Monday, January 30, 2006

I have released another game-related poll (mostly about sweep of history games):

In my previous post, I've misued the term "kingmaking". That evidently should refer specifically to cases where one player knows he cannot win, but can determine who DOES win. "Leader-bashing" is often used to represent the tendency to gang up on the leader.

At the request of someone on Boardgamegeek, I have activated the comments capability for this blog.


Sunday, January 29, 2006

Questions that must be answered by the designer about every game design

Can we come up with a set of questions that can be used to define the nature of a game (whether non-video or video), if we have settled on the structural choices?

As a reminder, the structural elements are:
1. Theme/History/Story.
2. Objective/victory conditions.
3. “Data storage”. (Information Management)
4. Sequencing.
5. Movement/Placement.
6. Information availability.
7. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities.
8. "Economy" (resource acquisition).
9. Player Interaction rules.

What's the difference between the structural elements and these questions? A designer MUST choose something within each of the structural elements (not choosing is itself a default choice). On the other hand, he or she can ignore any of the following questions, but other elements in the game will create some answer to each as the game is developed. As a designer, I'd prefer to answer the questions initially rather than stumble into an answer, but others may have a different point of view.

Here are the questions I've come up with so far (in no particular order):

How complex is the game? Complexity can come from the rules or from the play, or both. The rules of chess are fairly simple, but the play is complex. Generally speaking, the more plausible choices a player has, the more complex the play, but that is not always true.

Role of chance
Anywhere from essentially none (chess, checkers--the only chance is who plays first) to complete chance (the cardgame "war"; or just rolling dice against each other; Candyland, Chutes and Ladders)

Number of "sides" (generally, 1, 2, or many) and players
football has 22 players, but only two sides
Axis & Allies or War of the Rings can be played with four or five people, but is a two-sided situation (regardless of attempts to use strange victory conditions to make it appear otherwise, there are only two primary interests)

Symmetric vs. Asymmetric
symmetric--similar starting positions/forces (typical of abstract games)
asymmetric--different starting positions or forces (and sometimes different objectives)(typical of historical simulations)
["Big box" video games are often symmetric; asymmetry often comes from different starting characters]

Zero-sum (ZS) vs. non-zero-sum--in the former, any gain by one player comes from a loss by another
Diplomacy is an epitome of zero-Sum; Risk has some aspects of it, as do many wargames with strong economies (e.g. Axis & Allies)

Another way to pose this: is your opponent's loss your gain, or your gain your opponent's loss? If the game is two player ZS, the answer will always be "yes" . If it is multi-player, someone will gain when someone else loses.

ZS vs. non-ZS can be posed a different way, not quite the same thing: how easy or hard is it to hinder an opponent while at the same time helping yourself? If it's easy, you're closer to ZS; if it's hard, you're farther from ZS. An important aspect of most "Euro" games is that they are far from ZS.

Games in which you score points regularly through the course of the game tend to make zero-sum unlikely, I'd say, and encourage situations where it's hard to hinder an opponent while at the same time helping yourself. (How many games let you take points away from another person that have already been scored?) Of course, there are exceptions, this is a tendency only.

What is the outstanding mechanism involved? [Someday I'll attempt to list genres/mechanisms separately. Not anytime soon, for mechanisms!] What is the genre involved (this is related to theme/story, and is very important in video games).

How strongly will the decisions of the players influence the outcome of the game? Some Euro games, and almost all traditional American family games, are designed so that even if a player is making mistakes, the gameplay can allow them to recover and win. In other words, we want the non-adult or inexperienced players to still have a chance to win. Many wargames are not so designed, and a person who isn't concentrating and isn't making good decisions will rarely, if ever, win. Years ago I christened this characteristic the "gyp factor". If a game lets a less skillful player win often, the skillful player is "gypped" (you can see what school of thought I come from . . .). See Here's the lead sentence: "The Gyp Factor (GyF) of a game is the degree to which it permits or prevents the expert (near-perfect) player from winning consistently against less than expert but at least average players. If the GyF is very low, the expert will beat the good player virtually every time--chess is an example. If the factor is very high, the expert wins no more often than the good player--in other words the expert is gypped because his additional ability cannot be exerted in the game"

What is the "take that" factor? Is the game "serious" or "just for laughs"? This one requires little comment.

See or the February 2005 Games Journal. This article about Romantic and Classical playing styles also has application to the next two questions just below.

Which kind of skill does a player need to use, adaptability, or planning? Some games such as War of the Ring, and "card driven wargames", place the premium on adaptability, because you don't fully control what your side does. The roll of the special dice, or the draw of the cards, makes a big difference. Other games (chess, obviously, and traditional hex wargames) place a premium on planning. Euro games tend to focus on adaptability, which often makes for less analysis than older wargames. You can also suppose that the more information is available, the more planning is emphasized (think chess), and vice versa.

Related to this is the level of Fluidity or Chaos in the game. How much does the situation change from one "play" (turn) to the next? How much can a single "move" by one player change the situation? A high "take that" factor often indicates a highly fluid game, and a fluid game usually requires adaptability more than planning from the players.

Is the game "mechanical" or "psychological"? That is, is the game largely determined by positions and pieces, or by psychological effects? This is a very difficult question: Which one is Diplomacy? While the mechanical aspects are important and occasionally vital, mostly it is a psychological game determined by negotiation (as most people play it). "Romantic" players tend to make any game psychological, while "classical" players tend to concentrate on the mechanics.

How is "kingmaking" treated? "Kingmaking" might be defined as the tendency of players to gang up on, and drag down, the leader. If this is too easy, the game becomes an attempt to avoid looking like the leader. If it is too hard, the game becomes multi-player solitaire. Some games address this question by making it unclear who the leader is. In a three-player game in particular, the "petty diplomacy problem" (as R. Wayne Schmittberger calls it in New Rules for Classic Games) is related to this: when one player realizes he cannot win, how easily can he determine, by his actions, which of the others wins? If it is easy to do this, then the game probably isn't much fun to play, in the long run, for many types of players.

Some people believe that a good game naturally falls into three phases, the opening or beginning, the middle game, and the end game. Chess is often looked at in this light. While not all games need to have these phases, the question might be, What phases does the game naturally fall into? For example, Britannia has four phases: the Roman dominance, the Anglo-Saxon dominance, the Viking invasions, and finally the endgame with three (or four, in Britannia Second edition) kings in competition.

My structural list rose from seven to nine elements through discussion on design forums, and I suppose this list will grow and be modified, as well.

Lew Pulsipher

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Starting seven different classes this week, then having visitors, has left me very busy. I think next weekend there will be lots of playtesting, at schook, at Rick Steeves', and at NCS Game Day.

Physical description of Britannia 2, using advanced copy sent to me by FFG before they'd received their shipment (which they're going to modify).

I noticed, and my wife saw immediately, that the box doesn't close properly, in the sense that the top doesn't come all the way down over the bottom. That turns out to be a problem caused by the cardboard insert, which is too high. This is the insert that will be replaced (perhaps by one that has four compartments rather than one for storing pieces, as well--we can hope).

The box is 11 by 11 inches, and would be 2.75 inches thick if it closed all the way.

The board is six sections each 11 by 11 for a total of 22 by 33 inches. It is mounted on folding hard cardboard, the six sections together about five eighths inch thick.

There are four counter sheets each 11 by 11 (see the pattern?). The four sheets together are three eighths inch thick (thicker than the old pieces, I think). Standard pieces are seven eighths inch square with slightly rounded corners. Leaders are shield-shaped (like the shield used for heraldry), 1.25 inches long and 15/16 inches wide. Round pieces (mainly the point counters) are 13/16 inches in diameter. As with the original games, the pieces are individually cut (unused cardboard between each piece), not mass-cut as with many old-time wargames. They are printed on both sides.

There are 251 pieces, I'm told (I didn't count).

The rules are 24 pages, 11 by 11 inches.

The nation cards are 5 by 7 inches on quite thin stock, much like photographic paper. I believe these are going to be replaced with more sturdy stock.

There are five dice, five eighths inches square, made of wood, surprisingly.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I should say something about late changes in any game, anywhere, anytime:

Experienced game designers know that *any* change in a game, whether in actual rules or in how the rules are written, can have unanticipated effects whether due to unexpected/unforeseen interaction with other rules or simple misunderstanding. Last-minute, untested, changes in rules are *poison*.

It was inevitable in the case of Brit 2 that when the rules were rewritten at the publishers in major ways (though with no intent to change the game), under a deadline, there would be glitches through misunderstanding and through sheer human error (typos and such).

This is much like making last-minute changes in a computer program. Writing rules is much like writing a computer program insofar as there will be "bugs", some of which may never actually rear their ugly heads, some that will be more often encountered. The last version you *tested* is the version that should be put into use, not one in which further changes have been made.

Yet those of you who play video games know that many are issued with so many bugs that they are not really completely playable until the first patch is issued. (Which makes for interesting problems in console games, where patches are sometimes not possible.) What happens is, companies need to get their stuff to market so that they can make money, and there is every incentive to rush a bit and get it out earlier rather than later.

In Britannia 2's case, changes were made in the rules because they were rewritten, but if they were tested in the new form, they were not tested much, and probably not in a "blind" environment (using people who had no previous experience of the new rules). An obvious example is the use of counters for scoring. I think the counters are useful insofar as they help people use "hidden" scoring, if they wish, but I'm also sure most people who use a scoresheet will then prefer it. Whatever your opinion, though, you have to recognize that little or no testing of the use of scoring counters occurred.

Now this situation, little or no testing of changes, is the norm in non-video game publishing, not the exception. And that's one reason why we have so many games with misunderstood rules or rules that simply don't work. The more complex the game, the more bugs there will be; even though Brit is usually characterized as a "light wargame", it's still fairly complex in its rules compared to many games popular today (such as "Euro" games).

To go full circle: designers know that new rules MUST be thoroughly tested; but publishers rarely test the late changes they make to a game. What designers hope for is that the new rule bugs won't mess the game up too much. In Brit 2's case I think we're in very good shape in that regard, and much better off than we were with the Avalon Hill version.