twice the actual attendance of my two that were officially full.

When possible I like to hang out at one publisher’s booth during the day, to rest and to leave stuff I don’t want to carry around all the time. That didn’t happen at WBC this year, but at GenCon it was the booth of my book publisher, McFarland. There I met Karl-Heinz Roseman, who like Lisa Camp before him is a “good guy” interesting to talk with. He was especially busy this year, it seemed. My book sold out once again - does every year, a game design book at a big game convention?  For some reason McFarland doesn’t “get it” and send more copies the next year . . .

I didn't see a single hex-and-counter wargame at GenCon.  It's a story convention, a geek convention, only partly a game convention.


I'm not planning to attend GenCon this year.  This is a combination of things. The two conventions are two weeks apart, and I prefer WBC.  It's more relaxed, and I know a lot more of the people and have a better chance of getting games playtested.  I'm afraid the 50th Anniversary of GenCon may make it more of a ratrace/zoo than it normally is. I'm also put off by the immoral reverse discrimination being used to select the Industry Insiders, though it doesn't seem to affect the rest of the convention. I used to go to some Insider panels, but the past two years I've attended none. I also begin to suspect that game designers and designs get lost in the crowd at GenCon, so I'm going to try to approach publishers separately.

My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Games as Art (with a capital A)?

To me, games are models of something, not a medium for conveying "meaning" and "significance."  If, say, the model is history, then the players may learn history (a form of meaning).  And they can learn a variety of other things from games.  But this is usually a byproduct of the interest in the game, not the purpose of the game.

My usual response to questions about games as art is, of course games are art (though not Art) - but most players don't care.

Perhaps "Artists" create Art largely for themselves, so that we (consumers) can think about something "meaningful" or "significant".  I create games for other people.  In most cases, the ultimate test is whether people like to play the game.  If I can make a four to five hour game that people willingly play more than *five hundred* times (I have), then I've certainly succeeded.

Ian Bogost is quoted as saying, "Art is about changing the world; entertainment is about leisure."   In that sense, virtually no games are art, they are entertainment, and in a short definition I would not try to reflect the (rare) possibilities for Art.

Big video games seem to be designed by committee, with all the problems of committees.   In most cases, the person listed as "designer" has no more than (say) 25% influence on the result, the rest coming from the many other people involved (up to and including the publisher).  Small video games offer a higher percentage, and tabletop games enable 80% to nearly 100%.

In cases where the designer can create the prototypes himself (tabletop games, simple video games), there is no formal writing involved other than to write the rules (tabletop).   Yes, most designers write notes to begin with, and those notes guide the creation of prototypes, but the prototypes are the "meaning", not the writing.

Games existed long before they became software.   Long descriptions of a game - game design documents - are only required as part of a large software project, and are not inherently necessary to creation of a game.  The game must speak for itself, the descriptions do not.

Individuals can motivate themselves to create Art, not Product, when making their own game; but most people on a large video game project are not making *their* game, they're being paid to make someone else's game, so it's not surprising that Art doesn't come into their calculations.  And when the entire team collectively "designs" the game, almost inevitably there is no thought about Art, as no one really feels authorship.

(Written in 2011 - but just as true today.)

 My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Stories in Games (again)

In a 2011 survey published by Josiah Lebowitz and Chris Klug, people who identified themselves as "gamers" were asked to provide the three most important factors when determining whether or not to purchase a game. The most popular response? 52% of all respondents included "story" as one of the three most important factors. The second most popular determining factor was "gameplay mechanics", ranking in at 42%. Genre came in third at 37%.

Let's differentiate between narrative - an account of what happens, which is in every game ever played - and story, something with characters, plot, conflict, setting, point of view, and climax/denoument that is imposed on or part of the game, coming from the designers/developers.

Every game has narrative, even abstract ones.  Someone can tell you the "story" (narrative) of a chess game they played.  Such narratives may not be interesting to anyone but themselves and their friends, because it lacks some (many?) of the elements of professional stories.

"Story" in the above sense is primarily used to help sell/market a game.  When players actually play, most are interested in the play of the game.

Stories wear out.  You finish the story, you're finished with the game.  Games, if they're really good, don't wear out, there's something new each time that keeps players coming back (much more common with tabletop games than video games).  Much of that newness comes from the unpredictability and boundless creativity of human opposition.

Commenters on a tweet bout this pointed out that some games (e.g. Once Upon a Time, Betrayal at House on the Hill) have many stories built in. I don't know OUaT, but in Betrayal the "stories" are so simple they're more alternate narratives.  Another said "Timeless stories don't wear out." True for Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but even those you probably won't revisit more than once a year, probably much less.

Puzzles in "games" wear out just as stories do, once you've solved the puzzle(s).

For that reason, during development, when there's a conflict between the story and the gameplay, gameplay usually wins out. Which makes it hard for a game to have a coherent professional story.

An "atmosphere" is the trappings of a story without the content.
Atmosphere doesn't alter how the game plays, whereas story ought to.
You can add an atmosphere to a game late in the day.  Story has to be built in.

But atmosphere can be used to sell the game, it doesn't really need to have a coherent professional story.  And as John Carmack (Doom and many other games) said, story in a video game is like story in pornography, an excuse to get to the action.

Many game devs are frustrated film-makers or novelists who want to tell a story.  But in the main, games - other than RPGs and expensive video games, perhaps - are poor mediums for story-telling.  It's like using a spreadsheet to do word processing.  You can do it, but it's very inefficient, and limited.

Monday, January 09, 2017

My recent screencasts on YouTube

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

 Special Powers Card Games (SPCG)
Special Powers Card Games (Magic:the Gathering, Munchkin, many others) is a category that attracts many aspiring designers. But designers should avoid CCGs, and look at other kinds of SPCG.

 Charlemagne and "Yomi"
This is about two different and conrasting game playing styles. I use Charlemagne to represent "minimax" and "yomi" is a Japanese word adopted by David Sirlin to represent those who try to read the intentions and anticipate their opponents.

 The Demise of "Favorite" Games
When I taught video game design classes I asked students about their favorite games. Turned out, many of them had no favorites, or could only pick the game they were currently playing. How different from many years ago.  Here's why, which has a lot to do with changes in the nature of games and how people play them.

 Why is it so hard to persuade people to playtest prototypes?
I've just added this video to my online course "Playtesting: the Heart of Game Design" (about 6.5 hours). Discount URL:
This is by far the most comprehensive discussion of game playtesting in the world, to my knowledge.  Converted to words, it's the size of a small novel, in 64 parts, including examples of playtesting notes I've taken over the years.

 Flexibility in Games
A seldom-discussed aspect of games - especially tabletop games - is their flexibility. Can the game be played to varying lengths, by varying numbers of players? Can players join in after the game has begun?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Are you designing a game, or throwing one together? : You can’t design a game as though you were playing a video game

(First appeared on

This is a vital topic in game design: are you designing a game or you throwing one together? Yes, creativity is part of game design, but it only amounts to about 10% of the whole. The rest is more or less engineering: you identify problems and propose solutions, implement the solutions, test the results of those solutions, and so on. Scientific method is involved in your testing, and engineering is involved in your solutions. Occasionally inspiration and creativity are involved.

Just Say No to Guessing

What game design definitely is not, or at least should not be, is trial and error. I'm using the meaning that was prevalent when I was young: guessing what might work, and then checking to see if it does. I now call it "guess and check", because there seems to be a notion today that trial and error is a form of scientific method. No, it's guessing. Game design is not a guessing game (though as in all other creative or engineering endeavors, sometimes you get a lucky guess).

Let me use an example from a beginning programming class to illustrate. While I was a college teacher I substituted for a teacher who was ill, in a programming class for beginners. Many the people were not going to become programmers, but everybody was required to learn some programming, which made good sense in a computer department. The students in the class already had a program to work on, a simple one, so I walked around trying to help in general, as their programs didn't work.

This is not surprising. Programming is very logical, and people often are not taught logical methods in K12. The proper response when the program isn't working is to figure out the program flow, identify where it went wrong, change the program, and test the solution. It works the same way in game design. Much of the purpose of playing a prototype is to identify problems and test solutions. This includes some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it is logic.

But what did the students do rather than try to figure out why it wasn't working? They just guessed, changed the program in accordance with their guesses, and compiled/ran it again to see what happened. If that didn't work, they guessed something else. They were using traditional trial and error, guess and check, and they were frustrated, of course, because it wasn't working. I tried to show them how to figure out the logic and flow of the program rather than just guess.

Game design ought to be the same way; some people won't do it that way but I think it's the most efficient way, and it's the way that I like to teach people. Certainly different people have different design methods. Some design more from the gut than from logic. But it still involves hypotheses and tests: if you're actually designing something you are primarily using your brain in an organized way, I hope, and not just relying on inspiration.

Inspiration? Not Reliable

Inspiration is not very reliable.  “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time  . . . the wait is too long.”  (Leonard Bernstein, the composer and conductor - and writer.)  Inspiration comes and goes. The more you treat the modifications of your game as an engineering problem, the more efficient you're going to be.

Some people may think of a game as art, rather than craft, and the more that you think of it as art, the more you might be inclined to rely on inspiration and intuition. So we might say that you're not designing a game, you're creating a game, though it's mostly craft once you have a playable prototype. A playable prototype is going to change a lot if you're doing a good job. Game design is not throwing things against the wall to see if they stick, which is what trial and error and error amounts to. It's "try this and see what happens. Then let's try that and see what happens." Some things might happen better than others, but it's a terrible way to solve a problem.

Why Do People Design This Way?

When I did the video version of this piece, I had not realized why this guess-and-check method might be common. Unfortunately, changes in game playing have led to much greater use of trial-and-error (guess-and-check) than in the past, and to puzzle-solving rather than problem-solving.

When I was a kid (more than 50 years ago) I searched for games that required you to think to succeed, but which were not abstract. The classic games such as chess and checkers were just too abstract, I wanted something that represented, modeled, some (possibly fictional) reality. Avalon Hill's wargames finally filled the bill for me, followed by Diplomacy (for more than two players).

With the advent of video games, gaming became a matter of athletic skills more than brainwork. No matter how well you could think, if you didn't have the reflexes and hand-eye coordination needed, you'd not be good at most video games. Video games were athleticware, not brainware.

Moreover, video games tended to be single-player puzzles, where there was an always-correct solution, owing to the inadequacy of the computer opponent. There was no substitute for human opposition.

When you play an opposed game of strategy, a game you can lose - which is usually a tabletop game - you cannot afford to simply guess at what to do. That's the road to Loserville. But now we have so many single-player and co-op video games, games where you can save the game at will. Many players try lots of different choices to see what works best, saving each one, and then use the best to move on to the next challenge. They don't have to figure out anything, they can just guess-and-check. In the extreme I know of someone who, finding a chest with random contents, will open it, save it, open it again, save it, and so forth, dozens of times, in order to get the best result. Ridiculous! Alternatively, some play games with online help open. If something isn't working well, the player will look up the best way to "beat" it, and continue. But it's these kinds of mentality that are the opposite of what you should be doing when you design a game. These mentalities amount to "throwing things against the wall to see what sticks."

Further, with the advent of Eurostyle games in the latter 90s, we entered the era of parallel competitions (which I called "contests" in my book Game Design), players all trying to solve the same puzzle. Even though there were usually several different solutions ("paths to victory"), they were still always-correct solutions. Many tabletop gamers became puzzle-solvers. People learned to look for the solutions, because they didn't need to worry about the opposition. Some games coming out of the Euro style transcended this, but most have not.

In designing a game, you do have, in effect, a "Save Game" option. Because you can try a solution you've devised, and if you decide it doesn't work, you can go back to the old way of doing it. But this takes a lot of time (one playtest often isn't enough to determine the success of a modification). Maybe you have lots of time to waste guessing at changes, but I certainly don't, nor does anyone who wants to design for a living.

