Monday, October 29, 2012

November 2012 Miscellany

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

If you like Robo-Rally, you might like Twin Tin Bots (by the designer of Vinci, Smallworld, Evo, and other games), being kickstarted right now to help pay for the plastic pieces.

Books-a-million are offering ebook format copies of my book at $28.65 (25% off). or just go to and search for my name in electronic books.  (It isn't listed when you search the main book area!)  Useful to have an unusual name.

 I was told "Your book is also being published simultaneously in an electronic edition.  Ebook sellers are working to release the book for their particular platform."   I'll report when other electronic formats become available.

The first 27 pages, and page 268, of my book are readable on Google Books.  Or just go to and search for my name.  My publisher has given permission for this to occur, otherwise it would be a clear copyright violation.

If I can get my publisher to approve I'd like to see the same amount of text available at Amazon for those who want to read some of a book before buying it.


A real BS word: "intuitive", in conjunction with computer and game interfaces.  When it doesn't mean "familiar" it means "easy to use".  So why not say what you mean?

I have discovered common ground between Real-Time Strategy games and . . . Monopoly.  In both cases, the economy amounts to: collect a resource(s) that enables you to construct buildings that produce other resources.  The difference is, in RTS the production is deterministic, you put in Y resources and after X time you get Z unit.  In Monopoly the randomization of movement intervenes, so sometimes your buildings produce (charge rent to someone landing at the location), other times that doesn't happen.

Review of my game design book:


One of the comments to my "Seven years and a million dollars" said someone had spent two and a half million dollars developing a tabletop game.  I don't know if they were serious, I hope not.

Because when I started to calculate how you'd spend a million dollars, it got silly.

There are about 2,000 hours in the typical work year.  40/week times 52 weeks, but there are enough holidays and vacation days (for most people) that you're under 2000 actual working hours.

Now if you paid yourself $50 an hour for this - and $50 an hour is a lot for time developing a game, whether designers, artists, or programmers - you're at $100,000.  So to "spend" a million by calculating what you would pay yourself, even at $50 an hour, we're talking the equivalent of TEN YEARS of ordinary work weeks.

I'm supposing most people with ordinary jobs might also spend 40 hour work weeks developing a game, though when we count sleep, that really only leaves them two weekend days to do anything else.

Another way to look at this, even at the very high rate of $50 an hour, a million dollars is 20,000 hours!  I doubt that any tabletop game in the history of the world has had so much time lavished on it BEFORE publication.

And two and a half million dollars is truly out of this world.

Novels are 50,000 to over 300,000 words.  (The Wheel of Time books average over 300,000.)  The average novel is 90,000-100,000.  I was trying to keep my game design book to the average: it ended up at about 101,000.

Seems that most game podcasts have two hosts rather than one. I'd think that would make it much easier for the hosts.

I have said a number of times that you shouldn't design games for yourself.  Yet the people who created Doom made a game they liked, and fortunately for them, a whole lot of other people liked it, rest is history.

But they were fortunate.

It depends on the maturity of the designer.  I always keep in mind young video game design students  when I write.  They tend to think it's an easy job to take a game they like and make it better, just through enthusiasm, or some kind of magic.  For them, designing a game "just like they like" is self-indulgent.   And self-indulgence is a bad, bad characteristic for a designer, even though it may work in some situations.

Yes, they should like what they're working on, but it should not be exactly what they want, because then it's much less likely to be what the market wants.

Questions asked by novice designers:

Are there rules for how to design ?
Are there formulas for calculating .

No, game design is not mechanical, it's an art and craft.  There are best practices, but there are not design rules.
And I'm afraid anyone who thinks there are, isn't likely to be a successful designer.

Typical "gamers" (that go to conventions!) may want more control over what happens than the people who attend my "semi-local" university game club.

 Can we say a game of high uncertainty approaches random, and a game of very low uncertainty approaches a puzzle?

MANY of the games being sold (or at least, demoed) at Origins or GenCon don't NEED to be very good.  They only need to be good enough to be interesting for several plays, because the fate of most games is to be played only a few times before the owner goes on to the next game.  There are lots of reasons for this, e.g. the short attention span of the "Internet generation", and the vast number of games out there calling for play.  Moreover, in a "demo" environment such as a game convention players are strongly affected by "cool", which is often in graphics or theme, because they don't have time to learn whether the game actually has much to it, whether it can last more than a few plays.

