Thursday, July 27, 2006

I was writing about "too many games", which I'll post in a while, when the news surfaced that Eagle Games had ceased operations (no chance of revival, though curiously, their Web store will continue business). There was much speculation on Boardgamegeek once the newspaper notice of sale of physical and intellectual assets was seen. Glenn Drover, Eagle's owner, then stated that "Due to a sudden and severe downturn last year in the demand for poker products, Eagle Games, Inc. became insolvent and finally ceased operations on May 31, 2006."

Even after this, some BGG people continued to speculate that poor game quality had done in Eagle. I think we ought to take the owner largely at his word: he put a lot of money into Poker products, and suddenly demand disappeared. I recall Eagle selling a Texas Hold 'Em computer game a couple years ago. Perhaps this game initially made a lot of money. Perhaps Eagle produced large quantities of the game and additional computer titles, then found that few were buying them. When they could not pay those production costs, they'd be forced out of business.

I can imagine that there are now free or advertiser-supported computer programs that do the same thing the Eagle programs did. Once the pool of people who would buy the Eagle products in stores (not knowing about the free stuff) was played out, who was there to buy it? I'm not into poker, but I understand the poker programs are a dime a dozen.

The games business may have been doing OK, but could not provide the money to pay the poker production costs. I recall talking with a publisher a couple years ago who wondered how Eagle could make money selling those big box, plastic-pieces games. Hasbro can do that, but they have vast distribution and can benefit from huge economies of scale in production. Someone (IIRC Glenn himself, but I could be wrong) told me then that Eagle printed 10,000-40,000 copies of a game. This is considerably higher than most game production, as far as I can gather. But they did get into distribution channels that most game companies only dream of.

And Eagle, in later years, went with a formula that only Fantasy Flight also pursues, as far as I can see. They looked for tie-ins with books and movies. While I cannot understand any reason why a game based on a book or movie is any more likely to be a good game than one that is not, the public at large doesn't look at things this way. So if you want to sell lots of copies in places where non-hobby-gamers might buy games, you look for those tie-ins to help persuade the buyers who never heard of BGG to spend $40-60. In a sense, what a thousand people at BGG think of the game doesn't matter much, when you're trying to sell 10 or 20 thousand copies or more. People buy the game because of the tie-in and the good looks, not because it's known to be a good game. Even BGGers seem to anticipate the release of Pirates the boardgame and Age of Empires III the boardgame, not knowing whether they will be good games or not.

So Eagle's business model might be OK. Whether the game business model was adequate or not, it was an overinvestment in poker that did them in.

Let me tell you about another case where a poor decision, having nothing to do with boardgames (or even with games at all?) did in a well-known company. In 1982 Heritage Models produced eight "microgames" under the "Dwarfstar" label. Heritage was primarily a producer of miniature figures, owned (IIRC) by the well-known Duke Seifried. Two of those Dwarfstar games were designed by people outside the company, one of them me (Dragon Rage was the game). Consequently I heard the story when Heritage closed its doors.

The way I heard it, the owner and his banker got into a "spitting contest" (not literally spitting, of course) and this finally resulted in the banker calling in the loan. Although the Microgames sold well (print run was 10,000 copies each, not so much then but very large now), there was no way they could mange to pay off the loan. So that was the end of the company (and I was never paid a cent for designing the game). The "plates" used to produce the games remained in the hands of the (unpaid) printer, and ultimately disappeared.

This was not a bad *business* decision, it was a bad personal decision, but the company died as a result. Someone who did not hear the story might speculate that the failure of the games had led to the company's failure, but nothing could be further from the truth.

(My memory of this is 20-some years old now, so I hope I haven't butchered it; and of course, I can only repeat what I was told by my contacts in the company.)

In Eagle's case, they made a business decision to "bet the farm" on one product line, the result was the opposite of what they expected, and they're out of business. Unfortunately for all boardgamers. The ones who might benefit the most will be Fantasy Flight, as there will be less competition for those tie-ins.

Lew Pulsipher

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When do players score?

In many victory point boardgames, players score at the end of each play. For example, Vinci and many others. This is the rough equivalent of the scoring method used in boxing. In boxing some people dislike this method, because you can have one fighter in a mess at the end of the match, and the other doing fine, yet the first could win because he piled up scoring in the early rounds. Perhaps for that reason, in other games, players score at the end of the game (often, the game ends when one player has a given score), and everything that contributes to their score is present at the end of the game. Catan??? In other words, this is a "snapshot" score, directly gaining nothing from previous turns even though the actions of each player have helped create the game-ending situation (the gain is indirect). If this were applied to boxing, at the end of the match judges would decide which fighter was in best shape to win if the fight continued, and award him the victory.

The score-by-turn method tends to suit the "age of instant gratification", because you play your turn and then you get your reward (points). The score-at-end method tends to suit an older generation that was willing to put off short-term rewards for long-term good.

At my age (55) I seem to be in the score-at-the-end camp in my designs, but I can understand the other point of view, especially in historical games. After all, EVERY nation is going to "lose" sooner or later--even the Roman Republic/Empire lasted "only" a thousand years--so we ought to consider how well the nation is doing along the way.

Here's my proposal, something that may already be done in some games though I do not know of any. Why not score both ways? Say the game lasts four rounds. Players score at the end of their rounds 1 through 3, and at the end of the game (round 4) they score three times their round 4 score, which is based on how they're doing right now. So the score would be R1 + R2 + R3 + 3xR4. This provides the instant gratification, yet also rewards the player who manages to be in the best position at the end of the game.

Clearly, in some games--such as Vinci--this method doesn't make much sense. But in others, say civilization-building, games, it has much appeal.

I think most score-by-turn games let each player score as soon as their turn is over. Some others wait until the end of the round, then have everyone score at once. I suppose which method you use depends on the sequence of play and on what advantage there is to moving first, since the score-at-end-of-entire-round favors those who play last in the round.

Does anyone know of a game that uses the combined form of scoring?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Cultural differences in game-playing

Origins 2006 was my third Origins in a row (I also attended way back when it was at Baltimore, just starting up). Something I try to do is observe who it is who are playing the games.

We already know that there are cultural differences in game playing. The Germans, for example, regard playing boardgames with the family as what we now call a "family value". American parents evidently don't feel that way--one of the K12 teachers said he'd be ecstatic if he could get parents to play boardgames with their kids. German manufacturers market educational games aimed to persuade parents to buy them for their kids. It may be harsh or cynical, but I'd say that Americans would tend to be suspicious of anything labelled "educational game" that they saw in Toys R Us or Wal-Mart--somehow "educational" can't be "fun" to us.

Game manufacturers would love to know if the Chinese and (Asiatic) Indians have a culture that encourages play of boardgames. That's over two billion people in opening markets.

I've written before about the graying of the wargamers, and it still seems to be the case that most of those playing board wargames--not a large number, really--tend to be middle-aged. The CCG players tend to be young. And the miniatures players (miniature armies, not HeroClix and such) also tend to be gray but with an admixture of quite young players. (A friend of mine who goes to Historicon, evidently the mecca for historical miniatures players, says they're starting to see youngsters there in some numbers.)

What's really striking, though, is the absence of black (and Hispanic) players. I live in an area that's about one third black, and that has sprouted hundreds of dual-language signs in the past 10 years or so because of immigrants from Mexico and parts south. Yet when I remember to look for black and Hispanic players, I see virtually none at game conventions, whether it's Origins, PrezCon, or WBC.

A black friend of mine says that there is no cultural difference between black and white Americans, but this doesn't appear to be true. If you're at Disney World, for example, and see a black person (there aren't many), odds are that person is not speaking American English. At Origins this year I saw two black people (at a convention that, last year, had 15,000 different individual attendees). One was a woman from Harlem, a teacher who had heard about the convention only a few days before and came because she's interested in using games to help teach. The other was someone I noticed in passing in the crowd.

Now given that I don't ordinarily notice the color of folks in a crowd, I once again did my unscientific survey, sitting in the same place I did last year (but early in the day, rather than late afternoon, unfortunately), and counted 200 people who passed by. I was mainly interested in the proportion of females (who seemed more numerous this year), but it was also easy to count blacks, as there were NONE in 200. I didn't try to count Hispanics as I can't reliabily recognize all Hispanics just from looking, but I saw few if any that were "obviously" Hispanic. There were 57 females in the 200 people.

I have managed to misplace my figures from last year (and that's hard to do when you use Info Select and Google Desktop....), but IIRC the proportion of females was somewhat less, and slightly more black.

Now does this mean black people don't play these games? Not necessarily, but it does mean they don't attend conventions for people who play these games, which may mean they don't play them much, or may mean something else.

It would be interesting to see data for ethnicity of those who play computer games. Anyone have any?

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Friday, July 14, 2006

Player elimination--how to avoid in Euro-wargames:

One of the most common characteristics of Euro-style games is "no player elimination". One of the most common characteristics of multi-player wargames (such as Diplomacy and Risk) is . . . player elimination. My question here is, how do we avoid player elimination in multi-player "Euro-wargames".

In case it isn't obvious, I'm not including two player games, as if you're wiped out, you lose, and the game is over. What I don't want is a game that has not ended, yet a player has been eliminated.

First, players can control several nations, with new ones appearing according to historical or other schedules. Individual nations may be eliminated, but the player will still have forces to control. This method is used in Ancient Conquest, Britannia, and the many derivative games of this type usually called "Britannia-like" games.

Another form of this "succession" is that players can choose to play new nations when their old ones lose steam or disappear entirely. This is used in Vinci and (somewhat differently) in History of the World, for example.

It's worth noting that the above games are victory point games rather than games with a territorial victory condition. Risk, Diplomacy, and other games that allow player elimination often have territorial victory conditions.

In games that reflect great chaos, an eliminated player can return as a new nation. For example, a player of a "civilized" nation can re-enter the game as barbarian horde (or more generally, re-enter game as new player).

In my prototype Germania, when a player feels his nation is in hopeless shape, he can take over another, non-player nation (barbarian invaders, usually) and play it as a player nation henceforth. On rare occasions a player can win this way, though usually not.

In general, in any game an inexhaustible supply of new resources (many card games, for example) often combined with lack of geography or very abstract geography, means that no player is eliminated. This can be achieved in a wargame, though one of the typical characteristics of a wargame is a specific geography.

For example, you can make the player's home unassailable by other players. Generally that home will deliver significant resources so that there's a chance to re-expand. I have used this in several prototypes such as Colonia (TM). Another possibility is that even if the home area is taken, the invader must leave (a "civilized" peace treaty) and the victim can begin to recover. For example, in Seas of Gold (TM) (prototype), a player's Italian maritime city may be sacked, but the attacker then extracts wealth and other benefits from the city yet is forced to leave. It is difficult but not impossible to win after suffering a Sack.

In these games I have abstracted the geography of the players' homes. In Colonia all begin in a single area (e.g. Greece), yet may expand throughout the Mediterranean world. In Seas of Gold all are in Italy, without considering the specific geography there because it would so strongly favor Venice and Genoa.

While some of the non-elimination games I've mentioned have some zero-sum characteristics, none is truly zero-sum, whereas Diplomacy certainly is, and Risk has strong zero-sum characteristics. One might posit that when a game is zero-sum, that is, when one player's gain is another's loss, and you cannot make a gain without causing someone else a loss, you will likely have player elimination. In a non-zero-sum game it will be much easier to avoid player elimination, because players can gain without causing others to lose an equivalent. Elimination of territorial victory conditions should also help avoid player elimination.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher
I've been thinking again about "alternate history" scenarios for Britannia. This would be events such as Charlemagne attacking Britain. At one time someone suggested the Huns might have beaten the "Romans" in 451, then raided Britain. This was my response:

In counterfactual history we can posit whatever we want, really, but as I see it there are two possibilities, the plausible and the "no way!".

Because of a fairly obscure circumstance, the Huns were never going to stay in Gaul, any more than the Avars or Magyars did when they raided France. In case anyone is interested I will explain.

All of these were horse nomads, "warriors of the steppe". They required grasslands to survive (living on their herds), and there aren't many natural grassland areas in Europe (which is good for us descendants of Europeans). The Hungarian plain is the westernmost, another is Bulgaria. The Huns, moving west for whatever reasons, settled in Hungary (which is actually named after a Magyar word, I understand, not after the Huns). They displaced some Germans in the process, who moved south and west. They raided from Hungary but always came back to where their horses would thrive. When the Huns were defeated by Gepids and others, the remnants either streamed back into the Russian steppe, or hung out in Bulgaria--many of these first Bulgarians may been Huns. (There was another, slavic, lot, more or less, later on.) Some Bulgars went to Bulgaria, some went up the Volga to become the Volga Bulgars. Who knows how many were Huns?

Anyway, the Avars showed up and took over the H. plain. They raided all over the place, besieged Constantinople unsuccessfully, finally got stomped by the Byzantines (but the emperor was murdered before he could finish them off (602)). After that they made much less trouble, but Charlemagne had to stomp them and "more or less" finish them off.

Then Magyars turned up in Hungary, and they raided all over, Balkans, Italy, Germany, France, until defeated twice by Germans (second time 955). After that they turned into Christian European Hungarians.

The Mongols stomped the Hungarians; fortunately for us, they streamed back into Asia when the Great Khan died. Could the Mongols have conquered Europe? Maybe they had the technical knowhow to take castles, but there were no grasslands to attract them, not much treasure--so why bother in the long run? And they never came back.

There were grasslands in between the two rivers of Mesopotamia, the Aljazeera (I've seen it spelled different ways), which is where the Seljuk Turkish nomads were happy to base themselves. The other horse area down there is the central Anatolian plateau--unfortunately for the Byzantines.

Why are these areas grasslands instead of forest? Insufficient rainfall, I think, same as the American Great Plains. Only near rivers did you see trees, out there, before men intervened.

So I'd count the Huns as "no way".

BTW, the Goths became horsie types when they migrated to the steppes, but I suspect they maintained an agricultural orientation, and so could adapt back when forced off the plains by the Huns. And they were willing to migrate to areas that, while not grasslands, had been cleared of forests for agriculture, that is, Spain, Italy, France. Not Germany (which wasn't cleared until 1100-1200 thereabouts).

Forests are heavy-duty barriers to the non-technological. Southern Sweden used to be part of Denmark because forest intervened between it and the main part of Sweden.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Thursday, July 13, 2006

For some reason, the other day I wondered about how a Britannia-like treatment would work with a hex board. (Hexes are not attractive to large markets, of course.) Ancient Conquest was a hex game.

Hexes give the opportunity for more detail in terrain...swamp, forest. And if they're fairly big hexes, say big enough to accommodate the new pieces, there might be room for terrain without having TOO many spaces.

I just tried to find an online source of transparent hex material to lay over the board, but no luck.

Not that I'm likely to pursue the matter.
I went to Paizo Publishing’s reception Saturday night at Origins to talk about their magazines. They publish Dragon and Dungeon, and used to publish Amazing Stories and Undefeated, but those have gone away. I used to write lots of articles for Dragon 25 years ago, but quit doing so when TSR (owner at the time) chose to buy all rights to articles. To me, no self-respecting writer sells all rights, though nowadays it is the most common deal even for those who write RPG books. At any rate, I learned that Paizo must purchase all rights, even to generic material, because they are required to as part of the deal that lets Paizo license the magazines from Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro (WotC bought TSR some years ago, Hasbro bought WotC). So unless I someday dig up some old material (which I own the rights to) and revise it to let it go to these magazines, I won’t be appearing there again.

The more interesting question was the continued survival of the magazines. The “Millennial Generation” (Gen Y) is disinclined to read; national newspaper readership is declining rapidly, and I suppose magazine readership is declining as well (and they’re getting shorter...). Erik Mona, the editor, told me that they did a reader survey, and found that the average reader is 35 years old. This really surprised me, as the contents of Dragon appear largely aimed at kids. Even more interesting, he said that when the results were compared with a survey from way back when Kim Mohan was editor, most of the results were the same except the readership then averaged 16! So it appears to be the same readership, much aged. He expressed doubt that a new magazine of this type could succeed now, and I have to agree. I didn’t ask questions about circulation, but I’d speculate that Dragon circulation is much lower than it was in the heyday of first-second edition D&D. Still, it’s enough to keep their company going (and put on a nice reception). Dungeon magazine is even more valuable, for third edition D&Ders, than it used to be for first, because there’s so much more detail required in the stats to create a complete adventure. I would still be subscribing to Dungeon, but I decided not to ref 3D&D any more about a year ago, and I already had dozens of unread issues.

I haven't had much luck finding information about trends in magazine circulation generally. However, news magazine circulation is holding steady, though getting older, while "the audience for pop culture, entertainment and lifestyle magazines is growing".

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I got used to doing several things at once when I worked in computer support, but this is ridiculous. I seem to be reading the following books, all at the same time (well, not literally):

Illuminatus Trilogy (just the appendices, which I may never finish; it wasn't a very good set of novels)
Atlas of Middle Earth (revised edition)
The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather (for Barbaria(TM) and other Rome games)
The War God's Own (David Weber, one of over a dozen Weber novels on a CD with a recent hardcover Honor Harrington book)
Patterns of Pillage by Galvin, about Caribbean pirates (for Pirates Gold (TM))
Castles & Crusades Players Handbook


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I have not played D&D in over a year, after playing at least 10 times a year for 29 years. And I haven't missed it. I can't even remember the name of one of my major characters! (I have quite a few). It's partly circumstance, people moving away, few referees, and partly devoting time to boardgame playtesting instead. But I occasionally think about it.

I think also that third edition D&D's failings ("fantasy Squad Leader", someone called it), its encouragement to look for unearned advantages (such as high character attributes and prestige classes) instead of playing skill, put me off the game, and I've decided it's most unlikely I'll ever ref 3/3.5 again.

Recently I bought Castles & Crusades, which was recommended to me as a return to first edition D&D simplicity and adventure. I mainly played first edition D&D, but a drawback to it is that you cannot have new players go buy the rulebook(s), as the game is long, long out of print. I have about half a dozen copies myself, but that's not entirely satisfactory. I looked at Hackmaster, which uses first edition D&D as a base, but I didn't care for some of the attitude involved (players competing with the referee--if a ref can't win that, he isn't worth a hoot). C&C has much less detail than Hackmaster, but makes some useful changes to the older D&D rules (e.g., monks have d12 hit dice instead of d4, and saving throws and skills are subsumed in ability-based dice rolling).

This game is almost word-for-word first/second edition D&D in many places. The list of magic items includes one item after another with the same names and characteristics. Clearly, at some point WotC allowed companies to reproduce and sell the older D&D editions nearly verbatim.

The Players Handbook is quite inexpensive at Amazon ($12.97 for 128 pages with pasteboard covers). That makes it practical for new players. List is $20.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher