Friday, March 04, 2022

What were the real World Wars?

 Wars are sometimes name for odd reasons. What we call World War I was called the Great War before World War II occurred. Yet some people would tell you that the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763) was the first war that occurred over much of the world. But it didn’t have the intensity, the national armies (conscripts), of a world war. Perhaps the American Civil War or the Russo- Japanese war or the Franco-Prussian war had that intensity, but certainly the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic wars ending in 1815 had that intensity. Those were the wars of the universal draft and of national armies, and of enormous casualties.

So it would make sense to call the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars World War I, and what we call World War I to be World War II, and what we call World War II to be World War III.

On the other hand, in terms of participating nations and major fighting, World War I was almost entirely confined to Europe, so in that sense World War II was the first real world war.

Just a rumination . . .

Monday, August 02, 2021

Compendium of Britannia-like Games, Published and Unpublished

 

Compendium of Britannia-like Games, Published and Unpublished

A listing and description

 This is edited and revised from the transcript of a video. I offer free videos on the “Game Design” channel on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign

 

There aren’t many games that have spawned a group of games using similar systems by different designers, but my game Britannia is one. I haven't even laid hands on some of these games. I've only played Britannia, Duel Britannia, and (once) Italia.

 

I include both published and unpublished games, the ones that I've been able to find. The objective here is to talk briefly about each one.

 

Maybe I should characterize Britannia first. Britannia is about migrations and organized invasions in the Dark and Mediaeval ages, using a large area map of Britain. It covers a very long time scale, about a thousand years. It equates population with armies, which is a Dark Age characteristic. It has an economy, that is, you don't just have units appearing at given times and places, though that also happens. You can build/raise more units, according to your economy, which depends on what lands you occupy, using the old mantra that Land Equals Wealth.

 

Point scoring is by nation and a player controls several nations (usually four) during the course of the game. The player’s nations cannot cooperatively attack or defend their separate nations; if they happen to be in the same place they have to fight. There are no event cards, and the game uses dice combat. There are about 200 armies with no numbers on them, just an identifier. Four players is the norm, three is sometimes a variation.

 

Many of the following games deviate in one or more ways from this summary, even some of my games from this list. So we have many games of similar complexity. There are also games that are more complex and there are a few published games that are less complex - well, actually just one that's been published so far.

 

I'm not listing the designers because I may not know or may not remember. Since I moved house I don't know where many of these games are in my house. Sorry about that, but most of them are on boardgamegeek, the published ones anyway.

 

The first here is Ancient Conquest I and II. I list these first because Ancient Conquest I predates Britannia. I saw that game being played, and read the rules, somewhere, sometime in the 70s, probably the late 70s. I borrowed the notion of several nations per player, but I don't let those nations cooperate. In Ancient Conquest, the player moves all his/her nations at once, and they can cooperate closely, even occupying the same city.

 

Ancient Conquest is a hex and counter wargame with numbers on the counters. The map has a hexagonal grid. It uses a combat table. As far as I can recall it only had an order of battle, not an economy. In other words, you got pieces when you got them and that was it. What you did on the board didn't make any difference generally to how many pieces you could acquire, making it, in my taxonomy, a Battle game rather than a War game.

 

Ancient Conquest I and II share similar maps. They depict the early and later history of the ancient Near/Middle East/Eastern Europe, so it includes Greece for example.

 

Maharajah is the first game that followed Britannia. This was done by Avalon Hill some years after they published Britannia. It's a slavish imitation in some ways, for example, the identical number of nations and the same number of land areas as Britannia. It has the problem of Indian history, that all the invasions come from the northwest instead of from all around. One of the great advantages of Britannia is the invasions come from all around. Now if you get into gunpowder days and the Europeans then you've got invasions from the sea, but I think that's a big mistake. Nonetheless, it was done here, so late in the game you have the Europeans. I've read that the designer died during the process and maybe that had some affect on it. People say it's a good three player game but not a good four player game

 

Chariot Lords is the ancient Near and Middle East. There is no economy, you get back a portion of your dead. It has random player turn order, you roll for the player order every turn, and that's horrible to me, it just makes a hash out of the whole business, but that's a matter of preference. Moreover it has possibly the most confused and unclear set of rules I have ever read.

 

Peninsula Italica (1993), is ancient Italy from 2000 to 200 BC. All I know is what I read on Boardgamegeek. That Sicily is four areas gives an idea of the scale. About 250 cardboard pieces. Evidently Italian language rules only.

 

The Dragon and the Pearl covers pre-gunpowder Chinese history. It was published by a United Kingdom game shop with a plasticized map, plastic disc pieces with stickers, coming in a cardboard tube. It's a pretty straightforward adaptation of the Britannia game system. While I’ve not played, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the best of the Brit-like games other than Britannia itself.

 

Hispania is the history of the Iberian Peninsula. The problem here is that at times the entire area was ruled by one government, for decades or centuries. The Romans, the Visigoths, the Muslims except for Asturias, which didn't amount to much at that point, all controlled the peninsula. How does a game cope with this? This game is much more complex than Britannia. It has something like 500 pieces and several additional piece types, using 10 sided dice to help differentiate the types.

 

Rus is a game of Russia in early days, self published long before Kickstarter. I've read some criticism of how it plays, I haven't tried it myself. It's a difficult subject, not one that I've even tried, and I try a lot. There's so much difference between the steppe and the forest  areas of Russia. The area of the board extends well beyond Russia, not surprisingly. The name is a reference to the Vikings who came to Russia and established the early principalities.

 

 

Hegemonia (2004) is about ancient Greece and Western Persia, and some of Italy. I've never seen the game, only images of the map and rules (in German). It was offered privately in Germany in a limited form, could be print and play, I don't know. In fact I'm not sure I know anybody who's ever seen it, let alone played it.

 

China: the Middle Kingdom. This is Chinese history from ancient times, extending through the Chinese Civil War post-World War II, and my view is the Britannia system doesn't model the gunpowder era, let alone World War II; the system was made for gradual migrations, slow movement and communication, with a population that was more or less synonymous with the army, none of which is true in gunpowder times.

 

The game also suffers from what I can only call an egregious error. The playable board doesn't extend beyond China's modern boundaries. So Mongolia, for example, is not part of the playable board. Korea is not playable. Vietnam is not playable. Those are areas that at times the Chinese dominated or actually controlled, but you can't play there. Think about that. Why would you do that?

 

It introduces an idea with rebellions where in order for one dynasty to be followed by another you roll a lot of dice for individual areas to determine whether they go over to the new dynasty. It's also interesting in that the attackers have a permanent advantage over the defenders: attackers hit on a 4, 5 or 6, defenders on a 5 or 6.

 

Italia is by the same designer as Hispania. It's also similarly complex. It covers Italy, a bit of North Africa, and some of the border land around northern Italy. The game uses a “campaigns” rule involving big groups of units making repeated attacks as they move through areas, so that a campaign can conquer a large area at once. This is sort of a super-major invasion.

 

Given Italian history, there are two game segments separated by the period of Roman domination and the Empire. One of the main scenarios is for three players rather than four.

 

Invasions I and II are all of Europe and North Africa post Rome. Invasions I covers earlier history and the second will cover later history. There are vastly more areas than Britannia. I counted once (from images, have not seen the game itself), and it seems like there were around 150, and vastly more pieces and piece types than Brit. So it's in the vein of Hispania and Italia, but even bigger. It's also one of the few (only?) Britannia-like games that uses event cards. The designer is also designer of Europa Universalis I in both the tabletop and video versions, which may help explain the level of complexity. Other than Duel Britannia, this is the most recently published Brit-like game I know of.

 

Finally we have Duel Britannia. This is packaged with the 2020 reissue of Britannia, two games in one box. It's for two players, up to 90 minutes, seven turns, many fewer land areas on a new board, so it's considerably simpler than Britannia, especially in the immensely simpler scoring. It is a two player game, although perhaps someone will make a three player game out of it someday. But that three-player is not in the box because I only had a year to design it, and the two player was a pain in the butt to try to get balanced, so I didn't get to the three player game.

This and the reissue of Britannia are the only Britannia-like games using plastic figure armies. They’re 18 mm tall, which is much larger, for example, than the soldier pieces in Risk, and I've seen photos of the figures as painted by gamers - painted individually and in detail.

 

Then we have “B3" as I call it, the third edition of Britannia, which actually is three separate games: Epic Britannia, Rule Britannia, and Conquer Britannia.

 

Epic is what I call a better teaching tool, some may suggest “more realistic”. It has more constraints on the players, otherwise a full Britannia. There’s also a free-form mode that works well with two through five players, and is much quicker and simpler than older Brit. The scoring of the free-form uses the simple method that I've used in some of the small games (such as Duel Brit).

 

Armies cannot vacate areas (as in Risk). There are land raids or forays. Armies are not allowed to make suicide attacks when faced with starvation, instead their entire group must attack. The Romans have to work at it to succeed, which they don't really in second edition Britannia. This had lots of solo testing but not much by others, but it has “lain fallow” for years.

 

Rule Britannia is nine turns, four players, diceless. It uses combat cards, and includes Ireland. It's been tested a little by others a long time ago. The diceless method has been tested a lot in other games.

 

Much of Duel Britannia methods derive from Conquer Britannia. Conquer Britannia is an up to 120 minute game for four players, the shortest play so far is 84 minutes. It begins after the Roman withdrawal, just as Duel Brit does. It's been playtested by others a lot. I intend to make a three player version for before the Romans appear. It has six turns, 18 land areas, 11 nations.

 

 

 

I've designed quite a few other games to various stages. “Mega Brit” had 55 land areas, 24 nations, 24 turns, and included Ireland. I played this, maybe three times solo a long time ago.

 

Dark Ages Europe, from about 400 CE to 1250, is for five players quite big, played once by others, some by me. A different, huge Europe game that didn't have a name was played once by several people in 1980. 12 hours, and I had a note on it that if Britannia got published, maybe this could be published. But now it's long abandoned.

 

Then we have for three or four players, Adventus Saxonum or Arthuria, including only England and Wales with 20 nations. It starts when the Romans are gone and ends before the Vikings.

 

Caledonia is the early history of Scotland. It's simpler and shorter than Britannia.

 

Normannia is Britain, France, and the Vikings only.

 

Barbaria is all of Europe 400CE to 1250 in six turns. It is simpler and much shorter than Britannia, and unlike most of these it has been submitted to publishers (unsuccessful so far).

 

Frankia: the early history of France and Germany is diceless and uses the card combat system. It has three scenarios, one for three players, the others for four. This has been submitted, not yet accepted anywhere.

 

Hellenia is not complex, but it's a large map because it's all the Mediterranean, and the Near East, so you have a very long but fairly narrow map. Rome, Carthage, and the Diadochi, five players, I think.

 

Hibernia is more like a block game, but it has many Britannia-like characteristics. It's the early history of Ireland for three players, not four.

 

 

The most recent one, Minimalist Britannia as I call it so far, has only 13 land areas, three players, diceless, and it plays solo in an hour. Whether I can balance it, who knows? Fortunately, three player games can be self-balancing.

 

I started on a all-of-Third Age J.R.R. Tolkien game, which I’ve played once. But a license is expensive. Also, I have since realized it should be a co-op game as well (competitive version and co-op version).

 

This list excludes games I have mapped out or set up reinforcement schedules for but haven't played: India, Iberia, Graecia, Central Asia, China, Babylonia, the Balkans, Wales, Columbia (the Americas), Byzantium, Sicily even. Who knows where else that I've forgotten over the years - most of these were a long time ago. It is of course a drawback of Britannia-like games that they tend to be long and that's not what people want these days.

 

Unpublished by Other Designers

Now for unpublished games by other designers. There was one called Mandate of Heaven (China) that I ran across in an online playtest years ago, and I haven't heard of it since. It was huge.

 

There's one called Corsica, about a relatively small island in the Mediterranean southeast of France. It's where Napoleon Bonaparte grew up. I have a print n play copy, and there may be an electronic form ultimately. It is as big as Britannia despite the smallness of the island.

 

An unpublished game called Conquest of Europe by Roger Heywood, who was the uncredited developer of the original Britannia for HP Gibsons, has an entry in boardgamegeek.

 

There may be more but the unpublished ones are hard to ferret out.

 

Not Brit-like

You may have heard of my game Germania (nearly published twice) and might have thought from the title that it's Britannia-like. It is not, although it is of similar scale.

 

Then we have History of the World, which is a “sweep of history” game but not Britannia-like, though I have to say, it might benefit from being more like Britannia. It certainly loses sight of history.

 

 

This turned out to be a lot more than I expected, and now I should get some more of mine published.

 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Deconstructing Diplomacy

(Originally appeared in Diplomacy World #154, the free flagship magazine of the Diplomacy-playing hobby)


The following is edited and modified from a transcription of a video I made for an audiovisual class I’m creating for Udemy.com. It was created for aspiring game designers, not for hobby Diplomacy players. But you may learn something from it.


I think this one of the greatest games ever made so as you might expect I’ll talk a lot about it. 


What's a deconstruction? We’re trying to discern the inner workings of a game. What makes the game work or not work from a design point of view? The purpose is to help designers understand how the game works and why it is successful or not, so they can apply those lessons to their own games. 


I've a lot history with this game. It was my favorite game from 1970 to 1975. I played a lot by mail, and as there was no email the games took several years to complete. I was quite successful as a player, and I published two Diplomacy fanzines. These were the days of printed fanzines, mimeo or ditto printed. I also wrote quite a few articles about the game. 


My series of articles about playing the game well was on the Avalon Hill website for decades, and was cited on the boardgamegeek page for Diplomacy until their recent redesign stopped citing articles. I also designed a lot of Diplomacy variants, and to this day I'm probably the most prolific designer of published Diplomacy variants, though I gave it up when I started to design standalone games in the late 70s. 


What is It?


So what is Diplomacy? Diplomacy was originally published in 1959, the same year as Risk in the United States. It requires exactly seven players, a very unusual requirement. It roughly represents World War I and the era before it. It's a very long game when played to a conclusion, which is often a draw, 4 to 8 hours. Almost all the activity is interaction amongst the players, especially via secret negotiation, and it is the secret negotiation that “makes the game” while also making it such a long game. 


Moreover, it's a zero-sum game. The only way to gain something is to take it from someone else, and that's part of what makes it such an aggressive game. There's no way to progress without “regressing” somebody else. It's a heavily psychological game because much of it goes on in the players’ minds, though there is a tactical system and strategic system. 


This is something that struck me only recently: it's actually a co-operative game. Diplomacy is known as a cutthroat boardgame full of lies and deceit, but it is one of the most co-operative games in existence that can still produce a single winner, though often it doesn't. It's not like a standard co-op game where all the players win or none of them win. Also, you’re not playing against the game, not playing against programmed instructions. Nonetheless, it's very co-operative, because you can't go it alone. You have to work with other players to succeed because you're outnumbered six to one, at least at first. 


Even more important, one of the fundamental mechanics of the game is a support order that lets you directly assist another player, or be assisted, and that's a rarity in games. That's possible because we have simultaneous movement adjudication in Diplomacy, which is also quite rare in tabletop games.


So we have a game where strategy, in the sense of military grand strategy, is very important. It's a game of negotiation, but you need to negotiate with the right objectives in mind, so understanding the strategy of the entire game is vital. A good strategist will beat a good tactician, again because you're outnumbered 6-1. At the game start there are seven players, but you only have three or four neighbors at that juncture. Yet you have to see and try to influence the entire board for the entire game to maximize your chances to win. It is an epitome of strategy, both of military strategy and of “strategy games” more generally, as you have to use your mind to succeed. 


While many play the game with the short term in mind (owing to the possibilities for surprise and betrayal), those who think in the long term are more likely to succeed.


Part of the fascination with the game is a fascination with maps and with the shapes of geography with geopolitics, so it’s unsurprising that there are hundreds of Diplomacy variants, frequently with a new map, sometimes not. 


There is is a conference map which the players take with them when they go away from the board to secret negotiations. It shows the map of the game and the 75 areas on the board. There are just two kinds of units, armies and fleets. The fleets can move in coastal areas, and only 8 of 34 supply centers (23.5%) are landlocked. Armies and fleets are about equally useful, especially given the geography of Europe and some of the Mediterranean littoral depicted on the board.


The tactical system uses simultaneous movement/adjudication. There cannot be more than 34 pieces, but players have to write orders for each of their pieces, something that wouldn’t work today except for niche markets. (In 2006 Fantasy Flight Games published the second edition of my game Britannia; they refused to include a scoresheet, feeling that writing down scores was unacceptable to the market! They included scoring chits instead.) It's possible to help another player in the tactical phase of the game as well as to hinder others. There's no overt chance in resolution of conflicts, no cards, no dice. But because of simultaneous movement sometimes there is guesswork. Sometimes there's Yomi involved, reading the enemy's intentions. You can play a Game Theory minimax style most of the time tactically, but as in real warfare, the best generals are successful via Yomi.


In the larger sense Yomi is very important to the strategy of the game, because if somebody's going to stab you in the back, or someone is lying to you, you’ve got to figure that out in time to do something about it. 


My Ten Subsystems of Games


I'm going to go through my 10 subsystems of all games and describe what we see in Diplomacy. These subsystems are a framework designers can use to help them conceive new designs.


For the first one, model-theme-atmosphere-image and so on. The game loosely represents World War I. Loosely. The seven players are roughly equal in strength. We have 75 areas on the board and only armies and fleets. The technology is more 1900 than 1914, though the map is from 1914.


Player interaction rules. This is a game of very strong player interaction via negotiation. Lying and even cheating is encouraged in the rules. Surprise is common owing to simultaneous movement.


Objective/victory conditions. Players need to control a majority of the 34 supply centers, so usually there is player elimination. But at the end of the game, there may be three to four or even more players, and often nobody can achieve a majority of supply centers and you end up with a draw. One of the fascinations of play is that some players value second place over most draws, while others value any draw over second place (partial win versus outright loss). There is nothing in the rules to require or force a draw, so theoretically the game could go on forever.


Number four is data storage. There's an area board. Armies and fleets of seven colors are supplied, and players use a paper and pen for writing orders. Everything else is in the player’s minds.


Sequencing is a negotiation session followed by order writing and then simultaneous adjudication. 