As a result, a lot of these games simply aren't very good.  In a way it's like video games: most of the published ones aren't really very good, time killers more than anything else, though they may sound good or look good.  And that doesn't count the 90% that are funded but never see the light of day.  Board and card games are much less time-consuming to produce, so more of the "90%" are likely to actually be published.

Not very good: as far as I'm concerned, a game that's only good for killing time isn't very good.  Whether it's played a lot by people or not.  (Card Solitaire is an example, 'course that's really a puzzle, not a game.)

Result: a lot of weak games.  Yet they all compete with the good games.  Unfortunately much of the sales process does not depend on how good the game is, so the result is that the good games sometimes suffer, getting less sales and attention than they deserve.


People use their phones for pictures and video, even to modify them, and to send them, because it's easier for them than to learn to use their computers (most still have a laptop or desktop).  This is the same reason why we have people putting their memory cards from cameras directly into printers, they can't or won't figure out how to do it with their computers, even though you can do more with the computer (for example, that near-magical improvement to digital pictures, cropping).

These are the "challenged" (technology-challenged?) people game designers have to deal with in the 21st century, if they want to reach a large market..

Another review of Dragon Rage (scroll down past Rumble in the Dungeon).

"I can't give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time."  Herbert Bayard Swope

I've posted several articles at my "home" blog recently.  Not all are posted at other locations (e.g., ones heavily video-game-related aren't posted on BGDF and F:AT, "Six Words" isn't posted on F:AT owing to antipathy to that kind of post, etc.).  Here's a list with links of recent ones:

Can we characterize tabletop game publishers? Hard to say.

Intentions versus Actions (in Game Design). A warning for new game designers

Maintenance based economies vs. “accumulation” economies OR Economic “Limits”

"Is this game like Britannia?"

Review: Atlas of World Military History

Six words about game sequels

Abstractions and plans for new edition(s) of Britannia

September 12 Miscellany

Observations about changes in game distribution (and publishing)

Getting a foot into professional (tabletop) game design  How to be taken seriously by publishers (more cautionary advice)

Zynga and Fundamental Problems with their Social Network Games 

Comparing this year’s game conventions

Interface (and other) game design lessons from a rental car

"Seven years and a million dollars"

Review: Gratuitous Space Battles

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Can we characterize tabletop game publishers? Hard to say.

This post was precipitated by a question from a reader regarding how often or how persistent he should be in trying to get an email response from a publisher, after initial contact.

What it has become is an attempt to describe, up to the point of my limited knowledge, what tabletop hobby game publishers are like and how they work.  I don’t know all the publishers, of course, and in particular I’ve never had any contact with German publishers.  Yet I think I can tell new game designers some things that might help them understand how the industry works.

I’m going to divide publishers into two groups in several ways, recognizing that whenever we try to do this for any collection of items, people, or groups, there are going to be exceptions and in-betweener’s.  Nonetheless it helps understand the broad outlines.

In a sense, hobby game publishing is almost inevitably a hobby.  The most important thing to say is that many tabletop game publishers in the United States started out as or are still self-publishers.  Not many people get into tabletop game publishing to make money because that’s difficult to do, although it does happen.  As with game shops, the joke runs, “how you make a small fortune in the tabletop game publishing industry?”  “Start with a large fortune”.  Even one of the largest publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, began in the game industry as a self publisher; they actually started out in the comic distribution business but when that business imploded nationally they published the owner’s game Twilight Imperium as a way to stay afloat.  Virtually all the little game publishing companies we see began as self publishers.  In some cases, as with Fantasy Flight, they later get into the business of publishing games designed by people outside their company.

Martin Wallace was a teacher for many years, but is now a full-time designer and publisher.  He makes more money when he publishes a successful game himself, rather than license to another publisher, through his company Treefrog (formerly Warfrog if I recall correctly).  The publisher takes the risks, so the publisher reaps the bulk of the benefit of a successful game.

Another way to look at this is that most of the owners of tabletop hobby publishing companies have full-time non-game jobs, that is, they are not depending on the publishing company to provide their living.  I don’t go around asking these folks if they have full-time jobs, but one learns gradually.  Frequently when a publishing company provides a living there is only one full-time employee, the owner.  For example, Zev Schlasinger before he sold nonetheless-prolific Z-man Games, and (I’m told, I don’t know first-hand) Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games.  Yes they have part-time employees but that’s a lot different from having a group of full-time employees.  The other cases of full-time employment come when it’s a really big company like Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast or Fantasy Flight, or a middling company like Mayfair.

In a few cases the principle people in a publishing company are also game shop owners, as with Valley Games and GameSalute.  So they have (or had) a full-time job but it’s a full-time job in games.

The men who run GMT have full-time jobs (there may be an exception now at GMT).  For example Andy Lewis, who is their acquisitions person and the “face” of the company, is an engineer and makes a lot more money as an engineer than from his game company.  Steve Rawlings, owner of “Against the Odds” Magazine, has a full-time project management job.

This is not exceptional in creative fields.  Few classical composers can make their living from their composition, most of them are teachers and sometimes performers.  Philip Glass, who is arguably the greatest living classical composer, once worked as a plumber to support himself.  Most novelists have full-time jobs.  Even one as prolific as fantasy and science fiction writer Glenn Cook, who at one time was writing three novels a year, worked full time at General Motors until he retired.  Few painters or sculptors support themselves through their work.

Most of the game designers who make a living at game design are employed by the very largest companies such as Hasbro/WotC and Fantasy Flight.

The larger companies tend to specialize in certain kinds of games.  Hasbro has mass market games, their subsidiary Wizards of the Coast has Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and some fantasy-related boardgames.  Paizo has RPGs especially Pathfinder.  Mayfair publishes many games but what makes them really go is that they have the American license for Settlers of Catan.  Fantasy Flight publishes fantasy and science fiction games that positively drip with atmosphere, but many of their most well-known games are licensed from movies or video games, such as Doom and Starcraft, and developed internally.  Britannia did not fit their M.O. in 2006, and even less now; but the owner likes the game, and he wanted to reissue it.

Many hobby game publishers with several employees are “virtual companies”, that is they don’t have a single location, their full-time and part-time employees are scattered throughout the country.  GMT and Mayfair are examples.  On the other hand the really large companies like Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight have main locations where most of their people are, as do many other kinds of businesses.  In any case, there is nothing like “Silicon Valley”, Austin, TX, or Raleigh, NC as locations where many video game studios congregate.

The Original Question
Now what does this mean for someone who is trying to interest a publishing company in one of their game designs?

If someone has a full-time job and is trying to run a game company in his “spare time”, or when someone is the only full-time employee for a company of any magnitude, they are going to be really busy.  When I see him at conventions I always try to tell Zev (Z-Man) how amazed I am at the large number of quality games he published despite being the only full-time employee.  And not surprisingly it has always been difficult, at least for me, to get Zev to respond to email.  If you know really busy people in any field you know that talking with them directly, or on the phone, is a lot more effective than email because when someone doesn’t have much time it’s often email that gets ignored or forgotten.

It probably helps a lot sometimes to live near the publisher.

Hobby Trends
In recent years several trends have made it much more difficult to get the attention of most hobby game publishers.  One is that there are so many games published that even the established publishers can have problems getting attention from “consumers”.  In the book publishing world this translates to selling fewer copies of each book, so the book publishers have to publish more books (and more are published every year).  Another trend is that there are a lot more people designing decent games, just as the standard for what a decent game is has gone down.  Decades ago the idea was that any game you bought should be good enough to be played many, many times.  Now the standard is a game you buy is at least okay if you play it a few times, that is, the buyers themselves don’t expect to play a game more than 3 to 5 times.  It’s (a lot) easier to design a game that meets that criterion.

