Friday, December 29, 2006

Making Games More Accessible

When I was young, game players were generally happy to read through the rules to a game--often several times--before playing, and were not put off by lengthy rules. Even today, I would much rather read the rules than be taught how to play a game. But nowadays it's nearly impossible to get young people to read long non-fiction (many won't read fiction, even), and people want to try to play a game while learning the rules. Patience, you might say, is no longer a virtue.

So here I am as a designer, and a teacher mind you, trying to figure out what needs to be done to make game rules as accessible as possible to this new generation. Here's what seems to be needed.

First, every rules set should have a "rules often missed/misunderstood" section. All but the simplest rules have more-difficult parts.

I'm beginning to think a rules summary (no more than one page) is needed with every game as well. It's notable that (American edition) Settlers of Catan has what amounts to two rules sets, one less formal than the other, even though it is a quite simple game. Clearly, the manufacturers have found that even simple rules can confuse or thwart would-be players.

Examples in the rules have always been useful. Some publishers go a step further with a "play-through" included as a separate booklet. If the play-through isn't in the printed rules, it should be online. However, as a computer instructor I know that most people have difficulty with even the simplest tasks online, excepting e-mail and just plain "surfing", so the less they need to go online, the better. (Yes, readers here are the exception, not the rule.)

But how about more "modern" methods? If people want to learn a game from someone else, why not try to reproduce that, as much as possible? In other words, why not make a video as though you were teaching people in person how to play? The obvious limitation is that the learners cannot ask for clarification, but the video-maker can try to anticipate questions as much as possible.

A video of a play-through (perhaps an entire game, if the game is short enough) would be wonderful for many players who are unsure of their understanding of the rules.

Can you include videos with a game? I think a CD should be included in most games that includes video aids. But in my experience manufacturers don't want this added expense, and prefer the online approach. Once again, my experience of "average computer users" is that an auto-starting CD with video is much more likely to be used successfully than online video.

What about a podcast? This would be a way to publicize a game and might help those who are very busy, and want to listen to "how to play" while doing something else.

Videos and podcasts are not hard to produce if you have good equipment, if you aren't trying to achieve professional perfection. You don't get that when someone teaches you the game, though, so why look for it here? Yes, such things are time-consuming to make. But you have to change with the times.

I have heard of examples of videos, and watched the ones Peter Morrison produced for this game Viktory II. I've not heard of podcasts that try to teach the rules of a game. I'm sure Geekdom can specify more examples, which I'd like to hear about. I am presently working on both videos and a podcast for Britannia, and expect to produce similar material for all of my games as they're published.

Lew Pulsipher
Learn to play solo

I am constantly (unfavorably) impressed by the number of would-be game designers who talk about producing "artwork" for their prototype and "getting other people to playtest" a game they've never played.

This immensely limits what you can do, folks. You don't need "artwork" to play a prototype solo. You're the designer, use your imagination! If you keep a good supply of various kinds of 3D pieces around you can come up with almost any piece you need in no time. You don't need laminated cards for a playtest prototype. If you have some blank business card stock around you can hand-make some cards quickly (or use a computer program to do it). If you need a board, hand-draw one if it takes too long to do a sketch version on the computer. I tend to make wargames, and my initial map used to be hand-drawn with grease pencil on transparent plastic laid across an out-of-copyright map downloaded from the Internet and printed large. Nowadays I have become sufficiently quick with CorelDraw that I usually create a computer map before actually playing, but I start with a hand-drawn map.

The first few times a game is played, "errors"--things that need changing--are inevitable. Why inflict this on your preciously-scarce playtester supply, when you can sort them out on your own?

While there are some kinds of games that may be difficult to play solo, a good game player should be able to put himself in a state of mind where he can play several separate sides in a "hidden information" game, sufficient to get the worst kinks out of a game before inflicting it in other people.

If there's an obvious problem, YOU need to find it and sort it out, not wait for Playtesters to do so. Let the testers play a game that's in a reasonable state, not one where they struggle with things that you should have discovered through solo testing. You'll be wasting their time, and yours! Use playtesters to discover problems you cannot see, not to discover problems you would have found if you'd bothered to play the game yourself.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What makes a game "great"?

I am writing an article about a game which is supposed to be one of the all-time best hobby games. Naturally, I'll need to explain why I think this. So my question today is, what makes a game "great"? Not good, not a flash-in-the-pan, I mean an all-time great game. I'm sure this must have been discussed before on BGG, and perhaps someone can provide links to known discussions of this type. In the meantime, here's what I've been thinking about (rambling included).

To me, a game is great if you can (and want to) play it again and again with great enjoyment over many years, if you can almost endlessly discuss the intricacies of good play, if you can create many variants that are also fine games.

Obviously, a game is not "great" to everyone. Chess is a great game, but many gamers can't stand to play it (though a great many have tried).

Longevity is important. A new game may be "great", but we simply cannot tell until years have passed. Perhaps not every great game is great by current "design standards", but it may still be a great game in terms of how it affected people and the enjoyment it gave to people. "New" certainly doesn't mean "good" and "old" certainly doesn't mean "bad". In other words, I ignore the "cult of the new" so prevalent in today's gaming tastes.

Popularity is not a criterion. There are many popular tunes, movies, games, books, that disappear from our notice in a year or two or three. Great games should continue to be loved year after year after year, just as great novels, movies, music are enjoyed perennially.

If a game is one of hundreds that people might want to play, can it be a great game? No, it should stand out from the crowd. If I play a game just to kill time, then the fact that I'm playing it certainly doesn't make it a great game, no matter how many times I play. It's not "oh yeah, we can play that" it's "I'd love to play that"--again, and again, and again. If I can spend my valuable time playing this game or thinking about this game, when I have other valuable things to do, then it may be a great game. If lots of people don't play it hundreds of hours each, over many years, can it be a great game?

I thought about including the criterion that solitaire play is rewarding. But for hidden information games, solo is not so practical. Nonetheless, if it's a game that can reasonably be played solitaire, then a great game will be played very often solo, by a great many people.

It's difficult to generalize concisely. Perhaps you could say, if a game is played by a great many people, who love to play it, who play it for hundreds of hours (by each person) altogether over the years, who can still enjoy it many years after it was first published, then perhaps it is a great game.

Is Monopoly a well-designed game? Given the likelihood of stalemate or very long games, perhaps not. Is it a great game? Here you can argue that it is played by default, because it's traditional, rather than because people truly want to play it. Nonetheless I think a case can be made that it is a great game.

A young person might look at this differently than I (55 years). I am interested in your comments.

Lew Pulsipher

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Diagram of the Game Creation Process

I've posted a diagram at
intended to illustrate the game design process.

Start at the upper left, go toward the lower right. This is a data flow diagram, NOT a flowchart. Information (or physical items) can flow both ways between processes, or perhaps only one way. Circles represent processes/subprocesses. A rectangle represents an external entity that provides input (such as a playtester). The triangle represents an external entity that receives output. The other symbol is a data store, where information (or objects) is stored.

Lew Pulsipher

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Something in it"

At some point during playtesting of a game, the designer must decide if "there's something in it" (as I put it): if the game is really good enough that people might play it, like it, and would buy the finished version of it. There's really two times when this should happen, once during solo playtests (alpha testing), the second time during playtesting by others (beta testing). The "something in it" point in solo playtesting is an indicator that it's about ready for others to play. The "something in it" point in beta testing usually comes when observing people playing the game and their reactions during and after playing.

Usually I need to tweak a game quite a bit from its state at the end of solo play, before I can reach the "something in it" stage of beta testing. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be anything in it during beta testing, and I set it aside for further thought. Sometimes I realize, from solo playing, that there isn't "something in it", at least not yet, so I set it aside at that point.

I strongly suspect that novice designers never understand these stages. Their egos become involved, and they assume that because they took the time to make the game, there must be something in it. In extreme cases, the "designer" thinks he has "something in it" when all he has is an idea, that is, when he has virtually nothing at all. The number of people who think they've successfully designed a game, yet haven't playtested it at all, is remarkable. Playtesting is the start of successful design, not the end. (I confess that I don't think of "development" as a process separate from design.)

So how do you recognize when there's "something in" a game? That's hard to say, unfortunately. Surveys or written feedback won't necessarily reveal it.

In my case, in beta testing when spontaneously (without any urging) people say "I'd buy this game", I know I've got something: I don't remember anyone ever saying that about Britannia, or Dragon Rage, or Valley of the Four Winds, but they have all been quite popular. I am very low-key in beta playtesting, preferring to watch reactions of people rather than try to solicit opinions, in part because people (being polite for the most part) won't say negative things even when asked. I also try not to play, as 1) the designer playing in a game tends to skew results and 2) when I play, I do a worse job of playing, and a worse job of evaluating the playtesting, than if I did either alone. As I'm that strange sort of person who enjoys watching my own games as much as playing, why play?

In alpha testing, the "something in it" stage is a gradual realization, coming from observing my own thought processes as I play. My games are, almost without exception, strategy games. When I "see" myself thinking hard about the strategies, and liking the options, then I may think there's something in it.

I do not inflict a game on players until I think it is good enough to be OK to play, that is, I've reached that first "something in it" stage. Evidently some other designers playtest with other people very early: not me. My playtesters play games to have fun, not as on obligation, and most are not hard-core gamers, so I do what I can to make sure the game MIGHT be fun before I ask them to play.

I am going to try the "Six Hats" method (devised by Edward de Bono) when playtesting; specifically I'll ask players to put on their black hat (the judge) and red hat (intuition and emotion) to see how they assess a game, and then the yellow hat (the positive side of assessing an idea) to see what they like about a game. With local playtesters I sometimes ask them to think of ways to make the game better (the green hat).

Lew Pulsipher

Sunday, December 03, 2006

What’s important when playing Green to Win in Britannia Second Edition
(I have deliberately limited this to one page; there is one page of overall advice,
and there will be one page for each nation. Lew Pulsipher)

Every color in Britannia must be played as a whole, not as separate nations, if you want to win consistently. It is worth sacrificing armies or points of one nation to improve the points or position of another by a greater amount. The action of armies at one end of the board can affect those at the other, in the long run. Remember, at a given time position is just as important as the number of armies or number of points.

Green is the most defensive of all the colors. It requires patience, not a “conquest” mentality. Offensives that spend lots of armies are a bad idea, even for the Danes, though the Danes will certainly do lots of attacking.

Green (and yellow) are limited in the maximum number of points they can score. Consequently, green must work to keep red and blue in check. Generally, the lower the scores, the better off green will be. Put another way, green’s fate frequently depends on others. Diplomacy can be an important tool.

If red and blue are at peace, it’s almost always bad for green. The Welsh then have to cope with Irish and Saxons, and the Danes may be faced with a “shield wall” of Angles and Saxons.

The Saxons may be green’s biggest enemy. Some people see the game as blue fighting with yellow in the north while green struggles with red in the south.

The Welsh must survive and prosper if green is to prosper. Do NOT try to fight the Romans tooth and nail. Submit at five areas to allow for population growth, and strongly consider cooperating with the Roman to occupy his burned fort areas. It is often difficult for the Welsh to maintain a long-term presence in Cornwall and Devon, but that is going to help your score–and especially try to prevent the Irish from settling in those areas. The clear terrain in Wales is often contested by invaders, and Welsh often abandon those areas at times.

Try to negotiate with blue to take your trip to York for 12 points. You may be able to fight your way in, but it will be very costly to Welsh survivability later on. Impress on the blue that the Angles, too, will have difficulty prospering if you have a big battle over York.

The Caledonians “aren’t worth much” if you like offense, but they can score a lot of points if they survive. They need not be aggressive until facing “starvation”. If you think Picts will attack the Caledonians early in the game, move Orkneys to Caithness. This is why the move order changed from original Brit, to give the Cals this chance. Ultimately, the enemy of the Caledonians is the Norsemen.

You may want to sacrifice the Jutes to help another nation. They are one of the lowest scoring nations in the game, though a successful attack on a Roman fort in Kent in Round 5, settling there, is worth 14 points.

Some players believe the Danish invasion is the key to green prosperity, while others think the Welsh are more important. The Welsh score more points, but the Danish have much more variability in how much they can score. The Welsh can help Danes secure the kingship by picking off a few Saxons.

The Danes may not have much left at the end of the game, but it’s points, not troops, that count in the end. The Danes have to preserve some force during the big invasion, or they may be wiped out too soon. It is easy for the big Danish invasion to “melt away”.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


I asked a few people at PrezCon 2006 what kind of pieces they preferred in games (someday I'll make a Surveymonkey survey out of this).

One player pointed out that 3D pieces such as figures are best when you want to move them around (as in Chess), but flat(ter) pieces are OK if you just place them and leave them there (as in Tigris and Euphrat and many other tile-laying games, or as in Go).

I sometimes use one inch square colored hard plastic-foam pieces, about a quarter inch thick, in prototypes. I've not seen such pieces used in a published game.

3D pieces are more prone to being knocked and jostled around than flat pieces. I have used figures to playtest Brit Lite, but I think I'll try using the counters from B2 the next time I play it solo, as they won't be as "fiddly". On the other hand, I have always used figures in Germania, Seas of Gold, and other "Euro-wargames", and always will, because part of the attraction is the visuals. Further, there are relatively few pieces in these games, compared to some of the larger Brit-like games.

Some people want their 3D pieces to look like real objects, hence the figures that look like soldiers or horsemen or tanks or cannon (Axis and Allies). Some seem to be as content with wooden or plastic blocks or cylinders, or glass beads, or stylized wooden pieces.

I don't think colored plastic chips quite count as 3D, though they are not cardboard counters. At least one of my games, Law & Chaos (TM), originated as an attempt to design a game using glass beads (which I quite like, but which are not practical in large numbers because they drive up the shipping weight of a game).

At this point we could talk about colors. The "Black Prussian" suggested that the colors of heraldry should be used (black, blue, green, red, purple, white, yellow in alpha order). Peter Morrison, designer and publisher of Viktory II, ran a piece color survey on BGG that he reports on his Website. The order of preference was:


I've also seen other suggestions that those first four colors are ideal for four player games. FFG used them in Britannia, perhaps explaining why they chose to have yellow pieces instead of purple on what is basically a yellow map. Of course, Gibsons (and AH) had green pieces on a green map . . .

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Is there a "sweet spot" or "magic number" of spaces for an area-based boardgame (or any other kind, for that matter) where pieces occupy areas?

Chess and checkers have 64 spaces and (respectively) 32 and 24 pieces. My Law & Chaos (TM, prototype) has 61 areas, with a varying number of pieces on the board (tending to grow larger over time). Tic-Tac-Oh (prototype) has three boards of 16 squares each (48 areas). Go, on the other hand, has far more "spaces" (the intersections of areas on a 19 by 19 grid).

Intuitively, you might expect that fewer areas means the game is simpler to deal with, though the game may still have a great deal of depth.

How about "classic" area-based wargames? Risk has 42 areas. Britannia has 37. Vinci has 45 (by quick count). Diplomacy has (by quick count) about 65 areas for 34 pieces. History of the World and Axis and Allies have many more areas (and original A&A had a lot more, IIRC).

Perhaps there's a relationship between number of pieces on the board and number of areas, but I don't have the data to compare. In chess there's one piece for each two areas. The average for Britannia depends on the era, but is roughly 55 pieces for the 37 areas. The ratio in Vinci is something over one piece per area. In Risk it's a lot higher, at times. Diplomacy's ratio is much like that of chess, about two areas per piece.

I'm not sure where this rumination has arrived at, but there it is.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

I am so busy with teaching that I haven't played a game solo in months, but I do sometimes manage to get people together for playtest sessions. Viking Gold (TM), Battle of Hastings, and Law & Chaos (TM) are what is usually played.

Recently I've . . . planned, I guess you might call it, three new games. "Planned" nowadays means I have made a map (usually on computer), figured out the basic structures (combat system, economy, etc.), and am close to ready to play the game solo. I find that as I get more experience I can do more of this, and do it more effectively, before first play than I could in the past. One game is an ancient Near Eastern Brit-like game, another is a game "something like Risk, Vinci, History of the World, and Britannia crossed" on a map of Eurasia. The third is something I've avoided for a long time, but it just hit me one day and "arrived" in a couple hours: a shorter, no-dice expansion for B2, using many of the ideas I use in Brit-Lite. The difference is that BLite cannot be published while B2 is in print, practically speaking, while an expansion may be.

I talked with an editor recently about a textbook "How to Design Games" and I'm creating a proposal according to their specifications. No telling what will come of it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

My "How to Design Games" Continuing Ed class, though the subject appeals a lot to young people, did not get enough students to run. This has really impressed me with the tremendous lack of initiative of young people as a group (there are of course many exceptions).

For example, four students (out of 17 high school junior and senior males) in a college class for high school students I'm teaching say that their aim in life is to design video games, but only one of them managed to make it to the class. As they're 23 miles from our Sanford campus, travel might have contributed to that, but I think also it's a reflection of what a "generation expert" calls the "ambitious but aimless" tendencies of Millennials (Gen Y). They have a goal, but not only don't know how to get there, they may not even be willing to pursue a path to it when the path is available. The expert's example: Millennial says "I'm going to be an astronaut". Well, that's very praiseworthy, but that requires a lot of work, you'll likely need at least a master's degree in some science-related subject, you have to take physics, math, etc. "Nope, I don't do math," says the millennial. Then how can you be an astronaut? "I'm going to be an astronaut". They don't see the connection between where they are and where they're going, but somehow it's going to happen.

