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.



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

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Lesson in Absolutes

This comes from the pandemic but can be applied to game design as well. In the pandemic the general advice from medical people is that you need to wear a suitable mask and stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and that will go a long way to keeping you safe from the coronavirus. This is where the absolutes come in. People seem to think of these as absolute limits, but they're not. Somebody somewhere decided that 6 feet was good enough. And maybe the risk there was 95% risk free or 99% or even much better. But somebody had to decide that this was good enough. Because you can be much farther away and still get the virus, or you can be closer and not get it. 

In the same way masks are quite variable. There are masks that are a certain standard that we hope medical people are able to wear, that is supposed to protect them very well, whereas some homemade masks are not going protect people well at all. As I understand it the coronavirus has very small airborne elements and if a mask isn't good enough the airborne elements can get right through the mask. But instead we get this absolute idea that it’s perfect. No, it’s not certain protection, it's just that a mask helps a lot.

Washing hands isn’t perfect either. It's a good thing, but it's not perfect, and of course it depends on how well you wash your hands. Washing hands for five seconds is not as good as if you wash your hand for 20 seconds, using soap in both cases. 

Now how do we apply this to games? Games of most types have absolute rules: either you can do it or you can’t do it, although sometimes miniatures seem a bit different. I remember Don Greenwood saying that miniatures rules seem to be negotiable. Role-playing games can be similar. In fact you can see the entire play of RPGs as a negotiation between players and  the GM. Of course, poorly written rules aren’t absolute, there’s wiggle room or room for misunderstanding. You want your rules to be absolute, but in practice if 99% of the time they’re understood correctly, you’re doing well. 

(I ignore the wannabe rules lawyers who proclaim that if the rules don’t say they cannot do something, then they can do it. Nonsense.)

I've also observed that gamers are much less likely to change game rules (whether via House Rules or formal variants) than they used to be. It used to be very common for people to make variants of games. I made bunches of Diplomacy variants as I learned game design. A lot of the RPG material that is published is variants of existing RPG rules. I believe people today are much more likely than in the past to accept the rules of a game they buy as absolute rather than something that can be changed. In older days a lot of people would change the rules to make a game work better, or at least work more like they liked it. Nowadays they give up on a game and move on to the next game. (This is partly a function of having so many more games to work with than we did 40, 50 years ago.)

I think it's also a broader attitude. For example, there is a notion/habit with toys that you don't make up stories for your toys, you use the stories that have already been created by the publisher or the fiction the toys are based on. Whether it’s G.I. Joe or Barbie or Star Wars or something else, many people expect the corporation that released the toy to provide all the stories. In a sense they believe the corporation is still the owner of the toys. Or look at the attitude toward board game expansions. People won’t change the rules until an expansion comes out, then they expect everyone to play with the expansion. Because the corporation (publisher) says so. 

It's a very different attitude to what older people are used to.

Originally, the above is all I had to say, but I’m going to add how this belief in absolutes affects in-person game conventions, as I keep hearing about one intended to take place before the end of February. There seems to be a notion in some quarters that as long as you spread people out and they wear masks they can safely attend an in-person game convention, that is to say spend several days indoors with a lot of people, staying in a hotel, and eating in restaurants (the latter being two of the five best places to catch Covid -19 because there are a lot of people confined in an enclosed space). This notion seems to stem from the absolutes I’ve been talking about, as well as from a mysterious refusal to recognize that more than one in a thousand Americans is dead from this disease.

Getting infected with an airborne disease is not an absolute yes/no proposition, insofar as the more exposure you get, the more risk you take, the more likely you are to get infected. Six feet is not absolute protection, it just reduces risk to a level that someone thought was “sufficient.” The more time you spend even at that 6 foot range, the more likely you are to get infected. Add being enclosed, add being in the convention where a lot of people are moving around, add the poor ventilation of many convention rooms, add playing games where at some point people have to be adjacent to the table in order to make their moves, and you’re just asking to get sick. Even if you are vaccinated, remember that vaccinations are not 100% protection, especially if you only have the first shot. The more risks you take, the more likely that inoculation won’t be sufficient.

We can even make an analogy to Dungeons & Dragons. My view of D&D is that you’re trying to minimize the number of times you have to get lucky with the dice in order to survive. (In a sense life is the same way - see "RPGs as Microcosms of Life,"https://www.enworld.org/threads/worlds-of-design-rpgs-as-microcosms-of-life.672617/ .) When you attend an in-person convention, at least in the first half of 2021 and probably later, you’re rolling the dice a lot more times than is desirable. As Dirty Harry said, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” But at least Dirty Harry knew how many shots he’d fired: you’re not going to know how many people have brought the disease to the convention, how many are foolish enough to refuse vaccination, how many are going to be idiotic enough not to wear masks, how many are wearing poor quality masks or wearing them incorrectly, how many just don't give a shit. Maybe there will even be one who still thinks Covid-19 is a hoax! Good luck.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Game Conventions 2021

I see more pandemic cloud-cuckoo-land thinking respect to in-person game conventions in 2021.

Having a large group of people confined to an indoor space, even a ballroom, is a death trap. Your chances of being infected by Covid-19 are higher in such places, same as in a restaurant. Hotels are also one of the five places where you’re most likely to contract Covid-19, and most people going to conventions stay in hotels. So we have to ask ourselves, what needs to change to make a convention a relatively safe event?

Keep in mind that the vaccinations are not 100% effective, it’s a rare vaccine that is, and especially in the face of a mutating disease such as Covid-19. There’s always the possibility that it will mutate into something that the current vaccinations (or some of them) will not prevent or even ameliorate.

Second, ask yourself, in the ridiculous anti-science climate of the United States, how many people will refuse to be vaccinated even when vaccinations are available to all? The answer seems to be, a distressingly large proportion have forgotten the benefits of such great inventions as smallpox vaccine and polio vaccine and tuberculosis vaccine. They’re in their own little cloud-cuckoo-land. 

Third, consider how slowly the vaccines are being distributed, let alone manufacturing limitations, and ask yourself how soon we have the opportunity to have everyone be vaccinated. (Don’t forget that it takes three to four weeks to get the second shot.)

Fourth, consider how unlikely it is that people in vulnerable groups (such as myself, soon 70 years old and with diabetes and a strong tendency toward blood clots) are going to go to a convention unless they are sure everyone has been vaccinated. Yet I have not seen or heard a single word about proofs that someone has been vaccinated. I am not going to a convention unless I am sure everyone there has been vaccinated, I’m not taking a person’s word for it in the present chaotic climate. And if I have that attitude, probably a lot of other people will too.

Given all those things, conventions a month or two from now are impossible, no matter what the local polity may say about allowing people to get together in enclosed spaces for days. Late summer would appear to be the earliest when we can attain a desirable situation. Hence I have some hope that the WBC - World Boardgaming Championships (late July/early August) might be held this year. Or perhaps the regional Grogcon here in Florida in October. Though I think proof of vaccination will be a big stumbling block simply because people aren’t thinking about it, in the same way that people didn’t think about how vaccinations would be distributed, with the resulting current mess.

It is amazing to me how so many people don't take this danger seriously even as 4,000+ die in the USA on some days, and the number is always over 3,000. 

Without everyone certainly inoculated, a convention is a death trap.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

My Responses to questions related to a book about the game Risk

 In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 5 of 5.

You hold a Doctorate in Military History and have taught a course in game design for several years. The following questions are design related in general (not specifically Risk related). The questions are intended to encompass board, card and video games.

There have been thousands of games released over the years. Today, more games are released in a single year than ever before. What percentage of these would you consider to have some core design flaws?

Design flaws, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.  For example I think the leader-bashing in Vinci (and Smallworld) is a huge flaw but a lot of people evidently don’t think so.  

I will say that I think people are much less critical of game designs and much more critical of the physical aspects of a tabletop game or of the graphics and sound of a video game than in the past.  Often they don’t play the game enough times to reveal the design flaws.  The original Ticket to Ride had a distinct design flaw from a competitive point of view but most people never figured that out.  Or didn’t really care.

And the expectations have changed.  People play a video game once or a few times and they’re done.  That’s leaked over into tabletop games.  Like many video games, many tabletop games now have a solution, and once you have that solution you can implement it each time and so you tend to stop playing that game and move on to something else.  Also we’re in an age of the “cult of the new”, so people tend to play game a few times and then move on to the next new game - there are so many distractions including more games.  It’s now much easier for people to self published games and so we have vastly more games published in a year than was true in the 60s or 70s.

There’s more a “consumption” point of view about games.  So many people are interested much more in the destination, not the journey, in “beating the (video) game”, in bragging about how quickly they beat the game.  People are more interested in saying how many different games they played, than in how much they did (or didn’t) enjoy while playing.  This is an incentive to play lots of games shallowly than to play fewer games deeply.

Because of this perhaps, gamers are generally less skilled at playing games than they used to be.  They rely on intuition more than logic, they don’t study the game, they just “don’t bother”.  “On to the next game!”

Back in the day people would get a new game, read the rules, study the rules, study the game, and then play with someone else.  Now people try to learn the game while reading the rules for the first time, which gives me the heebie-jeebies.  They play once or twice or three times and then they’re on to the next game.  Back in the day the emphasis was on depth in games and now it’s on variety.

As I say, games are often consumed rather than enjoyed.  

So I’d say most published games have serious design flaws.  But it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

I’d also say that as time passes, more and more poor games are published, especially with the common notion that games are made to be played just one to three times. I try to design games that can be enjoyably played 25 or even a 100 times, and I know people who have played Britannia (a 4-5 hour game) more than 500 times. (I haven’t!)

What is the most common mistake novice designers make?

I’ve written about this at length in my first book and on my blogs.  There are a whole lot of big mistakes.  Perhaps the most common one is that novices think that all they need is a good (great) idea and they can get rich.  Ideas are worthless, they’re “a dime a dozen,” and it’s extremely likely that any idea you get is an idea at least 100 other people have got.  “There is nothing new under the sun.”  The idea is only the beginning.  

One of the common complaints about video games is that they lack 'meat'; that the games are graphically superior but significantly lacking in 'game play'. In the past decade, similar complaints have risen concerning board games; that in an attempt to shorten playing time, the game play has been reduced. As an experienced observer, instructor and designer, would you agree with the criticism?

See answer to above question about design flaws.  It’s really worse than that, as I’ll be discussing in a book I’m writing.  Games have changed fundamentally, especially video games, from consequence-based to reward-based.  You can’t lose a video game.  You can’t fail in a video game, unless you are just insufficiently persistent or insufficiently dexterous in those “games” that are really sports rather than games.  Games used to be about earning something, now they’re about being given something.  Free to play video games continue to push us in this direction, where “engagement”, which used to mean “intellectual interest,” has been replaced in meaning with “activity and reward” that does not need to be earned.

Another topic that regularly surfaces in game groups is a discussion on randomness. Some consider a game without any random factors to be a puzzle, not a game. The other extreme is that any randomness eliminates the ability to plan properly. How much randomness is acceptable in a game?

Whatever’s acceptable to the target audience.  I’m not a typical game player so I’m not generally a member of a target audience, I’m not the person to ask.  But the question of “acceptable” is meaningless because it depends entirely on the preferences of the target audience of the game.  An entirely random game like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders is acceptable to a four year old.  But not to the same person when he or she grows older.  (On the other hand, “Left Right Center” is entirely random, yet I see adults from my own extended family play it.)

Insofar as playing games now relies much more on intuition than on logic, randomness is more acceptable.  On the other hand, games tend not to have solutions when a lot of randomness is involved, and more people like puzzles than games.  A great many Eurostyle “games” are much more puzzle than game, where several people compete to solve the puzzle before anyone else does, or to have the most efficient solution when the game is arbitrarily ended, but they rarely affect one another during the game.  

Randomness is a big topic.  The draft section of my Nature of Game Design book about randomness, chaos, and uncertainty is 8,000 words.  The section comparing and defining games and puzzles is almost as large.  Greg Costikyan has written an entire book about it.

The game industry is now larger than the film industry. What do you see as the future of gaming? [Remember, ths is 2012]

Contemporary video games are more like cinema than like traditional games.  In fact I advocate the inclusion of an autopilot mode in video games - it’s something that’s occasionally been done in the past decade but is quite rare - so that a player can let the video game play through the difficult parts while the player watches, and a player can play whatever parts he or she likes.  Yet those players who still like challenges can be challenged by the game.  As it stands now video games continue to become less and less challenging in order to attract a larger market.  Autopilot would let us get around that although we partly do so with different difficulty levels.

Even though video games involve a lot of activity, in a sense they are becoming more passive because you’re always going to succeed, so in a way your activity is meaningless.

Brands are becoming increasingly important, which is why almost all the expensive video games are sequels rather than “new IP”.  I mentioned what Hasbro is doing with brands in a previous part.  Settlers of Catan, now just Catan, is a brand.  D&D is a brand.  Angry Birds is a huge brand, when you see Angry Birds stuffed toys in Walmart, Angry Birds movies, and “Angry Birds Star Wars”.

Tabletop games face a new challenge in free-to-play video games.  When video games were $50-$60 a pop for a game that quickly wore out its welcome, tabletop games were a much, much better entertainment value.  Now tabletop games can be compared to playing free-to-play video games, and tabletop games do not appear to be as good a value.  Tabletop games have core aspects, such as the social aspect, that video games generally don’t have. On the other hand video game players are becoming much more group oriented than they used to be, but the tradition and stereotype is still the solitary video game player.

Moreover, we’ve taken competition out of the schools in the USA, and rampant egalitarianism is blanketing the country.  And that means we want everyone to be the same and not let anyone stand out.  So competition has been taken out of many tabletop games and this will continue to be a trend.  Single player video games were never competitions, really, because you didn’t have an opponent and couldn’t lose.

The future of games may be less and less competition and more and more simple participation.  Moreover, cooperative games are “trending upward”, more than competitive games.  I’m happy with the trend to cooperative games personally, as I more or less quit playing games competitively when I was 25.  But a game, for me, requires intelligent opposition, which a cooperative card or board game like Pandemic cannot provide. Though I have recently figured out ways to achieve this in a co-op board game. The ideal game for this future is a role-playing game because the players can cooperate with one another and win or lose collectively yet they have intelligent opposition from the referee/GM that doesn’t exist in puzzles and doesn’t exist in video games because the computer is not nearly as smart as a human.  As time passes, computers will provide an opponent that is more and more like a human.  We’re not near there yet.

That is the end of the entire set.

Recent videos on my free "Game Design" channel on YouTube:

Confusions: "Old School" and "New School", not just RPGs  https://youtu.be/-kmczk4mjBs

How often is there a three-way battle? https://youtu.be/cynF8VWAXQE 

"Monster" Tabletop Games https://youtu.be/4Eqsa2nXVYw

Musical analogy for understanding fundamental game types https://youtu.be/uaVgQOgLgw4

Saturday, December 19, 2020

My responses to questions for a Risk book (part 4 of 5)


In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 4.

Risk has been published for more than 50 years. It has sold millions of copies around the world. As a designer, how do you approach the re-design of a game with such a long tradition?

What I’m doing when I design a Risk variant is taking advantage of the essence of the very simple game system rather than trying to change it.  I’m changing the setting, and perhaps in the course of modeling the new setting I modify the rules to make the game a better model.  But given the nature of the Risk game system no game based on Risk is going to be a good model of any reality, not in my view. [A few years ago I designed a Zombie Risk, which works well but needs more testing.]

Britannia is probably your best known design. What games influenced the design of the game? (Specifically, was Risk a factor?)

No, Risk was not a factor.  I don’t know where the combat system in Britannia comes from, I suspect I made it up whole cloth although it’s quite simple, but I know I didn’t want a combat system like the one in Risk because it doesn’t recognize the "principle of mass."  In Risk the combat is the same when you’re 40 armies attacking 2 as when you have 3 armies attacking 2 (yes, there needs to be 4 to have 3 attack).  I would never put a combat system like that into a standalone game because to me it flies so much in the face of reality.  But it is that combat system that goes a long way to make the Risk a game of conquest and attack, because the attacker can always get the advantage even if there are far more defending armies than there are attacking armies, as long as the attacker has at least three attacking armies.  In the real world if you have 15 armies and your opponent has 20 you usually dig in and defend.  In Risk, if you know you’re going to fight sooner or later, you want to attack as long as you can attack with three armies, because the enemy will lose more than you will.  This makes virtually no sense in reality, though I've heard apologists try to explain it.

The only influence on Britannia I recall is that at some point I read the rules for a game called Ancient Conquest, which as far as I know was the first game where the player controlled more than one nation over a large timescale.  I incorporated that idea into Britannia but in every other way the game is quite different.  Ancient Conquest used a hex board where Britannia uses an area board, it used the typical Avalon Hill style counters with attack and defense factors and movement factors and a combat table, it had all nations of a player playing at the same time, allowed those nations to cooperate directly; and perhaps most important of all Ancient Conquest was a battle game rather than a war game.  That is, there is no economy, as if it were a battle taking place over a few days instead of wars taking place over many centuries.  The economy is a vital part of Britannia, though it also has aspects of battle games in the order of appearance.  (By the way, Ancient Conquest I (it had a sequel that I’ve never seen) is now back in print from Excalibre Games.)

There are now at least ten games based on the Britannia system, did you expect the game to become so popular? 

I don’t think the possibility ever occurred to me, I was just happy at the prospect of getting it published.  Though by the time it was published, two years after I’d submitted it to Gibsons, I had withdrawn from the game hobby and just played Dungeons & Dragons with my friends.  When the English edition of Britannia arrived I looked at it and said “that’s nice” and did not even read the rules, because there was nothing I could do to influence it further.  The next year, when Avalon Hill decided to do an edition of Britannia - a few years earlier they told me that games of that era didn’t sell and rejected it - they sent me a list of questions.  But at that time I’d not played the published game, had not even read the rules, so I was no help at all.  I did not actually see the published game played until 2004.

I didn’t even know that Maharajah existed until about that same time.  That seems to be the most slavishly derivative of the Britannia-like games right down to having the same number of land areas and nations.

After completing a game, have you ever wished you had changed something?  

I think that’s typical.  On the other hand you recognize that as long as you did your part there's not anything more you can do.  Sometimes published games are pretty much screwed up by the publisher, and there were some things caused by misunderstandings that were really “wrong” with the 1986 and 1987 editions of Britannia that I fixed - put back the way they were supposed to be - in the Fantasy Flight edition in 2006.

As I say in my game design book, you never really finish a game, it just comes to a point where the time it takes to improve it is not worth the value of the improvement.  But if you get the opportunity to do a second edition it ought to be better than the first because you can take advantage of the vast body of playtesting, and that’s what I did with Britannia by getting in touch with people who still played it years after it was out-of-print and Avalon Hill was no more.

After any of your games were published, was there anything that surprised you in the strategies of the players?

Given my peculiar history in the game industry, being away from it for 20 years, and many other games originating more than 30 years ago, I don’t know that I can answer that question!

You certainly hope there aren't new strategies that become dominant.  For example, recently someone discovered a can't-miss strategy in "A Few Acres of Snow" (the Halifax Hammer?) that required a change in the rules.  That's not something any designer wants to have happen!


Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Triptych 18 Three Subjects in One Blog Post

"What’s your most memorable board game experience?"

Cheating (and diversity initiatives)

"Intuitive" is a much smaller set than what people mean when they say a game is intuitive

What’s your most memorable board game experience?

The first time I watched my game Britannia (1986) played (2004), at PrezCon in Charlottesville VA. (I’d taken 20 years away from the industry.) I watched for a while and finally somehow identified myself. The tournament players had been playing since 1986, but the reaction to meeting the designer for the first time was interesting.

In the game, the Jutes were floating in the English Channel long after their homeland no longer existed, and I exclaimed “no way!” Not the way I’d designed it; but I discovered the game had been changed when published, owing to a misunderstanding. I fixed it in the second edition (2006).


Cheating . . .

I don't know whether I wrote the following, though it expresses exactly my point of view. Unfortunately, I haven't saved the source info, and I cannot find it via Google search. So it’s possible I did write it.

Start quote:

It's fashionable for the “politically correct" to justify whatever immoral discrimination they desire in terms of rebalancing history . . .

Let's say we play a five player game.  One of the players cheats, and gains advantage, in several plays. We finally notice that player has been cheating, and prevent it from happening again.  Now we play again.  One of the other players wants to cheat, to make up for being cheated. Where does that leave the other players, those who never cheated, if some players are now allowed to cheat and others are not? That's where we are with "diversity initiatives", we're letting some people cheat others because of some misbegotten notion that somehow this will make it all right.

If cheating is wrong, isn't it always wrong? How can it be right for some people to cheat while others cannot?

End of quote.

I would add, of course those who favor "diversity initiatives/affirmative action" have arguments justifying the discrimination. ALL slavers, ALL immoral discriminators, have had arguments justifying their activities, many of those arguments much better than the arguments for diversity initiatives. (For example, Romans would tell you, enslaving captured enemy soldiers is much better than killing them out of hand. No one could afford to feed and house prisoners. Nor could you let them go, they’d fight you again. Slaves even had a good chance of being set free, in the long run.) Those who engage in immoral discrimination (such as diversity initiatives) always think they are right, while others who engaged in similar discrimination were wrong. Of course.



"Intuitive" is a much smaller set than what people mean when they say a game is intuitive. Usually, they actually mean "familiar" (to the target audience, of course).

Play a game with someone who doesn't normally play tabletop or video games, and what gamers think is "intuitive" is foreign and new, to them.

Play a game with people who aren't part of the target audience, even if they are gamers, and once again what you might think is "intuitive" may not be to them.

There ARE intuitive parts of games - e.g., that it's much easier to press a button with a mouse that is on the edge of a screen (you can't go past it). These derive from how all humans tend to see and do things. But that's a much smaller set of "intuitive" than most people mean when they use the word.

(I’m suddenly reminded of someone who reviewed my Dragon Rage (2011 version) quite negatively (the only negative review I know of).  He was annoyed that the pieces were not hexagonal shape to fit on the hexagons . . .  Of course, if he was at all familiar with wargames he wouldn’t have suggested this. Definitely not part of the target market. I can see it being very hard to manipulate hexagonal pieces when crowded together, unless they were much smaller than the hexes.)


Some recent videos on my FREE Game Design Channel on YouTube:

Board games today substitute progress and variety for excitement and depth https://youtu.be/jscYk2mlqpk 

A lesson in Absolutes https://youtu.be/mXk3A3M1bPA 

Reserves in tabletop conflict games https://youtu.be/CjtvePDyABA 

What would an "Avalon Hill throwback game" be like? https://youtu.be/S1Dwi_rbBOM 

Comparing Risk and Britannia https://youtu.be/eHHDDg8IUQc 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Triptych 17 - Three Subjects in One Blog Post



Avalon Hill and Hasbro

I'm the sort of person who goes to Metacritic and reads some reviews of a movie to decide whether to go see it, rather than rely on trailers.  I don't turn on the TV just to see what's one, at most I might look at TitanTV for movies that I'd like to see. Atmosphere appeals to people who buy things on impulse, who buy a book because of its cover, who buy a cell phone or car because it's pretty.  (I once asked the salesperson, while buying new cell phones, how many people bought based on appearance rather than features.  She said people say they don't care about appearance, but often she'd show someone a phone that suited their needs and they'd say "I don't like how that one looks, show me another one.")

The trend for at least the past 50 years is that presentation has become relatively more important, and substance less important. Of course, it has become easier and easier to make something look good, regardless of whether it's actually worth bothering with in its substance. I'm reminded of a decades-old rule of thumb, that a poor novel with a good cover will sell well, while a good novel with a poor cover will not. Whether this still applies, when so many buy books without browsing in a bookstore, I don't know, but online sellers are careful to show the covers . . .

"Those who have too little, value quantity; those who have enough, value quality; and those who have too much, value presentation."  Originated with Will, aka the Class Guy (twitter)



I educated myself, and was formally educated as, an historian. The key to history is understanding the state of reality. If you don’t know what was happening, how can you explain why it was happening? Historians must be ultimate realists.

Similarly, leaders must be ultimate realists. This is not to say that they ignore emotion and irrationality, because a great deal of life is about emotion and irrationality. But they still need to know what is, “the facts”.

I’ve specialized in military and diplomatic history, where we see again and again and again that leaders must understand what’s actually happening in order to be able to achieve their goals. A military leader has to first know where his units are and what their capabilities are, and where the opposing units are and what their capabilities are. Or tends to be a vast chaos of uncertainty, and those leaders who can make the most sense out of it are the ones who succeed.

Political leaders also need to know what reality is, even if they then choose to ignore it, or to convince their followers that the truth is something else.

In the modern world we see many politicians relying heavily on wishful thinking and promoting wishful thinking in their followers. The most obvious example is Donald Trump, whose entire life is about persuading people of what the truth is rather than paying attention to the reality. Trump will make up anything he thinks sounds good to his followers, while anyone who is devoted to discovering what reality is wonders where he gets these stories. If Trump doesn’t like reality he tries to ignore it, as in the pandemic, where even now he says we’re turning the corner, that the pandemic will just go away, despite all the evidence in deaths and hospitalizations to the contrary. It’s inconvenient for him, so he ignores the 250,000 deaths and all that goes along with it.

Conspiracy theories are one of the heights of wishful thinking, fueled by ignorance and often by stupidity.

The older I get, the more I recognize how important leadership is to nations and other political and business entities.


According to former Avalon Hill (AH) employees, among them Don Greenwood, talking about the demise of AH at a get-together at WBC a few years ago, Hasbro asked to buy Diplomacy, and was told they'd have to buy the entire company.

Rex Martin, formerly of the General magazine, wrote a doctoral dissertation showing that wargames are a Baby Boomer hobby that didn't translate, by and large, to later generations.

Hasbro had no idea what they had. One of the games was my Britannia. They sent that on to Multiman Publishing. Fortunately, MMP didn't republish it, because the rights had reverted to me when it went out of print - but Hasbro had no clue. I was unaware of all this because I spent 20 years away from the hobby (except for playing D&D). When I came back, in 2003-4, I sorted this out and did a new edition for Fantasy Flight. (And now there’s a new edition (same rules, plastic pieces) from PSC Games (UK).)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A New Thing #3 (Have to think of another name, as it’s not new any more. . . Bites of Writing?)

Kind of like the Triptych but with much more than three topics per.


Has anyone made a list of Euroish game mechanics (mechanisms) that are generally unsuited to games that are models of something (because the mechanic has nothing to do with reality)?: worker placement, drafting, and change-each-round role selection are three that come to mind.


Video games: the games (and the players) now depend so little on imagination.  Then "immersive" is almost necessarily about photo-realism.  But they're wrong.  Tabletop RPGs  can be immensely immersive, if players and GM provide the necessary imagination.


Another claim sometimes made about video games is that they are far more interactive than other forms of entertainment. That's true if you can compare them to movies, plays, and books, but not true if you compare them to tabletop games. In fact tabletop games - some of them anyway - are much more interactive because you are interacting with humans, not with software (the game).


A person doesn't play a multi-sided game like Diplomacy or Britannia five hundred times to figure out the system, or to learn the story the system tells them.  In these cases, the story is an abstract version of World War I, or a representational version of a thousand years of British history.  They play to enjoy the interaction of the system and the players, to learn how people cope with the system and how they can be persuaded to think or act in certain ways.


A hallmark of a game of maneuver and geospatial relationships: position can be as important as possession.


SO amusing to see people who pirate copyrighted material, complaining that someone else scams that to get their credit card info! Justice?


"We give the fantasy author one giant leap away from reality, then demand tight-nit probabilities and no coincidences thereafter." -Robert McKee (Talking about novels)


"Poor technical decisions coupled with the newly hired team led to all key metrics being below thresholds required for an ROI positive title," Niccolo de Masi   [ROI - Return On Investment]

Means, they lost money for all kinds of reasons.


Sue's reading about people who set what seem, to her, to be odd goals.  Such as visiting the north pole, south pole, and peak of Everest all in one year.

I observed, we're more and more a nation of destinations, not journeys.  The same thing has happened in video games, in college, and in lots of other places.  People don't seem to enjoy the journey.


For multi-sided games with significant player interaction, the better the players know/understand the system, the more they can concentrate on playing the other players.


Creativity requires you to murder your children. If you are so enthralled with your designs that you can’t let them go, then you’ll never have the hard-bitten creativity of a truly good designer. -Chris Crawford (Eastern Front and other famous old video games)


The "zeitgeist" of 1e/2e AD&D was cooperation and exploration. For 3e it was "be a one-man army" and finding rule imbalances, showing off. ...

For 4e it was cooperation, purely tactical play, and a lack of real challenge (WoW-ification).  What is it for 5e?  The lack of real challenge is still there. But there's more than just tactical play. And co-operation is still important.


Gygax said: "There is something in D&D that strikes a chord in many people; the call of adventure."

But that's lost when you can't lose


A reason why historical interpretation changes from decade to decade, or generation to generation, is that the data is never as solid as some people want it to be. Even historians are subject to wishful thinking.


I don't believe in "outdated" rules or concepts in game design, that's pointless snobbishness rather than clear thinking. What's good is good whether it's old or new, and it always depends on the situation. If it's bad, it doesn't matter if it's new or not. "Outdated"? Poppycock!


Henry Ford said "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."  Yet that's what many try to do these days, to rely on intention and vocalization and (so-called) plans rather than on action.


Online Britannia sales - shipping is extra at all, afaik.

80 pounds at PSC Games (UK)

$$74.97 https://www.gamenerdz.com/britannia-classic-duel-edition. But listed as out of stock.

Atomic Empire is preorder $84.99

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Responses to Dave Shapiro's questions for a Risk book, part 3


In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 3.

The following questions are specifically about the Risk relationship in your designs.

What games most influenced your designs?

Heavens, it all started so long ago that that’s very hard to say.  I loved American Heritage Broadsides, I loved the old Avalon Hill games such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps, I loved to play Risk when I was a kid, and when I got a little older (high school senior) I “graduated” to Diplomacy.  The old hex-based games obviously influenced my Valley Of the Four Winds and Dragon Rage, though you can say that about any hex-based game I guess.

What games do you consider the foundations of modern gaming?

There are many games that more or less started certain genres.  But some games are exceptionally important.

Charles S. Roberts' games for Avalon Hill such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps showed us that you could have a strategic game modeling some reality (which Risk or Backgammon does not do) that also included dice.  Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most influential of all games because so many video games owe so much to tabletop D&D.  I’m not at all in sympathy with the “pay to win” original philosophy of Magic: the Gathering but it obviously started an enormous genre of its own.

In video games, it’s a little harder to point to games that “started it all” because frequently the breakthrough game isn’t the first game.  The Sims, for example, was preceded by a game called Little Computer People that was not successful.

Do you feel that Risk has influenced gaming? If so, in what way?

Risk is the quintessential conquest game.  And it has its own niche, a board game for young fellows who want to trash talk each other and be competitive, kind of hanging out with the guys.  Because it’s a conquest game it’s not really very cerebral, it’s too much attack Attack ATTACK!

But I’m not sure how many games there are, at least, well-known games, that directly derive from Risk.  It kind of stands on its own.  Yes, there are all the recent variants published by Hasbro, but they are all much, much younger than Risk.  What Hasbro is doing with Risk, as it is with its other games, is relying on the brand to sell more games.  Hence you have “Sorry Sliders” which really has very little to do with Sorry, but trades on the name.  “Battleship Galaxies” is another one.   

Risk also appeals to younger people because, thanks to the dice rolling, there’s always a small chance that a weak player will overcome a strong player, a chance to really doesn’t exist in Diplomacy with its diceless system.  I recall playing a two player game of Risk where I rolled one “6" the entire game.  I lost.  It probably wasn’t long after that that I switched to Diplomacy!

It’s not the fact that there are dice, it’s the fact that you have almost no opportunity to try to mitigate the effects of dice.  As I said my favorite commercial game is first edition Dungeons & Dragons.  There are lots of dice in that game but you can treat it just like some (wise) people treat life, you can try to minimize the times when you need to get lucky to survive.  (As in, wear a seatbelt in a car - yet some people don't. Or wear a mask during a pandemic.)   Sooner or later it’ll get you, but that’s life as well.  You don’t get those opportunities much in Risk.  First edition D&D also required players to cooperate to survive.  Second edition was much like first, third edition was about “one-man armies” and a lack of cooperation, 4th was back to cooperation, though you really have to screw up pretty badly to die.  

You designed Hyborian Risk in 1981 (a revision appeared in 2006). As this was prior to any of the published commercial versions, including Castle Risk, why tackle a Risk game? (I have not mentioned anything about your new versions - if you choose to mention/discuss them, it would be interesting.)

The 2006 version was by Chester E. Hendrix, I just host it on my website.

A way to practice designing games is to modify existing games.  If a game has a simple system that can be applied to lots of different situations then it’s more likely to be the subject of variants.

Although I’ve designed perhaps only one or two Diplomacy variants in the past 30 years, because of all the ones I did in the 70s I still have designed more Diplomacy variants altogether than anyone else in the world.  And as I much prefer Diplomacy to Risk, if I’m going to design a variant it will usually be a Diplomacy variant.  I don’t recall the origins of Hyborian Risk but for some reason I decided to make a Risk variant rather than a Diplomacy variant, perhaps because play balance is much, much easier to get right in a symmetric game like Risk as opposed to an asymmetric game like Diplomacy.


Friday, October 30, 2020

“Are we there yet?”

"When do you know you’re finished revising? When you’ve gone from making your writing better to merely making it different. That’s not always easy to determine, but it’s what makes you an author." - Jerry Jenkins, author of around 200 books

People who are learning to design games tend to lose the distinction between when a game is mechanically complete and when it is truly finished.   There’s complete as in “it works” (mechanically complete)  and complete as in “it’s not worth the time it would take to try to make it better” (polished as much as is practical). The latter is likely to be a much better game.

My “Game Design I” students were expected to individually create a tabletop game as a mostly-outside-of-class project.  Of course, we don’t have the time in one semester for them to produce a marketable game, because games take a lot of time, though unlimited resources (including willing playtesters) can reduce that time a lot.  I tell students we’re trying to get to a fairly advanced step along the way, with at least ten playtests.  This is enough to make a game with a fairly settled feature set, perhaps with major mechanics in place, but not enough to polish (and potentially make big revisions) to the gameplay and rules.

At this stage the game may appear to be mechanically complete.  It may even be a game that many people really like, though this is less likely.  But my experience is that the game may go through quite extensive changes, and it can certainly be polished so that it works better.  In other words, it may “work”, but it will not yet be nearly as good as it ought to be.

In particular, testing and polishing the rules of a tabletop game takes many plays by a great variety of people.  Here is where there’s a significant difference between tabletop and video games.  A video game makes the player follow the rules.  If there’s a programming error, then the player can take advantage of the “glitch”, if it doesn’t actually crash the game.  The focus question is, “does the programming accurately enforce what the designer intended.”  A tabletop game does not enforce the rules.  So the focus question is “can someone read the rules and play the game the way the designer intended it to be played.”

Even if the mechanics are fairly set, that is, even if the game “works” when played correctly, it’s very likely that many people reading the rules in their current state will not play the game correctly.  Just as cleaning up programming bugs can be very time-consuming because of the nature of programming, honing the rules can be very time-consuming, because so much playtesting is needed.

Reiner Knizia says that it's easy to get a game to an 80% stage, getting to 100% is hard. That's the difference between "it works" and "it's a good game."

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Part 2 of old interview via Dave Shapiro

 In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 2.

As with movies, books and music, there are those that enjoy the work and those that criticize it. How do you deal with criticism of your designs? 

Constructive criticism that explains why it is critical is welcome.  What I realize very strongly and have emphasized in my first game design book is that there’s a great variety of things that people find enjoyable in games, and not everybody can enjoy what I put into a particular game.  All you need to do is look at Metacritic.com to see how widely opinions can vary about the same game or movie.

What I really dislike is uninformed criticism.  If I had a dime for every time someone plays Britannia once and says it’s terribly unbalanced I could buy some really good appliances.  Yet repeated plays by experts shows that it’s quite well-balanced.  The problem is that no one “gets” a highly strategic game like that at the first play, but there are now many “shallow” gamers who believe that if they don’t get it at first play it’s the game’s fault.

Sometimes criticism comes from people who are not anywhere near your target market.  For example, someone recently criticized Dragon Rage because the pieces were not hexagonal to match the hexagon grid on the board!  (This actually wouldn’t work well, and if you think if it would work well it would be much more common in the long history of wargames.)  There were other remarks indicating that apparently the reviewer had no experience of hex-and-counter wargames.  In 2012, that indicates a strong bias to games quite unlike Dragon Rage.  So an overall unfavorable review was hardly surprising.

Reviewers should always explain why, rather than assume that their tastes are the same as the readers’.  I’m often fascinated by the reviewing style in video game magazines (PC Gamer and GameInformer) where the reviewers assume that their tastes match their readers’ tastes.  Maybe they do, though not mine!

The anonymity and “distance” of the Internet is widely known to encourage people to say and even do things that they’d never do “in person”.  There’s also what might be called “everyone’s an expert” syndrome, so commenters on the Internet are certain they know better than anyone else, regardless of their background or real expertise.  I see (for example) many people who told the former manager of Arsenal (soccer) that he doesn't know what he's doing, though he was there for 22 years and is one of the most successful soccer managers in the world in charge of one of the most well-known clubs. 

There’s a twitter account called “@AvoidComments" which issues tweets that all amount to the same advice: don't read the comments of those who criticize online, whether criticizing articles, books, games, whatever.  For example: "'What an interesting article! I can't wait to read what the average internet denizen thinks about it!' Just stop right there. You're wrong." and "Nobody on their deathbed ever said, 'I wish I had spent more time reading internet comments.'"

I’m old enough and confident enough in what I’ve done to shrug off the random criticism I encounter, which fortunately is not often.  Once in a great while I'll encounter someone online that I've never heard of, who clearly has it in for me individually (no idea why), often getting personal about it, and that can be quite annoying.

When you encounter a game that is an obvious derivative of one of your designs (Hispania, Maharaja and Italia for example), do you play the game? Do you view this as a compliment or is there some resentment? (Personally, the first time I was told that an article I had written had been plagiarized, I was extremely angry. The second time it occurred, the publisher threatened to take legal action.)

I strongly dislike plagiarism, which is exact copying without attribution, but virtually no game is “original” anymore, and most games are derivative of some other games.  I’d just as soon get formal credit for the game system that’s being used in the game, and sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.  Oh well.  It’s a compliment more than anything else.


The latest videos on my free Game Design Channel on YouTube:

Is location setup (usually in a wargame) in some sense an example of worker placement and drafting?! https://youtu.be/Ot26kksJ11M 

The Failure of Cause and Effect! https://youtu.be/onEUdlM9HA8 

Games are not stories  https://youtu.be/rKD9nJ769nk