Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Opposites in why people play

A few years ago I was listening to taped lectures about the Roman Republic. The lecturer was a young man who recounted the experience of a much older scholar who was an expert on the Roman Republic’s constitution. The Roman constitution is an unwritten and often puzzling mishmash of traditions. The lecturer said the older scholar described his experiences: when he was young he thought he understood the Roman constitution, but as he got older he felt he understood less and less, so now as senior faculty he wasn’t at all sure how it worked!

The young lecturer found this a little depressing but I can understand it completely, because I sometimes feel the same way about my understanding of why people play games. Apparently some game scholars simply assume that people play games to win, but that’s clearly not even close to the truth, especially for many Euro gamers and for many people of the younger generation. When I wrote a piece about why people play games for my book that’s been printed on GameCareerGuide (republished in this blog ), I listed a wide variety of motivations, but that was only a beginning.

But what’s brought this to mind right now is watching people play two very different games: one is Betrayal at House on the Hill and the other is Hansa Teutonica (HT). These games are about as different as two games can be, yet the players in both cases were late teens and twenty-somethings. I’m pretty sure the players of Betrayal would immediately fall asleep if they played HT. Though I think the HT players would not be quite so put off by Betrayal I think they’d rapidly find it pointless.

Betrayal is a story driven game (exploration of a haunted house) with lots of chance involved; HT has a tacked-on “theme” of traders in the Hanseatic League but is for all practical purposes a rather complex abstract game with no chance, yet of the kind I call “mental gymnastics”.

At the NC State gamers club Betrayal is played virtually every week. Most of the players are as much role-playing gamers as boardgamers. "Casual" would describe them, most don't own enough games to say so (this is a club-owned copy), and play tabletop games once a week for 3-4 hours.

I have been reading reviews and watching video reviews of the game to try to understand exactly what it is that attracts the players. It seems to me that the story-driven aspect of it is what makes it popular, along with relatively short gameplay (an hour). The players don't seem to mind the initial wandering (which the hard-core on BoardgameGeek call "pointless"), but as someone pointed out, it's not much different than when D&D came out and you wandered around a dungeon. And certainly not different from the "leveling up", without interest a larger purpose, that characterizes most computer MMORPGs. Someone suggested that there was a resmblance in purpose to Munchkin, where the game goal is to reach a particular level.

I am not into tactically oriented story driven games--though I played D&D for 30 years, I hated being made to follow a particular story. I do like the sweep of history in games ("story" is part of "history"). But I am not a horror-movie fan. So I'm not the least tempted the play Betrayal.

The players of HT play games several times a week, sometimes for six hours or more. HT itself seems to be a one hour game, with three players anyway. As with many Euro games HT feels to me like a game where you do things for the sake of doing them, where complexity is introduced for the sake of complexity, where there are lots of different things you can do and yet none of them feels like you’re doing something that actually represents anything anyone would do in reality. To me either a game is completely abstract, and should be simple to play but have complexity in playing well, or the game should be one where everything I do can be *easily* seen to represent something that might be done or occur in reality. I don’t try to design simulations but if I’m designing a historical game I often want it to be a representation. Britannia is a representation of British history not a simulation, Dragon Rage is a representation of an attack on a city, not a simulation. In fact I think simulations of history are a delusion and a dead-end, perhaps excepting highly tactical games. (I’ve written two long articles about some of these topics, one of which was recently published in Against the Odds magazine.)

For me, either a game is entirely abstract (chess), or it is a model of some reality, but it doesn't have to be a highly detailed or "accurate" model. HT, like many recent Euro games, is neither, it's abstract but complex, pretending to be a model, yet frequently but not always turns out to be a particularly poor model.

So my reaction to HT is like my reaction to a great many Euro games, “why would anyone bother?” Yet obviously a lot of people do bother, and must enjoy what they’re doing.

Monday, February 21, 2011


* We often say that the essence of a game is player interaction. If so, what is the essence of a puzzle? I'm at a loss.

* I say I like cooperative games (D&D) but I don't go for cooperative boardgames. Why not? Because cooperative boardgames are puzzles, there's no semblance of intelligent opposition.

* I have been thinking I should write an article about game myths. Maybe "10 myths about games", but it could be another number. So far I have (in random order):

Everyone plays to win.

Everybody plays games.

You can gamify anything.

Games are complicated.

Games are all about shooting and blowing stuff up.

Girls don't play games.

Games are like puzzles.

Games are about math.

* Perhaps I ought to write "10 myths about game design" as well...

"Rules" of rules-writing

I've been reading the rules of some of the "strategy" and wargame category games on thegamecrafter.com. There are dozens of games in this category. (You may not have heard of this site, it's as close as we come to Print on Demand for board and card games.) Many of these games are designed by first-timers who have no editor or publisher to assist them.

