Sunday, June 29, 2014

Short-term Diplomacy (rules)

Short-term Diplomacy

There are three parts to a well-played game of Diplomacy, negotiation, grand strategy, and tactics. Strategy is something that functions over a full game, but that means 6 to 10 hours. Tactics is the most short-term of the three parts, with negotiation in between the other two.

But most people don’t have the time to play a full game of Diplomacy, even at the sacrifice of grand strategy. What can you do to play a shorter game?

One obvious way is to reduce the victory criterion to much less than 18 supply centers, for example nine or 10 (there are 34 altogether). But this still leaves a great deal of room for how long the game is going to take, and in some cases no one may ever reach nine or 10 as the game ends in a draw. If you only have a specific amount of time available this is unsatisfactory.

Another way to make the game shorter that also turns it into a very different game is to eliminate secret negotiation. All negotiation takes place over the board where anyone can hear it. But the very essence of Diplomacy is secret negotiation, so (at least in my view) you’re no longer playing Diplomacy. The extremist version of this, known as “Gunboat Diplomacy,” is to have no official negotiation at all. This is really hard to do in a face-to-face game because any comment that a player makes can be construed as negotiation, even if he or she is just “talking to no one”. I’ve heard of people putting tape over their mouths while they’re playing gunboat, but even then you can still gesture vigorously to try to make a point (or a deal). Gunboat removes negotiation from the game and minimizes strategy leaving only tactics, and even then you can’t arrange tactical cooperation with other players. So while it’s a popular way to play Diplomacy you’re not even close to playing real Diplomacy.

Another method is to play to the end of a previously specified game year.  That works okay but can still vary a lot depending on how fast the game is played, which depends quite a bit on the players. It gives everyone a definite target year for their “big stab,” perhaps allowing for more planning than my method below, but you could easily find the game taking a lot more (or less) time than you expected.

So my method for a short game is to establish a more or less fixed by-the-clock time limit for ending the game while allowing the secret negotiation and cooperation that characterize the game.  (This is hardly anything of great originality; points for centers is a common way to score short diplomacy games.)

Rules for Lew’s Short-Term Diplomacy

1.  Set a time limit. For a club meeting the time limit would be the ending time for the meeting. Half an hour before that time limit expires, whatever game-year is being played at that time becomes the last game-year of the game.  That game-year is played out in full. If players are slow then the game may still go beyond the actual time limit, or it may end somewhat before.  For example, if the time limit selected is 10 PM then the game could end as soon as 9:31 PM if you’re just about to complete a game-year, but it could also end later than 10 PM if you’re just starting a game-year (the last game-year will take longer, most likely, because everyone will want to talk privately with every other player).

2.  The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. Each player gets one point per supply center owned at the end of each game year, with centers counting double at the end of the last year. So if a player has five centers at the end of a game-year he or she scores five points. The score is doubled in the last game year for two reasons. First, it rewards players who have more centers, the idea being that those who are doing well would continue to do well if the game lasted longer. Second, it encourages more fluidity toward the end of the game in a grab for those extra points.

3.  There could still be a draw, though it’s much less likely than in a full game of Diplomacy.

This is likely to be a niggling and nibbling game as everyone maneuvers to be slightly ahead (or slightly behind) going into the last year.  If the game goes from 1900 to 1905, five normal scorings plus a double scoring for 1905, then on average a player’s going to have about 34 points. My guess is that 50 points will often be a win.

There are a variety of sometimes-complex ways to play Diplomacy with less than seven players, which could be combined with this Short-Term method.


At WBC (Lancaster PA, early August), I will be talking about Designing Multi-player Games (and a lot of other design related topics) on Friday at 5  in Hopewell.  This is listed as 1 hour, but I don't see anything scheduled thereafter, so as usual it will be up to 2 hours or whenever people no longer want to participate, whichever comes first.

My seminars at GenCon (August, Indianapolis):
SEM1453968  Introduction to Design of (Strategic) Wargames (   Thursday  3:00 PM  1 hr
SEM1453969  How to Write Clear Rules (   Friday 11:00 AM  1 hr 
SEM1453970  Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design (   Saturday 11:00 AM  1 hr 
SEM1453476  Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? (   Sunday  9:00 AM

Friday, June 27, 2014

How is Twitter useful to a game designer

 The 140 character limit of tweets makes Twitter look like a haven for the ADHD and "sound byte" mesmerized among us.  Despite that limitation, it can be useful for certain purposes to a game designer.

This is aimed at inexperienced designers, and those who have not used Twitter.

I am including the slide text here so that you have an idea of what the screencast is about.  Please don't comment unless you listen to the screencast; this outline is not the text just as a book's table of contents is not the book.

