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”

“Introduction to ‘new’ online course "Learning Game Design, Part 1"

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.


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.


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.


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?


Apr 5

Surprise in games, especially tabletop

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.



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!