Monday, May 23, 2011

Plastic WW II Pieces

One way to get plastic tanks and other land units, warships, and planes is to buy a used copy of Axis & Allies. But the latest version, 1942, seems to go for quite low prices. I recently received a copy from

"NWS ONLINE GAMING STORE 1-407-925-7782" (you can click on the article title above)

for $19.99 plus shipping, all told less than $33. While there are places where you can buy one color of pieces for $6 or $8, this amounts to cheaper if you want several colors.

(For what it's worth, while most wargames with plastic pieces are manufactured in China--the pieces, anyway--Hasbro has their own molding machines and most likely made A&A in their US factories.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Playing with word clouds

(I posted this May 12, but Blogger had a big hiccup and apparently lost it (Blogger was down for many hours).

I used Wordle ( to create a word cloud of aspects of games. In the word cloud, words are in a larger font as they are more numerous or more important. The list I used was:

Playtesting: 100
Ideas: 15
Conception: 10
Framework: 10
Prototype: 30
Feedback: 25
Modification: 15
Iteration: 15
Incremental: 15
Creativity: 15
Communication: 20
Get~it~Done!: 20
Trial-and-error: 5

I think that if you click on the small picture, you'll see a larger version.

Originally I used a list that included characteristics of the designer, but I decided to separate those to a different cloud.

Experience: 75
Critical~Thinking: 25
Self~Criticism: 15
Formal~Education: 15
Willingness~to~Learn: 50

I'll have to think about the weights I've given to the various characteristics, and see if I can find more worth including.

May Miscellany

Sometimes I have observations that don't require a separate post. As below...

I have been reading about the "Lone Wolf" series of books, which I had not heard of, which were the same kind of thing as "Fighting Fantasy" and "Choose Your Own Adventure".

These books were interactive puzzles, not games. There was no semblance of intelligent opposition. And it's not surprising that the authors of Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy have gone on to be prominent in video games: Joe Devers designing them, Steve Jackson co-founder (with Peter Molyneux) of Lionhead Studios, Ian Livingstone Life President of Eidos. The puzzle-books led naturally to video gaming.

I am working on a couple "block games" at the moment, and am... well, *astonished*, that in none of the existing games I've seen have I found decoy blocks, that is, blocks that don't represent anything at all and are there to confuse the enemy. The more blocks a game uses, the more you'd expect this. I allow decoys in my space wargame that uses face-down pieces (more awkward than, but much cheaper than, blocks). I have to limit the number of decoy pieces or they would be all over the place.

I suppose one or more of these games must use decoys, but I haven't found one yet.

"Skills" in video games are often nearly unique to video games. They are improvements in small-movement coordination, sight, quick reactions, perception of things on a screen. Sometimes this translates to real-world applications, usually it doesn't.

Tabletop gamers pass the time with friends (acquaintances, family). Traditional video gamers pass the time with a computing device. Jakob Nielsen (guru of Web usability) notes that killing time is a "killer app" in the "mobile space". When I play a game, I ask myself "is this worth my time?", not "is this a good way to kill time?". Many video gamers apparently ask the second question, though often not consciously.

To me, social network games are a reversion to early days of video game development, when the typical single player video game was an interactive puzzle, not a game. *Intelligent* opposition has been a hallmark of games for centuries, but in those early video games there was no semblance of intelligent opposition.

Social network games are usually very simple puzzles where the solution is obvious, but where (in many genres) you need to do it just about every day with considerable repetition in order to succeed long-term.

Furthermore, a significant part of video (and to a lesser extent tabletop) game playing is "killing time". It's really EASY to kill time with simple puzzles like Farmville, and you can do it in little bits of time at a sitting.

Many social network games are the new form of solitaire. ("Hold 'em" is an obvious exception.) The "game" solitaire (cards or video) has very little to recommend it, a very simple, mindless puzzle, yet some people play incessantly. A lot of game playing is habit, which sometimes includes playing what your friends are playing.

I hope that over time we'll see "social" video games mean the same thing that is meant by the phrase in tabletop gaming, that is, friends (or people who may become friends) playing a game together at the same time in the same "place", perhaps as much or more for their friends' company as for the game.

(By the way, I try not to call them "social games", because they are usually solitary, and are rarely social.


Social network games also appeal to programmers, because they are simple enough that "designers" may not be needed. Just like the old Atari/arcade days when the programmer was also designer and (sometimes) artist and sound person.

It would be interesting to know what proportion of new tabletop games do NOT have cards, and what proportion have out-and-out Event Cards.

As a game designer you want to make sure (as much as you can) that your game design works when the players are not really paying attention. Because "not really paying attention" is quite common in the days of MP3 players, smart phones, iPads, and so forth. Playtesting with ordinary players should help you test that.

At the extreme, I recall reading one player's comment that he wanted to be able to not really pay attention for half or even two thirds of a game, and still have a chance of winning. That's a characteristic of many family games, and of some Euro games (insofar as many Euros are "family games on steroids").

The whole idea of "play a game to completion" and "beating the game" (in video gaming) is foreign to what games have been for thousands of years: something you play again and again and again, not "beat", something that "of course" you play to completion, how else would you do it?

You can beat a puzzle, and then there's no reason to keep doing it. You can also quit a puzzle before completing it.

Why do Wii owners buy fewer games than 360 and PS3 owners? Perhaps it's because Wii games, at least the ones that are designed to be played by several people in the same room, do not "wear out", they continue to please, so the Wii owners don't need to buy more games. Whereas the hard core games, which are more like interactive puzzles than like multi-sided games, tend to "wear out" because the puzzles have been solved, so the players must buy more games in order to renew their enjoyment.

Or to put it another way, Wii games, insofar as they are multi-sided games, have much higher replay value than solitaire interactive puzzles.

A comment to the beginning designer: "Patience Grasshopper". Most of the time, it takes years to get a tabletop game published. I tested a huge "Barbaria" (all of Europe) game in 1980, when Britannia (then called Invasions) was far along. So I started Britannia around 1979. It was first published, in Britain, in 1986. And while that original Barbaria was much too large (90-some spaces, took 12 hours when we first played it), I have two made-from-scratch games on the same subject that might someday be published.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Maxims of Game Design (from GCG, 2-4-2010)

(You can click on the post title to go to the original article.)

Maxims of Game Design
- Lewis Pulsipher

In the age of "instant gratification" -- of the sound bite or video clip -- we often look for shortcuts to understanding. "Maxims" are one form, each one a brief "expression of a general truth or principle". As part of teaching young adult beginners about game design, I've pursued a list of maxims about game design, even as I know that such brief expressions leave out a great deal that's important.

Internet searching for "maxims of game design" doesn't yield much. "Principles of game design" is much more fruitful, but what you find involves a lot of explanation rather than the punchy directness of the classic "maxim".

The most notable set of maxims I know of comes in the "400 Project." This was an effort organized by Noah Falstein and Hal Barwood to collect design maxims from the game design community. The 400 Project evidently has not been updated since March 18, 2006, stopping at 112 entries.

You can read the list by clicking here. The list includes a brief "imperative statement" and an explanation in 250 words or less. I once downloaded an Excel spreadsheet of the list, but I haven't been able to find a link to it in my latest visit.

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

Many of the entries are very specific and often related to the mechanics of designing the game, while others are much more general and often related to why games are good. For example, "Make the First Player Action Painfully Obvious" is quite specific, though nonetheless good advice for any video game, while "Keep the Interface Consistent" is generally good for any kind of game, and "Make Even Serious Games Fun" is imperative (if we substitute "interesting" for "fun").

For my classes I've tried to devise a much smaller, general set of maxims that require little or no explanation, at least not by the end of the class! A characteristic of a good maxim is that it can lead to wide-ranging discussion, perhaps because of its combination of brevity and trenchant illumination of some "general truth".

At any rate, I'm going to end this with my current list of use-in-class maxims, and leave further discussion to the readers. I've divided them into several groups without trying to label each group...

* Think!
* In most situations, focus on gameplay, not story.
* There is no Easy Button.
* As with most other endeavors, in game design you probably won't be good at it to start with.
* Keep it simple. Avoid the "curse of more".
* Don't forget replayability, which usually comes from uncertainty.
* What is the player going to DO?
* In a good game there should be both ways to help yourself and to hinder the enemy (and sometimes but not always, both at once).

* Ideas are a dime a dozen.
* It's not the idea, it's the execution.
* You need to WORK to get ideas.
* Ideas alone are virtually worthless.
* If you want your game made, you need to WORK at it.
* Game design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

* Write it down!
* Don't hide behind the computer!
* Games are not movies. They're interactive.
* If the player isn't doing something, it's not really a game.
* If no one can play your game design, you don't have a game yet.

* Playtesting is the heart of game creation.
* Your prototype will change a lot, don't spend time making it "pretty" or fancy.
* Learn to play your game solo, even if it's for five players.
* Plan, monitor, control, replan.
* Listen most to playtesters who lost the game.
* Get input from people who don't feel a need to keep you happy.
* Playtesting is giving people the opportunity to say your game sucks.
* Games can always be improved, but there comes a point when it isn't worth the time it takes (Diminishing Marginal Returns).

* When in doubt, leave it out.
* Good games take time to mature, regardless of your rush -- like concrete drying.
* You need the patience of Job.
* Game designers don't get to play (finished) games much.
* All games are art -- and the players don't care.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Where to find playtesters

I’m probably not the best person for finding playtesters, but I can give you some ideas.

A friend of mine thinks that when Facebook finally gets its act together about groups then there will be lots of regional/local game groups to choose from. Until then Meetup groups are all over the United States, and usually cost nothing to joining (the organizers have to pay a monthly fee) There are general game groups, role-playing game groups, groups for specific games like D&D or chess, and so forth. If you’re willing to pay the monthly fee you could start a Meetup yourself for your local area.

If there’s a college or university around, look for a game club. Search for “game” or “club” on the college’s Web site. For example, North Carolina State and Duke University both have tabletop game clubs, and NC State also has a video game club. Unfortunately that’s 50 and more miles away from me, and my local city colleges and universities don’t seem to have game clubs. Of course you can always try to start one, although some schools make it difficult, especially for someone who isn’t a student or employee of the school. Game clubs may exist in high schools as well.

Many game shops host game nights. In my area (230th largest metropolitan area in the country) there are three shops that hold game nights (or Saturdays). In the much larger Triangle area there are several more than that.

Some game shops will let you put up a notice that you’re looking for gamers. Through a lucky succession of circumstances that’s how I met my wife in 1977.

Some online game communities have search capabilities so that you can look for people in your local area who play games.

Your local library may be willing to host game sessions, although in my particular case I find that they don’t let people reserve a room regularly over the course of a year, so it’s hard the start a regular game meeting at a library. That depends on the policy where you are.

There may be community centers, perhaps at local parks, where you can put up notices or perhaps schedule meetings.

If there is an online community for games something like yours then that may be a source for playtesters. Boardgamegeek is the first place to look, followed by Yahoo groups. For example there’s an entry on boardgame geek for Britannia and a Yahoo group for Britannia (Eurobrit), so if I want to find playtesters for a Britannia-like game those are the first places to look.

For video games you might look for local “game lounges” and other commercial in-person community game concerns.

Some of your friends may be game players and you don’t even know it. Friends are not necessarily good playtesters because they may be too nice to tell you your game has defects–depends on your friends! Mine like to find defects, and that’s usually good.

My experience of finding distant blind testers via various online contacts is that the volunteers rarely follow through and actually give you feedback. But it does happen.

I understand Reiner Knizia has groups that enable him to playtest six nights a week. But that’s Reiner, who is obviously an exception to the norm.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

So you’re going to make a game for the very first time

So you’re going to make a game for the very first time

You’ve thought about making games for a long time, but you haven’t seriously pursued it. Until you get serious about it, you’ve accomplished nothing, you’re a mere dilettante. So today you’ve decided to make a game. How are you going to go about it?

First, unless you have well-developed programming skills you’re going to have a much better chance of achieving something if you make a tabletop game, or (perhaps) make a level for a videogame. The most important thing is to get to where you play the game. All the idea generation and other preliminary stuff is effectively airy-fairy head-in-the-clouds daydreaming that almost anyone can do but which does them no good if it doesn’t result in a playable prototype. Without well-developed programming skills or at least a good working knowledge of small game engine such as Gamemaker, you won’t be able to make a videogame prototype soon enough for it to be practical. You may be able to use a level editor that’s included in an existing game to make a variation, and that can be a good way to start.

Second, beginners almost always make a game based on another game. Often the best way to start out is to make a variation of an existing game, because it takes a lot less time and work to get to the point where you can play it. Again this applies to tabletop games or to video games that provide ways to modify them, usually a level/scenario editor. If you can’t bring yourself to make tabletop games then the level editor is definitely the easiest way to start out, even though you’ll have to learn how to use the level editor, a non-trivial task.

Third, reign back your ambition. Try to pick a type or form of game that is fairly common, not one that’s unusual; unusual forms are frequently more difficult to achieve, that’s why they’re unusual. For example, cooperative games are especially difficult in tabletop form because it’s so hard to provide significant opposition. This is much easier to do with a videogame IF you have the programming and “artificial intelligence” skills. But it is still much harder to program a game that can be played by two or more people at the same time, than to program one that is played by one person at a time.

In other words try to choose a project you actually have a chance to complete. This can be generalized to “keep it simple”. Making a game is almost always harder than it seems at first, even for experienced people. The most common mistake of people seriously trying to make a video game is to plan a project that they have virtually no chance of ever finishing, because it will take much too long. Remember, AAA video games take hundreds of man-years to complete for professionals with vast budgets.

Fourth, focus on the gameplay not on the appearance (or the story) of the game. You’re making a prototype, not a finished game. You want something that people can play so that you find out whether they enjoy playing, and how you can improve it. You can’t rely on flashy looks to make games fun, even if you’re an outstanding artist. A major mistake of novice game designers is to make something that’s pretty rather than something that’s functional. If you have something that just looks functional and people like to play then imagine how much more they’ll enjoy it when it looks professionally pretty. You only need it to look good enough that playtesters will be willing to play, and that depends in great part on what playtesters are available, how well you know them, how persuasive you are, and many other factors not related to the game itself.

In most cases, you may be excited about your story, but other people won’t be. Most games are played for the game, not the story (which is often only an excuse to get to the action). If you’re heavily into story, write a novel, don’t design a game! When you’re experienced you may be able to rely on a story to make a game enjoyable, when you start out that’s a big mistake.

Fifth, when you have a playable prototype play it yourself, solo, before you inflict on other people. I say “inflict” deliberately. You may be super excited, you may think it’s the greatest thing ever, but in reality it will be like almost every other initial prototype of a game, it will suck. Experienced designers have a much better chance of recognizing what will suck before the game is played: they play the game in their mind’s eye, so to speak, and anticipate many problems before it’s ever played in reality. Beginners should try to do the same but will be much less successful at spotting the flaws. What solo testing can do is quickly reveal where the game really sucks so that you can change it before other people have to put up with it. In other words, be nice to your playtesters: get rid of the really bad aspects yourself rather than foist them on other people who want to play a fun game.

Some people confronted with the notion of solo playing a multiplayer tabletop game will say they just can’t do it, they just can’t dissociate themselves from one side when they play another side. Wags like to say “well at least when you play solo always win”. Of course you also always lose. But the point of solo playtesting is not to win or lose, it’s to find out whether the game is worthwhile and how it can be improved. And that dispassionate dissociation from one side to another when you play a solo game will actually help you recognize what’s good and bad about the game.

I cannot say this enough: play the game yourself before anybody else plays.

Sixth, if you got this far you’re doing really well. But you’ve only just begun. The really hard part of making a game is a last 20% of improvement that takes 80% of the time. This is a process of playtesting, evaluating the results, modifying the game to improve it in light of the results, playtesting again, and going through the whole cycle again and again and again. This is called the iterative and incremental development of the game. If you want to make a really good game then you are probably going to be sick and tired of it by the time you get toward the end of this process.

Finally, the game is never really done, you just come to a point where the value of the improvement is less than the cost of the time required to achieve it (Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns). Moreover, you might think you’re “done”, and then find out that improvements need to be made either for your peace of mind or because the publisher requires it.

Good luck. And remember: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." --Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

• make a tabletop game, or use a simple level editor to modify an existing videogame
• make something based on a game you know
• reign in your ambition--try to complete a small project, not a large one
• focus on gameplay not prettiness or story
• play the game yourself before anybody else plays, even if it isn’t intended to be a one person game
• iteratively and incrementally playtest and improve the game
• your never really finish