Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Miscellany

Periodic notes not individually demanding a separate post:

I gave four one-hour talks about game design at Origins this past summer.  MP3s of the talks, and some wordy slides, are posted on my Web site, along with other MP3s and slides from older presentations.

I have two Risk variants that need playtesting (variants of traditional non-mission Risk, not of the 2008 revision).  One is "Zombie Risk", where for every two armies the zombies kill, one becomes a zombie, and the other is Barbarian Risk, where a new map is used, and players represent barbarians fighting over the end of the Roman Empire.

If you're interested in playtesting either or both of these, let me know and I'll send you the rules/map electronically.

When I can do no more with them (I can't spend much time developing them, of course, since they're not commercially viable), I'll post them on my Web site and on the Risk section of BGG.

While dropping off a prescription recently I overheard two senior citizen ladies talking about Farmville and other games.  They both averred that if Farmville started to charge a fee, they would no longer play.  Although a third person who came by said that in order to finish something, if she had to spend up to $20 she might do it.  One of them specifically said you have to be careful not to play such games too much or you might miss out on enjoying a beautiful day like today (which it certainly was).

I found it interesting that these people played, although they were not likely much older than I am (60).  It did make me wonder how games like Farmville make money, but I keep in mind that what people say they'll do, and what they actually do, are often two different things.  It's also true that only around two percent of players of "social network" games actually spend money doing it.

Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people."  I'm trying to adapt this to other situations.

This may be harsh, but it started me thinking about ways to adapt this statement to game design and game players.  How about:

Great game designers think it's about playtesting and modification, average game designers think it's about planning, weak game designers think it's about ideas.

Great Britannia players think it's about understanding what opponents are trying to do, average Britannia players think it's about measured use of resources, weak Britannia players think it's all about conquering as much as possible.

Great game players think about strategies, average game players think about think about puzzle solutions, weak game players think about being lucky.

IGDA's Facebook page asked what is the most important characteristic for game developers.  My reply was:  For game designers, ability to think critically about their own efforts.  For programmers, problem-solving.  For artists, ability to understand what others (designers) have imagined, but to improve it if possible.  And for all, a productive orientation.

Game titles are sometimes changed by the publisher.  My title for Britannia was "The Invasions of Britain".  I like the publisher's title better.  On the other hand, "Dragon Rage" is my title.

I read that Robert Louis Stevenson called his book that we know as Treasure Island "The Sea Cook", title changed editorially.  Another example of a good change.

I called my game design book Learning Game Design.  The published title will be  “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish".  Works for me.

But I'm sure it goes the other way as well, the publisher choosing a less suitable title.  I don't know of an example, though.  (Magazine article titles are often changed.)

Dragon Rage was originally published in 1982.  Much later, 3DOpublished a video game of the same name for the Playstation 2, though there is nothing in common between the games in actual play.  For the Sony game see

Many Euro games seem to be treated, by the players themselves, like puzzles to be solved.  It's not unusual to see "opponents" suggesting (in a helpful way) what moves a player might make.  No wonder Pandemic proved to be so popular.

I discovered on Dec 13th that somehow some comments on my blogspot blog were waiting for moderation that I missed.  Though at least one of them had in fact already been moderated and posted.  Now taken care of.

 I get a lot more SPAM comments than I get real ones, these days, including an ad for a program that will enable you to SPAM blogs by beating the captcha.  Which I suppose is where many of them come from.  Sigh, what a waste of time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Six words about casual games

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter is 6 word stories.

I've asked for 6 words about game designers, 6 about programmers, and 6 about wargames, with interesting results.  Now I want to ask about another type of game.

Can you say in 6 words what makes casual games interesting--or not?  (And you'll have to decide what "casual games" are.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Innovation in Game Design

I rarely listen to podcasts, I suppose because I think writing provides a more concentrated form of information.  (I don’t read blogs much, either, preferring more formal articles.)  It takes more effort to read something than to listen, but in a given amount of time I think reading something that has been carefully written about a topic is more effective than listening to a podcast, which by its nature can be diffuse rather than focused.

Recently I was asked to participate in a podcast, “Ludology,” with Ryan Sturm and Geoff Englestein, “a podcast about the why of gaming” (in their case, tabletop gaming).  So I listened to some episodes before agreeing (it will be recorded in January).  The podcast is quite focused, the hosts have a topic in mind, may have a guest, and they talk about that topic.  There are no feedback segments or other distractions, just discussion of the topic and related topics.

A recent episode is about innovation and this set me to thinking about a topic that I think Does Not Matter in game design.  Most game players Don’t Care either, but clearly some people do. 

Definitions are important, as people seem to have different things in mind when they see the word “innovation” and its variations. “in·no·va·tion  noun
1.  something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.
2.  the act of innovating;  introduction of new things or methods. “

“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.”

These definitions are different as Wikipedia emphasizes the use of innovations rather than the creation of innovations, and uses “invention” for the creation of what others might call innovations.  In effect in #1 is defining what “an innovation” is while Wikipedia is defining what innovation itself is (’s #2).

However you look at it, why doesn’t “innovation” matter in game design?  First, true innovation in the sense of an entirely new mechanic in games is quite unusual.  "There is nothing new under the sun" applies to games more often than most might think.  Those brilliant ideas of today have often been used in the past.  This is typical:

    That's kind of a common pattern in everything I do. One minute I'm completely on my own and I think, “Wow, I'm a genius, I can't believe this idea nobody else had!” And then you look at the references on it, and it turns out that a hundred other people have done the same things in the 1980s.  And then you look, and you get your additional ideas from those. Between invention and stealing, you come up with a really good combination of ideas.  --Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games, publishers of Unreal Tournament series, Gears of War series, in Gamasutra interview 2009).

Second, whether something is innovative depends almost entirely upon one’s knowledge of previous usage.  To someone who is only accustomed to games like Monopoly and Sorry and Risk, Settlers of Catan may appear to be highly innovative, though to most hobby gamers it’s old hat.  In other words, innovation is entirely relative.

Once again, the question is what is “new”?  What’s new to a typical game player may not be new to a veteran gamer of broad experience.  And what is new to veteran gamer of broad experience today will not be new a few months from now. 

Being concerned about Innovation (with a capital “I”) reminds me of people who need to know sports scores NOW, even though the score will be just the same if they don't find out until tomorrow.  That is, what's innovative now, isn't later.  While an element new to a player may be a form of surprise, what counts in the long run is how the game plays, not whether any element of it is “new.”

The relativistic view that it all depends on what the players are familiar with, was brought home when the hosts of the podcast asked themselves whether Stratego was an innovative game.  However, they were unaware of the history of Stratego. There is no innovation in Stratego because it's an almost exact (and entirely legal) post-World War II copy of L'Attaque, a game originally patented and published in 1909 and still in print along with a group of spinoff games when I lived in Britain in ‘76-‘79.  By any definition, there is no innovation in Stratego.  But to most people who are unaware of those older games it is “new” in its methods. 

The idea that a game is more desirable to play because it is "innovative" puzzles me immensely.  This appears to be part of the “Cult of the New”.  On the other hand, as Shigeru Miyamoto has said, game designers are entertainers and are trying to surprise people.  Mechanics that are new to a player are a form of surprise.

My view is that what’s important in games is how the mechanics work together, the whole not the parts.  A focus on innovative mechanics strikes me as one step removed from the focus that novice game designers have on “great ideas.”  As I and many other designers have explained many times, ideas for games are virtually worthless.  It’s the execution of the ideas, how the ideas are carried out, that matters.  In other words a focus on innovative mechanics, mechanics that have not been used before, misses the point of games and game design.  To me games are 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  A focus on innovation implies the reverse of those percentages, and implies that ideas are much more important than execution.  I don’t think so. The point is to have a game that’s enjoyable for a target market to play, not to have a game that is in some way “new”.

Having said that, obviously there are game players who value “new”. Game designers may be occasionally excited by the appearance of a new mechanic that they can then incorporate into their games.  And there is certainly that the cited reaction to an innovative game (as opposed to innovative mechanic) such as Dominion: we now have dozens of deck building games.

I wonder if the modern habit of playing a game only a few times, then moving on to the next one, is in part a quest for “something new”, fundamentally a hunt for games that aren’t kind of boring after the first few plays.  On the other hand, keeping in mind that many contemporary board and card games are much more puzzles than games, just as most single player video games or puzzles, we can understand why people lose interest after playing a few times and “figuring out the puzzle”. 

A focus on game mechanics also strikes me as reflecting a “component” notion of game design rather than a holistic notion.  It views games as collections of mechanics.  This implies that games are mechanical/scientific rather than artistic.  Yes, there are certainly mechanical aspects, but to me a game is greater than the sum of its parts, it's the combination that matters, not the individual mechanics.  Of course, I also view games as models of some reality (it can be a fictional reality).  You may evaluate the individual parts of a model but you mainly evaluate the model as a whole. 

The exception to that “model view” is wholly abstract games.  An entirely abstract game is necessarily a collection the mechanics, but to me it needs to be very few mechanics: there is no reason to obscure what’s going on by throwing lots of mechanics or other information into the mix.  Now if a game is a puzzle to be solved, which seems to be a common view in the Eurostyle, then complexity helps make the puzzle harder to solve.  I view most games as competitions, player versus player, and I don’t want too many mechanics to get in the way of the interaction of the players.  In the typical Eurostyle the interaction of the players tends to be minimized, just as competition tends to be minimized, and we have something more akin to puzzles.  There are of course Eurostyle games that are not typical, and these are often the ones that become popular over the long term.

Now if you play games because they have new/"unique" elements, not because you're interested in winning or mastery or a model or any of the other things people are usually interested in, then I guess perceived innovation (not encountered before by the player) makes a difference.

I must also ask, if you play a game because it's innovative (as far as you know), does that mean you lose interest after playing once (or twice) because it's no longer an innovation to you?

I also see an assumption in some quarters that “innovative equals good.”  But if you think about it, most "innovative" games are likely to be weak if not junk.  Thankfully most of them aren't published.  Why is it likely?  When you innovate for the sake of innovation, as I'm sure many try to do, then you're ignoring what's more important about the game, how it plays and whether players enjoy it.  If you deliberately include innovative elements, more often than not your innovation will at least be unsuitable for the situation, if not out-and-out junk in and of itself.

Video Games
Often the originally innovative game fails/has little impact, and a follow-up becomes much more well-known.  The Sims video game was thought of as a highly innovative game.  Many years before there was a video game called Little Computer People that did much the same thing but got little attention.  In other words The Sims was not nearly as innovative as most people thought it was.  But (in all its incarnations) it’s the best-selling PC game of all time.

AAA video games cost so much to produce that innovation is very risky. There's innovation in video games nowadays, but only from the indie publishers.  Big games are dominated by sequels.   All 13 games listed in a recent PC Gamer magazine as “most anticipated” by readers are sequels.   All of them.

AAA games are also straightjacketed by genres.  Players expect games to behave in the way other games of a genre behave, but slightly better.  World of Warcraft isn't innovative, nor is Call of Duty, but they dominate revenues.

Social network games seem to be dominated by a lack of innovation, at least if we judge Zynga’s Facebook games, which are said in some cases to be shameless copies of other games.  Zynga’s well-known games are repeats of a formula.   Zynga has become such a big company and makes so much money off their standard games that they can’t risk devoting a lot of effort to a entirely different sort of game.

Innovation in the sense of new methods is not important to success in the video game world.  It’s enough to use old methods in a slightly new way, much as all those 13 sequels are likely to do.  Angry Birds is absolutely not an innovative game, not even in the limited sense of using old methods in a slightly new way, but it has parlayed its atmosphere–it’s not a theme because it doesn’t modify how the game is played– into a branding empire.  (There are certainly successful video games that are innovative, such as Minecraft.)

Another Definition
There seems to be another definition of innovation which amounts to “how many games did this game spawn.”  By that definition Dominion is very innovative, as are the founding games of each of the standard video game genres.  By that definition Britannia was pretty innovative.  Brit was innovative for a number of reasons, but not the most obvious one. One of the major elements of Britannia, each player controlling more than one nation and each nation having different point objectives, was actually used first in Ancient Conquest I.  Almost everything else about the two games is different, even the sequence of play, as a player’s nations in Ancient Conquest all play at the same time and can cooperate closely.

I agree with Geoff and Ryan that the two most innovative tabletop games of our time are Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, both of which spawned entirely new categories/genres of games (both tabletop and video).  Still, what’s really important about those games to game players is that they were outstanding play experiences, not that they were innovations.  (I might note that an obscure World War II role-playing game preceded Dungeons & Dragons. . .)

I suspect that you’re as likely to be innovative in a game design, if you’re not trying to be, as those who are trying to be. 

Thursday, December 08, 2011

More December 2011 Miscellany

I expect I'll be at PrezCon in late February in Charlottesville, VA.  I'm scheduled to talk about game design at 9PM Friday evening.  This will be an hour of (mostly) me talking, then an hour or more of questions, answers, and discussion.

Another review of Dragon Rage, by Michael Barnes of fortressat.
Yes, it is expensive, though it will be carried once more by FunAgain and that eliminates the enormous shipping expense.

The old SPI "simulations" weren't games, they were puzzles.  Players would "solve" the puzzle, which would cause the result to be just as history dictated.  The problem with that is that history is what happened, which often was not what was most *likely* to happen.  "History is not merely what happened: it is what happened in the context of what might have happened" — H R Trevor-Roper

I've decided to self-publish in electronic formats three (or more) books that are, for the most part, reprints of material I've written for magazines and the Web.

One will be RPG material, including everything from Dragon and White Dwarf as well as other magazines (I always sold only First World Serial Rights back then; in fact, I stopped writing for Dragon when they required all rights).  It will also include character classes I've used in my own First Edition AD&D campaigns since then.  I'll have to decide whether to include the "D&D Army" rules that I devised and used, as well.

Another will be Diplomacy material, especially Diplomacy variants.

The third will be other, non-RPG  non-Diplomacy, gaming material, especially blog posts and Gamasutra/GamerCareerGuide articles.

I have no idea when these will be available.  Getting the old (pre-computer) stuff into publishable shape is a chore, often requiring scanning.  Almost certainly they won't be available until after my game design book from McFarland is available, whenever that will be.

I read a story in the book the *Ultimate History of Video Games* the reminds me of a frequent debate in games.  That debate is, does it make sense to keep information hidden in a game if that information is in fact trackable.  My view is that it does not make sense because somebody will track it.  Other people take the position that it's perfectly reasonable and anybody who does track it is a jerk.  I'd say the person is just doing what he can to win the game but in any case as soon as somebody does then that's the end of any sense to keeping the information hidden.

So here's the story.  Ralph Baer, the inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey that was the first home game playing console, even before the Atari 2600, also invented a camera to use with arcade machines.  The idea was that when somebody got a high score the camera would take a photo of them and that photo would be displayed on the machine.  When they tested this at an arcade, for the first day it worked well.  On the second day some wiseguy got a chair, stood on it, and mooned the camera.  And that was the end of the product.

Just as, when somebody actually tracks the information, that should be the end of the notion that you try to hide trackable information.

ALL games have some form of victory points, but in many there is no accumulation during the game.  The fundamental reason to have VP accumulate during a game is to end the game before it's really "ended", that is, someone completely dominates.  (Points accumulate in Settlers of Catan even though they're not overtly tracked, with the important difference that you can lose points.)  (Lots of subsidiary reasons for points, of course.)  In the games where there is no accumulation during the game, scoring the point ends the game.  Chess, for example (score one point when opposing king is checkmated).  If chess clocks were not used then we might want victory points and a time limit for chess, because games could potentially last ridiculous lengths of time.  The point values of the pieces would become the points.

Video games are getting more and more into fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience etc.

In Payday: the Heist and Diablo III, I read, you can switch from one character class to another without penalty.  I suppose that means you don't have to worry about making a poor decision, so it makes the game easier to play.  I understand it continues to get easier and easier to aim, to get your hit points back, and so forth.

More and more it seems that a game needs to have a "Wow factor" to attract attention of players.

Because of the influence of big movies (that often use CGI) and the Internet, people expect a wow factor to be flashy.  "Mind blowing" is the phrase I see, and when I see it I think "you must have a weak mind if blows your mind!"

Yet chess, Britannia and most other wargames, Tetris, lots of games are not that way at all.  And might have more trouble penetrating the market now than in the past.

I've noticed among young people that often a person is given as much credit for an intention, as for what he or she actually does.  So if someone intended to do such-and-such, it's OK that they didn't.  This is taken to extremes as in "I intended to come to class" but failed to wake up.  Someone much older is likely to say, one can have some sympathy, but the fact is you didn't come.  And act accordingly.

In a way, equating intentions and actions puts a stamp of approval on incompetence.  I remember the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".

A D&D analogy:
1st and 2nd edition AD&D is like American football in how it requires cooperation of different classes to achieve success.
3rd edition D&D is like basketball, where one person can so easily dominate (though even in basketball, it's usually teams with the best teamwork that win)
4th edition is like soccer, where the range of skill requirements is more circumscribed than in American football, but cooperation is definitely required for success.  The character classes in 4th, despite their seemingly infinite differences, all amount to a kind of sameness relative to the differences in character classes in 1st-2nd D&D.  At least, that's the way it has seemed to me.

In modern first person shooters, the contrast of photo-realism to "make it seem real", and the ridiculous events that occur (no fear of dying, extraordinarily easy aiming, ammo and miraculous healthpacks just lying around, etc.) could be related to the board wargamers who want games that make them feel like they're "there" even though the games are not in any real sense "realistic" even within the confines of the tabletop.

Most of the people who play board and card games at our college club are also (and often primarily) role-playing gamers.   (Heck, even for me, the only game I play strictly for pleasure is Dungeons & Dragons.)  I'm not entirely sure why, but I'd speculate that amongst Euro game players, that is, people who primarily play Euro games rather than other types of tabletop games, the proportion who play role-playing games is much smaller.  (Probably the proportion who play video games is also smaller.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Strategic Thinking Is Becoming Rare Among Game Players

When I was a teenager one of the best aspects of the new Avalon Hill style board wargames such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps was that they were games of strategy.  They were not family games, they were not games dominated by chance although chance was involved, they were games of skill where a good grasp of strategy made a big difference.

These games were succeeded as my favorite at age 19 by Diplomacy, a game with no overt chance elements, and a game for more than two players rather than for two, so that playing the player became much more important and playing the system much less.  But it was still a game where strategy was very important, though strategy at a higher level: grand strategy.

When I began to design games in my mid-teens, before I knew Diplomacy, I designed games of strategy and grand strategy.  All of my published games from “back when” are games of strategy and grand strategy.  They can be described as “chess-like” even when dice and more than two players are involved.  (Though I have to say that I “retired” from playing chess itself when I was 15: it was too much like work, perhaps because there was no chance element and it was too puzzle-like.)

But that was 30-40 years ago.  Lately I have found that strategic thinking amongst gamers is in short supply, and many prefer a less cerebral form of entertainment that is more like playing cards than playing chess.  Consequently, many of my recent games are “screwage games”, relatively short games that allow the players to competitively mess with their friends and acquaintances in a relaxed context.  This kind of game does not appeal to Eurostyle gamers who are accustomed to an absence of direct competition, but it appeals quite strongly to most college-age gamers.  These are definitely games that you play with and against other players, far from multi-player solitaire or the puzzles disguised as games that are now quite popular in the Eurostyle.

In game design terms, players of screwage games are happy to compete, and prefer to adapt and improvise rather than to plan [see].  They prefer fewer plausible choices rather than many choices [see]. They prefer games that they don’t have to study to master.  In terms of “strategic depth” they like relatively shallow games, and by their nature screwage games are not strategically deep.

Before going any further let’s look for some definitions.

Google: “strategy  Noun:   
    A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
    The art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle.”

Wikipedia: “Strategy, a word of military origin, refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. . . Building on the work of many thinkers on the subject, one can define strategy as "a comprehensive way to try to pursue political ends, including the threat or actual use of force, in a dialectic of wills – there have to be at least two sides to a conflict. These sides interact, and thus a Strategy will rarely be successful if it shows no adaptability."

Notice that planning is central to both definitions. 

So why is strategic thinking in games less common now than it used to be?  My view is that people are much less likely to plan ahead for any purpose, not just in games, now than they were 35 years ago.  Part of this is the very large number of distractions of modern life.  Furthermore, people have been trained by advertisements and government regulation to believe that someone else will take care of them and that they don’t have to take responsibility for themselves, and that means feel less need to plan.  Furthermore , they’re less likely to have the patience to time their actions most effectively, compared with 35 years ago.  This is the “microwave” age, the age of instant gratification, the age of convenience. 

Players are also less willing to think when they play a game than they were 35 years ago.  Video games, after all, tend to emphasize movement and action/reaction rather than thought.  Students are taught to minimize logic and precision and rely on their feelings.  “Use the Force Luke” (rather than rely on a targeting computer to destroy the Death Star) is from 1977's Star Wars but applies more and more to modern attitudes as time passes.  The result is that what I’d think were obvious points about strategy are lost on the average board and card game player, even those who play every week.  Most people “don’t have it”. 

There has been a shift in the kind of thinking that people bring to games as well.  Strategic thinking has been displaced, where people are willing to think about what moves to make as they play a game, with another kind of thinking which video games and Euro-style games encourage and which allows success in those games.  That is puzzle-solving. 

What’s the difference?  Military strategy is closely related to maneuver, use of forces, and economics.  These are rarely prominent in puzzle-solving.  Military strategy depends heavily on interaction with the opposition, and the best generals often correctly anticipate what the opposition will do and take advantage of that anticipation.  In puzzles there is no opposition, nor can you “read the mind” of a puzzle the way you can read the mind of an opponent. 

So in the largest sense strategy is about outwitting or out-thinking intelligent opposition, while puzzle solving is a completely different skill.  Strategy involves both logic and intuition (“yomi”, reading the mind of the opponent).  Puzzle-solving is also logic and intuition, but differs in an important respect.  If you use trial and error in strategy, you lose, while in puzzle solving you can fail to solve the puzzle but in most cases that does not mean that you lose, you just try again.  This is why you can resort to trial and error.  In a video game you can just keep playing again and again until you succeed.  In a Eurostyle game you lose, but the elements of competition have been strongly minimized in typical Eurostyle games so that people are much less likely to feel disappointed about losing.  They focus more on what they’re doing in a game than on the possibility of losing.  In a strategy game the possibility of losing looms larger.

Whatever the reasons, in practice, in game playing we have many more players now who prefer to improvise, or to adapt to circumstances with short-range plans, and fewer players who are willing to plan for the long term, which is a necessary element of strategy.  Yes, we know the old maxim that a plan does not survive beyond first contact with the enemy, but that is less true in a game than in reality, and even in reality we know that the planning itself can include contingencies to deal with what happens when we first contact enemy.

When I was 24 Diplomacy was succeeded as my favorite game by Dungeons & Dragons, about as different from Diplomacy as two games can be.  Much of the reason was that I no longer was keen to play against other people and D&D is a cooperative game, though there is still intelligent opposition as conducted by the referee.  For the rest I had always been a fan of fantasy, and the role-playing aspects of being a goodguy, a hero (not a thug like the typical D&D player), attracted me.  D&D is very versatile insofar as it can be played as a strategic game or it can be played as a game where players have to adapt or improvise, or it can even be played as a semi-random game (what I used to call “lever pulling/button pushing D&D”). 

Moreover, it can be played as a wargame or it can be played as storytelling, and I played it is a wargame.  To me D&D is a microcosm of life because it shows that sometimes no matter what you do things are going to come out against you, but it also shows that you can minimize the number of times that you need to depend on luck to get you through.  Despite it being a game where lots of dice are rolled you can play it so that you rarely have to get a particular role to succeed.  (I’m talking about first edition D&D.  Fourth edition D&D is not much like first edition.  Much of the decision-making and strategic depth has been removed and it’s really hard to fatally screw up, rather like World of Warcraft and most other video games.)

D&D is still my favorite commercial game to play, but my favorite “game” is the game of designing games. And I don’t design role-playing games.  Perhaps because, as one boardgamer said, they are too “loosey goosey”, too imprecise, for my taste in design.

Someday I’ll get my long spiel about what constitutes strategy and strategic depth in a game up to speed.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

December Miscellany

I've posted a long piece about teaching game design in my blog about teaching game design ( )   I decided it was not exactly suitable for this blog.

I recall reading about someone who claimed to have invented the game Battleship.  That "inventor" was raging at Milton Bradley for stealing his idea.  The only problem is, Battleship is a traditional game that existed long before MB's plastic version.  I read about it in a book when I was a kid (more than 40 years ago), a game you played with graph paper.  And we did just that.

Monopoly, I understand, is another game with some "traditional" origins.    Parker Brothers claimed they bought it from a designer named Charles Darrow,  but finally we learned that it was a game that had kicked around in many forms for many years before PB published it.

Stratego is another game derived from something older.  L'Attaque, patented in 1909 in France (by a woman, which makes it even more of a rare bird), is identical to Stratego except for having one less column of squares and four fewer pieces per side.  It was published in 1909 by H. P. Gibsons in England (and may also have been published in France).  Several other games were designed in England using the same system (Dover Patrol, Tri-Tactics, Aviation).  After World War II a Dutchman sold Stratego to publishers Jumbo, who licensed it to the original American publishers (now owned by Hasbro).  And quite recently Hasbro lost the license, which was sold to Spin Master.

But it's all derived from a game that is long out of patent.  It's the name "Stratego" that might be protected by trademark. The game idea cannot be protected by copyright, of course.

Little-known fact: I am one of the few people to have had a Stratego-like game published.  Swords & Wizardry was published in Britain around 1980 by the same company that published L'Attaque and its derivatives, H. P. Gibsons, also the original publishers of Britannia.

What's important in a game is not what the context (theme, atmosphere) says is important, it's what you need to do to succeed (to win, for most people).  But what sells the game off store shelves is the context, not what you actually do.  This reminds me of the old maxim, probably still true, that a good novel with a poor cover will sell poorly, while a poor novel with a good cover will sell better.

Game design is "what happens next. "  You can watch movies or read novels to find out what happens next, you can play games to find out what happens next, and you can also design games to find out what happens next.

Puzzles have a "saddle point" or dominant strategy.  A solution.  Games don't.

Formal puzzles usually involve no chance element, making it more practical to have a saddle point.  When you introduce uncertainty/chance elements, whether in the system or through players, you get further away from puzzles and more towards games.

In-game "minigames" (not uncommon in video games) are a mark of the easily-bored nature of young people in our culture, and of the repetitive nature of many video games.  The players are given something else to do (the mini-game) because the ordinary gameplay is likely to become boring!

Wargames are models of reality (even if that reality is fantasy or science fiction).  Euro games are "artificial constructs."

Sooner or later, game consoles (wannabe computers) will become impractical to manufacture, because computers will offer an equal or better experience on one hand, and mobile platforms will offer nearly equal with more convenience on the other. Consoles will be squeezed out. The next console generation will be the last, I'd guess.

Businesses "immune" to the "digital Tsunami":
(that's the coming dominance of digital formats in games, books, already seen in music; which also tends to make people expect to get such things for free, and pirate them if they're not free)

Library book business.  Not so much immune as well behind, libraries are now getting into lending digital books, but it may be quite a while before the library as a place to go and browse books goes away.

Tabletop game business.  Yes, they can be played online, but that takes a lot of time and work, and can be shut down by publishers.  And it doesn't provide the play and social interaction of face-to-face games.

I'm not a typical boardgamer.  I'm interested in the game, not in "being there".

Command and Conquer Ancients advertises: "You're in command".  I don't care: I'm playing a game.

(And as I explained in Against the Odds magazine, people who think they're in anything like the situation of a commander in a real war are fooling themselves big-time.)

For me, "you are there" is Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs.  But RPGs aren't as precisely-defined as boardgames.  I recall one person who likes the "You're in command" idea say he didn't like RPGs because they're too loosey-goosey (his phrase), he wants to know exactly what he can do.

Hardcore video gamers concentrate on the game, not on the story, when they play, but it's the game (the wish-fulfillment, actually) that tends to draw them to playing in the first place.  Is story for casual video gamers?

This should all fit together somehow, but I haven't put it together yet.

I'm trying to model something, in most of my games, so I don't mind using the same mechanism again as long as it works for the model.  Euro gamers generally aren't modeling something, they're throwing mechanisms together, so they want to use new ones.  There are exceptions, of course.

 Is there something in video gaming that worships "thousands (millions) of possibilities" even though you're not going to use even a tiny fraction of them?

Kind of like the advertising about "your MP3 player can hold 10,000 songs" even though no one has 10,000 that they like pretty well.

So if this focus on number of songs is "sound bathing", what's the former: "option bathing"?

When does the desirable variety of replayability become option bathing?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

6 words about wargames

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter is 6 word stories.

I've asked for 6 words about game designers and 6 about programmers, with interesting results.  Now I want to ask about a type of game.

Can you say in 6 words what makes wargames interesting--or not?  (You'll have to decide what "wargames" are.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011


A young friend of mine asked me if I was interested in going to a mutual friend's house one evening to play Munchkin.  There were several reasons I could not, but one was "it's too silly".  Munchkin is a deliberately silly game.  This is amusing for a little while, but after that it just gets in the way.

Yet, when I was playtesting one of my zombie games I said to the players, "it's a silly zombie game after all".  But the silliness is of a different kind, and I asked myself what made the difference.

What it amounts to is that zombies are silly, but they can be played "straight".  Zombie movies sometimes play them straight, but the strongest example I can think of is Max Brooks' book Zombie Survival Guide, a relentlessly straight (yet reasonably humorous) treatment of the possibility of a zombie apocalypse.  (I imagine his "World War Z" is also straight, haven't read it, but I see it is being made into a movie...)

In other words, you can pretend that zombies exist and play it "for real".  The silly humor in Munchkin just doesn't translate to even a pretend reality.  Not one I can believe in, anyway.

Obviously, other people don't have that point of view, as Munchkin is very popular.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November 2011 Miscellany

Miscellaneous thoughts:

There is a longer version of my blog post "Too Many Choices?", called "How Many Choices are Too Many" on

Dragon Rage was recently near the top of "The Hoteness" on Boardgamegeek (#3 that I saw), MUCH to my surprise given the niche nature of the game.  I was even more surprised, when I switched to the "Thematic" sub-section, that it wasn't in The Hotness at all.  If Dragon Rage isn't a thematic game, what is?

A lot of game design amounts to project management.  Here are a couple of Lew's Laws of management:

The level of chaos is proportional to the square of the number of people involved.
The level of chaos is proportional to the cube on the number of people in charge.

Can we please stop calling games played over social networks such as Facebook "social games"?  They are solitary rather than social, and you don't play with friends, you use them distantly to get ahead.  (You "use" them, you don't play with or against them.)  These games are the opposite of "social".  They should be called "social network games".

I reported ( ) how Origins drastically changed my schedule of talks this year.  I found the missing correspondence I mentioned (it was in an email address I don't use much), and by that time I'd learned from John Ward, Executive Director of GAMA, that the person who was the likely culprit no longer works for GAMA (though I don't know why).

I've also learned in the interim that Origins attendance was 6,545 full passes and 4957 day passes, for a total of 11,502 people, a 7.8% increase over 2010.

In case you missed it, Origins has moved to the end of May, from the end of June.

Video games for some people are "graphics bathing" or "twitch bathing" in the same way that some people (especially those with iPods full of 10,000 songs) are "sound bathing".

Some video gamers like "the new" (the cult of the new) because they like the interactive story, and once they know the story, it's on to the next game.

 I don't at all appreciate the "gamer lifestyle", which so often amounts to "let's fritter our life away trying to be a bad-ass gamer even though that means nothing in the real world".  OK for kids, not for responsible (we hope) adults.

Euro gamer types say they want new mechanisms, then buy rethemed games that are hardly changed at all.

I think they want different puzzles (combinations of mechanisms), not different stories.

Wargamers don't mind similar mechanisms as long as the game is a sufficient model of reality.  It's a different mindset.  Most wargames are models of some part of warfare.  Most Euro games are abstract, not models of anything despite the atmosphere that has been tacked on to help sell the game.

Of an interesting Euro game we might say "clever".  Of an interesting wargame we might say "good model".

In the end Britannia is a strategic game, and if you can come up a simpler standalone strategic game of that era, why not?

Anyone know of studies identifying the "profile" of people who spend $$$$ playing free-to-play games?  Why do they do it?

If you ask people why they like to play a particular game, they often respond "because it's fun".  But that doesn't tell me anything, so the real question is, what makes it fun or why is it fun.  And then they struggle, because they haven't tried to analyze it or even think about it.  As a game designer I'm cursed: I can't play or watch a game without thinking about how it does what it does.  (I understand novelists have the same curse, they can't read a novel without thinking about how the author succeeds (or fails) at what he's trying to do.)

Are game designers (or publishers?) following the general trend that it's better to not do anything wrong, than to do a lot of things right and one wrong?  The result tends to be bland games, "pablum".

The story may be a reason or even *the* reason why people start to play a game, but it's gameplay that keeps them playing a game to the end.  For tabletop games, it's the gameplay that keeps people playing again and again.  For video games, the story comes to the fore again as a reason to keep playing after the game is "completed".

 Like most other people, programmers (even programmers who work on games) think that designing games is just a matter of getting a few neat ideas.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Adventures That Assume the Party Will Be Foolish

Many old school D&D adventures from back in the day were written with the clear assumption that a party would go up to a door, make little effort to discover what might be behind it, open it, and all bumble into the room beyond the door.  I say "bumble" because this is a good way to get dead, whether you're clearing houses in the Middle East or exploring dungeons in a fantasy setting.

It's also the easy way to write D&D adventures.  If you start by assuming that the adventuring party is going to do something stupid, it's a lot easier to endanger them.

Now granted an awful lot of D&D adventuring parties do behave in foolish ways with regularity.  The typical adventuring party in D&D is a gang of Chaotic-Neutral thugs, slightly homicidal muggers, looking for creatures to beat up and rob (and kill, if they can get away with it).  (See ) They would never think to do something like take prisoners to gather information, and the very idea of running away from an encounter, especially one that isn't necessary, seems to be foreign to most parties, even those who are not thugs.

But this kind of foolish behavior is not inevitable (nor is everyone a thug) and should not be treated as so by adventure writers.

What precipitated this rant was a session at "D&D Encounters" recently.  We were led out of the sewers by some guard/guides to an open area in a town, a town known to be a very dangerous place.  The referee, evidently following what was written in the adventure book, said we could set up only in a particular very narrow area in the middle of a broad thoroughfare.  I supposed he would then let us do our due diligence about spreading out--an absolute requirement in a world of area-effect spells and ambushes-- before having the encounter start.  When that wasn't forthcoming I protested at being required to be in the small area when there was lots of room to set up some kind of defensive perimeter.

But then the person we were following, the nominal heir to the throne, but who we knew had been acting erratically and dangerously, turned up and gave a brief badguy's speech and then blasted our entire party from a distance with an area-effect spell.  We had been confined a small area so that everybody could be hit by the spell. No initiative was rolled and we weren't given a chance to react.  This was true even though I said, as she was giving the speech, that I had tried to bail out of the way (spread out).

You might expect the "D&D Encounters" adventures to be written more realistically and intelligently than old-time dungeon crawls, but perhaps not.  We still have the same old assumption that the players are foolish if not stupid.  I asked the referee if indeed his adventure book specified that we should all be blasted like this, and he said yes.  (It's worth noting that our guides/guards were all killed in the blast, conveniently getting them out of the way.)

The equivalent of this in a video game is a cutscene that makes the player(s) do somethng he or she would never do, in order to advance the plot.

But what if the party just won't do what you have planned for them?  If you're a referee, you can wing it (sometimes), make something up that ultimately gets back on track.  If you're an adventure writer for other referees you don't have that option.   In the end you have a different choice: make the party do something that, for some parties, will annoy them no end because whatever-it-is is foolish; or let the referee go "out of character" and say, "if you don't choose to pursue this adventure, the entire sequence is over".  If the players decide they don't want to go further, then your linear plot may not be as good as you thought, and in any case no matter how good a story is, some people won't like it.

What might be my more general advice for adventure writers?  Well, my first bit of advice is don't write a linear adventure that has to follow a particular story.  But that's exactly what a lot of people want to or even need to do.  In that case I suggest that even if you're writing a linear story try not to suppose that the adventurers will do exactly what you expect.  Anyone who has reffed a lot of D&D knows that the party is more likely to do what you don't expect than what you do expect.  There are ways to canalize a party, to force it to follow particular path, without assuming that it behaves foolishly.  Find and use them.  The more often you assume that a party will do a particular thing, the more often your adventure will go awry.

Friday, November 04, 2011

6 words about game design

(You may have seen this on BGG or Gamasutra already.)

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter is 6 word stories.  Those can be amusing, and I once asked Britannia fans to write the story of Britannia in 6 words with good results.

But this time I have something harder in mind: say what a game designer does, or what he is, in 6 words.  Or if that's too challenging, try 10.  I have a version of both, but I'll hold off on it for now.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

“Analog” versus “Digital” in Games

Blogs are informal, and occasionally allow the writer to indulge himself, as in discussing his pet peeves.  One of my pet peeves is the misuse of the terms analog and digital to represent non-electronic games and electronic games.  I prefer the terms tabletop and video because they are more mellifluous and more directly address what people typically mean when they say analog games or digital games.  I use video rather than computer because of the odd notion in many quarters that game consoles don’t count as computers. (They’re just limited and specialized computers, computer wannabes, really.)  So I have to use video in order to include consoles.  Baseball is an analog game, but sports are not usually what people mean when they talk about “analog games”, nor are they talking about “tag”or other children’s games.  They usually mean games played at a table.

Something that is analog is continuous without discrete units or detents.  Time is analog although we try to divide it into smaller and smaller pieces.  Sound is also analog, although we have been able to divide it into such small parts that we can’t tell the difference between the digitized sound on computers and music CDs as compared with actual sound. ¹(Definitions from at the end of the article.)

Something that is digital is divided into discrete units with nothing in between.  The result of a die roll is digital: it’s a number one through six and cannot be 1 ½ or 2 3/4.  Modern computers do everything in “ons” and “offs” (1s and 0s), hence they’re digital.

There are analog computers, such as a slide rule for those who remember such things.  In World War II one of the reasons to develop digital computers was to replace the analog computers that were laboriously used to calculate ballistics tables for artillery.

You can see then that many tabletop games are in fact digital.  Therefore it makes no sense to use “digital games” for electronic games.  Nor does “analog games” work for non-electronic games.  I actually used “electronic” and “non-electronic” for a while, but they are too cumbersome.  So I substituted “tabletop” where that’s appropriate (again, baseball is not a tabletop game, but is a non-electronic game).  And I substitute “video” (or sometimes “computer”) for electronic games.

While I am probably fighting against a tidal wave, I can only say that using “analog” to describe tabletop games and “digital” to describe video games does not make sense.

of or pertaining to a mechanism that represents data by measurement of a continuous physical variable, as voltage or pressure.

5.      electronics: responding to discrete values of input voltage and producing discrete output voltage levels, as in a logic circuit: digital circuit
3.      representing data as a series of numerical values
4.      displaying information as numbers rather than by a pointer moving over a dial: a digital voltmeter; digital read-out
1.      of, relating to, resembling, or possessing a digit or digits
2.      performed with the fingers

¹Yes I know there are still people who claim that they can tell the difference between analog sound and digital sound, and there are a few nuts who claim that digitized sound is destroying modern ears.

Friday, October 28, 2011


I’ve observed D&D players for more than 35 years, and one consistent observation is that the majority of them play characters who are essentially Chaotic Neutral thugs.  This is particularly true if they’re not in a long-term campaign.  They’re happy to go around beating up other creatures, killing the ones that they can get away with killing (that is, the monsters or the evil types), mugging those they may not kill, and getting whatever useful stuff they can extract out of people or other creatures.  The ideal of “hero” only goes so far, sometimes doesn’t go anywhere at all, though there are also many players who are quite willing to be heroic in the game.

There are various levels of “thug”, and a lot worse than thug, such as the people who are entirely self-indulgent, will do whatever they want, and don’t care about what happens to their fellow party members.  Often the completely self-indulgent players are below the age of majority, but it can happen at any age.  I think of D&D as a highly cooperative game, and such people are nearly impossible to work with.  On the other hand I can work with thugs–sometimes.

I had an example of thuggishness at a recent “D&D Encounters” session that I play in at a local game shop.  D&D Encounters is organized by Wizards of the Coast to help introduce people to D&D.  It is a series of connected sessions with a story of sorts, though the major purpose is to have battles.  This seems partly to be built into 4th edition D&D, though some of this battle orientation is unavoidable because the sessions are open to whoever happens to walk-in and so we often have new players who don’t know the story or have any history with the group.  Over the course of playing since last winter there are only two players (including me) left from the original group that was large enough to play three sessions simultaneously.  I started playing to learn about 4th edition D&D and continue because I sometimes get boardgames playtested after the D&D, and because I like the other person who has been with it from the beginning.  Over the course of that time we have played three “seasons”, so I am now with my third character that I have run up from first level to third.

So while the game is highly linear, which tends to be associated with a strong story orientation, in practice there isn’t much story because players change so often.

In general at these sessions people are willing to be the good guys and do what’s required to have the adventure, if only because there’s no alternative.  There can be lots of hostile byplay between characters, though, and at least one character was killed by his own party on a day I wasn’t present (though knowing the character, I have to say he was asking to get dead). 

But at the end of this recent adventure we ran into problems.  We had defeated the enemy, and clearly our final task for the “season” was to pursue and defeat “the heir”, the bad guy.  As the fight ended, some civilians came out of a nearby building and gave us some information and then a “general” who was more or less second-in-command in what was left of the city came up to ask us to go defeat the heir.  It was a rather odd interjection, as we were clearly going to dothat  anyway because that’s what the linear D&D Encounters calls for.

It is typical in RPGs that if you’re always a good guy and never ask for any benefit you may not get one.  So when my female character spoke to this “general” who was asking us to take on the bad guy alone while her troops protected what was left of the city, I asked if she had any magic items that she could lend or give us that would help us in the last battle.  She said no but if we used her name with the merchants we might be able to get good deals if there were any to be purchased (though this would be after the final battle, of course).  In the circumstances, with what is left of the city more or less falling down around us owing to plague monsters, I thought that was the best we could get and I was ready to go on.

But some of my colleagues thought otherwise.  (I might interject here that all but two of the players are 18 to 20 years old, and that includes the referee who is not highly experienced.  I’m three times their age and there’s one other player who is in between my age and theirs.  He is regarded as the “talker” of the group, because they aren’t keen to do the talking, and I tend to keep my mouth shut so as not to control things too much.)  So the talker and one or two of the others essentially tried to verbally shake down this general to get more benefits-- starting the thug behavior that I’m talking about.  I put both hands over my mouth, to the amusement of the referee, because I wanted to let things play out however they were going to play out.  And the way they played out was that the referee, who has already shown himself to be fairly extreme in his points of view and reactions at times, played the general as quite offended.  We came to a point where part of our party threatened to refuse to go after the bad guy (the heir) even though that would mean the end of the city.  And the general pretty much said “do your worst”!   I finally spoke up and said I was going after the bad guy and went some distance away because I didn’t want to be associated with what was going on.  The inexperienced referee finally asked the experienced referee of the other group, who is the local organizer of the whole business, what he could do.  In the end that referee said well you can go to the stock rooms and shake these guys down for whatever they’ve got but meanwhile the city will fall down around your ears and that will be that.

The session ended at that point and we had a long discussion about the appropriateness of the thuggish behavior.  My main point was that their attempted shakedown had failed, and so their behavior was not appropriate no matter what they thought of it.  I said I had asked for something and got a concession and that was pretty clearly (to me) all we were going to get.  When the ensuing conversation made this even more clear (I thought), then they should have given up rather than proceed to the ultimate shakedown.  But there was lots of disagreement.  No one seemed to think he or she had done anything wrong, though some of the people who seemed to agree with the shakedown artists while it was happening now said they were no part of it . . .

Thugs, gangsters, whatever you want to call it, that’s often the way D&D characters behave.  I’m sure next week we’ll go on to take out the bad guy, and I hope that my efforts have separated me from my thuggish colleagues (not that it matters as that will be the end of the “season”), but it’s possible that we’ll get no benefit other than the knowledge of a job well done.

Much of playing with this group is about people-watching–they love to banter with each other (and talk over each other), and it takes a long time to get anything done-- and it was certainly interesting.  But not good play.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dragon Rage news

Dragon Rage is available in the US for a limited time from Fun Again Games:

A review of Dragon Rage appeared in a British blog.
Also on BGG

A review of Dragon Rage on Opinionated Gamer.

Another review at Fortress Ameritrach.

Video review, in German, of Dragon Rage.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When you start a game design, conceive a game, not a wish list

This is something that should be obvious, yet despite everything I’ve written about beginners designing games I have not said it explicitly.  And I know from my teaching experience that to many people it isn’t obvious.  It is especially important for people who want to design video games rather than tabletop games. 

When you set out to design a game it’s important to know what you want that game to do, what the impact will be on the players.  But it’s much more important to know how the game is going to do that.  Typically, beginners trying to design a video game will have visions of how wonderful it will be and how “kewl” and how much it will be just what they want to play, but if they try to solidify their notions they end up with a wish list of what they want the game to do, not a description of how the game is going to do it.  And if you try to pin them down to how the game is going to do it they have no clue.  (I don’t mean the details of programming, I mean the mechanics that the programming will enforce.) This is a special case of “hiding behind the computer”.  The would-be designer completely loses track of the link between where he wants to go and where he is now, he more or less assumes that the computer will make it possible.  “And a miracle occurs”.

What you want the game to do is part of the “idea”, how it will do it is part of the “structure”.  As many have said, ideas are a dime a dozen.  It’s the execution, the how, that makes a difference.  The structure provides the framework for “how” to happen.

A wish list is OK, but if you don’t know how to get there you may just be describing your favorite game on steroids, your favorite game “to the max”.  Frequently in such lists the would-be designer will say that he or she will have the best story ever, the best graphics ever, and so forth, which actually doesn’t mean anything at all.  Because unless you know some practical method that will let you have the best story or the best graphics or the “best _____”, no one’s going to believe you’ll do it and it’s most unlikely to happen.  In other words you’re wishing, not designing.  In a sense it’s a form of fanboy-ism.

The tabletop game designer is less likely to fall into this trap because there’s no computer to hide behind.  It’s much more obvious that the designer has to figure out the mechanisms the game will use to reach the desired result.  This is yet another reason why it is more practical and more instructive to learn to design with tabletop games even if you intend to be a video game design.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Too many Choices?

Several people have pointed out that a major difference between wargames and Euro-style games is the number of (plausible) choices presented to a player when it is his turn.  Wargames, especially the old-style (“traditional”) Avalon Hill hex and counter wargames like Stalingrad, Afrika Korps, Waterloo, and their descendants, offer vast numbers of choices to a player when it's his turn and he can move every one of his 40 or 50 units in a great variety of ways.  Some of these choices are not plausible but a great many are.  The great number of choices is one of the reasons why these games can have a lot of depth (“strategic depth” is the phrase sometimes used).  There can be a lot of strategy in the game because there are a lot of choices.  And it's to be noted that these are two player games, where you don't have the variables of the intentions of several other players and you don't need to worry about the impact of your choices on what those players might do to you.  In a two player game you know the other player is your enemy, period.

In most Euro-style games you have relatively few plausible choices in your turn.  In the Euro games where you're playing cards then you only have as many choices as the cards allow.  You are often limited in the number of cards that you can have in hand as well.  In Euro boardgames you often control very few pieces or units, and you are often quite limited in what you can do by action points or money or other resources.

This means that often players are "put on the horns of a dilemma" in choosing amongst the few alternatives that are available.  And that's what games of strategy are about.  But in wargames with many more choices, the dilemma is often greater.

In a multi-player wargame (such as Diplomacy) consideration of the intentions of other players increases the range of options when you play.  On the other hand, even though most Euro-style games are for more than two players, there often isn't much direct interaction with other players.  That means you don't have to worry as much about their intentions as in a wargame, again limiting the number of choices you have to make.

Concomitants of few choices
I'm convinced that this difference in the number of choices means that it's much easier to play a Euro-style game intuitively than to play a traditional wargame intuitively.  To me when you have a large number of choices you have to use logic, as well as intuition, to effectively decide what to do.  But I can't explain that conviction, as I think you could argue that when there are too many choices that's the time when intuition can be more effective than logic.  Perhaps it's just that I play logically rather than intuitively, and I grew up with traditional wargames.

Another consequence of limited choice is that players can fail to pay attention for various intervals and still have a chance of using their intuition to choose an at-least-decent move.  If you don't pay attention in a typical hex-and-counter wargame you're going to get your butt kicked by someone who is paying attention.

Limited plausible choices also means the player does not need much downtime to think about how he's going to move/play.  In effect, each player's move is much less complex than in a wargame, but it takes much less time as well.  In a sense it is as though you divided up the wargame turn into many separate turns.  Yet the Euro games do not take longer than wargames, in fact typically less, and that may be because Euro games usually have more or less arbitrary turn limits.  You play to a certain number of turns or points and then you're done, you don't have to dominate the opposition in the sense of wiping them out or capturing their capital or other distant/difficult objective that you would have in many traditional commercial wargames.

Another consequence of the relatively small number of choices is that many Euro-style games are fairly "transparent," that is, after a player plays one game he often thinks that he knows the right things to do to win, and in many cases he's correct in that thought.  This contrasts with many other games, especially some wargames, where you may have to play the game quite a few times before you come close to fully understanding the strategies involved.  I'd cite my game Britannia as a case where playing once only begins to reveal the strategy of the game.  People who are used to transparent Euro games sometimes play Britannia and complain that the game is badly unbalanced, because they have not yet begun to see what the various colors can actually do to influence/control the outcome.

This transparency is one of the reasons why Euro-style games are popular.  After all, the origin of Euro-style games is as "family games on steroids," and while we are long beyond that with many Euro-style games, there is still this tradition that they should be relatively easy to "figure out" how to play well.

The transparency of most Euro-style games may help explain why so many of them are only played a small number of times.  Players figure it all out quickly, then move on to the next game.  Perhaps it’s more likely that a game with few plausible choices per turn is less likely to have the kind of depth that characterizes some games with lots of choices that people play dozens to hundreds of times.

Much of that transparency comes from the limited number of plausible choices players are typically faced with.   If there are more choices than a player wants to deal with, "analysis paralysis" can set in.  The player can't figure out what to do, and does nothing for an extended period., either not taking his turn, or doing nothing in his turn.

Resemblance of Euros to traditional card games
In respect of few choices Euro-style games of all kinds much more resemble cardgames than Chess or Go.  In a card game you have a relatively small number of choices, represented by the cards in your hand.  In typical traditional cardgames each card can only be used for one purpose such as playing it onto a trick in Bridge.  A relatively simple boardgame like Checkers may have a similar number of plausible choices in each turn, but Chess or Go have many, many more.

In chess we have only 16 units on a side and only 64 locations on the board, but in many cases most of those units can move, and offer a variety of choices.  The vital importance of each choice-- in a top class game if you make one mistake you may be doomed-- means that a player must consider a great many choices despite the small number of units.

On the other hand Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts and Crosses) presents very few choices, which is one reason why a well played game always ends in a draw.  Checkers presents many fewer choices than Chess or Diplomacy, but a lot more than Tic-Tac-Toe.

In Diplomacy there are only 34 units in the entire game yet seven players when it starts.  Much of the richness comes from the fact that there are many players.  There is a tactical richness in the movement of the units even though there are not a large number of choices, because movement is simultaneous and deterministic (no chance is involved in conflict resolution).  The fact that there are many players and their intentions can make a big difference to what you do means that even with a few units that can be a great many plausible choices.

For most RPG players I think RPGs tend toward the few choices and the intuitive side, which probably works better with the story style than with a wargame style.  I play RPGs as wargames and see more choices and use logic much more to decide what to do.  And I generally despise the story style because I hate not being in control of my own fate, yet in the story style the player often has to follow the story.  (To me as a player, much of the purpose in a game is to control what happens.  Stories imposed by the designer or referee don't allow this.)

Wizards of the Coast in 4th Edition D&D has changed the game to limit the number of choices, while at the same time assuring that every character has something to do every turn.  Characters have relatively few powers, but these include some that can be used every turn.

Examples from a game club
I recently had this fundamental difference between Euro-style games and wargames brought home to me once again in my primary playtest group, which is the NC State Tabletop Gamers Club.  The members of this club are college undergraduates, a few graduate students, and me.  In my experience of groups of Euro gamers (who are usually much older on the average) people play as many different games as they can and few games are played over and over.  At NC State several years ago, when the club was smaller, a lot more wargame-like games were played.  Now the members play few games that have lots of choices, and their favorite games are games with relatively few choices for the player such as Betrayal at House on the Hill, Red Dragon Inn, Dominion, and Ascension.  Boardgames seem to be played much less than in the past.  One of the more popular boardgames is a prototype race and maneuver game I’m developing that has only five or six pieces per player.

What immediately brought this home to me was the following episode.  One of our members likes to play Stratego, partly because she has a very good memory for pieces that have been temporarily revealed.  She had played Stratego with her boyfriend a few weeks before, so I asked them to play a Stratego-like game that I have designed, tentatively called Solomons Campaign because it involves getting transports to the other side of the board in the midst of islands, submarines, surface ships, and airplanes of World War II vintage.  But Solomons Campaign is a much more fluid and much less hierarchical game then Stratego.  Immediately the young lady had some trouble with the rules, because there many more combinations possible and not the very clear hierarchy of strength from the Marshall down to the Scout that characterizes most of Stratego.  The only departures from the strength hierarchy in Stratego are the bombs and the ability of the Spy to attack and kill the Marshall.  In Solomons submarines can sink some ships when attacking, but cannot touch others (such as destroyers).  But submarines lose to many ships and planes when attacked.  The strongest ship (battleship) can't successfully attack the subs (but is not killed when attacking).  The next strongest ship (aircraft carrier) wins when attacking a sub, but loses when attacked.  Two planes can combine together to attack, such that two bombers can exchange with a battleship. 

She was also thrown off because I believe that in a modern game people don't want to have to memorize the location of pieces, so in Solomons once a unit's identity has been revealed it stays visible; hence she didn't have the memorization advantage she felt she had in Stratego. 

She also struggled setting up her pieces, because even though there are 25 pieces per player in this version of Solomons and 40 in Stratego, the hex board has many more locations (13 by 12 = 156) than the square Stratego board, so there is lots of room to set up the pieces.  In Stratego there are 92 locations and 80 pieces altogether, and you fully occupy four rows when you set up.  In other words there were vastly more setup choices in my game.  In Stratego you just don't have very many places to put your pieces. 

So altogether in Stratego you have fewer choices about where to set up, and as a result of the congestion on the board you have few choices of move when you start playing--only the front six pieces  (lakes are in the way).  In Solomons each piece has six directions it can go because of the hex board, instead of four (and can move one or two hexes straight in any of those directions).  Furthermore, you can move two pieces at once if they're both airplanes.  And airplanes can move over friendly pieces.

In actual play, the Stratego lover struggled because the game is very unlike Stratego in the number of choices each turn.  Other games have shown that she is not good at figuring out strategy in wargames, like many people who aren't accustomed to playing wargames, so she suffered a form of paralysis quite strikingly.  She just didn't know what to do strategically.  Her boyfriend is more accustomed to wargames, and he ultimately made inroads on one flank and sent a transport through to win.

Even though the game is a distant cousin of Stratego, it is much more like a strategic wargame, and so less suitable for a mass market. 

I recall one of the other members last year telling me that she did not care to play wargames because there were too many choices.  (I think it was also because there tended to be too many rules to keep track of.)  This young lady is one of the more intelligent people you would ever meet, but she plays tabletop games to relax and claimed that she relied on intuition as much as logic to make her moves.  When there were too many choices, she said, she would just guess (or rely wholly on intuition, I'd say). She did play my other Stratego-like game (a space wargame, on squares, with just 19 pieces per side) and acquitted herself very well against someone who had played it three times before.  That game is in between Solomons and Stratego in the number of choices.

As it happens these two examples are females but I don't think gender has anything to do with it.  It's a matter of preferences that can turn up in males just as in females.  90% of the club members are male, yet the preference for games with fewer choices is widespread. It may be worth noting that the proportion of Euro players who are female seems to be much higher than the proportion amongst wargame players.  This is similar to the proportions of hard-core and casual players of video games who are women (much higher in casual than hard-core).  Whether this is because women are steered away from wargames when young, or “naturally” prefer fewer choices when playing games, or don’t care as much for “in your face” competition, or something else, I don't know.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Cinematic RPGs and Huge RPG Books

At the UK Game Expo this summer I was part of a four-person panel of “RPG designers”.  This was a little funny, because I’ve not actually designed an RPG from scratch, though I wrote a lot about them in White Dwarf and other magazines back in the day.  (I was not on the game designers’ panel, but that was just as well as the British designers amounted to 10 or so people.)

One of the questions to the RPG panel was how much the particular game rules mattered to what kind of campaign the referee wants to run.  For example, for a story-based campaign do you need a story-based role-playing game?  I said any game could be adapted for any campaign, but another panelist, Sarah Newton of Cubicle 7, disagreed, and I can see why. 

Sarah pointed me to a free RPG called Fate.  This is about 80 pages of downloadable rules, associated with another, partially free RPG called Fudge.  It strongly encourages a story-based rather than rule-based RPG campaign.  Players don’t even have ability numbers, they have various strengths or aspects (that can be quite poetic), and players use those aspects along with simple die roll modifications to (practically speaking) convince the referee to allow such-and-such to happen.  If you’re interested in story-based RPGs, I strongly recommend you read Fate (version 2.0 is a free download: ).  (Don’t confuse it with the computer game Fate.)

 (Spoilers follow if you haven’t seen the fourth Indiana Jones movie.)

The extreme version of story-based RPGs, something that appears to be more and more popular and which Fate could easily be used for, is the cinematic campaign.  In such campaigns it would be quite normal for characters to take actions that one might see in tentpole adventure movies.

The best example I can think of is Indy’s survival of a nuclear blast because he hides inside a refrigerator.  The force of the blast that launched the refrigerator Lord-knows-how-far would have killed him, the shock when it hit the ground would’ve killed him, and there’s no way it could have stayed closed during the “flight” and yet open easily after coming to rest.  But in a movie we just kind of accept it and move on, because we knew it was going to be fantastical before we went to it.  Yes, there are lots of people who would never bother with an Indiana Jones movie because they know it’s fundamentally nonsensical, but also lots who ignore the silliness of it and love to watch.

TV programs like Lost routinely also veer into the land of unbelievability.  Don’t get me wrong, fantasy can be quite believable if you begin with the assumption that magic exists; I’m talking about events that occur in a story that are so astronomically unlikely that they’re unbelievable no matter what the technological/magic parameters of the setting.

Teenagers often play fantastical RPGs, which I have tended to call “brain fever”.  Whatever you could hatch in your feverous brain, the referee might go along with!

In a cinematic RPG the players would argue about how wonderful their character was in this nuclear refrigerator situation and persuade the referee to give them some chance to survive.  While in reality the chance is ridiculously astronomical (if I even bothered I’d say “role 10 d10s and if you get a 10 on all of them you survive but are so badly hurt you’re unable to move”), more typically the referee will give a significant though small chance such as 1 in 100 or even 1 in 20.

Players might argue that their RPG characters are much tougher than a normal person (Indiana Jones is far tougher than a normal person, but not a superhero).  Because of that “magical” toughness their character should be able to survive in the refrigerator.  It doesn’t really matter that the refrigerator itself would be unlikely to survive. . .  Sure.

As you can see from my example, I would not be a suitable referee for a cinematic RPG.  The ridiculousness of what was going on would offend me, and if I bothered to give any chances at all they would be truly astronomical.  But some of that may come because I treat D&D (the only RPG I play) as a kind of cooperative wargame, not as a storytelling engine.  The cinematic D&Ders are clearly playing for story, not for gameplay.

Games like Fate remind me of one well-known wargamer’s view of RPGs: he feels they are too “loosey-goosey”, he wants to know what he can and cannot do.  Games like Fate are much more like miniatures rules, which seem to require constant negotiation anyway (as another well-known wargamer said), than like boardgame rules which are supposed to define all possibilities.  I think a cinematic RPG will work better if it's less precise, if more comes from the players and less from the referee, and less yet from the rules.  Or as they say in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the rules are actually more like guidelines . . .

I think part of the unbelievable cinematic play derives from a widespread failure to understand probability and large numbers.  To most people one large number is as good as another even if one is 10,000 times more than the other.  They don’t seem to understand that 1 in 100 is immensely different from 1 in a million (or even 1 in a thousand), which is in turn immensely different from 1 in a billion.  And your average person has no clue about probabilities.

But a bigger part probably may come from what I see as the great increase in game-playing as escapism in the form of wish-fulfillment.  Players don’t want to be limited, they want to get away from reality, the want to feel powerful and heroic, so a cinematic game can suit their feelings and purposes.

Wargames require mental (not physical) concentration, movies don’t.  (In contrast many computer games require physical concentration, except even if you die you just respawn or go back to a save . . .)  Wargame-style tabletop RPGs inevitably will become less popular over time, while story-style will become more popular, as people tend with passing generations to concentrate less on a particular thing.  It’s a trend seen in TV, the theater, and computer games as well as many other parts of life, so why wouldn’t it affect RPGs as well?  If the story style of play takes direction from the players and the rules, rather than depending heavily on the referee, then it’s as practical as the wargame style.  In fact, for the wargame style the referee needs to master many rule details, while the story style can be much less precise, and that may appeal to many referees.

To go back to the Expo, I was looking at Cubicle 7s 600+ page large-format hardcover books.  Why, I asked myself, would younger people especially, who normally don’t read books, buy such enormous tomes?  I asked Sarah about the demographics of Cubicle 7's market, and she answered 25 to 40 years old.  So that includes lots of Gen Xers and the older millennials, perhaps beyond the age of the millennials who are famous for the acronym “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read).  On the other hand, millennials will read a lot when they really get into something, but that kind of enthusiasm is uncommon.

The only reason I can think of for good sales is that these books are bought as a substitute for imagination.  It is often suggested that young people don’t use their imaginations much because for many, many years now stories have been presented to youngsters whole cloth, with visuals.  Their toys are from particular stories, video games have the stories built-in, television and movies are everywhere, and so youngsters have rarely had to figure out stories on their own.  They aren’t, for example, presented with the challenge of making paper boats and then figuring out what to do with them.  Any boats they have are ready-made and associated with specific stories.  So in RPGs they’re much more likely than my generation (boomers) to use something imagined by someone else rather than to imagine it themselves.

