Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ways for publishers to get out of the "wargames ghetto"

With the opening of the Kickstarter for Sea Kings (, and the prospect of publication of two other crossover games I’ve designed, Seas of Gold and Germania, I’ve been trying to define what these alternatives (or escapes) from wargames are about.

In connection with the “Future of (Tabletop) Wargaming” that I wrote about some time ago (, we have three broad categories of games:

1) the “wargames ghetto” two player “simulation” games that are often hex board and cardboard counters with numbers/statistics on them. There are wargames that aren’t actually in the ghetto, such as Britannia, usually because they don’t use counters with numbers on them or hex boards, but also because some of them are for more than two players (Brit is all three). They’re still wargames, and many people for many reasons don’t or won’t play wargames.  Insofar as they're not hex-and-counter I might have divided wargames into two categories.

2) the “crossover” games designed to attract both a significant segment of the wargame crowd and a large segment of the non-wargame crowd. These usually have both a board and cards. This is divided further into two parts:
     A) the semi-wargames or “peace games” where players will do best if they are not involved in warfare/violence but warfare often occurs; usually the board and the maneuver component is more important than the card component.
     B) the games that may involve habitual violence, and certainly a lot of player interaction, but are not wargames, such as Sea Kings and some race games; the card component is usually more important than the maneuvering-on-the-board component.

In all of these, maneuver or placement, and geospatial relationships, are vital parts of the game, just as they are in wargames. But the primary objective has to be something other than conquest.

3) the games that may or may not include violence (such as a zombie game), do not involve much maneuver or geospatial relationships, and frequently are primarily cardgames. Many of these are “screwage” games (where you mess with your friends). Munchkin, Bang!, Nuclear War are some of the most well-known screwage games, though all of them with large flaws for contemporary players.

There can be exceptions, but most of the above games involve considerable player-to-player interaction. And almost all of them are models of some reality, rather than purely abstract games.

Remember, these categories are related to moving out of the wargames ghetto. There are lots of other categories of games not included here. For example, there’s a vast body of games that do not involve maneuver/geospatial relationships, a vast body that are abstract (that is, not models of some reality), a vast body where most of the player interaction is with the game, not with other players. Some games are all three.

I’ve focused recently on the crossover category, with Sea Kings now on Kickstarter and several race games in early development (such as a chariot racing game).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sea Kings Kickstarter now open

The Kickstarter for my tabletop game "Sea Kings" is now open on Kickstarter:

Worthington Publications is running a first-class KS.  The video provides the context for the game as well as details, another video teaches you the game in a couple minutes (it's quite a simple game), and the rules with art and layout are a click away.

There are no "pre-reviews", which I personally distrust as a fertile ground for shenanigans.  Worthington has been publishing games for 10 years, My games were published as long as 35 years ago.  You can read the rules and see the board.  I hope that's enough to help you decide whether to support the project.

This is a simple hybrid game (avatar-based, between wargame and peaceful game), not a wargame.  It's a short game (depends on # of players but pretty much 45 minutes).  It accommodates a wide range of players (at least 7).  So of course it's a filler game.  I was finally convinced of its value during playtesting when we set out, at the university game club one day, to play Sea Kings (the "Rogue Viking" version) while waiting for other people to turn up so that we could play two of my longer wargames.  When the meeting ended (less than 4 hours) they had played a 7, 6, 6, 5, and 5 player games (no, I didn't play, almost never do), including participation in all five games by one fellow's girlfriend who doesn't play the wargames.  Sea Kings uses an avatar, which suits people who don't want to figure out the movement of lots of pieces at one time.

Anytime people play a natural filler game again and again, there's something in it.

I hope Worthington do well with this Kickstarter and this game.  They want to get out of what I call the "wargame ghetto", and they have several of my other games lined up, some wargames, some not, if things work out.

As for Brit, I hope to restart on Epic soon and write the advanced rules (intro rules already posted).  Conquer has been played a few times in the past 11 months, not many.  Balance is a pain, especially of a smaller game.  But I've had so many other things going on (still on track to have five non-Brit games published next year), and online classes (may as well put those below, too, hope no one minds), that Brit has taken a back seat.  And sometimes letting a game "lie fallow" helps.

Coupons for Udemy classes!
$10 off Learning Game Design ($49)

$4 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games ($29)

$6 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) ($23)

$3 off Brief Introduction to Game Design ($9)

$3 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry ($12)


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Video: Conventions - WBC 2014

 Text of slides:

“World Boardgaming Championships” (WBC)
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

A National Tournament Convention
Annual for 30-some years (originally “Avalon Con”)
Lancaster, PA, early August
But beginning 2016 it will be near Somerset PA at Seven Springs Resort
Lancaster Host Hotel
1,700 attendees for up to a week
Auction, auction store, open gaming, vendors Fri-Sun, but mostly TOURNAMENTS
Strictly board and card games, no RPGs, no CCGs, no minis, no video games
Though there IS some Werewolf late at night . . .

Tournament Orientation
You pay single fee, play in as many tournaments as you can
Wargame tournaments, Euro tournaments (Ticket to Ride was the largest in 2014 at 115 entrants), “kids’ game” tournaments Liars Dice, Werewolf
It’s perhaps the last stronghold of old-time wargaming
35 was a good turnout for the Britannia tournament

Friendly Competition
Tournaments typically have several heats, and you don’t need to play every heat; but formats vary
Mostly-helpful players, but really skillful (“sharks”, as a friend calls them)
Some games are more affected by “sharks” (hard-core tournament players) than others
Many come to play games they cannot play at home
For lack of opponents or space or time
And of course, some games aren’t highly competitive to begin with – many non-wargames, for example

Why I Go
I go to talk with game publishers (some of whom don’t go to GenCon)
And to be with the Britannia guys (since I designed the game)
And to get a little prototype testing done by “grognards”
But I usually go only Thursday-Sunday
(Keep in mind, Sunday is “mostly dead” except for vendors, who pack up about noon)
See many of the same folks every year

Don Greenwood (“Mr. Avalon Hill”) runs this convention, he intends it to be family-friendly, and he succeeds.

Don himself has corrected some errors:  There were 303 in the Ticket to Ride tournament (I think I was remembering the PrezCon figure), the overall attendance this year was 2,000, and there were 159 tournaments plus 20 Juniors events.  (He also says the Euro tournaments are very competitive!)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Video - Tabletop RPGs, Prisoners of Modern Capitalism (Among Other Things)

This is a Video hosted on YouTube.

Comments on YouTube lead me to add the following:
1) "Collapse" doesn't mean it's gone entirely, just that it's much less than it was 
2) it actually happened several years ago, with no sign of recovery 
3) Suspicion of Simplicity refers to RPGdom, not gaming at large where simplicity is a keyword these days.

Slide text (If you only read this text and don't listen to the screencast, you won't know what I said.  If you comment based only on the text, you'll be like someone who reads a detailed table of contents for a book and then comments as though he read the book.)

 Three parts to this “imprisonment”
First, the economic need to constantly produce more rules
Second, oversaturation has set in
Third, “crowd-sourcing” changes things
Together, they’ve made the RPG market very difficult for all but the largest publishers, or for small PDF specialists
The “More” Dichotomy
To produce a really good, broadly popular RPG, you need to do what all games are doing: get shorter and simpler
Avoid “crunchiness” (rules that are barriers to entry, such as long character creation)
People who play tabletop RPGs frequently do so for social reasons.  The hard core can play complex computer RPGs (Skyrim) and MMOs (WoW etc.)
But to continue making money from a tabletop RPGs, you need to keep adding rules, settings, adventures
Unfortunately, settings and adventures from other games can be adapted to yours
So additional rules that apply directly to your game are published by the boatload
That’s the first problem

The multiplying rules problem
As rules are added, the simplicity (and maybe quick play) are lost
Play balance is often ruined, as well
All of this discourages new players rather than attracts them
E.g., 3e D&D often became a contest to find the set of additional rules for your character that most imbalanced the game
To me, the apparent object of the game is to show off, to be a “one-man army”
Which DIScourages cooperation
Not interesting at all.  I want a cooperative game, not a “ME” game
Which is true for many other people, I think

Suspicion of Simplicity
Is it part of the nature of the Triumph of Capitalism that people are suspicious of something that's simple?
If modern consumers can’t see the result of effort, then for them the effort doesn’t exist
In effect, game designers are sometimes substituting complexity for substance
But that’s easy to do.  Simplifying is harder

Simplicity as a Goal for Game Designers
My motto: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."
If you’re making a puzzle, complexity might be a goal; not for a game

Economics defeats Game Design
So economics is lined up against good game design, and for WotC, at least, economics triumphs in the end
The game gets unwieldy, and finally they replace it with the next edition
But with 4e they made it so different, it didn’t seem to be connected to previous editions; that let Pathfinder (revised 3.5e) overtake and pass 4e in sales!

That’s the first problem, what’s next?  Saturation (or, if you prefer, over-saturation) of the market, and Crowdsourcing

The Weight of Years - Saturation
As time passes, veteran RPGers have more and more accumulated settings and adventures that can be adapted to newer role-playing games
And so, less and less incentive to buy more settings and more adventures
More and more older material is available in cheap PDF format (such as Gygax’s Giants adventures)
So why buy new ones?
Lots of people (like me) who play RPGs don’t buy anything new
The result: it’s harder to sell professionally-priced settings and adventures
Which leaves us with more rules . . .

Crowdsourcing: competition from “the crowd” online
Which has severely impacted the stock photography business, for example
In RPGs we have competition from amateurs and semi-professionals via online distribution
There are hundreds of fanboys and fangirls who just want people to see their stuff, so they give it away, or nearly so
And the fan stuff may be better playtested than the professional stuff
Professionals sometimes cannot take time to playtest

Semi-pro verus Pro
People who wrote RPG material freelance used to be paid royalties and retain ownership, now it’s all “work for hire” at dire rates (2 cents a word, 5 cents if you’re really good)
2 cents a word was a high rate in the pulp era (1930s), but that was equivalent to 30-odd cents now
At current rates, you have little incentive to spend much time playtesting your material, or even to take much care in the writing
The result: there’s lots and lots of cheap material out there as good, or nearly as good, as the professional stuff
So why would a smart person pay professional prices?

The "Collapse"
So we have lots of players, but not much of a market
Many aren’t looking for new, especially professional, material
Add to this the competition from computer RPGs
Unfortunately, tabletop RPGs require imagination and thinking, while computer RPGs require much less of both.  In a way we're doomed by the "Easy Button"
Result: the market for tabletop RPG material “collapsed” years ago
Companies that formerly published successful RPG material wouldn’t touch it now
So the bottom has fallen out of the fully professional RPG market, with no prospect that it will ever return - because saturation and crowdsourcing are here to stay

Current State
People at GenCon who give talks about RPGs say an independent is lucky to sell a thousand copies of a book, usually less.  That cannot keep larger companies going, though we can suppose their marketing power would sell more than a thousand
Ask yourself how much you buy, compared to years ago (and recall that you're exceptional).  I buy hardly anything, and don't have time to read what I've got
The biggest companies can still prosper, of course

Some new companies (such as Kobold – founded by a former WotC person) succeed enough to provide a living, but most do not.  And we continue to be doomed to a cycle of more rules until the edifice falls down and a new edition results.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Video (screencast): All I needed to know (about games and game design) I learned from Dungeons & Dragons

This is repeated from my Gamasutra "expert" blog:

The video is in two parts (each 8-9 minutes long).

The following is the text of the slides.  Of course, if you comment based only on reading this text, you're not talking about what I said, only about a kind of table of contents.

All I needed to know (about games and game design) I learned from Dungeons & Dragons
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
With thanks to . . .
Robert Fulghum’s little poem “All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.” It has inspired people since the late ‘80s.

First the list, then I’ll explain further
Keep in mind this applies to video games as well as tabletop.  As many have written (especially when Gary Gygax died in 2008) D&D is a massive influence on video gaming

The List
You don't need high-level technology to make an "immersive" game
For human/psychological games (as opposed to computer-mediated challenge games), players enjoy the journey, not the destination.
Some people like to be told stories, others like to make their own.
The objective is to make the players THINK their characters are going to die, not to kill them.
We all like to improve.
User generated content enriches a game immensely.  (Adventures, monsters, classes, etc.)
It's more fun with more than one person.
Cooperation is required for survival.
Think before you leap.
Get organized!
Don't run headlong where you've never been.
Keep track of the stuff you’ve got; otherwise you may forget something that could save your butt.
Always have a viable “Plan B”.
Always have a way out.
Don’t depend on luck!
R.I.P. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson.

