Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Everyone plays video games"--NOT!

I occasionally read someone write that "everyone plays video games now". I suppose this is to contrast with "the old days" when video gaming was unusual, and the players felt they were somehow exceptional.

But it's the long-time video game fans writing this stuff. Even now, "everyone plays video games" is not even close to true. The Entertainment Software Association's own promotional literature says 68% of US households play video games. That leaves 32% that don't. And that's in the US, still a relatively rich nation where people can "waste" money on game consoles and PCs-for-leisure.

Not so many years ago, it made sense to say "half the people in the world have never placed a phone call". They might have talked on the phone after someone else placed the call in some village out in the sticks. I suspect phones are much more common now, but game consoles and PCs are still expensive luxury devices in much of the world.

So, while we probably can no longer say "half the people in the world have never placed a phone call", I'd guess that far more than half the people in the world rarely, if ever, play video games.

Even in the US, probably a third to a half the population rarely, if ever, play video games. The ESA quotes CBS Evening News as saying "A new study found that more than half of adults play video games, about one-fifth play daily or almost every day.”

Sorry, more than half isn't anywhere near "everyone". Get a grip on reality, get out of your insular point of view.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Going into the video game business as an independent company

I know of video game creation schools where students are told, "the game companies will just enslave you, start your own company." (This tends to happen at schools that are located far from video game companies.)

In any case, some people have an entrepreneurial frame of mind and want to start their own companies rather than work for someone else.

Also you may at some time have reason to deal with a small or startup company. At that point it's your duty to yourself to "scout" the company and find out whether they seem to understand their business, or if they're in cloud-cuckoo-land.

I have a few observations about starting a company.

First, a viable business plan is absolutely necessary. You do not want to just stumble into conducting a business the way you might stumble into playing a game. There is no "save game", no "start over"--if you fail, you're done. Many times, if you diligently research a business plan, you'll find that what you thought was reality, isn't. That may or may not change your mind about starting a company, and certainly may change how you go about it, but it's always better to have the option than to blindly go forth.

Even if circumstances change, you can adjust your plan as you go. The most important thing about planning is that it makes you think about what's supposed to happen and where you're trying to go. If you don't know where you're going, how can you ever get there? "Dumb luck" is not a business plan.

When you deal with a small or startup company, if they say something like "business plans don't matter because so many things change so quickly" or "business plans don't matter because no plan survives first contact with the enemy", RUN, don't walk, away from them. In effect, they're hoping to fight fires as they arise, rather than engage in fire prevention. They're hoping rather than planning. They're in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Second, "passion" and "hustle" and "hard work" are not going to magically make you succeed where others have failed. Do you think other startup companies didn't have those characteristics? Especially in the game industry, doesn't everyone who starts a new game company think he's passionate and a hustler and a hard worker? Don't even the big game companies expect people to work ridiculous hours and be very passionate? ("Ridiculous" hours because it's been well known for decades that after several weeks of working, say, 60 hours a week, you'll be no more effective than you were when you worked 40 hours, despite spending more time. This is one reason why most industries have 40 hour workweeks.)

If the small or startup company you're dealing with says they succeed on "passion" or "hard work", most likely they're hoping to succeed, not planning to succeed. Somehow "a miracle will occur". And you know, occasionally it does--but mostly not. If they tell you they're going to succeed where others have not, because they're so passionate about games and they're going to hustle so much, maybe you should find someone who talks business instead of football pep-talk.

Finally, know what business you're in. If you intend to make video games, make sure you behave as though you're in the entertainment business, not the technology business or some other business. There are exceptions, but most of the time video games exist to entertain. See my earlier post "what business are you really in?"

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Conventions and writing

I'll be at GenCon for the first time this year. The next two years it is at the same time as WBC, which I prefer for various reasons. And usually it is too close to the start of the college semester (I teach for a living).

I'll also be at WBC (World Boardgaming Championships). I'll be offering my talk about getting into professional game design (same as one of the two I do at Origins).

I am a contributor to Family Games: the 100 Best, which will be published later this year.

I've been asked to contribute to another anthology, a book about non-electronic game design, to be published next year by ETC Press.

My book "Get it Done: Designing Games from Start to Finish" is at 115K words. I'm trying to cut it down because the original aim was 100K.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The 400 Project

Video game developers have created a list of game design tips and maxims called the 400 Project. The original idea was to come up with 400 entries, I think, but the project apparently went dormant in March 2006 at 112. Contributors include some very well-known video game designers.

These are available at (You can click on the name of this post.) There used to be a downloadable spreadsheet, but I don't see the link now.

Some of the entries are more or less repetitions of others, some are specific to video games, but this list is good food for thought, especially if you want to design standard video-games-as-interactive-puzzles.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What business are you really in?

An example I used with computer networking students about "what business you're really in" is the failure of the great railroad companies (Santa Fe, Union Pacific, NY Central, etc.). The great railroad companies dominated late 19th century business; past the middle of the 20th, most were bankrupt. This happened because they thought they were in the railroad business, when they were actually in the *transportation* business. When the transportation business changed (trucks and good roads, airplanes) and railroads became much less important, they lost out. My point to networkers is that they're in the communication business, not the networking business.

How does this apply to games? Some video game companies apparently think they're in the technology business, when they're actually in the entertainment business (even the ones making "serious" games will prosper if those games are also entertaining, as for example "America's Army"). I think this can be applied to the Sony vs. Nintendo console competition. Sony thinks technology, Nintendo thinks entertainment (also applies in handhelds, it appears). (And this should have been obvious to Sony, because the *really* good technology, PCs, doesn't make it as a major game platform compared with the whimpy consoles.) As another example, many people called "Crysis" a technology demo, but a poor game. The management of the company decried piracy for a failure to sell the game in expected numbers, but the real reason might be that it wasn't much of a game.

To move down one level of complexity, some video game companies think they're in the story-telling business, or even more specifically in the movie-making business, when they're really in the video game business. Video games are not like movies, and stories are not the most important component of most video games. (See At one time in the video game industry, film-maker wannabes published "games" that were more cinematics and cut-scenes than games, and that turned out to be a failure.

So we see proposals to treat video games, and video game production, the same way films are treated. I think this is a mistake. Every industry finds its own way of doing things. Trying to pretend you're something else is very likely to end badly.

This is the difference between saying "we should do such-and-such because that's how the film industry does it", and "the film industry has a different way of doing such-and-such, and we can adapt it this way because it makes sense." If it makes good sense, do it. If it just happens to be how some model does it, forget it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Comparing video game and non-electronic game conferences

Some people might be interested in the contrasts between video game conferences and non-electronic game conferences. In this case I'm drawing primarily from Origins Game Fair (Columbus, OH) and Triangle Game Conference (TGC) (Raleigh, NC).

TGC is a relatively small, new conference, somewhere over 700 attending this inaugural year, but almost all of those people are either industry professionals or students who want to be in the industry. There is virtually no game playing at the conference.

Among the 10,000-15,000 at Origins, most are consumers, gamers, although there are plenty of industry professionals. (The variance in attendance reflects the effects of the recession: 15,000 two years ago, 10,000 this year.) Playing games is a big reason for people to attend.

At Origins the focus is playing games just for the heck of it, with a few prize tournaments such as the U.S. Yu-Gi-Oh championship. At TGC the focus is giving and receiving information about video game development. This reflects the non-technological nature of non-electronic game development and publishing, and the highly technological nature of video game publishing. Non-electronic games is a much smaller industry than video games, even though we can point to one freelance designer who makes over a million dollars a year (Reiner Knizia) and one huge American company (Hasbro and its subsidiaries) along with some very large German companies. Yet one of the larger American companies, Fantasy Flight Games, has smaller annual revenues than the budget of many AAA list video games.

As a consumer-oriented affair, Origins charges just $60 for up to five days (and free to teachers), though playing in many of the games and attending the historical seminars is an additional cost per event. Game playing at Origins fall into categories, boardgames, role-playing games (including "LARP", live action role-playing), collectible card games, and miniatures games. There are also seminars at Origins, many about history, many about games. TGC was $100 per day, $25 per day to students, for a two day meeting. Origins also has a $10 ticket for people who just want to go through the vendor hall and art show.

I can't say how much deal-making might occur at a conference such as TGC, but one of the reasons for a professional designer to attend Origins is to talk with, and perhaps demo a game to, publishers. I personally don't feel a need to travel 500 miles just to play games, but evidently many people do.

Origins is also more celebrity-oriented than TGC. There are several guests of honor who conduct events during the week, and the venerable "Origins Awards" are voted on and awarded to the best games in various categories. Yet there's very little of the "rock star" or hero worship I've heard happens at GDC, but which I did not see at TGC.

