Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Book review

Review: Game Design: Principles, practice, and techniques--the ultimate guide for the aspiring game designer. Jim Thompson, Barnaby Berbank-Green, Nic Cusworth. Wiley, ISBN 0-471-96894-3. Full color, 192 pages including brief index and gloassary.

This is a very good book, particularly for teens. It is written primarily by a teacher, and makes strong use of color and illustrations. Each topic is covered in just two facing pages, usually. There is very little long text, again a plus where young people used to reading (skimming) the Web are concerned.

In the end, the book is not about game design generally, but about game design and production of video games that focus on a single character--FPS, action, and the like--the kind of game that particularly appeals to teenage boys.

This is the first book I've read that describes the process of modelling characters and then making them ready to be manipulated by programming.

There is almost no recognition--in common with most other books about digital games--that you can plan everything about a game down to a "T", but you won't really know whether you've got something good until you have a playable prototype. I've just been reading a history of the original Civilization game on Gamasutra that describes Sid Meir's process. He programmed, Bruce Shelley (who later made Age of Empires and earlier was the Avalon Hill "developer" for the American version of Britannia) played the game, they discussed what worked and what didn't, Sid modified, Bruce played, and so forth. The playable prototype was the key to success.

Perhaps genre games such as FPS are so similar to an archetype that you can plan it all beforehand and still get it (mostly) right. This "front-loaded" attitude primarily comes from the necessity for game studios to present detailed plans (the Game Design Document) to potential publishers. If the publisher likes the plan, they put up the money to enable the studio to produce the game. To put it another way, it's now too expensive to produce working prototypes of A-list games, so studios produce written plans. No wonder there's little risk or innovation in these games.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Brit-like game in block format?

Has anyone played a "block game" with four sides? By block game I mean one that uses small stand-up wooden blocks with a sticker on one side, so that the owner can see what the block represents, but other players cannot. Each block can be turned on different sides to represent different strengths, as many as four.

Virtually all block games are two-sided--I don't know of one with three or four sides--but I'm told that four sides work. To me, there'd be less than a 90 degree angle to opposing pieces, at times, and inevitably other players would sometimes see the "secret identity" of the piece.

Someone suggested using the block game format for a Brit-like game. This not only means how do we solve the four-side problem, but also how do we make a Brit-like game with no more than 100 pieces (the practical limit for production purposes, evidently, owing to expense). The low piece limit calls for a Euro-like game. The "step" format means that one piece could represent several armies, but you'd have to have a map with relatively few areas or use an alternative method to indicate occupation of areas (small markers instead of the blocks).

Even with the alternative method, the area count would have to be quite low--20 to 25. The lowest piece count I have in a game I've played is 127 armies plus leaders plus capitals and forts (Caledonia). The average number of pieces on the board in Brit is about 55, but at times up into the 70s and 80s. Brit has 37 land areas--so the average count is about 1.5 per land area, even though some of the pieces will be at sea most of the time. Italia has 624 pieces, Brit 200-some (which may be the fewest of any Brit-like game).

Think also, four players gives 25 blocks per player. The number of nations would have to be about 3 per player, which would also fit the Euro aim. But in only one of the many Brit-like ideas I've been working with for years, have I got a set of only 12 nations. Usually I struggle to keep it to 16, and often don't.

Using the hidden-information blocks, there'd also be a potential problem identifying which blocks of a color belonged to which nations.

I'm not sure Euro-wargamers would want to mess with the hidden nature of the blocks, or even the steps. I'm told that it's possible to abandon the secret information (lay the blocks down--also avoiding the nation identification problem) but retain the steps by pointing the blocks correctly away from the player. Has anyone played a game of this sort? Sounds awkward to me.

With so few units a dice-based combat method might not work well. I'd prefer using my card-based method, but cards are pretty expensive, too.

Commmand and Colors:Ancients lays the blocks down, I'm told, and
gamers like to have blocks rather than cardboard counters. I bought a big bag of blocks (variable sizes) used for the game but I didn't buy the game!

I like to try to impose constraints on designs, because sometimes the result is interesting and different. But I'm not sure that anything on the scale of a Britlike game can fit a block game format. A more or less square map (if one is trying to use hidden identities) of a relatively limited area might work best. Any comments or experiences?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Booths and sessions at Origins '07

Being a volunteer at a booth at a convention is a way to become known to publishers. But it can be tough, sitting (or standing) there up to eight hours a day for four days.

For example, at one booth the gang assumed that chairs would be provided. Instead, the convention wanted $47 per chair. So the boothies there (who hadn't brought their own chairs) had some sore feet.

I ask nosy questions. In particular I would ask how sales were, as I know that often the smaller publishers (and maybe the larger ones) can barely make enough to break even. In this case there seemed to be fewer booths than last year, which meant many more tables and chairs in the empty spaces where the attendees would rest their feet and play games.

July 4 just preceding the convention might have reduced attendance, who knows? After a while GAMA will probably announce the attendance figures.

Anyway, sales seems to work out this way. Thursday is the busiest. People spend their money when they get there, to make sure they get what they want before it's gone. (I bought two things Sunday; one was the last one in stock, the other was the last of two. The sellers really do run out of some things.) Friday might be 1/6th of all sales, Saturday might be the busiest, or almost as busy a Thursday. And then Sunday some people do come and spend money.

Someone had heard that next year people would be able to get a cheap or free badge to get into the exhibit hall only. As it is, you must pay the $40-$60 for the entire convention.

BTW, there are many games running at Origins, and virtually all of them cost some small amount ($1.50, $3.00, even $4.50 for some of the RPG stuff).

The available seminars (the free ones, not the historical ones that are part of the "War College") seemed relatively few in number and not very interesting. I was limited, of course, in what I could attend because I did three two-hour seminars. About the only one I attended was Paizo's "what's coming up", which was particularly interesting insofar as they can no longer publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines: where do they turn for revenue? They have interesting plans for "adventurepath" publications, and some clever card products such as a deck of results for critical hits (which I won as a door prize). There were about 14 attendees, fewer than any of my sessions, but from past experience, not a bad number.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Does online play of pblished boardgames help or hinder sales?

The subject expresses my basic question, but some explanation is called for.

Boardgames tend to be social activities. But sometimes a game is sufficiently unusual that it's hard to get people to play at the local game meet (or maybe there isn't a local game meet...). Online (or e-mail (PBEM)) play is an alternative for those who can't find interested players locally, or who want to play at a more convenient pace than face-to-face requires. Online/PBEM play tends to emphasize the strategic aspects of a game at the cost of social aspects. Online play can be set up to be real-time, more like face-to-face, but PBEM is always non-real-time.

I'm interested in these possiblities in relation to my game Britannia. Brit is a long game, and a game that requires some study and thought to play well. It isn't the sort of game that people just pull out at a game meet and recruit players to play it right then. Hence it lends itself to online/PBEM treatment, and the PBEM community is quite lively. I have "watched" a couple PBEM groups that play at a very fast pace (several moves a day), using an online dice-roller to resolve combat, and these folks play one game after another (one group is on its 20th consecutive game). There are PBEM tournaments as well.

Yet Fantasy Flight Games, the current publisher, chose not to post on their Britannia Web site an excellent article about how to play by e-mail. (It's on if you're interested, and also on the BGG Britannia site.) The reasoning was that someone could use the Cyberboard kit (which includes a map), with the rules posted online, and play without purchasing a copy of the game. (They'd actually have to get copies of the nation cards as well.)

Make no mistake about it, there are certainly times when people play a game by making a copy themselves (pirating it), rather than purchase one. Evidently, respect for copyright, or for rights of creators, is much lower than 30 years ago. In old hex-map and cardboard counters days it was fairly easy to make a copy of a game, given a paper map and paper pieces. Years ago no one gave away the rules to their game, as many publishers do today. I think pubishers realize that in the computer age it's so easy to scan rules that there is no way to "keep them secret" from people who haven't bought the game. So why not post the rules so that players have a chance to read them and decide whether to buy the game?

Even today, desktop published games use the same make-your-game principle. I believe that one major reason for the inclusion of three-dimensional "bits" in games, and of attractive color art (especially on cards), is to help persuade people to buy the game instead of using a pirated scanned copy.

On the other hand, Days of Wonder makes free online play of some of their games part of their support package. I recall hearing that Ticket to Ride had been played online more than a million times, and that was two years ago. Evidently, they don't believe that online play hurts sales of the boardgame. But Days of Wonder games are short, not long like Britannia, and the games tend to be not-very-strategically-complex as well.

We see companies that specialize in offering online play of boardgames. Hexwar's games have been out-of-print stuff, so the question of affect on sales does not apply. f2fgaming offers Hammer of the Scots, a two-player game of a popular type (block games) that is actually more convenient to play online than face-to-face, because you don't have to manipulate the blocks. (I thought f2f was charging a fee, but the site now says "Free" and has no news less than a year old.) Game Table Online offers currently-published games. Tower Games offers two games (in many varations) that are not available in a physical package. Their clientele may be history buffs rather than boardgamers. All of these except f2f are either pay-by-the-game or by-the-month. GTO is offering free memberships to those who play at least five gams a month, in an effort to make more opponents available.

I have sometimes thought that it will become common for a game to be offered first in an online-play version, and if that is successful, then the boardgame will follow. Has that happened with any game yet?

This is of interest to me because I retained the rights to online play of Britannia as I submitted it to Fantasy Flight (not as it was published, though in fact the two are virtually the same). I have several times been approached by people who wish to write on online-referee program, or host such a program if someone else wrote it. Nothing has come of it so far. I have to think that FFG might not be happy to see the game played online, for fear that it would cannibalize sales.

My opinion is that some people might play online and not buy the game, but those people were never going to buy the game in any case. On the other hand, some people who cannot find local opponents, and who aren't interested in PBEM play, might be happy to play online and would buy the game if the opportunity for online play was available.

Though Wizards of the Coast thinks they'll be able to make money by charging for online play of boardgames at their new Gleemax site, it appears to me unlikely that there is a significant market of people willing to pay to play online.

What say you, folks, about online play and its affect on sales, and about the market for pay-to-play online? Obviously this is a skewed audience, as the people in online forms are familiar with using computers in relation to games, and are also more enthusiastic about games than the average player, but I still think it will be interesting to hear your experiences and opinions.

(This is going to be posted four places: my game design blog, BGG general gaming, Consimworld, FFG Britannia site.)

Lew Pulsipher