Monday, October 23, 2017

Designing Stock Market Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 05, 2017

My ENWorld Columns - links

I have become a columnist on ENWorld, the most common meeting-place for fans of tabletop RPGs. (As some of you know, I was columnist/contributing editor of many RPG magazines in the late 70s and early 80s, such as Dragon, White Dwarf, Space gamer, and others.) These appear about twice a month.

#1 Dilemma of Simple RPG  29 Apr 17

#2 Consequence and Reward 20 May 17

#3 Let's Not Save the World . . . Again (elements of pacing) 7 June 17 

#4 Different look at playing styles 7/8/2017

#5 Tactical Styles in Combat Oriented RPGs 7/22/2017

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Recent Screencasts August 17

 I don't post individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I list the most recent  screencasts instead.

Little choices can make a big difference in design
I try to illustrate how seemingly small choices can make a big difference to a game design.

Nuts & Bolts: The Co-op "Fail Mechanic"
I explain why I call co-ops with one winner a "fail-mechanic." With some players it just won't work.

Strategies to Respond to the "Eight Awful Truths" of game marketing
Original Awful Truths are at

13 "Laws" of Game Design
Like many "laws", these are more strong probabilities than absolutes.

Play to win? Nope.
Pundits have sometimes been slow on the uptake, but it will come as no surprise to game players that playing to win is not the objective of many players. Keep that in mind when you design your games.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Triptych 10

Triptych 10
Three separate topics in one post

At the end of my more than two week trip with WBC in the middle . . .

Avatars in games
Using the word “narrative designer” to describe a story-teller? Bad idea.
The word “game” is becoming so broad in meaning as to be useless


A major change in games is the advent of the avatar-based game. In such games the player is represented by a single piece, and often if that single piece is killed the player loses the game. Now you can look at the King in chess as a sort of avatar, but the king is one of the weakest pieces in the game, whereas in a typical avatar-based game the avatar is a very strong “piece.” Dungeons & Dragons may not have invented the avatar-based game but certainly is one of the earliest and the most influential. The player is his character and the character is the player, in a sense. When people talk they often conflate the two. The avatar is the means by which the player affects the game and manipulates the assets of the game. The avatar is usually quite powerful, and may go up against many many enemies and prevail. This is pattern followed by a great many video games such as shooters and action games. The whole paraphernalia of levels and experience and loot and so on comes from Dungeons & Dragons.

Where tabletop games have gone toward card games, video games, at least the big ones, have largely gone to the avatar-based paradigm.  (In any case both have gone away from classic boardgames, which are games of conflict and maneuver where geospatial relationships are very important.) This is not to say that there aren't still boardgames around of the traditional style but they are much less common and they appeal to a much smaller part of the hobby game playing world than was true, say, 40 years ago.

We can also say that games that model some reality (possibly a fictional reality) were much more common in the past than they are now. A great many games are essentially abstract - insert here the bit about correspondence - with a so-called theme that I call an atmosphere tacked on for marketing purposes. It doesn't say much about the buying public that they buy more based on the marketing story then on the actual game. But I suppose that's partly because most people buy games and game shops don't really know much about the game, and the game doesn't tell them much about the game, on the back it tells them about the story. In a sense all the old classic games, before commercialism in games, are abstract but most of them have the maneuver and conflict that are common to warfare. The current abstract games with worker placement and drafting and role assumption, have nothing to do with any reality.

Using the words “narrative designer” to describe a story-teller? Bad idea

If I regarded myself as a professional story-maker, I certainly wouldn't use the word "narrative" to describe what I was doing.  Everything humans do has a narrative, an account of what happened, but that narrative is rarely of interest to other people.  Driving to the store and buying groceries has a narrative.  Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often not good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to.

A good story is a narrative, but one where the consumer cares about the characters, and where the plot is exceptionally interesting to the target audience.