Furthermore, knowing that there's always a best move (as it true of puzzles) is quite different than having to decide among uncertain alternatives, as in a typical wargame. Game design is problem-solving far more than puzzle-solving. There is rarely an always-correct solution in game design.

As a result of these changes in how games are played, many people who want to become game designers have learned the wrong ways of doing things, learned the wrong set of skills, to design games! Obviously, not everyone plays games this way (I don't, even when I play a video game), but the majority of gamers do.

Illustration of Throwing Against the Wall

I've seen the throw-against-the-wall method dramatically illustrated. Recently a beginning tabletop designer had his simple, multiplayer, 30 minute game, which involved cards and scoring only, playtested by players new to the game. The game had already been successfully Kickstarted but clearly it was far from done. Most of the cards were handwritten (not even computer-generated) for example. He also made the error of playing the game without having any rules with him (to test the rules as well). I asked why? His response was, he played it six or seven different ways, and was also changing it to satisfy backers as well, so he didn't bring the rules!

So here we had a game that was already Kickstarted and the rules writing wasn't being tested. When he said he was trying out a particular rule change my reaction was, how can you try a change when the rest of the game isn't stable? You're only trying to change one of those half-dozen ways to play. When you playtest, you playtest the whole game, not just the part that you're experimenting with. If the rest of it keeps changing, how can you evaluate the effect of one change?

My next question was, how are you recording the results of the playtest? He said he usually had a notebook, but not today, but he did have a laptop and he took notes after he was eliminated. (Yes, he played in the playtest, worse, without rules at hand. Bad Idea.) I can point out here that it was a game with player elimination, which is not desirable nowadays, even in a 30 minute game, and it was a scoring game yet he hadn't bothered to bring the scoring devices, so everyone scored on their smart phones. This is just sloppy. You've got to test the actual game, not substitutes!

I've talked about some of the obvious flaws like player elimination, but there was another one. It was a card game of direct attack on other players. There was no overall constraint on whom you could attack; the lesser constraint involved categories of who you could attack  that is, your strongest attack in your hand at any given time could only be aimed at some of the players rather than any of them, depending on their characteristics. They had about five or six players in this game. I didn't watch the game much as I was doing other things. I asked afterward if there was a strong tendency to attack the leader, and the answer from the players was, yes. The game suffered from leader-bashing. I'm not sure the designer actually recognized the term when I used it, and only had a glimmering of why it was undesirable. People then started to suggest solutions to the leader-bashing, but the first, only allowing attack on adjacent players, would have pretty drastically changed a game that's already Kickstarted! (I'm often critical of Kickstarted games because of the nature of the audience, but I'm really offended by the idea of Kickstarting a game that is so far from complete.)

As an aside, why is leader bashing undesirable? It takes the strategic decision-making out of the game, you just attack the leader. It makes people want to sandbag (if they can), they don't want to be the leader until the very end. In fact, given the nature of the game, there was virtually no decision-making involved. You picked your strongest attack that could affect someone in or near the lead, and that was it. I'm not opposed to simple, even shallow, games, but they should still give players viable choices, the "horns of a dilemma" of traditional board games. This one didn't.

To continue with this egregious example, what we have in this designer is a case of somebody throwing things against the wall to see what will stick. He tried to playtest the game in various ways to see what seemed to work better. It seems to me to be trial and error in the undesirable sense. It also helps show that Kickstarter is often about ideas and intentions rather about an actual game. He had a little bit of the art for the actual game for a small number of the cards and that looked quite good, and probably helped the Kickstarter a lot.

"Scientific Method"/Engineering

So let me talk briefly about the proper way to go about this part of design, not just trying this and that, not throwing things against the wall. I use a fairly detailed diagram and a simpler version. This is an engineering design process. It's also something like project management, because each time in project management you're doing something that's rather different than what you've done before. I'll discuss this simpler project management diagram here.

The Plan is about you creating the game to the point where you have a playable prototype.

