Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Community Creation in boardgames?

In video games we are seeing emphasis on games that enable community creation that in turn contributes to the enjoyment of the rest of the people who play the game. This has existed for a very long time in the form of mods and variants, but it is now "institutionalized" in games such as Spore and Little Big Planet; in fact, in the latter it appears to be much of the point of the game. The creators of these games have made it very easy for players to create additional "content" that can easily be used by others, even more than the scenario editor in Civilization games or the level editors in shooter games such as Unreal Tournament.

This is a form of "crowd-sourcing", using non-professionals to provide content sometimes as good, or nearly as good, as professionals can provide, but at no cost. Video game companies simply cannot afford to create the vast amount of content gamers now expect, yet gamers want it for no additional cost (complaints about the $60 standard price for video games are common). So they're finding ways to have the fans create the additional content.

My question is, how do we incorporate such "community creation" features like modding/creature creation into boardgames? Collectible card games have something like it except it's all publisher-created. RPGs have had it (all the D&D monsters, classes, adventures) since their beginning. Diplomacy has it in the hundreds of variant created over the years. Some wargames have it in additional scenarios created by fans. But is there a way to make it part and parcel of a game or of gaming?

How do we get something that supports the game and is created (and distributed free) by the fans, the players? BGG is as close as we get, generally, but how many players come to BGG on a regular basis? Not many, really.

Well, if I knew the answers, I wouldn't be asking the question.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Origins of Games

Another article on GameCareerGuide (you can click the title of this post):

http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/662/idea_.php

While it's a video game site, the article applies just as much to non-electronic games.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Source for game pieces

I like to use stackable plastic pieces for some of my prototypes, and people sometimes ask where I get them. Here's a link (you can click on the post title):

http://www.eaieducation.com/530841.html

As I write, they're $9.50 (plus shipping) for 500 in ten colors.

EAIEducation is also my best source for plastic cubes, two-sided disks, one-inch plastic square counters, and other useful game components, usually in bulk.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why We Play Games

You might want to read my design article "Why We Play" on GameCareerGuide. You can click on the title of this post.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Article on GameCareerGuide

"The Idea is not the Game", 23 September

http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=20356

(You can click on the title of this post.)

This should be of interest to anyone who wants to design games.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Game buyers want the advantage of your game design skills

As an exercise ("challenge") in my beginning game design class I gave each group a large vinyl chess board and some "Clout Fantasy" pieces. And I said "Make a game". I also had a great array of other kinds of pieces, in case a group just didn't get along with the Clout pieces. The vinyl boards can be written on with wet-erasable markers, so some variety can be imposed on the square array.

I was watching one group play their game, which involved troops retrieving pieces to bring back to their home spot. It was a little like capture the flag, but with multiple flags, and each side had their own set of flags to capture.

At some point I remarked that I couldn't figure out the pattern of "flag" placement, but it seemed to be working pretty well. The group admitted to me that their method of placement was to drop the pieces on the board at game start and let them scatter! My jaw dropped.

If all players started in the same place then random would be OK, as it wouldn't give an advantage to one player. But in this game, with set starting positions, a random setup could be so one-sided that there'd hardly be any reason to play the game, the winner would be fore-ordained.

Think about this. If you're the professional designer, you should work out a set of excellent and interesting positions for the flags, rather than depend on chance placement. Why trust enjoyment of your game to chance? Furthermore, why would a player, if he or she had purchased your game, want to trust their enjoyment to chance rather than to the skills of a professional designer?

Yes, it's more work for the designer, making up and recording the patterns of placement, playtesting each one multiple times. But the result will be a better game.

In other words, you're the designer, use your brain, let the buyer take advantage of your skills and smarts, don't rely on chance to make for a good game.

(If you prefer a small element of chance, you can subdivide a board into areas and randomly place (by die roll, not by dropping) the flag within the area. I have designed a game where I've done something like that. The additional variety increases replayability without giving too much advantage to one player over another.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Speculation on Electronic Britannia

Speculation on Electronic Britannia

Some of you know that nowadays I teach in a college video game degree program (game design especially, of course). That and the recent question about electronic Britannia have started me thinking about what characteristics would be desirable in such a game. It seems very likely that sooner or later there will be an electronic version of the game (and of most well-known boardgames, in general).

So what would be desirable, what would be most important. I'll give my take, then I'm interested to hear what you think.

1. The game must be playable for one person, that is, you against three computer opponents. Or with two humans or three, and computer opponents to make four. Hence the most important aspect of the game will be the "AI", the computer opponent. The electronic versions of Diplomacy have suffered from awful computer opponents, as I recall, which is a little curious. There is more symmetry and simplicity in what the opponents do in Diplomacy than in Britannia, so I'd expect a computer opponent to be easier to write. My guess is either 1) really bad decisions by designers or 2) too much of a rush to get the game out.

2. The game should be usable for online play, whether with four humans or fewer.

3. I think it's desirable to include the shorter (6 turn) version of the game I'm working on, but this would increase development cost significantly, so it may not be practical. Perhaps it could be offered as a not-free expansion if the electronic version sells well.

Well, I've already run out of ideas. What I do know is, the "AI" will make or break the game; why would most people buy an electronic version of a boardgame if not to have computer opponent(s)?


Ken Agress has said he'd like to be able to play with four humans but have them roll the dice and input the results into the game, to display the board on a large-screen TV. (Or, I'd add, one of those table-like LCDs that Phillips and Microsoft have been working on.)


So what must the AI do? The best Brit players can look at the board, at a particular time of the game, and predict with some accuracy what the final score is likely to be. I don't know how a computer opponent is going to do that, but if it can, it should be able to play well.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Review of Britannia

I recently ran across a review of Britannia from Archair General magazine, published November 19, 2007, by Bill Bodden. http://www.armchairgeneral.com/britannia-game-review.htm

Quote:
"Now produced by Fantasy Flight Games in a stunning new edition, Britannia looks ready to continue on as one of the great titles in the world of games."

Wizards card game

Recently I played the card game "Wizards". I'd heard that this variation of the traditional game "Oh hell" had sold millions of copies. I played a German edition with strange pictures and symbols, which to me only made the game harder to play. Two suit colors were red and green, indistinguishable by the two color-blind players in the game. So we had to use the weird symbols that don't even have obvious convenient names. The designer is Canadian, and I suspect most editions are closer to normal cards.

We were using a weak translation of the German edition of the rules, so conceivably we did not play everything correctly.

I don't play cards much, and the only traditional card game I play is Oh hell, with my wife and in-laws. H is a trick-taking game, dealing increasing and then decreasing numbers of cards in each hand, trump randomly determined, must follow suit. You bid how many tricks you will try to take, and fail to score if you do not get exactly what you bid. You score 10 plus the number you bid if you're successful. Hence the game removes some of the chance factor, if you have poor cards, you bid low. I tend to bid rather low because it's easier to avoid taking tricks than to take them. "Quack quack" is often my bid (a duck, meaning a bid of zero--ducking).

This game is a "randomized" version of OH. There are four "Wizard" cards that beat all other trumps and can be played out of suit. There are four jesters that are "nothing", but can change the suit that must be played in the rest of the trick (I may not be recalling correctly) in mid-trick. I suppose that by taking some of the skill out of the game, you make it more "family-friendly" for kids.

Further randomization comes from playing hands of up to 15 cards. You can't do much to plan with such large hands--I'm used to playing up to 7 cards, then back down to 1--so at that point you bid something a little below average, say three out of 15, and hope you can manage it. Of course, if you have a couple wizards and good trumps you'd have to adjust.

The scoring is different from traditional OH scoring. You score 20 if you make your bid, plus 10 per trick, and lose 10 per trick by which you miss a bid. This rewards trick-taking (as opposed to bidding zero) more than the traditional version. (I still played the Duck most of the time, and won the game.)

There were other variations, such as forcing bids in the round of two cards so that someone will miss their bid. There was something about, when you have one card, you hold it in front of you so everyone else can see it, and then bidding occurs; but this is so randomly unfair we canned it (you don't know what card you've got, so how can you bid intelligently except in obvious instances?).

I'll stick with the traditional form, though the scoring is worth considering.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Mecca of Competitive Boardgaming

While I wrote this for a different venue, I may as well put it here...

At the Mecca of Competitive BoardGaming
Lewis Pulsipher

Early August in Lancaster, PA is the time for the “World Boardgaming Championships” (WBC), the Mecca of competitive boardgaming. Unlike Essen, the Origins Game Fair, or GenCon, WBC concentrates on tournaments in about 150 board and non-collectible card games, ranging from:
• simple games like Liars Dice (as seen in the second “Pirates” movie)
• complex 8-hour games like Civilization (the boardgame that preceded the computer game)
• two-player wargames
• well known “Euro” games such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, familiar to some video gamers through Xbox Live

There are relatively few exhibitors, who are there Friday through Sunday morning, though the convention begins Tuesday. There’s also the traditional game auction on Tuesday.

WBC was originally “AvalonCon”, in Camp Hill, PA and then Hunt Valley, MD (a suburb of Baltimore). It was started for Avalon Hill, the big board wargame company that was bought by Hasbro in the late 90s, and the convention is now run by the Boardgame Players Association and Don Greenwood, who was “Mr. Avalon Hill” to most of us even though he did not run the company. It is now at the Lancaster Host convention center that also hosts Historicon, the big miniatures wargaming convention, a week or two before.

Don told me that WBC emphasizes community rather than the commercial side of gaming, hence its concentration on organized tournaments that consistently attract reasonable numbers of players. This contrasts with conventions such as Origins, where an “event” can amount to a few people playing one session of a game. Further, you pay one fee (similar to the Origins or GenCon fee), then play in as many events as you can manage without further charge. In effect, WBC offers highly organized play, where other large conventions can be seen as “open gaming” cons with a few well-organized tournaments.