The word “game” is becoming so broad in meaning as to be useless

I stopped at one of those fast food restaurants that give you a large paper on the tray.  It sang the praises of a new sandwich.  In the corner it said "Games" with an arrow pointing to the other side.

So I turned it over.  Every one of the "games" was a formal puzzle: a maze, a word search, a search for objects hidden in the background, a recognition of topiary silhouettes (which animal is this?).

The point is, "games" has become a very broad category to the average person, not recognizing how very different a one-person puzzle with an always-correct solution is, from a game with more than one person and lots of player-to-player interaction.

When “game” becomes nearly synonymous with “play”, then we need to redefine “game,” or stop using it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

DixieCon 31 - a Regional Mini-Convention

Over Memorial Day weekend (2017) I attended a mini-convention in Chapel Hill North Carolina.

I call this a mini-convention because of the relatively small turnout. Fewer people were involved than in a typical meeting of the NC State Tabletop Gamers, but the difference is persistence, both in the con and from year to year (31 years). At one point I heard the number 45 participants, which was higher than in the past. So it’s roughly one third the size of Rapier Con in Jacksonville Florida - but Chapel Hill North Carolina is the small university town (UNC-CH, THE UNC), though Wake County is not far away with its 900 K or so people.

Many of the participants come from pretty far away (Tampa FL for example, and VA), come every year, and apparently have been doing this for many years. It was the first time for me, though I live less than 70 miles away. There were some young people around but many of the participants were of the age you see at wargame conventions - lots of Baby Boomers.

This wasn’t surprising because DixieCon is first and foremost a Diplomacy convention, and has been home for the World Diplomacy Championships about three times. I played Diplomacy (and designed many, many variants) a long time ago but have not played in decades. I arrived early Friday morning, and before the tournament began I was able to get people to playtest some of my games; after the tournament started (and aided and abetted by an eight player Twilight Imperium game) my playtesters evaporated.

There were lots of interesting people to talk with, from a game collector dealer to someone who runs lots of Diplomacy variants online.

Accommodation is available because the convention takes place in a couple of lounges in a high-rise dorm building (Granville Towers). $35 a night, simple and straightforward. I went to bed not long after 10, and had decided I wasn’t going to have a roommate, but he turned up after 2 AM. We just passed in the night more or less.

The convention itself has a $35 fee. Lots of parking is available, as the students aren’t present. There are lots of eateries on Franklin Street a third of a mile away, and on Saturday evening David Hood arranges a big barbecue (for eight dollars).

Saturday afternoon I tried to talk the guys out of playing Twilight Imperium, which is one of those games that last forever while not much happens, very much a corporate management game rather than command game: what I call a fake wargame. But the owner of the game had spent considerably more than $100 on game and expansions and needed to justify his expenditure!

The most popular game at the convention other than Diplomacy was Terraforming Mars. I try to figure out why it’s so popular: part of it may be that it’s typical Eurostyle Corporate Management, but it is tied much more closely to it’s theme than most Euros. And the theme itself is quite different.

I had some car starting problems Saturday morning but AAA sorted those out. I got home Saturday night (the third round of the tournament is on Sunday morning) with no further car difficulties, and as I went to bed after 10:30 I thought, "those guys are still playing Twilight Imperium!" There must be some "Monster Game" incentive there, that I'm immune to . . . I solo tested one of my two-player block games that afternoon, starting while they were still explaining the rules (which itself was a very long procedure), and when I finished they had not yet actually started to play though they had set up the board. [One of them responded electronically later that they probably were only in the second turn at 10:30!]

I'm really impressed that David Hood has been organizing such a fine little gathering for 31 years.  And he doesn't even get to play in the tournament, because of past shenanigans by another Diplomacy tournament director. I doubt he gets near enough praise for the effort.  Thanks, David.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Recent Screencasts (9 June 2017)

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.

Departing from the standard (card game) sequence of play 6/8/2017
The standard sequence of play makes a specialty card game easier to learn. But don't "settle" for it, your game may be better with something else.

Nuts & Bolts: How to get an improvisers's game from a planner's game 6/1/2017
I describe how I changed Britannia, an historical Planner's game par excellence, into an Improviser's space wargame, with just a few changes. Very different experience, essentially same underlying mechanics.

Ranking Sources of Information About Game Design Two parts 4/20/2017
The best way to learn is to make games. The second best way is to talk with (and listen to) other game designers, whether informally or in a class. After that there are many sources of learning, and I've ranked those in a two-part screencast.

Eight awful truths about game marketing
I ran across "10 Awful Truths about Book Marketing" online, and seeing the parallels with games, I'm discussing those Truths (including the two that don't apply). Another time I'll discuss some strategies you can follow to do your best in this environment.

There's no "Secret Knowledge" or "secret Sauce" (nor conspiracies) in Game Design
Aspiring designers sometimes believe that there's a secret formula to game design, and all they have to do is follow it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The delusion seems to be common in society these days, that there's a secret knowledge to any discipline. It's the kind of thing that helps fuel conspiracy theories.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How Could the Axis Have Won World War II?

(This is the answer to a Quora question.)

The great wars of the 20th century were primarily economic. In World War II, the Axis powers had an advantage in military forces that they needed to use to overcome the economic advantage of the Allied powers, before the Allied advantage turned into a military advantage. Britain was far stronger than Italy economically, Russia was at least as strong as Germany, and the United States was overwhelmingly stronger than Japan, in the long run stronger than all the Axis powers together .

So to win the war the Axis would have needed to use its military forces more effectively, and focus on improving their economic situation. I suggest that two things would have helped, though I’m not sure even those could have brought victory, maybe a standoff. The first and most important of these was for the Germans to focus on the Mediterranean in 1941 and hold off the invasion of Russia until 1942. The second would be for the Japanese to declare war conventionally, rather than by surprise attack, and confine themselves primarily to action in Asia, with the idea that the United States would have been much less committed to a long-term war to unconditional surrender in this situation.

Focus on the Mediterranean

The Axis could never defeat the remote, enormous, and industrially powerful United States, so they needed to defeat either Britain or the Soviet Union. Britain was never in real danger of invasion given the strength of the British Navy, though if the Germans had continued to attack British air forces as they were successfully doing early in the Battle of Britain, they would have been able to make life even harder for the British. It was the Soviet Union that could conceivably be defeated. Unfortunately for Germany, Adolf Hitler was not a military strategist, he was an ideologue. He believed that lebensraum (living space) was the ultimate objective of war, and that living space was in the Soviet Union. So war between Germany and the Soviet Union was inevitable.

Conceivably if Germany held off a year the Soviet Union would’ve attacked the Germans first. I don’t know anything about Soviet plans though I’m sure historians have looked into it.

When it became necessary for the Germans to divert troops and planes to Africa and to the Balkans to help the Italians, both for the fighting and for subsequent occupation (keep in mind also the German paratroop force was practically destroyed) , the Germans should have decided to delay the invasion of Russia for a year. They could then have devoted far more than two divisions and a small fraction of the Luftwaffe to the task of defeating the British in Africa, including neutralizing or even capturing Malta, and driving the British Navy out of most of the Mediterranean. Yes, more divisions mean more supply problems, but the Luftwaffe would have provided much better protection for convoys, especially after Malta was reduced to defense only. (As it was, the Germans nearly succeeded.) Rommel would have taken Egypt (as it was on a shoestring, he was on Egyptian soil), which would have driven the British fleet out of the Mediterranean. Keep in mind the Allies were at the end of a much longer supply line than the Germans and Italians. I don’t see that the Vichy French or the Allies could have prevented German occupation of the entire Middle East; logistics more than defenders would have limited the number of divisions the Axis could deploy there, even after the eastern Mediterranean became an Axis lake. This would give the Axis large amounts of oil, lack of which became a big problem for them later in the war. It would also allow them to pose a small threat of attacking the Soviet Union through the Caucasus (where Soviet oil reserves were located), and even via raids from Afghanistan. Again, logistics would have limited forces available.

Who knows what the Turks would have done when more or less surrounded by Axis forces and the traditional enemy, Russia. Would they have joined the war to attack that traditional enemy? The Turks were with the Central Powers in World War I, but Ottoman government had been replaced with a secular government, so who knows?

I don’t think the Germans could have posed much of a threat to India because of the native Indian logistical support for native Indian divisions. But the need to defend India would not allow the British to deploy troops elsewhere.

So when the Axis and Soviet Union started fighting in 1942, the Germans would have had more strategic options. Would Germany have been better off vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in 1942 than in 1941? I don’t know, but I think the same incompetence the Soviets exhibited at the start of the invasion in 1941, would have existed in 1942. I don’t know whether it was a diversion of forces or the weather that prevented in 1941 invasion from starting before June 22, but if it was the former then in 1942 they might’ve started earlier.

Whether this would have been enough to enable the Axis to finish the Soviet Union no one knows, but the Germans would have been in a much better situation with respect to their enemies, in terms of strategic position and in terms of resources (especially oil).

This brings us to the second and less important point.

No Surprise Attack

Japan traditionally used surprise attacks to start wars. Admiral Yamamoto knew how the Americans would react to a surprise attack, and evidently having no choice, he chose to attack Pearl Harbor in hopes of catching the American aircraft carriers there. Fortunately for the USA, none of the carriers were there, where they almost certainly would have been sunk. Depending on the number of carriers sunk, the Japanese might have captured all of New Guinea, and Midway Island, and Guadalcanal, and it would have taken much longer for the Americans to break down the Japanese.

But if the Japanese had declared war in the accepted manner, confining their attacks to the East Asian sphere, the theory is that Americans would have been much less committed to war, and especially much less committed to an unconditional-surrender war. In other words, going back to economic superiority versus military superiority, the Americans might not have stayed in the war long enough to gain overwhelming military superiority. I don’t know, I don’t think anybody could know, though I have no doubt that some historians have tried to answer the question of how this would have affected the war effort.


So in summary, if the Mediterranean became an Axis lake, if the Axis held the Near/Middle East, if the Japanese fought a limited war in Asia so that the Americans would not have gone into the war wholeheartedly, and especially if this all resulted in the Soviet Union being defeated by the Axis, then the war might have ground to a halt rather than to an Axis loss. That’s not exactly a win, but there was no way the Axis could ever defeat the United States. In the long run whichever side gained the upper hand scientifically (nuclear weapons, jets, snorkel submarines, etc.) might have been able to win a continuation of the war, immediately or at a later time.

I am apparently in the process of becoming an ENWorld columnist (RPGs). That and many other projects take away from this blog.

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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.)

29 May 17

Pirate Game

I'm adding this one, which came as a recent surprise.  I'd left the files for the game, among others, with a publisher last summer, and not long ago he writes to tell me he wants to publish it! The name is changing (I called it YAAARRRHHH!). You're the captain of a pirate vessel, sometimes of a small squadron, sailing the seas to garner plunder (victory points, tallied at game end). You encounter vessels on the high seas, and also suffer the slings and arrows of fortune (and cards played by other players) as you go. Players often follow their own objectives, such as get a big fleet, take a town, capture the Spanish Silver Fleet - or take a Ship of the Line (has never happened, and useless for piracy because it's so slow).

It's a combination of historical and Romantic (movie-style) pirates. Boarding is the objective, as it was with all pirates, who tended to use small, fast ships loaded with men. But you have to get past the pursuit, and cannonfire, to have a chance to board. Nor do you want to fight warships, ordinarily, you want to run. On the other hand, it's really hard to die, not at all like real piracy. And some weird things happen. For 3-8 players (players can join after the game has started), 110 cards plus lots of plastic and high-level card stuff. An hour or less, or you can make it much shorter if you like.


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.

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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.)

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