Thursday, December 20, 2007

An "unbalanced" symmetric game

I've observed in various forums that symmetric games are usually perfectly balanced, except that there may be an advantage in order of movement. This is why, in many of my symmetric boardgames and card games, I've tried to eliminate order of movement or at least associate it with some factor that players have a chance to control.

Chess, for example, is a symmetric game with a big advantage to first-mover (white). Other games may have an advantage for last-mover. When I playtest a symmetric game with a set turn order, I try to record the score by move order so that I can look for patterns of advantage.

Recently playing a four player Wii game involving Olympic events (I don't recall the name of the game), I saw a symmetric game that gave a big advantage to later movers. This is not so much inherent in the game as inherent in the situation, where none of the players had played before, and some had not played the Wii before. So as we played we had to figure out the different controls for each event, and how we could succeed. Those who played early in turn order were disadvantaged because they had not seen as many attempts by all the players as those who played later.

The solution would be to randomize turn order. So the player who goes first in the first round of an event, might go third in the next round, then second, and so forth. I'd suspect, though, that Nintendo would respond that this would confuse the players, so just go with the disadvantage.

Once the players are familiar with the event's controls, the advantage is still with those who go later, as they have some idea of how much they have to do to win the event, which tells them how much risk to take. Here I might decide that in each round after the first, the players play in order of the standings, so at least the last-mover would be the player in last place.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Victory conditions summary for boardgames/cardgames

For the benefit of my digital game students, I'm trying to summarize/categorize the many victory conditions available in games (especially board and card games).

Achieve a Position
Occupy a location--e.g. Stalingrad, Axis & Allies require occupation of certain cities
Occupy a lot of territory--go, Carcassone, Blokus, many others
Make a pattern of pieces--Tic-Tac-Toe, my Law & Chaos
Move off the other side of board (or the end of the track, as in race games)
There are many other variations...

Wipe out/destroy something
Wipe out everyone--checkers/draughts, Risk [this could be called "last survivor", too]
Take a piece (chess, the King)

Accumulate something or get rid of something (possibly all your assets)
$$$$ (Monopoly)
sets of cards (many card games)
use up all your cards (many card games)

Deduce/find answer
if no deduction is required, this is a form of accumulate (as, sets)

Use up all your assets (be eliminated) either last, or first--can be seen as a form of accumulate something or get rid of something.

Scoring the most points at the end of a set time, or a set number of points, is very common (Settlers of Catan, Brittania), but this is an intermediate step to the achievement of some other goals--money, territory, whatever. Points are used when multiple victory conditions are wanted. For example, Britannia points include holding territory, temporarily occupying territory, killing enemy units, capturing certain locations, and more.

I am going to include "choose own objectives" separately. In the classic game Careers, players secretly allocate 60 points amongst Fame, Happiness, and Money. The first to achieve his objectives wins the game. While it is an "accumulate something" condition, the strategic variability provided by choice is exceptional and notable.

Finally, some games have "Missions" (newer editions of Risk). This is another form of points, that is, each mission is one of the other kinds of victory condition.

I don't consider sports to be a form of boardgame/cardgame, but even sports can be considered in these terms. For example, in baseball, you get points by achieving a position (getting around the diamond to home plate).

Lew Pulsipher

Friday, November 23, 2007

Some additional notes about multiplayer games

In a multiplayer boardgame or card game, the focus is on who (which player) you're going against, not on how you're getting there (maneuver). In a two player game, the focus is on how you're getting there, not on who you're going against, because there is no choice of the latter (you have only one).

In general, in non-electronic games, in multiplayer games you're playing the player much more than the "system". In electronic games, even multiplayer, you're playing the system first, then the other players. You can't "look them in the eye", you can't see body language. Yes, you can use Skype or some built-in system to talk to your opponents, but you may not KNOW them, and you won't see them. It makes a difference.

Do people who play as opponents in online multiplayer electronic games become friends? I'm not talking about co-operative games like Everquest, where they're in the same party/guild. I think the answer is no. Do players of multiplayer non-digital games face to face become friends? Often, if they aren't friends already.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Design Problems to Watch for in Multi-player Games

Digital game development students aren't used to thinking about the consequences of games involving more than two opposing interests, because most electronic games include only two sides, one often a machine opponent. Several problems named by boardgamers can occur when there are three or more sides in a game. Many of these are much more likely to occur when the victory condition amounts to "wipe out the opposition":
• Turtling
• Leader bashing
• Sandbagging
• Kingmaking (petty diplomacy problem)

Turtling occurs when a player sits back and builds up strength while others expend theirs. This can often be seen in multi-player online RTS games. When there are more than two sides, a player can hang back, building up bases and technology, while he lets other players slaughter one another's forces. Then he comes out and cleans up the remainder.

A general solution is to use a different victory condition. E.g., capture of certain locations as the means of victory forces players to come out of their shells. Giving points for destoying the opposition also encourages aggression rather than turtling.

Another solution is to provide economic incentives to be aggressive. This often involves capturing economically valuable areas, so that a successful aggressive player can build up forces faster than the turtle.

Leader bashing tends to happen in games without much hidden information, that is, it must be clear who the leader is. Then the other players gang up on the leader. ("Of course", many would say, why wouldn't one try to weaken the leader?) If it isn't clear who the leader is, this is less likely to occur. If it is hard for some players, at least, to affect the leader in any given situation, then there will be less leader bashing, as those players will distract the ones who can affect the leader.

Sandbagging is often a consequence of leader bashing. A player will try to get himself in second or third place, rather than first, so that when the first place player is bashed, the sandbagger can swoop in for the win. Timing, obviously, is quite important here.

The solution to sandbagging is to reduce leader-bashing to a reasonable level.

Kingmaking is a consequence of what R. Wayne Schmittberger calls the "petty diplomacy problem". Where there are three interests, and one recognizes that they/he cannot win the game, that loser may be able to determine which of the other two wins. Even if the game is being played by more than three, it will often come down to three major interests. More generally, if a losing player can determine who wins, you have kingmaking in play.

One way to avoid this is to structure the game so that a player cannot be sure he is going to lose until it's too late for him to become a kingmaker. Of course, some players believe kingmaking is the "wrong way to play", that every player should try to win no matter what. But designers cannot rely on players to be self-governing in this way.

Another way to avoid kingmaking is to make it too hard for a player to use all his capability against another to prevent that other from winning. As a simple example, in a race it's usually hard for a losing player to have much effect on the leading players.

Now here are some alternatives to a victory condition of "kill everyone else". These help mitigate some of the problems we've been discussing. These are:
• economies (especially zero-sum)
• points
• missions

Economies. Players receive more assets as the game progresses, in accordance with some rules relating to locations or resources, not merely to a table of additional appearances. If a player plays well, he will earn more new assets than if he plays badly.

In a zero-sum game, each player's gain is another player's loss. The classic game Diplomacy is the best example of this. There are 34 "supply center" locations on the board. A player gets one unit (army or fleet) per center. If a player takes another's center, the first is going to increase his forces, while the second will lose forces, at the next building period.

Points. Players earn points for certain events or achievements. This could be capture of certain locations, destruction of enemy assets, holding certain places at given times, and so forth. In a wargame, a player could be wiped out, yet if he's done enough beforehand he can still have the most points to win the game. In general, where points are concerned the game does not continue until all but one player is wiped out. Either there will be a time limit or a point limit.

E.g., in my "light wargame" Britannia, players receive points for holding areas, occupying areas during a certain period, for dominating regions (king of England), for forcing nations to submit, and even for killing enemy units. A nation may be wiped out in the course of the game, but each player controls several, and the points that defunct nation earned still count. Points are based on historical performance, and are accumulated at different paces, so the current score is not a good gauge of who is actually winning the game.

Missions. This is a form of points because the mission involves completion of particular goals, but when a mission is completed the game is over, so no point record is needed. A mission can be as simple as capturing certain cities, or much more complex. Occasionally the missions are hidden, that is, you don't know which mission your opponent is trying to fulfill.

Now let's take Risk as an example. Risk is not a particularly good game, but a great many people have played it, and it exhibits most of our design flaws.

In Risk the object is to completely wipe out all competition. It uses economy to try to avoid the four problems. You get extra armies at the start of your turn if you hold an entire continent, to provide an economic incentive to attack. There is also card acquisition: you must take a territory in a turn in order to get a card, and matched sets of three cards gain you large numbers of armies. You also get armies according to the number of territories you hold. If you turtle or sandbag you get fewer new armies than your competitors. In fact, it's typical for players to attack as much as they can until they're out of spare armies, in order to limit how many territories their opponents control (and consequently how many new armies the opponents get).

There is certainly leader-bashing, but some players may not have forces near enough to the leader to do any damage. You are often better off wiping out a weak power rather than attacking the strongest, because when you wipe out an opponent, you get his cards, and if you can make another set you get more armies (in increasing numbers) with which to immediately continue attacking.

Kingmaking is also quite limited, as by the time a player realizes he's a goner, he doesn't have enough force to do much damage to one of the leaders.

Despite all this, a couple decades after the original English edition of Risk was published, "Mission Cards" were added to the mix. Each player receives one with a mission unknown to his opponents. A mission might be something like "Control Asia" (the largest continent). Hence a player can win the game, by completing his mission, long before he wipes out all opposition. Unfortunately, the mission cards aren't modified by the number of players, so some may be much easier to achieve than others in certain situations.

(Another well-known board wargame, Axis&Allies, is two sides even when there are five players (Germany and Japan on one side, Britain, US, and Russia on the other), hence not subject to these problems.)

How to improve replayability in a game

While the "cult of the new" tends to mean that games aren't played many times before players move on to the next game, replayability is still a desirable feature of any game.

Most of the following amounts to "vary the experience", which of course is what provides replayabilty--varied experience:

• "Multiple paths to victory"
• Variable rather than set starting positions
• More than two players
• Asymmetric game
• Use of event cards
• Scenarios
• Optional rules
• Different sets of rules
• Hidden information
• Special abilities

"Multiple paths to victory" will result in much-improved replayability. Drawback: makes it much harder to balance the game

Variable rather than set starting positions (players choose their starting positions). A few games offer both options. Risk offers a random setup and a setup that lets players choose locations. The drawback: this lengthens the game.

More than two players (each player provides variability of himself). The drawback: lengthens the game.

Asymmetric game (standard starting position is not the same for all players). The drawback: makes it much harder to balance the game (i.e., give each player an equal chance of winning).

Use of event cards (especially in symmetric games or games without other chance factors). The drawback: can be seen to increase the influence of chance. But event cards often adds enjoyable color to the game as well.

Scenarios (which amount to differences in positions or victory conditions (or both)). Used primarily in historical games. The drawback: more time-consuming to design.

Optional rules. Again this seems most common in historical games. These are alternative ways to play the game. At some point, many rule choices in a game design are largely arbitrary, that is, one choice leads to just as interesting a game as the other choice, but the designer must choose one. The other can become an optional rule.

The drawback: virtually none, if the optional was tried sufficiently in playtesting.

Different sets of rules (for example Basic, Standard, and Advanced). The drawback: longer rules, and perhaps a feeling from some contemporary players that there's something wrong with the game because there's not "one way to play".

Hidden information. The game can diverge along many different paths when some information is hidden. Event Cards are an example of the use of hidden information, and electronic games typically enjoy the benefit, as the computer tracks the information much more easily than non-computer methods can. The drawback: something/someone has to track the hidden information, and in some cases, cheating may be possible.

Special Abilities. Cosmic Encounter thrives on the variety of special abilities for each side. Role-playing games typically include a vast number of skills, feats, spells, and classes, not all of which can be included in any single game or series of games. The drawback: play balance can suffer; and there's a lot of information to be devised and incorporated into the game.

Finally, people have suggested that, in general, the more chaos in a game, the more replayability it is likely to have. Even Go, which has none of the overt variation I've listed above, is highly replayable because a single move can change circumstances fairly strongly.

Another point of view is that when the number of reasonable choices is maximized, replayability is enhanced. But too many choices can also lead to "analysis paralysis".

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The virtues of cards in "boardgames"

I am going to try to summarize the virtues of using cards in boardgames--or perhaps in boardgame-card hybrids. I'm doing this primarily for the benefit of my students, but I thought it might be worth contributing to others as well.
(This has also been posted on

• Cards reduce the need to read rules before playing ("put the rules on the cards")
• Cards are a simple way to add color and visual interest to a game (as opposed to expensive 3D sculptured pieces)
• Cards provide a simple and clean way to add "chrome" to a game (chrome usually involves rule exceptions)
• Cards provide a convenient way to "inventory" game information
• Cards are an easy way to increase variety in a game (which usually increases replayability as well)
• Cards can be used as a substitute "board"
• Cards are a more acceptable means of introducing variation through chance, as many people now dislike dice rolling

Cards reduce the need to read rules before playing

"Put the rules on the cards". This is the easiest way to simplify the difficulties of learning a game, especially for those teaching it to others. A player only needs to consider/understand the card-rules when they hold or draw the card. Well-known collectible card game designers introduced me to the "seven line rule": players won't read more than seven lines of rules on a card, so don't put more on them. For millennials the rule is certainly "the less text the better".

This is also a good way to reduce the size of the rulebook. Big rulebooks are daunting even if the game itself is fairly simple.

Cards are a simple way to add color and visual interest to a game

Cards often host attractive color graphics, much larger than you can put on tiles or counters. They are cheaper than sculptured three dimensional figures. 3D figures are seldom multi-colored, too.

Cards provide a simple and clean way to add "chrome" to a game

"Chrome" is the term for special rules that often reflect special historical or personal circumstances. Hence chrome usually involves rule exceptions. And where "chrome" includes a visual, a card is the best way to illustrate/introduce it. This relates also to the first point, putting rules on the cards rather than in the rulebook.

If I designed Britannia today I might include cards to add "chrome" to the game. A variant using "Nation Specialty Cards" already exists (my design, not released).

Cards provide a convenient way to "inventory" information

When players need to keep track of what items or spells or capabilities they possess, cards are an excellent choice. They're familiar, easy to organize, and have both text and graphics. For example, spells are tracked in EL:the Card Game (see below) via cards.

Cards are an easy way to increase variety in a game

"Event cards" are quite common in games these days. Lots of different scnearios/situations can be introduced in a small deck of cards.

The variety of the cards usually increases replayability as well. More possibilities equals more paths that the game can follow. Players can play many times and still be able to say "I never saw that happen before".

Cards can be used as a substitute "board"

I've devised several prototype games that use cards in place of a board. From a commercial point of view, this results in a much less expensive package that is easier to ship and to find shelfspace for.

In Battle of Hastings some of the cards represent Saxon and Norman units; the play area is so crowded until late in the game that the cards can be arranged in a 7 by 6 array of "spaces", though I also have two strips, one to either side, to help orient the rows.

In Enchanted Labyrinth: the Card Game (derived from EL the boardgame) some of the cards represent the "dungeon" being explored by wizards and their minions. As creatures move into new areas, the cards are turned face up to reveal the contents of the area.

In Zombie Escape, face-down cards represent the building (a reform school) that the players try to escape from in the face of zombie infestation. Once again, discovery occurs when players move onto the card areas.

Cards are a more acceptable means of introducing variation through chance

Many people now dislike dice rolling, if only as a reaction against the random "roll and move" mechanic so infamous in older American family games. People believe (and sometimes it's true) that they can manage cards in a way they cannot manage dice rolls.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Playtesting is "Sovereign"

I've been known to say about game design that "Prototypes are sovereign", that you haven't really designed a game until you have a playable prototype. That's because, until the game is played, you just cannot really know what you've got. But I would be just as right to say "playtesting is sovereign".

When you design a game, you try to see in your "mind's eye" how the game is going to work, but until you play it, you simply cannot know what is going to work and what is not. The first few times you play, many things will change (provided, of course, that you're willing to make changes, which is a major requirement of a game designer).

Granted more experienced designers can foresee weaknesses and eliminate them before reaching the prototype stage. But we're interested here in teaching game design, so this is addressed to inexperienced designers.

Let's clarify something right now. I am talking about playtesting to improve gameplay, not testing to squash programming bugs. The latter is what is often meant by "testing" when people talk about electronic games, and this testing takes place late in the development cycle, when the gameplay and appearance are set in stone (because it's too late to make major changes). This bug testing ("Quality Assurance") is aimed at making sure the game works the way it is supposed to, not at whether the way it's supposed to work is good or not. "Bug testing" essentially does not exist in non-electronic games, although it is important (and often forgotten) to test the production version of a game, as converting the prototype into the published version can introduce its own set of problems. (For example, the boxes on Population Track on the FFG Britannia board are really too small for the purpose; this new version of the board evidently was not actually tested.)

So: here I'm talking about playtesting the gameplay and assorted details (such as user interface) that strongly affect gameplay.

There are three stages to playtesting: solo playtesting (also called "alpha"), local playtesting ("beta"), and "blind" playtesting (also part of the "beta" stage). (In electronic games, often the in-house testing is all called "alpha", and outside testing is called "beta".)

Few non-video games are meant to be played alone. Yet in solo playtesting, the designer plays the game solitaire, playing all the sides independently as best he can. At this stage the designer is trying to get the game to a state where other playtesters have a good likelihood of enjoying it, and of playing it through to the end. At solo stage the designer might try a portion of the game and then stop because something isn't working, or because he has a better idea. When asking other people to play a game I would never stop a game in the middle, or try something that might be so bad I'd want to stop, though I know of designers who think nothing of doing this.

Most video games can be played alone, and if there's a more-than-one-player component, it's usually impossible for the designer to play several sides by himself.

At the local playtesting stage, people are asked to play the game through, usually in the presence of the designer when it is a non-electronic game. Almost always, at the beginning of this beta testing I do not have a full set of rules, I just have notes about how to play, and some of the details are in my head. (This is a big reason why it is much quicker to design a non-electronic game. With an electronic game all the "rules" must be settled precisely before the programming of the prototype can be completed. The programming is the equivalent of the rules of the non-electronic game.) As local playtesting goes on, I make a rough set of rules, then finally write a full set of rules.

As the local playtests occur, I write down notes about what I see and hear, and especially about answers to questions that need to be incorporated into the full rules. By the time I have a full set of rules, I usually refer to the rules for detailed questions, to see if the rules cover that question and whether it is easy to find that information.

The third stage is "blind" testing, where someone is given the game and must play it without any intervention from the designer. This is a test of the rules, somewhat akin to "bug testing". Are the rules clear enough that people can play the game from the rules? What questions do the blind testers come up with, and how can the rules be improved as a result? Unfortunately, nowadays people are often poor rules-readers, so I advocate electronic tutorials to help people learn how to play a game.

I know from experience with published games, especially Britannia, that there will ALWAYS be people who misread rules, sometimes willfully. 99% clarity of detail is about the best you can get using the English language.

In a sense, electronic games can jump to "blind" testing quickly, because by their very nature these games hide the rules from the players, enforcing them through the programming. This is an advantage of electronic games over non-electronic, that no one needs to read and understand a set of rules.

Game design, when taken to completion, is highly interactive. Playtesting sets good games apart from bad, and playtesting is (or should be) interactive. In a separate post I list some of the things you must look for while doing beta testing.

There is no doubt that the last 20% of refinement of a game takes 80% of the designer's time. Playtesting is time-consuming, tweaking rules is time-consuming. In the non-electronic world, often a "developer", another person, does much of this testing and tweaking. I personally strongly prefer to do this myself, even though it is much less fun than creating new games, because I don't want someone else "screwing up" my game. (See for some of my experiences.)

Even when you don't intend to change the rules, rewriting them introduces unintended consequences (as evidenced by the Britannia Second Edition rules rewrite by FFG--and apparently having no testing of the new version of the rules compounded the problem). When you rewrite to change a rule, the repercussions are often larger. So a remarkable amount of testing is needed.

In the electronic world it is difficult to quickly and cheaply make big changes in a prototype. This is one of the problems that all makers of electronic games face, and a major reason why some electronic games are not very good. By the time the development studio has a playable prototype, it is too late in the schedule to make the changes that playtesting reveals are necessary.

At some point during playtesting of a game, the designer must decide if "there's something in it" (as I put it): if the game is really good enough that people might play it, like it, and would buy the finished version of it. There's really two times when this should happen, once during solo playtests (alpha testing), the second time during playtesting by others (beta testing). The "something in it" point in solo playtesting is an indicator that it's about ready for others to play. The "something in it" point in beta testing comes when observing people playing the game and their reactions during and after playing.

Usually I need to tweak a game quite a bit from its state at the end of solo play, before I can reach the "something in it" stage of beta testing. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be anything in it during beta testing, and I set it aside for further thought. Sometimes I realize, from solo playing, that there isn't "something in it", at least not yet, so I set it aside at that point.

I strongly suspect that novice designers rarely understand these stages. Their egos become involved, and they assume that because they took the time to make the game, and it's their idea, there must be something in it. In extreme cases, the "designer" thinks he has "something in it" when all he has is an idea, that is, when he has virtually nothing at all. The number of people who think they've successfully designed a game, yet haven't playtested it at all, is remarkable. Playtesting is the meat of successful design, not the end. (I confess that I don't think of "development" as a process separate from design.)

So how do you recognize when there's "something in" a game? That's hard to say, unfortunately. Surveys or written feedback won't necessarily reveal it. In alpha testing, the "something in it" stage is a gradual realization, coming from observing my own thought processes as I play. My games are, almost without exception, strategy games. When I "see" myself thinking hard about the strategies, and liking the options, then I may think there's something in it.

In my case, in beta testing when spontaneously (without any urging) people say "I'd buy this game", I know I've got something. However, this is rare, and I don't remember anyone ever saying that about Britannia, or Dragon Rage, or Valley of the Four Winds, but they have all been quite popular. Perhaps better, if people want to play the game again, in this day of the "cult of the new" when hardly anyone plays a game twice in the same session, there may be "something in it".

I am very low-key in beta playtesting, preferring to watch reactions of people rather than try to solicit opinions, in part because people (being polite for the most part) won't say negative things even when asked. I also try not to play, as 1) the designer playing in a game tends to skew results and 2) when I play, I do a worse job of playing, and a worse job of evaluating the playtesting, than if I did either alone. As I'm that strange sort of person who enjoys watching games as much as playing, why play?

I do not "inflict" a game on players until I think it is good enough to be OK to play, that is, I've reached that first "something in it" stage. Evidently some other designers playtest with other people very early: not me. My playtesters play games to have fun, not as on obligation, and most are not hard-core boardgamers, so I do what I can to make sure the game MIGHT be fun before I ask them to play.

As I said, playtesters tend to be polite. It's hard to find out what they really think. I am skeptical that a feedback sheet will make a difference. Rather,
I sometimes try the "Six Hats" method (devised by Edward de Bono) when playtesting; specifically I'll ask players successively to put on their black hat (the judge), then the red hat (intuition and emotion) to see how they assess a game, and then the yellow hat (the positive side of assessing an idea) to see what they like about a game. With local playtesters I sometimes ask them to think of ways to make the game better (the green hat). Google "de Bono" or "Six Hats" for more information.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Things to watch for when playtesting

I'm repeating this from my teachgamedesign blog. It was done in haste, so I'll probably think of additional items.

Length. A game is always longer to new players, of course. But if it takes too long for new players, will they play again? Length is of course quite dependent on how much players enjoy what is happening in the game. The boardgame Civilization can take 8 to 12 hours, but those who love the game don't find that time weighs upon them.

Down time. Downtime is the time people must wait while someone else is taking a turn. This can be a problem even in a turn-based electronic game. Do people get bored waiting for their turn?

Is the game balanced. Even if the game is symmetric (all players start with identical situations), is there an advantage to playing first (or last). Chess is symmetric except for who moves first, but move-first is a big advantage.

Dominant Strategy. Look for any dominant strategy ("saddle point"). This is a strategy that is so good that a player who wants to win must pursue it; or a strategy so good that some will pursue it, yet that strategy renders the game less than entertaining. For example, in a Euro-style 4X game I've designed, one player found that by getting together a sufficiently large force, along with certain technology research, he could completely dominate other players who weren't pursuing the identical strategy. I want the game to offer a variety of ways to success, so I had to change the rules fairly extensively. This is why it is very important to have testers who are dynamite game players, so that they'll find these strategies during testing, rather than have someone find it after the game is published. I'm luck that I have one such player, and that I can be such a player myself when I put my mind to it.

Analysis paralysis. Are there too many things to watch for or keep track of, or too many choices, so players either freeze up or give up on figuring out what is the best thing to do? There are always "deliberate" (slow) players, the question is, is everyone slow or frustrated?

Rules difficult to grasp. What do the players find hard to grasp. (In my prototype Age of Exploration, players had trouble grasping the difference between movement of units and placement of units. I used the same distinction in an abstract stones-and-hexes prototype, and no one has a problem. Even if, after playing, players "get it", it might be necessary to change something. (In AoE I changed the rules extensively to recast/eliminate the distinction.)

What do players tend to forget? This isn't quite the same thing as what's difficult to grasp. Some rules just don't stick in people's minds. Is there anything you can do about it? Is there some play aid to help people remember?

What do players not bother to use? Some rules exist but no one uses them. If the threat of using them is not making a difference in the game, then perhaps you should eliminate the option. For example, in my hex-and-stones game Law and Chaos I originally allowed people to move a piece rather than place one. This happened rarely, as it was usually better to place another piece and increase the number on the board. So I eliminated the possibility, except as an "optional rule".

Here are some items added from comments on boardgamegeek:

Adequate control. Do the players feel that they can exert a measure of control over what happens in the game? Remember, any (strategic) game is a series of challenges and actions in response to those challenges. (Harmony)

Horns of a Dilemma. On the other hand, are there enough plausible decisions in a play to make the players think, but not so many that "analysis paralysis" sets in. Even in a simple game, if a player can do only two of five possible actions in a turn, is there tension here or are the plays obvious? As one commenter put it, do the players sometimes feel "so much to do, so few actions"?

Player interaction. Do the players have to take the plays of other players into account? Yes, some games are virtually multi-player solitaire, and some players are happy with this. But most players want to be able to affect other players with their moves.

Taking it to the Max. Can extreme behavior within the rules break the game? Sure, if someone pursues a bad strategy, they'll lose. The question is, is there some extreme strategy that results in an unfair game?

Components and Play Aids. Do the physical parts of the game help play flow smoothly, or does something need to be changed? Is there too much record-keeping? How can it all be simplified?

Stages of play. You probably learn this in alpha/solo testing, if you do solo testing (which I strongly recommend). Are there identifiable stages in the game, especially ones where the typical run of play changes? E.g., in chess there is the early, middle, and end games. Pieces are deployed in the opening, mix it up in the midgame, and so forth. An exploration game has the expansion period followed by consolidation and then (usually) conflict. Etc.

Player interest/"fun". What part(s) of the game seem to be most interesting to the players? I'm not in favor of trying to figure out "fun", because fun comes from the people who are playing more than from the game design itself. And there are many games that I wouldn't call "fun" (including Britannia) that are nonetheless interesting and even fascinating.

Finally, remember Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery's maxim: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New Blog and some progress

It's been nearly a month since I posted here, because new, large classes, and associated blogging, have taken up much of my time.

My new blog about teaching game design is at:

Ian Schreiber has a very interesting blog with a similar name,

There is also an apparently-inactive blog with another similar name,

I started a blog that was specifically for my classes, but my school has the unusual policy that no information specific to assignments in a class can be on the Web where anyone in the world can see it. Sooner or later the IT department will offer a blogging capability that will limit accessibility to members of the school community.

I've now played Normannia five times and Frankia (middle scenario) three times. I've also developed a simple card game, Zombie Escape, to help illustrate to students the process of game design. I've revived a very old game that, 25 years ago, I thought was one of my best (Britannia was another of those four; only Brit has been published). I've got some playtesting done on IMM, and some of the students play Law & Chaos so single-mindedly at game club meetings that I kind of wish they'd stop and play something else!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

New school and enthusiastic students

Just as school starts, I've been playing or otherwise working on several "Brit-like" games, something I haven't done in a long time. The trick now is to finish some rule-sets to the point that I can send some of these games to testers, as I'm not likely to get much testing of the longer ones done locally.

Local playtesting is looking up, however. I'm now at Wake Tech teaching game design, and out of about 100 students there seem to be a fair number enthusiastic about playing non-digital games (as opposed to digital games, which everyone is enthusiastic about). One of the students has taken it upon himself to apply for official club status. Although Monday was the first Monday of the term, we had an impromptu meeting and four people played versions of Law & Chaos.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Invisible Hand

The pseudonymous "Adam Smith" wrote, in "Wealth of Nations", about the invisible hand "to illustrate how those who seek wealth by following their individual self-interest assist society as a whole and build the common good." (Wikipedia) In Britannia-like games, there seems to be an "invisible hand" that tends to balance the game, over many plays, as players recognize that everything they do affects the game as a whole. E.g., in situations where it might be possible to wipe out a nation, a player might choose not to do so because he knows that later this will be of too much benefit to a third player.

Now this doesn't prevent games from being unbalanced--Maharajah 4 player comes to mind, though I understand that can be fixed--but it does help counterbalance problems.

Unfortunately, the "invisible hand" depends on experience and foresight from players, which may be a reason why experienced players often prefer to play with other experienced players, rather than with newbies. The newbies won't foresee the long-term effects of their actions the way the experienced ones can.

From a designer's point of view, the problem is getting playtesters with enough experience to "enforce the invisible hand".

I am particularly worried about the "invisible hand" in a game like EPIC Barbaria, where there are many small nations that might be easily wiped out (there are 44 or so nations among the five players, and few have maxes as high as 10 armies). There's always a temptation, for players, to wipe out a relatively weak nation that foresight shows will often score a lot of points.

In Brit, my solution to this worry about important nations being wiped out prematurely was the submission rules, and this is still the #1 method, though I try to stay away from it because it's fiddly (Brigs to Angles case in point). In Normannia the Bretons are rather vulnerable, but here I have the historical precedent of the appearance of exile Alain Barbertorte from England, who reconquered Brittany from the Vikings using troops from outside the country. In Barbaria I have the relatively weak Spanish vulnerable to the Muslims, and in cases like that I can have new troops simply appear in Asturias even though it might be controlled by Muslims. In the case of the Irish in Normannia, the Vikings might be able to wipe out the Irish, so I've made Connacht an "unoccupiable" province for the Vikings, and the Irish keep coming. In Viking Gold (not a Brit-like game) I have all areas in Ireland rise up against occupiers in the last two rounds of the four-round game. These techniques reflect the fact that Ireland was never Romanized, never united under one administration, and the chaotic Irish keep throwing up gangs of warriors from their forested fastnesses to fight off invaders.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Brit-like prototypes

At WBC I wasn't able to get other people to playtest games, partly because I had to leave Friday afternoon just as more people were showing up, partly because of an inconvenient Britannia tournament schedule, partly because a couple of my most frequent testers did not come this year.

I did play a "new" game, Normannia: the Viking Age in the West, three times, and I'm continuing to play it. I am pretty enthusiastic about it, a "Euroized" Brit that is working well and seems to have some balance.

I've posted an account of a game of Barbaria (formerly Dark Ages), EPIC version, that I played just before WBC.

I hope that I can get Normannia and Arthuria to a point of sending out to playtest soon, but this depends partly on how many playtesters I can find at my new school (where I'll be teaching four sections of (digital) game design).

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Book review

Review: Game Design: Principles, practice, and techniques--the ultimate guide for the aspiring game designer. Jim Thompson, Barnaby Berbank-Green, Nic Cusworth. Wiley, ISBN 0-471-96894-3. Full color, 192 pages including brief index and gloassary.

This is a very good book, particularly for teens. It is written primarily by a teacher, and makes strong use of color and illustrations. Each topic is covered in just two facing pages, usually. There is very little long text, again a plus where young people used to reading (skimming) the Web are concerned.

In the end, the book is not about game design generally, but about game design and production of video games that focus on a single character--FPS, action, and the like--the kind of game that particularly appeals to teenage boys.

This is the first book I've read that describes the process of modelling characters and then making them ready to be manipulated by programming.

There is almost no recognition--in common with most other books about digital games--that you can plan everything about a game down to a "T", but you won't really know whether you've got something good until you have a playable prototype. I've just been reading a history of the original Civilization game on Gamasutra that describes Sid Meir's process. He programmed, Bruce Shelley (who later made Age of Empires and earlier was the Avalon Hill "developer" for the American version of Britannia) played the game, they discussed what worked and what didn't, Sid modified, Bruce played, and so forth. The playable prototype was the key to success.

Perhaps genre games such as FPS are so similar to an archetype that you can plan it all beforehand and still get it (mostly) right. This "front-loaded" attitude primarily comes from the necessity for game studios to present detailed plans (the Game Design Document) to potential publishers. If the publisher likes the plan, they put up the money to enable the studio to produce the game. To put it another way, it's now too expensive to produce working prototypes of A-list games, so studios produce written plans. No wonder there's little risk or innovation in these games.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Brit-like game in block format?

Has anyone played a "block game" with four sides? By block game I mean one that uses small stand-up wooden blocks with a sticker on one side, so that the owner can see what the block represents, but other players cannot. Each block can be turned on different sides to represent different strengths, as many as four.

Virtually all block games are two-sided--I don't know of one with three or four sides--but I'm told that four sides work. To me, there'd be less than a 90 degree angle to opposing pieces, at times, and inevitably other players would sometimes see the "secret identity" of the piece.

Someone suggested using the block game format for a Brit-like game. This not only means how do we solve the four-side problem, but also how do we make a Brit-like game with no more than 100 pieces (the practical limit for production purposes, evidently, owing to expense). The low piece limit calls for a Euro-like game. The "step" format means that one piece could represent several armies, but you'd have to have a map with relatively few areas or use an alternative method to indicate occupation of areas (small markers instead of the blocks).

Even with the alternative method, the area count would have to be quite low--20 to 25. The lowest piece count I have in a game I've played is 127 armies plus leaders plus capitals and forts (Caledonia). The average number of pieces on the board in Brit is about 55, but at times up into the 70s and 80s. Brit has 37 land areas--so the average count is about 1.5 per land area, even though some of the pieces will be at sea most of the time. Italia has 624 pieces, Brit 200-some (which may be the fewest of any Brit-like game).

Think also, four players gives 25 blocks per player. The number of nations would have to be about 3 per player, which would also fit the Euro aim. But in only one of the many Brit-like ideas I've been working with for years, have I got a set of only 12 nations. Usually I struggle to keep it to 16, and often don't.

Using the hidden-information blocks, there'd also be a potential problem identifying which blocks of a color belonged to which nations.

I'm not sure Euro-wargamers would want to mess with the hidden nature of the blocks, or even the steps. I'm told that it's possible to abandon the secret information (lay the blocks down--also avoiding the nation identification problem) but retain the steps by pointing the blocks correctly away from the player. Has anyone played a game of this sort? Sounds awkward to me.

With so few units a dice-based combat method might not work well. I'd prefer using my card-based method, but cards are pretty expensive, too.

Commmand and Colors:Ancients lays the blocks down, I'm told, and
gamers like to have blocks rather than cardboard counters. I bought a big bag of blocks (variable sizes) used for the game but I didn't buy the game!

I like to try to impose constraints on designs, because sometimes the result is interesting and different. But I'm not sure that anything on the scale of a Britlike game can fit a block game format. A more or less square map (if one is trying to use hidden identities) of a relatively limited area might work best. Any comments or experiences?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Booths and sessions at Origins '07

Being a volunteer at a booth at a convention is a way to become known to publishers. But it can be tough, sitting (or standing) there up to eight hours a day for four days.

For example, at one booth the gang assumed that chairs would be provided. Instead, the convention wanted $47 per chair. So the boothies there (who hadn't brought their own chairs) had some sore feet.

I ask nosy questions. In particular I would ask how sales were, as I know that often the smaller publishers (and maybe the larger ones) can barely make enough to break even. In this case there seemed to be fewer booths than last year, which meant many more tables and chairs in the empty spaces where the attendees would rest their feet and play games.

July 4 just preceding the convention might have reduced attendance, who knows? After a while GAMA will probably announce the attendance figures.

Anyway, sales seems to work out this way. Thursday is the busiest. People spend their money when they get there, to make sure they get what they want before it's gone. (I bought two things Sunday; one was the last one in stock, the other was the last of two. The sellers really do run out of some things.) Friday might be 1/6th of all sales, Saturday might be the busiest, or almost as busy a Thursday. And then Sunday some people do come and spend money.

Someone had heard that next year people would be able to get a cheap or free badge to get into the exhibit hall only. As it is, you must pay the $40-$60 for the entire convention.

BTW, there are many games running at Origins, and virtually all of them cost some small amount ($1.50, $3.00, even $4.50 for some of the RPG stuff).

The available seminars (the free ones, not the historical ones that are part of the "War College") seemed relatively few in number and not very interesting. I was limited, of course, in what I could attend because I did three two-hour seminars. About the only one I attended was Paizo's "what's coming up", which was particularly interesting insofar as they can no longer publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines: where do they turn for revenue? They have interesting plans for "adventurepath" publications, and some clever card products such as a deck of results for critical hits (which I won as a door prize). There were about 14 attendees, fewer than any of my sessions, but from past experience, not a bad number.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Does online play of pblished boardgames help or hinder sales?

The subject expresses my basic question, but some explanation is called for.

Boardgames tend to be social activities. But sometimes a game is sufficiently unusual that it's hard to get people to play at the local game meet (or maybe there isn't a local game meet...). Online (or e-mail (PBEM)) play is an alternative for those who can't find interested players locally, or who want to play at a more convenient pace than face-to-face requires. Online/PBEM play tends to emphasize the strategic aspects of a game at the cost of social aspects. Online play can be set up to be real-time, more like face-to-face, but PBEM is always non-real-time.

I'm interested in these possiblities in relation to my game Britannia. Brit is a long game, and a game that requires some study and thought to play well. It isn't the sort of game that people just pull out at a game meet and recruit players to play it right then. Hence it lends itself to online/PBEM treatment, and the PBEM community is quite lively. I have "watched" a couple PBEM groups that play at a very fast pace (several moves a day), using an online dice-roller to resolve combat, and these folks play one game after another (one group is on its 20th consecutive game). There are PBEM tournaments as well.

Yet Fantasy Flight Games, the current publisher, chose not to post on their Britannia Web site an excellent article about how to play by e-mail. (It's on if you're interested, and also on the BGG Britannia site.) The reasoning was that someone could use the Cyberboard kit (which includes a map), with the rules posted online, and play without purchasing a copy of the game. (They'd actually have to get copies of the nation cards as well.)

Make no mistake about it, there are certainly times when people play a game by making a copy themselves (pirating it), rather than purchase one. Evidently, respect for copyright, or for rights of creators, is much lower than 30 years ago. In old hex-map and cardboard counters days it was fairly easy to make a copy of a game, given a paper map and paper pieces. Years ago no one gave away the rules to their game, as many publishers do today. I think pubishers realize that in the computer age it's so easy to scan rules that there is no way to "keep them secret" from people who haven't bought the game. So why not post the rules so that players have a chance to read them and decide whether to buy the game?

Even today, desktop published games use the same make-your-game principle. I believe that one major reason for the inclusion of three-dimensional "bits" in games, and of attractive color art (especially on cards), is to help persuade people to buy the game instead of using a pirated scanned copy.

On the other hand, Days of Wonder makes free online play of some of their games part of their support package. I recall hearing that Ticket to Ride had been played online more than a million times, and that was two years ago. Evidently, they don't believe that online play hurts sales of the boardgame. But Days of Wonder games are short, not long like Britannia, and the games tend to be not-very-strategically-complex as well.

We see companies that specialize in offering online play of boardgames. Hexwar's games have been out-of-print stuff, so the question of affect on sales does not apply. f2fgaming offers Hammer of the Scots, a two-player game of a popular type (block games) that is actually more convenient to play online than face-to-face, because you don't have to manipulate the blocks. (I thought f2f was charging a fee, but the site now says "Free" and has no news less than a year old.) Game Table Online offers currently-published games. Tower Games offers two games (in many varations) that are not available in a physical package. Their clientele may be history buffs rather than boardgamers. All of these except f2f are either pay-by-the-game or by-the-month. GTO is offering free memberships to those who play at least five gams a month, in an effort to make more opponents available.

I have sometimes thought that it will become common for a game to be offered first in an online-play version, and if that is successful, then the boardgame will follow. Has that happened with any game yet?

This is of interest to me because I retained the rights to online play of Britannia as I submitted it to Fantasy Flight (not as it was published, though in fact the two are virtually the same). I have several times been approached by people who wish to write on online-referee program, or host such a program if someone else wrote it. Nothing has come of it so far. I have to think that FFG might not be happy to see the game played online, for fear that it would cannibalize sales.

My opinion is that some people might play online and not buy the game, but those people were never going to buy the game in any case. On the other hand, some people who cannot find local opponents, and who aren't interested in PBEM play, might be happy to play online and would buy the game if the opportunity for online play was available.

Though Wizards of the Coast thinks they'll be able to make money by charging for online play of boardgames at their new Gleemax site, it appears to me unlikely that there is a significant market of people willing to pay to play online.

What say you, folks, about online play and its affect on sales, and about the market for pay-to-play online? Obviously this is a skewed audience, as the people in online forms are familiar with using computers in relation to games, and are also more enthusiastic about games than the average player, but I still think it will be interesting to hear your experiences and opinions.

(This is going to be posted four places: my game design blog, BGG general gaming, Consimworld, FFG Britannia site.)

Lew Pulsipher

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Miscellaneous Notes

I'm trying to get my ducks in a row for Origins and WBC, plus take a vacation and deal with a severe case of academic "Nazi-ism".

I've been up to Durham a couple times this month to playtest new games.

Still looking for a home for a Dragon Rage reprint (in larger format, of course).

I'm looking for legally-usable silhouettes to use on game pieces for prototypes. I'm looking for fantasy, science fiction, ancient, and WW II silhouettes. On a piece, black-on-white with a recognizable shape is quite sufficient.

I know there are many "free clip-art" sites, but I have had little luck there, perhaps someone knows of a specific source.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

New speed record

I tend to take years to complete games (I do the development as well as the design, unlike some designers). I usually take quite a long time (sometimes years) before I get to the point of having other people play, or of writing full rules. Recently I set a new record for speed, however.

Last Saturday I was talking with my wife in the "parlor". I had on the table a set of plastic pieces I'd included in my last purchase from EAI Education, not because I had any particular use for them but because they are different. They are designed to be stacked. I said to Sue, "I ought to design a game to use these pieces." (Interjection: this has already happened once: I designed a game to use the colored glass beads or "jewels" that are sold in crafts stores, and that has led to several more games using those pieces.) We talked a little, and she suggested "asteroids" as a theme. I had been trying to think of how to use a connectivity board instead of the hex boards I have used for the glass bead games. In the end, I adapted a concentric circle board (for a stellar system) I'd devised 25 years ago.

By the end of the day I had a playable prototype of an "asteroid mining" game. The next day I played a four player and an eight (!) player version solo.

The following Friday four people played it at Rick Steeves' Game Night in Durham, including Rick and Jeff Dougan, who are big proponents of the glass bead games. It worked quite well, much as I expected, and now I'm in the phase of tweaking to get the game to work most desirably, rather than of making major changes. I should say here that I do not ask people to playtest a game until I think it works reasonably. I think players should be able to enjoy a game they're testing, rather than work at it. So I would never stop a playtest by other people part way through--it's a game, and it should be played to its end, just as any already-published game would be.

The following day I drafted most of the rules, and today (Sunday again) I'll finish the first draft.

Two years ago I would have said that I almost never design an abstract game. But that has changed. I have to say that it is immensely less work to design an abstract-ish symmetric game, than to design an asymmetric historical (strongly themed) game. I can see how people like R. Knizia can create so many games (and of course, he does it full time nowadays). Historical games also tend to be longer, which means they're more time-consuming to try. And much harder to get playtested a sufficient number of times. Asymmetry requires much more playtesting for balance, too. As many if not most Euros are abstract-ish (even if they have an official theme) symmetric games, it's easy to see why there are so many of them being published every year.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Is there a Generation Gap in BoardGaming?

Older people may tend to recognize the existence of "generation gaps" more than young people do. There are certainly people who make a living explaining the differences between generations to other people, and I suspect few people doubt that there are significant differences between generations. All generalizations about generations have many exceptions, of course, but in my experience it is absolutely scary how many such generalizations seem to be widely applicable.

I have some anecdotes and observations, and I wonder how many gamers have seen generational differences among boardgamers (who are somewhat different than video gamers, where some of these anecdotes come from). Generally when I say "younger people" below I'm referring to adults or near-adults, not to children.

I recall listening to a talk by a 25 year old (who had already written one or two books and was widely known) about differences between "Gen Y" (also called Millennials or Me Generation) and older people. Somehow the topic of cheat codes in video games came up. He said a Millennial was perfectly content to find cheat codes, jump to the last level of a game, and beat it. An older person might say "you cheated". The Millennial says "I beat the game, didn't I? I just enjoyed the fruits of my research, I didn't cheat." The older person says, "but the point is enjoying the journey, not the end--you didn't beat the game, you went around it". The Millennial disagrees. One of the students in my college class for high school students says there's a device that you can buy called a "Shark" that contains cheat codes for lots of games--you don't even have to look them up somewhere online! What's the point?, says an older generation.

Video games have changed over the years. They are much more likely to "lead you by the nose" now (linear plot) than years ago. The games have changed to appeal to a wider audience (and perhaps a younger audience). I was astonished to hear about video games in which you don't have to aim at targets, you just point in the general direction of the enemy and the computer takes care of the rest. There also seem to be video games that automatically heal you, and in other ways make the game easier to survive. How much of this is due to changes in youthful preferences, and how much to a desire to reach a broad audience, I don't know.

I believe I see a generational difference in Dungeons and Dragons, between the older versions and 3rd edition. Someone called 3rd edition "Fantasy Squad Leader", not an adventure so much as a detailed tactical military operation. (I must say that I played first edition D&D as a wargame, but never in the excruciating detail of 3rd edition.) But the bigger difference is in the attitude of the players. A first edition referee's maxim was, "players will attempt to find unearned advantages--prevent it". In the third edition, everyone looks for unearned advantages, and seems to think that's perfectly OK. Hence there are myriads of "prestige" classes published, hundreds of new skills, and even the basic ability numbers are jiggered to provide more unearned advantages. The entire game is much more a "power trip" than first or second edition was. I think a lot of this is attributable to generational differences.

When young people who have only played video games get into boardgames, I find that many are quite passive, unsure what to do. I think this comes from the nature of (console) video games, where you can succeed through persistence, by trial and error, and you don't need to analyze your situation and decide what to do. If you use trial and error in a boardgame you'll lose a lot of games. If you use trial and error in a video game, in most cases you'll succeed sooner or later. After a video gamer has played a game some, then he or she has the benefit of trial and error and can become a good player. But the analytical side of gaming, what I expect to see in game players, isn't there for the console gamer. (There are, of course, many, many exceptions.)

This leads to another difference I see. Some older folks (myself included) try to play video games without resorting to frequent respawning (going back to a saved game to start over from there--respawning may be the wrong term, but that's what I'll use here). Many video games have deliberately been made so difficult that it's impossible for even the best players to make it through without frequent respawning, but not all are like that. By and large, "millennials" don't seem to find anything wrong with constant respawning. It helps them get the optimal result to help them farther on. (It's kind of like the "Easy Button" in Staples commercials--respawning is hitting the Easy Button until you get it right.)

One would suppose that younger people will be more likely to misread rules than older people. The tendency now is to skim rather than read carefully. A great many people of all generations don't want to read the rules, if only because it seems like work, not fun. K12 and college teachers are currently struggling with students who simply do not read anything that's in print, and don't even read online material well. One of the great inventions, perhaps a greater invention than the computer, the book, is slowly becoming obsolete for many people.

I am an advocate of audio and video tutorials to help people learn how to play games, because over time we'll see fewer and fewer people who are willing and able to fully read and understand rules. (These comments apply particularly to games with more than a page or two of rules, of course.) When I bought a copy of Settlers of Catan a few years ago to see what the hubbub was about, I was impressed that there were really two sets of rules, one the "rules" and one a guide that essentially repeated everything in a different way. I'd guess that this occurred as a result of newbies purchasing the game with the original single set of rules, and not being able to figure out how to play, but I do not know the history of it.

Regular denizens of online game sites such as BGG and ConsimWorld may sneer at this--there is a form of elitism in any hobby--but the fact is, publishers need to sell games, and the online community alone is not sufficient to keep publishers earning a living. They have to reach out to others. And games will need to adjust accordingly. We already see some adjustment in the popularity of very simple (as in easy-to-learn) games.

Anyway, does anyone else have anecdotes that illustrate generational differences in game players?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

"The 'Death' of Game Magazines"?

"The 'Death' of Game Magazines"?

I am going to repeat part of a previous post to provide background for the present observation.

A recent Wired magazine included an article on "crowdsourcing". This is an Internet phenomenon: the Internet provides access to many, many "amateur" practitioners of a skill, such that they now compete with professionals (and lower the prices available to professionals). The first example is stock photography: companies used to pay hundreds or thousands for small numbers of stock photos, but now there are sources of good digital photos available for stock use at $1 a photo. Why pay a hundred times as much when the "amateur" photos are of excellent quality?

To turn to gaming, I believe that a form of "crowdsourcing" has happened to the role playing game industry. Quite apart from the glut of professional products, there are many, many products published by both standard publishers and PDF publishers that are written "by the crowd". And there are many more that are available for free online at a large number of Web sites. To put it another way, there are so many fanboys and fangirls willing to write RPG material for nothing or next to nothing, material easy and cheap to find on the Internet, that traditional publishers cannot charge much for their publications (and cannot pay their authors much, consequently). RPG publishing "collapsed" a couple years ago, as I understand it, and I don't see any indication that it will recover, because of crowdsourcing. (See, the article link at the bottom "Is the RPG Industry Screwed", if you're interested in more about this--and this article doesn't even take into account the large quantity of free material now available.)

My point today: crowdsourcing and podcasting have largely "done in" games magazines as a category, though there are still a few. I think magazines (game magazines, at any rate) are facing a form of crowdsourcing. Before the Web, if you wanted to read good quality (usually) writing about games, you had to read gaming magazines. Now there are so many free Web sites and communities such as BoardGameGeek (BGG) that readers feel little need to subscribe to expensive magazines. People write their stuff and put it on BGG and Web sites, or they put it in podcasts. At a minimum, the result is fragmentation of interests. And the more fragmentation we have, the harder it is for a commercial magazine to exist, because costs-per-copy go up as circulation decreases. At a "maximum", people are unwilling to pay for any commercial magazine because there is sufficient free material available

I understand that recently Game Quarterly ceased publication. However, this could be because the parent company's Game Expo 2007 failed rather than for for lack of readers. Further, WOTC recently decided not to renew the license to Paizo Publishing for Dungeon and Dragon magazines, which will cease publication. WOTC evidently intends to publish material on their Web site. Again, it may be that Paizo wanted to continue publishing, but WOTC preferred to stop a forf of competition.

This ties in with the newspaper industry. Newspaper readership is going down. Newspaper people know it, but it's hard for them to do something about it. Gannett started USA Today as an entertainment newspaper rather than a news newspaper, and that has worked for them. Local newspaper readership is (I'm told) generally people 35-50, then people older than that, and lastly people younger than that. Among other things, newspapers are too "staid" for modern tastes, but the main problem is that many younger people get their news online, either by word or by video, or from the television. Why read a newspaper unless you're really interested in local community content?

Early in the history of the Web, newspapers tried to charge for access to their online material. Readers then switched to free newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury, and soon the "pay" newspapers disappeared. Since newspapers depend heavily on advertising revenue in any case, the "newspaper business model" can be adjusted to take advantage of online opportunities.

To go back to the magazines, it's unlikely that Dungeon and Dragon could have been successfully started today. I was told the readership averaged mid-30s in age, IIRC. Young people as a group simply don't read newspapers or magazines--they read online or don't read much at all, preferring to watch or listen.

Some time ago I tried to find some figures for magazines to see if circulation was trending downward, as it is for newspapers. My quest was inconclusive. I suspect numbers may be buoyed by many "niche" magazines doing a reasonable business for people who are not, by and large, denizens of the Internet. Since boardgame playing is often associated with computer game playing, and computer gamers are usually quite comfortable with the Internet, I'd guess that gamers, as a category, are more Internet-oriented than many other groups of enthusiasts.

Dungeon and Dragon magazines paid five cents a word last I knew, a good rate compared to nothing. They also had the peculiar policy, required by WOTC, that they bought all rights to articles: that is, once they published your article, you no longer had any right to publish (including on the Web) or resell it. This is not customary in magazine publishing although it is now common in RPG publishing--another result of "crowdsourcing".

Game magazines still exist, such as Knucklebones . From my limited reading of the magazine I suspect it can continue to prosper because it depends for broad distribution on readers who are unlikely to be denizens of online communities such as BGG. This is not to say BGGers don't read it as well; but "regular" BGGers are a small group compared to the total of boardgame fans, and a slick magazine must rely on a higher circulation to prosper. (I know the editor of a scholarly numismatic journal which is published in the US, but printed in Asia. IIRC, he said as long as he could produce enough to fill half a container, it was more economical to print there, and ship by sea, than to print in the US. But game magazines with decreasing circulations may be unable to print in such quantities.)

ATO and S&T magazines maintain a presence based primarily on their "complete wargame each issue" philosophy. I don't know of a magazine that provides a complete non-wargame each issue, though there may be one that is touting a complete "expansion" each issue.

I was surprised when Games Journal ended publication, since as an online magazine it had virtually no expenses. It seems that even online magazines suffer from lack of contributions, when they cannot afford to pay contributors. It's easier to write an informal piece in a blog, or on BGG, than a formal pieces for something like Games Journal.

The trend can be seen elsewhere. InfoWorld, a venerable computer industry magazine that was free to qualifying individuals, recently ceased publication of a paper version. Other industry magazines such as InfoWorld and Business Week are much smaller than they used to be.

The Web is more suited than magazines to short attention spans common amongst the digital/playstation generation. I have been struck by the number of commenters on BGG who say "your post [not actually mine, in these cases] was so long I didn't read all of it but I'd like to say . . ." though the post in question was much shorter than a typical magazine article. It doesn't seem likely that such folks would read much of a magazine, but who knows.

There is a lot more material about games to read these days, but many fewer game magazines, than I recall from the 1970s and 1980s.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

"Excess" of ideas

I seem to be suffering from an "excess" of ideas. This isn't surprising: I've read of full-time novelists who say they can't possibly write all the books they have in mind. And I am not a full-time designer by any means.

Time available makes a big difference. I sometimes feel obsessed with designing games, but don't spend so much time on it lately (perhaps because local playtesting is much harder to arrange than in the past). F&SF novelist Glenn Cook had a prolific output when he had a long (train) commute to his work at a GM assembly plant. When he moved, his production plummeted to about one novel a year.

At any rate, I have eight or less complete prototypes ready to be played for the first time, but I just don't seem to take time to play them. And while it is more important to complete a game than to start a new one, the most interesting time in design is the first few games I play (solo), and the first few times the game is played by other people. Because I develop my own games, I spend a lot of time toward the end fine-tuning rules and playtesting over and over. This is not great fun, far from it.

Even after a game has been published, there's time spent monitoring discussion groups and even slightly revising the rules. It all takes away from doing new games.

Recently I've not been helped by news that a man we occasionally playtest with, a graduate of my college, died of a heart attack at age 36. He had some health problems, but seemed to be doing well, this was a complete surprise.

My brother's big-deal retirement party is at the same time as WBC, so I may not be at WBC as long as usual.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Invasions and Migrations

Britannia is a game of migrations; Hispania is said to be a game of invasions . Rus, I once read, not only involves many invasions, but of such enormous strength that no one tries to fight them, but only tries to get out of the way. In Britannia the defenders try to get out of the way of the Roman invasion, the R-Bs may try to get out of the way of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, and the Anglo-Saxons may try to get out of the way of the Danish invasions. But most invasions and migrations are resisted strongly. (I have both of these games, but have not played them.)

Migrations are movements of entire peoples, usually over very long periods. They are slow, not cohesive, involving no single state and usually no single leader. Many of the "barbarian invasions" of the ancient Near East were migrations. So were most of the barbarian incursions into the Roman Republic and Empire until the third century, when we begin to learn the names of a few leaders and begin to have large confederations. It's really the fifth century when the leaders and confederations dominate, and we have invasions

Invasions are much quicker, sometimes with a single leader or coming from a single state (as when the Visigoths invaded the Roman Empire).

Ghengis Khan invaded; the Romans invaded Britain; the Anglo-Saxons migrated; the Vikings migrated at first, then later became invaders.

There are few of either type of incursion in Hellenia (which also has relatively short turns, something like 11 years each). Hence a game like Hellenia, though Brit-like, poses different challenges both to designers and players. Most of the major nations at the start of the game will be there at the end. How many nations present at the start of Brit are there at the end? Force preservation becomes more important in this type of game, than it is in Britannia (and it's important there at times).

I'm not sure where this all gets me, just ruminations.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Game Design Talks at Origins

At Origins in Columbus in early July I am scheduled to give the following talks (no charge, it's the teacher in me):

Getting Started in Game Design. Friday at 2:00 PM (running 1:45) and Saturday at 10:00 AM (same duration). Want to design boardgames? The designer of Britannia and other games, who teaches game design in college, describes how the business works.

The Process of Designing a Game. Saturday at 2:00 PM (running 1:45). The designer of Britannia describes the process of designing a boardgame. You'll be more successful if you apply some structure to your efforts.

Monday, April 16, 2007


I haven't written much lately, being tied up with school and a slight but enervating illness.

I enjoy music--I have two 110 CD players, for example--but until recently I didn't have an MP3 player. First, I never saw why I should take a format won by hard work (PCM/WAV) and reduce its quality by compressing it. Second, I always had a PC or a vehicle-based music device available whenever I wanted to listen to music. I can make my own CDs, and record those to cassette for the vehicle that doesn't have a CD. So why mess with an MP3 player?

My English brother-in-law one day told my wife and I how he was able to use a transmitter to send podcasts from him MP3 player to his car stereo. While I had downloaded podcasts and listened to some on my PCs, I generally felt I didn't have time to listen to them when I could be doing something else. But here was a way to listen to them when I can't do anything else, except drive, on my 50 minute (each way) commute. In fact, I sometimes listen to audio lectures, and had thought about getting into audio books.

But here was a chance to use all that free, and often quite good, "content" out on the Web, both game podcasts and history podcasts. So I bought a Kensington transmitter and a Sansa E250 player and tried it out. It worked so well, I bought another set for my wife.

There are lots of game podcasts, and I've listened to some older ones. I've also listened to "Twelve Byzantine Emperors" by a high school teacher, and series that has been around about as long as podcasts. I know enough about Byzantine history to say they're very good (google to find the page). Right now I'm listening to "Napoleon 101", a series of conversations between an Australian founder of the podcast network and an American Napoleon expert, J. David Markham. They are Napoleon enthusiasts, and it's quite pleasant listing. They're not into the nitty-gritty of battles, but instead about Napoleon the man and phenomenon.

I've experimented with podcasts a little myself, but I don't have any that I'd turn loose on the public. Mainly I'm interested in them as play aids (learning aids) for games. A pdocast is rather easier to make, and much smaller than, a video.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Alternatives to direct conflict between player forces:

In my view, a Eurowargame will often be one you can win without directly attacking the other players, but in which there is often considerable indirect fighting. I have worked with this idea a lot, but right now I'm trying to make a comprehensive list of ways to allow indirect fighting, that is, fighting that does not involve more than one player's actual victory-earning (point scoring?) forces. The fighting can be between a surrogate and a player's forces, or between two surrogates.

An example of this might be Monsters Menace America, where each player controls defending forces as well as a monster. The defending forces can fight the other monsters. In this example the defending forces (surrogates) cannot attack one another, as far as I know (I haven't played the game), but in other cases this might not be true.

Scheduled invasions (usually this will be historically based) temporarily controlled by players

Event cards that cause invasions (again, often historically based)

Players control forces on "both sides" (MMA, above)

All collectively fighting a third force that is controlled by yet another player, or alternatively in some way by one of the players (first type is Doom, Heroquest; latter I don't know)

All collectively fighting a force controlled by cards/computer (lots of computer games, I suppose; perhaps Knizia's cooperative Lord of the Rings game?)

Movement (and recruiting) of Barbarians or other non-player forces by Event Cards, either as played by the players, or randomly drawn.

Control of "neutral" nations by "influence points" or other voting methods, so different players control a particular nation at different times.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

I used to design lots of Diplomacy variants, many of which are available through the Variant Bank. While I don't play any more, I occasionally use a mechanism that I first encountered in Diplomacy in one of my designs.

It occurred to me to ask myself, what characterizes Dip, what is the essence of the game Diplomacy: what makes someone look at a game and say "that's a variant of Diplomacy".

The list of the "essence" is pretty short. Diplomacy and its variants seem to share the following:
Always, simultaneous movement (but some people call Game of Thrones:the Boardgame a Dipvariant, and it isn't exactly simultaneous movement).
Always, the support mechanism.
Usually, centers maintain units in a zero-sum fashion--and while some games give economic points to spend in various ways, players still must pay maintenance for existing units.
Usually, no-holds-barred negotiation.
Usually, an area board and one unit per area.

What could be added to this list?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

When do you write a full set of rules?

When you're ready to. That's a facile answer, but true. The real question is, when should you write a full set of rules? I find the idea of writing complete rules without playing a game breathtaking, because it will be SUCH a waste of precious time. Early in the "history" of a game you need to concentrate on changes, not on things staying the same, but a full set of rules tends to make one more reluctant to change. Moreover, you can waste a lot of time writing rules for something that will be thrown out of the game at first play.

I have designed a great many games now, so my "mind-conception" gets better and better. That is, when I finally decide to play, I'm more likely to find that the game works fairly well at first play than I was a couple years ago. Nonetheless, I have never written a set of rules before first play. At best I have a set of notes, almost always on computer though I may have written them in a notebook originally.

Those notes are in a program called Info Select (somewhat like Microsoft OneNote, but it's been around far longer). I might have a note for combat, one for movement, one for the economy of the game, one for how to win, one for the main purposes of the game, and so on. At some point I decide to put the notes into a rules template, so that I have something that is still too rough for other people to figure out, but which will provide the basis for the full rules. With this version of the rules I have a pretty settled notion of how to play, but no one else could figure it out from the rough rules. In contrast, the initial set of full rules ought to be good enough that someone can play the game from them, though they might misunderstand things and make mistakes.

In the most extreme case, I wrote a full set of rules after three plays of a game--a game that I now think may be the best I've designed. I have just played another new game five times, and I have a nearly-full set of rules. In other cases I may have a game that is years old and has been played several times but still is only in note form, or in rough form.

Once again: I find the idea that you'd write (or even try to write) a full set of rules before playing a game, breathtaking. This is sure to be a big waste of time; moreover, it is likely to make you less willing to change the game when you actually get around to playing it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A quickly generated full prototype

I've had a possibly-unique (for me, anyway) experience the past couple weeks. After my last trip to Rick Steeves' monthly game night, I thought about a game that would combine history (a little) with war (a little) in a one-hour game that might sufficiently appeal to some of the more extreme Euro gamers--something simple that takes an hour or so.

I've made several attempts at "one hour wargames", and while they are good, they tend to be 90-120 minutes.

One of the games we'd tested was Agonia (TM), a development from Law & Chaos (TM) that introduces territoriality and victory points to the L&C idea of changing capture methods. My "leap" was to imagine using the Agonia system in an historical instead of abstract game, and the key here was to accept placement of pieces as well as movement. People like me who started playing Avalon Hill games 45 years ago are so accustomed to having to move pieces from one place to another--which, after all, is how it is in the real world-- that placing pieces from off the board to "out front" is a foreign idea.

But it works here to simplify the game, though after five playtests I now do not allow placement to attack or explore, only to deploy more pieces.

Having come up with this notion, I thought about scenarios and decided to pursue the European Age of Discovery --a game with exploration, trade, and possibly fighting, on a familiar map of the world. As I already had a computer version of a board for Lands of Gold (TM), which is similar in scope but much more complex, I adapted that board. Lands of Gold will be a representation; Age of Discovery i(TM)s a "thematic" game, not one that's realistic in any sense, though I have found myself trying to add some features that contribute to a more historical feel.

The other thing I've eliminated from what I'd call a typical Euro(war)game is Event Cards. Instead I have a card, selected from the top of the deck at the start of each round, that can alter how conflicts are resolved. This is the only overtly random element in the game. Any other randomness, if you can call it that, comes from not knowing the intentions of the other players, because players play Action Cards simultaneously. They are resolved in card initiative order. (This method is also used in Colonia(TM), which is about Mediterranean colonization more or less; but that game is quite different in many ways.)

What makes it all unique is that, having come up with the idea, I've pursued it through five solo playtests (of up to six players--it works better with more players rather than fewer) in just a couple weeks, hardly working on any other game. As I normally jump from one game to another with considerable frequency, this is really different. I am now at a stage where I have a full set of rules (still a bit rough, but a full set) and a pretty polished prototype, and I need to have other people play. Going from idea to full-rules polished prototype in a couple weeks is the unique experience.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I've become convinced that the more aids to learning the rules of a game that you can include in it, the better. A one-page "Quick Guide", for example, is needed for almost any game other than a really simple one. Here's one for Britannia:

Quick Guide: How to Play Fantasyflightgames Britannia
Lewis Pulsipher (designer). Jan 21, 2007

This is a game of invasions and survival. Each player (usually four) controls 4 or 5 nations, each nation has different objectives. The player whose nations score the most points by the end of 16 Rounds wins. The rules are long, but the game is easy to play in practice, nearly as easy as Risk, easier than Axis and Allies. The game covers the period from the Roman invasion to the Norman invasion, over 1,000 years.

Objective: Score points, mostly from holding territory, as shown on Nation Cards. Most points for your nations at the end of the game wins. With a few exceptions, nations all score at the end of Rounds 5, 7, 10, 13 and 16. Point markers are provided, though many players use downloadable scoresheets.

Sequence: Each nation (not player) plays in turn. 1) Get population increase and scheduled reinforcements (shown on the board); 2) move units; 3) fight. When all nations have played the Round is over.

Increase of Population: Count 2 for each clear terrain area, 1 for difficult; 6 points earns a new army, any remainder is saved via a Population Track.

Movement: Two areas, three if cavalry, or Romans, or with a leader; opponent stops movement unless you outnumber defenders 2-1 (“overrun”); those not needed to overrun can continue move. Difficult terrain halts movement unless a leader is moving along with the armies.

No more than two of your armies can be in a difficult terrain area, or three in non-difficult (clear), except you are allowed one “overstack”, which can be up to four in difficult, unlimited in clear.

Combat: When jointly occupying an area after movement is done, both sides simultaneously roll 6 sided dice, one per army, eliminating an opponent with a roll of 5 or 6. Cavalry and Romans need 4, 5, or 6 to hit in clear terrain. A 6 is needed to kill defenders in difficult terrain, cavalry, or Romans. After all armies in an area have fought once, the defender, then attacker, can retreat one or more armies. Fight until only one side remains in the area.

Leaders: allow movement through difficult terrain; up to three areas; and add one to combat dice rolls. A given leader is in the game only one Round, except at the end of the game (the “Four Kings”).

Raiders: may go back to sea after all combat has ended; they may an adjacent retreat to sea during combat

Invaders: usually come over the sea, sometimes have Major Invasion (Increase, move, fight, move, fight).

Overpopulation: At the end of your turn you cannot have more than twice as many armies as the number of areas you occupy.

The Romans are exceptions to many rules: they have “roads” that aid movement, they build forts (that can be burned down by attackers), they can have large stacks everywhere and overpopulation, and they leave at the end of Round 5 and are succeeded by Romano-British. Some nations can submit to Romans in order to survive.

The game goes through different eras: Roman conquest, the triumph of the English, the Vikings, and the “Four Kings”. Different nations and colors are most dominant in each era. It is not a conquest game in Risk style; you can play it that way, but you probably won’t win. The strategy is deep, every move, every location, matters. No one is going to recognize most of the ramifications until they have played several times. I know people who have played five hundred times (counting original Brit), yet still enjoy the strategy.

Britannia is an epic game, 4-5 hours for experienced players. There is a 3 player short version, shorter 2 player versions (for practice), and short scenarios will be freely available.

See the Historical Walkthru on or (nicer graphics) for an extended example of play with maps.

Videos and podcasts with more details of how to play are planned.

This Quick Guide is NOT part of the Britannia rules, and does not supercede/overrule those rules in any way. There is no way to include, in one page, the details necessary for a full set of rules.