WBC has a core of 100 “Century” tournaments, modified each year by vote of the members of the BPA and a formula involving number of participants and hours played. A tournament such as Britannia, with more than 35 people playing in up to three 5-hour preliminary rounds, is solidly ensconced in the Century, though there are larger tournaments. There are also trial tournaments (again subject to vote), and tournaments organized by sponsor members or by game manufacturers, adding up to 150 to 160 tournaments each year.

To enhance the competition, not only are small prizes such as plaques and T-shirts awarded to winners, there is an overall winner for the entire convention, the “Centurion”, and a team competition. These awards depend on very successful participation in several tournaments.

Many of the players have been attending since the 90s, and are middle-aged, but there’s a strong proportion of younger players as well, and perhaps 20-25% of the attendees are female. There is much more a sense of community, of “coming home”, than at the much larger non-electronic game conventions, as many of the 1,300 or so competitors return year after year to play in their favorite tournaments.

This year’s convention was from August 5 to 10, next year will be August 4 to 9.

For information about the BPA and next year’s WBC, see http://www.boardgamers.org/. PrezCon, at the end of February in Charlottesville, VA, is organized much like WBC, but smaller: http://www.prezcon.com/.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Article on GameCareerGuide

My article "Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning"

http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/602/pulling_the_plug_in_defense_of_.php

was published 2 September on Game Career Guide, the major Web site for people wanting to learn video game creation. This is an edited version. My title was "Why we use non-electronic games to teach game design", they wanted something more provocative.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Do designers know how good their games are?

How well do designers understand how good their games are, or how well they will sell (which is two somewhat different things)?

Reiner Knizia (over 200 games published) recently said that his game Pickomino has quite surprised him. Pickomino is a dice game with scoring tiles that's fairly simple, but has become a big seller.

In my own case, 25 or so years ago, after I had had some games published, I had four that I felt were "my best". One of those was Britannia, and it *has* turned out to be a "classic". The other three have not been published. I've revised one quite a bit, that a new publisher appears to be interested in, another has been played a few times recently but I haven't submitted it anywhere, and the fourth is "old fashioned" in a way that might not work well nowadays, but it's only been played once or twice in 25 years. I don't work on the three much, because I have several games designed recently that I feel are better. But do I really know? No. Only repeated playing by lots of groups can tell you how good the game is, and even that won't tell you how well it will sell, as there are many factors in selling other than the quality of gameplay of the game.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Personal Impressions (NOT a review) of China: The Middle Kingdom

Personal Impressions (NOT a review) of China: The Middle Kingdom (Decision Games, designed by Tani Chen)

This is not a review because I have not, and likely will never, play this game (I only play my own unpublished games these days). You can't review a game without playing it several times. So these are impressions and comments.

As the box says, this is based on the Britannia system, old-school Britannia right down to half victory points and half increase points, and "Highlands" instead of "Difficult Terrain". As the designer of Britannia I'm especially interested in such games, and of course I hope they are well received, since I'm working on lord knows how many more of this type.

I'm especially interested because I've used my reduced-scale "gateway" system recently for Chinese history, and because I have one of the few copies extant of the original China Britannia, The Dragon & the Pearl (now out of print), which covers about 200-1300. I am by no means an expert on Chinese history, though I have in fact read something as obscure as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, so I'll have some comments on the historical aspects of the game.

(By the way, it irks me when I see it phrased "Avalon Hill's Britannia", as it is here. As Avalon Hill rejected the game initially ("games of that era don't sell"), and H. P. Gibsons published it first (and provided the board and piece artwork to AH), and AH's main contribution to the game was to screw it up a bit, you can understand why I'm a little annoyed by the phrase. Why not "Lew Pulsipher's Britannia"? Meh.)

But most of my games now go toward simpler and shorter (1 hour 40 minutes for one played recently), not to larger, and this game is Larger. There are 46 countries and 24 turns (12 in each of the half-games). Time to play is listed on the box as 4-10 hours, which sounds about right from my experience (4 would be a quick half-game). It's the number of countries more than the turns that lengthen the game, which is why I try to keep the number of nations (as I prefer to call them) low in my shorter games, as well as down to 6 or 8 turns.

The game ambitiously covers Chinese history from 404 BC to 1949. I don't think the Britannia system suits the age of gunpowder--it was made to reflect gradual barbarian migrations--but only playing the game can reveal how well it works with European intervention and 20th century realities.

The unmounted 34" by 22" map strikes me as slightly garish. There are 46 areas, though 18 are "foreign" areas that only serve as jump-off points for invaders (for comparison, Britannia has 37 areas, more than this game's 28 in regular play). It is colored like a map in an atlas, with several different colors scattered about for areas (think of a map of US states), rather than like a map for a game, where each terrain is a different color. It's not a big deal, but seems a little odd, and contributes to a slightly cartoony or artificial look to the map as a whole.

Apparently the designer, who I'm told is a Chinese graduate of MIT, now a lawyer, decided to use only areas of modern China as in-play areas of the game. There are "foreign" areas along the borders, where invaders start, but they must leave those areas and get into China during their turn. This decision doesn't make sense historically. It means Taiwan and Tibet are in play, though for most of ancient and medieval times they were not part of China, but Vietnam and Korea are not in play, even though the former was held by the Chinese for many centuries, and the latter played a big part in the fall of the Sui and Tang--as it stands, no unit can enter Korea. Either all the adjacent areas should be "in play", or all (including Xinjiang, rarely occupied by the Chinese but part of China in the game) should not be. My solution in my game has been to use the heart of China (including Vietnam and Korea) and show a small part of Tibet and Xinjiang "in play". The other published China Britannia game, Dragon & the Pearl, shows the larger geographic area of this game, but all of it is "in play".

The 456 cardboard pieces are bigger than standard "wargame ghetto" half inch counters, perhaps two-thirds of an inch square. They are thinner than Britannia pieces, but fairly substantial. The wording on the counters is fairly hard to read, unfortunately, but there is a big colored banner with a number on most of the pieces that helps differentiate them. Everyone prefers larger pieces, but there are so many here that pieces the size of the new Britannia edition aren't practical.

The nation cards are very nice, five inches tall and three inches wide. If I were to use nation cards (I have a different system now), I'd like them to be this size and shape. They list appearance, movement order, sequence within the color, and point scoring. My wife observed that the thin font, over a light red background symbol, is difficult to read. There are 50 nation cards (four nations have two players controlling them, one after the other on the same turn), four special cards, and a sequence of play card.

The special cards need to be cut in half to provide two cards for each player. They are usable once per game. One card gives a +1 in one battle, the other causes a battle to be refought. These are like the cards I've used in Epic Britannia, Britannia Brevis (expansions that FFG is not interested in printing, at last report), and especially Frankia. They are tied to a color in Frankia, as they are in this game, whereas in the other two they're tied to a nation.

There are minor production glitches. Zhuge Liang, a famous general of the Three Kingdoms, is referred to thus in the historical booklet, but on the cards and in the rules he is incorrectly shown as Zhu Geliang. The Grand Canal, said to be red in the rules, is actually blue. And there's one place close to a 'four corners' where the map is clearly wrong in its connectivity compared with the rules (Henan-Jiungsu). I assume the rules prevail.

In general, the rules are easy to read (both in flow and in font size) and appear to be comprehensive, but that's always hard to tell until you actually play, isn't it?

A 15 page historical article (evidently from S&T magazine) by the game designer is a generally good introduction to Chinese history. I haven't figured out the author's assertion that the country has never been entirely ruled by foreign powers. I count both the Mongols and the Manchu as foreign powers, and if there was any part of the country not under their rule I can only think of Formosa (referred to by the modern name of Taiwan in the rules), though at one point it says at least one of these invaders controlled Formosa. Until fairly recent times I wouldn't even count this as part of China, and of course from 1895 until present it has been Japanese or Nationalist Chinese (Taiwanese), not part of mainland China despite the claims of the communists. There are no comments about the style or weapons of warfare, other than a sidebar about gunpowder. There are a few other inconsistencies in the historical notes. For example, the author says "the [Han] Chinese military was not powerful enough at that time to deal with the raiders because of the rebellion against the Qin dynasty and later due to government corruption", but from what I've read, the Han did more to crush steppe opposition than most empires, penetrating deep into the north on several occasions and reducing the powerful Xiong-Nu to tributaries for most of the Han period. The normal relationship was "Chinese bribe barbarians with tribute", but the Han reversed that.

The game uses the relatively new Pinyin translation of Chinese to English, rather than the older Wade-Giles. This is why "Peking" became "Beijing". I dislike Pinyin, because it isn't naturally pronounceable for an English person (I wonder if it was made for French?). Chiang Kai-shek becomes Jiang Jieshi in the new system! Tsao Tsao (which is pronounced with a ts sound) becomes Cao Cao in the new system. Bah. But I suppose use of Pinyin is inevitable. Modern names of provinces have been used in most cases.

The game is arranged very much like Britannia. There are very few starting armies for some nations, as few as two. It appears that there will be a lot of attacking, since many nations score for killing others, and since the attacker has the advantage. And a lot of nations may disappear quickly. Ten of the nations have an army maximum of 10 or more. 16 nations have a max of four or less. Five European nations do not get Increase, and four of them have no more than 3 armies. But these hit on a 3+ and are hit only on a 6.

Combat resembles standard Britannia except that attackers have one better chance of hitting than defenders. Highlands reduce chances by TWO. Europeans and Mongols (during the invasion) hit on a 3 and are only hit on a 6, and Mongols can overrun at 1:1 during the invasion instead of 2:1.

Increase of Population is the same as Britannia. There is no stacking limit as such, but overpopulation is applied by area, three for clear, two for highlands, after combat, any excess dying. This is the brake against huge stacks.

There are a few double moves (including a second Increase, however), and one triple move, the Mongol invasion.

Leaders are called "emperors" (which include Mao and Chiang), and there are only ten in the game. Unlike Brit, leaders cause the enemy to attack at -1, as well as the other usual leader effects on combat and movement.

One of the problems I've had in my China game is how to reflect the rapid fall of a major dynasty, possibly followed by fragmentation, possibly by another dynasty. This game uses a clever method for rebellions that is unfortunately rather random. I think it reflects history pretty well, but might be frustrating for players because of the dice rolling involved. A rebellion starts in one or more areas, determined by regional dice rolls (each of the areas of the main part of China is numbered for the rolls). Then adjacent areas roll to see if they join the rebellion, with the major dynasties having a "power factor" of 5, which means on any roll but a 6 the adjacent area joins the rebels!

This power factor is also the number of points scored if you wipe out a nation, and the number of armies you get as reinforcements. So this becomes very important, and is also an incentive for nations to wipe out other nations and so avoid the "Belgae survive all game in Lindsey" syndrome of Britannia. With 46 nations this might be needed. Clever.

There is no indication of the typical score for the game, so I can't judge how important the points for eliminating a nation may be compared with other ways of scoring. Scoring, by the way, is every third turn, except for such things as kill points (which are common). A scoresheet is provided.

Uprisings, not the same as rebellions, occur in empty provinces. But the rules don't appear to say what happens if there are no empty provinces.

The Three Kingdoms nations, successors to the Han, are all depicted, something I could not do in my smaller-scale games with relatively few nations. Yet the Mongol invasion is all in one turn, rather than in two turns! (The Mongols finished the Jin, in northern China, in 1234 seven years after Genghis' death; they conquered the southern Song 45 years later.) Insofar as I think it's important to show that the Mongols were not invincible or unstoppable, I'm puzzled by this choice.

Another oddity is the Great Wall. Any attack over the wall FROM EITHER SIDE gives an advantage to the defender. The Great Wall was a turf wall, like Hadrian's Wall in Britain, until the stone fortifications built in the 17th century. There are actually fortifications like this all over Europe. I have a map that shows the ones in Britain (Offa's Dyke is the obvious one after Hadrian's and the Antonine walls), and I've seen them marked southeast of the Caspian Sea! These walls were too long to be fully manned (even Hadrian's, far shorter than the Great Wall, only had a garrison at intervals). They were more a discouragement for cattle rustlers and the like: "how do I get the cattle back home with this wall in the way"? In China, the question was "how do I get my horse over this wall", even though armed men could get over fairly easily. Against a real invasion, the walls weren't worth much. Giving a +1 doesn't make sense historically (especially to those going from south to north!), but it's a way to emphasize one of the most famous man-made landmarks in the world.

I was puzzled by some of the nations included and not included. The Tungus, who I thought might be Tanguts of Xi Xia, turn out to be (Wikipedia) "Evenks", a nation I have never heard of but which is included in the game for 517 and on. They start with a very substantial five armies in Kazakhstan. I thought these might represent Celestial or Blue Turks. Well, no the Tujue (another name I didn't recognize, but which Wikipedia says is the name in Chinese sources) are in fact the GokTurks (another name Celestial/Blue Turks). They are in the game from 557, and are one army weaker than the puzzling Tungus, whereas in fact the GokTurks had a huge Central Asian empire that at one time dominated the area north of China.

The Nan Zhao (usually shown the old way on maps, as Nan Chao) are a Thai people who later migrated into Thailand. For some reason they start in Vietnam instead of Thailand or Myanmar. (By the way, why use this recently-adopted ethnic name instead of Burma or Pyu or another older name? I think using modern names for a sweep of history games is a poor choice.)

The Xiong-Nu are called Huns in the game, which I think is a disservice to players. Scholarly opinion has fluctuated on this question, beginning with the incorrect notion that there is considerable similarity in the two names (this is primarily in the transliterations). Similarities between Hun and Xiong-Nu culture can be found. There are no written records for these peoples, and we know virtually nothing about their languages. No one knows for sure, any more than we can know that the Rouran became the western Avars.


Finally, here's a very interesting note: playtesters are listed separately for the author and for the publisher. The author lists two [sic] playtesters, so do we conclude that he had three people including himself to playtest a four player game? The publisher lists seven playtesters. Perhaps they only listed the major players?

I'll be interested to hear how the game plays. After all, that's what counts in the end. Game balance is very difficult to achieve in these games, and harder here in the two smaller versions of the game, yet experienced players can provide the "invisible hand" that results in balance because they know what imbalances need to be rectified. I'd like a dime for every person who says Britannia is imbalanced, yet the current results database shows virtually perfect balance. You certainly cannot play these kinds of games once or twice and think you understand all the strategy or balance. Another reason why this is NOT a review.

It would be really interesting to hear comments from someone who has played both this game and Dragon & The Pearl, but the latter had a very limited distribution and is not, as far as I know, in print. (See http://www.spiritgames.co.uk/gamesin.php?UniqueNo=1969.)

(Note for completists: there was also a very, very large Brit-like China game, Mandate of Heaven (120 BC-1949), being playtested by mail through a Yahoo Group: http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/MandateH/?v=1&t=search&ch=web&pub=groups&sec=group&slk=17. Members only, and judging from the number of messages, the game is over.)

Lew Pulsipher

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

4D&D Impressions

4th Edition D&D is out, and I've read some of the Player's Handbook.

First Edition (second was not much different, so I discount it) let you play "wargame D&D" or "story D&D" as you liked--D&D as a competition or as an entertainment. Family games tend to be entertainments. Party games, ditto. Euro games, often. Wargames, they're usually competitions.

As Desslock, the well-known PC Gamer reviewer of RPGs says, recent versions of D&D were too "Crunchy", that is, the barriers to entry are too high because generating and understanding a character takes so long. In First Edition you could get players going in 10 minutes, if you needed to. And there are barriers in the play, as well, which tends to become too complex for many. In 3.0 or 3.5 it takes closer to an hour. It is also much more "fiddly" to devise adventures. I've played 3.0, and refereed from modules, but I never made up a 3/3.5 adventure owing to those fiddly barriers (primarily the skills, feats, and ability modifications).

I've always treated D&D as a wargame that's entertaining--we ALWAYS have used a square grid board. 3/3.5 emphasized wargame and (at least insofar as it's "Crunchy") lost track of the entertainment. 4th edition appears to have recast D&D as an entertainment--something like a movie--rather than as a strategic game, by eliminating most of the more difficult decisions such as when to use a very limited set of spells.

First Edition is long gone. Hackmaster revived First Edition, but with its own complications and an annoyingly foolish notion that the referee and the players are actually competing with one another. (Any referee who can't kill off players EASILY, if he wants to, is incompetent.) Castles and Crusades seems to be the spiritual descendant of First Edition D&D.

4th edition appears to be an attempt to go back to the simplicity and non-crunchiness of First Edition. But the uniformity of it is very striking, and I wonder how that will affect long-term enjoyment. There are not prestige classes and skills and feats galore to unbalance the game, nor does it appear that this is wanted. Instead, every class has several powers (at-will, once per encounter, once per day). And the powers tend to read with a remarkable sameness regardless of the class. Even the wizard is no different, in melee, though at other times he is more likely to use rituals (equivalent of spells that take longer than a round to cast).

Some commentators have remarked that this edition is an attempt to turn D&D into WOW. I don't know about that, but when characters always have something they can do, can heal themselves many times, when characters rise in level rapidly, there is more WOW than in any other version of D&D. It is intended to be easy to play and easy to succeed at, I think, which also characterizes WOW, an entertainment, a "grind-fest for noobs" is how I've heard WOW described. What appears to have happened is that the competitive aspect of D&D, which was too much emphasized in 3/3.5, has been quashed in favor of the entertainment aspect. First Edition balanced the two, those who wanted to play it "competitively", more or less as a wargame, could do so, while those who wanted entertainment, as though the game were a story, can do that. 3/3.5 was almost all wargame. 4 appears to be almost all entertainment. (I should clarify here that when I say "competitive" I'm talking about players against the monsters with the referee as neutral; it is still a cooperative game where the players are concerned, one of its greatest attractions, I think.)

Competitions require planning and difficult choices, whereas entertainments reduce the number of choices to several plausible ones, and tend not to require planning. Family/party games are at the extreme of entertainment. 3/3.5 was aptly described by one speaker at Origins as "Fantasy Squad Leader", at the other end of the spectrum where wargames live. It was designed to cater to players who wanted to find the most powerful combination of rules and skills and feats, and worse, it was designed so that vast numbers of additional skills, feats, and prestige classes became available to players, so that it wasn't even a self-contained wargame but an evolving one, kind of like a collectible card game where the rules must be broken every year so that the best combinations change over time.

I remember advising First Edition referees that players do all they can to find unearned advantages, and the referee's role was to quash that. But 3/3.5 enthroned it as a virtue. There is little of that extreme min-maxing in 4th edition, and that should be an improvement for most players.

But I need to read a lot more of the Player Handbook before I can say these things definitively. At present it appears it would be an interesting game to try, but I wouldn't referee it. And while it's a fantasy role-playing game, and might be a good one, it isn't D&D any more.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Origins 2008 unscientific survey

While at Origins I try to keep an eye on the age, gender, and race of the attendees. My impression this year was that there were more women than in the past, and more young people, and about as few blacks as usual (very few). Now given that I don't ordinarily notice the color/race of folks in a crowd, I once again did my unscientific survey, sitting in the same very wide connecting corridor I did in 2006 (I didn't count in 2007 for some reason), and about the same time of day, but on Friday rather than Sunday, and counted people who passed by. I didn't try to count Hispanics as I can't reliably recognize all Hispanics just from looking, but I saw few if any that were "obviously" Hispanic. Nor did I try to judge age, of course.

There were 6 black amongst :
127 male
42 female
for a total of 169:

3.5% black
24.8% female

This compares with zero percent black in 2006, and 28.5% female. So it seems the numbers of females weren't actually higher than two years ago (which is why I count), and I have no figures for last year.

Comments at Boardgame News

Boardgame News posted a notice/link about my "What's Important" post a few days ago, that elicited a few comments (one an ad hominem attack, my thanks to Christopher Dearlove for answering that better than I could have).

I do not have a $25 per year membership to BGN, so cannot post any response there to the following:

"And I’ll disagree with one of his statements. DO design for yourself. Not only do you have to take enjoyment in testing the thing to death, but you have to beleive in your own product if you are going to attempt to sell it."

Posted by Jeff Allers

I understand Jeff's point of view. However, to respond to it I'll resort to a designer more well-known than anyone in boardgames: Sid Meier (Civilization, Pirates, etc.) in Gameinformer 182, June 2008, he is quoted:

"...there's a danger with some of the newer designers, a tendency to design the game you like to play. That game has already been designed--we need new games. There's a loss of a little bit of that "sky's the limit, anything's possible" approach we had in the early days. We have these genres--we have first-person shooters, we have real-time strategy. If you've played games all your life you've gotten these certain styles really beaten into you. To get people to think out of
the box is a little harder these days."

Granted he's talking about videogame designers, and it certainly applies strongly to video game design students, but the point applies to non-electronic game designers as well, I think.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Initial impressions, Origins Game Fair

Last week I attended Origins in Columbus Ohio for the fourth or fifth time in a row.

Origins changed their name to Origins Game Fair, a very good idea intended to attract a more general clientele. They also instituted a weekend-only $10 admission so that "the unwashed" could come into the exhibit halls and buy something, and watch all the gaming. But the attendance in the vendor hall, except on Saturday, was significantly less than in the past. Even in the gaming halls there seemed to be considerably less going on, despite the Pokemon National Tournament and a record number of events. Last year there were something like 15,000 unique attendees, likely fewer this year.

It's easy to attribute the attendance dropoff to the price of gas. What concerns publishers is whether people will buy fewer games because of gas prices and general uncertainty. Conventional wisdom is that when the economy is poor, people steer their entertainment dollars toward the less expensive (per hour) forms of entertainment, which includes games (especially non-electronic games). One vendor pointed out that games are now cheaper, in comparison with gas and other necessities such as food, than they used to be. But another worried that when it came time to buy a game, a person would need the money for gas.

I go with the conventional wisdom. The people who came to the convention were willing to spend money, it's just that there weren't as many people as in the past.

Nor were there as many exhibitors--or maybe I should say, the exhibits occupied less space--especially the huge exhibits we used to see. Why? Let's speculate.

At a remainder vendor I ran across a box of 12 starter sets (30 chips in each) of Clout Fantasy. Clout was heavily hyped at last year's convention, originated by a company involving Peter Adkison, founder of Wizards of the Coast and owner of GenCon. It is a collectible throwing game. You throw the equivalent of high quality poker chips with color illustrations on them into an area, and rules plus measurements govern what happens. I confess last year I didn't think it would appeal to many people, and this box may well confirm that. Clout starter sets were $14.95 at Thought Hammer (knocked down to $8.97). So my $8 box retailed for $180 at one time. The principal publisher, AEG, used to have enormous layouts at Origins, but had a tiny booth this year.

But this was not as striking as the absence of WizKids for the second year running, after they had brought enormous setups to past Origins. Wizkids made their fame with Mage Knight, HeroClix, and the like. Mage Knight figures were at the same remainder vendor, as well as Navia (chesslike game using collectible figures, also pushed heavily at the convention in the past). I couldn't resist, and bought a dwarven steam behemoth (a tank, more or less) for $4 (original price $34.95 in 2001). There were even some D&D miniatures sets in the lot.

Of course, another vendor had literally thousands of RPG books at $5 apiece. This only confirms what we all knew, that the RPG market is in the pits, though the advent of 4th Edition D&D (which renders all the D20 Third Edition stuff obsolete) may have had something to do with this particular display.

RPG market: Andy Hopp, a guest of honor artist who works in the RPG industry, gave another illustration of the collapse of the RPG market. When he started about seven years ago, he could get around $80 for a black and white illustration in an RPG book. He doesn't work in that segment now, but understands people are lucky to get $10 for the same thing. That's because, outside of the main vendors such as Wizards of the Coast, companies can's sell much RPG material, so they can't pay much for art.

I didn't notice Wizards of the Coast, whether they were there or not.

We had the usual contingent, perhaps more than usual, of little companies with a few new self-published games pushing them at Origins, companies we won't see back next year, as usual, because it won't have been worth the cost/effort. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, as they say.

I didn't investigate, but a game that caught my eye was a spiral array printed on black cloth, with two different colors of dice (not d6) layed out on it. As a result I'm thinking about using dice as pieces for a game, but D6, not the more expensive stuff.

The little companies, the boardgame companies, that have been around for a long time were still there (most of them), but the big companies were not as much in evidence. Perhaps WizKids and Wizards of the Coast will be at GenCon, which is more fantasy-oriented than Origins.

According to the organizers there were 4,527 events at Origins--tournaments, role-playing/miniatures/bardgaming sessions, seminars. One of the oddities of Origins is that you pay quite a hefty fee to get in--up to $70--and then you're charged to play the games, and even some of the seminars that you attend. (This in contrast to WBC, where you pay one fee and then can play in any tournaments, and play anything else.) At Origins there's even a fee for playing in the open boardgaming area. But the result is LOTS of events. I did my usual two free seminars, how to get your game published and how to design a game. (Slides and MP3 recordings here, including also Ian Schreiber's "Game Design for Teachers", http://pulsiphergames.com/teaching1.htm.) I had more than 25 at each session despite choosing slightly odd times (9 AM and 3 PM Saturday). As seminars go, this is very good attendance. Listening to myself, I seem to have been in good form, and I'll use the recordings to help me write the book.

Why did I buy the Clout set? For pieces for prototypes, I get outstandingly made "poker" chips in four colors for two+ cents each, and can ignore the illustrations. But I realized after I'd bought, I can use these for game design "challenges" in class. I'll give student groups a starter set or two, tell them to use one of the three sets of numbers on the chips, and make up a game (most likely with a square board, but that's up to them). Unfortunately, the other set was gone when I thought of this and wanted to buy it as well!

(Oops: added the URL)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

What's important in breaking into the (non-electronic) game industry?

Sometimes I try to summarize the most important things about some topic or question in one page--a useful exercise. Here's the latest:

Don't think you're going to make a lot of money. Very likely, you'll spend a great deal of time for little return. Non-electronic gaming is "small potatoes", not a big source of money. "How do you make a small fortune in the game industry? Start with a big fortune."

Publishers want games, not ideas. Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen; recognize that your "great idea" is not that great, not that original, not that interesting to others. That's reality. (How often do we get a really extraordinary new idea? D&D, Magic:the Gathering, maybe Mage Knight?)

You have to DO something to give yourself some credibility, before publishers are likely to look at your game. If you're a complete unknown, why would publishers deal with you?
● Volunteer at cons
● Write articles
● Make variants/mods and publish them
● have a decent Web site
● GM at conventions

Sorry, folks, while you're really important to yourself and your family, you're nobody to any publisher.

Don't design games for yourself, design for others. They’re the ones who must enjoy it, your enjoyment in playing is unimportant! But don’t design something you expect you’ll dislike.

If you're only working on one game, or a few, you're not likely to end up with a good one, AND you identify yourself as a dilettante, an amateur. Pros are working on many, many games.

Patience is a virtue. Britannia existed in fully playable form in 1980. It was first published in 1986. In 2008, one publisher told me, "it's a good thing you're immortal, because it's going to take a long time" to evaluate and publish one of my games.

So if you're the "instant gratification" type, recognize your instant gratification will be in seeing people play your prototype, not in the published game.

Self-publishing is practical, if you don't mind losing a lot of money. Moreover, at some point you become a publisher/marketer, not a designer. What do you want to do?

Playtesting is sovereign. You have to playtest your game until you're sick of looking at it, until you want to throw the damn thing away. Then maybe you'll have something. But you have to be willing to change the game again and again: listen to the playtesters, watch how they react, recognize your game isn’t perfect and won’t be even when (if) it’s published.

When your game is rejected, there’s a good chance the rejection had nothing to do with the game’s quality. Be persistent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chess and chance in Britannia

In describing Britannia to potential players, I often say it has a chess-like quality. You have to pay attention throughout the game, as losing out on a few points in the first few turns can mean the difference between winning and losing many turns later. It is a game that rewards some planning, though owing to the variability of combat, you also have to react to surprises from the dice as well as from the players.

In chess you can survive going down a pawn early in the game, but if you really screw up and go down a rook or queen, you've had it. Similarly in Britannia, if you make a big error--say, as the Welsh, fighting the Romans to the death instead of submitting--then you can't win the game, and face hours having to deal with that.

While some people play games to enjoy the process, the journey, some play to win, and don't care to play when they feel they cannot win. In chess you can resign (surrender) and play another game, not easy to do gracefully when there are three other players instead of one.

This chess-like quality is quite in contrast to many Euro-style games, where you can more or less foul up throughout the first half or more of the game and still have some chance to win in the end. Insofar as many Euro games are "family games on steroids", this characteristic is to be expected.

The presence of chance, variability, in the combat, takes Britannia away from the chess analogy, thank heaven. (For me, chess is "too much like work".) Whether there's "too much luck" is a matter for disagreement. In my online survey, about 75% of players think the amount of luck is OK, and most of the rest think there should be less. In my prototypes I generally have adopted methods with less chance, some of them diceless though not deterministic. I hardly ever consider using the original combat method in new games. (Then again, I was known to say 30-some years ago "I hate dice games", but then I came onto D&D and designed Britannia and other games that use dice...)

I think expert Brit players would say that bad luck can be managed, as long as there isn't a really long run of bad luck. Less expert players often think the game can revolve around a few rolls. To my mind, most rolls in Britannia are not important out of proportion, unless someone is desperately trying to kill a rival king in the endgame. Dice can be managed in Brit just as they can be managed in D&D. "What?" Yes, in (first edition) D&D you can try to minimize the number of times you MUST get lucky. This is the same as how you ought to manage life, trying to avoid times when you MUST get lucky. So smart people wear seatbelts, some people don't. Smart people exercise, some people don't. Smart people don't smoke, some people do. And so forth.

I have changed the combat methods in prototypes in part because I want to reduce chance, but also because I tend to aim at shorter games with fewer pieces. This means less fighting, and each fight is magnified in importance, so I want to reduce the effects of chance on each fight. I've devised a number of 4-8 turn Britannia scenarios, and it's noticeable how much more important the dice rolls are in these much-shorter games, simply because there are fewer rolls over the course of the game. (I've never quite actually counted, but IIRC there's something like 800 dice rolls in a Brit game.)

Example: players who do lots of one-on-ones with the Romans are taking unnecessary risks, I think--living on borrowed time. I try to avoid it. I think a conservative Roman can still score his 80 by round 3, and have more Roman armies left to defend his holdings. Yeah, "fortune favors the bold", but sometimes you don't have to be bold and can still get the job done.

There are three prominent alternative methods: one uses battle cards to add to the strength of combatants, and each player has an identical deck of 25 cards (five in hand). Over the course of a game, then, the "luck" each player has will be about the same, because they have identical decks. A second method uses "picture dice" (which are really just marked with the equivalent of 4, 5, and 6 when you come down to it), each army rolls two dice, and two hits are required to kill an army. The third method uses a table. One table "evens out" luck quite strongly, another not as much. The first cross-references the number of armies and a die roll, the second uses odds (but all possible odds are listed on the table, so that players don't have to figure out odds--people aren't used to doing division in their heads any more). People like picture dice and cards. Wargamers are more used to tables. All of these methods have been extensively playtested, and all of them work, but accomplish somewhat different objectives and have different expenses (200 cards, for example).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Three player difficulties

I am working on the "Gateway" version of Normannia--have played twice, seems to work despite being on a larger board (33 areas) to accommodate the bigger diceless version. Now I'm looking at a three player version, but whenever I do this I seem to run into problems with nation interaction. It's very difficult to avoid strange interactions with three players. It reminded me of the "four color map" problem.

"The four color theorem (also known as the four color map theorem) states that given any plane separated into regions, such as a political map of the states of a country, the regions may be colored using no more than four colors in such a way that no two adjacent regions receive the same color. Two regions are called adjacent only if they share a border segment, not just a point. Each region must be contiguous (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contiguity): that is, it may not have exclaves (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclave) like some real countries such as Angola (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angola), Azerbaijan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azerbaijan), Italy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italy), the United States (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States), or Russia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia)."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_color_theorem

I'm trying to do the same to accommodate just three players, and it's very difficult to do. Even without the "petty diplomacy problem"--that one player, if he decides he cannot win, can determine which of the other two can win--it makes three player strategic map-based games difficult in general.

There are ways to overcome the petty diplomacy problem, and if you have just three nations you can have three players, but when you start trying to use many nations, it becomes really difficult to do well.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ruminations

I've just realized a difference between electronic games and non-electronic games: if you design a really good non-electronic game, there's a good chance it will still be played 20 years from now, might even still sell 20 years from now. In the video game world, games become obsolete because of advances in the computational platforms. A game might be played 20 years after it was released, but it almost certainly won't sell 20 years after.

Here is an expression of why I prefer in-person gaming: "There is nothing on the planet more entertaining than other people." Jordan Weisman

That element of "other people" is partly or entirely lost in electronic games, even MMOs.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Avoiding piracy and effects of technology

I've been reading about the conventional reason given for publishers' lack of interest in PC video games. They believe that piracy is so rampant that they can't sell many games, compared with console sales where piracy is much harder (and I'd add, many users are much less technically adept). However, some people think the real problem is that many PC games require such high-end hardware that the actual pool of potential buyers is small, and there has to be some truth in that. And the people with the high-end systems are usually the ones most capable of pirating the software.

Boardgames have faced the problem of piracy--I've heard of hand-made and photocopies of stuff I've published, and Diplomacy was pirated in Brazil wholesale at one time (they added a supply center in Tunisia, otherwise the same game). In the modern era of scanning and digital cameras it becomes relatively easy to make copies of boards and rules. So how have boardgames changed to make this less of a threat? First, the games provide lots of "bits" (pieces) of thick cardboard, but often 3 dimensional wood or plastic, sometimes even plastic figures. In Euro-style games the boards are often mounted. There are even gimmicks such as spinners and dice towers that cannot practically be pirated. Finally, flashy color art is less easy to pirate than old-style black and white.

In wargames there are fewer protections, but the pool of wargame buyers is so small that the typical hex historical game sells about two thousand copies, and piracy is uncommon. "Block games" have become popular, and they have the 3 dimensional block pieces and the stickers for the blocks, all being more difficult to pirate than ordinary cardboard counters.

At the same time, most game companies post game rules online. The rules become an advertisement for the game, not a piracy threat. Usually the cards, which are common, are not posted online by the publisher, though there are exceptions. The Britannia nation cards are not on FFG's Web site, but photos might be found at places like Boardgamegeek (copyright violations overlooked by the publisher)

I'm going to bring in another comparison at some length, books and textbooks. It is only a matter of time to scan a book to an electronic copy. Scott Adams (author of Dilbert comics) complained that one of his books was available in pirated electronic version the day after it came out, and so he never pursued sales of an electronic version. As students more habitually carry laptops or "e-readers", the electronic version of a book can be used in class as well as outside of class.

However, as a college teacher I see students either not reading the textbook, or not even bothering to buy it. To folks of my generation a book was a treasure trove of information about a topic. Now we have the Internet, and hundreds of channels on cable and satellite. (I was lucky, I had three TV channels instead of two, and learned a lot from "20th Century" and "Mr. Wizard".) These provide information for "free". Want history? There's the History Channel and its competitors. Want science? Discovery Channel and many others. A lot of the information is pretty shaky these days owing to sensationalism and a lackadaisical attitude that turns fiction into truth, but there IS information. So why bother with a book, younger people ask.

Textbook publishers generally have depended on the structure of the business, that is, the teacher chooses a textbook, and the students are required to purchase the textbook, and then the teacher tests the students on the content of the textbook.

But we've reached different days. Even when typical students KNOW that by reading a textbook they can do much better on a test, THEY DON'T BOTHER by and large. Heavens, even when a practice test is available that will almost assure them of getting an "A", they don't bother to take it! And in the past year I've seen students not bother to buy a textbook, not because they have a pirated edition, but because they don't feel it's worth the money. (Students at elite schools like Duke still read books most of the time, but they are very much the exception.)

If I were a textbook company I'd be worried, even though, thanks to essentially monopoly pricing, a company can charge well over $100 for a widely-used (and consequently high print run) book. As I often say, if you put a textbook in a bookstore hardly anyone would buy it; which is why I try to use class books that DO sell well in bookstores, they are not only cheaper, they are usually more interesting.

Of course, what the bookstore books are missing is the paraphernalia of teaching, the questions and reviews and case studies and other pedagogical material that often isn't worth much anyway, in my view. But textbook companies are smart, they market to the teacher, not to the students, because the teacher selects the book (and can get a free copy of the textbook, but not of books sold in ordinary bookstores, mind you). In the end, teachers want books that will teach the class for them. (Not surprisingly, I am very much NOT that sort of teacher.) This is especially important for online/distance ed classes, which consist largely of learning from a book, not from a teacher. (And which I do not teach.)

Despite this, and despite the bizarre but increasingly common notion that people must take classes to learn things instead of reading books--usually not textbooks--I think the textbook companies are in trouble. But they may not quite know it.

Some people in the industry are experimenting with ways to make piracy a virtue rather than a problem. One company (freeloadpress) is putting advertisements in textbooks and distributing electronic versions for free. These are full-page full-color ads, usually in unobtrusive locations. The books can be purchased at reasonable prices in paper, I presume via publishing-on-demand technology. For example, the 140 page book I downloaded was less than $10 in paper. These folks are already in business and have some impressive title in their catalog.

Another company plans to sell the homework assignments, and hopes instructors will enforce the idea that if the student hasn't bought the homework assignments, the student cannot get credit for homework. I don't think they have a prayer, teachers aren't going to care about this.

Another company expects to sell ancillary products that support the books, such as study guides. Again, I don't see how this can work, and surely the ancillary products, if written, will be pirated.

This brings us back to video games. You may know that some games already have in-game advertising. If this becomes the primary support of a game, then the more copies made of a game, the better for the publisher. Also, some online games have gone to a modified free model. It's free to play the game, but there are ancillary, in-game benefits (such as cooler costumes for avatars) that cost small sums, and those small sums add up to large ones. There's no analog of "sell the homework", or I'd expect PC games to have experiments there.

Consoles in the long run may be susceptible to piracy, too, especially the computer wannabes (XBox 360 and PS 3). Once you have a DVD drive, you have the possibility that someone will figure out how to copy console games either on a modified console or on a PC.

Computer technology and the Internet have changed many business models. Some businesses have contracted mightily (travel agents, e.g.), some have appeared from nowhere. The boardgame business has changed in another way, because the competition from online game retailers makes it tough for many local game shops to continue, yet publishers don't sell enough online, by and large, to wish to see retail distribution from brick-and-mortar stores disappear (as it is slowly doing).

Chris Anderson argues that "the long tail" (the name of his book) means marginal/niche products will be more successful, yet others believe the "short-term mega-hit" phenomenon means those same products are less viable, not more. I understand that retailing of games changed with the collectible card games, because stores got used to products (CCGs and expansions) that sold very well for 90 days and then sold very little. Boardgames, especially wargames, sell via a different model, but stores aren't interested in keeping inventory of less-than-brand-new games in stock because of the CCG phenomenon. I think this is one reason why we see so many new boardgames, but most don't sell a lot or make much money (though a few mega-hits do). Something about the new edition of Britannia that really pleased me was the continued good level of sales (until it was sold out): one way or another it seemed to avoid the 90-day-wonder phenomenon.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Memorization

Young people seem to think it funny when they ask about a rule in one of my prototypes and I say "I don't remember". "But it's your game!" they say. Yes, but I have dozens of prototypes going, and I see no reason to remember all the rules--that's why I write them down. Further, if I rely on what's written, then I'll know that the way we're playing matches the way other people will ultimately be playing.

I have to remember as much as I can about the games that only have notes, not full rules--I don't write full rules until the game has been played several times. And at my age I have a lot more to remember than 20-somethings do. So I save my memory for what's important!

I am always a little fascinated by "designers" who say they're working on just one game. That certainly allows for full focus and full memorization of the rules, but given that the majority of games don't work out well, the more you work on, the more you're likely to have some that will "rise to the top". I try to approach it in a businesslike manner, the folks who design only one at a time certainly appear to be hobbyists only.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Favorite games--generational differences

I often attend the NC State Tabletop Gamers meetings, where everyone else is age 25 and under, making me incredibly old. Recently I asked the players what their favorite game is. With one exception (who heard my question and asked me to ask him), not a single one could name their favorite game. I've found this is often the case with game development students, too. As new games come out, they get interested in the new ones and lose much of their interest in the old ones. So they don't really have favorites. It's unusual for the same game to be played twice at the meetings (partly a matter of time), unusual for a person to play a particular game a second time in an evening. And most of the players are willing to "have a go" at games they have never heard of, let alone learned to play before the meeting.

This only shows once again that there is a big difference between generations. I can name all my favorite games from the time I started playing strategy games: Conflict briefly, then Broadsides, and at age 12 Stalingrad (and others from AH, though SG was "the" favorite). Age 18 introduced me to Diplomacy. Age 24, D&D. I played D&D for 29 years, then took three years off, and got back into designing games. I'd have to say my favorite now is Britannia, though I've never played a published version, always preliminary versions or variants.

My second favorites tended at one time to be video games, Empire Deluxe, Total Annihilation (played at SLOW speed!), Civilization 2, and Heroes of Might and Magic 2. Lately I haven't had much time to play video games. My second favorite now would be D&D (after Brit).

And like many people my age, I want to study the rules and the game before I play; I dislike being taught by another person how to play a game, because it's so likely that confusion will result.

I suspect the "cult of the new" has something to do with these differences between me and the NC State gamers. Nowadays people, especially young people, assume that whatever is newest is usually best. Older generations (and perhaps anyone with a lot of experience) realizes that "new" is not necessarily a recommendation.


Here's a question: if I have always had these favorite games, why do I design new ones? Some designers may design games so that they can enjoy playing them, but that's not my motivation. I design them first so that other people can enjoy playing them, and second as interesting intellectual exercises. I came back into designing games after a 20 year hiatus because I realized that of all the things I had done, the one that provided the most pleasure and stimulus to the most people is Britannia. And I wanted to do more. But as I design a ridiculous number of games, I find I'm doing it to "solve a problem", sometimes a problem related to history, sometimes a problem I manufacture, that is, to meet self-imposed constraints. For example, Law & Chaos is likely to be a very popular game once published, probably more popular than Britannia ever was, yet it began as a simple desire to make a game that uses glass beads for its only pieces.

I don't actually play the games, once published, so I clearly don't make them in order to play them myself. I don't even play them in playtest sessions, if there are enough other players, because I don't want to skew the results. Nonetheless, it's music to my ears to hear someone say "I love this game" or that they've played Britannia five hundred times (I sure haven't), or that Swords & Wizardry is their favorite boardgame.

Having said that, there's rarely anything so fascinating as playing a game I've designed for the first time. How will it work out, what will I need to change, will there "be anything in it"?

I have to confess that there are a few I've designed that I don't particularly enjoy playing, but other people do. That's partly a consequence of experience, partly of designing by constraints to see what I can work out. Game design is a vocation for me rather than a living, so I can do what I want, how I want it.

Gamasutra has an article discussing how much video games cater to "cult of the new" (not their words) rather than favorites to be played again and again:
http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=18301

Monday, March 24, 2008

Playing vs. Watching

I am known to some as a person who doesn't actually play boardgames, other than his own--but I do play the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. I don't even play my games once they're published, though I'll play variations. Except for D&D, I'm always interested in the design aspect of playing a game, that is, improving the designs I'm working on.

Moreover, playing a game that is less than top standard is too much like work. And some games (like chess) are too much like work in any case. I am much happier watching or reading the rules than suffering through playing.

When I used to play boardgames, I played "for blood", to win. But about age 25 I got to where I disliked the competitiveness, what it did to me, so I stopped playing competitive games. D&D is a cooperative game, at least the way I play it.

D&D is an aberration in other ways, too. The games I design tend to be grand strategic, often covering long periods, or they are abstract. In either case, there is no "role assumption", the player does not think of himself as a single individual. And I don't feel a need for role-assumption. Yet D&D is often highly tactical, and players represent single individuals. I hardly ever design a game like that. (It has to be said, when I got back into designing games I stopped playing D&D, and only recently started again--but that may have been a matter of availability of players rather than distraction of boardgames.)

At Rick Steeves' Game Night recently, I played my new dice game that uses Law & Chaos principles, to make up the numbers; I didn't play Warhamster Rally but learned a lot from watching and reading the rules, yet I didn't have to concentrate on it. (I'm designing a "Rocket Rally" game, sort of broad market using RoboRally principles, so I was quite interested in WHR.) I also watched part of a Forumula De game, very clever yet not offering something I can use in any game I'm working on--not yet, anyway. I also had a look at TransAmerica. I'm always looking for methods and ideas that might help me, yet most of the games played at Rick's are Euro types rather than wargames, and most of the games I design are at least in part wargames, certainly conflict games.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Where variability comes from in a wargame

I've been thinking about where variability comes from in games, especially wargames.

Obviously, much of it comes from people, that is, from the opposition. And when there is more than one opponent, the variability becomes much less predictable. Some computer games try to reproduce some of this kind of variability, for example Civilization. In Civ IV the different "personalities" of the opponents are supposed to influence how they play.

It often appears to me that expert "Euro" game players are playing the players more than the system, though some of the more intricate mechanics mean the main point of effort is understanding and "controlling" the mechanic rather than understanding and "controlling" the people.

At any rate, here are some wargames and sources of variability:

Britannia--the combat system, that is, the dice rolls. In many of my Brit-like prototypes I'm trying to cut down on the randomness of the combat. Though 75% of the players think the amount of luck is OK, most others would like less luck. I laugh at people who say Brit is "too scripted", there seems to be great variation in what happens owing to both differing strategies and dice rolls. Freeform would make no sense in an historical game (note that Vinci and Risk, below, both freeform games, have NO element of history in them, absolutely none).

Vinci--the chit draws for the civilizations provide a random element. It is also very freeform. But mostly it is the people.

Risk--the combat system is the obvious variable, but even more, the territory cards and increasing reward for turning in sets; also there's the extremely freeform structure (you can go anywhere).

Diplomacy--there is occasional guessing in the tactics, but this game is almost entirely about people. Someday I may do a version of Dip stripped to its essentials, where there would be little or no tactical element, or perhaps a kind of a "Euro" version of Diplomacy (this might end up being two different games).

In most wargames, the dice rolling in combat is the main variable other than the people themselves. And that makes sense, combat is a very chancy business no matter how well-prepared you may be.

In many other games, especially those with little or no luck in the combat system, the Event Cards provide the variability. (E.g. Germania, Seas of Gold, Law & Chaos (yeah, that's not a wargame), etc.

Some games become "predictable" for lack of a random element other than the players--chess, checkers, Puerto Rico, etc. Yet when they are complex enough, there's still a lot of unpredictability. Checkers has been brute-force solved by computer, but that doesn't prevent people from playing.

I'm not sure where that gets us, but there it is.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Keep it simple

While at PrezCon I saw many games, even many "Euro" games, with hundreds of bits, lots of different kinds of bits, and wondered why anyone wanted to try to make sense of all the cardboard chits and cards and money and... My friend Rick played an eight hour Axis & Allies game, with vast numbers and types of pieces. (I played A&A a lot solo at one time, the computer version, where I didn't have to mess so much with vast numbers of pieces.)

I realized then that I never have been much interested in games with hundreds of pieces. My early favorites were Milton Bradley games like Broadside, then I discovered Avalon Hill games but preferred such as Stalingrad (100 pieces) and Arfika Korps (likely not many more). Then I went on to Diplomacy (34 pieces), and finally D&D (a dozen pieces). Britannia and the other games I had published in the early 80s and earlier had fewer than 200 pieces, often less than 100. And even those games don't have more than an average of 55 or so pieces on the board at one time (Britannia).

Of course, I like "grand strategic" games, not tactical games (D&D is the aberration there), and at that level a lot of different categories of pieces doesn't make much sense. Maybe a game with hundreds of pieces but few categories would be all right, but I'd then say, what can we do with hundreds of pieces that we cannot similarly do with dozens? The A&A game reminded me of my stillborn WW II strategic game intended to provide the strategy of A&A without the length and number of pieces. So I may go back to that.

I have already played the "broad market" Brit (which is really a gateway Brit, not broad market, that needs to be a game with cards). And miraculously, I've already written a full set of rules. Followed by a full set for Frankia. Maybe I'm finally "off the snide".

Gary Gygax R.I.P.

Gary Gygax, one of the inventors of D&D, died recently.

I'd call Gary the developer of the game for sure, I know Dave Arneson originated the idea of having individuals interact with fantasy miniatures battles (which became Chainmail), as Dave wrote me a letter about it when I was editor of my Supernova fanzine. I don't know how it got from that to strictly individuals as we see in D&D.

I first corresponded with Gary in 1966. He was a leading light in the International Federation of Wargamers club, and about all I recall of that exchange is him saying he was too young to be called "Sir". And he was, then.

I only met him once or twice, at conventions, and had had no contact with him for many many years, but something like this is much like the feeling when sports heroes of your youth die (Micky Mantle!). You feel old.

Someone whose brain temporarily ceased to function at Boardgamenews wrote the following disrespectful if not plain stupid headline:
"Where’s a Cleric When You Need One? – Gygax Dies at Age 69"
They need to find a new headline writer.

D&D, the older, simpler version, is still my favorite game, and I recently started playing--well, reffing--again after a three year hiatus.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Why I'm not an electronic game designer

Why would I want to design electronic games? I'm better off as is.

  • The "AAA list" electronic games are really designed by committee. When I design a game, it is almost all MINE. (The rest is playtesters and publisher.)
  • For most of the age of video games, you had to work full time in the industry, yet the pay was and is poor. I'd rather help young people as a teacher, get paid at least as well, and have lots of time to design games.
  • The working hours are bad. "Crunch time" (unpaid overtime) is common, though designers are not involved in that quite as much as programmers and artists.
  • Fighting with the electronics obscures the purity of design. You worry about what the computer can do instead of what the players can do.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

PrezCon 2008

I attended the 15th annual PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA 21-24 February. Rick Steeves and I arrived later Thursday evening, PrezCon is a miniature WBC (World Boardgaming Championships), with the focus almost entirely on board (and card) game tournaments. Registered attendance was over 550. Justin Thompson, who runs the con, says it has grown larger every year.

PrezCon is purely boardgames and non-collectible card games--no role playing, no Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh, no "pure" miniatures (there was a Star Wars Minis tournament), no electronic games.

I don't go to conventions to play games, and I don't have much luck getting people to playtest because they're so busy with the official tournaments. Players pay a single fee and play as many tournaments as they can fit in, with wooden plaques for the winners. Most tournaments have two or three heats or rounds, then the most successful players play in a final.

GMT, Mayfair, Z-man, Cafe, and other game companies were there, but the vendors are a minor part of the convention compared with Origins. It really is a miniature WBC.

I've been at PrezCon every other year since 2004. I noticed this year that there seemed to be more kids (under18), and more folks in their 20s and 30s, and more females, though the most common demographic was still a gray-haired male. Some of those kids are offspring of the older folks, but the increase was certainly noticeable.

Early Friday I talked with Jason Hawkins (co-designer of Parthenon) at length about his elaborate but quite clever prototype game of Alexander's successors. I'm afraid Jason thought I was a curmudgeon with my questions about the complexity of it--I seem to be more and more into simple games these days rather than ones with a lot of detail. I also watched a bit of Richard Berg's prototype Dynasty (China) game being played, and skimmed the rules. Berg was also playing a cowboy game that he called a "growth game"--someone asked what had happened to him, as he's very well known for nuts-and-bolts wargames--but there was some gunslinging in it. Dynasty also appeared to be more about about growth than about war. Evidently Richard likes to write a full set of rules fairly early on, rather different from my typical practice (though I write the first-draft rules for quite simple games pretty early in the process).

The most useful thing I did was talk with Ron Magin of Cafe Games about my prototype Law & Chaos. He, Rick, and I played, and he then recommended to Pete, CEO of Mayfair Games, that he should try it. Pete talked at some length about where he has games printed (US, Germany, occasionally China, depending on what needs to be printed). The US has become cheaper than Germany owing to the high value of the Euro (or low value of the dollar, depends on how you look at it). Mayfair is one of the larger US publishers, in particular having the US franchise for Settlers of Catan, which sells in enormous numbers (six figures).

There was a small Britannia tournament, two rounds and then a final board, won again this year by Mark Smith in a tight game. About a third as many people participated as at WBC, which fits the attendance numbers (WBC is 1,500+ attendees).

Though I don't play at conventions, I look at lots of games in progress and talk with various people, and get a lot of good game ideas at a con. One in particular (using techniques from Law & Chaos) is likely to turn out well. Another is a space-themed, broader market, analog to Robo-Rally, my friend Rick's favorite game. Rick also played an eight hour Axis & Allies game, which reminded me of an old project I had to try to make a two hour WW II game that concentrated on the virtues of A&A (strategy) rather than its "unvirtues" (lots of dice, economy-driven, LONG). Many notes and much discussion took place, but I don't know if I'll get any further this time than last.

At the con I heard about a "broad market" (as opposed to mass market) version of a famous gateway game. That gateway game is quite simple, but this version is MUCH simpler, to appeal to a broader market--people who don't normally play boardgames at all except for Monopoly and such (I think), and who might buy them in places like Target or Macy's.

Just for the heck of it, I'm trying to develop a "broad market" version of Brit (the kind of thing that would sell with Risk and similar games). History may be too serious for a broad market, especially medieval British history, but it's an interesting exercise. I already have a "Brit Lite" version, and that can be played by casual gamers and video gamers, but I'm aiming at the sort of folks who might play Risk and Monopoly and checkers or chess, but not much else. I'm doing this for my own amusement, not with the idea of ever having it published.

Monday, February 25, 2008

"Broad market" Brit

At PrezCon this weekend I heard about a "broad market" version of a famous gateway game. That gateway game is quite simple, but this version is MUCH simpler, to appeal to a broader market--people who don't normally play boardgames at all (I think), and who might buy them in places like Target of Macy's.

Just for the heck of it, I'm trying to develop a "broad market" version of Brit (the kind of thing that would sell with Risk and similar games). History may be too serious for a broad market, especially medieval British history, but it's an interesting exercise. I already have "Brit Lite" version, and that can be played by casual gamers and video gamers, but I'm aiming at the sort of folks who might play Risk and Monopoly and checkers or chess, but not much else.

The game would have to have many fewer units than Brit, and many fewer areas (my first cut has 14 instead of 37 land areas). Six turns perhaps, 8 nations. I'm afraid that with the limits required, the Roman conquest must be left out. Non-gamers might not care for the one-sidedness of it, but more important, it will tend to go the same every time, so let's not bother.

Obviously, there should be plastic figures for pieces.

Leader pieces? No, I think the way to introduce historical flavor (and some variation) is with cards. Those cards can include leader cards that the player will always get on certain turns.

Possible timeline:
400-525 A-Saxons, Scots come w/Fergus
525-650 Badon etc. stops A-S, then win by A-S (577 especially)
650-800 A-S clean up, Heptarchy
800-925 Vikings. Kenneth McAlpin
925-1025 Viking renewal, Cnut
1025-1100 Four Kings

My first cut with nations was 12:
R-B
Angles
Saxons
Scots
Picts
Brigs
Welsh
Irish
Norwegians
Normans
Danes
Norse-Dubliners

But that's too many, so I tried for 8

Britons less Welsh (R-Bs and "Brigs")
Welsh
Angles
Saxons
Danes
Norse including Dubs & Norwegians
Scots & Picts & Irish
Normans

Four players:
Angles--Normans
Saxons--Scots Irish Picts
Welsh--Danes
Britons--Norse Dubs Norweg etc.
So the British get Vikings to play with. Angles (who get stomped) get the eventual historical winners (Normans)

I have a system for possible double occupancy of areas that works very well in Frankia (and Brit Lite), but it's a little complex. So I'm waffling between having more areas than the 14 I came up with, or 14 and double occupancy, or more areas--but that might mean empty areas, and might require more pieces. Dunno until I try something.

Or maybe more areas to avoid double occupancy? But then areas might be empty, that's the problem.

The Brit combat system has far too much variation to be used at this scale. But dice rolling is fine for this market. Right now I'm thinking roll one die for each army, higher total kills one army of other side and pushes them back. Cards might modify this (e.g. leaders add one to each die roll). (Variation: one die plus one per army, helps the defense a lot.)

That's all for now. I have many other things to work on as a result of PrezCon contacts, I'm glad to say.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Analysis of Some Traditional Games

This is written with my students of electronic game design in mind, but should be of interest to boardgamers. The best way for students of digital game design to learn game design is with non-electronic boardgames and card games. This kind of game can be brought to playtest stage far more quickly than electronic games, and by their relatively simple nature they reveal the essence of gameplay much more quickly and clearly than electronic games. However, my students are rarely familiar with non-traditional boardgames such as Eurogames, and the traditional ones offer many “false lessons”, that is, what has worked in traditional games is often not good game design.

Put another way, game design students often adopt characteristics of traditionally popular games in their designs. Part of the reason for discussing traditional games is to point out that they are not necessarily designs worth emulating.

So I’ve tried to write a brief analysis of what is wrong with (and right with) some of these games. Sometimes I’ll use the following questions as a framework, after a general discussion of the game.

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face?
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges?
3. What can players do to affect each other?
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over?
5. Is the game fair?
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type (consider "take that")?
7. What is the "essence" of the game?

General comments about “traditional” games

There are two types of “traditional” games, the public domain ones that have come down to us over centuries such as chess and pachesi, and those that are commercially-produced games that have become habits with the buying and playing public. The former tend to be for two players only, while the latter are often for two or more players.

I must say I am NOT a person who thinks that recently-designed games are necessarily better designs than “old” games. I am definitely not into “the cult of the new”. But I do believe that the really old traditional games often benefit greatly from the lack of competition when they were first devised/published. Most “traditional” games are played because “everyone knows how to play”. They are bought because “everyone is familiar with it”. They are not traditional because they are particularly good game designs, in many cases. They have attained a place in contemporary culture, have become “a habit”. When you ask boardgame fanatics how well such games would fare if published today, the response is often something between “a dog” and “just another game”.

I have one general comment about the “roll dice and move accordingly” mechanic used in many commercial traditional games. This mechanic gives a player little to no control over what happens. It is almost universally despised by experienced boardgamers. I pose it to video gamers this way: “if you were playing a video game, and your avatar suddenly slowed down for a while, and then sped up for a while, and periodically changed maximum speed at random, wouldn’t that annoy the heck out of you? And what if other player’s avatars were moving at different speeds than yours? You’d hate it. So why would you want to do that in a boardgame?” Yes, it’s easy randomization, but there are better ways to randomize, and in any case don’t we usually want to make games of skill, not games of chance?

I may as well dispose of a class of traditional games here: Bingo, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders are all entirely random games. This is OK for little kids, who don’t recognize the randomness, and who aren’t up to “strategizing” to beat older players. It’s OK for gambling, too. But it’s worth nothing to people who like games involving skill, who want to take actions to overcome meaningful challenges.

Another point worth discussing is player elimination. Insofar as multiplayer (more than two) traditional games tend to be family games, the possibility that players can be eliminated is undesirable. The argument runs, when a player is eliminated, he’s no longer part of the fun. The counter-argument is, why stay in the game when you don’t have a chance to win? My response is that in family games the purpose is not to win but to enjoy socializing with your family, and there is more interaction if you’re still in the game even if there seems to be little chance that you can win. Some games, such as Careers (one of the best traditional games, but evidently out of print), do not include player elimination, but some do, including our first subject.

Monopoly

As this is the game people often think of first, I’ll discuss it first. Monopoly is a “family game” with a leaning toward adults. It is an average game at best, though quite despised by many boardgame experts. The “roll and move” mechanic is the first point of complaint, but there are others.

There is a dominant strategy--buy everything you land on, if you possibly can, early in the game. This leads to the strong possibility of stalemate, as players may choose not to trade properties to make the sets that allow house building. Consequently, there is a strong possibility that the game can go on for many hours with experienced cutthroat players. In any case, it is a long game–-my students often say they’ve never actually finished a game.

Further, the game works poorly with fewer than four players.

Let’s examine the questions:

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? The player must get sets of properties, construct buildings to raise the rent, and avoid big payouts.
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? Not much. Movement is random, and decisions are fairly simple. Trading is a major action, as is management of funds (how much to spend on buildings, how much to hold against the possibility of paying large rents).
3. What can players do to affect each other? Trade properties. Otherwise, next to nothing.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? Replayability is low, I think. The game quickly becomes repetitive. Few people actually play Monopoly a lot in a short stretch (say a year), but they may play a lot over a very long period, where they will forget how repetitive it actually is.
5. Is the game fair? It’s symmetric, and the advantage of moving first doesn’t seem to make much difference in the long run. There are no “take that” cards to drastically change the game, though a bad roll or two can be deadly.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game? It’s a family game, and there can be big changes in fortune depending on the dice rolls, but it seems appropriate to a “game for all ages”.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Theoretically it’s a real estate trading and development game, but the emphasis is on the chance of movement rather than on the trading, unfortunately.

There are many variations of Monopoly, in fact most people don’t play according to the rules. I’ve never thought about how to “fix” the game, but one notion that comes to mind is this: instead of playing through rolling around the board a few times, why not allow players to choose some properties to start with? This could be arranged to remove the advantage of playing first, as well. So players might write down a list of five properties (no two from a particular group such as the red properties or the railroads). All are revealed, everyone pays for their first choice (or next, if there’s a tie), etc. until all have three (not five). Then play proceeds.

An interesting variation from Boardgamegeek is, every unowned property landed on is auctioned! The “lander” does not get an opportunity to buy before the auction.

As with most traditional games, Monopoly has a very poor score on Boardgamegeek: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/1406.

Tic-Tac-Toe

Here is a traditional simple game popular with kids. It is so simple that it has been “solved” by many, and it’s easy to write a set of instructions to follow that will result in a draw every time, or a win when it’s available (I have done so). The problem is that there’s a dominant strategy, which amounts to “occupy the central square whenever you can”.

A major advantage of the game is that there is no chance, other than the big difference-maker of who plays first. The major value of the game is to teach kids that they can play a game and not understand its strategy, but as they get older they can learn to be a perfect player in its context.

A much more interesting variation on this game is a four by four grid. You win with four in a row or four in a square.

I am not going to ask the seven questions, which would be overkill here. BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/11901.

Pachisi/Parcheesi

I have not played this game in 40-50 years, but it is simple enough for limited comments. It is a race game dominated by chance (roll-and-move again). It does have the virtue that more than two can play. There is some strategy in the use of blockade, either to stop opponents or to clean up behind the blockade by “hitting” stopped opponent pieces. The frustration factor can be high when you’re the one who’s blockaded.

The seven questions would again be overkill. BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/2136

Chess

Next I’ll turn to the ultimate Western traditional strategy game, Chess. Chess rules are fairly complex for a traditional game, though it’s really quite simple to learn and play. The play is very complex and highly strategic, of course. Theoretically the game may represent Indian (subcontinent) warfare, but practically speaking it is abstract.

Also unlike most traditional commercial games, there is no chance element other than who moves first. As with Tic-Tac-Toe, a perfectly played game will always have the same result, but because no one has specifically “solved” Chess, we don’t know which result it would be, white win, draw, or black win. In practice, as played by experts white has a significant advantage, and draws are common (55% of top-class human games, 36% of top computer-program games (Wikipedia)).

One of the flaws of the game is that a big advantage accrues to those who know “the analysis” of certain situations, such as the openings. Chess has a vast literature, and the solution(s) to certain situations are known, but only to those who learn the literature. In effect, other people have done the thinking for you. Yes, this is a possibility in any game, but other games have not been intensely studied for centuries.

For most people, there are too many possibilities to calculate once the game gets going. This can lead to what is called “analysis paralysis”: people cannot decide what to do and take a long time. Even when played by experts, chess can be a very long game, hence the artificial limitation of two hours for 40 moves imposed via chess clocks.

Finally, many people would say there are too many draws. In a game designed today, the designer would try to find a way to avoid draws; though given the advantage of moving first, perhaps it’s best that draws are possible.

I’ve read that former champion and famous recluse Bobby Fischer advocates a variation of chess that would remove the “prior analysis” advantage, at least for a while (Fischer was one of the best at knowing prior analyses when playing). IIRC, he suggests scrambling the order of pieces in the back row, imposing that order on both players. So from one side of the board you might have bishop, queen, knight, rook, rook, etc.

Despite all of the above, chess is obviously an excellent game. But would it stand out among other games if published today? In an era that values short games, simplicity, and “that was easy”, perhaps not. Let’s consider the questions:

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? Deploy pieces in a superior arrangement in order to take more of an opponent’s strength than one gives, and finally to capture the king.
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? With perfect information, it’s all about looking ahead, anticipating your opponent, finding ways to make your opponent feel that he is defeated even if, in reality, he is not. Everything revolves around the moves of the pieces.
3. What can players do to affect each other? Player interaction is very high in a two-player, eliminate-enemy-pieces game.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? History shows that it is, despite its fundamental simplicity.
5. Is the game fair? Symmetric, but significant advantage to first mover in expert play.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type? Yes.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Movement and position.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/171

Battleship

This is a traditional game popularized by Milton Bradley’s boxed plastic version. It is largely a guessing game, though some would call it a “deduction” game. As with any game, you can “play the player”, predicting what your opponent will do. For example, a colleague of mine has noticed that his sons will not place their ships in the outer rim of squares. Consequently, instead of 100 squares to shoot at, he has 64. Chance should tend to award him the game most times.

Beyond simplicity, there isn’t much to recommend this game.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/2425

Scrabble

An excellent word game. I would eliminate two-letter words from the game, or at least many of the 101 “official” two-letter words.

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? Make words from random letters, and find places on the board where those words can be placed and score well
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? Very much a thinking game.
3. What can players do to affect each other? It may be possible to block occasionally, but in general, not much.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? Given the complexity of language, yes.
5. Is the game fair? There may be a very slight advantage to playing first.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type? Evidently.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Creation of words preferably using uncommon letters.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/320

Checkers (Draughts)

This is a simpler-than-chess strategy game. The game is sufficiently simple that it has been “solved” by computer using brute-force (trial and error) methods (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6907018.stm).

As with most of the public domain traditional games, this one is only for two players.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/2083

Risk

Game design students who have played hardly any commercial games, have usually played Monopoly and have often played Risk. Risk is very simple to learn and to play, with so little real strategy that there is rarely “analysis paralysis”. Although the theme is world conquest, it has abstracted the world so heavily that few players will feel like there’s a real war going on.

However, Risk is a weak strategy game, and a “dicefest”. There’s a heavy dose of luck in combat and in the cards. It is a long game with player elimination, a poor combination in today’s terms.

The turn-in-cards-for-armies mechanic is necessary to end the game in a few hours, but fairly random.

The “Mission cards” victory condition introduced “recently” mitigates some problems, but unfortunately the missions aren’t tailored to the number of players in the game.

As with Monopoly, most experienced boardgamers dislike, if not despise, Risk.

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? Management of resources to end up with more armies than the opposition; there’s a little strategy involved in acquiring armies; and choosing the right time to try to wipe out an opponent and obtain his territory cards.
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? Choosing where to attack, with how many armies. Choosing where to defend with more than one army.
3. What can players do to affect each other? When it is not a player’s turn, he is usually inactive except when attacked. However, every move affects at least two players.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? Strategies are limited, but there’s a fair bit of variety.
5. Is the game fair? Symmetric, but there may be a slight advantage to moving first.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type? Well, lots of people fondly remember playing it as kids, so there must be something to it.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Some would say “interminable dice rolling”. Choosing where to attack is probably the essence.

http://boardgamegeek.com/game/181.

Game of Life

This game appeals to younger people, and actually has more choices than Monopoly. However, it is strictly a family game, and players have little control over what happens. It does have the appeal of a partly three dimensional board, and a spinner instead of dice. There’s a story involved (the story of life), and that is nearly unique to traditional games.
I remember it as one of the worst games ever, but this may be too harsh. It is very positive–nothing really bad happens, everyone succeeds in life–but it may teach the wrong habits for the 21st century.

http://boardgamegeek.com/game/2921

Go
The Chinese/Japanese game of Go, the analog of chess in East Asia, is an outstanding abstract strategy game. It is played on a 19 by 19 line grid, with black and white stones places on the intersections of the lines rather than in the squares. The rules are very simple, though I find them slightly difficult to grasp. The strategy of controlling areas is very deep, even compared with a game like chess. From a game design perspective, the game is so unusual that there may not be many lessons to learn.

http://boardgamegeek.com/game/188