Elementary "rules" of writing rules are often broken. For example, early in a rule set you should say how many players, how long the game takes, and (briefly) what you do to win. (Full victory conditions come later.) But most of these rule sets don't say the first two ANYWHERE, and often save "how to win" to the end. Having these three items of information early on helps the reader understand the rules. When you don't know how to win, for example, understanding what kinds of actions you might take, and why, can be difficult.

I think rules should include a section, near the end, "rules often missed or forgotten at first play". Not seen here.

I usually describe the components early on, so that as the owner has just removed things from the box, he can have some idea of their purposes. Not seen here.

Illustrations are good, but it must be said that the creators of these games are likely trying to keep costs down by fitting the rules onto fewer pages.

The rules tend to be devoid of examples, too. The best rules include a "playthrough" of a turn or two, so that the reader will know whether he is playing the game right. (True, many people will not bother to read through a playthrough, but some will.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Game designing and writing as professions

I was at a local game shop the other day to try out 4th edition D&D seasonal adventures. One of the players had played Warhammer 40,000 but had never played D&D. I discovered on further acquaintance that she likes to write fiction. This seems to be the most common hobby cum professional objective of people in their late teens or early 20s, after wanting to make video games, though that observation comes from my own experience rather than surveys. (Before someone comments that surveys show that teens want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and sports people, I’m talking about what they really want to do, not what they think they ought to want to do, or think that others think they should do, or what they think they will have to do.)

Fortunately this 19-year-old recognizes that she isn’t likely to make a living from writing; unfortunately she doesn’t really have any idea of what else she might want to do.

I guess that the number of people who make a full living from fiction writing worldwide is in the hundreds rather than the thousands. I recently read an interview with Glen Cook, who is one of my favorite fantasy authors, who said:

"Even in my best years of the first thirty it was never more than hobby money. The last maybe five I've made enough to support myself in genteel poverty. Certainly not enough to support a family and put three sons through college."

This is a man who worked full-time and retired from General Motors, and wrote in his spare time, but had a lot of books published. Now that he's retired he does about two a year.

In contrast the number of people who make a full living from tabletop game design is very likely less than 100, total, no more than a quarter of those freelancers. The obvious freelancers are Reiner Knizia, Klaus Tauber (Catan), and Alan R. Moon (Ticket to Ride), and likely Richard Borg (Liar's Dice, Memoir '44 etc.), plus people who work at Hasbro and a few other companies.

Perhaps even more in fiction writing than in games, it's very rare for young person to become well-known. Despite the exception of the author of Eragon (who got a lot of help), how many successful fiction authors, people who make enough to make a living, can you name who are less than 30 years old? There's probably somebody in tabletop game design under 30, but the ones I've named above are much older than that. Part of this may simply be that you need to do quite a few things before you become well-known, but in fiction writing I also think it's a matter of personal experience. The authors of really affective [sic] fiction can draw upon a wealth of life experience: they've personally experienced love and death and disappointment and betrayal. (When I talked about experience to my 19-year-old acquaintance she pointed out all the things she had *done* (such as skydiving and horse riding) rather than all the emotional experiences she had had.)

In the age of instant gratification it's now even harder for young people to recognize that practice makes a difference, THE difference. This is true for fiction writing and it's also true for game design. This is what Cook had to say about fiction writing when asked "Do you have any advice for beginning writers?"

"This is the easiest answer of all. Write. Don't talk about writing. Don't tell me about your wonderful story ideas. Don't give me a bunch of 'somedays.' Plant your ass and scribble, type, keyboard. If you have any talent at all, it will leak out despite your failure to pay attention in English. And if you didn't pay attention, learn. A carpenter needs to know how to use a hammer, level, saw, and so forth. You need to know how to use the tools of writing. Because, no, the editor won't fix it up. S/he will just chunk your thing in the shit heap and go on to somebody who can put together an English sentence with an appropriate sprinkle of punctuation marks."

Jerry Pournelle used to say you too can be a novelist if you're willing to throw away your first million words. Brandon Sanderson, who is finishing the Wheel of Time series following the unfortunate death of the original author, wrote something approaching a dozen novels before he sold one. Glen Cook apparently wrote a great many novels before he sold one. And none of those old novels will ever be published.

Fortunately my 19-year-old is writing rather than just talking about writing. I know another 19-year-old who wants to be a novelist who can only make herself write as part of National Novel Writing Month every November. With the support provided by others then and the aspects of a contest she can do it; the rest of the time it doesn't seem to happen. That's not going to work in the long run, is it?