I’ll interject a related observation here.  A few years ago I attended a talk by Monte Cook of D&D fame at the Origins Game Fair.  At one point he observed that published D&D adventures spend a lot more time on story than in the past, and wondered why.  My answer is that people don’t buy the adventures to play them so much anymore, they buy them to read them, and they want to read a story with a plot rather than just read about a situation.  The buyers can then take whatever aspects of the story they like and incorporate them into the stories that they are telling in their own games, and they can also incorporate the game ideas they get into their adventures, but most of the time they don’t use the entire published adventure.  There are so many inexpensive published adventures now that few people would have time to use even a small fraction, so they’re often bought to be read, not played.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Impressions of Ancient Conquest I

The Britannia "game system" has been used in other published games such as Maharaja (Avalon Hill), Hispania (Azure Wish), Rus, and most recently Italia (Phalanx) and China: the Middle Kingdom (Decision Games).  Some people categorize these and other games such as History of the World as “sweep of history” games.  The original game of this category may have been Ancient Conquest, which was recently reissued.

A fundamental idea for Britannia (and for most sweep of history games) comes from Ancient Conquest.   I read the rules while watching a game being played in the late 70s.  The idea: having each player control several nations each having individual objectives.  I did not see the game again until I bought a used copy several years ago, to see what resemblance there is between it and Britannia.  And now the original publishers, under different ownership, have issued a new edition of the game, so I have the opportunity to compare the new edition with Britannia.

This is not a review, because I have not played, nor have I watched anyone play, the game since that day decades ago.  I can't tell you how well the game plays.  But I can describe it and compare it with Britannia.  Hence "impressions".

Although the idea of having several nations controlled by each player is implemented in Ancient Conquest I, the game has very little in common with Britannia otherwise.  It's hard to say which of two things is the biggest difference:

First, Ancient Conquest I is a battle game and Britannia is a war game.  That is, economics and grand strategy are very important in Britannia, while Ancient Conquest I is a game of strategy and tactics because there is no economy, rather there's an order of appearance, and because there are thousands of hexes to maneuver in.  You always know what force your opponent will have available in the future, and control of particular locations does not generally affect the force available.  In Britannia the nations can vary immensely in strength owing to their economic success, which derives from their success in holding territory.  In a battle game territory is only useful for the terrain and geopolitical implications, and details of maneuver can be very important.  In a war game territory usually equates to additional forces, following the age-old principle that land equals wealth.  This is no longer true in the 21st century, but has been true for agriculturally-based nations through most of history.  Sometimes maneuver in such games is very important, sometimes not.  Axis and Allies equates territory directly with economy, and uses areas rather than hexes, but maneuver can be fairly important, so there are all kinds of degrees to these differences in emphasis.

Second, and not surprising given the first, Ancient Conquest I is a hex and counter wargame, with numbers on the counters representing combat strength and movement; Britannia is an area a game with larger counters that have no numbers on them.

The sequence of play is also different between the two games.  In Ancient Conquest I a player plays all of his nations at the same time, and they can cooperate with each other to the point of attacking a common enemy or garrisoning a single town.  In fact, if you ally with another player then troops of both colors can defend a single city.  In Britannia each nation is entirely separate, and plays in nation order.  Once in a while you will see a nation controlled by a player attack another nation he controls because that suits the strategic situation.

In Ancient Conquest I each player can score a maximum of 40 victory points, rather than the variable numbers used in Britannia-like games.  How you earn points differs as well, because more than a third of the point entries involve destroying a minimum number of enemy combat factors.  Most of the rest involve holding a city at particular times, often through several turns.  (There are a couple dozen large cities on the board, and a lot more than that which are fortified.)  The “kill the enemy” victory criterion fits with the “battle game” instead of “war game” nature of Ancient Conquest I.  Where there are no economic objectives and no way to generate more units than normal, it makes sense that destruction of enemy units becomes a primary objective.  Scoring is tracked on the four 8 by 11 cards that list the possible scoring.  The rules say that scoring the maximum is very hard.

Each player has from 20 to 31 ways to score.  7 of those 20 are kill points.  11 of those 31 are kill points.  Because there are no area borders on the board, cities are the territorial representation for points.  The most important nation by far (for points) is Assyria, which can score 28 of the 40 for its color; no other nation can score more than 15.   The 17 nations are grouped as:
•    Assyria (both Middle and Neo-), Marsh people (southern Sumeria), Mitanni, Lydia.
•    Elam, Hittites, Cimmerians (presumably including Scythians as well), Judah-Israel.
•    Egypt, Media, Urartu, Arameans.
•    Kassites and Babylonians, Chaldeans and Neo-Babylonians, City States (Neo Hittites?), Phrygians, Philistines.

Mitannia and Assyria were traditional enemies until Assyria turned them into a vassal state.  The Chaldeans conquered the Kassites, who were more or less broken by a bizarre Hittite raid.  These are the only combinations that are a bit odd, but it’s just about impossible to set up four sides without having some odd combinations.  For example, historically the Picts and Angles were deadly enemies but are the same color in Britannia, while the Scots succeeded the Picts peacefully but are enemies in Brit.

Because the game uses hexes there are many more locations than there are in Britannia, which has 37 land spaces and a handful of sea spaces.  The board in this edition is plasticized paper, 22" x 34", with hexes sized for the 200 half-inch counters.  (Some of that width is for tables.)  It is after all a traditional hex boardgame from the 1970s.  Yet it does avoid one standard hex practice, big stacks.  Two missile units or a missile and foot can stack together, otherwise only one is allowed in any location except cities, where three can be placed.  This is the reason there’s a siege table, because those three defend together.  I’d forgotten how small half inch pieces are, but this is mitigated by the limited stacking.

In other differences from standard hex wargames, there are no zones of control and attacking an adjacent enemy is not required, so you could send several units adjacent to several enemy hexes but only attack one of them.

Combat in Britannia is "independent", that is, the strength of the defender does not affect the damage done by the attacker, both sides rolling.  Ancient Conquest I has only one die and combat tables (normal and siege) something like the original Avalon Hill 3-1 combat table.  You calculate the odds, attacker rolls, table gives result.  Hence combat is "dependent" on the strength of the other side as well as your side.

There are 17 nations in Ancient Conquest I, 17 in Britannia (though one, the Romano-British, is a successor to another).  As I have made more than one ancient Near Eastern prototype, I find the nation choices interesting.  But my prototypes cover longer periods of time.  This game is about 1500 BC to 600BC, so Hammurabi is not involved, nor empires before him such as Sargon’s.  There are a couple nations representing Sea Peoples, though no other indication of the ancient Near Eastern “Dark Age” around 1200 BC.  

Aside from horse/chariot, foot, and missile troops there are war machine (siege engine) pieces and pieces representing items involved in objectives, such as gods and the “Chosen People” who must be carried off the Babylon for the Babylonian player to score.

It’s impossible to successfully legislate against negotiation over the table, because players can comment endlessly about the state of the game in order to try to influence other players.  Nonetheless this game attempts to outlaw oral negotiations (presumably, secret oral negotiations) while allowing a player to send one written message and one reply to another message each turn (that’s not “per player”, that’s “altogether”).  (The rules mistakenly say “verbal” negotiation is not allowed; it should be oral, as “verbal” means “with words” and so includes writing as well as speaking, even though many people now mistakenly use “verbal” as a substitute for “oral”.  In another few decades we’ll no longer have a word that means “with writing or speaking or both”, in fact even now you can’t really use “verbal” any more because it may be misunderstood.  Your pedantry for the day... make sure your rules mean the same thing to everyone.)

Rules say this game takes five to six hours (presumably longer for beginners); there is no version for other than four players.  Ancient Conquest I is priced at $44.95 according to the Excalibre 2011 catalog.  The game was designed and originally developed by Denis P. O’Leary, and development for this edition is by Robert Mosimann, owner of Excalibre Games.

I’ve made a comparative table in WordPerfect, but that won’t display well here.  See a version of it at
Notice that is case sensitive, and it's an I, not a one.

Since this is a description, let me describe the other physical aspects of the game.  The 200 half inch pieces contain two numbers (combat strength and movement) and a silhouette and country name.  The words and numbers might have been easier to read if printed in black.

Aside from the board, pieces, and rulebook, there are four victory point charts, a double-width combat chart, and an order of appearance chart.  All are on heavy plasticized card stock.  The 12” by 9.5“ by 2” box is also coated for better resistance to wear, and a tighter fit than any game box I can remember.  You’re most unlikely to have it come open accidentally!

The 20 page rules (LOTS of photos) left me puzzled in a couple places, but that might be sorted out in actual play.  Unlike Britannia there are no leaders, but there are special rules such as the David and Goliath rule and Plague rules.

You can see from the copyrights on the various components that this game has been several years in the making, back to 2006.  It is part of a group of four reissues that Excalibre are offering to kick off a new series of game publications under new management after a very long period of inactivity.  The other games are Conquerors, A Mighty Fortress, and Battle for Stalingrad.

While we’re comparing, if you are familiar with Charles Vesey's Chariot Lords (Clash of Arms) you would notice a considerable resemblance to Ancient Conquest I, not only in the subject but in the way points are earned.  Vesey's game is also a battle rather than war game, in this case you generally receive reinforcements from your dead unit pile at a set rate.  Yet it is an area game, not a hex and counter game, so it's a mixture of Ancient Conquest I and Britannia and unusual ideas (most notably random movement order each turn, which makes for a very chaotic situation).

I have not tried to compare this with the original game, since the current game is what counts to potential buyers.  From memory I’d say it is very much the same game. 

While this is a “sweep of history” game (perhaps the first), it will be a very different experience from playing Britannia-like games.  It will be interesting to hear about the gameplay from people who play the game several times.