How is Twitter useful to a Game Designer?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

140 characters per tweet . . .
The “word bite” nature of Twitter doesn’t lend itself to critical thinking
Which is at the heart of game design
But there are lots of really smart people on Twitter
And some who aren’t, of course
Twitter can help you find useful information
Sometimes it helps you understand other points of view than your own
And it can be good publicity for you and your games
You can do this in five minutes a day; or you can get sucked into a much deeper time sink

Especially for independent designers and small publishers
(This is why I joined Twitter, to publicize various projects)
New blog posts
New games or books
It’s one more antidote to the problem of “discoverability” (people can’t play your game if they don’t know it exists)
Retweets and favorites of your posts reach beyond  your followers
Get started now, because building up followers takes time

References to articles
Follow the right people and you can get references to useful articles on the Web
In a way it’s your personal reference service
Lots of heads (and eyes) are better than just yours
And you should provide the same to other people
(I keep track of useful articles, in part, by tweeting them to others)

Answers to questions
Got a design-related question?  Shoot it out (e.g. to #gamedesign) and you might get some useful answers
Questions about sources for something in particular – information, software, whatever – can also get useful answers

Source of quotes
I collect quotes that I might use in articles, classes, and books
Some people on Twitter are quite quotable, on occasion

Limited Discussions
Yes, you can conduct a (group) discussion through Twitter, it’s just strongly limited
Use hashtags (#thisisahashtag) to keep together
And it’s not private
Anyone can join in, if they notice it

Compare with Facebook
There are subject pages for books, games, shops, groups, etc.
Limited number can see your comments
Not limited to 140 characters
Better for discussions, less for publicity
Discussions tend to avoid the “anonymity = nastiness syndrome” because people are rarely anonymous on Facebook

Compare with Gamasutra/ GameCareerGuide
On Gamasutra you read news articles and blog posts, and comment if you wish
Much of the interest can come from the comments
I like it as a place to post occasional blogs (when they can be applied to video games)
GCG is fairly dormant these days
Not really for person-to-person communication
Video games only, of course

Compare with BGG etc
Boardgamegeek/Videogamegeek/RPGgeek can be really caustic or shallow, as is often true of forum-based communities
The Board Game Design forum on BGG is mostly wannabes and “look what I’ve done”; rarely useful beyond the ‘pinned’ discussions
Game Geeklists can be useful
I post my blog there (its home is on Blogger) because sometimes I get insightful (lengthy) comments
Board Game Designers Forum is also mostly wannabes and “look at me’s”, but occasionally insightful
All of these are better, for detailed discussions, than Twitter

Whatever discussion forums you favor, Twitter can have a place in your continuing education and your promotions

What I should have included in the video, but did not, is that Twitter can also provide some feedback about your blogs/videos, in terms of how many people favorite or retweet your tweet pointing to the blog or video.

I've just run across this article that may interest some readers:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Triptych III

Three separate topics: "Enslaved by technology", Game Design: Understanding Why, and:

Must tabletop wargames only be just as the grognards want them to be?

I know tabletop wargamers, "grognards", who think you must have a board with hexes, and cardboard counters with numbers on them, or you don't have a wargame. Britannia-like games certainly don't meet these criteria, nor Diplomacy, nor Risk, nor many other games. 

I think more fundamentally, many wargamers are people who don't like games that can involve negotiations, that is, games where talking with other players  can give you an advantage (or disadvantage); or perhaps more specifically, they don't like games where you're clearly at a disadvantage if you don't talk to other players.  Many wargamers are accustomed to playing solo, and I think some (who in many cases have gone into computer wargames) really don't want to deal with other people.

These wargamers tend to play battle games, games without production economies, whereas the wargames for more than two players not only feature talking, but frequently have production economies.  (Axis & Allies is one of the exceptions, a two player wargame with production economies.)  The object in a battle game is usually to destroy the enemy force; the object in a war game (notice the space between war and game) is to take economic capability from the enemy, and improve your own, because the best economy will usually win in the end.  Which is quite often true in Britannia, for example, and always true in computer Civilization, Diplomacy, and (except for the kludge of the cards) Risk.   It is *not* true in History of the World, which despite the title is a battle game, not a war game, with a variable order of battle and no production economy.

If there's a future for wargaming, other than an obscure niche in video games, it's in simpler games where there aren't numbers on the pieces, and where there are often more than two players.  That will lose some of the grognards, but it should gain even more of the players who are not enamored of numbered counters and hexes.

Game Design: Understanding Why

One of the keys to being a good game designer, and to making yourself appear to a potential employer to be a good game designer, is understanding why you make changes that ultimately work out, rather than just guessing at changes until finally one of your changes works.  If you're trying to get hired by a video game studio, you need to be able to articulate exactly why changes worked or didn't, and why you tried particular changes, so that they'll understand that you understand game design, you're not just using trial and error (guess and check).  Trial and error works in the long run in playing most video games, but it's terribly inefficient in game production.

