Friday, July 29, 2011

Ruminations About Why Empires Fall

A follow-up (that I actually started first) to Why Empires Last.

Historians have always been interested in why great nations fail and fall. The first historian, whether you regard him as Herodotus or Thucydides, was concerned with the failure of a great nation, Persia and Athens respectively. One of the most famous of all historical works is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I remember reading, 30-40 years ago, some of Arnold Toynbee’s massive work about the rise and fall of civilizations (A Study of History). Toynbee saw history as a series of challenges to individual civilizations, and meeting those challenges could make a civilization great. If the challenge was too great then the civilization’s development might be arrested. And while a failure was not inevitable--"civilizations die from suicide, not by murder"– sooner or later most civilizations fail.

This is a compelling notion, but I found as I read Toynbee that there were so many exceptions, so much that had to be explained away because it didn’t fit with his theory, that it just didn’t hang together.

I’ve not read any Oswald Spengler (Decline of the West), who viewed human history and individual nations and empires as having a natural cycle of (inevitable) rise and fall. As I’m not a determinist, I’m not in sympathy with these kinds of “it’s inevitable” theories.

What I’m going to do here is try to discern some of the reasons why great empires have declined, based on years of studying history. Insofar as one of my major interests in game design has been in “sweep of history games”, and insofar as my game Britannia founded a subcategory of sweep of history games (Britannia-like games), this subject is of particular interest to me.

Let’s begin with the longest series of empires, China. China suffered from external enemies just as other empires have. But much of the history of its empires can be explained by a periodic fluctuation. Chinese history is marked by periods of fragmentation and chaos, which tended to retard population growth and frequently reduce population, followed by unification which secured peace and allowed the population to grow, until the population could no longer be supported by the agricultural techniques of the time and the administrative strength of the state. At that point desperate people turned to banditry, which ultimately led to chaos whether purely internal or in conjunction with external enemies, which led to fragmentation, large numbers of deaths as a population plummeted, and the renewal of the cycle.

Good administration combined with the natural resilience of a successful system could delay this cycle for a long time, but sooner or later failures at the top led to collapse. In China those failures involved factionalism and reluctance of elites to support the government. Typically, land became concentrated in the hands of large landowners who were or became exempt from taxes, whether because of family connection, noble birth, distance from central administration, or sheer neglect during periods of factional paralysis at the top. When succession problems arose (as they always do) the elites would not support a strong character who might withdraw some of their privileges. When this happened enough to exhaust reserves, rebellions could overcome the current dynasty. If external forces were strong, they might overcome a dynasty at the end of a cycle, perhaps also overcoming rebels (as did the Manchu).

There have been many hypotheses about why the West Roman Empire failed. Each one needs to take into account that the East Roman Empire lasted another thousand years, for much of that time as the greatest empire in the West. Here are some ideas:

• Poisoning from lead pipes. If so, wouldn’t this have affected the East as well?
• Christianity led to an attitude of acceptance and pacifism
• Failure of the Republic’s ability to rely on the citizen soldier, combined with the empire’s failure to successfully conscript the indigent population of Rome, led to economic failure and a rush away from cities to avoid crushing taxes (which were collected in cities)
• Failure to establish a consistent means of succession led to periods of fragmentation and ultimately the Empire “ran out of luck” when faced with external threats
• The existence and strength of the Empire forced the barbarians to organize together in larger and larger confederations that ultimately threatened the Western Empire, but could not pass the Bosporus to the main parts of the Eastern Empire
• Depopulation of the West by disease. The East was always more populous with many more cities. It was able to withstand the diseases. It wasn’t until well into Justinian’s reign that plague debilitated the East Roman Empire, otherwise Justinian’s schemes to reunite East and West might have succeeded.

So often as I read history, great nations/empires fall because too much wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the few. In effect, the middle class is squeezed more or less out of existence. Usually the “few” will be great landowners, since during most of history land equals wealth. Even Sparta fell on hard times because of this (only 700 wealthy citizens able to be Spartan elite soldiers), and when king Agis IV tried to redistribute the land in 4500 equal lots the landowners executed him.

Republican Rome was doomed when the attempts of the Gracci to redistribute land failed and they were murdered. In the end, there were too few citizen soldiers supported by modest land holdings, and Rome turned to essentially mercenary armies, landless men who served a popular leader for the prospect of gaining land when they retired. Unfortunately, such men looked to their generals, not to the Senate, when deciding who should govern.

In the Empire, soldiers were well paid, and the empire became a mechanism for paying the army. For lack of an agreed succession method, rebellions and civil wars became endemic, driving up costs. Taxation to support the army became so punishing, according to one view, that peasant farmers no longer went to the cities, where taxes were collected, and large cities could no longer be supported. The peasants effectively sold themselves to large landowners in order to gain protection, both from tax collection and from barbarians and bandits.

After the succession and invasion crises of the third century, with at least 20-25 claimants to emperors in 50 years, well-trained troops were scarce. At the same time, for whatever reasons, it became very difficult to recruit Roman citizens to become professional soldiers, so Rome turned to “barbarians”, Germans and steppe-Iranians (such as Sarmatians and Alans).

As western Rome crumbled, and suffered from the usual difficulties of succession, there were no more “Roman” troops to rely on. Whether the failure of western cities derived from taxes or disease, or both, when cities fail, the money economy tends to fail.

The wealthier and more populous east was able to continue to afford citizens as troops as well as use barbarians, and in the long run with the Theme system Byzantium restored something like the Republic’s reliance on citizen soldiers who were supported by modest lands. This system worked until the Turks conquered much of Asia Minor, the recruiting ground for Roman armies. (That conquest was the result of succession disputes, not of the failure of Byzantine armies.)

In the end, when citizens are no longer willing to defend their nation, defense becomes much more expensive; if there are failures of leadership, or climate changes for the worse (Harappan civilization in India?), or widespread disease further interferes with the economy, then the nation becomes vulnerable to outside forces that, in good times, it would withstand. When things went bad in the third century, the empire was able to survive because the barbarians were not highly organized, and ultimately because of good leadership (Aurelian and Diocletian). In the fifth century the barbarians were more organized, much more familiar with Roman ways of warfare, much more able to defeat “Roman” armies that were no longer highly trained; at the same time, Roman leadership was often poor.

While it’s hard to say how much Christian pacifism or fatalism might have contributed to Rome’s fall–again, the East Romans continued despite being highly contentious sectarian Christians-- Roman stability was helped by the church organization. Even after centralized West Roman administration disappeared, the more or less centralized church administration of bishops and archbishops persisted. (One reason why the Viking Age ended was that the recently-adopted Christian church, through its organized hierarchy, helped Scandinavian kings control their subjects.)

Barbarian empires
What about the empire of the GokTurks, the Mongols, the Huns and so forth?

I’m going to consider the Mongols as a separate case from the rest. Ghenghis Khan and his successors were happy to use the techniques and skills of civilized nations whenever possible, an unusual attitude that made a huge difference. They could conquer civilized and highly populated areas and use local administration to control their conquest. They could take cities because they used siege engineers from the conquered nations. They could contemplate action in vast non-steppe areas because their subordinates had experience of conditions in such areas.

As for other barbarian empires that did not hold large civilized areas, they tended to rest on weak foundations. There was no central administration to help hold the empire together in bad times. Frequently, barbarian empires included many different races and languages, though the steppe cultures otherwise did not differ so much. If there was a succession problem, or a weak leader, the “empire” (really a confederation) could fall apart. When Attila died, his sons could not agree on succession, nor could they cope with the uprising of subject nations (Ostrogoths, Gepids), and within a few years the surviving Huns streamed back into Russia, ultimately to the upper Volga (where they were known as Bulgars).

Attila’s empire, in particular, was largely the work of one man, just as Harsha’s empire was in India, and Charlemagne’s in western Europe. (Think of Napoleon’s empire, too.) When that man left the scene, the empire crumbled. Charlemagne’s took longer because he had built on the work of his predecessors, but in the end it faded away.

The Khazars, being a more or less peaceful and settled group interested in trading rather than raiding, lasted for centuries, despite the shock of an Arab invasion, but finally succumbed to a foolish attack by Kiev followed by pressure from other steppe confederations. Though the story is confused, the Khazars may have converted to Judaism in order to remain neutral between the Muslim Arabs and the Christian Byzantines. This could be a case where religion helped sustain an empire.

Now what about the older empires of the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea?

There were three Assyrian empires, the Old one possibly of a different race than the Middle and Neo versions.

In some ways we can see this short-lived first Assyrian empire as the work of one man. The Old empire was overthrown by Hammurabi’s Babylon, which prevailed in a competition amongst as many as eight or nine states.

The centuries-later Middle Assyrian Empire diminished at the same time that the Western empires of the Hittites and Egyptians fell apart, owing to the Near Eastern “Dark Age”. This may have been caused by external invasion of the “Sea Peoples”, by a series of earthquakes, by the action of the Habiru (displaced and disaffected citizens who turned to banditry), or by a combination of those three.

Centuries passed again before the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the greatest and most feared of the pre-Persian empires of the ancient Near East. They relied on terror, on a more or less professional army, and on strong, ruthless leaders. When the succession was disputed the Empire hit a lull, and at the last, the Medes, Scythians, and Babylonians combined to destroy the Empire utterly in obscure chaos.

Unlike China, which was protected by difficult terrain and the sea, Assyria was “right in the middle of things”. Only strong leaders and a strong military could protect it. Yet the Middle and Neo Assyrian age lasted 700 years and more, longer than most empires.

And here is a another difference: the Assyrians virtually disappeared in all respects, political and cultural, while half the Roman empire survived, and bits of the rest persisted for many years. Rome was first sacked in 410, and again in 455, but the empire was not officially laid to rest until 476 or later, and Roman traditions persisted much longer. Chinese empires disappeared, but new ones arose, sooner or later, to take their place; and the culture always survived. The Assyrians disappeared so throughly that they were largely forgotten. We only know the Assyrians well now because excavated hardened clay tablets reveal so much about the times.

Egypt has a history of Empire, protected by very difficult border access. Unlike most empires, it’s internal problems had to fragment the empire without much influence of internal threats; though there were partial or full foreign conquests in later times, from the Hyksos, and from the Libyans and Nubians/Kush. Those internal problems often involved the priesthood in opposition to the Pharaoh. Gradually the priests came to control much of the land, through centuries of gifts. The priesthood could be richer, and consequently more powerful, than the pharaoh.

Egypt, too, may have been vulnerable to the cycle of population growth and resulting chaos that we see in China. Even more than the Chinese, the Egyptians did not want to leave Egypt (this involved religious reasons, more or less). And like the Chinese, the Egyptians were not seafarers. There was no practical outlet for excess population, nowhere for the discontented to go.

Persia (Iran) and Mesopotamia saw several empires in ancient times. At first these were confined to Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, but beginning with the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great and its threat to Greece, then the Greek Seleucids, later the Parthians succeeded by the Sassanids, and then the Arabs, these empires covered much of the Near and Middle East. The Achaemenid empire was the largest ever to exist, in terms of the percentage of world population that lived within it.

Although some argue that the Achaemenid empire fell to the Greeks because of internal problems, it’s more likely that this was a case of pure foreign conquest, which is rare in the history of the fall of empires. The Persian leader was not a great man, though not clearly incompetent, either. He and his empire had no answer for the Greek phalanx, along with a little Greek good luck (Alexander the Great survived despite being in the thick of battles). Alexander and the Greek way of warfare proved to be too strong for the Persians.

While we might think that language differences would tend to shorten the lives of empires, both the Persian and Assyrian managed just fine. (It must be said the written language tended to be the same throughout the Near East, in Assyrian times.) Rome spread its language throughout the west, though in the east it was only a language of administration, finally abandoned in favor of Greek once west Rome was only a memory.

There is a language division between north and south China, Mandarin and Cantonese, and there have been times when the two areas were separate empires, for example the Jin and Sung before the Mongols attacked.

Indonesia has seen a succession of empires, but always of a maritime nature, much like the short-lived Athenian empire. While the sea normally serves as a barrier, it provided much better communication, in southeast Asia, than was available by land in the jungles and difficult terrain of the Indonesian islands. The sea worked similarly for Athens. But such empires are always terribly vulnerable to naval reverses. The Indian Cholas fatally weakened Srivijaya, and the Spartans weakened Athens. (Not long after the end of the Peloponessian War, Athens was independent once again; but it could never again quite dominate the way it had as the champion of the war against Persia.)

Similarly, the first British Empire fell in part because their sea dominance was successfully contested (e.g. the French kept the British fleet from rescuing Cornwallis in 1780-1). But they retained their stake in what became the crown jewel of the second empire, India, even as they lost the United States.

So, military reverses can lead to loss of empire, but it's much more common for a sea-based empire.

Summary of possibilities:
• Succession problems/poor leadership
• Disease leading to depopulation and economic failure
• Language differences
• Cultural differences
• Lack of a tradition of empire
• Weak administration
• Climate changes
• Military reverses

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Math in games--bad idea

At one of my game design talks at Origins I said that designers should avoid requiring players to do math, because so many younger people are very poor at doing math in their heads. One member of the audience let out odd shrieks of laughter: he just couldn't believe me.

Yet as I have played "D&D Encounters" the past six months, I've seen more and more examples, right down to an (adult-aged) kid counting on fingers to add 17 plus 7, and people often getting wrong answers when doing simple math like this. The older players have no problem, the younger ones often do. Whether this is a consequence of the availability of calculators to the very young, or the way they're taught math, or something else, I don't know, I just know the reality.

(As a comparison: when I was a freshman in college, we had a 8" by 8" by 2" electronic calculator in the physics department. A $3 calculator today can probably do the same thing, though it's not as easy to read. But in 1969 this one cost $1,500. We had to do math in our heads.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

WBC attendance

I'll be at the World Boardgaming Championships next week from Wednesday about noon through Friday (wedding to attend at the weekend). Looking especially for people to play Assyria and perhaps Eurasia. (Not Brit-like but Sweep of History for sure.) I'm giving a talk about game design Thursday night at 8.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ruminations about why empires last

Sweep of history games, such as Britannia and its spinoffs, History of the World, and others (Eurasia and Rise and Fall of Assyria are two of my prototypes), are never far from my mind. I have two all-of-Europe games as well, and have dabbled with several all-of-China games. (China's current boundaries, and Europe, are close to the same size.)

A problem in an all-of-Europe sweep of history game is keeping the small nations extant. Historically, small nations tend to hang around in Europe, complete with separate languages and sometimes separate cultures. The problem in a Chinese sweep of history game is that the dynasties dominated (at times), so getting rid of the chafe is necessary. The small nations can't be allowed to stick around TOO long.

And you could ask, why did China tend to be a universal state, while Europe did not? There are several reasons, such as the internal terrain, the external terrain and organized outside threats, culture, and language.

Mountain ranges and dense forest divided Europe into distinct geographical areas (the forest is gone now, but even in 10th-11th century Germany it was a barrier). The Baltic Sea and English Channel especially contributed to this division; we can also see the Mediterranean Sea as a separator with what might otherwise more sensibly be European North Africa than African North Africa. Then again, the Mediterranean can also act as a connector because it's a serene sea, easily sailed upon, compared with the northern seas. Further, owing to terrain and climate agricultural methods that worked in the lands bordering the Mediterranean did not work in northern Europe and vice versa.

The terrain within China is much less divisive than the terrain within Europe. The North China Agricultural Plain was the heart of early Chinese empires, with the addition later of the Yangtze agricultural plains. There is not quite anything like either of these areas in Europe, they are more reminiscent of Mesopotamia and the Egyptian Nile, where "universal empire" was common. These areas of China provided the basis for empire. Szechuan, which is separated from the rest of China by mountainous terrain, was sometimes a separate entity, and Tibet even more so, only recently incorporated into China. The southern half of China is more difficult terrain than the North, and was not incorporated into China until Roman times.

China is surrounded by difficult/unproductive terrain (steppes are agriculturally unproductive), even the sea is difficult because there's "nothing out there" (other than Japan, an unattractive volcanic stone backwater). Further, there is really no basis for large states in the areas adjacent to China. Japan is much too small, India is very strongly separated from China by the Himalayas, Southeast Asia is a jungle that supported only small empires, Tibet and the desert to the North could not support large numbers. The only real threat came from steppe barbarians to the north of China. And any time China was in good shape internally it was able to fight off barbarian threats, thanks to great superiority in numbers. China tended to self-destruct through overpopulation, but that’s a topic for another time: why empires fall.

Europe is surrounded by terrain that is sometimes easy to traverse. The near East provided a fertile ground for empires that could oppose a European empire, for example the Persians/Sassanids. There was still the pressure of steppe barbarians, and history shows them moving to the west more than they moved to the east. (Whether that was because there was less organized resistance to the west than to the east is open the question.) Perhaps it was harder to hold a "universal state" together in Europe against these outside pressures.

If North America had been occupied by Eurasian-like ancient-medieval cultures, it probably would not have been a single empire. The Great Plains, and then the Rocky Mountains, divide it strongly; the Appalachians would also have provided a strong barrier. On the other hand, there might have been no outside threat for a continent-occupying empire.

Here we might interject that pre-modern empires suffered from poor communications. If your emperor is 3,000 miles away, you're probably going to ignore him. One reason for the success of the Persian empire was efforts to establish good long-distance communication. Rome relied heavily on seaborne communication--it was essentially a Mediterranean empire. In other words, there were practical limitations to how large an empire could be, that were rarely overcome.

Psychological factors?
What about the mind? There is a tradition in China of the universal state, starting with the Shang and Zhou; even those "empires" were probably not empires in the sense we usually think, but Chinese thought of them as empires. There was only one "universal empire" in Europe, and it didn't occupy all of Europe, it was really a Mediterranean empire.

In China there is a language division between north and south, Mandarin and Cantonese, and there have been times when the two areas were separate empires, for example the Jin and Sung before the Mongols attacked.

But compared with Europe, this language divide is nothing. One can suppose that common language is one of the main ingredients that holds an empire together. Latin became the common language in the western Roman empire, though Greek predominated in the east; and in the end the West fell, while the east stood for another thousand years. On the other hand the Persian Empire was quite polyglot. Even when China was conquered by outsiders, they soon adopted Chinese language (and culture).

There was a tradition of empire in Europe after the fall of Rome, with Charlemagne crowned Emperor in 800 AD, and much later a "Holy Roman Empire" was established. But language differences, failures of technology, and the terrain generally mitigated against re-establishment of the Roman empire. On the other hand, the Byzantine Empire persisted for centuries, though at a much-reduced scope after 1071.

Culture (and language)
Culture, too, helps make empires homogeneous so that they can hold together. Chinese culture always predominates within China, especially in the minds of the Chinese, who think of the rest of the world as barbarians. There is not (and never has been) a single cultural tradition in Europe as strong as Chinese culture, though we owe a lot to the ancient Greeks. Perhaps if the Greeks had lived on a very large agricultural plain, their culture would have come to dominate a large area of Europe. As it was, divided up by the terrain of Greece, Greek culture was borrowed by others rather than dominating others. Hellenism was supreme in the Near East for quite a while, but even there it never filtered down to everyday folk.

Egypt and Mesopotamia benefited from common culture, as well.

Of course, the existence of an empire can spread what becomes a common culture and language, as happened with Rome.

Other empires
How about locations other than Europe and China? The Indian subcontinent, less than half the size of Europe or China but still half the size of the contiguous United States, has spawned many empires. But these empires ordinarily control the agricultural, lowland northern Ganges plain (much like the North China Plain), not the rougher, plateaued south or the mountainous west (Pakistan). India is more like China than Europe insofar as external threats, mostly former barbarians, came from only one direction, over the northwest mountains from Central Asia. Historically the Indians were controlled by foreigners more than the Chinese were, especially by Muslims such as the Mogul Empire. An Indian culture and language remained sufficiently diverse that it was not able to assimilate foreigners as rapidly as the more uniform Chinese culture.

If we look at the earlier and smaller empires of the Near East we see that they formed in areas with no terrain barriers, but were subject to barbarian incursions from many directions. The Hittites may be suggested as a terrain exception, but they had an awfully small empire. Though they once sacked Babylon the strain caused their empire to collapse. And unlike the larger and more stable empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Hittite Empire was overwhelmed by barbarians in the near Eastern "Dark Age". The normal state of affairs in Mesopotamia was a universal empire, and the same can be said for Egypt. They were rarely both part of the same Empire because of the barriers of the Sinai and Arabian deserts.

The Mongols and Gokturks (Blue or Celestial Turks), among others, maintained generations-long empires in the steppes. Again, there were no internal terrain barriers to speak of, and little likelihood of incursions from outside. But failures of leadership usually led to disintegration of steppe empires. Agricultural empires can better cope with poor leadership.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What makes a game “Epic”?

(This originally appeared in "Against the Odds" Magazine.)

While I don't believe a game designer can deliberately set out to design a "great" game, I DO believe a designer can set out to create an “epic” game, though this effort is just as subject to failure as any other game design.

I'm interested here in game designs that most players would call "epic", not in an individual play of a game that might be regarded as epic. I've played and refereed epic adventures of First Edition AD&D, but I wouldn't call D&D an epic game.

"Define:epic" at Google gives this first definition: "very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary (especially in size or scale); 'an epic voyage'; 'of heroic proportions'; 'heroic sculpture.'"

Another dictionary meaning: "heroic; majestic; impressively great".

In common among these definitions is feeling, rather than logic. Games "feel" epic--they emotionally involve the player. But once again, D&D emotionally involves the player yet is not an epic game, though there can be epic adventures. There's more than just emotional involvement.

