Monday, September 28, 2009

Story-telling in history

(We'll get to history soon, but not immediately.) I've had interesting reading experiences lately. I rarely read novels any more (lack of time), but during an always-dangerous trip to the library recently I picked up two of the Dune novels written by Frank Herbert's son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson. I loved Dune, though not so much some of Herbert's sequels (in some sense, it was a novel that should not have had any sequel).

One of the post-Frank sequels was The Butlerian Jihad. What a great setting for a novel, I thought, the time when the crusade against "thinking machines" led to a galaxy without computers even as good as those we have today. Yet after 80 pages I had to give up, something I very rarely do with a novel. The story was unimaginative, lifeless, drab, just remarkably mediocre. I thought, "maybe Brian just isn't a novelist, but Anderson should do better", since he has lots of experience writing novels including juveniles and even Star Wars novels. But there was just nothing there.

So I switched to a history book, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland. This tells the story of the Persian Empire and (beginning about halfway through) its attacks on Greece. And remarkably enough, this was a much better story, much better told, than Butlerian Jihad, even though I knew the overall story pretty well. Holland is squarely in the "heroic Greek resistance to the East" faction even as he sympathizes with and compliments the Persians for their achievements. Holland is not a scholar, but this appears to be a very scholarly work. Yet he tells a great story with scrupulous accuracy. (For example, many do not know that more Thebans and Thespians than Spartans died on the last day at Thermopylae. And the story of the ultimately suicidal run by a Greek to announce the victory at Marathon is just that, a story, though the entire Athenian army got back to Athens remarkably quickly to protect it against possible Persian fleet action.)

Next I read Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. Diamond is well-known for his fascinating Guns, Germs and Steel, which attempts to scientifically answer the question of why civilization arose in the Middle East and later in other places, and why Europeans came to dominate the world. Third Chimpanzee is an earlier book that asks how humans have arisen from chimpanzees, and how humans are similar, and different, from other animals. (I often wonder how someone who rejects the idea of evolution can read such a book; such people must ignore a great deal of writing by scientists, I suppose.) Diamond is not as intent on telling a story as the author of Persian Fire, but he is extraordinarily clear and readable, taking you along with him on a journey of discovery and "ratiocination" (my word) while mixing in his own fascinating experiences in New Guinea and the South Pacific. And part of the book is the predecessor of Guns Germs and Steel, if you're not inclined to read both books.

Somewhere in there I started John Julius Norwich's The Middle Sea, a history of the Mediterranean. I enjoyed reading his history of Byzantium and history of Venice. Norwich, too, is a story-teller as well as historian (and does not claim to be a scholar), but this time there were too many factual errors (or perhaps cut corners) and I set it aside in favor of Diamond. I'll try again sometime.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

One of those oddities

When I was a kid, people often said "kitty-corner" instead of "diagonal". Now you hardly ever hear the first phrase.

"Up, down, sideways" is the equivalent phrase to "kitty-corner", yet nowadays people still say it rather than the formal term "orthogonal". In fact, most people don't know what orthogonal means when they first encounter it. So in game rules I use the formal term, but explain at first use what it means, something I don't have to do with "diagonal".

Who knows why this different treatment exists. Language is funny, and lots of it is a matter of chance.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What do games amount to?

Aki Jarvinen’s doctoral dissertation, “Games without Frontiers: Theories and Methods for Game Studies and Design,” available on the Web in English (PDF downloadable via, painstakingly identifies and describes the elements of games, what games are composed of. This is beyond the scope of a beginner’s guide to game design, though worth reading. Instead, I’d like to try to categorize what players actually DO in games, in simplest terms. I’m dividing this into two parts, first the “system” activities having to do with the mechanics of the game, then the “psychological” activities having to do with what the mind of the player is doing in relation to other players.

Remember that one of the best guides to game design is the question, “what is the player going to do”. I’m trying to list the fundamental things that players do, both mechanically (“Systems”) and psychologically when there is more than one player.

Moreover, I’m going to restrict this to competitive games, rather than branch out into puzzles and other entertainments that are not games at all, by some definitions. Wii Fit, Wii Music, Tetris, Katamari Dimachy, and other single-player video “games” that are actually interactive puzzles or toys may not quite fit in, but I think in most cases they will.

The list includes the general activity, then some of the common variations. When we come down to it, most games are about just a few things–in no particular order.
And it must be said, there are many ways to organize this list, to choose subsidiary and not-subsidiary categories. It is certainly not definitive.
Where the mechanical systems of the game are concerned, “achieve a particular state” is the generalized version of what the player is doing. This is what the player does in relation to the systems of the game, not in relation to other players. Victory points are a generalized way of doing several different things at once. Sometimes the “state” is very simple, as in rock-paper-scissors where you want to make a pattern, such as paper to the opponent’s rock. I want to be more specific than that, though.

1. Get to a particular place (or avoid/leave it)
Get there fastest (a race) [player interaction may be missing]
Get any of your pieces to some place (Axis&Allies enemy capital)
Get a special piece there more times than opponent (football, hockey, many other team sports)
Get to end of the story (console RPGs)
Avoid or get out of a particular place
Connecting two or more points (Hex, Twixt, Attika, networking games) Could also be under patterns, below)
2. Collect something (many card games, many video games)(sometimes economic)
Find something (exploration) (Easter egg hunt)
It drops in your lap (draw a card)
Take it from someone else (Monopoly, some card games especially trick-taking)
Build something rather than get it elsewhere (the moon rocket in Civilization, or Wonders)
Don’t collect something (Old Maid, Hearts, etc.)
Get rid of everything (say, a hand of cards)
Building/construction games are a complex form of collection that some people might list as a separate category
3. Wipe someone or something out (Risk, shooters, checkers/draughts, bowling!)
Wipe out one thing—chess
Identify who or what you need to wipe out. Examples: Mafia (and any of its variants, such as Werewolf), Bang/Dodge City
Its opposite, avoid being wiped out, including defend some place by preventing an opponent from getting there (Atari Warlords, Tower Defense)
4. Create patterns in something (getting to a place could be seen as part of this!)
Patterns in piece location (this includes rock-paper-scissors, Tetris, many puzzle games)
Only your pieces (Tic-Tac-Toe), or yours plus opponent’s (rock-paper-scissors)
Patterns in relation to the “board” (Scrabble, Carcassonne)
Patterns of cards (related to sets–e.g. Canasta)
Drawings (Pictionary) and other representations such as maps
5. Recognize patterns in something
Recognize a drawing or other representation (drawing) of something (Pictionary)
6. Change something from one thing to another (could be seen as a subset of collection)
Frequently required in economic and construction games
7. Improve your capabilities. (Munchkin)
This is often subsidiary, a way to achieve something else. Common in RPGs, vehicle simulations, construction/management simulations, collectible card games. Yet in some games, such as RPGs, this is THE activity, not a means to another end.
8. Survive to keep going. Especially common in arcade games (which are generally unwinnable).
9. Design something (e.g., a warship in a 4X game)
Produce new instances of predefined objects (crafting, or "building something")
Design objects or processes (e.g., City of Heroes "Mission Architect", making choices when generating an RPG character)
10. Calculate probabilities. Can’t Stop, Cloud 9, Craps, and other “press your luck” games.
Some would say this is a natural and obvious concomitant of many other activities, but in these days of widespread innumeracy, it may make sense to list it separately.
Now we have the human/psychological side of what the player does, the interaction with other players. In many ways this is no different than what a general does in warfare. I am not including the fundamental processes necessary to play the game (such as, “understand the rules”), instead I'm looking for what the player is doing after he understands the game and game systems, to play the game.
1. Forecasting the intentions of others (“reading” the other player(s))
2. Persuading them to do something you want them to do (usually involves negotiation)
3. Disguising one’s own intentions (could be a subsidiary of persuasion, of negotiating)(bluffing) Poker, Balderdash, Stratego
4. Establish personal relationships with other players (which can also be seen as a subsidiary of negotiating, but you often want to do this even if there is no overt negotiation)
5. Discover/deduce information (not quite “collection”)
This could just as well be under "system", but often involves some understanding of and communication with other players.
6. Understand short- and long-term relationships and processes not strictly involved with how to play the game.
With that, we're getting into the general understanding of "playing a game", so I will stop there.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The direct and indirect approach to war

We were talking in design class about how to modify Risk to make it a better game, and the following came to mind.

It was said in the WWII era that the Germans felt the Americans fought in the pattern of American football. This is the "T" era, four yards and a cloud of dust, line up a big mass and crash your way through, with occasional passes: get more of everything and smash the enemy in their strongest position. (But there WAS some passing.)

The British traditionally use what B. H. Liddell-Hart called the "indirect approach"--there's a book with that title that I read about 40 years ago--which is much facilitated from/by the sea: choose the weak points of the enemy, send a sufficient force to achieve your objective (economy of force), ultimately defeat the enemy without having to confront his strongest force.

Some games seem to encourage one method or the other. For example, Risk is the "American method of war" game par excellence.

Britannia appears to be much more the British method. When people try to play the American method, they may kill a lot of armies, but they don't win the game. Sometimes I say this is playing Britannia as though it was a conquest game, which it is not. Force preservation is very important.

I occasionally wonder if I should have limited the "unlimited" stack size to maybe 5 or 6 armies, if that would make Brit even more the "British method" game. Certainly, I limit the max stack size in all of the successor games. The two-dice combat method might help too, making some attacks less risky.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The nine structural subsystems of any game

This originally appeared on GameCareerGuide, 17 Mar 09

The nine structural subsystems of any game

(or game-like activity), video or non-video

Lewis Pulsipher

A game can be thought of as a system (as in "systems analysis", for the computationally inclined). What I'm trying to achieve here is a list of the fundamental sub-systems that are necessarily a part of any game (excluding sports such as baseball or swimming). This list may help inexperienced designers, because if they think about all nine of these systems as they rough out their game, this will help them conceptualize and arrive at a playable idea.

We could discuss endlessly what is a game and what is not; let’s just recognize that, within your definitions of “game”, you can probably find an exception that doesn’t have all nine characteristics. I think that’s a function of definition rather than a failure of the analysis, but that must remain a matter of opinion. If one of these systems is completely missing, you might have a toy or puzzle, but not a game.

There are many examples “on the edges”, such as Katamari Damacy. To me, Katamari Damacy is not a game, Solitaire (the card “game”) is not a game, because there’s no conflicting interest, no active opposition guided by intelligence–they are more like a puzzle or toy. But both of these activities fit the Nine Structures framework.

I want a framework that will help a designer think about games. Some people, in listing fundamentals of games, discuss "state" in considerable detail. I've tried to avoid "state" and "state-changes" as much as possible, simply because I don't think that an organization dominated by state is very useful to an inexperienced designer. "State-change", in particular, seems to lump an awful lot together in one pot. My ultimate goal is to have something that will be useful to inexperienced designers, and to be able to expand each category to exhaustively list alternatives within each structure. I want designers to be able to treat the extended list as a sort of checklist, to help them make sure they’ve thought about all the vital aspects of their game early in the process.

I've tried to list these subsystems in an apparently-logical order, but every one is just as fundamental as every other one.

Here is the list, followed by brief explanations and some examples:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image.

2. Player Interaction rules.

3. Objective/victory conditions.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management)

5. Sequencing.

6. Movement/Placement.

7. Information availability.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition).

Sometimes the system is assumed, or the choice is to have "none", but still a decision has been made about the category. For example, in Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts and Crosses) there is no acquisition of resources, but it still has an economy of "unlimited pieces"--it could have a way to gain resources, and there are variations where you do. Another example: a very abstract game has no theme/history/story, but the designer chose to take that approach, nonetheless.

Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. These are listed in order of common usage, not necessarily importance. Story can be absolutely vital to a role-playing game, but is essentially absent from many games. Historical games use history to a greater or lesser extent. Many Euro-style boardgames have a theme that may or may not have affected the construction of the game. And we can still have abstract games without anything related to theme. Many video game designers want to design “an immersive experience” to elicit one or more emotions from players. And even a single image in one’s mind, a scene or “movie clip”, can characterize a game.

Player Interaction rules (and number of players). Is it a cooperative game, or a game like Doom (the boardgame) where one player controls the “badguys” and the others cooperate against him or her, or a competitive game (typical), or is there some other relationship between and amongst the players?

How many separate interests are there in the game? How many sides? Some “games” have only one and so may be more properly be called puzzles or toys. Some have several sides (many boardgames, some online RTS). Some have just two sides but several interests because there is more than one player per side (Team Fortress, etc.).

This subsystem determines how the players interact with one another. For example, in a multi-sided game, are negotiations allowed? Physical intimidation? (The answer to that is almost always "No", but it is a decision, and I have seen games that involved physical intimidation...).

Objective/victory conditions. In other words, what causes one player to win, or at least causes the game to end, or is the goal ever-pursued but perhaps never reached? The game ending can be arbitrary ("play five rounds"), yet there will usually be a way to determine the winner at that point. Role-playing games have no end, and usually don’t have winners, but do have objectives: usually to acquire experience points and (magic) items/skills/perks.

“Data storage”. (Information Management) Something has to record the current state of the game. This is often a board/map. In Tic-Tac-Toe, it's the nine-box layout. In card games, the layout of the cards on the table, and the cards themselves, store data. Pieces can store data, in particular the traditional cardboard pieces of wargames that contain movement, attack, and defense values. A detailed map stores LOTS of data. A computer can store vast amounts of data, of course, though early computers were very limited in data storage, which in turn limited the games.

Sequencing. In what order do things happen? "Simultaneously" can be the answer, but taking turns is the norm in non-video games.

Movement/Placement. The most typical “piece” in a computer game is an “avatar”, a figure/character representing the player. Players generally manipulate something, most often pieces on a board or cards in their hand or on the table. Chess and checkers have movement rules, the Asiatic game Go has placement rules. Movement/placement one at a time is the norm in traditional games, where in wargames a player can typically move all his pieces in one go. Even paper-rock-scissors has movement (as well as sequencing) rules.

Information availability. What information about the game is available to all players? In traditional boardgames all information is available, but in card games information is largely hidden. Five-card Draw poker has a lower level of information availability than Texas Hold 'Em, because in the latter you see some of the cards "held" by the other players.

Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. What happens when an action of a player leads to a conflict? This can be as simple as in Tic-Tac-Toe (conflict is not allowed, you can't place your mark where the other player already has one), or it can be simple as in chess (when a conflict occurs, the moving player always wins). In checkers you jump a man in a conflict. In Go you surround stones to capture them.

You might prefer to say thatTic-Tac-Toe has no conflict rules, that movement rules govern where markers can be placed; but a choice has still been made, that there will be no conflict. It is quite possible to have a game without conflict, such as a race game or many card games (Solitaire) and Euro boardgames.

"Economy" (resource acquisition). How are new pieces/capabilities acquired? Some games have no way to acquire these, but that is still a decision made about the game. Even games that don't appear to have an Economy have some elements, for example, in chess you can promote ("queen") a pawn, and in checkers you can make a king. Many modern games, especially many computer games, are largely economic/resource management games.

In video games there are very often ways to obtain new capabilities, whether it involves mining resources and building factories, or just picking up medkits and weapons that sit in convenient spots.

Am I sure there are just these nine? No, but I haven’t added to the number in more than a year, though I have revised it. I also have a list of 20 questions that designers ought to think about, but which can generally be ignored when creating the framework of a game. This will have to wait for another time.

Very useful for learners is to take simple games and change one of the structural choices. This is especially easy with traditional games that “everyone knows” such as Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, Monopoly, Risk. For example, the well-known hidden-movement chess variant “Kriegspiel” is a case of changing from perfect information to very limited information for the players (system 7). The Monopoly variant where someone on Free Parking collects miscellaneous fees that would normally go to the bank is an example of changing the economy of the game slightly (system 9). Increase the Tic-Tac-Toe board to four by four, and let a player win with four in a row or four in a square, and you have a much better game: you’ve changed the data storage and the victory conditions (systems 4 and 3).

Now for examples.

Traditional games are almost always turn-based in sequence, with one piece moving. Think chess (including oriental versions), checkers, Go, Monopoly, Parcheesi. Certain genres of video games are almost always simultaneous movement (real-time), such as most shooters (Worms Armageddon is an exception of sorts).

How do video games fit? Most “shooter” video games follow the same pattern:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. Usually, the story is an excuse to get to the action, though there are shooters with deeper stories that actually affect gameplay. Many “elicit an emotion” games are at least partly shooters.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). Generally these are one-person games, though now we’re getting more cooperative/buddy versions. Many have a multi-player (but two-sided) version as well. There are rarely player interaction rules other than common courtesy. Some players try to install their own rules (such as the disdain of “camping”), even though “camping” is perfectly within the rules.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The objective is usually to kill as much as possible before you’re killed, but there can be overall game victory conditions.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management) The computer/console provides the storage and management; how the software addresses the details is usually hidden from anyone not on the production team.

5. Sequencing. Almost always, shooters are simultaneous movement (real-time).

6. Movement/Placement. Almost always, the player has an avatar that moves in ways analogous to the real world. The difference can come in whether the character can jump, swim, fly, etc.

7. Information availability. Most video games involve much hidden information–one of the great virtues of electronic games as compared to non-electronic. In a shooter, you rarely have information that your avatar cannot reasonably see or hear, though there may be scanners or other devices that detect through walls and around corners. (Exception: many games show you, after you’re killed, where your killer was when he attacked you.)

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Shooting. And perhaps melee.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). In most shooters you can find food, weapons, and medical kits. In some, when you score enough you gain additional “lives”, or can purchase better weapons. You may be able to despoil the bodies or the installations of your vanquished enemies, as well.

Let’s try a simple electronic game: Pac-Man

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. The game is often credited as the first to have a character and there is a story of sorts, though once again the story is mostly an excuse for action.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). One player vs. the computer.

3. Objective/victory conditions. Make it through all the levels.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). The game uses a square grid, more or less, as a “board”.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous.

6. Movement/Placement. The player has one “piece” which can move constantly. The opposition has up to four ghosts, though not always all of them at once.

7. Information availability. Virtually all information is available!

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Pac-Man eats dots, ghosts eat Pac-man, Pac-man can eat ghosts for a limited time after consuming special dots.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). Score points to gain lives.

The video game Civilization IV is not much different from most board wargames:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. Rise from barbarism to the moon. Conquer the world or persuade it to acknowledge your nation’s superiority.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). Multiple separate interests and sides. Negotiation is possible.

3. Objective/victory conditions. As with some boardgames, there are multiple ways to win, such as flying to the moon/stars or conquest.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). Civ uses a square grid, which a player can actually make visible, to regulate movement. The computer keeps track of many details, which of course is why Civ the computer game includes far more detail than any boardgame.

5. Sequencing. Turn-based.

6. Movement/Placement. One side moves all of its pieces in a turn, many pieces can be in one area at a time, move into an enemy-occupied area to attack it.

7. Information availability. Thanks to the computer, much of the information is hidden, though Civ provides various aids and warnings to give you some idea of your standing in the world.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. When pieces move into an enemy-occupied area, a fight occurs. Unlike most boardgames, the combat method involves one unit at a time on each side even though many may be in the area.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). Much of Civ revolves around acquisition of resources that enable technological research and construction of a great variety of pieces.

What about a non-conflict game, say Tetris.

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. None.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). One player vs. the computer, which probably administers things purely at random–it is not a conflicting interest.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The objective is to score points by making rows of blocks; but the game has no ending other than ultimate failure of the player’s efforts.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). The square-grid “board” and the computer.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous.

6. Movement/Placement. The computer generates pieces, you can rotate them.

7. Information availability. You can see what’s on the board, and the type of piece that will fall next.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. This is as close as we come to the rules for where blocks fall and when they disappear.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). The pieces keep coming.

Let’s try a sports video game, say Madden (or just about any other football simulation).

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. Simulates real-world football.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). The player vs. the computer, ordinarily.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The same conditions as real football; even in games involving a campaign (entire season), the objective is to win a championship, just as in the real world.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management) The computer, the virtual football field.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous with periods of thinking in between, just as in the real thing.

6. Movement/Placement. 11 “pieces” on a side, running, passing, causing collisions.

7. Information availability. Largely available, but similar to the real world.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Complex rules for collisions including blocking and tackling, rules for possession and movement (and loss of) the ball.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). Trades, drafts, and other ways of acquiring new “pieces”; injuries.

Finally, let’s try a game that may not fit, because it uses the human body only–Rock, Paper, Scissors:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. None.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). One player vs. another.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The circular superiorities rule determines a winner.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). If there is any, it’s the human brain, and only insofar as, if you play best two out of three, something must keep track of the score.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous.

6. Movement/Placement. No pieces, nothing, really, other than your hands.

7. Information availability. Only what you can glean from your reading of your opponent.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Here we have the paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). No new resources, but anyone with a hand can play.

Let’s use this framework to quickly make big changes in a game. Examples here are for chess (none have been playtested...):

1. Theme. Supposedly chess once represented real (Indian subcontinent) warfare. But today it is an abstract game, and adding a story that actually makes a difference in the gamepkay is more than we have room for here.

2. Players. There are commercial chess versions for three or four players. The board is larger and not quite square; for three players the overall shape is triangular. It would be quite difficult to change the player parameters without changing the board . . .

3. Victory/Objective. First player to take at least X pieces and have two more than opponent wins the game. Or simply, first to take X pieces. (X to be determined by playtesting.) Or even more unusual and less likely to degenerate into stalemate, first to take all opposing pawns wins. In either case, checkmate of the king is still a way to win.

4. Data storage. 3D chess exists commercially. Or make some squares safe havens, where pieces cannot be captured (king cannot go there). Or add one “hyperspace” connected to all of the middle 16 squares of the board. You can move to it from any of the 16, then must stop. You can move out to any of the 16. Perhaps the most practical change is to treat the board as a cylinder, that is, the left side and right side are connected to one another.

5. Sequencing. What would chess be like if you could move two pieces at once? Probably white would move one, then movement would be two at a time thenceforth.

6. Movement/placement. There are vast numbers of “fantasy chess” variants with new pieces (and even unusual captures). What if you could move through your own pieces (the knight can do this already)? Or through your own pieces of lesser power only? Bobby Fischer advocated a variant of chess in which the back-row pieces are distributed randomly at the start of the game (and mirrored for the two players, I believe). This could be regarded as a board (data storage) change as much as a movement change.

7. Information. The 19th century game “Kriegspiel” uses three chess sets, two players, and a referee. Only the referee can see all the pieces, each player has a board showing only his own pieces. The referee let a player know when one of his pieces disappears (is captured). You can add rules for “sight distance”, of course. This is a natural for computerization (e.g.

8. Conflict resolution. When there’s a conflict, each player rolls a die, high number wins, attacker wins ties. Attacker also rolls one die type higher (or adds one point). Pawns roll d4, bishop/knight d6, rook d8, queen d10 (or even d12). Even the king has a d4, and there is no checkmate, you must actually capture, but still warn the opponent of check.

Or make it one die per level, so a pawn rolls one d6, bishop and knight two, rook three, queen four, king one. And the attacker gets an extra die, or one extra pip per die. This variation is more practical because unusual dice are not needed.

9. Economy. Specify some squares on the board to be “supply centers”. If a player occupies such a square, he gets a “supply point” at intervals (every 5 moves?). The points can be used to buy back dead pieces, using the standard point values for pieces (Queen 10 down to pawn 1). Pieces return to play as a move, showing up in a vacant square that they would have started in.

This can be done with other traditional video and non-electronic games as an interesting exercise in game transformation. (We need more video games that let the user actually change some of these parameters to try out their own versions.) Use this framework to help you see things in a different light, to notice things you might not otherwise notice in your games, whether you’re in conception or playtesting or modding an existing game.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Getting Your Game Manufactured (Self-Publishing)

Ben Clark of Imagigrafx gave a seminar about game production costs at GenCon this year. I'll try to summarize much of what he said. While Ben represents a particular printer (which evidently prints some or all of Mayfair's games), he tried to give us some idea of what costs would be in other circumstances. Because there were many questions-and-answers, there’s not a strong narrative-line here, rather it’s an assemblage of information bits. I did not record the session, this is derived from notes I typed as Ben talked. Hence there’s likely to be an error somewhere, blame me, not Ben. Ben has blog on their Website (evidently: His August 31 post is about cards. He is happy to talk to people who want their games printed, that’s his business. Ben also has a podcast site, click on the title of this post.

Never say what your retail price is before you know the manufacturing price. The "magic number” for production costs is 15-20% of retail cost (so a $50 game would cost $10 or less to produce). In America, small print runs are going to be at 25%, more likely. So you print for no more than 20% of retail, sell to a distributor for 40%, the retailer buys from distributor at 50%, online retailers discount heavily, brick&mortar shops can’t afford to, generally, so sell at 100% of list price.

Costs can be reduced by batching several games (e.g. printing play money for several games at one time). Much of the cost in printing comes from the setup rather than from the individual copies, so unit cost goes down as number printed goes up.

He was more interested in game than text costs, but gave as an example a 128 page full color document costs just under $5 each (1000 units?). Printing text is going to be much cheaper overseas. I’ll interject that many people doing small runs of games that are purely text and art (such as RPGs) often use LuLu or another POD site that prints copies on demand.

Ben was talking about a two piece box, game board, platform (insert), rulebook, cards, parts. There’s an assembly price unless you assemble yourself, and a shipping carton for shipping to retailer/distributor, 20-30 cents per game for the carton. (As I have noticed, Fantasy Flight, for example, has a standard carton that holds six of their standard boxes.)

He recommended doing a square box, others cost too much and retailers hate it. So no Monopoly-shaped boxes (even though Monopoly still does it). The standard is about 10.5 inches on a side--Wal-mart’s desire– about3 inches deep. (I’ll interject that many boxes and boards seem to be made on an 11 by 11 inch square standard, near enough. For example, the FFG Britannia board is six 11 by 11 sections.)

Print together with someone else, if you can, to reduce costs.

You need a box. Plastic bags shelved edge on (as for DeskTopPublished games), don't do it. Use a hang tag on a tuck box (box for a deck of cards). Boxes, 1000, about 2.20/box. 2,500 boxes, maybe less than $1.80 maybe even $1.50 each.

You won't save money by not printing a box bottom. The back/bottom sells the game. Always use full color.

Price has an influence on size and weight of box. Mayfair had a standard small box for $20 games, crammed a lot into same box for $25, and it didn't sell. People don’t want to pay a lot for a small or light box, they want to feel they’re getting something substantial. (Yet the heavier the box, the more it costs to ship to the distributor. You’re trying to find a good middle ground in many of these decisions.)

Many games use a sheet (sometimes even diecut sheets of card-stock) instead of a mounted game board, to save money. Traditional mounted board 20" by 20" $1.80-2.40 for 1000 pieces. There’s a 23 by 33 inch limitation on the machines that make the boards, don’t make yours larger if you want it mounted. American style boards with the “valley” are cheaper than the “Euro” style.

The platform or insert avoids shifting of contents during shipping, such as forklift movement. Molded plastic is $3,000-5,000 just for the mold, so can cost over a buck each. Cardboard 35-50 cents.

Cards are the most expensive component pound for pound. Bridge size cards: 110 is the magic number on one piece of equipment (and this could be two identical decks of 55, for example). But it varies, with another machine the number might be 60. If the number is, say, 85 for a machine, then 85 card decks might be cheaper than 83 card decks. If 5-10K units, below that it “gets wonky.” (That’s what my notes say!) ( prints cards in sets of 16, for example.)

Magic”the Gathering card stock is 11.5-12 pt. Wargame cardboard counters 40-66 pt.
Board 75-80 pt. (A point is a hundreth of an inch?)

Cheapest printing: square corner, common white border or black, saves several cents per deck. Round corners are better for shuffling and holding in hand. Round corners can add as much as a quarter to the cost of a deck. Proper playing card stock is a laminate, "insanely expensive"--1000 sheets $660; 12 pt not laminate $250-280.
Linen is very expensive, more common in Europe.

Ballpark for art $3-5000. Make sure your art is good. Don't forget you have to sell the game before people will play it. (Lew: the old guide for novels was, a good novel with a bad color won’t sell, a bad novel with a good cover will. Presumably the same still applies, and to games as well.) Art should be at least 300 dpi.

Use high-end graphics programs, not Word for rules. Your rules are art, high quality PDF or Adobe Illustrator etc. file (InDesign). Printers use CMYK color. RGB won't convert well, blacks will be 90% gray. Bleeds are one eighth inch or three, gameboards 5/8 bleed. Purples and oranges a problem. Purple changes. Oranges hard to match. Avoid.

Set type in Illustrator, not Photoshop. (Lew: Photoshop is a bitmap program, keeping track of the location of every pixel (dot). Illustrator is vector graphics, keeping track of the formulas that define the objects. This makes for smaller files, but especially good because it scales easily, the program just recalculates the formula.)

US vs. China. Print your first game in US, then look to China. China cheaper. You can sue someone in the US if things go drastically wrong. China varies a lot, not much recourse. Catalyst recently had Chinese manufacturer vanish on them.

For a million units he got within a quarter per unit for Mattel vs. China cost. (Lew: Hasbro has a million square foot factory with injection molding equipment in New England. So they can do their own manufacturing.)

US you get your stuff in 4-6 weeks, China 90-120 days.

Make sure you get a “landed” price from China. $2,500 for a half container, $5K full container.

Rulebook 22 to 48 cents (per sheet). 60 pound paper. B&W. "Color is about five times more expensive 20 times more impact". 4 pages to a sheet.

Assembly. Can do it yourself. Shrink-wrapper expensive.

Custom plastics, go to China. Mold costs $20K in US vs $3,500 in China. Small run in pewter may be cheaper. Find someone with a mold that fits your requirements.

Wood pieces don’t use molds. (Lew: I understand wood pieces often come for Eastern Europe.)

Piece sources: Plastics for Games UK. Mr Chips US.

And a bit related to publicity: a GenCon 10 by 10 booth cost $1,300. I’ll interject here that every year at Origins, and probably GenCon as well (I’ve only been there once), you see little companies selling one or two games. The next year and following they’re not there, because it in’t worth the costs of booth and personnel and travel to do it again (if it was the first time...).

Monday, September 07, 2009

Where have "American games" gone?

Where have "American Games" gone? American games have lots of atmosphere as well as theme. This is as opposed to so many Euro games that have a so-called "theme", but the theme has no effect on actual play. "Atmosphere" induces a feeling in players that they are participating in or about to see something strongly related to the theme. The atmosphere may have nothing to do with reality. For example, the game Winds of Plunder (GMT) has almost nothing to do with the activities of real pirates, but it "feels" like pirates to the players. And in the past, American games included lots of dice rolling. Axis and Allies is an example.

At least one bastion of "new" American games is Fantasy Flight Games. Their new games positively drip with atmosphere, through miniatures and boards that look like artwork and lots of illustrations (usually on lots of cards). But there are rarely any dice. In other words, the "new" American game emphasizes atmosphere, but appeals to Euro players by using no dice. Cards substitute for the chance element, just as in many Euros. The games tend to be more complex than Euros to help maintain the atmosphere ("chrome", anyone?). I don't know whether their many-pieces lots-of-rules (if you include the cards) plastic-piece-dominated games, many designed in-house, have a gameplay that will attract people through many playings, but the atmosphere is immediately attractive. And that's what is needed nowadays to sell games, an immediately attractive atmosphere embodied in the comment "that looks cool, let's play".

More on this another time.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Nature of Games in the Twenty-first Century

This originally appeared on gamecareerguide (you can click the title of this post) on 5 Mar 09

The Nature of Games in the Twenty-first Century

Lewis Pulsipher

“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure: which is: Try to please everybody.” Herbert B. Swope

Games have changed over the past few decades, because player preferences have changed. It’s hard to say whether video games helped cause this, or merely take advantage of the differences.

If you are designing for publication, you are not designing a game for you–you are much too unusual to be representative of a large target audience. As a designer you need to be aware of these changes. If the target audience for a game is people 50 and older, their game interests will be quite different from those of the latest generation (“millennials”, born around 1980 and younger). I am going to contrast present-day preferences with those of the 1950s-80s, and you’ll see how video games fit these newer preferences.

Here is a list of these characteristics, then I’ll discuss each one:

· Positive scoring mechanisms that reinforce success/encourage the player to continue

· Disinclination to plan or study

· Players won't write things down

· Players won’t do even simple math

· Players want a reduced number of plausible choices, and not many pieces/items to deal with

· Not much "down time"

· No lookup tables

· Episodic

· Dice vs. cards

· No player elimination

· Simple; short

· Pacifism

· Sharing/cooperation

· Much stronger visual orientation

· Uncertainty of information is much more common

· Player interaction without overt conflict

· Generational differences

(These remarks address both non-electronic and video games. Most of game design is the same whether you use computers or not, and if you’re starting to learn game design, you should be designing non-electronic games because it’s easy to experiment with your results, rather than be caught in the “production trap” where you spend almost all of your time trying to get the video game to work. See"Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning"

Positive scoring mechanisms that reinforce success/encourage the player to continue

A great many boardgames now use point scoring to determine success, and this was adopted by video games decades ago. Moreover, have you ever seen a game take points away, or run points into the negative? The purpose of points is to immediately reinforce what a player has done, and to encourage the player to continue. In contrast, an older game like Monopoly uses money as a substitute for points, and you lose money almost as often as you gain it. Other old games such as chess and checkers have no reinforcing mechanisms–you lose pieces and rarely gain them.

Disinclination to plan or study

Games tend to be more active, more frenetic, than in the past. People want to DO more than they want to think.

In the video game world, simpler games can include the rules within the game, with minimal reading. More complex games such as Civilization IV have manuals, but few players read them, even though those who do read learn enough to become experts long before the players who don’t read the manual.

In non-electronic games this tendency manifests in “Sequence of Play” rules. In older games, rules were written to be read thoroughly before play. They were organized to be easily referenced when a player forgot a detail. Now most rules are written in Sequence of Play style, on the assumption that the players will try to play the game while reading the rules for the first time. If that’s true, then the rules must follow the order in which the players will try to do something in the game. This makes for a poor reference, unfortunately. But the fact is, most game players want to be taught how to play rather than read the rules, and if no one can teach them, they often try to learn the game as they play.

Players won't write things down

Many non-electronic game publishers want nothing that requires written records in a game, and that’s a given in video games. The typical mechanism used in non-electronic games is a scoring track where a marker indicates the current score for each player.

My boardgame Britannia, originally published in 1986, had always required use of a scoresheet to write down victory points. When the second edition was published in 2006 by Fantasy Flight Games, they did not want to require players to write anything. At first they were going to use a scoring track, but I suggested that in a four-five hour wargame, likely someone would bump the game board or otherwise foul up the scoring. So they decided to include scoring counters in three denominations. As players score, they receive appropriate counters.

Many Britannia players, given a choice, will still keep score on a scoresheet. But when players agree not to keep track of the score separately, then the counters provide some uncertainty about scores, and consequently about who might be ahead.

Players won’t do even simple math

People are now very poor at doing math in their heads–“new math” and calculators have had a lot to do with this. I’ve seen intelligent young people count up the dots on dice one by one rather than quickly make the sum. And I’ve known intelligent young people who could not figure out the amount of a 10% tip at a restaurant (let alone 15%).

If this is true, why would people want to do math as part of a game, unless it was specifically a mathematical game? Video games take care of this automatically, of course, but boardgame designers have had to adjust how they do things.

Players want a reduced number of plausible choices, and not many pieces/items to deal with

Many popular strategy (war)games of the 60s and 70s involved moving dozens of cardboard counters each turn. There were many choices, much to think about. This has gone out of style: in a sense we’re back to centuries-old traditional games where only one piece is moved at a time. This “piece”, in video games, is usually the player’s avatar.

This helps avoid “analysis paralysis”, where the player has so much to think about that he cannot decide what to do.

This is related to entertainment: fewer people nowadays regard a thinking game as entertaining. So they want a game of physical challenges, or a game with only a few plausible choices at any given time, perhaps we could even say, a game where intuition (which is quick) is just as useful as logic (which frequently is not quick).

Not much "down time"

Players are less content with “waiting for their turn” than in the past. They want to constantly participate in a game. There is much less interest in patience, or in downtime that enables one to plan one’s next move.

Boardgames and card games can achieve downtime reduction with constant trading of resources (Settlers of Catan), with simultaneous movement, with small partial plays during an overall turn so that there’s less time between each part of a player’s turn, with interrupts (such as event cards) that a player can execute while another is playing. Video games are frequently simultaneous, all players playing at the same time, so the problem is rarely an issue.

No lookup tables

Lookup tables, such as dice-roll combat tables, were common in boardgames of the 60s and 70s. Now, players don’t want to look anything up. Often, cards are used to supply the rules/tables needed at a given time. In video games, of course, the computer keeps track of the tables and the rules.


People have shorter attention spans, perhaps because there are so many distractions, so many ways to spend one’s leisure time. In any case, games tend to be more episodic these days. Many boardgames are a limited number of turns: you don’t actually play to completion (where one player predominates), you play for a while and then rely on the score to determine who won. Many card games are naturally episodic, as you play one “hand” after another. In video games, the entire concept of “levels” is a way of making a game episodic. The end of each level is a natural point to pause or even to save the game and stop playing for a while.

Dice vs. cards

This is not something strongly related to video games, but is obvious in boardgames. Many people nowadays do not like dice rolling in games. The preferred method of introducing a random element is cards. Cards are more manageable than dice, and much nicer to look at as well. Yet there are still many popular games, such as Risk and Axis and Allies, that are “dice-fests.” In video games the action of “dice” (random chance) is hidden away, but it’s often there; nonetheless, many players don’t like to feel that what happens is randomly determined.

No player elimination

In most video games, a player is never eliminated; he can go back to his save game, or he simply “respawns”. In older non-electronic games, players were often eliminated, knocked out of the game, as they are in Monopoly. Of course, in a two player game when one is “eliminated”, the game is over; here I’m talking about games with more than two sides. Today, player elimination in boardgames is quite unusual.

Players may have an inviolate area to survive in, or the game may simply have a time limit that will be reached before anyone can be eliminated. Moreover, in many cases, the game is designed so that most players have a chance to win at the very end of the game–do you want to continue to play if you have no chance at all? For example, there may be a progressively increasing scoring scale, or some mechanism allowing a "surprise" win. Insofar as the popular “Euro” boardgames have grown out of family games (some people refer to them as "family games on steroids"), it is not surprising that there is no player elimination, as that would leave someone out of the family fun.

Simple; short

Games tend to be simpler and shorter. “Simpler” is related to a dislike of reading rules (many teenagers skim almost everything they read, rather than read it thoroughly). “Short” is a matter of attention span. This sometimes means games that rely on intuition rather than logic, as intuition comes quickly, while logic generally requires information-gathering and long thought (sometimes resulting in "analysis paralysis"). Many people simply won't play a long game, or think they won't. (They often find that if the game is satisfying, they'll play two or three hours, at times; but many aren't willing to try.)

The trend in video games toward short experiences (“casual” games), and towards episodic play, reflects these changes.


This can be quite surprising for the “hard core” video gamers, who tend to prefer games where things blow up or die. But remember that half of game players are women, and the great majority of female game players are not interested in violence.

It is quite easy to find gamers who just will not “attack” other players. Games that are essentially multiplayer solitaire are fairly common in the boardgame world–you can’t do anything to harm or much to hinder the other players’ situations. “Euro”-aficionados might put this differently, saying that the games use indirect means of influencing other players rather than the direct means common in wargames.

The extraordinarily popular boardgame (and now video game) Settlers of Catan includes the “robber” in order to give players some way to negatively affect other players; yet this can be seen as a kind of kludge, perhaps added on when the game was otherwise too much like multiplayer solitaire.


The millennial generation is known to prefer sharing and cooperation more than preceding generations did. Competition is sometimes frowned upon by parents and teachers. We also now have a higher proportion of adult women playing games than in the past, who tend to be less interested in competition and more interested in cooperation.

People are much more interested in games where you build up things, than games in which you tear down an opponent. (Yes, the hardcore video game players are an exception–they often like to destroy.)

Perhaps the popularity of the Wii and Wii-like games reflects this change. Dislike of player elimination is another indication. The out-and-out pacifism of some players is another symptom.

Much stronger visual orientation

In the age of color television, of computers, of the Internet, this is hardly surprising. Inasmuch as people are less likely to read, they are more likely to be interested in images and good looks. Just as some players will criticize a video game for “outdated graphics”, players will criticize boardgames for “boring bits” (components). One reason why cards are much more popular, and dice less, in non-electronic games is that cards can include colorful, varied, interesting illustrations.

I’ve even heard a teenager say that music “isn’t real” until he sees something to go along with hearing the music. Hardly any older person would have that point of view (except, perhaps, for opera?).

Uncertainty of information is much more common

Traditional games, even commercial ones such as Monopoly and Risk, have “perfect information” or nearly so. On the other hand, card games were the bastion of hidden information. Early video games provided perfect information, as nothing was hidden from the players. Now hidden information (“fog of war”) is the norm, thanks to the power of modern processors. In boardgames, too, the use of cards and upside-down tiles is much more common, introducing uncertainty.

Player interaction without overt conflict

In wargames the inevitable conflict results in constant and strong interaction between players. In traditional commercial games not about war, such as Scrabble and Monopoly, some interaction exists but is not based on violence. Interaction in card games can vary a great deal from one design to another. Modern boardgames have many ways of encouraging interaction that were uncommon or unknown decades ago, such as auctions and trading. Early video games, almost always one player against the computer, technically involved no player interaction at all, though there was plenty of interaction with the computer opposition.

Much of the interaction in video games is still based in warfare and violence. But we have seen an increase in non-violent games, as in The Sims, in resource management games such as Settlers, in “casual” games such as Bejeweled and Diner Dash, and in a great many games made for the Wii. You could argue a case that the “real future” of interactive video entertainment is in games with more than one player and with lots of interaction among players, often of a non-violent nature.

Generational differences. I have already described many characteristics that differ between generations, here I’ll try to generalize about them. Some people prefer to think that everyone is the same, but employers and researchers have seen that there are definite differences between generations, and have described how this affects game preferences. Entire books have been written about generational differences, this is only a taste that will help you be aware of how differently people think about games.

The “Baby Boomer” generation (before “X”) is highly competitive and willing to forego immediate gratification for future reward. They don’t need constant encouragement to continue playing, in contrast to much younger people who do expect immediate reward for any accomplishment. “Gen X” (born around 1964 to around 1980) tends to be the generation of the lone hero, in game terms, while “Millennials” or Gen Y (born around 1980 and later) tend to think in terms of sharing and of groups accomplishing tasks. The MMO is the new face of video gaming, then, because it can accommodate both, in the individual adventuring that appeals to “X” and the multi-player raiding that appeals to millennials.

As you can see, modern video games reflect most of these changes very well, though early video games often did not. I’d guess that the changes came first, and video games reflect them, but video games have certainly reinforced these differences as they’ve become part of the national and international consciousness.