One of the 16-year-olds who did come to the class said he tried to get some buddies to come as well, but they were "too busy". I'd bet a lot of their busy-ness amounted to killing time playing video games, but if you think that somehow things will just work out, you're not likely to take the initiative to change the state of affairs.

Moreover, many young people just don't seem to keep track of things. A couple days after, I came across one of our current curriculum students who had said he would be attending (but did not) and asked him about it. "Oh, did that start already?" He just hadn't kept track; and though we have a listserv and ask the curriculum computer students to join it, he had not done so and didn't get the reminders I sent. Another high school student (not in my class but in another at the same place) came to me and asked about the class. He'd had a flier that said when it started, but this was three days after that date.

When we try to run this class again in mid-March, I'll try to make sure every person who's expressed an interest is phoned to remind them when the class is about to start. The ConEd people sometimes do this for folks of retirement age, but it appears to be necessary for millennials as well.

So to expect a young person to have the initiative to actually intend to take such a course, and the organization to keep track of when it starts, is asking a lot, evidently, of the average person.

This has helped convince me that, when we're trying to recruit young people for the two-year computer degrees, we need to get to their parents, as the parents will often provide the initiative that the student lacks. As it stands now, only about 11% of the curriculum students come to us straight out of high school.

I would have enjoyed teaching the class--those who did come and I sat and talked for over two hours that evening--but I can use the time for other things, as well.

Change of subject:
I have been trying to make a combat table (using the sum of two dice for results) that reflects pretty closely the results of fighting the standard Brit way. Because of the probability involved it's slow going. I intended to use it in the Arthur game instead of actually rolling dice, to speed things up. But I may in the end go back to a form of the table I made for MegaBrit, which gives the defense a little edge, and not worry about trying to reproduce Brit combat results.

For relaxation I'm reading Marc van de Mieroop's History of the Ancient Near East. It is much more social history than the usual fare, quite eye-opening in its detail. I expect that one way or another I'll end up with a more or less Brit-like game in this era (2500-500 BC), as the existing ones (Chariot Lords, Ancient Conquest) don't appear to reflect reality well at all.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

What’s important when trying to win FFG Britannia?
(I have chosen to limit this to one page; there will be one page for each color, as well . Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher)

If you think one color “can’t win” (or “can’t lose”), you need a different strategy! The sides are “nearly equal”.

Like virtually all multi-player games, this one is a psychological game as well as a competition on the board. Perceptions count for a lot. If you are in the lead but not perceived to be in the lead, you have an advantage. You want to “control” the game without appearing to. Give other players a better reason to attack someone else than you. You don't want to get in a situation where someone says "well, you didn't leave me with a choice".

To do well you need to know what new units are coming, and when; and where your opponents score their points. Think of your forces as a whole, not as separate nations. Maximize your entire score, not the score of each individual nation. One of your nations can divert an enemy, or “take it on the chin for the cause”, if this will sufficiently improve the score of another.

If you deprive someone of the chance of winning, be sure it’s too late in the game for him to retaliate, or that he’s too weak to harm you.

Something you do in a round could have an effect several rounds in the future. Every little thing you do is important in some way! And there’s plenty of time to recover if you have a bad start.

The question of “who is in the lead” is sometimes unclear, and relates to expected scoring at particular times. The Romans score a lot of points early in the game, the question is, did they score as many as expected? Yellow can have the most points and be in fourth place!

Just because you can take something or kill someone doesn’t mean it’s the best move. Weakening one color can help another of your opponents too much. Sometimes it's important to keep an "enemy" around (whether a color or a nation) because it can help you against someone else later on. Force preservation can be as important as scoring points. Just because you can make a 2-1 attack doesn't mean you should do so.

Points are important, but position is just as important, because position strongly influences who will score most in the future. So you might choose, for example, to keep some raiders peacefully at sea in order to be in better position in the next round. Your armies don't NEED to DO anything as long as they're scoring points (and breeding more armies, usually).

Leaders are far more effective in attack than in defense; they are especially good for attacking difficult terrain.

Better odds mean less death for you. Preserve your forces whenever possible. Three to two is poor attacking odds when defenders are in difficult terrain, as is two to one.

Red and blue have more control over the course of the game during mid-game than yellow and green; red and blue can get very high (or low) scores, green and yellow rarely get very high scores. So green and yellow want to avoid someone (usually red or blue) getting way ahead during midgame. Expect the Romans to max or nearly max their R3 points. The Roman difference comes in position, Limes points, and points scored by opponents by R5.

Don't forget, when running a big invasion, to leave yourself in a defensible position. When it's a Major Invasion, be sure to attack with every army (if you attack at all) in the first half: don't waste them "holding territory" that you'll be able to occupy in the second half.

Advice about multi-player conflict games in general: Never make a threat you’re unwilling to carry through; always honor your deals (never break a deal). If you're inexperienced, don't make any long-term deals. Simple deals help you and your “ally”, and usually harm the other two players; e.g., red and blue often agree on a demarcation between the Saxons and the Angles. Simple deals (= "common sense") often work best.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Because of schedule problems (my schedule) we haven't playtested anything at CCCC in three weeks. I did get to Rick Steeves' in Durham last night for the usual monthly game night. Four games of Law & Chaos, plus Viking Gold(TM) for the first time with four players. I think the game is too long with four, and more decisively perhaps, it wears out the defense. Only two areas (one the Mediterranean) remained unsacked, and hardly any defending armies survived in the entire British Isles. East Frankia was pretty much wasted as well, despite two rounds when famine limited Viking activity there. Even the castles were going down. So I'm going to reduce the number of action cards per round, or the number of rounds, when more than three play. With three it seems to give about the right proportion of Vikings and defenders surviving at the end of the game.

I'm not sure how exciting the game is... only time will tell. It is certainly more complex than Seas of Gold(TM), but this appears to be unavoidable if the result is going to resemble the real world at all.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations by John Haywood. Penguin, 2005.

If I had to give one piece of advice about historical atlases, I'd say "John Haywood". And I'm once again not disappointed by these 144 small-format pages covering many civilizations both well known (Egypt) and obscure (Iberian). As with other Penguin historical atlases, we get about a page of text with a page worth of maps for each entry. A civilization as large and old as China's gets several entries, where the Iberians get one. I'm sure I'll use it as a source for both China games and near east games as time passes.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Disease, Game Design Class

I sometimes have so much fun creating new games, or modifying existing ones that I've set aside, that I don't always work on finishing games the way I should. Likely that's because there's a lot of drudgery in the "last 20%" of the work.

So in the past few days I've revived a China game, revived a game of rise and fall of empires (not Brit-like, some elements of Vinci), thought again about Middle-eastern Brit, got an actual set of rules together for "Advanced Britannia", and so forth. What I should be doing is finishing Brit scenarios and then working on Caledonia(TM), which is close to ready for playtesting by other people.

So I beat myself up about this, then remember that I'm supposed to be enjoying myself--this is a hobby, not a business.

To change the subject:
I will be teaching "How to Design Games" in a new class at CCCC Sanford (NC) Campus, from October 3 to November 16, Tuesday and Thursday nights 6-8:30. This is a Continuing Education class (not college credit). The class is scheduled for room 201, Wilkinson Hall. I don't have preregistration details right now

We cover video games, board games, and card games.
The Secret: it’s very hard to learn to design video games by designing video games because a working prototype is so hard to produce. We’ll learn by designing board/card games and apply this to video.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Book "review"

The Huns by E. A. Thompson, edited by Peter Heather, is a revised reissue of the 1948 book A History of Attila and the Huns. Heather minimally revised the book based on the wishes of Professor Thompson, who died at a very advanced age during the time of revision. Hence the book shows some old-fashioned characteristics, for example a concentration on the (fragmentary) literary sources at the expense of archaeology. In 1948 there was next to no archaeology to illuminate the Huns. Today this is no longer true, but Heather chose minimal revision rather than complete revision, and points the reader to new sources in his very extensive Afterword.

One of the objectives of the book is to show that Attila was not a genius, certainly not a military genius, and that the Hun empire existed before Attila, and could have existed thereafter (as did the empire of Genghis Khan). Attila died prematurely, however, leaving many sons, and the Hun empire soon fell apart.

Reading a book this detailed is not generally necessary for games as broad as Britannia and its ilk. I do learn many details that aren't so clear in books of broader scope. For example, I knew that Aetius, the patrician who defended (and dominated) the West Roman Empire for more than two decades, was a friend of the Huns, and used the Huns to prop up the empire despite the crippling loss of Africa to the Vandals in 429. I had not realized that he was a more or less lifelong enemy of the Visigoths, who had settled in southwestern France after sacking Rome in 410. The biggest criticism of Attila is that he managed to fight his friend Aetius, and force Aetius into alliance with his lifelong enemy the Visigoths, at the Catalaunian Fields in 451. While exactly what happened during the battle is unknown, the Huns withdrew afterward.

Thompson and Heather don't spend much time on the Huns before or after Attila's death, but there's more detail here, again, then I've had from broader histories. The Huns didn't just disappear, even after their defeat in 454 by the Gepids. "Huns" were in the Balkans for many decades thereafter (one can trace partial histories of some of Attila's sons), though one of the problems we have is that the word "Huns" became a generic word for steppe barbarians.

The Peoples of Europe series, Blackwell, 1999. I bought a used copy through Amazon.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

I've just read (some of) a long discussion about "hidden but trackable information". is the last page.

This is information that is hidden in the game, but could be tracked by someone: card counting is an example of this tracking. Opinions about this vary widely, from "I always make this information not hidden" to "if some players are willing to track it and others are not, more power to them" to "it's unethical to track this hidden but trackable information".

The reason it interested me is the second edition of Britannia. All previous editions of Britannia use a scoresheet to track victory points, and anyone can look at the points anytime. Fantasy Flight clearly felt that players must never be required to write anything down. At first they were going to put a VP track on the board, but I suggested that over the course of a long game there was far too great a chance that the victory points would be mistracked, especially with dice flying around and the usual player clumsiness. So they chose to include victory point markers.

VP markers make the VP "hidden but trackable". Anyone can keep score the old way, and know exactly how many points the players have.

Now, part of the exercise of strategy in Britannia is knowing what scores nations "ought to" have on average, and recognizing where the deviations are. The scoresheet makes it easy to keep track of this, so that players can spend their time analyzing the deviations. The most successful players can use the scores to help them decide what to do. The players who aren't quite at the top level tend not to think as much about the scores, or don't know the "expected outcomes" as well.

To me, then, any player who wants to do everything he can to win, will get his own scoresheet and track the scores even when the VP markers are being used. It might be reasonable to agree before playing that players cannot write down scores, but some folks with good memories will track them anyway. I don't think you can force players NOT to track the scores. So practically speaking, I'd just keep the scoresheet, and use the VP markers to track things like Norse "touch points".

Casual players, on the other hand, may prefer the VP markers.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Game length of B2

The initial games at the WBC Brit tournament took longer than old Brit, but that seemed to be a consequence of unfamiliarity, and games took less time as we went on.

One person suggested to me that the new game was quicker because players wouldn't have to keep thinking about how to employ "floaters", the raiders that stayed at sea forever.

I thought that the "new" dice rolling method for attacking Romans/cav combined with forts/infantry would speed play up slightly. ("New" is in quotes because it's the way the Gibsons game is played, the way I intended it.)

Finally, someone thought the game would be faster because the Avalon Hill corruption that invaders had to worry about overpopulation after the first half of the invasion is gone. This simplifies invasions.

I can't think the game is MUCH shorter, though.

I am a bit puzzled by reviewers of boardgames who play the game once and then criticize the game in a review for weak play balance. The very idea that you can understand the play balance after one play is beyond me, when the game is asymmetrical, because even the best boardgamers won't figure out a complex game in one play. There are some games where people constantly disagree about the play balance--Britannia 2 is the obvious one, from my point of view--so how do reviewers get off with deducting points for poor balance after playing once?

I suspect it's symptomatic of a characteristic of contemporary game players: they don't ordinarily study the depths of a game--usually because they don't play it very often before moving on to another-- and usually do not become expert players. To them, if the balance isn't immediately OK, it must be defective. (Symmetrical games are very common in the Euro field, where play balance is fairly easy to arrange, whereas historical games are usually asymmetrical.)

I recall a young player at the WBC Britannia tournament who, when he finished, said he couldn't see how he could have done anything differently (no, he didn't win). It was only after some expert players talked with him a while that he realized there were large choices he hadn't seen, and also, that even small choices made a difference in the long term. He had seen only the few big, obvious, choices. He may have been accustomed to Euro games, where designers try to make the range of choices obvious, though it isn't necessarily obvious which one of those choices you should select. They're trying to get rid of "analysis paralysis", too many choices that cause the player to think too much and take too long. Some players LIKE lots of choices, and they are often the people drawn to a game like Britannia and some other wargames.

I suppose you could dub this the "shallow play syndrome". It's fairly obviously related to the "cult of the new" syndrome. While it doesn't matter to me if people play that way, it's annoying when they don't recognize that that is what they are doing, and adjust their reviewing accordingly.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

The World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) are held every year on the east coast (currently Lancaster PA). The Britannia tournament has run since 1991 or therabouts. Jim Jordan, the GM, has kindly permitted me to post his account of this year's tournament :

WBC 2006 Britannia Tournament

45 people, more than the tournament has had in 4 of the last 5 years, journeyed through the looking glass following the glittering promise of the new Britannia just published by Fantasy Flight Games. FFG’s repackaging of the classic game was universally admired by the crowd for its eye-catching graphic design. Only one mistake was universally declared by all, whoever decided that the Romans should be yellow when the board background had also been changed to yellow was clearly out of their mind. In the minds of most players, the Romans are purple and shall remain so for many years.

But a change in color did not affect game designer Lew Pulsipher’s rewrite of the rules. Lew set out to rationalize the multiple versions of the rules that had been created, encourage more historical accuracy into the game play, and correct some of the clear imbalances of the game. Thus, the raiders floating at sea for hundreds of years that nearly drove the placid Lew apoplectic when he saw it at this tournament are no more, and shockingly, King Arthur will be visiting Scotland no more.

As to balance between the colors, there was evidence that it may have been addressed. More years of statistics will be needed, but the tournament numbers are promising. This year was different from the years of the original Britannia where red and purple wins dominated the tables each year, with green years occasionally showing up, and blue frequently only grabbing one win, if any. This year, in the 17 heat games, yellow (also known as purple) and green each had 4 wins, while red and blue had 5 each.

While the distribution of color wins were a promising statistic, the closeness of many of the games also gave evidence of the rebalancing of the game. One of the heat games resulted in a tie, advancing two winners to the semi-finals. Another of the heat games came down to a win by 2 points…in which the win was secured by a Saxon infantryman taking out a Norman cavalry in single combat. In the semi-finals, another tie occurred, with it being one retreat away, on the last battle of the game, from having been a 3-way tie. And another semi-final came down to a 1 point win.

Naturally, the balance in the colors did not prevent blowouts in some scores. As usual, high scoring plaques were awarded for each of the colors in the heat games. Ewan McNay came back with a multi-plaque performance again, garnering an astonishing blue high score of 338, and a nearly equal red score of 294. A newcomer, Daniel Farrow, showed very well with green, pulling in a score of 253 in a game with several old hands at the game. Lastly, championing the yellow (purple), Ted Simmons, who has played many games but not won before, won in fine fashion with a top yellow (purple) of 244 points.

Low scores did not abound, but, as Lew keeps reminding the crowd, Britannia is a dice game, and sometimes those dice turn against you. For that, we have the Ethelred the Unready award. Eric Kleist went to the semi-finals with a handsome blue win in the 2nd round. But a 3rd round game proved not so propitious as the dice turned against Eric’s Saxons and he pulled in at the end with 184 points.

And at last, let’s go to the final. Although many newcomers were drawn to the republished game, apparently experience in the old game still tells in the new with four of the usual suspects making up the final game. Ewan McNay (Blue), Scott Pfeiffer (Green), Barry Smith (Yellow) and Llew Bardecki (Red) met Sunday morning. In a dramatic opening, 8 of Barry’s legions were killed, with 3 of them being lost when 6 of Llew’s Brigantes came streaming from the north and descended like locusts on March. Such was their wrath that they killed all 3 legions and the fort they garrisoned, and then had to lose a unit to starvation.

However, Llew’s weakly defended Brigantes left behind in the north attracted an attack by the Picts on the Brigantes. Boudicca’s rebellion though, a new feature of turn 1 of the game, passed with a whimper, Boudicca storming into Essex and being cast back by the legions with no losses. Meanwhile, Scott’s Welsh, as has become the norm with the new Britannia, retired to submission to the Romans after killing 3 legions.

But Barry’s spending of the blood of the dead legions paid off with his acquiring every Roman point possible on turns 1-3.

After the passing of the Romans, the Germanic tribes came ashore in usual fine fashion, with the newly named Saxon leader Aelle building a fort in the Downlands surrounded by his mighty army. Apparently, distracted by the Saxons coming ashore to the south, the Brigantes signed a deal with the Angles and submitted when but a single Angle sauntered into the halls of Strathclyde.

The deal left a crowded invasion for the Angles. But that distracted them not at all from their prime target as 10 Angles piled onto King Arthur, protected by two cavalry and two infantry, and dramatically slaughtered all of the Romano-British with a single roll.

Meanwhile in the north, Ewan’s Picts, untouched by the Romans, and able to spread out and grow, maxed out their population, presenting a huge wall before the Scottish invasion. Barry’s Scots killed a few Picts, but his dice turned cold and the Ewan’s Picts rolled back the Scots into the sea, with a little help from some restless Angles in the south. And so, at turn 9, there were no Yellow pieces on the board, and none to return until turn 12 when the Dubliners appeared.

A quiet mid-game was primarily of interest because of Llew’s creeping Brigante presence. The submission deal with Ewan’s Angles allowed the to grow. Unfortunately for Ewan’s hapless Picts, the only avenue for growth left to the Brigantes was to the North. By turn 10, Scotland became the northern kingdom of the Brigantes with Strathclyde, Dalriada, Alban and Dunedin being held strongly.

With the quiet mid-game, it looked like Scott’s Danes would have a completely full board to attempt to storm. But a successful round of raids on turn 11 softened up the coast, and the armies ashore ran to hide from the impending Dane invasion on turn 12. Scott’s Danes swept through and killed many of Ewan’s Angles and a few of Llew’s Saxons, but unlike their more successful raids, the Danes were bled with nearly every battle and ended with few forces left to defend their newly acquired gains.

Turns 13 and 14 were a mostly kingless swirl of chaos as the nations fought each other for enough breathing space to survive and grow. But Scott’s Danes, Barry’s Dubliners, Llew’s Saxons, and Ewan’s Angles balkanized England sufficiently for Cnut, even with his weakened armies, to still achieve a very short-lived kingdom.

Turn 15 dawned. A red-green deal yielded Scott’s Welsh sending a mighty army of 4 units out to York to defend against Barry’s Norwegians. Meanwhile, the Norman’s faced a thin shield wall to the South with Llew’s Saxons having been thinned out by the strife throughout England in the previous 3 turns.

Of course, when 9 of Barry’s Norwegians, along with the leader Harald Hardrada, descended on York, the mighty Welsh army shredded like mist, taking only 1 Norwegian with them. Heartened by their victory, the Norwegians then went to easily take the rest of their points, knocking more of Scott’s Welsh out of North Mercia and March for an invasion with a quiet denouement.

Llew’s Saxons decided to defend King Harold by sheltering in the friendly hills of Wales and left a tissue thin defense of the coast, with only one Burh, the new wooded towns constructed by the Saxons, sitting on the coast. Scott’s Jutes in Kent and Sussex felt very lonely. Ewan’s Normans swiftly took advantage of the opportunity given to tear apart the Saxons. But Scott’s mighty Jutes took ill to the incursion by the Normans and killed 2 cavalry and 2 infantry, casting William back to Essex.

Turn 16 came with exhausted armies everywhere on the board. Ewan’s Picts managed to struggle back into and hold their homelands. And a desperate grab at the end captured the last island for Llew’s Norsemen, but the empty lowlands yielded a victory for the Normans as they spread out. At the last though, the Normans were cheated of kingship by the last battle in which a Saxon infantryman killed one of the last Norman cavalry in another deadly single combat.

When the dust settled, Ewan’s blue had scored 234, Llew’s red 228, Barry yellow (purple) 222, and Scott’s green 204. The win makes Ewan the 2nd 3 time winner after Scott Pfeiffer. Another great final for the Britannia tournament!

Reducing the Overall Effects of Chance in Britannia

(or Risk, or Axis and Allies, or any other game where

you roll individual dice toward a result)

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

While at least three quarters of Britannia players (according to one online survey) are satisfied with the role of chance in combat, it's certainly true that poor dicing can be frustrating. No matter how good a player is, if his luck is consistently bad he's unlikely to win.

I'm going to describe a simple method that not only "evens out" luck during a game, but also speeds it up, because players don't spend time in physical gyrations before rolling, and in chasing errant dice after rolling.

Get a deck of playing cards (or two) for each player. Take out all but the Aces through 6’s, and shuffle. Players turn over the top card for each die roll. Three dice, three cards. When a player's deck of 24 (or 48) is exhausted, shuffle and start again. Over the course of the game each player will "roll" about as many 1's as 6's, and so on.

The only problem that might arise is players "counting cards", that is, memorizing which cards (or how many 5's and 6's) have already come up. If so, two decks of cards per player will make that memorization harder, though it will increase the variance of chance over the course of the game as each player will likely have more cards left unused at game end than when using one deck.

If players still insist on “counting” cards, this will be acceptable to many. After all, this allows players to “manage” their luck. If they know they have a lot of 5’s and 6’s coming up, they may choose this time to move into difficult terrain; of if they’ve used up lots of high numbers, they will realize it is not a good time to be fighting Romans or cavalry.

Turning over cards isn't as exciting as rolling dice, but it's a lot quicker and "fairer".

Alternatives to playing cards: Use the "business card" template in Word or WordPerfect to create your numbered cards. Print them on ordinary paper and put them into "card protectors" that are used by fans of collectible card games, or print on business card stock (buy at office supply stores) and use without protectors. Or just write the numbers on paper or business card stock. Or write numbers on plastic chips or cardboard chits and pull them from a cup—just remember to draw all of them before refilling the cup.

Don't use this method for a game where you roll and sum combinations of dice (e.g. 2d6 or 3d6); it skews the results away from extremes (such as a 2 or 12 for 2d6), though the more cards in the deck, the less skewing occurs.

Friday, August 11, 2006

In my playtesting Yahoo Group I had a couple instances of spamming, so I switched to requiring new users to say something about themselves. I've had two cases where "new users" said nothing, and didn't reply to my query. Surely this isn't worth the time for these spammers?

Worse, some idiot has figured out how to automate entries to my feedback form on my Website, so I have dozens of little spam messages.

In a month I get more than 2,200 spam e-mail messages.

Of course, if foolish people would stop responding to spam (buying the product or service), it wouldn't be worth doing in any case.

Monday, August 07, 2006

I was at WBC (World Boardgaming Championships) the first week of August. I watched 22 B2 games in the tournament (and a bit of one pickup game) as well as having B3 played one and a half times, and a few B2 scenarios as well.

What I had resigned myself to, came to pass by the semi-finals: in the last five games, the Romans maxed their Round 3 points in four (80 points), and missed max in the fifth game because one territory was missed and the Roman failed in a 2-1 attack on Boudicca and one army (both Romans died!). I believe in that game the Picts did not submit; in all the other games, all eligible submitted. In many cases they put up a decent fight (Brigs killing three Roman armies and a fort in the final), but they submitted. The difference is how many the Romans get in R5, and how many points the non-Romans score.

The Romans do not have to take a lot of chances to achieve this result. If they did, the result would not be so consistent.

I am not thrilled at this result, though it does illustrate historical Roman power. If I had it to do again I might reduce the number of Romans back to 15, though more likely I'd give the Picts (and maybe the Brigs) the option of revolting if the Romans leave no garrison up north (as is often the case). At WBC many of the English players refuse to expend armies in raids on the Romans unless a fort is undefended by an army. If more armies had to stay north, there's be more targets further south.

OTOH, I read about people who have so much trouble with the Romans, that it might be bad if I'd made it even harder. There is definitely a learning curve here, and some people assume that if they have trouble the first time, then the Romans must be at a big disadvantage ("hosed"). I only saw the Romans achieve this max once in the preliminary three rounds (17 games), but people were learning. Many had not seen B2 before.

In B3 I already have the Welsh (with Caratacus) moving after the first half of the Roman MI; I may include revolting opportunities (double meaning there, from the Roman point of view) for Brigs and Picts as well.

I will also venture this: any Roman who does not take Devon in his first move, and does not take Downlands before the Belgae submit, has Screwed Up BigTime.

The tournament had 45 participants, up from 34 the last two years. Apart from two games at Origins, this was the first time I'd seen people playing the published version of B2.

More in the next couple weeks.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

I was writing about "too many games", which I'll post in a while, when the news surfaced that Eagle Games had ceased operations (no chance of revival, though curiously, their Web store will continue business). There was much speculation on Boardgamegeek once the newspaper notice of sale of physical and intellectual assets was seen. Glenn Drover, Eagle's owner, then stated that "Due to a sudden and severe downturn last year in the demand for poker products, Eagle Games, Inc. became insolvent and finally ceased operations on May 31, 2006."

Even after this, some BGG people continued to speculate that poor game quality had done in Eagle. I think we ought to take the owner largely at his word: he put a lot of money into Poker products, and suddenly demand disappeared. I recall Eagle selling a Texas Hold 'Em computer game a couple years ago. Perhaps this game initially made a lot of money. Perhaps Eagle produced large quantities of the game and additional computer titles, then found that few were buying them. When they could not pay those production costs, they'd be forced out of business.

I can imagine that there are now free or advertiser-supported computer programs that do the same thing the Eagle programs did. Once the pool of people who would buy the Eagle products in stores (not knowing about the free stuff) was played out, who was there to buy it? I'm not into poker, but I understand the poker programs are a dime a dozen.

The games business may have been doing OK, but could not provide the money to pay the poker production costs. I recall talking with a publisher a couple years ago who wondered how Eagle could make money selling those big box, plastic-pieces games. Hasbro can do that, but they have vast distribution and can benefit from huge economies of scale in production. Someone (IIRC Glenn himself, but I could be wrong) told me then that Eagle printed 10,000-40,000 copies of a game. This is considerably higher than most game production, as far as I can gather. But they did get into distribution channels that most game companies only dream of.

And Eagle, in later years, went with a formula that only Fantasy Flight also pursues, as far as I can see. They looked for tie-ins with books and movies. While I cannot understand any reason why a game based on a book or movie is any more likely to be a good game than one that is not, the public at large doesn't look at things this way. So if you want to sell lots of copies in places where non-hobby-gamers might buy games, you look for those tie-ins to help persuade the buyers who never heard of BGG to spend $40-60. In a sense, what a thousand people at BGG think of the game doesn't matter much, when you're trying to sell 10 or 20 thousand copies or more. People buy the game because of the tie-in and the good looks, not because it's known to be a good game. Even BGGers seem to anticipate the release of Pirates the boardgame and Age of Empires III the boardgame, not knowing whether they will be good games or not.

So Eagle's business model might be OK. Whether the game business model was adequate or not, it was an overinvestment in poker that did them in.

Let me tell you about another case where a poor decision, having nothing to do with boardgames (or even with games at all?) did in a well-known company. In 1982 Heritage Models produced eight "microgames" under the "Dwarfstar" label. Heritage was primarily a producer of miniature figures, owned (IIRC) by the well-known Duke Seifried. Two of those Dwarfstar games were designed by people outside the company, one of them me (Dragon Rage was the game). Consequently I heard the story when Heritage closed its doors.

The way I heard it, the owner and his banker got into a "spitting contest" (not literally spitting, of course) and this finally resulted in the banker calling in the loan. Although the Microgames sold well (print run was 10,000 copies each, not so much then but very large now), there was no way they could mange to pay off the loan. So that was the end of the company (and I was never paid a cent for designing the game). The "plates" used to produce the games remained in the hands of the (unpaid) printer, and ultimately disappeared.

This was not a bad *business* decision, it was a bad personal decision, but the company died as a result. Someone who did not hear the story might speculate that the failure of the games had led to the company's failure, but nothing could be further from the truth.

(My memory of this is 20-some years old now, so I hope I haven't butchered it; and of course, I can only repeat what I was told by my contacts in the company.)

In Eagle's case, they made a business decision to "bet the farm" on one product line, the result was the opposite of what they expected, and they're out of business. Unfortunately for all boardgamers. The ones who might benefit the most will be Fantasy Flight, as there will be less competition for those tie-ins.

Lew Pulsipher

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When do players score?

In many victory point boardgames, players score at the end of each play. For example, Vinci and many others. This is the rough equivalent of the scoring method used in boxing. In boxing some people dislike this method, because you can have one fighter in a mess at the end of the match, and the other doing fine, yet the first could win because he piled up scoring in the early rounds. Perhaps for that reason, in other games, players score at the end of the game (often, the game ends when one player has a given score), and everything that contributes to their score is present at the end of the game. Catan??? In other words, this is a "snapshot" score, directly gaining nothing from previous turns even though the actions of each player have helped create the game-ending situation (the gain is indirect). If this were applied to boxing, at the end of the match judges would decide which fighter was in best shape to win if the fight continued, and award him the victory.

The score-by-turn method tends to suit the "age of instant gratification", because you play your turn and then you get your reward (points). The score-at-end method tends to suit an older generation that was willing to put off short-term rewards for long-term good.

At my age (55) I seem to be in the score-at-the-end camp in my designs, but I can understand the other point of view, especially in historical games. After all, EVERY nation is going to "lose" sooner or later--even the Roman Republic/Empire lasted "only" a thousand years--so we ought to consider how well the nation is doing along the way.

Here's my proposal, something that may already be done in some games though I do not know of any. Why not score both ways? Say the game lasts four rounds. Players score at the end of their rounds 1 through 3, and at the end of the game (round 4) they score three times their round 4 score, which is based on how they're doing right now. So the score would be R1 + R2 + R3 + 3xR4. This provides the instant gratification, yet also rewards the player who manages to be in the best position at the end of the game.

Clearly, in some games--such as Vinci--this method doesn't make much sense. But in others, say civilization-building, games, it has much appeal.

I think most score-by-turn games let each player score as soon as their turn is over. Some others wait until the end of the round, then have everyone score at once. I suppose which method you use depends on the sequence of play and on what advantage there is to moving first, since the score-at-end-of-entire-round favors those who play last in the round.

Does anyone know of a game that uses the combined form of scoring?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Cultural differences in game-playing

Origins 2006 was my third Origins in a row (I also attended way back when it was at Baltimore, just starting up). Something I try to do is observe who it is who are playing the games.

We already know that there are cultural differences in game playing. The Germans, for example, regard playing boardgames with the family as what we now call a "family value". American parents evidently don't feel that way--one of the K12 teachers said he'd be ecstatic if he could get parents to play boardgames with their kids. German manufacturers market educational games aimed to persuade parents to buy them for their kids. It may be harsh or cynical, but I'd say that Americans would tend to be suspicious of anything labelled "educational game" that they saw in Toys R Us or Wal-Mart--somehow "educational" can't be "fun" to us.

Game manufacturers would love to know if the Chinese and (Asiatic) Indians have a culture that encourages play of boardgames. That's over two billion people in opening markets.

I've written before about the graying of the wargamers, and it still seems to be the case that most of those playing board wargames--not a large number, really--tend to be middle-aged. The CCG players tend to be young. And the miniatures players (miniature armies, not HeroClix and such) also tend to be gray but with an admixture of quite young players. (A friend of mine who goes to Historicon, evidently the mecca for historical miniatures players, says they're starting to see youngsters there in some numbers.)

What's really striking, though, is the absence of black (and Hispanic) players. I live in an area that's about one third black, and that has sprouted hundreds of dual-language signs in the past 10 years or so because of immigrants from Mexico and parts south. Yet when I remember to look for black and Hispanic players, I see virtually none at game conventions, whether it's Origins, PrezCon, or WBC.

A black friend of mine says that there is no cultural difference between black and white Americans, but this doesn't appear to be true. If you're at Disney World, for example, and see a black person (there aren't many), odds are that person is not speaking American English. At Origins this year I saw two black people (at a convention that, last year, had 15,000 different individual attendees). One was a woman from Harlem, a teacher who had heard about the convention only a few days before and came because she's interested in using games to help teach. The other was someone I noticed in passing in the crowd.

Now given that I don't ordinarily notice the color of folks in a crowd, I once again did my unscientific survey, sitting in the same place I did last year (but early in the day, rather than late afternoon, unfortunately), and counted 200 people who passed by. I was mainly interested in the proportion of females (who seemed more numerous this year), but it was also easy to count blacks, as there were NONE in 200. I didn't try to count Hispanics as I can't reliabily recognize all Hispanics just from looking, but I saw few if any that were "obviously" Hispanic. There were 57 females in the 200 people.

I have managed to misplace my figures from last year (and that's hard to do when you use Info Select and Google Desktop....), but IIRC the proportion of females was somewhat less, and slightly more black.

Now does this mean black people don't play these games? Not necessarily, but it does mean they don't attend conventions for people who play these games, which may mean they don't play them much, or may mean something else.

It would be interesting to see data for ethnicity of those who play computer games. Anyone have any?

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Friday, July 14, 2006

Player elimination--how to avoid in Euro-wargames:

One of the most common characteristics of Euro-style games is "no player elimination". One of the most common characteristics of multi-player wargames (such as Diplomacy and Risk) is . . . player elimination. My question here is, how do we avoid player elimination in multi-player "Euro-wargames".

In case it isn't obvious, I'm not including two player games, as if you're wiped out, you lose, and the game is over. What I don't want is a game that has not ended, yet a player has been eliminated.

First, players can control several nations, with new ones appearing according to historical or other schedules. Individual nations may be eliminated, but the player will still have forces to control. This method is used in Ancient Conquest, Britannia, and the many derivative games of this type usually called "Britannia-like" games.

Another form of this "succession" is that players can choose to play new nations when their old ones lose steam or disappear entirely. This is used in Vinci and (somewhat differently) in History of the World, for example.

It's worth noting that the above games are victory point games rather than games with a territorial victory condition. Risk, Diplomacy, and other games that allow player elimination often have territorial victory conditions.

In games that reflect great chaos, an eliminated player can return as a new nation. For example, a player of a "civilized" nation can re-enter the game as barbarian horde (or more generally, re-enter game as new player).

In my prototype Germania, when a player feels his nation is in hopeless shape, he can take over another, non-player nation (barbarian invaders, usually) and play it as a player nation henceforth. On rare occasions a player can win this way, though usually not.

In general, in any game an inexhaustible supply of new resources (many card games, for example) often combined with lack of geography or very abstract geography, means that no player is eliminated. This can be achieved in a wargame, though one of the typical characteristics of a wargame is a specific geography.

For example, you can make the player's home unassailable by other players. Generally that home will deliver significant resources so that there's a chance to re-expand. I have used this in several prototypes such as Colonia (TM). Another possibility is that even if the home area is taken, the invader must leave (a "civilized" peace treaty) and the victim can begin to recover. For example, in Seas of Gold (TM) (prototype), a player's Italian maritime city may be sacked, but the attacker then extracts wealth and other benefits from the city yet is forced to leave. It is difficult but not impossible to win after suffering a Sack.

In these games I have abstracted the geography of the players' homes. In Colonia all begin in a single area (e.g. Greece), yet may expand throughout the Mediterranean world. In Seas of Gold all are in Italy, without considering the specific geography there because it would so strongly favor Venice and Genoa.

While some of the non-elimination games I've mentioned have some zero-sum characteristics, none is truly zero-sum, whereas Diplomacy certainly is, and Risk has strong zero-sum characteristics. One might posit that when a game is zero-sum, that is, when one player's gain is another's loss, and you cannot make a gain without causing someone else a loss, you will likely have player elimination. In a non-zero-sum game it will be much easier to avoid player elimination, because players can gain without causing others to lose an equivalent. Elimination of territorial victory conditions should also help avoid player elimination.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher
I've been thinking again about "alternate history" scenarios for Britannia. This would be events such as Charlemagne attacking Britain. At one time someone suggested the Huns might have beaten the "Romans" in 451, then raided Britain. This was my response:

In counterfactual history we can posit whatever we want, really, but as I see it there are two possibilities, the plausible and the "no way!".

Because of a fairly obscure circumstance, the Huns were never going to stay in Gaul, any more than the Avars or Magyars did when they raided France. In case anyone is interested I will explain.

All of these were horse nomads, "warriors of the steppe". They required grasslands to survive (living on their herds), and there aren't many natural grassland areas in Europe (which is good for us descendants of Europeans). The Hungarian plain is the westernmost, another is Bulgaria. The Huns, moving west for whatever reasons, settled in Hungary (which is actually named after a Magyar word, I understand, not after the Huns). They displaced some Germans in the process, who moved south and west. They raided from Hungary but always came back to where their horses would thrive. When the Huns were defeated by Gepids and others, the remnants either streamed back into the Russian steppe, or hung out in Bulgaria--many of these first Bulgarians may been Huns. (There was another, slavic, lot, more or less, later on.) Some Bulgars went to Bulgaria, some went up the Volga to become the Volga Bulgars. Who knows how many were Huns?

Anyway, the Avars showed up and took over the H. plain. They raided all over the place, besieged Constantinople unsuccessfully, finally got stomped by the Byzantines (but the emperor was murdered before he could finish them off (602)). After that they made much less trouble, but Charlemagne had to stomp them and "more or less" finish them off.

Then Magyars turned up in Hungary, and they raided all over, Balkans, Italy, Germany, France, until defeated twice by Germans (second time 955). After that they turned into Christian European Hungarians.

The Mongols stomped the Hungarians; fortunately for us, they streamed back into Asia when the Great Khan died. Could the Mongols have conquered Europe? Maybe they had the technical knowhow to take castles, but there were no grasslands to attract them, not much treasure--so why bother in the long run? And they never came back.

There were grasslands in between the two rivers of Mesopotamia, the Aljazeera (I've seen it spelled different ways), which is where the Seljuk Turkish nomads were happy to base themselves. The other horse area down there is the central Anatolian plateau--unfortunately for the Byzantines.

Why are these areas grasslands instead of forest? Insufficient rainfall, I think, same as the American Great Plains. Only near rivers did you see trees, out there, before men intervened.

So I'd count the Huns as "no way".

BTW, the Goths became horsie types when they migrated to the steppes, but I suspect they maintained an agricultural orientation, and so could adapt back when forced off the plains by the Huns. And they were willing to migrate to areas that, while not grasslands, had been cleared of forests for agriculture, that is, Spain, Italy, France. Not Germany (which wasn't cleared until 1100-1200 thereabouts).

Forests are heavy-duty barriers to the non-technological. Southern Sweden used to be part of Denmark because forest intervened between it and the main part of Sweden.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Thursday, July 13, 2006

For some reason, the other day I wondered about how a Britannia-like treatment would work with a hex board. (Hexes are not attractive to large markets, of course.) Ancient Conquest was a hex game.

Hexes give the opportunity for more detail in terrain...swamp, forest. And if they're fairly big hexes, say big enough to accommodate the new pieces, there might be room for terrain without having TOO many spaces.

I just tried to find an online source of transparent hex material to lay over the board, but no luck.

Not that I'm likely to pursue the matter.
I went to Paizo Publishing’s reception Saturday night at Origins to talk about their magazines. They publish Dragon and Dungeon, and used to publish Amazing Stories and Undefeated, but those have gone away. I used to write lots of articles for Dragon 25 years ago, but quit doing so when TSR (owner at the time) chose to buy all rights to articles. To me, no self-respecting writer sells all rights, though nowadays it is the most common deal even for those who write RPG books. At any rate, I learned that Paizo must purchase all rights, even to generic material, because they are required to as part of the deal that lets Paizo license the magazines from Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro (WotC bought TSR some years ago, Hasbro bought WotC). So unless I someday dig up some old material (which I own the rights to) and revise it to let it go to these magazines, I won’t be appearing there again.

The more interesting question was the continued survival of the magazines. The “Millennial Generation” (Gen Y) is disinclined to read; national newspaper readership is declining rapidly, and I suppose magazine readership is declining as well (and they’re getting shorter...). Erik Mona, the editor, told me that they did a reader survey, and found that the average reader is 35 years old. This really surprised me, as the contents of Dragon appear largely aimed at kids. Even more interesting, he said that when the results were compared with a survey from way back when Kim Mohan was editor, most of the results were the same except the readership then averaged 16! So it appears to be the same readership, much aged. He expressed doubt that a new magazine of this type could succeed now, and I have to agree. I didn’t ask questions about circulation, but I’d speculate that Dragon circulation is much lower than it was in the heyday of first-second edition D&D. Still, it’s enough to keep their company going (and put on a nice reception). Dungeon magazine is even more valuable, for third edition D&Ders, than it used to be for first, because there’s so much more detail required in the stats to create a complete adventure. I would still be subscribing to Dungeon, but I decided not to ref 3D&D any more about a year ago, and I already had dozens of unread issues.

I haven't had much luck finding information about trends in magazine circulation generally. However, news magazine circulation is holding steady, though getting older, while "the audience for pop culture, entertainment and lifestyle magazines is growing".

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I got used to doing several things at once when I worked in computer support, but this is ridiculous. I seem to be reading the following books, all at the same time (well, not literally):

Illuminatus Trilogy (just the appendices, which I may never finish; it wasn't a very good set of novels)
Atlas of Middle Earth (revised edition)
The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather (for Barbaria(TM) and other Rome games)
The War God's Own (David Weber, one of over a dozen Weber novels on a CD with a recent hardcover Honor Harrington book)
Patterns of Pillage by Galvin, about Caribbean pirates (for Pirates Gold (TM))
Castles & Crusades Players Handbook


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I have not played D&D in over a year, after playing at least 10 times a year for 29 years. And I haven't missed it. I can't even remember the name of one of my major characters! (I have quite a few). It's partly circumstance, people moving away, few referees, and partly devoting time to boardgame playtesting instead. But I occasionally think about it.

I think also that third edition D&D's failings ("fantasy Squad Leader", someone called it), its encouragement to look for unearned advantages (such as high character attributes and prestige classes) instead of playing skill, put me off the game, and I've decided it's most unlikely I'll ever ref 3/3.5 again.

Recently I bought Castles & Crusades, which was recommended to me as a return to first edition D&D simplicity and adventure. I mainly played first edition D&D, but a drawback to it is that you cannot have new players go buy the rulebook(s), as the game is long, long out of print. I have about half a dozen copies myself, but that's not entirely satisfactory. I looked at Hackmaster, which uses first edition D&D as a base, but I didn't care for some of the attitude involved (players competing with the referee--if a ref can't win that, he isn't worth a hoot). C&C has much less detail than Hackmaster, but makes some useful changes to the older D&D rules (e.g., monks have d12 hit dice instead of d4, and saving throws and skills are subsumed in ability-based dice rolling).

This game is almost word-for-word first/second edition D&D in many places. The list of magic items includes one item after another with the same names and characteristics. Clearly, at some point WotC allowed companies to reproduce and sell the older D&D editions nearly verbatim.

The Players Handbook is quite inexpensive at Amazon ($12.97 for 128 pages with pasteboard covers). That makes it practical for new players. List is $20.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A recent Wired magazine includes an article on "crowdsourcing". This is an Internet phenomenon: the Internet provides access to many, many "amateur" practitioners of a skill, such that they now compete with professionals (and lower the prices available to professionals). The first example is stock photography: companies used to pay hundreds or thousands for small numbers of stock photos, but now there are sources of good digital photos available for stock use at $1 a photo. Why pay a hundred times as much when the "amateur" photos are excellent quality?

I believe that a form of "crowdsourcing" has happened to the role playing game industry. Quite apart from the glut of professional products, there are many, many products published by both standard publishers and PDF publishers that are written "by the crowd". Or to put it another way, there are so many fanboys and fangirls willing to write RPG material for nothing or next to nothing, material easy and cheap to find on the Internet, that traditional publishers cannot charge much for their publications, and cannot pay their authors much.

Given the amount paid to most writers (as low as two cents a word, and rarely as much as five cents a word), and the lack of royalty payments (RPG books are "works for hire", you're paid a lump sum and that's it), it's impossible for most writers to get a reasonable return on their time. This is particularly true if they test their material in actual gameplay, so usually they don't. This has contributed to the low quality of professional publications. At the same time there are people who love RPGs, who actual play their new stuff, then write it up and contribute it to the world at large. Some of this is likely to be better than much of the quickly-written junk published by the traditional publishers.

The result of all this: why buy RPG material, or why buy expensive RPG material when the PDFs are likely to be about as good and are much cheaper? And so the bottom has fallen out of the RPG market, with no prospect that it will ever return--because crowdsourcing is here to stay.

It is less likely that this will happen to boardgames, because much of the popularity of boardgames come from the tangible feel of the pieces. You can't put tangible pieces in a PDF, or self-publish them through lulu or xlibris. Though a day might come when there are companies that can mass produce small numbers of tangible pieces to be included in boardgames. Nonetheless there are places like that offer PDF wargames cheaply.

Moreover, without much playtesting hardly any game will be worth a hoot. You can write fairly decent RPG material without testing it, but you can't write a good boardgame without testing it.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Friday, June 16, 2006

Late last year I started a thread on BGG about fundamental structures of games. The brief version of my conclusions is listed below. Now I'm going to try to go through each of the nine elements and list many of the alternatives that are available to designers for that element. I did Economy in late December, now I’ll try some more.

Brief listing of nine structural systems of games (but not sports)
1. Theme/History/Story.
2. Objective/victory conditions.
3. “Data storage”. (Information Management)
4. Sequencing.
5. Movement/Placement.
6. Information availability.
7. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities.
8. "Economy" (resource acquisition).
9. Player Interaction rules.

Conflict resolution/Interaction
Tic-Tac-Toe (even here–the “resolution” is, you cannot place your maker where a marker already exists)

by rounds

Displacement elimination
checkers (form of, since you jump over rather than displace directly)

Surround or other pattern
Carcassonne (that’s scoring rather than conflict)
(You can see checkers jump as a form of this)

Adjacent conflict (wargames) often with dice or cards, sometimes with "combat tables"

Action at a distance (artillery, ship combats)

Trick-taking ("highest" wins)
Many variations
"Odds"--the strength of the piece makes a difference
Strength makes no difference in chess, pawn can take queen

Capture vs eliminate
Captured unit may be recovered/reused in some games, eliminated can be rebuilt in many
Captured can even be used by the captor (card games)
In some games, when it's gone, it's gone (checkers, "king" is just a way to show new status, not recovery of a unit)

"Bump" other piece to another location (as opposed to back into a pool)
some family games
some card games

Resource comparison (another form of "highest", but not confined to one card/piece)
Tigris & Euphrat

Often shoot from a distance (FPS) at a target

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"Euro-izing " Brit-like games

I've made a "current" list of techniques for making Brit-like games more like Euro or German-style games. Can anyone think of something that might be added?

Almost all of these methods are used in "Brit Lite" and have been playtested in that game or another.

1. No dice
I use cards for combat, each player playing one (usually); each player has an identical pile of cards, and has a hand of several of those cards at any given time.

2. Fewer areas
There is a danger of clogging movement channels here; however, occasional joint occupancy (two nations in one area) seems to work well enough, in conjunction with the card-based combat

3. Fewer pieces
However, I've found by testing that reducing stacking to one in difficult terrain and two in clear just doesn't work right. 2 and 3 seem to be the minimums. But with fewer areas you can end up with fewer pieces. Also, the "overstack" can be one greater than the normal max, perhaps +1 more if a leader is present.

4. Fewer decisions to make
Fewer pieces can help, but the extreme is an action system, where you can take only a few actions in a turn (that is, you won't be able to move all your pieces)

5. Fewer turns
8 to 10 looks viable (Brit lite has 9)

6. Easy points method
Points based on one (or two) areas, no nation cards needed (or very simple)

7. Score points at the end of the Nation Turn (immediate feedback, typical of Euros)
But NOT scoring every round--that just doesn't work

8. Choose up sides option
Players choose their nations at game start; when this works, it allows for three and five player versions, too (standard setups included as well)

9. Event cards for an optional version of the game (not tournament standard). These can provide lots of historical flavor, too

10. Quicker combat resolution
This is provided by the card option, very quick

11. Less "death"
If you have fewer pieces, and a combat system that doesn't result in massacres but more likely in retreats, this works out

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sweep of History Games Magazine #2 is available (7 MB download!, PDF only):
(This is a page link, not a direct link to the file.)

There are also two new surveymonkey polls open: Britannia ColorComparison poll Brit event frequency poll
I recently completed an online gamers' survey sponsored by GAMA. Here's the announcement:

Help us bring you better games!

OhioState University's School of Communication, in partnership with the Game Manufacturers Association and The Wargamer, is doing a survey of game consumers to gather information about what kind(s) of games you like and why you buy them. This information will go to manufactuers and publishers to help make the type(s) games you want. Any and all gamer players are welcome to participate and submit their responses. Please help us bring you better games by going to ( and taking the survey. Thank you for your time!

It is very long, especially at the end. I suspect that many people will quite partway through, thus further skewing what is already inevitably skewed because it's a Web-based survey. Jakob Nielsen tells us that Web surveys should be very short to get higher participation. This is the opposite.

The results will nonetheless be interesting, keeping the skewing in mind.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

I went to Rick Steeves' in Durham for his monthly game night, and was lucky enough to find players much of the night for Law and Chaos (TM). This included several four player games, which I had not tried before--not entirely good, as I anticipated, as the game can go on much longer owing to the ability of three to gang up on one. Testing confirmed that it really is a natural three player game, one of the rarities of gaming.

Someone--a lawyer, I think--told a story of playing a game with someone who, unbeknownst to him, was the designer of the game. The story-teller kept challenging rule interpretations until the designer finally revealed who he was. The story-teller continued to challenge rulings, and the designer finally said something like "that's not how I meant it". Amusing, but it does point out that even a designer has to go by what the published rules say, or get an official errata distributed. This is one reason why I told people, once I'd come back into the hobby, that I couldn't provide rule interpretations for Brit 1, that they'd have to go by what was written.

One of the advantages of a Web page and blog is that I can indeed get errata distributed, if necessary, though it's quite clear that most game players do not look on the Web for additional information.

I am trying to get Sweep of History Game Magazine #2 finished and distributed before a vacation. Here's a minor part of it:

Book review:
Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (second edition 1984), Oxford University Press, paperback, over 500 pages.

This is one of the standard histories of the Vikings. Jones wrote in an era when the savagery of the Vikings was being downplayed--"oh, they were mainly merchants"--though he does not seem to have been entirely of that party. He does, however, buy the notion that the "Great Army" was only 500-1,000 men, a notion I find quite ludicrous given what that army did in both England and France. But it's inconvenient, if you believe the Vikings were mainly traders, to account for armies of 5,000-10,000, which is the size you'd judge both from the capabilities of the Great Army and from the number of ships reported by the chronicles. (The typical trick here is to believe the chronicles when they report small numbers of ships, and simply disbelieve when they report large numbers.)

Jones says at many points that Scandinavians in general and Vikings in particular (Vikings being those who roved overseas) were motivated by (had a goal of) "land, wealth, and fame". Anyone who designs a Viking game but does not account for this is leaving something out--of course, designers are always leaving things out.

Jones writes with a dry British wit combined with a poetic turn of phrase that is quite enjoyable. There is a LOT of detail, much of it not military in any way.