Any and all definitions of anything, of any length, can be picked apart. As I am interested in characteristics that define an “epic game”, my list must be fairly detailed, hence open to even more nit-picking. Nonetheless, I’m going to take a stab at it. In the course of the discussion we’ll see some of the things designers can try to do to create an epic game.

I've settled on a number of characteristics that can be divided into three categories: 1) scope, 2) player commitment, 3) tension and memorability. I'll briefly describe the characteristics, then talk about them in more detail with some examples. Epic games won’t necessarily have every characteristic. That’s the flaw of any detailed definition.

1) Scope
• Geographically and chronologically broad setting without feeling abstract
• Represents a titanic struggle important to very large numbers of people and many generations
• Non-mundane theme
• Story "arc" reflecting great changes

2) Player commitment
• Depth of gameplay including high replayability
• Sheer length or complexity (or both)

3) Tension and memorability
• The gameplay reflects major changes over time, end-of-game gameplay feels very different from the beginning
• Uncertainty about who's winning
• Asymmetry
• The game engenders "gaming stories" that you remember fondly and retell with pleasure (or chagrin!)

1) Scope

Geographically and chronologically broad setting without feeling abstract
"Sweep of history" games that involve many centuries and countries or the world, such as Britannia, Italia, History of the World, and 7 Ages, are generally regarded as epic. So, too, is Civilization, both the original boardgame that preceded the computer games and the computer games. Yet other games with big scopes are not epic, for example Vinci and Risk, I think because they feel so abstract that the “real world” no longer feels present. A short game with the same subject might not feel epic: for example, I’ve designed a 90 minute version of Britannia (admittedly leaving out the Roman conquest) that is unlikely to feel epic to most players.

Represents a titanic struggle important to very large numbers of people and many generations
Some Napoleonic games might qualify here, perhaps even some American Civil War games. War of the Ring and Twilight Imperium qualify, even though the struggle is not “real”;
it can be fictional, as long as players suspend their disbelief and adopt the fiction. In all cases these are great “slugfests”.

Non-mundane theme
You’re not likely to regard a game about selling real estate as epic (Monopoly!). Nor a game about building a house. Nor a game about eating fish. Many people expect “epic story elements” from an epic game, such as becoming king or saving the world.

Story "arc" reflecting great changes
I don’t think a great story is necessary to an epic game, and certainly many games with great stories are not epic. Yet in some epic games, the game "story", what it represents, reflects major changes over time, a saga with beginning, middle, and end, so that the situation at the end of the game is very different from the beginning, almost like it's a different world. To use Britannia as an example, early in the game most players vainly try to fight off, or accommodate, the Roman conquest. Late in the game players are fighting to determine who will be king of England, a very different story.

2) Player commitment

Depth of gameplay including high replayability
This is clearly open to differing opinions about depth of gameplay. This is another case where Vinci and Risk fail my definition, as there is little depth to their gameplay. But you could argue the same thing about History of the World.

Sheer length or complexity (or both)
Civilization is one of the most widely acknowledged epic games. Can you have a two hour Civ game and not lose the epic feel? Many would say "no". Can you drastically simplify what the players do without losing the epic feel? Hard to say. It seems that length, rather than complexity, is part of the mystique of the game.

An epic game need not be both very long and very complex. I’d cite Britannia-like games here, as Britannia is lengthy but not complex. Italia is considerably more complex, though derived from Britannia.

But an epic game will very likely be at least one or the other, very long or very complex.

Oddly enough, often this means no role assumption is involved!
In role-assumption games, you can conceive yourself as taking on the specific role of an individual person. For example, you might be a squad leader, or a castle builder. It’s too much like something you might do in the real world. Yet in many epic games you cannot name a specific individual that you play, at best you might take on the roles of a series of individuals (kings, presidents, generals). Perhaps a game (as opposed to a D&D adventure) feels more epic for the very reason that you cannot identify with one (mortal) person.

In many epic games you don’t even play just one nation, but several. You have an “omnipresent” (though not omnipotent or omniscient) point of view.

3) Tension and memorability

In the following list of characteristics related to tension and memorability, we might keep in mind a trait of many popular video games, “immersiveness”. Yet a game can be immersive without being epic... Immersion: “state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption.”

The gameplay reflects major changes over time, end of game gameplay feels very different from the beginning.
Another way to put this, is by the time you get to the end of the game, it seems very different from the game you were playing in the beginning. “Sweep” games tend to feel this way. In Britannia, for example, in the beginning most players are trying to survive the Roman conquest with a healthy nation, yet give the Roman some trouble. At the end, all are concentrating on who will be king of England, and often trying to kill opposing candidates. These require quite different kinds of strategies. In History of the World, players begin in a relatively small area, but by the end are acting all over the world.

Further, what was an important and useful move early in the game might be a weak, poor move by the end. That is, there may be an increase in “power” and scope of the things the player can do.

Uncertainty about who's winning
If you certainly know who's winning at a particular time, a multiplayer game becomes subject to all kinds of defects such as kingmaking and sandbagging. This tends to annoy players and reduce tension, and may be another downfall of Risk and Vinci.

If it’s a two-player game and one player is obviously winning, the other will probably resign/surrender–end of game, no epic provided. A long, drawn-out struggle in chess might be called “epic”, but the game itself is not.

Point games can be a problem. The plastic Hasbro version of History of the World added secret scoring bonuses in an attempt to obscure who is in the lead. In Britannia the nations and colors score at different rates, at different times, so it’s never quite clear even to experts who is in the lead, by how much, until the game ends.

In asymmetric games, each player has a different starting position/situation. The opposite is symmetric, a common characteristic of “Euro” style games, where each player starts with an identical position. Abstract games tend to be symmetric, and tend not to feel epic. Is chess an epic game? I don’t think so.

Most epic games are historical or pseudo-historical, and history is rarely symmetric. So we may only be seeing a symptom, not a cause, in this characteristic.

The game engenders "gaming stories" that you remember fondly and retell with pleasure (or chagrin!)
Some games result in memorable sessions, some do not. They are more than games, they are “experiences”. This goes back to the idea of “immersion”, of buying into the game. It leaves out most “Euro” games, which tend to be somehow inconsequential–games, not experiences.

This is certainly a characteristic of “great” games, and is sometimes a characteristic of “epic” games.

My thanks to commenters about the meaning of “epic game” on Boardgamegeek, Board Game Designers Forum, and various Britannia forums, especially Richard Young.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A couple explicated maxims of game design

Here are a couple of maxims/truths about game design.

“Don’t Panic”. When you’re playtesting a game, don’t let an odd result in one game bother you too much. If it looks likely to happen again and again, once people know about whatever happened, then you need to fix it. But “whatever happened” may be just an outlier, something very unlikely to happen.

On the other hand, you need to see what you can do to avoid destructive outliers. Mike Gray of Hasbro told a story about a game he was introducing to Hasbro’s design group as a candidate for publication. The main part of the game didn’t get going until a 50/50 event was positive. When he showed the game, it took something like 13 times for that event to be positive. By that time the game was ruined, and had no chance with the design group. The designer had failed to anticipate the admittedly unlikely possibility, much to his detriment. He needed some kind of trigger that would have got the game going, perhaps an increasing probability, or simply a “trigger is positive on fourth try”.

In Law & Chaos, playtesting went very well, but in the very long run experienced players learned to anticipate many possibilities and the length of the game could go far above the typical 15 minutes to one hour (to two and a half hours). I introduced a trigger that changed the parameters slightly (increasing the number of ways a player could win) so that games wouldn’t run very long.

“A game is always a compromise”. This especially applies to “realistic” video games; tabletop game designers usually recognize that given the tools available they can only compromise on “realism”. You can never achieve as much as your wilder imagination hopes for. So look at the good you’ve done, don’t look at what you failed to do. Games are models of reality, and reality is too complicated to comprehend in a game (though the Star Trek “holodeck” will come close, should we ever get there). Game design requires idealism, the ability to pick out what’s important and depict that, rather than try to depict all of a situation.

Tabletop military simulations sometimes founder on designer attempts to “depict all of it”. The game then becomes so complex, or so long, that it isn’t enjoyable to play even for much of its intended audience.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The first time you design/make a game that you realistically want to commercially publish

A while ago I wrote some tips for those making a game for the very first time. ( and elsewhere.) I assumed that you were not, at that point, making a game with realistic expectation of commercial publication-because it’s most unlikely that the first game you ever make will be published.

Now I want to discuss what you might do when you design a game with reasonable intention that it be commercially published. While my personal experience of commercial publication is related only to tabletop games, and I write this for tabletop designers first, I’ll cover video games as well. There’s a lot more to consider now, so this will be much longer than the first piece.

What Kind of Game?
I’m assuming you’re doing this on a freelance basis. If you’re working for a company, you’re probably going to make the game that the company wants to make, not the game that you want to make. If you’re working for a startup, perhaps only a student group, then you have more flexibility. In every case one of the first things you may decide is whether you’re going to design a game that you think is particularly marketable, or design a game that you think will be particularly good. They often are two different things.

While what makes a game good changes over time, though the rate of change is much slower than the changes in what makes a game marketable. Marketability depends on what else is in the market and the current trends. One of the biggest mistakes designers make is to try to cherry pick all of the popular characteristics of games of the moment and design a game with all of those features. They usually end up with a soulless, herky-jerky amalgam of “stuff”. In other words, a failure.

Nonetheless, we do see lots of clones and near clones of highly successful games. When shooters moved into the modern era so successfully we saw a lot of modern era shooters follow. When the tabletop game Dominion started the deck building phase amongst Euro gamers we saw lots of deck building games follow.

I hope that by the time you embark on a game with serious intent to publish in mind you will already have a large store of ideas and concepts to choose from. While you’re learning how to design you will most likely have been writing down all of your ideas and expanding them when it seems worthwhile. Many experienced commercial designers have dozens of fleshed out concepts to refer to, though this is not likely to be true for you when you’re starting on the commercial road.

My recommendation is to design good games first and worry about marketability second. Both terms (good, marketable) are so amorphous and mean such different things to different people that you don’t need to get hung up about either. The simplest thing is probably to design a game of a type you like and make sure that your target audience likes it as well.

Recognize also that whatever you decide to do, the likelihood is that the game will never be published. One of the most successful tabletop game designers (Alan R. Moon) estimated that 60% of his games would never see the light of day. Conventional wisdom in the video game industry is that 9 out of 10 games that are initially funded are never published. And where does that leave the ones that are not even funded? Given the changes in ease of production and distribution in the games industry, those percentages may change; but the reality is still that a great many of the games (not simply ideas or concepts) that you come up with will not be thought good enough for commercial publication.

If you’re fortunate enough to become a designer at one of the most successful companies such as Blizzard or Epic then you’ll expect almost all of your games to succeed. But by then you will already have done a lot of games.

Licensing or self-publishing?
Tabletop designers have a possibility that they can find an established company to publish their game. Video game designers either must already be working for such a company, or they must find a way to publish their game themselves. It is almost impossible to find a publisher to fund development of a video game when the developers do not already have a record of successful game production. While tabletop designers can concentrate on the design, video game designers will have to spend most of their time getting the game software written and produced.

At some point you’ll have to decide how you want the finished video game to be distributed. Are you going to try to sell it to an established commercial publisher? While this is possible, with alternative means of distribution now available you’re more likely to publish a completed game yourself. In the tabletop industry it is possible for the designer no one has ever heard of to sell a game to an established publisher. It’s more common, however, that a new designer self publishes his or her tabletop game, and it’s becoming common in the video game industry that new designers self publish via the Internet.

Internet publication can be in some form of downloads, and will often be through an aggregator such as the web sites that host flash games. Console-based distribution (XboxLive etc.), Steam and other major digital distribution, iPhone and Android distribution, all may be possible.

So for tabletop you can design and test, then find an established publisher. For video, if you design and test without a publisher you’ll probably self-publish digitally.

Focus on what’s practical
Once again I’ll say, as I said last time, “reign in your ambition”. You are not going to make a AAA video game, your buddies and you are not going to make a AAA video game, your start up company and you are not going to make a AAA video game. The costs are just too high, the hundreds of man-years are far more than a small company can provide. Fortunately, with the popularity of XBox Live and its competitors, of the cell phone, the iPhone and iPad, and of other means of digital distribution of inexpensive games, it’s possible to make a commercial game with a small group of people. You have to recognize what you and your group can accomplish; if you aim at something more than you can practically do you will end up with nothing. Part of being successful in business is recognizing what is practical today and what is not; you can intend to aim for the skies in the long run but you have to learn to drive the car before you fly the plane.

In the tabletop industry it’s not unusual for someone to self-publish a game in expectation of selling thousands of copies, only (and usually inevitably) to end up with a vast quantity of unsold goods and a big debt. This again is a problem of too much ambition.

I’m not saying that bad luck can’t be involved, I’m not saying that good luck can’t be involved, I’m saying try to be realistic and you’re less likely to fall flat on your face. What matters is the long haul not the short haul. If you fail the first time or the first 10 times, if you’ve reined in your ambition you can still have the drive to try again. If you have effectively wasted a great deal of time and money because of over ambition then you’re less likely to try again.

Playtesting is what really matters
Some designers are so committed to their game, so convinced that it’s “the greatest thing ever” that they don’t listen to the playtesters. Yet even if game experts believe that your game is excellent when they play it, what really counts is what ordinary game players in your target market think. Even successful commercial studios/publishers sometimes make the mistake of ignoring playtester reaction, or of not even collecting feedback from ordinary players. The result was often a game that the developers liked but not many other people do. Remember that playtesting is your road to finding ways to improve the game, but it also helps you know whether the game is good enough to meet your requirements. When you go commercial, you’re not designing a game for yourself, you’re designing it for other people.

While it’s important to be committed to what you’re doing, your “passion” makes no difference to a publisher, and usually makes no difference to a consumer. Passion is self-centered; commercial publication is about groups and their preferences and buying habits. Playing the game is about the game, not about the designer(s)/creator(s).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fifth Annual UK Game Expo

In early June I was a "featured guest" at the largest tabletop game convention in Britain, the UK Game Expo, in Birmingham England (second largest city in the UK).

The Game Expo is modeled after the big game convention in Essen, Germany in October: the objective is to give ordinary gamers the chance to play games and buy games they enjoy. So while there were lots of exhibitors, much of the space was taken up by tables where people could try out games.

The convention took place in the Clarendon Suites, but it turned out that the Clarendon Suites is a Masonic Temple being rented out for conventions! I think of the Masons as something of the 19th century, but I discovered that they are still going strong, with at least one of their chapters having been founded in the year 2000. The building was very interesting, a three story brick structure with no windows except near the entrance, and lots of half levels and stairs and small rooms, rather labyrinthine: a good place to set a D&D adventure. There were some large halls as well, and these were filled with exhibitors and gamers, among them 150 people playing War Machine. Almost all of the play was boardgames and miniatures, not CCGs or RPGs, though there were RPG publishers among the exhibitors. The seminars/panel discussions took place in the lodge rooms, quite reminiscent of small churches with wooden pews and fonts, and banners along the wall representing the Masonic chapters. There were also lots of display cases full of medals and other Masonic gewgaws. On the walls were the obligatory old-fashioned portrait paintings of their past leaders.

The convention began on Thursday with gaming in the hotel adjacent to the convention building. I arrived on Friday morning and was given a tour of the main building as the exhibitors were setting up. This building was actually open to the public on Saturday and Sunday only.

Organizer Richard Denning (a physician and a novelist as well as a convention organizer) believes they had 2,500 unique individuals and about 4,000 attendances/impressions, up about 10% or so up from last year. With about 60 million people in the UK, this compares favorably with a convention like Origins, which had fewer than 10,700 people last year. Amongst tabletop game conventions only GenCon (27,000) and perhaps the relatively new convention in Chicago, along with Essen itself, appear to have more attendees. Of course, it’s much easier for large numbers of people to get to Birmingham than to Columbus or Indianapolis.

The guys from the UK Gaming Media Network ( had organized the panels and talks, and I talked with them for quite a while, especially Mark Rivera and Michael Fox. They are a group of people bloggers and podcasters who are promoting tabletop games in the UK.

I was surprised at how much people recognized me by name. I lived in England 1976-79 while researching my doctoral dissertation, and played a considerable part in the growth of games in Britain. I wrote for the two well-known British game magazines (White Dwarf is still published) and designed Games Workshop's first published game, Valley of the Four Winds, as well as Britannia which was first published in the UK some years later. The founders of Games Workshop (which is a very large company now), Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, are now two of the big names in video gaming in Britain, having sold Games Workshop and invested the money in video game companies. Steve co-founded Lionhead Studios with Peter Molyneux, Ian is Life President of Eidos. They were going to be featured guests at the Expo but had to go to E3 instead.

I discovered that for many of these people I’m evidently part of their childhood. There was a kind of deference that I rarely see in the US. I was introduced to one gent who said "I met you when I was 10 or 12 years old", which was 30+ years ago. He remembered?! I don't get many experiences like that.

I sat on a panel of role-playing game designers, which was a bit amusing because I’ve never actually designed a standalone role-playing game. But while I lived in Britain I wrote a lot of role-playing game articles, and continued doing that in America for several years until the magazine decided they wanted all rights instead of first world serial rights. I won’t sell all rights.

I watched another panel with tabletop game designers, but it’s just as well I was not on the panel as there were eight people, which makes for an awkward situation in a one-hour time slot. In any case Martin Wallace was one of the panelists and he had lots of interesting things to say. Martin is famous for saying you can’t make a living designing games, which is why he runs a game publishing company. Though I suspect he’s doing quite well now because he is one of those designers who is asked to design games by a variety of institutions. He has been able to quit his job as a teacher and is contemplating migrating to Australia. One of his most telling comments: he’s glad he started decades ago, nowadays it’s particularly hard to get published by an existing publisher.

The publishers and designers in the UK are very much oriented toward Essen and Eurostyle games. The small publishers seem to have better prospects than the small publishers in USA. Whereas at Origins there are always some forlorn-looking booths of people trying to sell one or two games (and getting lost amongst the giants), that forlorn feeling is missing at the game Expo. My hypothesis is that because there are no large publishers in the UK, and the products of the large American publishers cost a lot more because of import fees and shipping costs, the little publishers have found a niche that isn’t really available in North America. The little guys who come to the game Expo can come year after year, as opposed to many of the little guys at Origins who can only come one year.

I met lots of interesting people, for example Chris Bayliss who was running the equivalent of an auction store (I cannot recall the British name for it, unfortunately) with a significant part of the proceeds going to charity. Chris has been a game designer and told me about his worst experience, the game Assassin published late in Avalon Hill's life. Avalon Hill messed it up very badly (it has a 3.8 [sic] rating on Boardgame Geek). He says when people get his original rules it turns out to be not a bad game despite the many physical changes (a board was added, for example).

I had been asked to give an interview to a podcast, and managed to get that in Sunday morning with Paul McClean. As I have already said in the previous post, you can listen to this Yog-Sothoth (Yog Radio) podcast at .
I was in my best form, I have to say, so I think it's worth listening to. My bit is from about :55 minutes to 1:16 (yes, it's a big podcast).

Finally I gave a talk about game design. It was scheduled for 1 PM Sunday, and I told the organizers that at 1 PM Sunday at an American convention most of the people have already left. But this convention was different, and I spoke to a packed room (60-70 people). I've not seen a game design talk better attended even in the USA. Although it was about tabletop design, I got questions about video game design as well, as the majority of tabletop game players are also video game players, and I always refer to both video and tabletop games in my talks. Audio (and slides) of the talk, “Of course you can design a game, but can you design a good one?” are at

Birmingham is a long way from North Carolina, though not so far from my relatives in Cheltenham. Who knows if I'll ever be able to attend this convention again, assuming it stays in Birmingham: it appears to be outgrowing the current building.

Monday, July 11, 2011

July Miscellany

My monthly (sometimes) compilation of brief comments on games.

It's fairly easy to make a game that people will play once or twice, it's harder to make one they'll play five times, and it's really hard to make one they'll play a hundred times. In a sense, video game design is "easier" than tabletop design because the expectation is that people will play only once or twice. The drawback is that people will often play a video game a few minutes, or a couple hours, and then quit.

I was thinking again of simplifying games (see There seems to be a category of Euro style game nowadays that amounts to throwing a lot of mechanisms and bits together in an essentially abstract game, to provide what I call "mental gymnastics".

Traditional games are "clean." There are relatively few kinds of simple components. This is as opposed to so many contemporary Euros with their player sheets and lots of different kinds of pieces and cards.

Is it part of the nature of the triumph of capitalism that people are suspicious of something that's simple? In effect, game designers are sometimes substituting complexity for substance.

I think that if your game is abstract, it should be simple, to let players concentrate on the essence, not on a bunch of not-so-essential details. Checkers, chess, go, all succeed because they are essentially simple to learn and to play, but hard to play very well.

RPG designers are often frustrated novelists. They are more or less the opposite of Euro game designers. RPGers value story, Euro-ers frequently slap an atmosphere (often called theme) onto an abstract game.

In the July 2011 PC Gamer magazine, of the "top 13 most anticipated games" by readers, #s 1-11 were sequels, #12 (TERA) I do not know, and #13 was Batman: Arkum Asylum, which may or may not be considered a sequel.

This is another mark of the power of branding. People will buy what they've heard of rather than something unknown.

"Lying Fallow"
I find it useful and instructive to occasionally allow game designs I am working on to "lie fallow", like a farmer's field used to be allowed to sit unused as a way to rejuvenate it. (Now we use fertilizer, but there's no easy equivalent in game design.) I don't do anything with the game for several months or even longer, then dig it out to playtest further. Even for games that seem to be "done" this can reveal things that need to be "fixed" or changed, particularly in the way the rules are written, but also in the play itself.

When I don't remember how to play (and I try NOT to remember, having so many games in some stage of development), then I can see the game (and the rules) with "new" eyes. I distinctly recall thinking, in some cases "What the heck was I thinking of!?" (It's important to write down what you're thinking of, as you develop a game, so that you can find out why you were thinking as you were, when this happens.) It's also instructive when I try to find things in the rules, which may not be organized as well as I thought they were. (If I still had the rules fresh in mind I might not try to find anything in the written rules.)

Some people suggest that the reason we like games is because we learn something while playing. Decades ago games were a learning experience both before and during play. Now, with people not reading the rules, not trying to figure anything out beforehand, and sometimes trying to learn as they actually play, games are only a learning experience during play.

One reason why lately I've designed many games that primarily use cards is that this makes it easier for players to learn as they play. And to me it's not bad to have a lot of different kinds of cards, as players learn (through the cards) as they play.

(On the other hand, some say that people, in general, don't want to bother to learn anything new. That's why "traditional" games are so popular, everybody thinks they already know how to play.

Are "achievements" in video games so popular because the games themselves are really a bit dull and repetitive, and we need some incentive to keep playing other than enjoyment of playing the game?

Or are they something to "keep us in the flow" by making things more difficult after we've finished the basic game?

Or are they ways to make the "puzzle" more difficult after we've completed it once? Insofar as single-player video games are often interactive puzzles, this may be the answer.

In any case, I say "achievements, my foot". Because most of it isn't worth bothering with. Or to put another way, you're achieving nothing worth achieving.

The biggest difference between tabletop and video game design: in the larger video games, and to some extent in the smaller, it's "design by committee." Not only are there multiple designers ("five combat designers" alone), most of the other production staff want to contribute ideas, and will be unhappy if you don't treat them seriously, whether you use their ideas or not.

D&D adventures as Pro Wrestling
I haven't read many lately, but in the past the published D&D adventures were written assuming something like Pro Wrestling (WWE, TNA) in the way characters behaved. So many assume the players will stand around listening to long discourses when, in fact, true survival types would be acing immediately to do away with the bad guys or get out of the area. The writers assume the players will bumble around in a group rather than use scouts or detection devices: kind of like wrestlers not noticing or looking for the obvious stuff that the audience sees (and sometimes tries to warn them about).

I suppose in that respect they're like a lot of movies, too. The standards of what makes sense have changed (degraded). Modern cinema has taken over RPGs.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Different ways for designers to think about/approach game design

While my favorite game is "the game of designing games", I do occasionally try to find commercial publishers for them. (Not nearly as often as I "should," however.) But there are lots of reasons to design games, ways for designers to look at their role as game designers.

Games as a way to make money. Perhaps this is obvious, yet I don't think many people started to design games because they thought it was a way to make a lot of money. In fact, people who do start that way are probably unsuccessful. That's partly because choosing a job simply because you think it will make a lot of money is unlikely to be satisfying even if successful. But more because it's difficult to make a lot of money as a game designer, especially as a tabletop game designer. Game designers don't get much credit. And if you don't get much credit you won't get paid much. In the video game industry programmers are routinely paid much more than game designers. In the tabletop industry game designers are paid less than the authors of books (fiction or non-fiction). In either industry it's very difficult to make a living as a freelance designer.

A subset of this is games as manipulation of addictive tendencies. Many "social networking" games and free-to-play games succeed because players are somehow persuaded to keep playing even though outsiders cannot figure out what the attraction is--the same kind of reaction sober people (the outsiders) have to drug addicts. Simplistic and repetitive, these games nonetheless can make money, sometimes lots of money. Designers tend to think in terms of ways to extract funds from players who have been conditioned to keep playing, not in terms of entertaining players.

Games as a form of self-expression. Some people have personalities that thirst to derive meaning from life, many others don't. Some designers just want to express themselves and choose games as one form of self-expression. At some point this melds into "games as art," as a designer wants to use the game to express something meaningful to others.

Games as Art. All games are art, though the players don't care. But games are rarely if ever high Art (with a capital A). As Ian Bogost has said "Art is about changing the world; entertainment is about leisure." Nonetheless, there are many video game designers who desperately wish to believe that games are Art. (Tabletop designers don't care.) And some will create games as artistic works rather than as entertainment or commercial venture.

Games as a form of control. This is more likely for video game designers (who often design interactive puzzles, not person-to-person games), than for tabletop designers. For example, I once read a comment by Warren Spector, a very well-known video game designer (Deus Ex, Epic Mickey), who said he wants to control everything the player does, and was opposed to the addition of human opponents. (That's how I remember it, I don't have it at hand.) If you're designing a puzzle, then this is not an unreasonable point of view. Even tabletop designers want to control what the player can do, but in relation to other players who provide input that the designer cannot control.

Games as entertainment. This is the viewpoint of many designers including Shigeru Miyamoto (designer of many of the most famous Nintendo games) and Reiner Knizia, who makes more than $1 million a year as a freelance tabletop (and now video) game designer. If people don't enjoy the game, what's the point? The game doesn't have to be "fun", but has to be enjoyable.

A sub-category of the above is games as storytelling. Wannabe storytellers used to become novelists or playwrights or, more recently, filmakers. Now some go into RPGs and video games.

Games as interesting problems to solve. This is close to "game design as a game." Every game involves constraints and limitations. Many designers specify those constraints and limitations, and then try to solve the resulting problem to produce something a target group enjoys playing.

Game design as a game
. Games involve goals and rules. The whole process of designing games can be seen as a game in itself. Some people use money or unit sales or the number of people who play a game as a way of keeping score. Other people find other ways of keeping score.

I'm sure there are other ways to look at it, these are some of the more common ones.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Origins 2011

I have been doing a lot of traveling, attending the (fifth?) annual UK Game Expo in Birmingham, England, and the 36th annual Origins Game Fair in Columbus OH.

I attended some of the very early Origins, and have been going again since 2004, but I skipped it last year. That was to save money, and because the convention seemed to be "diminishing", with some well-known game publishers not coming and the number of exhibitors contracting. I don't go to conventions to play games, I go to talk with people, especially people in the business, and to conduct some seminars. The attendance at Origins peaked at nearly 15,000 unique visitors, but in recent years it's in the 10,000s despite addition of an inexpensive day ticket for people who only want to see the exhibits/vendors. Contrast GenCon at 27,000; the relatively new UK Game Expo had about 2,500 unique visitors this year. WBC is over 1,500 and PrezCon over 600, but those are entirely different kinds of conventions, "tournament conventions". Many people say that Origins is a game-playing convention, but there are few tournaments. This year my impression was that there was less gaming going on than two years ago, and certainly the convention occupied a smaller part of the convention center than in 2009 and earlier.

Fortunately I found plenty of interesting people to talk with this time. Unfortunately, I had problems with my seminars. For three years before 2010 I had given seminars about game design at Origins. This year I put in for four one-hour talks instead of two longer talks. My schedule was as I requested in the master event list at the end of April, but when I arrived at the convention on Friday morning and checked the printed list, I found that instead of one seminar Friday, two Saturday, and one Sunday, I was listed for one Friday and four Saturday (including a second session of the one on Friday). The times of two had been changed, and the date and time of a third had been changed.

This was very annoying, and I have reason to believe someone who wanted a game design seminar track changed my schedule unilaterally. I'm still trying to get to the bottom of this.

There were also little mistakes. One attendee told me their ticket said my talk lasted three hours, even though there was another talk in the room the next hour, and even though I had another one two hours after the first. Another had a ticket for a 7 PM start to a seminar (one she'd paid for) but the actual starting time was 6, so she and other people missed an hour. My general impression from my experiences, and talking with others, is that the convention organization/administration was not as good as in the past.

In the end I did the seminars as listed, as they didn't clash with any appointments I had made, and had good turnouts, several dozens each time. Four hours of talking loudly enough to be heard in a large room might be daunting for some, but my experience as a teacher makes it tolerable, though it was NOT what I wanted to be doing on Saturday.

There were fewer free seminars than in the past. The "War College" puts on quite a few seminars that charge $2-8. I don't quite approve of paying a substantial sum to attend a convention, then paying more to attend parts of the convention, so I don't go to these.

I attended a few of the free ones. Dennis Pipes from Texas gave a very practical talk about DMing (refereeing) RPGs ("GM Mastery"). Even at 9AM (not a gamers' sort of time) the attendance was good. (One of my seminars was moved to 9AM, and attendance was good, so maybe 9AM isn't as bad as it used to be.) James Ernest of CheapAss fame, who has had 150+ games published, talked for an hour about how he goes about design (which is very different from how I do it, not surprisingly). Then he, Mike Selinker, Ken Hite, and Dominic McDowall-Thomas (Cubicle 7 RPGs) had a panel discussion about game design. Ernest and Selinker have been involved in video game design as well, and told lots of interesting stories. I also sat for a while in one of Ian Schreiber's seminars (Ian being the other person who consistently does game design seminars at Origins).

There was not much of a teacher's track this year, and teachers are now charged more than half price, rather than free. One teacher attended most of my talks because she's trying to design an educational game about spending money wisely. At one point I was talking about stuff you don't want to put into 21st century games, and one was math--people don't do math in their heads (if at all) very well any more. "Heavens," she said, "it's all math!" referring to her game.

If there was an art show this year--I saw a list of artists--it had gone somewhere where I didn't see it. Nor did I check out the many RPG sessions, which as usual was away from the convention center's main section.

Speaking of "not free" there was a boardgame room that cost extra (and a not-for-free war room somewhere that I never saw). I guess the extra cost was from access to a game library? Except there was another room where people played boardgames, with a library, that was no extra cost. I didn't get it, in the end. At any rate I was allowed into the boardgame room to watch, and spent more than an hour watching Defenders of the Realm being played one evening. This is a cooperative game, physically attractive, but I'm not sure there was much to it for the length (evidently more than two hours). Pandemic's virtue is that it's quick.

Origins continued to exhibit striking demographics. There were very few black people, few obviously Hispanic (though I don't think that means much), and a minority of women. But it seemed as though women were more numerous than in the past. I did my typical unscientific survey, sitting at the entrance to the exhibit hall and counting people. Which showed me that the percentages haven't actually changed significantly (females decreasing, perhaps!). But my sample space isn't really large enough to make this a highly reliable survey.

23% female
3% black
(including two people who were both female and black)

24.8% female
3.5% black

28.5% female.
zero percent black

I spent a few hours talking with Robert Mosimann of Excalibre Games. He bought the company decades ago, but was not an active publisher for a decade. He is back now with four games, reissues of well-known games of the past. One is Ancient Conquest I, which provided a little of the inspiration for Britannia. There's also The Conquerors by Richard Berg, A Mighty Fortress, and Battle for Stalingrad by John Hill. Pieces are the typical half inch printed-in-rows arrangements of the "wargame ghetto" as I call it. The boxes have a slick surface that should wear much better than typical cardboard. The rules are printed on high-quality slick paper. And the boards are printed on heavy coated paper. The prices are very reasonable, lower than I'd expect. Robert only had printer's proofs (which look just like the printed game) at the convention, and expects to get the actual shipment of games in a few weeks. He sells through Decision Games (Strategy & Tactics).

I also talked quite a bit with Travis Worthington of Indie Boards and Games. They publish Resistance, which I've watched being played quite a bit. It is a brilliant solution to the two major problems of Mafia/Werewolf, that a non-playing moderator is needed,and that players are eliminated. If you like this kind of role-guessing game, you should look into Resistance. I was trying to find solutions to these problems, and after seeing Resistance I stopped.

There was the usual quota of exhibitors who were obvious self-publishers. Typically these people come with one or two games, full of enthusiasm, and find that attendees aren't nearly as enthusiastic. (Even if the games are really good, there are SO many games coming out that it's hard to get attention, especially in comparison with the big publishers.) They are rarely back the next year because they lose a lot of money on the experience. This contrasts with the UK, where there are no big publishers, so the little ones (if well run) can get attention and prosper, and come to the Expo every year.

I don't know who won the Origins Awards, I'm sure that information is available elsewhere.

Rumors about Scheduling
I heard some rumors that I'll pass on. One is that Origins will be moved to the end of May, and combined with GAMA's trade show that has been in Las Vegas earlier in the year. This will bring some big companies that don't attend Origins, such as FantasyFlightGames and Wizards of the Coast. That will offset the influence of Mayfair, by far the largest exhibitor thanks to the space they rented for demo games. (One exhibitor estimated Mayfair had $50,000 worth of space.) When I first started coming to this Columbus version of Origins, there were several large exhibitors (Wizards and Wizkids come to mind); now Mayfair is the only really large one. (Hasbro ignores these conventions. They're in a different market.)

It's always hard to judge how sales are going. Origins booths are pretty expensive, I'm told, as much as Essen with its over 100,000 attendance, which is a reason why some publishers don't come. Publishers are happy to break even. But the people I talked to thought sales were not good.

Why would Origins move to another time? Rumor has it that GenCon is moving to early July, not immediately but in the future, something to do with unavailability of the Indianapolis Convention Center. Indianapolis and Columbus are only 168 miles apart as the crow flies, and my guess is that the majority of attendees at these conventions come from withint 200 miles, so they are working toget much of the same clientele. If GenCon moves, Origins has to do something to reduce the competition. The other rumor I heard was that Mayfair was pushing to move Origins to Baltimore, with its better road, rail, and air connections--and 509 miles from Indy. The problem is that this requires a new set of "local" attendees and volunteer helpers. I was told that when Origins moved from the east coast to Columbus, it took several years to recover. Presumably the same would be true if moving back.

Unlike most anyone else, I provide a download site for the slides I make for my talks. (I've never had a projector to project them, though surprisingly I was offered one for one talk this time.) I also record myself and post the audio, not a professional job (I use a Sansa MP3 player to record) but good enough. You can find all these at
The talks were:
The Business of Game Design
Starting a Game Design
Completing a Game Design
Of course you can design a game, but can you design a good one?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

A list of game design sites

Those interested in video game design might find the following compendium useful:

You can click on the title of this post.

The omission (as far as I can see) is, perhaps because it is not *only* about design?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Podcast interview

While I was a "featured guest" at the UK Game Expo early in June, I was interviewed for the Yog-Sothoth (Yog Radio) podcast. I was in my best form, I have to say, so I think it's worth listening to. You can obtain it at:

(You can click on the post title to get there.)

My bit is from about :55 minutes to 1:16 (yes, it's a big podcast).