Movement/Placement is one unit per area. Units move one area maximum in a turn. Fleets can occupy coastal provinces. The sea areas and the areas along the edges of the board are larger so that you can move just as quickly around the board as across the center of the board to get to the other side. 


Information availability. Only the player's intentions and his orders are hidden from the other players, until the simultaneous adjudication.


Conflict resolution is simultaneous and deterministic, a majority wins, ties to defender, no loss in combat unless a unit cannot retreat. For a wargame, deterministic combat with no loss is rare.


The economy is zero-sum. 34 centers; to gain a unit you must take the center from somebody else. Players at start occupy 22 of 34 supply centers (65%).


The user interface is a boardgame. Players talk with other players frequently in secret, leaving the table. They write orders for their units.


Some Evaluation Questions


I also have some evaluation questions I try to use with a deconstruction. 


What is the essence or vision of the game? Negotiation, followed by strategic and tactical action in a very rough representational World War I, that's diceless and uses simultaneous adjudication. (“Gunboat” Diplomacy, while a popular variant, makes nonsense of the game’s essence.)


Who is it marketed to? Hard-core psychological game players. It's kind of the opposite of Chess in many ways. It can also be seen as a strange combination of poker and chess. It's poker psychologically but retaining the determinism of chess. 


Players’ primary activity is negotiating. If you don’t negotiate, you lose. 


What are the major challenges? Reading opponents’ intentions while disguising yours is a great deal of it, and military grand strategy. 


The actions the players can take to overcome the challenges. They can negotiate offensive oriented alliances, negotiate nonaggression agreements, make war, make peace, expand, capturing supply centers with superior force or guile, and outthink the other players. As I said, there are lots and lots of variations of Diplomacy. 



What about the play balance? The inner three powers (Austria, Germany, Italy) are at a clear positional disadvantage, and as far as I know this translates to a disadvantage in results compared with England, France, Russia, and Turkey. Keep in mind, the actual strengths of nations in this time period have nothing to do with their strength in Diplomacy.


What is and isn’t a variation?


(I am repeating some of the following from Diplomacy World #100)


This brings me to the question, what characterizes Dip, what makes someone look at a game and say "that's a variant of Diplomacy"?


I have made two lists at various times.  The first is very short:

Simultaneous movement

Units directly related to territory controlled [zero-sum]

The support mechanism

No overt chance mechanism in combat resolution

But this leaves out negotiation! But it allows Gunboat to qualify.


Another try is less terse:

Secret Negotiation 

Always, simultaneous movement (but some people call Game of Thrones: the Boardgame a Dipvariant, and it isn't exactly simultaneous movement; it uses a mechanism to avoid the need to write orders).

Always, the support mechanism.

Always, no overt chance mechanism in combat.

Usually, centers maintain units in a zero-sum fashion--and while some games give economic points to spend in various ways, players still must pay maintenance for existing units.

Usually, no-holds-barred negotiation.

Usually, an area board and one unit per area.


Most of these elements appear in other games - I'm using the support mechanism in a couple prototypes - but the appearance of most or all of these is likely to be in a Dipvariant.  One could try to use the same list and make a game that doesn't derive from Diplomacy, of course.


If Released Today?


A final question. If Diplomacy and its variants did not exist, and it was released today, what would be the result?


It would probably fall flat on its face - like most older games, it must be admitted - not because they're not good but because tastes and players have changed drastically to favor puzzles and shorter experiences. Even Chess wouldn't amount to much if similarly treated.


Briefly in Diplomacy's case:

way too long

you don't know how long it's going to take (unpredictable length)

player elimination (frowened upon nowadays)

requires exactly seven players (inflexible)

requires a very large number of players (often impractical)

very direct-conflict driven in a tabletop game world that values lack of conflict

it makes people write things down

there are far too many draws


Any commercial variant that aims at a market outside current Diplomacy players must address those problems. I have designed one, "Scramble for Africa", that addresses those problems (except direct conflict and writing things down), and when we get back to a situation where we can playtest games in person, we'll see what happens.


My apprenticeship in game design was partly with Diplomacy variants.The game is a niche taste, but it's the epitome of this kind of game. Because of the nature of the game those whose feelings are easily hurt should not play. It's an extreme example of a game where you have to earn what you get, and that's out of fashion these days. I regard it as one of the great games in the world, and I rarely call a game great. It's instructive in how a psychological game can be so different from poker, which is very much a psychological game, and also how a chess-like game can be so different from Chess.


Nowadays the game is often played by email, with software judges, and some variants are played by email as well. There are Diplomacy conventions. But it's not that easy to get seven people together to play the game, especially because it takes so long. There have been commercial Diplomacy playing video games, but they have been a disaster, just horrible. Video games are rarely (never?) good at grand strategy.


It's a game at an extreme, more than 60 years after publication. It doesn't suit most modern tastes, but still has lots of fans.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

How or where would one start learning about the board game design process? (Quora answer)

One Page: How or where would one start learning about the board game design process?

(This was an answer to a question on Quora.)

I’ve been asked to answer this question, so I’ll answer despite my personal involvement in the answer.

First, it depends on how you want to learn. The best way to learn game design is through doing it with the help of a mentor. There are many degree programs for game development in colleges and universities, some of them called game design even though most all of them are actually game development with little game design. They are also quite expensive. Unfortunately, in many such curricula there will be no one who knows much about actual game design. Moreover, all of these programs are aimed at video game design, not tabletop game design.

Some people can learn by reading. I doubt that there are many full-time game designers out there who haven’t read at least one book about game design. I have to say that the best single book covering tabletop game design is my book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish.” While it is first a book about video game design, my approach is that you start learning with tabletop games even if your ultimate goal is video game design. So the book is a sort of “guerrilla” approach for tabletop game design as well. The book is available (very inexpensively) in paperback and electronic form on Amazon and other outlets.

Kobold Press offers a few short books about tabletop game design that are anthologies of contributions from many people. (Keep in mind, Kobold publishes RPG supplements, not board games.) There is also a freely downloadable book called “Tabletop: Analog Game Design” from Carnegie Mellon. It is another anthology (I wrote the leading chapter). The problem with anthologies is that they are very hit and miss, and lack a guiding vision (for lack of a better word), an organization that starts with something and goes toward something and ends with something specific. Instead anthologies tend to jump around from here to there with no particular goal.

There are many game design blogs, including my own, that you can easily find with a Google search. Again these jump around from here to there, naturally.


Some people prefer to learn audiovisually. There is an occasional free MOOC (massively online free classes) at sites that specialize in MOOCs. Most of these will be primarily audiovisual. Of course, they are aimed primarily at video games as well.

My “Game Design” channel on YouTube offers 275+ free videos. While I try to cover both video and tabletop games, as a tabletop designer I do tend to lean in that direction, and some of the videos only apply to tabletop design.

In particular you might want to look at:
“Learning Game Design: the Big Picture” https://youtu.be/XffcT0wVW-4

“7 ways to learn game design”
https://youtu.be/XmgbV0ApVOI

“Introduction to ‘new’ online course "Learning Game Design, Part 1"
https://youtu.be/sy1cj8PemEY

There are many other videos on YouTube, but most are aimed at video game design.

There is purely audio material available online. Tom Vasel’s Boardgame University is one (I am interviewed in #27  http://boardgameuniversity.libsyn.com/). The Ludology podcast is about the whys in board games. There are not many podcasts that actually discuss board game design, as, say, the [Board] Game Designers of North Carolina podcast does.

Finally, I offer a variety of game design (and occasionally other) courses on Udemy.com. The landing page is at https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/. Discounts are offered at pulsiphergames.com. These are more or less the equivalent of (usually short) oral books.

People often say, "play lots of games". You need to KNOW lots of games, however you go about that: playing isn't the most efficient for some people. In fact, there are designers who would design a lot more if they didn't enjoy playing games so much.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Yes sport is a game, but money is what ultimately counts (soccer and the Super League)

 


With all the broo-ha-ha about the European soccer “Super League” I felt I had to comment on the underlying forces involved. The Super League was an attempt by the biggest European soccer clubs to set up a separate mid-week league (while still playing in domestic leagues) that would not use relegation to lower divisions while making more money for those teams. It was and is a business endeavor to make more money. Fan outrage was so great that most of the teams pulled out of the league within several days of the initial announcement, and there is still talk of punishing those teams.


(For those unfamiliar, in European sports, the worst team(s) in each division of a league goes down to the lower division the next year, while the best team(s) move up a division. Theoretically you can get into a sport several divisions down, and move up to the top through several years of successful play. I know of no American sport that follows this model, including soccer.)


International soccer is wedded to, and held back by, the now-ridiculous notion that every soccer match is just like every other, that any amateurs with a ball and a field can play the same game as played in Old Trafford or Camp Nou. That hasn't been true since big money came into the game. Remember, people still alive can remember when professional footballers were all paid an identical and minuscule wage in England, until Jimmy Hill (yes, the one from “Match of the Day” in the late 70s) led a threat of industrial action. Fans can complain about "the dream" being lost, but face it, the dream is no longer that a deeply lower league team will get some really good players and rise to the top tier, possibly to win a championship. That's already gone because those good players are bought for large sums by the biggest clubs early on. The dream now is a wealthy new owner (Chelsea, Man City) who will spend big and move a team into the Premier League Big Six (which, not so long ago, was the Big Four). Money talks.


This has been going on for decades, e.g. at Blackburn in 1995 where a rich owner led to a championship.


The Super League is the next step of "money talks", inevitable at some point. Though it looks like that point may be some distance away.




Self-righteousness among Super League opponents runs rampant:


El Plastico is dead for now, thanks to fan-power and the likes of Gary Neville, Carragher, Henderson, Shaw and Klopp speaking out powerfully. But the shamed owners are still here, their greed has not abated.   - Henry Winter (the (London) Times chief football writer)


I respect Winter as a football writer (I once listened to him talking about football); but I have no doubt that he is well-paid, especially after he moved from another newspaper to The Times. Yet he clearly thinks owners who want to make more money are greedy.


This ignores that the “greedy owners” are the ones who have raised the profile of soccer so much by putting money INTO the game at the highest level. If you’re willing to only have owners who are philanthropists for soccer, who are happy to lose money, then you go back to an earlier time.

The so-called “greedy” owners are simply looking for ways to make money from an investment; they aren’t looking to provide charity to teams and fans.


Fundamentally, it’s a view of sport as amateur rather than professional in standards and outlook. 

In their arrogance Europeans believe their (amateur) way of sport is the only valid way. They ignore what has worked well (much better than the European way, in fact) in America. Nobody loves Americans, especially after four years of Trump insults.


Professionalism is in short supply in European soccer, where they still have only one referee on the field instead of two even though bad calls are common, where video review is new and is somehow botched far too often, where they are far behind on matters of concussions (and still don’t understand that players will have to wear helmets before the sport is sued into penury by former players).



No, I'm not a traditionalist. I am one of those few who thinks the Super League, or something like it, is inevitable given the money that has flowed into international soccer. And I have no respect for the FIFA money-grubbers, and little for UEFA who can also be money-grubbers. The owners who support the teams ought to make the money, not the associations. The associations haven't done enough.


One American columnist put it this way:


The clubs are still seen as literal clubs, with members (fans) – as they were when they were born over 100 years ago. They’re public trusts, sociocultural cornerstones, community pillars. They’re also big businesses, just like NFL and NBA teams, of course. But when big foreign businessmen attempted to come in and run them purely like businesses – the 'Super League' would’ve benefited them financially – they found out just how strong the pillars are.     - Yahoo Sports


When money comes to a sport, the sport is ultimately going to be governed by money, not by fans. This has already happened in European soccer (scheduling for television rather than for traveling fans, corrupt FIFA money-grubbing). The Super League, or something like it, will happen one day, because everyone ends up following the money.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Recent free videos on my YouTube Game Design channel.

Logistics and game design (and history)

"Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics" (Napoleon and many others). But commercial historical games rarely reflect logistics. Why and how.

https://youtu.be/vA16jTeWM0I

Apr 15


21st century marketing: age of destinations not journeys

Another look at 21st century game marketing. It's the age of destinations, of bucket lists, not of enjoying the journey.

https://youtu.be/bd9sTFBFmVA

Apr 12


How much solo playtesting?

Some designers do not playtest their games solo, especially if tabletop. I think this is a serious mistake, here's why.

https://youtu.be/qysG0FFA2fk

Apr 8


Three possible "hats" of game designers

Game designers don't do everything involved with making and marketing a game. What are some of the roles the designer might assume?

https://youtu.be/Sj6q5A1ylYU

Apr 5


Surprise in games, especially tabletop

How to enable surprise in games, especially opposed games (which are usually tabletop games).

https://youtu.be/n99A7Qrzjkc

Apr 1 (not an April Fools)


Historical fiction

I don't read historical fiction much, but I thought some people might like to hear about some of my successes.

https://youtu.be/zridjZ2Dk1Q

Mar 29


My take on abstract games

Just what it says. I'm not, usually, a fan, preferring models of some reality, though I have designed a few.

https://youtu.be/zFdHXbmoxy8

Mar 25, 2021


Could the Mongols have conquered Europe? NO

Bonus Monday. People enamored of maps and worship of warriors often think the Mongols could have conquered Europe. Not a chance. Here's why.

https://youtu.be/iqsz3_bjBvU

Mar 22, 2021


"Meeting expectations" in game ratings - a nonsense question to ask

In many cases, when people are asked to rate a video (or book, or game) they're asked if it met their expectations. This is nonsense. No author can be expected to meet another person's expectations.

https://youtu.be/ENmuM7Nb2OI

Mar 18, 2021


History: Is history inevitable? Of course not.

This is important in game design, but important in general as well. This isn't about those who imagine a history that they like. It's about those who think history could only be one way, whereas in fact it's one of many possibilities, often not even the most likely.

https://youtu.be/QY9dLHnLh-Q

Mar 15


Barbarians with Fire and Sword? - No

A long one this time. There's a tendency, perhaps encouraged by TV and film, to think that barbarians always came with fire and sword, raping and pillaging. Sometimes they did, but often they did not.

https://youtu.be/abPTAicrj0w

Mar 11, 2021


Modern game markets: The Age of Avoiding Responsibility

Game markets depend on the habits and preferences of potential buyers. I have a few videos about what appears to be the market. While this isn't a part of game *design* it's certainly important to game success.

https://youtu.be/R24ZYBCpWM8

Mar 8, 2021


Fundamental differences between board and card games

Just what it says. But it's an analysis of function, not form. Of course, designers need to pay attention to function much more than form.

https://youtu.be/2XfwBFW4l8Y

Mar 4, 2021


How people react when thy learn the truth about game design

Over many years of teaching and making videos and online courses, I have occasionally encountered people who react negatively when someone tells them the truth about game design.

https://youtu.be/r7R5dDRSoTQ

Mar 1, 2021


What play length to put on the box?

We all know that tabletop games take varying amounts of time, some more than others, depending on both the game and the players. So what time should you put on the game box?

https://youtu.be/xw1yIACzdEA

Feb 25, 2021

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Part 3 (end) of RPG Review interview

 In 2016 I was interviewed via email by the magazine RPG Review. Here is that interview, divided into three parts. This is part 3 of 3.

 

 

What can you tell us of some of the more recent planned and upcoming games like Barbaria and Germania? And Sea Kings, which I believe has recently been published? What other gaming endeavours is planned from the mind of Lewis Pulsipher? And whilst on that topic, why is it we've never seen an RPG from you? Do you think RPGs have a future?

 

Sea Kings is on a Worthington Publications Kickstarter until 1 November, and the Kickstarter says it will be published in December (although I’m a little skeptical). My “Game Design” channel on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign) has at least one video about the game.

 

As you know I wrote a book titled Game Design (McFarland 2012) and I have several other books in mind, but the return on my time spent, in an era when fewer and fewer people read nonfiction, is quite discouraging. I'll be self-publishing three reprint books RPG material and Diplomacy variants as well as some books deriving from my online audiovisual courses.

 

The online game design courses - latest news at Pulsiphergames.com - provide a much better return on my time spent, and more and more people would rather listen than read.  Also there's no competition, the only other online game design courses that don't cost an arm and a leg because they are for degrees, are text rather than video.  (Brief titles of my courses are: "Learning Game Design", "Brief Introduction to Game Design", "How to Design Levels and Adventures", "How to Write Clear Rules", "Get a Job in the Video Game Industry".  Many more coming.)

 

I am still on track to have at least five games published next year including Sea Kings, Germania, Seas of Gold, Pacific Convoy, and a zombie game. (Haven't placed Barbaria yet.) I say "on track" because lots of things can go wrong.  But the traditional wargame publishers are desperate to get out of what I call the "wargame ghetto," and many of the games I've been designing are in between wargames and peace games: games where everyone would like to be at peace so that they can prosper but most likely someone's going to start a war when they see someone else doing better.  They are definitely games of maneuver and geospatial relationships, which is not true of many Euros.  That's probably because most of my games are meant to be models of some reality, and most Euros are abstract (with a story tacked-on afterward).

 

 

Why no RPG from me? Well at one point I was writing a supplement (in those days before the hardcover Advanced D&D) that Games Workshop was going to publish as TSRs representative in the UK (I was living in the UK at the time).  But that didn't work out and ultimately Games Workshop lost their representation of TSR.  And I was getting boardgames published, so I worked on boardgames. 

 

AD&D was my favorite game for decades and I could make it do whatever I wanted with my own house rules and additions, so I didn't feel the need to design another RPG. Even now, if I designed an RPG it would be intended to be and remain simple, and that doesn't fit what's left of the market. So until a few years ago I didn't even think about designing an RPG, and when I started it was to be used in conjunction with a boardgame, not in the traditional sense.

 

Another way to look at it might be this: the composer Sir William Walton, when he finally wrote an opera, said something like "never write an opera - too many notes."  So I could say about RPGs "too many words."  More important, I'm not a fiction writer, I'm too literal-minded, and I think most people who design RPGs are really frustrated fiction writers, not game designers per se.  Game design is about problem solving and critical thinking within constraints, RPG design is (especially now, when gamers in general are much more story-oriented) about storytelling with few constraints. 

 

My favorite game nowadays is the game of designing board and card games. 

 

 

The future?  RPGs will be played as long as the real world holds itself together, though I think gradually computers will overtake tabletop RPGs, not because they're better but because they're easier . Being a good referee of a tabletop RPG is difficult, and for most people it's a form of work, work they're accepting to entertain their friends.  (In fact I've always said I don't trust people who would rather referee than play!) As computers become more powerful and computer programming gets better a computer can take on more and more of the work required of a really good RPG referee. Perhaps computer assistance is the wave of the future but I suspect in most cases it will be "let's play this cooperative RPG or this MMO " on computers, rather than "let's use computer assistance for tabletop games."

 

 

Tabletop RPGs have the social aspect in their favor that you can't get with computer RPGs, even MMOs. Many of my friends are D&D players. I met my wife through D&D in 1977, and in that group of five, two others (who were not in a relationship when we started playing D&D) married one another, and the last one married my wife's best friend! And we're all still married. You can't beat that!

 

Unfortunately, RPGs tend to be "prisoners of capitalism" (see my video about this on my YouTube channel: http://youtu.be/fZy6Lvc7kxY), so we more or less inevitably get more and more rules until the game gets so complex that it starts to collapse under its own weight, and we go on to a new edition. At the same time in other forms of gaming we see games getting simpler and shorter, not more complex.  The RPG market collapsed several years ago, and between capitalism, crowdsourcing, and saturation of the market we're not going to see it recover. The biggest companies can prosper in that climate but it's extremely hard for little companies to make a living. Yes, a little company can sell 500 or even 1000 copies of something, but that's not enough to make a living. People can do these kinds of things as a hobby but having to earn a living another way takes an enormous amount of time and energy.

 

END

Monday, February 22, 2021

Part 2 of interview with RPG Review from 2016

 In 2016 I was interviewed via email by the magazine RPG Review. Here is that interview, divided into three parts. This is part 2.

 

 

Your material in early issues White Dwarf magazines for original Dungeons & Dragons established you as a practical theorist of roleplaying games. In those early articles you criticised "silly/escapist" styles of games and games which were based around GM domination of a narrative, and argued for significant player control in the game and story development, an internally consistent setting, and an emphasis on player skill. How much criticism did you receive at the time for these positions, and how do you think RPG game design has changed over time?

 

I suppose you could say my views occasioned controversy at times, though no more than now.  I’ve learned to sometimes ignore idiots and trolls these days, where I’d have engaged them decades ago.  I follow an amusing twitter handle “Don’t Read the Comments” - but I usually read them.  Sigh.

 

In addition, there will always be the occasional person you never heard of, who inexplicably has it in for you - I’ve even been called an “elitist” lately, which is something I’d never have seen 30 years ago, I think.  I am both blunt and not politically correct, and have a fairly thick skin. I despise the rampant egalitarianism - that everyone must be the same, instead of everyone must have the same opportunity - that’s dragging down the country.  It’s impossible to avoid offending someone or other if you actually do anything useful.

 

 

Owing to the influence of video games, especially MMOs, and a general change in game player attitudes, we've moved into an era of reward-based rather than consequence-based gaming.  RPGs, being the bridge between video and tabletop games, are affected perhaps more than board and card games. Designers adjust to the audience, if they want a large clientele.  Lots  more on that with the next question.

 

 

As an observer and critic of Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning, could you comment on your thoughts of the games' development, from the original to 5th edition? I note that recently you expressed some criticism of 4th edition, for example suggesting that its focus on combat was an area that computers do well, whereas the role-playing freedom aspects were diminished. Could you elaborate on this comments, and do you have a favourite edition?

 

1st edition is my favorite, a fairly simple, cooperative “combined arms” game. 2e was not much different than 1e, why switch? 

 

3e is a game for showoffs, for one-man-armies, a game where people do their best to gain unearned advantages by finding beneficial rules amongst the great mass of rules that have been produced. And teh zeitgeist of the time was that referees were supposed to accept all those rules, though I never accepted anything beyond the base books when I reffed 3e.  And it was much too “crunchy”.  It takes too long to generate a character, and the monsters with their stat blocks are a big headache even to experienced editors. D&D is about having cooperative adventures, not about one-upmanship, as far as I'm concerned.

As many have observed, 4e is "WOWified", made to be much more like the World of Warcraft MMO. 4e isn't really D&D, though it is a cooperative game (which 3e isn't). But 4e practically eliminates all the spells for exploration and interaction with NPCs and focuses almost entirely on combat, yet combat is what computers do best and human referees do worst. I suppose there was a strong effort to make the game easier to referee so that there could be more campaigns and more players.  The parts that human referees are much better at than the computer, the exploration ("go anywhere") and the interaction with NPCs, are also the hard parts of refereeing.

 

I haven’t read all of the 5e rules yet, but a reading of the spells, character classes, and the healing rules shows that it has become “infected” by computer games. Leveling up (quickly) rather than enjoying the adventure has become the focus. When I started playing, and going up from, say, 8th to 9th level might take more than a year of real time, you enjoyed the adventures because leveling up was so rare.  And now you don’t enjoy the game by earning your awards, you expect to be given rewards for participation. This isn’t much different than what’s happening in society as a whole, so I’m not blaming D&D in particular or any edition in particular. It’s just following the crowd, which is more or less necessary if you want to sell to a very broad market. But I always played D&D as a kind of cooperative wargame with human opposition provided by the referee (though the referee is not trying to win, he or she is trying to scare the snot out of the players without killing them).

 

I don’t much appreciate D&D as the new playground ideal. It was pretty hard to get killed in 4e (which I've played a fair bit but never reffed) and it looks like it’s even harder to get killed in 5e, even though (I read) they retained that absolutely atrocious surprise rule that’s going to get high level characters killed sooner or later.  D&D breaks down when characters become really powerful, because so much depends on getting the drop on the enemy, on striking first.  When a die roll can get you at least a turn behind, You are Going to Die.

 

I heard second hand that Mearls and company thought about capping the game at 10th level.  That would have been progress.

 

Of course, it's not just roleplaying games that you've been involved in. You're possibly even more well-known for your boardgames, Swords and Wizardry, Valley of the Four Winds, Dragon Rage, Britannia. Of these games the latter two have been republished, and Britannia has seen several international editions and expansions, and even spinoff designs (e.g., Maharaja). There are persistent rumours of an expansion to the core rules you include Ireland and the Isle of Man as well. Is there any grounding to these rumours, and why do you think this game in particular, with it's epic time-scale and and multinational player system, has been so successful?

 

There are new editions of Britannia on the way.  There was a variant of the first edition (Gibsons/AH) that included Ireland and Isle of Man, and “Ultimate Britannia,” which is a variant of Epic Britannia, also includes Ireland and Man. Epic Britannia is a development of FFG Britannia that is a better teaching tool, more "realistic" if you will. For example, "starvation suicide" is not possible, and scurrying into the highlands when you know there will be a big invasion next round is not possible.  Raiding on land is as much part of the game now, as it was historically.  And the Romano-British are much stronger.

 

Rule Britannia (which also includes Ireland) is a shorter, diceless version using battle cards. Conquer Britannia is the shortest version, having been playtested in as little as 84 minutes. The new editions should be published over the next couple years if I’m still around.

 

Why has Britannia been so successful? Sometimes the designer isn’t the best person to ask that question.  It’s very much a planner’s game, and quite a bit a psychological game though there is a system to master. Planner’s games are less and less popular as time passes - in society we don’t plan as much anymore because we have satellite navigators, cell phones, DVRs, etc. - but part of the reason that Avalon Hill’s wargames were so popular was that they were planner’s games. Now even wargames have moved quite a bit toward the adapter or even improviser (card-driven games), which take less effort in an age when few people seem to have time and fewer are willing to expend effort on their entertainment.  Multi-player (more than two) games have become more and more popular as time has passed.

 

Another reason Britannia has succeeded is, it’s really pretty difficult to turn warfare into something for more than two sides, and still maintain a strong grip on reality. (Risk has more than two sides but Risk has very little to do with actual warfare.)

 

Finally, the methods I devised for Britannia are adaptable to most pre-gunpowder situations, and I’ve seen people try to use it for gunpowder and even modern era where the mechanics don’t make much sense, but people like to play games with those mechanics.

 

End of part 2.

 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Lew Interviewed by RPG Review (from 2016), Part 1

 In 2016 I was interviewed via email by the magazine RPG Review. Here is that interview, divided into three parts. This is part 1.

 

Welcome to RPG Review, Lewis. The first question is a bit of standard one, but slightly different for yourself. You've been involved in roleplaying games since the earliest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Can you tell us how you came to be involved, and what it was like in those nascent years?

 

Glad to be “here.” I played wargames from the time I was about 10 years old, first games like American Heritage Broadsides and then Avalon Hill games. I was active in play by mail and corresponded with Gary Gygax about the “International Federation of wargamers” club as early as 1966.  (He said something like “don’t call me sir, I’m not old enough.”)

 

But D&D was another matter. Someone in my Michigan village had a copy but all I saw was a dice game, and at the time I usually said “I hate dice games”. (By this time Diplomacy - no dice - was my favorite game.)  But I was a founder of the “Michigan Organized Wargamers” club and went to a game convention in Detroit in 1975.  There I had the opportunity to play D&D more or less through the night (in a pickup camper!), and was hooked.  At this point the game was the original three booklets plus the Grayhawk supplement.

 

What was it like? There was no World Wide Web then, no email, no video/video games to speak of, no computers practically speaking.  In fact the first computer game I ever saw, sometime in the late 60s, was not a video game. It was played on a minicomputer that printed out the board for each turn because there were no monitors associated with most computers at that point, it was still the punch-card era. It was a lot harder to find other people of like mind, and of course somewhat later we had people who blamed D&D for problems in the world the same way people now blame video games. Conventions were small, not 50,000+ people. Magazines could actually make money then because they didn’t have to compete with the Web.  Piracy of the written word was very uncommon.  I lived in England from 1976 to 1979 researching my doctoral dissertation, and might often travel quite long distances to small gatherings to play D&D until I found a regular group by teaching some university students how to play.

 

Magazines and fanzines were a primary form of communication amongst fans.  I actually published a science fiction and fantasy game fanzine, Supernova, in the late 70s, and somewhere I have a letter from Dave Arneson describing his miniatures campaign with extraordinary individuals added, that was the basis of D&D, as later revealed in the Chainmail rules.  I also published Diplomacy fanzines but never a specifically D&D fanzine.

 

Your period of active commentary and design in roleplaying games seems to be broken up into two distinct periods; firstly from the mid-70s to the early-80s where you were writing for various magazines, contributing to modules (such as the princes in The Temple of Elemental Evil), and the Fiend Folio, engaging in various board game design. Then there's the period from the mid-2000s, where you've ventured into gaming education for video and tabletop games. What happened during the big gap?

 

In the early 80s I had several boardgames published. But in 1984 or thereabouts it appeared to me that RPGs on the one hand and computers on the other hand would crush boardgames - they have crushed board wargames - and at about this time TSR decided that they had to buy all rights to Dragon articles (before they bought first world serial rights) and White Dwarf/Games Workshop veered away from D&D because they lost the license to represent TSR in the UK.  Also, I had to make a living. So I left the hobby and seriously taught myself computers, and in various ways computers are how I made my living until I retired.

 

What did I do during the hiatus? I played and reffed AD&D 1e, and played video games. I devised lots of additional rules and adventures, and those additional rules will probably be published in a couple of PDF books I’m working on that will include reprints of virtually all the articles I wrote in the late 70s and early 80s.

 

Britannia was first published in the UK in 1986. When I received a copy of the game I looked in the box, said “that’s nice”, and closed it up without reading the rules. I must have set some kind of record because I never saw anyone play a published version of Britannia until 2004 at PrezCon, 18 years after it was published. (And what did I say? “No way!” Because I saw the Jutes hanging out in the sea a couple centuries after they had disappeared. This was not possible in the game I designed but it was possible in the game Gibsons published owing to misunderstanding, so I fixed it in the FFG version.)

 

Then in about 2003 I was teaching computer networking in college and I had the choice of writing textbooks about computer networking or designing games. I discovered that Avalon Hill had disappeared in 1997, but I also discovered a Yahoo group of people who were still playing the game by email (“Eurobrit”). And I realized that probably the most effective thing I had done in my life to make people’s lives a little happier was design Britannia. So I decided to go back into designing games.

 

End of Part 1