Execute is playing a prototype, first of all solo, then other people.

While a game is being played, you Monitor whether it's doing what it's supposed to do, whether it's going according to your plan, the vision you had in your head.

Control is when you monitor something that isn't going to plan, you do something to fix it, to make it work the way you want to.

Successful changes go into the Replan, where you modify your prototype. Then you go back to Execute and you play it again, and you keep going round and round on that, gradually making your game better.

I despise the word "iterate". Yes, this is an iterative (repetitive) process, but the word iterate, which is often used in video games, must be one of the ugliest words in the world, yet only covers half of what you're doing. You are modifying and testing, not just playing again and again. The scientific method is involved.  To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. (Wikipedia)

Game design is lot more than that, though. Unlike scientists, in most cases you have to rely on relatively few tests. (Nowadays in video games we see "open beta" testing, and testing after release, in order to increase the sample size and use statistical methods of analysis.) Unlike the scientist you're making changes in the design, an actual product, as well as experimenting to see what happens. Fortunately, this is usability testing, not scientific testing, and usability testing does not require a large number of trials. I strongly recommend that you check out the Nielsen Norman Group's website at, and read their articles. They are talking about web design usability, but most of what they say applies to game design, especially video game design where user interface is very important. We have user interfaces in tabletop games, but they have over many centuries settled down and don't change rapidly.

An Analogy

Being a literal-minded person, I don't venture into analogies much, but I'll try one here. This question of engineering versus trial and error (guess and check) is comparable to how people learn software or home appliances or electronics. Unlike most people I read the manual. It's amazing how much you can learn that way and it's far more efficient. But what most people do is a just dive in and try things, or they simply remain ignorant. I read the manual and find out all you can do (if it's a good manual) that most people who just dive in and try things are not going to figure out.

The engineering style of game design is like reading the manual, the trial and error style is like diving in and trying things. It's much less efficient, but it is easier, just like not reading the manual is easier, and we can apply this to games. I would rather read the rules to a tabletop game in order to learn it, unlike most people who would rather be taught. It may take longer, but I miss less when I read the rules and understand the game better when I read the rules, if they're good set of rules, than when somebody teaches me.

I've discussed the whole cycle of testing and modification in my "Learning Game Design" course on, and there's also a course just about Playtesting. The major point to make here is that you follow a process that relies on solving problems you've identified. You also have to know what kinds of problems might occur, like leader bashing in a card game, and that's why I make so many of my videos to educate people about those possible problems.

Method is important, and trial and error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it. If you rely heavily on intuition or inspiration, more power to you, but that's not something that I want to teach aspiring game designers. If you think it's all about inspiration, I think you're dead wrong, any more than getting ideas is all about inspiration. You have to work at something to do it well on a consistent basis. You can't hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance.

As a teacher I want people to understand a good, efficient method: "inspiration," "intuition," and especially trial and error (guess and check) are not good, efficient methods.

Design a game, don't guess at it.

Lewis Pulsipher

For the video screencast this derives from, see Youtube:
Part 1
Part 2

Twitter @lewpuls
Online courses:
Free "Game Design" channel:

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Triptych VIII: Three separate topics in one post

(Except this time it’s four to get to a 1,000 words. . .!)

Programming is not “Integral” to Games
Pop History
Special Powers Card Games 
Virtual Reality

Programming is not “Integral” to Games
(Originally written in 2009. And we now see, with Unity, how much easier it is to make video game software than in 2009.) I don't regard video games as fundamentally different from non-electronic games.  There are tens of thousands of non-electronic games that were never touched by a programmer.  If the video game designer had some "magic" (technologically advanced) way to create the software - and as time goes on and technology improves, this will be the case - then programmers would be unnecessary.

That's why I regard programming as a necessary evil of video games, not fundamental to games.

It is already the case that someone who isn't a programmer by training or inclination can create the equivalent of Pac-Man with Gamemaker in a fairly short time.  More and more complex video games will be made without trained/professional programmers.