If you're a programmer, you may have seen lots of student programmers behave in this undesirable way: guessing at what's wrong, then guessing at a solution, instead of trying to figure out what's wrong and then find a way to fix it.

So in my "Game Design" book I try to explain WHY?  It's my preference for education (understanding) over training (memorization).

"Enslaved by technology"

Some video gamers are so dazzled by tech (especially the techno-fetishists) that they cannot see the forest (the game as a whole) for the trees (the technology).  They're Enthralled with "realistic water rippling" and "the play of moonlight in the leaves during a breeze." I think this appeals especially to the "Attention Deficit . . . oooooh shiny" generation.

It goes back to traditional dominance of video games by programmers, too.  You had to be a programmer as well as a designer in the days when one person made a video game.  And video gamer programmers still look down on designers, feeling they're just people who get ideas, and anyone can do that.  (Which tells you how little they understand design.)  There would be no video games without programmers, they say - mostly true even now - so they are impressed with themselves, but are not impressed by design.

Hardly surprising, then that there's techno-fetishism in the ranks of the game makers as well as the game players.

Ron Gilbert (The Secret of Monkey Island etc.): 

    "I think many people making games today are very tech focused.  They're very excited about the technology and how they're going to model realism - "We have a million blades of grass and they are all swaying to the wind correctly!"  That's interesting at some level, but I think they might be missing this whole other piece, which is creating interesting characters and creating interesting worlds and stories.  It's the technical versus the creative sides of this thing."  GameInformer issue 199 November 2009 p. 53


At WBC (Lancaster PA, early August), I will be talking about Designing Multi-player Games (and a lot of other design related topics) on Friday at 5  in Hopewell.  This is listed as 1 hour, but I don't see anything scheduled thereafter, so as usual it will be up to 2 hours or whenever people no longer want to participate, whichever comes first.

My seminars at GenCon (August, Indianapolis):
SEM1453968  Introduction to Design of (Strategic) Wargames (   Thursday  3:00 PM  1 hr
SEM1453969  How to Write Clear Rules (   Friday 11:00 AM  1 hr 
SEM1453970  Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design (   Saturday 11:00 AM  1 hr 
SEM1453476  Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? (   Sunday  9:00 AM

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Game Design: Interesting Decisions versus Wish Fulfillment

Slides from this screencast:

Interesting Decisions
Wish Fulfillment
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Another way to look at game design
Insofar as game design is much about thinking…
Dividing/categorizing what game design is about can be fruitful
So we can look at games as:
Those with human opposition vs those without
All math, about people, or about stories
Linear vs “open world”
Mind control vs players make own story
Games vs puzzles
The system and the psychological
Talent vs technique

This time it’s: games as a series of choices
 versus games as wish fulfillment

Sid Meier’s classic definition of a game as “a series of interesting choices” versus
Games as wish-fulfillment, as “an experience” (role-play)
AAA video games have enabled the second method
Traditional board and card games lack ways to make something that “feels real” for the player

Wish-fulfillment can still have choice
But in many cases, to implement wish-fulfillment the designer/writer eliminates the larger choices in order to guide a story to a conclusion
As in, say, Mass Effect 3?
Role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons provide the bridge between the two
You can play it either way
Some RP game systems encourage one or the other

Is one way “better?”
“Interesting choices” is the traditional game
“Experiences” is the “new” game
(And puzzles are something else again)
I’ll confess I’m mostly in the choices camp
Yet in D&D I tended to play the game as though it was me in there, not as an actor, so in that respect it was an “experience”

What kind of games do YOU want to make?

Friday, June 06, 2014

Can we define "Game mechanic?" Not really.

Gary at is looking for a hard-and-fast, absolutely precise definition of "game mechanic".

In his discussion he mentioned my entry in the glossary of my book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish", which was too fuzzy for him.  I'm going to quote the glassary entry:

    Mechanism or mechanic-- game rules (or game programming for video games) generally describe methods by which the game moves forward, and these methods are the mechanics of the game.  For example, rolling two dice and moving your token the sum of the roll around the board is a game mechanic (Monopoly).  Moving one piece on an 8 x 8 square board according to the movement capability of the piece is a mechanic in chess.  In video games mechanics result in challenges that players take actions (such as moving a joystick or pressing a button) to overcome.

Gary says  [The ellipses are his, by the way, not an indication that I left something out.]:
    '. . . it's a fine definition. As you might guess... I'm still not satisfied. Pulsipher's definition is much like Wikipedia's. "game rules..." "methods..." and "for example..." Why am I not satisfied? Well, I guess these only seem to hit at the surface. Again referencing rules and listing examples.'

I don't think of glossary entries as definitions so much as descriptions.  I try to avoid definitions, because given the fundamental ambiguity of language, especially of English because it incorporates so many additions from other languages, ANY definition of any complexity is likely to be fuzzy to some.

The reason I prefer descriptions to definitions is that, at some low level, all you can do in a definition is substitute another word (that then is subject to the same problems) - for example "method" for "mechanic" (which is what I did). A dictionary typically does this a lot, but there's no way around it, the hope is that the substitute word will satisfy.

Carl Klutzke, in a comment to the discussion, cleverly noted:
"Recursion: noun. See recursion."

Curious about the actual definition of recursion, I actually found one that used the word "recursive" in the definition; using a form of the word to define the word is a real no-no in my view.

It reminded me of 50 years ago, when my family had a multi-volume encyclopedia in which Hurricane just said "See Tornado", and Tornado just said "See Hurricane".  Or at least, that's how I remember it.  :-)

Some concepts in any field, such as game design, may also not be susceptible to definition.  This puts me in mind of the premises that are fundamental to mathematical proofs (such as, the shortest distance between two points is a line, and parallel lines never meet) that cannot be proved though they can be defined.  I suspect "game mechanic" is something that cannot be perfectly defined but can be a useful notion.

In the end, if (most) everyone agrees that something is a mechanic, it is.  Perhaps that's why "definitions" of mechanic use examples (as I did in my description).  I confess, I was more interested in helping those who didn't know what a game mechanic was, than in trying to actually define the term.

It's like trying to define "game".  Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen in their book "Rules of Play" spent 80 pages trying to define "game", and then found that puzzles and RPGs had not been accounted for.  The effort of defining game can lead to new insights, but no definition is going to be ironclad and satisfy most people.

I recall the big hoorah in some places (such as Fortress:AT) when I discussed in this blog what the word "elegant" means in games, without offering an explicit definition (IIRC). .  The word meant very different things to different people.

It's actually more important to differentiate "mechanic", "rule", and "description" than to rigorously define any one of them.  See

Almost all definitions are fuzzy.  In this wise, my glossary entry is sufficient for most, I think, though it leaves room for "edge cases".

I'm giving four free seminars at GenCon (all 1 hour):
SEM1453968  Introduction to Design of (Strategic) Wargames Thursday  3:00 PM 
SEM1453969  How to Write Clear Rules  Friday 11:00 AM
SEM1453970  Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design  Saturday 11:00 AM
SEM1453476  Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? Sunday  9:00 AM

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Video: Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer?

 Especially in video games, many "designers" conceive of themselves as fiction writers rather than game designers.

Slides from Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Question arises from the ECGC
East Coast Game Conference 2014 featured lots of discussion of story in games
Ken Rolston, keynote, called himself a writer
Mary deMarle talked about integrating story and game
Heather Albano discussed what amounted to same storyline but 3 or 4 quite different results from player’s point of view

Player’s viewpoint: Experience a story written by the game developers, or “write your own” story
Some writers clearly think they should decide how a game works, not the game designers
Which is a manifestation of the notion that all games (or at least, video games) are story
(My view is that there are three kinds of players/games:
Games are all math
Games are about people
Games are stories)

Why do people play?
Do people play a game for the story, or the gameplay?
I’m firmly in the gameplay camp
And the “games are about people camp,” with stories included because stories are about people
Stories don’t last.  Once you know the story, you’ll rarely want to experience it again
The smaller the game, the less room there is for story – unless you get to a few art games that are much more story than game (Journey,  Stanley Parable, etc.)

The Essential Difference
Game designer invites emergence, wants players to create the “narrative”
Game writer sets up a story (perhaps with variations) for players to follow
They’re trying to impose a passive experience on an interactive challenge – quite a challenge in itself
Not quite the same as a desire to “control the players”.  Puzzle designers control players.  Fiction writers often control players but many wish they didn’t have to.

Game designers like emergent behavior, up to a point
I especially like emergent objectives, where the player(s) find their own objectives, other than winning/beating the game, to pursue
They don’t like something that breaks the game
Fiction writers don’t like emergent behavior, their objective is to control the story
Though many are trying to find ways to provide 3 or 4 stories within one game
And sometimes fail, as in Mass Effect 3

Game formats
AAA video games are often about an “experience”, more or less a story
Tabletop games are usually “rules-emergent”, the game gives the players opportunities to write their own narrative or even story
That’s also true for many casual video games
Tabletop RPGs are the bridge between the two, and can be played either way

All kinds of games are moving more toward stories.  GenCon is a story convention as much as game convention.  The question is, what do you want to do, design games, or tell stories?