You may not agree with me there, but what’s indisputable is that there are so many game designs being submitted to the publishers that they are inundated.  This can lead to very long lead times before publication and it can lead to publishers saying effectively “we don’t take submissions”.  For Hasbro itself this means that Mike Gray has a list of about 300 designers who he is willing to deal with directly, and the rest have to find a Hasbor-approved agent.  An agent is going to take part of your remuneration (if you’re published) in return for his work.  But Hasbro requires them because the agent can weed out the many, many obviously unsuitable submissions before Hasbro has to deal with them.  One or two of the German publishers have done the same thing.

A publisher may also refuse to take outside designs because they have an in-house staff to design games.  Many of the Fantasy Flight games are designed in-house (and remember they started out as a self publisher).  So are most of Wizard of the Coast’s.

Kickstarter influence?

Remember the inquiry that started me along this path?  My correspondent wondered if the advent of Kickstarter would cause publishers to be more attentive to game designers.  I suppose he thought of this in terms that Kickstarter ultimately provides more competition for publishers, though he didn’t say.  My response is that many of the successful Kickstarters are run by established publishers themselves, and that unknown people are quite unlikely to succeed in raising funds through Kickstarter.  It’s the known people, the people with track records, who are more likely to succeed.  When you see stories about huge Kickstarter results it usually involves a known quantity and often involves an individual who is well known in the game community.

In any case, with hundreds of games being published each year the addition of a few dozen more from Kickstarter is insignificant.  Existing well-known publishers are inundated with submissions, so I don’t see Kickstarter making a difference in how they treat wannabe designers.  It may mean that even the existing publishers publish a few more games because there is less risk in a Kickstarter published game than in a normal game.  Kickstarter enables the publisher to gauge the demand as well as to raise money.  In fact I suspect gauging the demand is sometimes more important than raising the money.

Whether Kickstarter will ultimately fail as a funding source, perhaps when some high-profile projects fail to deliver, is an open question.

Self-publishing has always been an alternative to established publishers for game designers, but it is much easier now than in the past.  That’s especially true if you go the POD (Publish On Demand) route that requires little or no money up front. is the granddaddy, but there are others such as . Desktop publishing is becoming popular as well.  Remember, though, that when you become a self-publisher, you may end up spending much more time on publishing and marketing than on game design.


I hope I’ve been accurate in my descriptions above (which are entirely from memory).  And I hope this gives you a better idea of what the landscape is like.  It is not easy for any designer, let alone one without a track record of success.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Intentions versus Actions (in Game Design). A warning for new game designers

[The road to] hell is paved with good intentions.”    Traditional proverb

"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."  Henry Ford

One reason why so many aspiring game designers “never get anywhere” is the confusion between intention and action.  Different generations view this quite differently.  Older people recognize that it’s what you do that is most important, not what you intend or what you say you’ll do or what you wanted to do.  They're in tune with Henry Ford.  Young people tend to believe that intention is so important that it can excuse a lack of action. 

The classic, to my mind, is the student who loses his schoolwork because he lost his USB drive or otherwise lost the electronic copy and had not backed it up.  He seems to think this excuses not having the work, though the teacher isn’t likely to agree.  Another is the student who objects to the typical college policy that you cannot have drinks near computers for fear that they’ll be spilled onto the computer.  The student says “I’m not going to spill it”.  The teacher says “of course you don’t intend to spill it but we’re talking about accidents”.  If there’s sticky pop spilled all over a keyboard it hardly matters that you didn’t intend to spill it.

In the business world - remember that if you intend to make money, game design is a business - actions count, not intentions.  If your deadline arrives and you say “my computer died and I have no backup”, you’ve Epic Failed, and your contract could be revoked, you could even be fired.  Isn’t it your responsibility to have several backups?

I can picture some young people saying “that’s not fair”.  That’s debatable, but what isn’t debatable is that Life is Not Fair.  Live with it.  Though I have to say that I think it’s perfectly fair that if you failed to backup your stuff, you’re at fault.

I attended some panel discussions with published novelists at GenCon 2012 in Indianapolis.  Several times they all agreed that one of the most important things in successful writing is meeting deadlines.  "What does that have to do with creativity?", you might ask.  Not a lot, but it has a great deal to do with business, as businesses must work on schedules and deadlines.  Sucessful writers, just like successful game designers, are in a business.  One panelist (it may have been Matt Forbeck, who writes novels at a furious rate, often as an assigned tie-in with a game or other intellectual property) described how when he was a game designer no one would give him a novel assignment until he'd actually completed a novel.  Once he could show that (unpublished) novel to people, he got an assignment to write one.

One of the major differences between “real” game designers and wannabes is that real game designers complete games while wannabes never seem to.  They intend to of course, but it just doesn’t happen, the later stages of development are too boring (and yes they are boring), life intervenes, they get distracted by another game.  Publishers don’t want incomplete games, even if they normally change the games that are submitted to them.  Nor can you sell an incomplete video game, or if you do people will probably find it’s a piece of junk and you’ll ruin your reputation.

And if you find yourself playing games so much that you have no time to design, your intention to design games doesn’t do you any good, nor will anybody in the industry care what you intended.  They care about what you actually did.

Ask any professional in creative industries such as fiction writing, art, or game design, and they’ll tell you that one of the most important things is to meet deadlines.  What your intentions may have been does not matter when you miss a deadline.  What your (in)action does is give you a bad reputation that means people will be much less likely to entrust you with projects in the future.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Maintenance based economies vs. “accumulation” economies OR Economic “Limits”

“War” games are fundamentally different from “battle” games, although most people would call both wargames.  In the former there’s an economy and the war is essentially about controlling a better economy that ultimately gives you the preponderance of force.  The focus tends to be strategic rather than tactical with maneuver contributing to gaining or keeping control of economic locations.

In a battle game you have an order of appearance that rarely changes, and no economy.  Then the focus tends to become tactical, finding better ways to butcher the enemy before they butcher you.  There may be objectives that are locations on a map, but if you slaughter enough of the enemy you’re likely to take those objectives.  Maneuver then contributes to killing the enemy (or scaring them off) not to capturing/controlling economic resource/production locations.

Wargames for more than two players are almost always of the first type, and wargames for two players are usually of the second type.  The scale of wargames of the first type tends to be much greater both geographically and chronologically than the scale of the “battle” type, as well, which befits the importance of economy.  In a few days, the time-scale of most battles, economy is not going to matter.

Wars are about economies (and technology in recent times).  Battles are about troops and terrain.

I’ve discussed this at much greater length in an article that will appear in Against the Odds magazine.  Here I’m only interested in the fundamental types of economies and how they affect games with an economy.

The first and more true-to-life economy is the “maintenance model.”  You must have the resources to support the units you already possess before you can recruit/build new ones.  Consequently there’s an upper limit on how many units you can have because of the cost of maintaining them. 

The simpler “accumulation model” lets you use your economic power to build new units regardless of how many you already have.

In some sense the maintenance model is zero-sum insofar as when you reach the limit of units, the only way to get more is to take economic capability away from another player, which will also reduce the number of units he can have.  Sometimes this is explicit as in the classic game Diplomacy, where there are 34 “supply centers” on the map of Europe and each one can support exactly one army or fleet.  A player wins with 18, because he then has a majority of the board and (presumably) will gradually overwhelm all further opposition.

Sometimes this zero-sum affect is much less obvious because players rarely hit their maximum maintenance level.  They keep losing units at such a rate that they can’t build enough to “max out”.

Frequently when the maintenance model is used explicitly it costs much more to build the unit than to maintain a unit.  For example in my prototype “Seas of Gold” about the Italian maritime cities in the age of the Crusades, maintenance costs one economic unit for an army or fleet, but an army costs three economic units to build and a fleet four to build.

In my highly simplified version of Britannia that will be part of the new editions of the game, the number of units a player has on the board is subtracted from the economic value of his holdings, and that results in him losing an army, standing pat, gaining one army, or in rare cases gaining two armies.  This does away with the Increase Point Track of Britannia and also means that overpopulation rules are not required, because if the comparison is bad enough the player actually loses an army.