Ultimately, programming is "donkey work," something that ought to be done by machines.  But I could say the same about many kinds of work.  Some of those kinds of work have already disappeared or are disappearing, some will disappear.  Programming is going to be done by machines--already is, in many cases, though the machines are using software created by programmers - long before design or art is done by machines.


Pop History
I read something recently about a game covering the fall of Rome in Britain, and about incorporating Arthurian stories into it.

Yes, I included Arthur in Britannia, but that was literary license, not history.

Yes, there are lots of books supposedly about Arthur, all amounting to "well, this could have meant that, and could have been about the person we call Arthur" that then transforms into "this was Arthur".  It's a big industry of speculation with virtually no foundation, much more fiction than fact. There is NO contemporary evidence for "Arthur", almost no contemporary evidence for *anything* in this time period. ("Dark Ages",  remember? Dark because of lack of information, not a comment on the standard of living.)

A big reason why history changes so much from one generation to the next, is that so much of it is malleable rather than certain. History becomes, not fact, but fiction intended to appeal to the desires or needs of contemporaries.

"Pop" history, video history as we sometimes see on the History Channel, is a reflection of this. It's history as modified by what "the masses" want it to be.


Special Powers Card Games
One reason why Magic:the Gathering  became successful is that it was, if not the first game, one of the first games where the main interaction is between the cards of the two players, using special powers that are exceptions to the rules. That has been generalized for many card games, it's a kind of game that's easy to make, and I know several budding designers whose first game is of this type.

I am not a fan of them because they don't have anything do with reality. Some of the people who are designing the games may think so - but there's a weak grasp on reality these days. Yu-Gi-Oh is even worse because lacks the constraint of "lands".

For me any "theme" in these games is just a gloss. It's not something that actually affects how the cards are played or how the game is designed. It doesn't help people understand how the game works, either.

My name for this kind of game is "Special Powers Card Game" (SPCG).


Virtual Reality
Pundits are still pontificating about whether virtual-reality games (VR) will succeed as a business, and have been since the announced release date for the Oculus VR with the anticipation that it’s Valve and Sony competitors would be not far behind.

I have not used one of these contemporary VR systems, and I read that people who do are often converted to the cause. My experience goes back some decades when (at a convention I cannot otherwise recall) I put on a primitive VR-like device. It was suspended as a pair of eyeglasses, but with one side empty and the other side occupied by a small module. That module produced a red dot on black screen display (this tells you how old it was) that substituted for the screen display of typical computers of the time. You could see the “screen” with one eye while the other could see your normal surroundings. I didn’t try to play a game with it but I was quite impressed with how very well it substituted for a screen.

I also recall, in the early to mid 90s, watching a graphical “virtual tour” of a part of the new Womack Medical Center that was being built. The 486 computers of the day really weren’t fast enough to render the tour in more than slow motion. It was quite fascinating nonetheless.

More recently I’ve seen augmented reality (AR) games, and I understand that game developers are far more gung ho about AR than about VR, yet few of them are actually producing AR products. [Written before Pokemon Go was released! I bet a lot more are working on AR now.]

Within the past six or seven years I’ve also been in a virtual-reality chamber where three walls showed a seascape and you could walk around looking at it.

Recognizing that computing power is still advancing rapidly, and thinking about how the graphical capabilities of computers have changed from the old ASCII graphics to modern 3-D, it appears to me to be inevitable that VR will succeed sooner or later. Too many people want to reach the Star Trek holodeck stage for maximum immersion.

Whether the current products will start that progression, or fail as those of the past have failed, is subject to all kinds of chance and unforeseen factors (such as hygiene?). Remember, the best products don’t always prevail in the marketplace (Betamax versus VHS VCR for example). Timing is very important, and we have no idea, even now with products out there, whether the timing is good.


My Black Friday/Christmas sale on my online game design courses is listed on my website,

Doomstar has sold better than the average mobile game, though how it compares with other PC (and Mac/Linux) games I do not know. It’s on Steam as “Lew Pulsipher’s Doomstar” but Doomstar is good enough to search. Or buy from the publisher