Perhaps several hundred people work as game and level designers in the video game industry and make a living. But very few of them came out of school to get a job as a designer. Just as it's necessary for an aspiring fiction writer to have a fallback career in mind that will enable them to actually make a living, it's necessary for an aspiring game designer to gain other skills that can make them a desirable employee in the game industry. This would usually be programming or art, of course, although many people in game design and even game writing started out doing something for game companies that was not directly involved with game creation, such as game testing, working in the mailroom, working in the IT department, working in marketing, and so forth

Just as Cook says that you have to write I tell students that if you want to be a game designers you've got to design games. And you've got to take them all the way through to completion, it doesn't help just to get ideas or to flesh out the ideas a bit and then stop. A playable prototype is only the beginning.

One of the problems with video games is that it takes a long time to produce a playable prototype. It's much more practical to begin by designing tabletop games, where you can make a playable prototype in a few hours or less.

Of course, to begin with it makes a lot of sense to modify existing games to improve them rather than to do games from scratch. When I was a teenager and early 20 something I designed Risk variants and Diplomacy variants. But I had also designed games to play by myself, once I'd been exposed to commercial wargames beginning with Conflict when I was very young, then American Heritage Broadsides, and then especially Stalingrad, Afrika Korps, and other Avalon Hill games. But I tended to design games that were not commercially viable: for example I designed a massive space wargame that I played solitaire with many many sides, far too many to be practical, and also it used fog of war but there was no mechanism for it, I just pretended as I played each Empire that I couldn't see where the opposition was and didn't know what they were doing.

So when I teach beginners game design, one of the first things I do is talk about what an inadequate game Monopoly is (especially for adults), and why, and then have them try to come up with ways to improve it. And I have them actually play their variant to see that it usually won't turn out the way they think it will.

Cook quotes from http://www.sfsite.com/10a/gc209.htm
I hope I've cleaned up all the oddities introduced by Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Puzzles disguised as games. And Zombie Risk.

Nomenclature varies; what many people call games (such as card Solitaire) I call puzzles. Most single-player video games are puzzles, some (such as Pac-Man) with an exact but sometimes very difficult solution. Many Euro-style games are much more puzzles than games, such as the ones called "multi-player solitaire". Players are playing against the non-sentient system, not against each other. At most, the player interaction is of the anticipatory kind, "I'd better take that role before so-and-so gets it".

What brings this on is a game someone brought into the NC State game club recently, Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead. The title invokes possibilities, but it falls flat on its face. The game exhibits many of the sins of poor contemporary Euro-style games. Quite apart from virtually no player interaction, which goes far to make it a puzzle rather than a game, there is insufficient justification for the complexity, too many bits for what it does (at least there aren't a mass of cards with minuscule text), much too long for what there is to it: just too clunky. Add to that Tom Vasel's comments that the puzzle is too simple and too dependent on technology dice luck, too obvious, and it seems as though the game is a badly missed opportunity. The resemblance to Pandemic are pretty obvious, and while that isn't bad, there's nothing to justify the much longer game. I did not play (thank heaven, that would have been extraordinarily tedious), but it did tie up five players for several hours.

The question is, when is there justification for the complexity? If complexity is there in service of a story, or of an educational message, if the complexity results in a much richer and more interesting interaction amongst the players, then it can be justified. Substituting complex pieces and rules for substance seems to be a common characteristic of contemporary boardgames.

But I know that reasons for liking games vary immensely, as I've written about in this blog and elsewhere. So I went to boardgamegeek to see what people say.

The people who like it seem to like the semi-cooperative aspects but especially like "getting into the theme". The theme does nothing for me--I've designed two zombie games, but I've only ever watched two zombie movies in my life (well, plus the Resident Evil movies), and the idea that zombies can defeat tanks is just too much to swallow.

It certainly illustrates how slippery the term "fun" is. To me it's deadly dull. To some people it's really "fun". I strongly suspect that those people like puzzles (I despise formal puzzles). One BGG video reviewer who said the game was really fun, played with his buddies, and they all got into the theme. I'm sure he and his buddies had fun with acting out the theme (evidently they helped each other as much as possible), but it's a case of the fun coming from the people, not from the game. (The same thing happens all the time with Monopoly; a mediocre game at best, but people often remember it fondly because of when and who they played it with.)

I think Tom Vasel was being nice about Zombie State when he said something like "it's not a very good game". To me it may be a (barely) acceptable puzzle for cooperative play, but as a *game* it's a bust.

A text review: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/580075/an-exceptionally-misleading-title-amongst-other-di

I was so disappointed with the promise of the phrases "Zombie state" and "Diplomacy of the Dead" that I devised, and solo tested three times, Zombie Risk. The zombies are like a disease, and absorb enemy armies as they defeat them. I need some folks to playtest it with real people, now (write to me if you'd like to try). And I have ideas for an actually competitive and interactive game involving world nations, zombies, and vampires...

Monday, February 14, 2011

PrezCon attendance

I expect to be at PrezCon in Charlottesville VA from Wednesday to Sunday (Feb 23-26). I'll have some games to playtest, of course, both Brit-like and much, much different. You can see many of my projects at: