Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 2011 Ruminations


Those who dislike kingmaking, who feel people shouldn't talk about what others are doing in the game while playing, who want to turn it into individual manipulation of the system, really want puzzles (multiplayer solitaire) rather than games.


What I haven't seen discussed much about wargames is the number of players in a typical wargame. Traditionally, it is two. In Euros, it is about four.

Can wargame "grognards" conceive of a game for at least three separate sides--not two sides with more than one player per side--as a "wargame"? Necessarily, multi-player games with separate sides are going to be grand strategic, so that the details so loved in two-player battle games simply cannot be there.

Moreover, most of the games I'm working on have turns at least 10 years long, up to 200 years long. Can that be a "wargame" to the grognards?

Fortunately, when you combine trends toward simplicity, efforts to shorten games, multi-player situations, grand strategic level, and "sweep of history", it all works together. Whether it is acceptable to "grognards" is another matter.

Another consideration is the old notion that "you are there", "you are in command". You can't feel this at a grand strategic level, certainly not in a sweep of history game. That never made a difference to me, I'm playing a game, not living a role, but it seems to make a lot of difference to many wargamers.

If I want to play a role, I'll play a role-playing game (RPG). I think some wargamers are suspicious of RPGs, the rules aren't highly defined, they're too "loosy-goosy". So they find their role-playing in their wargames.


You can design video games that encourage regular, simple activity. And that might keep a person playing the game. But is that what you, as a designer, want, to make a game that becomes a mechanical exercise, a very simple puzzle? Or a form of chemical addiction? Not me.

Ian Schreiber calls it "sticky" games. I call it minor league addiction. And that's not what I want to design. I hope online "social netowrking" games can rise above it.


One of the reasons many people like Britannia-like games is that they are highly asymmetric, yet because you have multiple nations you're not trapped in a particular role that asymmetry might otherwise dictate (such as defend and preserve, or attack and conquer) for the entire game.

Heard at PrezCon: Is it true that Britannia waives the rules?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dragon & Pearl Brit-like game

I'm going to be at the UK Game Expo in Birmingham this June 3-5. While checking out some exhibitors, I discovered that the China Britannia-like game The Dragon & the Pearl is evidently back in print (for 19.99 pounds, though shipping to this country would be expensive). See

I have a copy of this game, though I haven't played it. It appears to be avoid the major error of China: the Middle Kingdom (which is, limiting action to within modern Chinese boundaries). It is closer to Brit in its rules than CtMK is.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What’s important in board and card game design

. I was asked to write something for the blog of Buffalo Games, a smallish mass-market game company that, I confess, I had not heard of. They have since abandoned the blog, and posted it on their Facebook page.

They also published a "Q&A" with me.

Game design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Don’t think that the idea is important. What makes a marketable game is the execution, the creation of a complete game, not the idea. Some ideas are better than others, true, but there are hardly any original ideas–if you’ve thought of it, probably a hundred others have as well. Virtually no publisher pays for an idea, publishers pay for completed games (though they may then change them...). So be prepared to work!

The second most important thing to remember about ideas is, you need to work at getting lots of them: maybe a few will work out well.

Ideas come from everywhere, from all kinds of associations: you must actively seek to get ideas, don’t wait for them to come floating by.

Lots of people have game ideas, fewer make a prototype, fewer still actually play the game. You don’t really have a game until you have a prototype that can be played. It needn’t be pretty, but it must be functional. If people enjoy playing a merely functional version of the game, they’ll enjoy the pretty published version even more. Maybe when you submit the completed game to a publisher you’ll make a pretty version.

You don’t have to have a full set of rules to start with, you just need to know how to play. Writing nearly-perfect rules is the hardest part of designing a game. Trying to write perfect rules when the game is new may be a waste of time, as the game IS going to change. In the end, though, if the rules are inadequate, the game won’t be played correctly, which is usually a disaster, and you can’t leave rules writing until the very end because the rules must be tested just as the game must be tested.

“Playtesting is sovereign”. Play your prototype, probably solo at first to work out the worst kinks, then have others play. And play. And play. Virtually no game prototype is good at first. The key to a good game is to playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, and so forth until the gameplay is polished to a gleam. Change is the norm.

You will probably get sick of the game before it’s “done!” As Reiner Knizia says, it’s easy to get a game to an 80% completion state, hard to get it to 100%. And you may think it’s “done” only to find that something MUST be changed.

Getting your game playtested is an invitation to say it sucks! Your playtesters must be in your target audience (you ALWAYS have a target audience), and you need a lot of them. Your family is not sufficient! You need people who are willing to tell you the truth.

If you just want to design one game at a time, go for it. If you want to be a game designer, you need to be designing a lot of games at the same time.

Unless you are very very lucky, you aren’t going to get rich designing games. Do it because you love it, and perhaps you’ll make some money along the way.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

PrezCon Games


Some people go to PrezCon to play games for days on end, last year my roommate played something like 19 games of Roborally. This year he was focused on Merchant of Venus, long out-of-print pickup and deliver Avalon Hill game. So he played at least all three heats of the tournament as well as the final, winning two heats and finishing second in the other but not doing as well in the final. He also discovered another level of play. At one point, I think in the final, another player saw where he was going next to purchase goods, and beat him to it to disrupt my friend's entire scheme: a perfect example of anticipatory interaction, something that's quite common in Eurogames. I don't think many people would call Merchant of Venus a Eurogame, but it has some Eurogame characteristics such as no player elimination and no direct or even indirect conflicts. (For me, anticipatory conflict does not even count as indirect; someday I have to finish my description of types of conflict.)

The Britannia tournament had two heats and the final, with 12 different people participating, which is probably more than usual for PrezCon. Mark Smith from Kentucky won for something like the third year out of four or maybe the fourth year out of five!

I watched History of the World quite a bit--the version before the Hasbro plastic piece version--and asked the players, some of whom also play Britannia, why they played. Because it became fairly evident that the distribution of empires in the last round, which has a large random element to it, strongly determined who won the game. The guys really didn't have much to say about that, and I think in the end they enjoy playing because they enjoy the journey, the experience of trying to convince other people that they should attack somebody else, persuading people do go somewhere else rather than toward their holdings, and so forth.

The game itself has very little to do with reality because of the way scoring works. Although you can score extra points for dominating a region, it's more practical to have a presence in several regions, that is, hold at least one territory in that region. So you get things like the Romans, instead of conquering northern Europe, heading all the way to Southeast Asia in order to get presence in several regions. Empires tend to be strung out rather than concentrated. Concentration doesn't help, nor is your defense better when you have more armies in an area or own more adjacent areas. This has very little to do with how empires actually behave, of course. But what this does do is lead to a lot of variation in each game, especially because at least one Empire and possibly two in each epoch (generally out of seven available empires) does not appear. The ideal History of the World game is six players though some of these games were for five.

I should say that there is a new short History of the World game out, and from what I recall reading about it some months ago it may be a much better game.

But studying the game did give me an idea for a way to change how my game Eurasia works that may make it less random and more satisfying; only playtesting will tell.

It's not easy to get people to playtest games at a heavily tournament oriented convention because there are so many tournaments people want to play in. We did get up a session of my pirates card game, and I saw how much difference there is in play between the casual players that normally playtest my games and the "sharks" that tend to come to PrezCon. The sharks are happy to try to twist/distort the text on the cards whereas the casual players will generally take the meaning that appears to be intended. Even though the game is still pretty early and fairly rough, it seems that everybody who plays it likes it. Then again, one guy said "everything's better with pirates".

I also once again watched some Age of Renaissance. At one point a year or two ago I thought about trying to make a simplified "if this game were designed today" version, but it doesn't seem to be worth it.

I watched the only Kingmaker game at the con; for some reason people weren't up for playing Kingmaker, so this game consisted of the convention organizer (who uses kingmaker as his e-mail name), one fellow who had not played before, and two guys who had some experience but did not seem to be sharks. One of them, in particular, did not want anything to do with Parliament because he felt it was boring, though Parliament is supposed to be a big part of the game.

I especially wanted to see the start of the game, which people say is more fun than when the game settles down. Unfortunately this all confirmed what I had gathered from previous observations and from reading about the Wars of the Roses: this game has virtually nothing to do with historical reality. What the players are doing and what the game does just don't correspond to what actually happened or might have happened. So my project to do Kingmaker as if it were designed today will have to focus on the aspects that people seem to like, which are chaos management and negotiation, without actually adopting any of the mechanics of this game. Fortunately I had a long conversation about the game with Jim Jordan, who is the Britannia game master but who also really likes the Wars of the Roses period, and used to be a Kingmaker player but now despises it.

The topic is popular: we have Richard the Third, a block game from Columbia, Wars of the Roses, a Eurogame from Zman, and the upcoming Crown of Roses, another block game from GMT. The block games are for two players. The Eurogame, like most Eurogames, doesn't have much to do with reality, it's for 2 to 4 players. My game will be for 2 to 5 or 6 players. That is, if I ever get to the point of a playable prototype.

I watched some Axis and Allies being played and was struck again with the great variety of play, the different strategies that people employ, and also with the lack of attention to terrain and supply. But it has become, I'm told, a game that lasts as long as eight hours. So I resurrected the idea of trying to do a two (perhaps three) hour strategic World War II game that provides the advantages of Axis and Allies without the interminable dice rolling and the tremendous unnecessary detail. I have always hit a wall on this before, but I think this time I can make it work as a two player block game. The first version will be just Europe in World War II because that should be easier to cope with than trying to do the entire world. The entire world game will be the ultimate goal however. The difficulty with blocks is that I want noticeably different kinds of blocks for sea, land, and air, and I should have noticeably different blocks for five different nations, and that means a heck of a lot of different kinds of blocks! I have Command and Conquer blocks that will do for the Axis, but only one size of three more colors for the allies...

Naturally I asked some people why they like A&A, and the answers have convinced me that I need some dice rolling in this new game. Formerly I wanted deterministic or card-based combat. A few dice are cheaper than cards, at least. (And it must be said, everyone expects dice rolling in a block game.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Buying used games


I bought two items at the PrezCon auction store. Those who know me will be unsurprised to learn that they were the same item, because I was buying for pieces, not for a game to play. On my second walk-through of the auction store (later in the afternoon when the prices were sometimes cheaper) there were two copies of Exalted: War for the Throne. I could not place the game in my mind, so I supposed it was one of those self published games that one sometimes sees at small booths at conventions. Someone designs a game, which often appears to be like Risk (conquer the world), often with lots of plastic pieces that they've had made in China, and they go to a convention to publicize the game. You almost never see them back the next year because they found that the trip and booth cost them more money than it was worth. But when I later looked the game up via the Internet I discovered that it's a game published by well-known RPG company White Wolf, tying into their world setting. That helps explain how they could put so many plastic pieces into the game and not lose an arm and a leg, by using a large print run (and only three molds). But this $70 list game was being offered brand-new for $20.

When I saw that it included plastic ships that look like Viking ships I decided to buy one copy, then went back to the room and opened it up and check things out, and then went back and bought the second copy.

The game includes 30x5 ships, which on closer examination are galleys, 75x5 medieval spearmen, and 50 “manses”, which look rather pagoda-like. Along with that are 75 cards, 120 small glass beads, over 100 large cardboard “coins”, five very heavy cardboard information plaques for the five aspects of magic, and a few other bits, as well as 10 rather elaborate 10 sided dice. The plastic is fairly hard and very detailed: I decided the ships were galleys rather than Viking ships when I saw the eye bulges on the bow and the rowing superstructure along each side that characterize galleys but not drakkars. And there’s the mounted (but warped) board, which is rather small and plain and cursed with “four-color mapism”. That is, each dominion is colored separately like a typical political map of nations or states, which looks absolutely unrealistic if not garish on a game map. The only other board I can think of that does this is China: the Middle Kingdom, and it looks similarly unsuitable and unedifying.

So buying these for $20 each for parts, especially the ships, is a pretty good deal for a game designer. But this made me think about the materialist inclinations of game buyers. If I were buying this as a game, the fact that it has lots of plastic pieces would be relatively unimportant. I want a game that's good to play, over and over again. But in contemporary terms, many people don’t seem to expect to play a game more than a few times, so they’re not as worried about whether they are getting a really good game and more worried about whether they’re getting “their money’s worth” for the parts. This in itself is ridiculous because most people are not game designers and are not going to reuse the parts. But that seems to be the way many people think and talk.

It reminds me of the novice game designers who put lots of time and money into the looks of their prototypes. Manufacturers are much more interested in whether it’s a good game than in how the prototype looks. And designers should make simple prototypes, and spend their time on making the game better. But even here things are changing, because it’s harder and harder to get people to playtest a game unless it looks good. I spend more time on the looks of a game by far than I used to, but fortunately thanks to computers and having thousands of pieces like the ones I got from Exalted: War for the Throne, it doesn’t take me more time to make prototypes that it used to take.

I did read the comments about the game on Boardgamegeek, and read/skimmed the rules. An awful lot of the game seems to amount to spending magical essence to get additional dice rolls. It seems to be a Risk-like game, but better than Risk, or at least it would have been if it had been thoroughly play tested which may not be the case. But I confess that the first thing I did with the rulebook is look at the list of playtesters and see that there weren't many. That may not mean much or it may mean that the testing was insufficiently broad, and so some very effective strategies were not tried or certain situations were not played much.

But for people spending the $70 list price (about $45 online, compare with something like $30 or less for Risk), it’s really important to have lots of nice components. I suspect the game really has appeal only to people who play the role playing games in the Exalted world setting.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Once again I attended PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA. Organizer Justin Thompson says "600 players attended PrezCon 2011 which is a record! We ran 90 boardgames [tournaments] which was a record! Dominion had 84 players which is a non [-standard deck] card game record! We had our 1st Auction store in which we sold over 600 items." As usual PrezCon took place in the last full weekend of February, beginning with pre-cons on Monday and really getting started Wednesday or Thursday.

PrezCon appears to run like a well-oiled ship, you get exactly what you expect if you've been there in past years. It is a smaller version of WBC, heavily tournament oriented with some vendors/manufacturers, an auction, and auction store, and some open gaming. There are no miniatures, no RPGs, no collectible card games: just boardgames and specialized card games. The majority of attendees appear to be over 40 (especially if we don't count their teenage children who are often along). Some people I know don't come to PrezCon because they don't want to compete with the "sharks". Mayfair, ZMan, and GMT were among the vendors.

Most cons don't run tournaments, it seems. WBC and PrezCon, because they are meant to be tournament cons, are the exception. GenCon runs a few big ones, sponsored by manufacturers in many cases (thus leaving me/Brit out). Origins is about individual games, not tournaments.

The PrezCon organizers are running a new convention they have dubbed "National Eurogame Championships" on Memorial Day weekend in the District of Columbia. When I saw "Eurogame" I turned right off, and in any case I have other plans for that weekend. (I am atypical because I go to conventions to talk to publishers not play games.) I'm told there will be more than Eurogames played. There's more potential for a Memorial Day convention than for one at the end of February, but they need a broader title.