There are hybrid economies that let a player build units as though in an accumulation economy but provide a limit on the number of units.  This limit can be “overpopulation”, as in Britannia, or it can be a maximum army, fleet, or air force size as in Britannia and many other games, usually reflected in the piece mix.  For example, if you have no more battleship pieces for your nation you can’t build more battleships.  In Britannia the maximum force size is supposed to represent the limits on communication and control for primitive Dark Age nations; for more modern games it may not represent anything specific but still has the maintenance limit affect.   Britannia’s economic model is consistent with the idea that the armies represent both populations and military forces, as was generally the case in the dark ages where there were no professional armies and few trained/experienced warriors.  Most of an army was essentially farmers armed with whatever they had to hand.  The more farmers you had, the bigger your army could be.

But piece mix limits can represent real-world limits.  In World War II most of the major participants reached a maximum size military because some 10% of their population was under arms - most of the men of military age – and the rest were required to run the economy or were not of an appropriate age or gender to fight.  In earlier times the percentage of participation in the military was usually much less at any given time, although if we go back to Greece and Republican Rome we’ re again at high levels of participation.  While population is not strictly an economic variable it becomes a limit for the size of militaries unless mercenaries are available.  There’ve certainly been times when mercenaries were commonly available as in Greece after the Peloponnesian War and in Hellenistic times, in Italy at the time of Machiavelli, and during the 30 Years War.

So there’s a variety of ways to introduce limits on the size of military forces in a game that are not directly related to the economy but have many of the same effects as an economic limit.

In contrast to the maintenance model we have the accumulation model as seen in games like Axis and Allies, traditional (pre-2008) Risk, and Vinci.  You could play Axis and Allies for quite a long time without fighting much, and still have more pieces to use to create new units.  A&A is not much like the real world but you don’t really notice because of the constant slaughter of units that means the real economic limits, if any, will never be reached. 

We get the massive armies of traditional Risk because it’s an accumulation economy.  Imagine how different the game would be if you could only have, say, three armies per area you own, or maybe only two.  The latter is my initial step in turning Risk into something that might resemble a real “war” game.  Vinci and Smallworld go one step further in providing no economy for most empires most of the time.  An Empire begins with its maximum military and can only go downward unless the Empire characteristic includes a special rules to gain more armies

In general, "games about war" with no pretense to being models of reality (Risk, Vinci, Smallworld, Conflict and Broadsides from back when, and many many others), as opposed to war games, tend to have accumulation or no economy at all.

In games that depict a single battle there is rarely an economy, but there can be order-of-battle based objectives that introduce something like an economy.  For example, a side may get a few reinforcing units if they can take a particular road junction.  This pseudo-economy can occur in games that have a regular economy, as well.  For example, in Britannia there are two cases where the Angles won’t get a leader if they don’t control a particular area.  In effect, that area becomes a temporary economy that “produces” the leader.

In games with more than two sides - what tabletoppers call “multi-player”, though that means something else to video gamers - the nature of the economy can be critical to successful design.  An accumulation economy encourages turtling, that is, sitting on the sidelines while the turtle watches the other players fight and lose resources or units, as he accumulates resources and units (also known as “camping” in video game shooters).  If Risk didn’t have the territory cards then turtling would be very common because you can accumulate armies quickly while other players lose armies quickly when they fight.  In fact I strongly suspect the cards were added to Risk to discourage turtling, you can only get a card by capturing an opponent’s territory, that is by attacking and risking losses.  And you have to get cards so that you can turn them in for large numbers of armies.  In a long Risk game more armies will be acquired through the cards than through the economy.

This is in contrast to Diplomacy where you cannot sit on the sidelines if you want to win. Some other players will be gaining supply centers and consequently units while you will be static.  If no one gains or loses supply centers for a while then you have a stalemate and the game ends in a draw.

If there is no economy in a more-than-two-sided game, no player will want to fight because while he and his opponent lose resources or units the other players do not.  A multi-sided conflict game with no economy is likely to be a “turtle-fest.”

These are not problems with two player wargames because each player only has the other to fight, so fighting rather than turtling is going to happen.

Economies of one kind or another are common in big video games.  They are obvious in games like Civilization and real-time strategy (RTS) games, games that are (or can be, in Civ’s case) wargames involving more than two sides.  Civilization tends to have some limits on how big your economy can grow because of population unhappiness and pollution, but when you produce a unit there’s no reference to how many units you already have, there’s no limitations.  In the end you have an accumulation economy.  In most RTS games your buildings produce units as long as they have resources without regard for how many units you already have, a classic accumulation economy.  Turtling can work, but if there are limited resources in the “world” and you’re sitting in one corner rather than gaining those resources you will probably lose in the end.  I think particularly of WarCraft III where the amount of gold in the world is limited because there are only so many gold mines and so much gold in each mine, and gold is needed to create new units.  If other players gain control of this gold while you turtle then you will probably lose, unless they managed to slaughter themselves down to a level that lets you take over.

Even a shooter has an economy of sorts as the players pick up various weapons and medical supplies that miraculously lay about.  This is an accumulation economy except that you don’t need to own any particular economic resources to produce more, you just find it - so the affect of economics on maneuver is much smaller.  And there is a limit sometimes on how much you can accumulate because your inventory allows you to carry only so much, though some of these games allow you to store the rest of your “stuff” somewhere else.

In platformers and Nintendo-style games like Mario there are still things to pick up but there’s not really an economy because you don’t accumulate a lot of “stuff”.

What I said about shooters brings to mind an important aspect of economy.  In the shooter you don’t have to hold any particular place in order to gain more stuff, you just pick it up where it’s lying about.  Although some players would say you have to kill things in order to take what they “drop,” who plays a shooter without killing things, since that’s the major focus of most such games?  The point is, if there are no locations that can be gained or lost in order to improve or lose economic capability, then you’ve lost the major point of strategy and maneuvering in the game, and it can once again become a matter of slaughtering more of the enemy than you lose.  But that doesn’t work well in a multi-sided game because it encourages turtling.

Some non-wargames have ways to gain new forces or assets.  These can resemble an economy or they can resemble an order of battle.  Within those economic models you can also have maintenance or accumulation.  Monopoly (the accumulation) has a minor economy from passing Go and collecting $200.  Money is victory points in Monopoly, and there would be no sense in limiting what you can accumulate.  Chess and checkers are mainly tactical games with a strategic component, mainly battle games, but they do have economic appendages.  Chess has a minor economy from promoting pawns, just as checkers enables you to make Kings.  In both cases they contribute to the importance of maneuver in the game as you want prevent your opponent from reaching the last rank with a pawn or checker.

The unlimited supply of X’s and O’s in Tic-Tac-Toe or the unlimited supply of letters in Scrabble are more or less an order of battle rather than economy.

The economy/ order of battle question, and the maintenance/accumulation economy question, tend to be much more important in conflict games where you are hindering the other player(s) by destroying their assets.  This isn’t common in Eurostyle games, though common in screwage games like Bang! and Munchkin.

There are board and video games that are essentially economic engines, resource management games.  The economy here may be of either type, though there’s often a technology element that lets you remove the hybrid economy’s limitations on maximums.  The contrast with wargames is that in many wargames the economy is an aspect of the game rather than the major focus, while in many non-wargames the economy is the major focus. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

“Is this game like Britannia?”

At the NC State Tabletop Game Club I attend five people were playing my prototype “The Rise and Fall of Assyria”.  Someone came by and asked if the game was like Britannia.  I answered no, because this game is much more fluid, is designed for 3 to 5 players, has less randomness in the combat though still using dice, has simpler scoring, and involves the rise and decline of empires rather than ones that can in some cases play through the entire game (as with the Welsh and Picts in Britannia).

But later I thought that compared with the other games that were being played in the room – we had over 50 people that day – the game is much like Britannia.  Because they are both games that require “strategic thinking” (strategic in contrast with tactical, though also in the sense of having to make difficult choices about the best play) that are also games of maneuver and location.  And they are both wargames.  In contrast most of the games that are played at this game club do not involve maneuver and location nor are they wargames.

Sometime I’ll describe at greater length what I mean by games of maneuver and location, but briefly, if you think about traditional non-commercial games such as chess, checkers, Parcheesi, mancala, Nine Men’s Morris, Go, and Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts & Crosses) they are all games where the spatial/geographical location of the pieces is important, and you either maneuver to arrive at locations, or you place pieces at locations in the case of Go and Tic-Tac-Toe.  Traditional non-commercial boardgames are, without any exception I can think of, games of spatial location with either maneuver or placement or possibly both.  In fact this is the essence of boardgames, until recently.  (In contrast, the essence of card games is hidden information.  See )

For example, one of the most popular games at the club is Red Dragon Inn.  In this game each player is a fantasy adventurer who has just come back from a successful adventure and wants to spend his money gambling and drinking until comatose (or until he runs out of money).  The player who keeps some money and is awake when others are comatose wins the game.  Each player has a unique deck of cards that he can play plus some money tokens and so forth.  Obviously this is not a wargame.  Perhaps not so obviously, it’s not a game where spatial location plays any part, and that virtually always means that maneuver plays no part.

The game at the next table was Agricola.  I’ve not paid a whole lot of attention to the game, because I’m not interested in pretending to be a farmer, nor am I in sympathy with Eurostyle games.  But as I understand from talking with players and limited observation, location in the sense of location relative to other players’ assets - spatial location - plays no part in the game, just as is true of a great many Eurostyle games.  In many Eurostyle games the board or what passes for one is used to keep track of information, not to show maneuvers or relative locations.  Some of these games have “worker placement” but what you’re doing in that situation is recording which option you have selected.  You could just as well use tokens or cards, and take a token or card when you “place” a worker.  Many of these games are turn order games and the turn order might be represented on the board as in Last Will, but there is no actual location and no placement in the sense of occupying a particular spatial location. 

In a sense they are not “real” boardgames at all.  You can write down all the statuses on pieces of paper and still play the game, or you can use tokens or cards to represent turn order or worker placement and still play the game.  While you can write down the positions of pieces on a chessboard those positions have no meaning except in relation to where the other pieces are: they have spatial locations.

Another way to look at this is that traditional strategic games and virtually all wargames are geographical/spatial games.  One place is not the same as another and the relationship between the locations of those places is important.  As this corresponds to the real world, it may provide a feeling of familiarity to some, and it certainly helps model real-world situations.

Magic: the Gathering is by far the most played game at the club.  I’ve asked players specifically whether spatial location matters, and my impression from having watched Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh a lot over the years is that they are rarely if ever games where location is important and almost never games where maneuver is involved.  The cards are placed on the table as record keeping markers.  When you “tap” a land you’re recording that it has been used.  There are different zones in Magic: the Gathering that indicate the status of cards but those are not spatial locations, those are record-keeping or status tracking.

Not all the other games being played at the club lacked maneuver and location.  Probably the most popular game other than Magic is Betrayal at House on the Hill.  A great many of the club members who play games other than Magic are essentially role-playing gamers who also play board and card games.  Our meetings are too short and too loud to accommodate RPGs during the meeting, so people play RPGs at other times as arranged.  Betrayal is a story driven game much as an RPG can be.  It does have a considerable element of maneuver and location as the players explore the old mansion, drawing tiles to add rooms to the mansion and moving from one place to another.  Once the “traitor” has been identified maneuver can become quite important as various characters are trying to kill each other off or find particular items or go to particular places to use particular items.  I wouldn’t exactly call it a boardgame in the traditional non-commercial sense but it is a game where maneuver and location are important.

Another popular game is Dominion, and Ascension is another deck building game that is played a lot.  Clearly Dominion is a game where the cards are used to keep a record of what’s happening, as well is to provide randomization.  Information hidden from other players in the cards in each player’s hand is at least theoretically important despite the low levels of player interaction in this kind of game.  That is, if you knew what cards the other players had you could gain an advantage in play.

It may not be surprising that many of the games, like Dominion, that have only atmospheres and not themes – that is, the so-called story does not actually affect how the game is designed and played – are also games lacking entirely in maneuver and location.

So in this sense almost all wargames are like Britannia, and all those other games I’ve mentioned that are played at the game club are not.  Betrayal is the only one that goes in the distance toward Britannia and wargames in general.

Wargames also tend to be games of direct conflict, whereas many games played at the club are not (Magic: the Gathering being an obvious exception).  That is more obvious, and we can talk about that another time.

I’ll have more to say about maneuver and location in contrast other kinds of games at another time.


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