There are smaller conferences comparable in size to TGC, such as the six day World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA (1,500 attendees) and four-day PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA (4-500). Families often attend these events. These affairs are even more consumer-oriented in the form of organized tournaments, with few seminars and not many vendors. The tournaments are for bragging rights only (plaques awarded for best players) rather than prize money; there are also team competitions and other competition-oriented features. An award is given to best tournament referee ("GM"). There are about 125 tournaments at WBC, in both board and card games (most of them extending over several days). These can vary from simple games like "Liar's Dice" to big 4-5 hour contests such as my game "Britannia," to epics that take 6 hours and more to play (e.g. Advanced Civilization--the boardgame that preceded the computer game). Both conventions are board and card game oriented, with virtually no RPGs or CCGs.

In the unlikely event that video game production comes to use standardized methods, perhaps the conferences will become more consumer-oriented.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Games of strategy--seeing the possibilities

Some people play games like some people "sound bathe", that is, have music playing but don't really pay attention, don't really LISTEN. They're not particularly interested in exactly what they're doing, and they're not putting much effort into it.

In many Euro-style games (and let's realize that this is such a large category that there are always many exceptions to any generalization), players WANT just a few choices, and then the play of the game revolves around which choice to make. The "best" choice depends on the situation, and the better players recognize which is the best choice in given circumstances, though generally there is no choice that will always work out best in a given situation.

In other games, including many "old" games and some of the new ones, there are many choices, and one of the skills is seeing all the possibly-good choices in a situation. Better players will not only see those additional choices, they may be skilled in influencing the course of the game so that those choices are available when they next play.

A sure way to spot this point of view is the gamer who plays a game once, then criticizes it for poor play balance or too few choices. While the game may indeed have those characteristics, it can also be the case that the player has assumed he's recognized all the choices, and all the balance possibilities, the first time he played.

I recall a young player at the WBC Britannia tournament (his first Brit game) who, when he finished, said he couldn't see how he could have done anything differently (no, he wasn't near winning). 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. Perhaps he wasn't accustomed to games that did not reveal the choices immediately.

We have an essential difference:
"It's important but I haven't figured it out yet."
"I haven't even realized it's important."

So the expectation in those Euros that are essentially "family games on steroids" is that the first is the typical situation after one play, yet in many strategy games there will be a strong element of the second after one play.

Perhaps this is a reason (not a sufficient reason or necessary reason) why there is the emphasis on multiple ways to win in Euro games: so that the players will easily see at least one way to win at first playing.

I'll take an example from my own experience. Here's a comment I ran across about Britannia. "Innovative, but only interesting once. After that, it's just rolling dice for 6 long hours, very boring. Green is horrible. Purple is a one shot wonder also." Here's a person who thinks he can see all possible strategies the first time he plays a game. Is that because he plays simple (shallow?) games? This player clearly didn't have a clue about many of the strategies in the game. I'm curious if he wondered what the people who've played 500 times were doing? I suppose he didn't know how intensely the game is played, how (as Tom Vasel says in his review, it "may satisfy the itch in players looking for a deeper encounter, an epic game that is all about the experience."). Rather than consider the possibility that he'd missed something, the commenter dismissed the game. (Btw, there are lots of perfectly reasonable reasons why some people do not like Britannia, e.g. the length, the dice rolling, the "scripting", the need to plan well ahead. Poor play balance is not one of them, clearly.) This is the kind of comment I'd expect from a "shallow" player, perhaps someone who plays shallow games, though maybe just someone who doesn't easily see strategic possibilities in this kind of game.

I'm afraid there are a great many players of this kind nowadays, which may be one reason so many games are only played a few times: either they are shallow, so there isn't much there, or the "shallow" player isn't going to play any game many times because either he gets it easily and exhausts the possibilities, or he doesn't get it at all.

Is this "bad?" I suppose that's a matter of opinion. Designers need to recognize it, in any case.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Miscellaneous info and observations

Another of my articles (not directly relevant to game design) on GameCareerGuide (you can click the title of this post):

"Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently" 7 July 09


When it comes down to it, should a designer in playtest stages do what he wants with the rules of play, or what the playtesters recommend? Or what works out for the players in play, which may be a little different than the recommendations he gets?

I believe I'm very receptive to what players suggest (or what I see that they would prefer, as they play). If people take the time to play my game, I ought to be receptive, else why bother? I think playtesters may be more likely to offer suggestions if they know the designer is receptive to them.

I'll contrast this with, say, Microsoft's attitude that they really do know what's best for people, even when people say otherwise. I'm sure they often ignore the computer equivalent of playtesting input. The original huge controller for the XBox is a famous case. So is that Paperclip help in Microsoft Office that drove so many computer users right up the wall--they finally stopped making it the default.

I'll say this: if you're not willing to change your non-electronic game, you're more likely to end up with a "developer" who will change it as he likes regardless of your preferences.


Video game designers tend to say "I know what people will like". Non-electronic game designers tend to say "maybe people will like this, let's see." A harsh person might say that this the difference between the person who thinks he knows and the one who recognizes that wisdom comes from knowing what you do not know. More likely, though, it's a matter of necessity, the video game designer must plan all the details of the game before there's a game to play; the non-electronic game designer can make a playable prototype while still hazy about many of the details.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Origins follow-up

Origins follow-up

Origins says over ten thousand gaming enthusiasts enjoyed the 2009 show, down 18% from 2008. 2008 was itself a down year owing to very high gas prices; the previous year the count was around 15,000. (This is unique attendees, if someone is there five days he counts as one attendee.) Day-pass tickets (instituted in 2008) were up 16%; the total includes those folks. So in contrast, 2007, which did not have the inexpensive day pass, approaches double the attendance of 2009!

They also say "more vendors"; whether that is in comparison only to 2008 I don't know. But I am sure that the square footage is way down from 2006-2007.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Trying to balance the colors in Brit-like games

I recently played the Diceless Barbaria prototype solo, as well as several scenarios of Frankia (also diceless).

I used to try to play early prototypes as though each nation was independent. I wanted to see what were the most natural moves for each, and try to arrange the game so that the most natural moves matched what they did historically. But I found that this didn't work out when the influence of colors was introduced. So now I always keep in mind the colors I've selected.

I still want the most natural play to be the one made historically, but I have to be aware of how an unnatural play by one nation may help another so much that the game will be skewed.

I'm not really worrying about how strong the nations were historically, I'm worrying about how strong (or weak) they need to be to make their most natural moves match history.

I know that in any game, unless I put a real straitjacket around the player, as in many of the SPI games from back when, the game is rarely going to follow history. What I want is one where I can say, after a player has moved, "yes, that's just what they did historically". I am striving for effect, largely, relying on cause only in the very largest sense--because designing games for cause is a chimera (barring, perhaps, highly-detailed tactical games where you use made-up scenarios rather than known historical battles).

In Frankia, which is a fairly small game (around 30 pieces on the board at any time), I have taken to counting pieces of each color, and areas occupied, after each turn. I'm trying to be aware of what it would be like to play a color: are there times when a color has few pieces and little to do? Sometimes there's nothing I can do about that (as when yellow in Britannia have only the Scots and R-Bs), but I can try to avoid it as I try different nation combinations.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Origins Game Fair 09

I was at my sixth consecutive Origins Game Fair last week, and I have to say that it has "diminished". Where it really hit was in the lack of exhibitors and apparent lack of attendees. The auction appeared to be in a smaller area with fewer items and fewer bidders, but that's hard to judge. Smaller booths for companies, or no booths at all for hobby game mainstays (Days of Wonder, GMT), were the order of the day. I was told GAMA raised the booth prices, but other folks didn't seem to think that was a sufficient explanation. Matrix Games, the makers of electronic wargames, were not there. Those "Really Big Show" booths that used to dominate the floor from WotC, WizKids, AEG, and so on were all gone. The aisles were all wide, the area at the end of the hall where the larping practice took place was even larger than in past years. We still had the slightly pathetic little booths of self-publishers who have one or two games and were trying to drum up interest. They usually find it isn't worth the cost, and aren't back the next year, replaced with another set. I admire their moxie, but maybe not their business sense.

FantasyFlightGames was there but no Britannia copies were in sight (they could have sold out, they had two days before I got there).

The economy is clearly part of the effect. Avalanche had a booth but sent only one person instead of three. The attendance seemed to be down, and certainly judging from attendance at seminars, there were fewer people at Origins this year. (Official attendance may look better because this is the second year for the $10 ticket that is only for the exhibits and such.) I talked with someone who'd just been to an engineers conference where attendance was 40-60%, and he said others there had told a similar story about other conferences. Who knows what it will be like next year? I expect the recovery from this debt-based recession to be very slow and limited, as we're not willing to stop going further into debt as a country.

The usual Chinese companies trying to drum up business manufacturing game parts seemed to be missing. Someone told me that the minimum order from China had risen from $5,000 to 10,000 PIECES of an item. Though I talked with someone else who had found a Chinese producer of nice plastic parts willing to make just 2,000 of each.

Some companies are doing well. Decision Games is growing in their magazine production. "Strategy & Tactics" has a 15-20K circulation altogether, more without the game. They emphasize analytical articles and maps maps maps. But their "Fire & Movement" magazine was not mentioned in the Decision Games update, so it may be that magazines about games rather than about history aren't doing well.

Attendance at Monte Cook's seminars--admittedly, they weren't in the convention book, but were listed on easels in main thoroughfares--was quite low, considering how well-known he is in RPGdom (wrote the 3rd Edition Dungeonmasters Guide, among many others). Attendance at my seminars was way down from the past two years.

I have always disliked the money aspects of Orgins: you pay extra to play games, even open gaming! You pay extra for a lot of the seminars ("Origins War College"). Mine are free, btw. WBC is a MUCH, MUCH more friendly environment for game playing, but as it's limited to boardgames (which are a stepchild at Origins, I think), the minis guys and CCGs types and RPGers aren't at WBC and probably wouldn't be welcomed in large numbers.

There wasn't much opportunity for business from my point of view, and I'm not sure I'll attend next year.

I did my usual survey, counting people walking past a particular main thoroughfare. The result (out of 200, counted in two separate sets of 100) was 45 women out of 200, and only three black people (all males). This fits with previous years, relatively many women, very few blacks. I saw no one who appeared to be Hispanic, but I think that's too hard to notice in any case. There is definitely a cultural difference when it comes to attending non-electronic game conventions. (I'll have to count at the next video game convention I attend, but I think the proportion of blacks is higher.)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Ways to reflect the "fog of war"

This originally appeared a couple years ago in "Against the Odds" magazine.

Ways to reflect the "fog of war"--
designing in uncertainty in conflict boardgames

Lewis Pulsipher

(All game titles in the following are trademarks of their respective designers or publishers.)

I want to discuss how uncertainty can be introduced into wargames, uncertainty about an opponent's location, his strength, or his goals, uncertainty about timing and the actions of non-player forces, and uncertainty about the outcome of combat. This uncertainty is often called the "fog of war", and is one of the major influences on warfare, and sometimes in classic games. (In card games such as Bridge and Poker, for example, you don't know the opposition's strength--though you learn their strength when you win the bidding round in Bridge.)

The original Avalon Hill commercial wargames such as Tactics II, Afrika Corps, and Stalingrad provided complete information about the opponent's strength, goals, and location--the major uncertainty arose from combat. Risk and Diplomacy, dating from the same period, similarly provide complete information, except that in Diplomacy the movement is simultaneous, introducing a considerable element of uncertainty.

Nowadays in most video games we have a variety of "fog of war" levels, as in general the nature of a computer game makes uncertainty the norm. Even if the manual tells you how combat is conducted, it may not be entirely clear what makes for success and failure. You rarely see the opponent's moves, unless the units are near your own. And you may not even know what the opponent's objective is. Unfortunately, this level of uncertainty is not easy to reproduce in boardgames, and some would argue that it isn't necessarily desirable.

The major source of uncertainty in ANY multi-player game, of course, is the intentions of the players themselves. What I'm discussing here is uncertainty that's built into the game by the designer.

Uncertainty about strength (and location)
"Block games", in which a player can see the strengths of his units on the back sides of the small blocks, but an opponent can only see the blank side indicating that a unit is present, but cannot know the type or strength of the unit until a battle occurs, are very popular in the hobby nowadays. They are, practically speaking, a development of Stratego (my original Stratego set actually used wooden blocks). While in this country we knew only Stratego until recently, in Britain there were several games using this principle. These games are quite old in origin, before World War One for the first (I strongly suspect this is the game from which Stratego is derived). The titles included L'Attaque, Dover Patrol, and Tri-tactics, and the publisher was H. P. Gibsons, as I recall. My own game Swords & Wizardry, also published by Gibsons, used the same method, but was more complex than Stratego and introduced a die roll into combat to increase uncertainty.