You don't need high-level technology to make an "immersive" game
“Techno-fetishism” sometimes dominates the ranks of AAA list game creators
The idea that you have to use technology to make the appearance of a game highly “realistic” in order to let the player feel like he’s really there
This is partly because video game creators for so many years consisted of programmers who became game makers
In D&D we could feel like we were really there, at times, with nothing but a simple board and 2 dimensional pieces (though miniature figures might help)

It’s the game, not the technology
Nor is the “latest” version of the game necessary.  I still think first edition AD&D is the most playable and enjoyable version of the game
Similarly, in life, we don’t need the latest technology to thoroughly enjoy ourselves.
Why spend 20 minutes striving to use/acquire the latest technology when doing the job the old way takes 10?

For human/psychological games (as opposed to computer-mediated challenge games), players enjoy the journey, not the destination.
When people play single-player video games, their objective is to meet all the challenges, to “beat the game”, and then to stop playing!
In D&D there is no destination, just a journey that continues until the campaign ends or the player quits
Low and behold, life is the same way.  It’s not “he who has the most toys when he dies wins”, it’s “he who enjoyed life the most wins”.  When you’re dead, that’s all.

Some people want to be told stories, others like to make their own
D&D is very flexible.  Some referees like to tell stories through the game, what I call “leading people by the nose”
Others like to set up a situation, perhaps with a specific objective, and let the players work out what to do, to make their own story.
After all, if you try to predict what the players will do, you’ll often be wrong
In life, I prefer to make my own story, not depend on other people to decide how I ought to think and behave, what I should strive for.

The objective is to make the players THINK their characters are going to die, not to kill them
So many bad D&D referees get hung up on “holding up the side”, as the British would say, in making sure that the badguys make a really good showing, that they forget the point
The point is not that the badguys do really well, it’s that they do well enough to give the players a scare, and then lose!

We all like to improve
D&D was the first major game to include experience levels and “continuous improvement”
It was also one of the first to include lots of interesting individual loot.  All this lets the player’s character improve himself, and that’s a major objective in many, many video games.
I’m old enough to get senior discounts, but that doesn’t stop me from learning and trying to get better at what I do

User generated content enriches a game immensely - adventures, monsters, classes, etc.)
D&D is the perfect non-electronic medium for user-generated content: monsters, magic items, scenarios/adventures, even character classes
As company-generated video-game content becomes more and more expensive in the 21st century, studios need to find more ways to enable users to modify the games and increase everyone’s enjoyment

It's more fun with more than one person
Traditional video games have been one-person affairs, playing with/against a computer, for decades
Now we’re changing that, to where more than one person is involved, and all but the most solitary or anti-social are going to learn that games were originally social affairs, and video games are now joining that tradition

Cooperation is required for survival
In the real world, of course, one person on their own in a dangerous situation is often a dead person.  The same is true in D&D.

Think before you leap
So many poor players seem to have their brains turned off.  Nowadays some video games don’t give you time to think, but many do – use it
The same applies to design, of course

Get organized!
So many adventuring parties fail from sheer lack of organization.  D&D showed how much difference “having your stuff together” made
Which also applies to game design

Don't run headlong where you've never been
Well, duh!  But it was (and is) amazing how many people would “run away” in a direction they’d never been – and regret it

Keep track of the stuff you’ve got; otherwise you may forget something that could save your butt
When things go bad in D&D, it’s time to look at what you’re carrying, at your magic items and spells, to see if there’s something that will help; otherwise you’ll sometimes forget what you’ve got

Always have a viable “Plan B”
Doh! again.  Yet so often players have no decent Plan B.  There are no reloadable saves available in tabletop D&D, so we had to “do things right the first time” (which could itself be a lesson learned)
Good advice for game designers, too

Always have a way out
See previous entries.  The fundamental Plan B is getting away to fight another day.

Don’t depend on luck
When I first saw D&D I said “I hate dice games.”  But I discovered that it wasn’t a dice game, played properly
It is a microcosm of life: do everything you practically can to avoid having to rely on a die roll to save your bacon.  You won’t always be able to, but you can minimize the number of times you have to life-and-death “roll dem bones.”
Iron golem example
Especially important for game designers.  Trial and error (guess and check) is inefficient at best, hopeless at worst

I confess to literary license: D&D didn’t teach me all of these things, as I’d been playing games for many years and was 25 years old before I encountered D&D.  But the game nonetheless well illustrates these points.
An earlier text version is at: