Monday, March 11, 2019

Deconstruction of the game Shogun/Samurai Swords/Ikusa



A common occurrence in video gaming is the “deconstruction” of a game, an attempt to describe how the design works, perhaps what it derives from. While I spent several hours watching five people play this game it proved to be pretty easy to deconstruct.

This game of Japanese warlords was originally published by Milton Bradley and now Hasbro and dates back to about 1987. If designed today it would definitely be much smaller, perhaps accommodating not more than four players, to reduce the length from its current 4 to 6 hours for five players. One reason why it’s so long is that it derives from Axis & Allies and Risk, both often quite long games.

The Risk influence is clear in the board of many territories (a lot more than Risk’s 42) with lines connecting some territories to enable movement across the seas. There are some really long connecting lines “above” and “below” the three main Japanese islands to provide some circularity and width, because even with many territories the main routes through the islands are quite narrow, only a few territories wide.

The game includes a card for each territory as in Risk, and starts with a random distribution of cards so that each player’s holdings are randomly distributed throughout the three major islands (Hokkaido is not included, at the time of the samurai it was occupied by the white-skinned Ainu people). This is identical to the original French way of starting Risk, rather than players choosing their territories. There is no turn-in of cards as we see in Risk. The card turn-in is a kludge designed to bring Risk to a finish, whereas Shogun has a different method.

Allocation of new armies follows the Risk method of one per three territories. In Shogun the result is money rather than armies, which can be spent for a variety of activities (mostly new troops), and can buy as many as three of the weakest troops for one unit of money.

Where is the influence of Axis & Allies? I think the game would work as well with just one or two unit types (the two would be missile troops and melee troops). But in this case we have two kinds of missile troops and several kinds of melee troops, each with a different number required to hit with a 12 sided die (hit on six and lower is the best unit). In an initial combat the defender’s missile troops fire and anyone killed by that fire (victim’s choice) cannot retaliate. But in the end it’s rolling for all your troops against all the opposing troops simultaneously. (Amphibious attacks are at a greater disadvantage.) This is much as it is in Axis & Allies. Attackers can retreat, but defenders cannot, just as in A&A. (This is one of the stranger rules I’ve ever seen, from an historical point of view; I think it’s intended to speed up the game.)

The Army organization of the game is the part that comes from neither Risk nor A&A. Each player has a large cardboard layout allowing for the placement of many units in each of three armies, along with three flag markers (generals) each on a track that can increase their experience. The corresponding flags are placed on the board to show the location of the armies.



In addition there is a ninja which can be hired to try to assassinate a general (67 % chance); if the ninja fails the intended victim can hire it to try to kill one of the attacker’s generals!

Here’s the mechanism that enables the game to end sooner than otherwise. If you kill a player’s last general by defeating his army, you get all his remaining pieces and territories. Winning the game depends on controlling a certain number of territories, for example 30 in the five player game, more in games with fewer players. It’s a more elegant solution to ending the game than the turn-in cards in Risk.

There is even less history built into this game than into Axis & Allies itself. It’s a long game with a lot of miniature figures and a lot of dice rolling.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Brief Notes from the designer about Hastings 1066


The Battle of Hastings was the culmination of an unusual three-sided competition to be elected Edward the Confessor’s successor as King of England, with no chance of alliances, and each side the enemy of the other two. As is typical of most medieval and ancient conflicts, we have few close-to-contemporary sources, and little solid information. (Some historians like to sound much more certain than the evidence justifies.)

Weather prevented William of Normandy from sailing to England where Harold II was waiting, while Harald Hardrada of Norway was able to land in the north and defeat the local English earls at the Battle of Fulford. Harold of England, more or less in possession of the kingship, marched north and surprised the Norwegians, resulting in a great slaughter (and the death of Hardrada) at great cost to the English. Harold’s force at Hastings may have been smaller than his force at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile William had landed. A mystery is why Harold didn’t wait to gather additional forces (having left his archers behind). Instead he rushed down as rapidly as he could to fight William. William wasn’t doing anything, really, for example not attacking the heart of the country (London). Harold could have waited, but he was a brave man and experienced soldier. In the end, it cost him and his brothers their lives.

I actually got the idea to make a small game about the battle when visiting the (supposed) site as a tourist.

Hastings 1066 is the closest thing I know of to the microgames (such as Ogre (1977) and my Dragon Rage (1982)) that were so popular in the earlier years of the hobby. They were the least expensive type of wargame, simple, usually quick to play. Those were board games, but it’s impossible to persuade many people to buy a thin cardboard board and tiny pieces nowadays, so the clear alternative is to use cards.

Cards inherently do not show the maneuver and geospatial relationships that are at the heart of any battle, but I devised a simple method to provide a board equivalent using the cards themselves.
Ancient and medieval battles are inherently poor subjects for games if you stick with the reality, that the commander had little control over what happened once the battle began (still seen in many miniatures rules sets today). The initial version of Hastings reflected this. So to make a better game I ignored some reality, allowing the players to control all the units, making the battle more fluid so that the players had more influence.

The system can be used to depict many battles, even post-gunpowder battles. I’ve tried Fulford and Stamford Bridge, but they don’t fit the standard line-up battle that’s ideal for the game system. I have prototypes of Stalingrad (the city itself, reflecting the “meat-grinder”), Waterloo (focusing on artillery, line, column, and square), and the naval battle of Lepanto (cannons and ramming). The Worthington folks have devised others. Every game using the system can concentrate on what was really important, hence the possibilities that your leader will die during Hastings 1066, and the action of the Norman archers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Reducing chance in games that use single die rolls


My recently-published design Hastings 1066, which well-known game reviewer Marco Arnaudo calls a “lunchtime wargame”, and which I call a successor to old-time microgames, reflects the amount of chance that occurs in a real battle: a lot. As with any historical battle game, simulating the chaos and chances of war is more or less the opposite of what gamers want as they explore generalship. (Commercial wargames are not representative of war, more of generalship). Gamers want to control the game, they want to feel that they succeed or fail by their own efforts; but war isn’t like that at all.

Some people won’t mind this, while others might hope there was less chance. Here I present a method of making sure that each player gets about the same number of good, bad, and middling die rolls during the play of the game. And it also might be faster than rolling dice.

To do this you need at least two decks of ordinary playing cards. Extract all the Ace through Six cards in a deck (24), shuffle them thoroughly, and draw from that deck when you need a D6 roll. Each player has his own draw deck, and each deck has an identical selection of cards. When you’ve exhausted your deck shuffle it and start over.

I think it’s more practical in some ways if you have two decks of cards per player, because it will be harder for players to memorize how many times a particular number has been drawn, and in the course of a seven turn game you’ll need more than 48 die rolls.

There’s still the chance that one player’s sixes will all be up front or all at the end of his deck, and one player might reshuffle well before the other; but in the long run this may be more satisfying than a lot of dice rolls. It’s up to you.

I make this suggestion because in one of my playtests I played someone who was not a wargamer and who was not a deep thinker, playing for the first time, but I couldn’t roll for shit and after a valiant fight I lost. It’s like the famous poker champion Doyle Brunson saying that if you consistently don’t get decent cards there’s not much you can do (when he went out of the World Series of Poker on the first day). Imagine how happy he might be if you could somehow be sure that the cards he was getting were about the same average value and frequency as the cards other players were getting, in the long run.

(Of course, dice rolling “evens out” in the long run; there is no such thing as a “bad roller”. What we’re doing here is trying to even it out in the shorter run.)

By the way, this method has flaws for rolling 2d6 or more. I wouldn’t use it for that.

(The game is available on Worthington Publishing’s website at $35. I haven’t looked for it on the usual online sellers.)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Unbalanced tabletop games

This is from a quora question: "James Simonse wants an answer to:
What are some examples of badly balanced board games?"


Rather than list some unbalanced games, I want to talk about unbalance itself.

It isn’t always clear whether a game is unbalanced. Perhaps a group of players haven’t fgured it out, and as a result one side or another enjoys a big advantage or disadvantage. Or “the jury may still be out”.

Take Scythe as an example. It’s a popular game, though released only recently. I haven’t played or read the rules; I have watched the game for an hour or two. In the game I watched, one player ran rampant all over the map, while the other players passively allowed this to happen. When I asked a very experienced player who had played the game, his strong opinion was that Russia had a big advantage. Later I talked to another player, who knew a very experienced player with the same opinion. Later I talked with a local player, who said his group didn’t allow anyone to play Russia! Yet sometime later I talked to a player who thought one of the other sides (cannot recall which) was the one with most advantage. And a great many people play the game.

So is it unbalanced, or is it not?

Keep in mind what I call the “Invisible Hand”. This is the tendency of good players to know that one side or another is very strong or weak, and to compensate for that during play. Yes, the game is unbalanced, but the reaction of the players themselves rebalances it. Is the Invisible Hand strongly at work in Scythe? I don’t know.


Diplomacy benefits from the Invisible Hand. The inner Great Powers (Italy, Germany, Austria) are at a considerable disadvantage compared with the four outer powers (France, England, Russia, Turkey), who can put their backs easily against the “wall” of the board edge. I’ve won playing those inner countries, but I still think the game is unbalanced, and relies some on the Invisible Hand to even things out.


If I had a dime for every time someone had played my four player game Britannia (1986 and later) once, and then declared that had no chance to win, or wins way too often, I’d be able to buy a used car. Results at tournaments show that the four colors are very close to equal, even though one color or another may win disproportionately in a given year. 

So why the gripes? It’s not a game you can play well until you’ve played several times, that is, it’s a deep game, not the typically shallow stuff we get today. After one play, you can’t possibly know the balance; but many gamers now blame the game if they lose, and expect to understand how to play well after one play. Not this game. Yet there are lots of complaints about balance from novices.



Gareth Higgs commented on my answer "Rather than list some unbalanced games, I want to talk about unbalance itself....":

As a very experienced Scythe player, I actually think that Crimea is the best faction with their ability to use combat cards as resources. It’s an especially good faction with the Agricultural or Patriotic boards. However, I think the game is itself fairly well balanced - It just seems like it’s unbalanced when people of various skill levels play together.

That's another possibility, of course, that a game is unbalanced unless the players are of similar experience. Or even that the game is unbalanced with novice players, and balanced with experts.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Recent Videos on my YouTube Channel ("Game Design")

Recent Videos on my YouTube channel (“Game Design”)

Jan 10
Excessively misleading game box covers: http://youtu.be/xkwbXlahmVI?a

 Jan 8
One of my most-viewed videos of the last year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOBM3JD-sno&lc=z22meflabzrxyld3qacdp4350c4titjswgqqvwojfgtw03c010c&feature=em-comments …
Six reasons why wargames popularity has plummeted

 Jan 3
"A game I can bullshit my way through": http://youtu.be/uMTnh8pbdIM?a 

 27 Dec 2018
It's Impossible to forecast the success of a game: http://youtu.be/QnLA8oN5sBg?a

 20 Dec 2018
Ideal (for manufacturing) number of cards in a deck: http://youtu.be/3lNJWmJOeKE?a

 13 Dec 2018
Confusions of Game Design: Obscure can be bad or good: http://youtu.be/3ku63Wev8kw?a

 6 Dec 2018
What do I think about players changing my games: http://youtu.be/-2jTLThe54w?a

 29 Nov 2018
Scaling games for different number of players: http://youtu.be/ynUPdidl2WY?a

 22 Nov 2018
Why I don't write monsters and character classes to be published any more: http://youtu.be/5uC9HO4JT88?a

 15 Nov 2018
New game? Don't worry about "innovation": http://youtu.be/oxJti1METvI?a

 8 Nov 2018
War is not fun, not sport, so commercial games are not much like war.: http://youtu.be/fP46epnP_ro?a 

Lew Pulsipher @lewpuls

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Idle (?) Thoughts on Two Player Diplomacy

(This originally appeared in Diplomacy World #144)

People involved in creation of something out of nothing really do get their ideas in odd places, sometimes. I get a significant “input” to my game design when I’m in the shower and while I’m lying awake in bed. This idea popped into my head at “Oh Dark Hundred” recently.

A little introduction might help. My most well-known game is Britannia (1986 and later), and there’s going to be a reprint with plastic figures in the next year or so. To go along with that, the publishers wanted me to make a two player version of the game that lasted 60 to 90 minutes (Britannia itself is 4 to 5 hours.) I’m surprised and pleased at how well it has come out. It uses a new board, lasts 65 to 75 minutes, and is recognizably Britannia-like.

So it’s not surprising that now my thoughts occasionally turn to creating two player versions of games for more than two (Britannia has four players). Usually this is my own games, but this morning it was Diplomacy.

Insofar as the essence of Diplomacy is playing against the other players, a two player game cannot be Diplomacy. In other words, Diplomacy is about the psychological part of the game and much less about the game system. Yet the “Gunboat Diplomacy” variant has been popular, and that’s a game where any negotiation is prohibited. With two players, much of the psychology is gone.

So, I said to myself, if we’re going to abandon the essence of the game anyway, what can we do to change the game to make it more interesting for two players? Because with two players it would be a sort of a chess match that depended on who guessed best in the strategic/tactical part of the game, and would be devilishly difficult to balance fairly.

By removing the multiplayer aspect we remove much of the uncertainty of the game: with two players you can minimax it, you can assume the other player is perfect and play accordingly to maximize your minimum gain as in the premise behind the mathematical theory of games. Chess, Go, Checkers survive the situation because they are too complex to be solved by humans, though all three are played better by computers now than by the best humans. That’s not desirable, so I would replace the uncertainty of more than two players with two things: dice in combat and event cards.

Now I can hear many Diplomacy people sucking in a deep (dismayed?) breath at the idea of overt chance elements in the game, but I’ve explained why I think it’s necessary, and I have a dice combat system that would only mildly affect things but would provide an element of unpredictability. That method is that you roll one die per Army or fleet in the combat, including supports. The side with a higher sum wins the combat, with ties going to the defender most likely (or rerolled if both sides are attacking), but that’s something that would be determined in testing.

For example, a supported army (two) attacks an unsupported army (one). Rolls are 4,5 for the attackers, so the defender cannot win (can’t get more than a 6).

Occasionally a two on one would not dislodge the defender because the defender wins (or ties) the dice rolls. And in rare instances even a 3 to 1 attack might fail. On the other hand, a two versus three attack would occasionally succeed. The biggest change here would be that one-to-one attacks would sometimes succeed. (One vs one, 15 wins for each side plus 6 ties. If ties go to defender (assuming there is a defender rather than both moving), that’s 21 vs 15 (7 to 5).  Two vs one results: 15 ties, 21 wins for the weaker, 180 wins for the stronger. If ties go to weaker, it’s 180 to 36.)

I use this method in Eurasia (name likely to change to something like Surge of Empires), which is scheduled to be published sometime.


Another way to provide variance in combat would be to use combat cards rather than dice. Each player would have the same set of cards, but different ones in hand at different times, and it would be a guessing element involved in whether you play a strong card or weak card to add to the combat (there are also some special cards). I use such a method in several games but I’m not going to go into it here.


I don’t know if event cards would be necessary, and I haven’t tried to come up with any kind of scheme. But event cards are a way to add interest and variation to a game that the players can control in a way that they cannot control the dice, though with dice they can play to take account of probability.


The other point of uncertainty/variance would be in selection of the sides. While lying in bed I tried to think of an entirely fair three versus three and didn’t get very far. I’d probably use a combination of selection and chance to assign countries. The first player would choose a country, the second player would choose two countries, the third player would choose a second country. The third country that each received would be determined randomly from the three remaining. And for the one that was not controlled by either player, we could use a method known in some Diplomacy variants, where the players write orders (say, five of them?) for the units of the uncontrolled country. They can allocate all five (identical) orders to one unit or spread them amongst the units. If a unit received a majority of the same order then it would execute that order. Of course, you could go further and do that for all three countries that the players had not themselves selected.


How long would this game take the play? I should think it would hit that magic 60 to 90 minute length that is commonly desired nowadays in wargames, if not to the victory criterion then certainly to a point where one player resigns. It would be quicker, of course, if you had some electronic method of giving orders/moving the pieces. Handwriting orders for two or three countries takes a while.