R. Knizia, the famous "Euro" game designer, produced a Lord of the Rings game that resembles Stratego in some respects. The German title is "Der Herr
der Ringe - Die Entscheidung" (Lord of the Rings--the Confrontation, I think).

In block games we usually have uncertain strength, but not uncertain location. However, it is always possible to have a piece represent no units at all, should the designer prefer it. You can be faced with a long line of pieces, not knowing which might represent powerful forces, while others are decoys representing nothing.

Unfortunately, the nature of any block game is that you can have only two opposing sides. It's very difficult to employ three sets of blocks such that the backsides of two sets are hidden from each opponent, and the problem is progressively worse when there are more players.

About 40 years ago I owned a naval game, ordered through a comic book, from Helen of Toy Company that featured hidden strength in modified form. The hundred or so plastic ships had different forms, so that you could tell a cruiser from a destroyer from a submarine from a cargo ship; a cruiser could always defeat a destroyer, a battleship would always defeat a cruiser, and so on, but a strength number on the bottom of the ship determined which destroyer was strongest within the destroyers group and which cruiser was strongest amongst the cruisers. We could do the same in a Stratego-like block game if the blocks indicated which type of unit they represented.

I designed a multi-player space wargame many years ago that used upside down pieces to conceal strength (and sometimes existence) of units from the other players. Block games use the four sides of the block (other than the front and back) to enable an individual unit to have varying strength. This is not possible in games that use upside down units; on the other hand, a piece in an upside down game can represent no force at all, or can represent a VERY powerful force. It is particularly good for representing ships (naval or space). While an individual ship is either at full strength or destroyed, a group can vary in strength, from one "scout" to four (or more) "dreadnoughts" in one piece.

A drawback of upside down units is that the owning player cannot easily see what he's got. Some players strongly dislike the need to manipulate a pile of pieces to see what's there. Another drawback is the cost of coloring the backside of each piece.

Hidden units, of course, had been used in other wargames long before I tried it. Sometimes it is implemented simply as "you can't look inside a stack of opposing pieces", sometimes as actually placing the pieces upside down. Another method is to use numbered counters or distinct figures, by some means hiding the units represented by each counter. Nowadays, you may have pieces that represent the location of units, and those units are represented by cards laid out in some manner. You don't actually have military unit pieces, just the cards themselves. And if those cards can represent several units, different types of units, or no units at all, you have a strong "fog of war" element.

The hidden strength aspect can be taken further. Nathan Kilgore pointed me toward his game Iron Tide: Panzers in the Ardennes. It "has a built in semi-fog of war system using random chits for the combat strength. The fog of war aspect is strengthened by the inability of your opponent to inspect stacks and the hidden chits. Also, because of the complete random chits, the owning players don't even know the exact strengths of their own units until the first time they engage in combat."

Entirely hidden location dates back to Kriegspiel chess (neither players sees the other player's pieces, referee required) and traditional Battleship (originally a graph-paper and pencil game, no referee required because there is no movement). Many computer conflict games (most real-time-strategy games, for example) use hidden location of all but nearby opponents.

Uncertainty about capability
What can the enemy do? In some games this involves more than just unit locations and strengths. I suspect one of the attractions of the "card-driven" wargames is uncertainty about the opponent's capabilities, because you don't know what cards he has drawn. Hammer of the Scots, a popular block game, uses cards as well as blocks. Many of the "card-driven" games provide much of their detail and "chrome" (historical feel) via the various cards and what they allow the player to do, and what the player cannot do without the appropriate card.

Jonathan Hager says "In Memoir '44, each player has a set of cards. Each player may even have a different number of cards indicating how prepared the forces were when engaged. During play, there is some uncertainty to where the player will attack next. A player must have the correct card in order to move units in a given area."

The recently-published War of the Ring game uses special dice instead of cards to generate uncertainty about capability. Each dice face enables a different action by a player; players can see the dice rolls of the opponent, then play their actions one by one, but before the dice roll they cannot be sure what their opponent will be able to do, let alone when.

Event cards are a popular way to represent uncertainty of capability. Does my opponent have a card that will increase his movement rate? Can he cause a plague in my homeland? Will he be able to counter my Famine card with his Good Weather card? Can he force a dynastic marriage alliance on me at an awkward juncture? And so on.

In some sense simultaneous movement can be seen as representing uncertainty about enemy capability. Unfortunately, simultaneous movement either requires computer assistance, or a small number of pieces (as in Diplomacy, where a player starts with three or four pieces and wins at around eighteen). In a game I'm playtesting now I use a mechanically more practical approach to this. Each player has a standard set of Action Cards representing various sets of activities. He places five of the cards face down on a layout; then each player in turn plays the first card, and acts accordingly, until all #1 cards are played, then the second card is played, and so on. Each card offers the player a restricted set of choices--for example, you can't move fleets or armies when you play the "Trade" card. Brian Leet calls this "committed intent", and says Wallenstein and Roborally use similar methods. I have not played these games, but understand that choosing the cards in Roborally is a little like procedural computer programming.

A problem with the block game Pacific Victory is that too much uncertainty is introduced, as all units look the same whether land, sea, or air. It's pretty unlikely in the real world that these unit types could be confused.

Uncertainty in combat
Dice are the traditional method of introducing uncertainty into combat. Avalon Hill used the old D6 combat table. Other games such as Risk, Axis & Allies, and Britannia use a dice roll for some or all units involved in combat.

In some games the cards govern what a player can do, but in others they affect combat. Germania uses "Battle Cards" instead of dice to introduce uncertainty in combat. Players have more control over what card they play than they would over dice rolls, sometimes knowing that a particular attack would be unwise because their hand of cards is poor, or knowing that they can try an even-strength attack because their cards are so good.

Some games such as Stratego or Diplomacy have no overt chance mechanism in combat, but guessing still comes into play at times owing to hidden strengths or simultaneous movement.

Combat methods involving no uncertainty at all are common. Vinci and History of the World use them, for example. It is also possible to devise a "combat table" that extracts losses exactly in proportion to forces (so, for example, in a 2-1 fight, the smaller side always loses twice as much as the stronger side).

Simpler and more "classical" games often completely avoid uncertainty in combat. Chess, checkers, Go, all do this (and in fact avoid all elements of uncertainty other than intentions of the opponent). This absolute certainty in combat is not usually what historical gamers are looking for, though it is popular in Euro-style games. In fact, you could make a case that one impetus toward Euro-style games has been dislike of dice-rolling in conflicts.

Uncertainty of Timing
One of the biggest problems of historical wargames is that most players know when some major event occurred that made a big difference in the outcome of a battle or campaign. For example, when playing a game about the ancient Near East, you know when the Hittites or Persians appeared. In Britannia, everyone knows that, in Turn 6, the Saxons are going to swarm into Britain in a major invasion; and players prepare for it.

This is a tough nut to crack, and forces a designer away from simulation toward representation if he wants to reintroduce uncertainty. For example, in a Near Eastern game I'm working on players roll a die to determine whether an historical group appears or not. In the turn before it actually appeared in history, a roll of a 1 or a 2 causes the group to appear early. In the turn of actual appearance, a 1 through 4 will do it (if it didn't appear in the previous turn). In the turn after historical appearance, the group will certainly show up. Then we have something that can make for a better game, but is less true to the details of history (though arguably it is truer to the spirit of history . . .).

Event cards can introduce uncertainty of timing. Cards may require certain conditions to be met before they're played, but until someone plays the card, the "Big Event" does not occur. In War of the Ring, it's likely that some events of great advantage to one side or the other will occur during the game, but not until the appropriate card is played.

Brian Leet points out that "in many war games there are tracks that represent certain inevitabilities that are impacted by the player's actions. Elements such as discontent, moral or political will all may have a certain outcome, but uncertain timing (or be potentially avoidable altogether with careful play, perhaps allowing the Roman Consulship to survive is
a good historical possibility)."

In some "sweep of history" games uncertainty can be introduced at the end of the game without detriment to historical fact. Multiplayer games that don't include uncertainty about the timing of the end of the game can suffer from "ganging up on the leader" and bizarre moves, simply because players know the game is about to end (History of the World and Vinci can have this problem). I counter this by introducing a chance element (die roll) in the game ending. The roll needed varies with other conditions in the game, but in any case players can never be sure the game will end in a particular turn, and the roll comes after the turn is over. This tends to eliminate the end-of-game shenanigans that are often so unlike historical reality.

Uncertainty about Non-player Forces
Often in wargames, if there are any forces not directly controlled by players ("neutrals"), they are usually completely passive. In other words, players face no uncertainty about the actions of neutrals. In Germania, some invasions come at set junctures, while others occur when appropriate Event cards are played. Players temporarily control the invaders, who are anything but passive; in some games there may be more invaders on the board than player pieces.

Frequently there's a political dimension to non-player forces. Will they join the war or will they stay out? Often there are ways to introduce uncertainty to these questions. A draw from a deck of cards can be used to "control" non-players (this can even be seen as a form of programming), and if nothing else, a dice table can remove any certainty about what the non-player forces will do.

Uncertainty of Objective
Finally we come to uncertainty of objective. In war, you generally know the overall objective of your enemies, so the uncertainty is in how they're going to achieve it. But at times, especially in tactical as opposed to strategic situations, you may not even be sure of the objective.

I don't recall seeing uncertainty of objective much in wargames. The obvious method to produce it is an "objective card" selected by each player (perhaps at random) at the start of the game. Another method is to offer several ways to win. Players can disguise which method they're actually pursuing, possibly introducing an element of surprise into the game.

I once wrote a D&Dish tavern scenario in which each character, played by a player, chose a random objective. This was published in White Dwarf over 25 years ago and folks at conventions are still playing it, evidently enjoying the additional uncertainty. I suspect uncertainly of objective appears more often in Euro-style games than in wargames, frequently reflected through several ways to win the game. Opponents know what those ways are, but cannot know which way an individual player may be pursuing.

Peter Riedlberger points out that versions of standard Risk for the past 20-some years have included "order" (objective) cards, something I've not seen as my Risk-playing days go back to the late 60s. These cards are included in the latest American edition. Unfortunately, he says, the objectives are not equally difficult to achieve. Torben Mogensen says that this imbalance relates to the number of players, as some objectives may be easier or harder to achieve depending on the number of participants Too bad the developers didn't have multiple objectives on the cards, one for each possible number of players, so that they could be properly balanced.

Torben also points out that the family game Careers let players secretly choose to allocate his goals amongst three objectives (fame, happiness, and riches). I had forgotten all about this game (which originally appeared in the 1950s), one of the better family games I can recall, perhaps in part because of the hidden objectives. I am experimenting with a variation of this in Seas of Gold, in which players secretly allocate victory point weights to each of three objectives (territory, culture, and gold), or in which each player draws a card that secretly allocates weights for him.

There certainly have been wargames that used uncertainty of objective. Peter Coles says this "was used brilliantly by WRG in a 1970s Naval wargame called 'Sea Strike'. Each side drew an envelope containing a card detailing force size (in points) and objective." I'm sure there are others.

I'm told that GMT's Ardennes '44 has four different ways for the German player to win, all in effect. The German player practically can attempt only one, and must try to mislead the Allied player about which he is pursuing.

Jonathan Hager says that in Memoir '44, "the overall objective is clear - obtain X medals. But how those medals are obtained could be by killing units, exiting the board (for some scenarios) or taking a critical location."

Brian Leet suggests that Illuminati should be in the list, with one participant having a secret objective. And "'Shooting the Moon' in hearts is a classic example from traditional card play."

Who is Uncertain?
It's worth pointing out that in most of the cases I've described, only the opponent is uncertain about something. But in a few cases (as in Iron Tide: Panzers in the Ardennes), neither player is certain.

Is Uncertainty Good?
Is uncertainty a good thing? "Classical" game players prefer as little uncertainty as possible in their games (chess is an example), while "Romantic" players like a considerable level of uncertainty as it helps them pursue the "Great Play". Peter Riedlberger comments that "you can have an undesirably dense 'fog', to keep the metaphor. All Stratego-likes I know are mostly about bluffing. This can be fun, but is quite different to other, more tactical games." I wonder how much of good generalship in the real world is about bluffing; look what the Allies did in 1944, convincing the German high command that the Atlantic invasion would be at a location other than Normandy, even after the landings began . . .

Students of history know that real warfare can be a very uncertain activity. Amongst wargames, uncertainty is seen more in "simulations", less in "representations", and yet less in "semblance/theme" wargames. Looked at from another point of view, if you want a good game, the level of uncertainty must be kept in check, or in the end you have nothing more than a game of chance (as in traditional Battleship).