Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Atlas of World Military History

Atlas of World Military History: the art of war from ancient times to the present day.  By Richard Brooks and others.  Hardcover, 256 pages, large (“coffee-table”) format .  Originally published by HarperCollins in England in 2000, this edition by Barnes & Noble in the same year.

Although this book is out-of-print I was able to get a pristine “used” copy very inexpensively through a used bookseller on Amazon.

This is a typical contemporary large-format “Atlas” insofar as there are maps on almost every page but also a very extensive commentary and narrative.  (Old-style atlases were just maps.)  It is also lavishly illustrated with drawings, paintings, and photographs.  And as you would expect the book focuses much more on the past century or two than on earlier times.  The American Civil War gets the same number of pages (four) as the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.  The Crusades and Mongol invasions get two pages each.  The European part of World War II gets 28 pages.

The sections include:
The First Military Empires (ancient times)
Men on Horseback (Medieval)
the Military Renaissance (1500 to 1650)
Line of Battle (1650 the 1785)
Nations in Arms (1792 to 1815)
Heirs of Napoleon (1815 to 1905)
Storm of Steel (1914 to 1916)
Restoring Mobility (1917 to 1939)
Zenith of Industrial Age War (1939 to 1945)
the Cold War and the End of Modern War

An unusual feature of the book is that several of the authors are well-known wargame designers, including Richard H. Berg, Mark Herman, and David C. Isby.

The book is very good at getting to the heart of matters - as many books are not.  As I read I wondered if this was partly the influence of the game designers, who as model-makers have to get to the heart of what’s important in a situation and leave everything else out.

The authors have a way with words and the phrase I most remember is "cosmic levels of incompetence"  as a description of the Russian army in the Russo-Japanese War.

Atlases in general have the virtue of providing a view "of the forest, not the trees."  Yet the accompanying text here can show you many of the trees, as well.  You get both an overview and occasional details.  Many of the maps are of individual battles or doctrine, others show the sweep of empire (including such topics as trade and economics).  An excellent book.

My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is now available from or Amazon (Books-a-Million has a PDF version).  
I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.) 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Six words about game sequels

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter not so long ago was 6 word stories.  In the past few months I've asked people to say 6 words about game design, programming, wargames, stories in games, casual games, zombie games, chance/randomness in games, and innovation and plagiarism in games.

This time the challenge is this: say six words about game sequels.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Abstractions and plans for new edition(s) of Britannia

As you probably know, the Fantasy Flight version of Britannia has sold out its second printing and all rights have reverted to me.

The plan for the new editions of Britannia - don't forget that plans don't always work out - is that there are several versions.  The standard version that has been available in the past will be changed more than I anticipated when I started out two months ago, primarily to make it work better as a way of teaching/understanding British history - to make it closer to reality, if you will.  In the process the game has changed some, which I also think will be interesting for players.  In particular I've eliminated some things that I strongly dislike.  First, it won't be possible for the Romans to make a deal with the Welsh, who then submit although never touched.  This time, they Will Fight.  Second, it won't be possible for a "starving army" to commit virtual suicide by making a bad-odds attack.  Its compatriots will have to come along.  Third, we won't have the Romano-British scurrying for the hills, abandoning their homes and farms.  But they'll be in better shape than in the old game.

It also won't be a Roman walkover with Romans even known to be killing Caledonians.  The Roman will have more difficult choices.  Unfortunately, players who tend to make a hash of the Romans now, when it IS often a cakewalk for an experienced player, may REALLY make a hash of it in the new version.  There's always a problem in games, whether to design for the 99% expert player or the 33% or the 75%.  When the 99% expert is going to work a bit, the 33% may just get creamed.  Fortunately, the Roman-British are MUCH more prominent in the game - for a while.

There's a smaller, diceless version (“Rule Britannia”) that uses a new board (21 land areas); and a quick, really small (8 nations) "broad market" version (no set title) that also uses a new board.  I expect these versions will appeal more to current tastes, and may (should) outsell the standard version.

There's also an "Epic" version that uses the standard board with the addition of Ireland, and will be significantly longer than the standard game (Epic, get it?).  So Ireland will be on the standard board, even though it won't be used in the standard game.

The standard game will come with several shorter scenarios (4-9 turns), and a new three player game that I am trying very hard to balance, and a 6-7 turn game that covers the entire period using the same colors/sides.

All of these except the new 3 player version were originally developed years ago, but Fantasy Flight was not interested in expansions/spinoffs/add-ons.   Britannia was essentially a trophy game for them, because the owner likes the game.  (After the game had been in print about two years, I could no longer get anything posted on the FFG Britannia Web site.  They were "too busy.") With the new edition we can try to bring these other versions to the public.  Most likely there will be a Kickstarter with several choices, and various perks (perhaps a wooden set?).  Time will tell.

In the shadowy background as standalone or expansions are a Britannia card game and a couple games that use the setting, board, and pieces but are new game systems.

With that introduction we can now talk about abstractions and things left out in relation to the Epic and standard versions.

Designing a game that's a model of some reality is an exercise in abstraction.  (Keep in mind that many of today's popular games are not models of any reality.  They are simply "abstract" with an atmosphere tacked on.)  You cannot begin to represent all of reality, it's too complex.  You have to combine things together into one thing constantly, and you have to ignore a lot of things that were very important to people at the time.

For example, in Britannia the "armies" represent (in most of the Dark Age) poorly-armed agricultural settlers.  (The exceptions are the Romans at one end of the time scale, and the Norwegians and Normans at the other - more or less professional soldiers.)  Armies are both population and soldiers.  That’s the way it tended to be in the Dark Ages, quite different from some of late antiquity and most of the modern world.  A more complex game could represent population separately from soldiers.  One of those shadowy add-on games does, though it's generally fairly simple otherwise.

An obvious compromise is the coherence of large ethnic groups that were usually not politically united.  The Welsh were never one kingdom, really, though most of them occasionally acknowledged an overlord such as Rhodri Mawr (who is now in the game under present rules).  Picts, Romano-British, Norsemen, etc. weren't united much of the time.

What I've done in "Epic Britannia" is undo some of these compromises made in standard Britannia, decreasing the level of abstraction.  It's "more true-to-life", though it's still so abstracted that it models effects more than causes.  That is, it's good for showing what happened, and even for giving some idea of why things happened, but it doesn't try to model the causes of why things happened.

So what does Epic do differently than Second Edition Brit?

•    Caratacus Welsh leader with change in play order (now also in standard)
•    Arthur appears for all British nations (now also in standard)
•    Ravaging/Forays (now also in standard)
•    Disorder/disunity (Settled Nations in standard now)
•    Several nations separated (3 R-B nations, 3 Angles)
•    Separates Roman control from Roman forts
•    Reduction of Roman capabilities in later years but addition of one relief expedition
•    Changes the sides (colors)
•    Ireland included
•    Absorption of Picts by Scots, Jutes by Saxons
•    Revolts and second submissions possible
•    Plague
•    Stronger Saxons at the end
•    More leader movement at end

The reduction in abstraction makes for a longer game, of course.  Contrast it with a game with only 8 nations instead of 16-17 and 6 turns instead of 16 (the broad market version), which is 60-90 minutes (I hope).

As the simpler, shorter games are likely to become the "standard" for this topic, I have not been too reluctant to add features to Britannia itself that may lengthen the game, if only because there may be more fighting in the early part.  As you see, some of the features of Epic have now been incorporated into the third edition standard game.

Plenty is still left out, for example the Roman Carausian revolt.

And once again, we’ll remember what happens with plans, and see where we end up - next year.

Monday, September 17, 2012

September 2012 Miscellany

September 2012 Miscellany

Since I got back from WBC and GenCon, I've posted several articles at my "home" blog.  Not all are posted on other blogs (e.g., ones heavily video-game-related aren't posted on BGDF and F:AT).  Here's a list with links:

Observations about changes in game distribution (and publishing)
Getting a foot into professional (tabletop) game design  How to be taken seriously by publishers (more cautionary advice)
Zynga and Fundamental Problems with their Social Network Games
Comparing this year’s game conventions
Interface (and other) game design lessons from a rental car
"Seven years and a million dollars"
Review: Gratuitous Space Battles

And for what it's worth, I seem to post on the "home" location a couple days before posting elsewhere, in any case.

 People outside the USA who want to buy my game design book might consider using Book Depository to order, as they offer free shipping to about 50 countries.  I have not used them myself but have seen a reference to it.  Amazon UK has the book, and perhaps other Amazons in other countries do as well.  Singapore Books ( seems to be a related source.

I have posted a nearly 2 hour audio file of my session about game design at WBC:

One never tires of unsolicited appreciation, especially because individual books and games don't really make that much money for the author/designer.  As in this email I recently received:

"Dear Mr. Pulsipher,
      Just finished your book on tabletop and video games and it was awesome! i appreciate all the great advice and the realistic expectation level it sets for designers. The supporting website is so helpful. thank you so much for taking the time to do this book and sharing your knowledge and experience.
 Lori Nelson"

There are all kinds of words applied to games that, for many people, are interpreted to mean "what I like", regardless of any dictionary meaning of common connotation.  "Immersive," "intuitive" (which also means 'what I'm familiar with'), "interactive," and that's only some words starting with "i"; there's also "social," "deep," and so on.


Rampant egalitarianism - the idea that everyone must be the same, that no one should be allowed to stand out -  is already filtering into video games, and is crippling our schools.  A former teaching colleague of mine, who went back to university for four years to get a Ph.D., wonders if it's too much to ask university students to call him "Dr." instead of Mr.  But "a former [Department] Chair once explained to me, 'By asking them to call you this, they may feel that you are demeaning them because you have something they don't. ' (And no, that is -NOT- a joke.)"

The students are half my former colleague's age.  Of course they can't expect to have everything he has.  But they will have the *opportunity* to get a Ph.D.  Most of them won't get one, but that's the point of equal opportunity, not everyone will take every opportunity.

Critics already remark on the gradual disappearance of "consequence-based" gaming in the single-player video game world.   It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you keep trying you'll finally "beat the game".  You die, you come back, usually without harm.  You cannot lose.   So it doesn't really matter what you do, there are no long-term and few short-term consequences to your actions, no responsibility.  And everybody is "equal".

I read on Purple Pawn about a large game company called Fundex that has filed for bankruptcy reorganization.  Somehow their sales went from over $25 million in 2010 to just over $2.5 M this year.

Aside from wondering how that happened, I was unsurprised to see that there's no indication on their Web site that this is going on, even though I have a PDF of their filing, downloaded through PP.

Which reminds me of some familiar hobby game companies that have had financial trouble yet you'd never have known from their Web sites.

I looked for "game design" groups on Yahoo the other day.  Most of the ones I checked out have been overrun with spam.  Difficult to run such a group effectively and not monitor (approve) messages.  I get lots of junk messages (advertising some Website or other) on my Blogger blog, so I have to monitor all comments.

People who like to play poker online worry about an analysis, not about yomi.  So they don't need to see people or smell them or hear them, they just need to know what those people do.

I suspect a really good analysis of poker play might work pretty well against ordinary players.  I have to think that against outstanding players, it would not.  Predictability cannot be a good trait for high-stakes poker.

While I was a guest on the Ludology podcast, I spontaneously said something about games with a certain personality (the topic was epic games), but later I  couldn't really remember what I meant.  So here's the question.  Can a game have a personality?  Do all games have a personality of one kind or another?  Are there several categories that all game personalities fall into, or are they more varied than that?  Any suggestions?

If you want to write stories, become a story writer, not a game designer.  You have much more control over stories in novels, plays, movies, short stories, and so forth.  Talk with anyone who writes game stories, and you'll soon hear some frustration, because the needs of the game override the needs of the story.  Quite rightly.  People may start to play a game because of story, but they continue to play (or not) because of gameplay.  Stories get used up.

One possible outcome of my Britannia publisher search is that I'll become a "publisher."  Any suggestions for name of the company?

Pulsipher Games, PulsGames, PulseGames, all seem mundane.  Not sure how much name recognition is in "Pulsipher", unusual though it is.

A lot of people fool themselves about the "simulation" value of commercial board wargames.  If they were really simulations, the games would be so chaotic (and yet require so much planning, paradoxically) that they wouldn't be enjoyable, for most players.  Real war is "a mess".  As well as being "hell".

The mania for seeing certain kinds of events, such as sports, live on your mobile phone or otherwise, rather than time-shifted, is another symptom of the failure of imagination in modern culture.

Attentive publisher! McFarland wanted to put a space in "boardgame" in my book to make two words. They called to make sure it was OK with me!  Not likely to happen in the game world.

Sigh.  And then they failed to send out review copies, and didn't ship any copies to GenCon with all their other books.  Oh, well.

A phrase to describe the Russian army in the Russo-Japanese War: "cosmic levels of incompetence."  I like it.  I'll talk about the book it's from another time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Observations about changes in game distribution (and publishing)

At GenCon I attended several seminars about game publishing and game distribution.  I’m not intending to self publish games, though I will self-publish some books, but I am interested in distribution in connection with selecting a publisher for the new edition of Britannia.  A designer negotiating contracts needs to know how games are sold.  So I’m not an expert about this compared with an experienced publisher.  But I think I can tell you enough to make this interesting.  I knew most of this before I went to GenCon but still we can call it “what I learned about game distribution and publishing at GenCon”.

Typical distribution.  Tabletop hobby games are sold in three fundamentally different ways.  One is sales directly by the publisher to customers, either at conventions or online.  The second is online sales by retailers.  The third is sales in “brick-and-mortar” retail game stores where people walk in and buy games. 

Another but much less common method is sales through non-specialty retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Target.  Mass-market games such as Monopoly are sold through Toys “R” Us, Walmart, and other big retailers.  Hobby game publishers always want to “get in on the action” of mass-market distribution, and that’s why sales in Barnes & Noble and Target are exciting for those publishers.

I’ve listed the three major methods in reverse order of sales volume.  Most hobby games are still sold through game shops, or shops that list games is one of their major segments along with comics and other popular culture.

Only the first method, direct sales by the publisher, enables the publisher to receive 100% of the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price”, MSRP.  Sales to distributors are typically at 40% of MSRP, though some of the bigger manufacturers evidently get a little more.  The distributor then adds 10% of MSRP to the cost when they sell to the retailer.  So the retailer is typically getting a game at 50% of the MSRP and they have to decide how close to the MSRP they will sell it for.  The brick-and-mortar shops generally go to the full MSRP while the online retailers take a smaller percentage and hope to succeed through volume and through much lower fixed costs, because they’re not supporting a storefront.

The by-far largest hobby games distributor in the United States is Alliance.  A distributor in similar position in Britain is SDVM.   Why there is one distributor that’s the “800 pound gorilla” in these two countries I do not know.

The percentage of MSRP received by the publisher from sales through game shops and online retailers may be the same, about 40%.  The problem is that online retailers rely on volume and low fixed costs because they don’t have a shop to maintain.  As a result they can undersell the brick-and-mortar retailers.  This can drive the brick-and-mortar game shops out of the equation.  In the 21st century it’s very common for people to go into a shop, learn all they can about an item, and then go home and buy it online for (say)
five dollars less.  In the age of smart phones it’s not exceptional to see someone point a smart phone at a barcode and look at the online price right on the spot.  Though I rarely visit a game shop, I’ve seen this happen at Origins.

Cheap Internet sales tend to crowd out sales direct from the publisher.  In general, the publisher itself must charge MSRP online so that it won’t be seen as underselling retail shops.  Usually the publisher can give a discount at a convention - which doesn’t mean it will - because that’s expected, and the volume is low enough that it doesn’t bother the brick-and-mortar people. 

If the online sellers charge much less than MSRP, the publisher itself isn’t likely to sell much online.  That’s a big hit, because they get 40% (roughly) from the online seller’s sale, compared to 100% of their own online sale.

Price setting.  Some publishers, consequently, are trying to find ways to keep online retailers out of the equation so that the actual price to consumers is closer to the MSRP.  That helps brick-and-mortar retailers immensely, and the idea is that more games will be sold if the game is available in brick-and-mortar retailers.  I don’t know if anyone has any data about this, but clearly some percentage of games is purchased on impulse, someone sees it in a store and decides to buy it.  This is helped in hobby game stores by various demos and events that may go on to bring attention to certain games.  Your average game player is not someone who reads BoardgameGeek frequently, and the same may be true about the average game buyer.

One way to keep the price near MSRP is a fairly new law that allows manufacturers to require sellers to maintain at least (IIRC) 80% of MSRP price on items.  A few manufacturers, such as Mayfair, take advantage of this but one can wonder how well it can be enforced.

Another method is to keep the games out of the hands of the online retailers.  But if you work through normal distributors the distributors happily sell to the online retailers who may give them much bigger orders than a typical brick-and-mortar shop.  GameSalute (see below) has an option for small publishers to sell only through GameSalute’s online store and through brick-and-mortar stores in order to keep the actual price of the game close to the MSRP.  Also, if a manufacturer negotiates exclusive distribution with a distributor, as Mayfair and FFG have recently, then perhaps part of the deal is agreement that the distributor will not sell to online retailers.  I don’t know, but I cannot figure out why else a big company would negotiate an exclusive distribution deal (well, other than getting better than 40% of the MSRP. But then would the distributor do it?).

While many hobby game buyers accustomed to online purchases may feel that buying a game for 30% off the MSRP is their god-given right, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for publishers.  And it’s the publishers who are risking their money.

Aggregation and fulfillment.  If you’re a small publisher you may not be able to get the attention of a big distributor like Alliance or SDVM.  If they don’t expect your game to sell a lot then they may not bother to bring it to the attention of their customers, the retail shops.  And if you’re a small publisher, the distributor may simply assume your game isn’t going to sell much, if they bother to think about it at all amongst the hundreds of games published each year.  In that case you may go to an aggregator.  The aggregator puts together packages from many small publishers to sell to distributors.  In order to make a profit the aggregator pays the publisher just 33% of the MSRP.

There are publishers who try to act as their own distributors, selling directly to retailers, but this is time-consuming and requires some knowledge and data about retailers.  In this category we also have GameSalute.  This is a relatively new company that offers fulfillment to small publishers.  Fulfillment means that GameSalute takes care of all the details of sales for the publisher, taking a cut of the revenue.  GameSalute has gone to this in a big way and has a large stable of games, sometimes with exclusive distribution.  I think that in effect they have become a distributor for the small publishers because they try to sell directly to shops rather than to Alliance or other distributors.  (Another fulfillment company I’ve heard of but know nothing about: Impressions.)

The difference between aggregation and fulfillment is that the latter may warehouse the inventory of small publishers games and take care of all the details of selling while the aggregator is more strictly a middleman between small publishers and distributors.  I’m sure there are shades in between, each company may offer somewhat different services

These percentages are very important to publishers of course, but are also very important to game designers because royalties are usually based on the revenue of the publisher, not on the MSRP.  Frequently in the revenue calculations some shipping is subtracted as well - the publisher usually pays to ship product to distributors - so it’s difficult to calculate anything exactly.

The mass-market.  Mass-market games are often purchased around Christmas time as gifts.  One of the things that sets mass-market games apart from hobby games is that people who are not game players recognize the titles of mass-market games like Monopoly and Sorry and Battleship.  They’re more likely to buy a game as a gift if they recognize the name.  Another aspect of mass-market games is that many people think they already know how to play the game that they’re purchasing as a gift – even though in practice most people don’t even play Monopoly correctly.  Mass-market titles become brands so strong that we see big movies being produced “based on” mass-market game titles like this past summer’s Battleship movie.

Just as important, when people buy tabletop games as gifts they typically don’t want to pay $50 or $60, so it’s another characteristic of mass-market games that they tend to be down in the $25-35 range.

Settlers of Catan, while it is a little too complicated to be a mass-market game, is nonetheless approaching the brand recognition status of some of the mass-market games.  There is actually a simpler version of Settlers of Catan aimed at the mass market, unfortunately called Catan: Junior.

The most popular seminar subject at GenCon was Kickstarter, because is a source of funding for many creative projects including games.  At present it is available only in the US, and I know of one foreign company that incorporated in the US specifically so that they could use Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is part of crowd funding, raising funds to produce something from a lot of people rather than from individual investors or venture capitalists.  As far as I know the original crowd funding was called the “ransom method.”  A writer offered to write a short story and distribute it for free to everyone if enough people offered contributions to meet his stated goal.  He used this method several times and may still be doing it.

Kickstarter was founded on a patron model.  The contributors were supposed to offer funding for worthwhile projects as patrons rather than as customers who were receiving something specific in return.  But for games at least it has become the equivalent of a pre-order system, not so different in effect from the P 500 system used by GMT and other wargame publishers.  In a pre-order system you get enough orders for whatever you’re going to produce that you know you have enough money to afford to produce it.  GMT originally called it P 500 because they wanted 500 pre-orders, although nowadays 750 would be desirable.

Kickstarter includes lots of perks other than the actual game to help people feel like they’re part of the process, to “see how the sausage is made” as one GenCon panelist put it, but there are potential tax differences between a patron model and a pre-order model important enough that the Kickstarter people insist that they’re running a patron model even as game companies use it for pre-orders.

A survey of people involved with supporting video games on Kickstarter shows that most of them feel it’s very important that they get a downloadable or even physical copy of the game they’re supporting:
(Anyone interested in using Kickstarter for funding should read the survey results.)

Pre-orders are very important to small and even medium-sized companies.  GMT deviated from their model once with a game that they were sure was excellent.  They printed a larger-than-usual run.  When that game sold poorly they nearly went out of business.  When a Kickstarter campaign achieves 10 times as much funding as desired – this is not unheard of for games – that makes a publisher’s job that much easier.

Let me interject a few comments here about publishing.  One factor dominates publishing costs: the number of copies of a game that are printed.  Much of the costs of printing are fixed costs, the same lump sum no matter how many are printed.  As a result the price per unit goes down rapidly as a number printed goes up.  For example I saw the difference between the price for 1,500 and 2,000 copies of a boardgame through Ludofact in Germany not long ago and it was “awesome”.  Yet the major problem with printing more copies is that if you don’t sell them you’re going to lose money.  And the almost-as-important problem is, if you print more games where are you going to store them?  The third problem is if you print more games you need to have more money up front.  Since the economic downturn, printers are much less likely to print without money in hand.

Many years ago the conventional wisdom was that your MSRP for a game would have to be six times the manufacturing costs.  Lately I’ve heard 5 to 1, 4 to 1 (which must really be pushing it), even 8 to 1 for a company that’s known for selling fairly expensive games.  If you think about it, if you’re selling most games through distributor at 40% of MSRP and your printing costs are half that (20%) then you have a ratio of 5 to 1.  But that means that the other 20% of the MSRP has to pay for all your other expenses including shipping, and provide your profit.  If you go to 6 to 1 then your printing costs are about 16% and you have 24% for other expenses.  That assumes you’re going through a normal distributor; if you’re a small publisher and you have to go through an aggregator then you’re really getting squeezed even at 6 to 1.

Publishing on demand (POD) avoids the up front/fixed costs of conventional printing and avoids the inventory costs because a game is only printed when someone buys it.  But the quality of POD board and card games is not quite as good as the quality of typical game printing, and there is less flexibility in components.  If you’re only printing books, as in RPG books, print quality is no longer a problem.  The print quality of RPG Now and associated companies (who I’m told use Lightning Source, the biggest POD printer in the country) is just as good as the printing of many conventional book publishers.  There are a few publishers who have their own printing equipment – more or less POD equipment – to take yet another middleman out of the equation.

I was going to talk about considerations for game designers to negotiate a contract in light of the numbers above but this is already quite long so I’ll leave that for another day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Getting a foot into professional (tabletop) game design (more cautionary advice)

Getting a foot into professional (tabletop) game design
(more cautionary advice)

After “Seven Years and a Million Dollars” I want to talk about how you, as an aspiring hobby tabletop game publisher, can help yourself to be taken seriously by game publishers.  While you’re important to your self, your family, and your friends, to a game publisher you’re no different than hundreds of other people who think they have games worth publishing, most of whom are wrong.

I’m sorry that this might appear to be negative.  Dreams are OK, but you need to have goals and ways to get there, not dreams, if you want a chance to succeed.  ("A goal is a dream with a deadline." Napoleon Hill)

Don't think you're going to make a lot of money.  Very likely, you'll spend a great deal of time for little return.  Non-electronic gaming is "small potatoes", not a big source of money.  "How do you make a small fortune in the game industry?  Start with a big fortune."  “What’s the difference between a pizza and a game designer?  The pizza can feed a family of four.”  If you think you’re going to get rich then you will not be taken seriously.  (I recently read about a toy inventor who became indignant at the idea of receiving only a 5% royalty (probably of wholesale, not retail).  If you’ve learned what the typical levels of compensation are, you won’t have this happen.)

Publishers want games, not ideas.  Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen; recognize that your "great idea" is not that great, not that original, not that interesting to others.  That's reality.   (How often do we get a really extraordinary new idea?  D&D, Magic:the Gathering, maybe Mage Knight, maybe Dominion?)  Yes you need a good idea but the execution of the idea in the form of a complete game is much more important than the idea itself.

You have to DO something to give yourself some credibility, before publishers are likely to look at your game.  If you're a complete unknown, why would publishers deal with you?
•     Volunteer to man booths at cons
•     Write articles or blog posts
•     Make variants/mods and publish them on the Web
•     Have a decent Web site
•     GM at conventions
•    Be a part of the publisher’s  game communities
Sorry, folks, while you're really important to yourself and your family, you're “nobody” to any publisher.  You have to do something to change that.

Don’t patent your game (or if you do, don’t admit it to anyone!).  Game ideas cannot be protected, by law.  Until recently patents only protected specific non-obvious expressions of ideas in a product, but this has been corrupted lately by the Patent Office because they now fund themselves from the patents they approve - so they approve a lot more patents.   (No, I am Not a Lawyer.  But I Can Read.)

At $3,000-$10,000 fees per patent, not even considering the fees you’d pay lawyers to defend/enforce the patent in court, patents are a fool’s errand costing more than a tabletop game is likely to make.  That’s why so few real games (tabletop or video) are patented.  (I say real games: there are lots of ridiculous game patents approved, which appear to be the case of a lawyer convincing some poor sod to spend a lot of money unnecessarily to patent a betting method or something equally obvious.)

Be willing to talk about your game.  If you’re too worried about someone stealing your ideas, you won’t be able to communicate.  It’s most unlikely anyone will want to steal your unpublished game.  Remember, ideas are “a dime a dozen.”

There are certainly examples of parallel development, because many people get the same idea.  And there are even examples of theft.  E.g., a wrestling game was offered to one publisher and rejected; later the publisher came out with a similar game, but by that time the game had been accepted by another, large (and wealthy), publisher, and legal proceedings put the first publisher in its place.  But this is quite exceptional, and you simply cannot live in fear of theft and be a game designer.

Don’t even think about requiring the publisher to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).  This is another mark of a “clueless noob”.  They will laugh at you and tell you to go away.  Some publishers require designers who submit games to complete a release form that essentially says, “if we publish a game just like this, you can’t sue us.”  That’s to protect the publisher from lawsuits by clueless “game designers”!  If they require it, you’ll have to sign it, or they won’t deal with you.

Avoid hyperbole (excessive exaggeration, a little exaggeration might be forgiven as enthusiasm).  Here's a real example, from a designer's description of his board game on LinkedIn:

    It's a great game for fun and for the development of entrepreneurial thinking, it's great for anyone who would like to develop their mind set around business, money, creative thinking and more.

    I have taken it around the world in the last 2 years (you can check it out here : ) , and I have played it with thousands of people in 10 countries, just to get the feeling of how it goes, and people love it ! 
    . . .
    I support the game by PR, Facebook, twitter and game based workshops around the world."

Here is my response:  Exaggerated claims will put off a publisher quicker than anything else.  For example, 730 days in two years.  If he played the game with thousands, that must be at least 2,000, or about three every day for two years.  Or say he played once a week, 104 weeks, that's 20 people at each session?  Has he done anything else in the past two years?  Or is it a game that can somehow be played by very large numbers of people?  Sorry, it just isn't *believable*, even if it's somehow true.

Calling your game "great" twice in your first paragraph may be a good sign of enthusiasm, but it's likely to raise alarm bells to publishers who have encountered far too many designers who think they have a great game - but virtually never do.

I didn’t even bother to check the Web site in this case, because the hyperbole raised all those alarms.  And that’s how a publisher is likely to react.

Don’t tell a publisher you’ve spent a million dollars (or more - real examples) developing a boardgame.  Even if they believe you, it’ll mark you as absolutely clueless, because there are very few tabletop (or video) games that make a million dollars for the developers, and that would only break even!  (Exaggeration again: they were counting how much they’d pay themselves for their time, and their time was apparently very valuable.)

Don’t make super-pretty prototypes.  Publishers will suspect that you spent so much time and money on prototypes that you were unwilling to change the game as needed.  Really, a super-pretty prototype is usually the mark of a “clueless noob.”

Patience is a virtue.  Britannia existed in fully playable form in 1980.  It was first published in 1986.  In 2008, one major publisher told me, "it's a good thing you're immortal, because it's going to take a long time" to evaluate and publish one of my games.   I was offered a contract more than a year later.  It still has not been published, though it’s “in the queue.”

I know of several games that took eight or more years from acceptance to publication.  I know of a well-known published game that was rejected 10 times.  10 rejections takes quite a while.

So if you're an "instant gratification" type,  your instant gratification has to be in seeing people play and enjoy your prototype, not in the published game.

Design many games.  If you're only working on one game, or a few, you're not likely to end up with a good one, AND you identify yourself as a dilettante, an amateur.  Pros are working on many games.

Don't design games for yourself, design for others.  They’re the ones who must enjoy it, your enjoyment in playing is unimportant!  But don’t design something you dislike.

Self-publishing is practical, if you don't mind losing money.  Moreover, at some point you become a publisher/marketer, not a designer.  What do you want to do?

Or go the GameCrafter “Publish On-Demand” route, where you can have a published and professional-looking game without spending a lot of money.   There are others offering this service, but I have no experience of them.

Playtesting is sovereign.  You have to playtest your game until you're sick of looking at it, until you want to throw the damn thing away.  Then maybe you'll have something.  But you have to be willing to change the game again and again: listen to the playtesters, watch how they react, recognize your game isn’t perfect and won’t be even when (if) it’s published.

When your game is rejected, there’s a good chance the rejection had nothing to do with the game’s quality.  Be persistent.


My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is now available from or Amazon.   I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other things.)  Web:

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Zynga and Fundamental Problems with their Social Network Games

As you probably know, Zynga's stock is priced far below its IPO cost, and many executives are leaving the company.  It's not like they're losing money, but they're losing mind-share rapidly.  Will Zynga be able to turn around this trend?

Zynga's fundamental problem may be the fundamental characteristic of the video game industry as a whole: video games are designed to be played for a while and then discarded.  You "beat the game" or you learn the story, or you get tired of "the grind", because there's an emphasis on the destination, not on the journey.

Good board and card games are played over and over again, over the course of many years.  I know people who have played my five hour board game Britannia five hundred times, and undoubtedly there are other board and card games of similar longevity.  I may have played the tabletop RPG D&D that many hours.  Video games do not match that, though MMOs can approach it.  But social network games are nothing like MMOs.

Inevitably, in a video game that more or less constantly asks you for money, that builds in frustration so that you'll spend money to stop being frustrated, the player will get tired of the game and quit playing.  And when the next game is practically just like the last (as is typical of Zynga Facebook games), the player is going to get tired of the next one that much sooner.

Yet Zynga is so big, every incentive is to avoid risk, hence the games are the same over and over again.  Because they still draw millions of players, it's just the same group over and over again.  But that group may be getting smaller.

Traditional arcade games were so hard you couldn't beat them, so many players kept going until they could no longer improve.  But this is a new century, people don't want hard games, they want entertainment and time-killing and playgrounds, so social network games are stupendously easy to play.  They are mass-market games, a completely different "kettle of fish". 

Contrast Zynga's big-company low-risk mentality with King.Com's small teams churning out games every 3 months for online trials.  Then they turn the most successful into social networking games.

The following explains the key to making really good games:
    . . . Just Cause 2 developer explains that while most developers produce downloadable content to prolong user engagement, the real trick to long-term success is to make a game that players don't want to put down in the first place.
    'We create a game allowing players to properly explore and have fun and not focusing so much on the actual end goal of the game,' he says. "

In other words, make a game where people enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Comparing this year’s game conventions

This is not a “convention report,” because I don’t care about many of the events at conventions such as the Origins Awards, and I didn’t bother to attend the really big D&D Next event at GenCon, and I don’t much care about the latest new games.  I’m interested in certain aspects of things and that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Generalization about four conventions: GenCon is a story convention - not just story in games.  WBC and PrezCon are wargame cons.  Origins is a non-story, mostly non-wargame, game con.

GenCon is a convention where stories are king.  Aside from games you have many fiction writers, and costuming/anime/film, mostly in those five ancillary hotels that I never visit (I stick to the convention center).  Nichelle Nicols (Uhuru from original Star Trek) was the major (“media”) guest of honor.  Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborne books and also the writer who completed the Wheel of Time series, was also a guest of honor.  But even in the convention center the stories have a strong presence.  RPGs are the dominant story-in-game genre, but even in boardgames there’s an emphasis on story, *personal* story, that I don’t see at other conventions I attend.

I say *personal* story (including RPGs, boardgames, fiction, costumes, anime . . .) as opposed to national/collective story.  At GenCon panel sessions and seminars, people tend to talk and think in terms of role-playing game books rather than board or card games. The traditional boardgamers are not prominent and the companies known for wargames, such as GMT, Worthington, Compass, Avalanche, and so on, were not there.  (Some of them also weren't at Origins, but that's a cost-benefit matter given how Origins has diminished; they used to be at Origins.)  GenCon is very much a convention for Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) and Wizards of the Coast (WotC).  Those companies don't even attend the other conventions. 

In contrast Origins is about games that don’t have personal stories built in.  (Every game has a personal narrative in the sense of "what I did as I played this game".  But a personal narrative of this kind is of much more limited interest than a built-in story, which (if good) appeals to a large number of people.)  Mayfair and Rio Grande (publishers of many dusty abstract Euros) dominate Origins, especially the former.  Some of the wargame companies attend Origins.  Origins does include collectible card games and miniatures but not so much in the way of role-playing games.

WBC is about board and card games, wargames traditionally though nowadays there are many non-wargames as well.  FFG can’t even be persuaded to contribute, last I knew, let alone come as an exhibitor.  GMT is definitely there.  Not even Mayfair or Rio Grande attend, let alone FFG and WotC.  (Mayfair is at PrezCon because part of the company is located in the same city.) Then again, it’s a small convention (1500+), so it’s a small market for the bigger companies.   Same for even-smaller PrezCon.

And (personal) story makes for bigger companies in the 21st century.

When is a theme not a story?  For purposes here I'm suggesting that the theme is a setting that may have a somewhat likely direction, for example what actually happened in history.  A story in this context is an actual plot imposed upon the game by the designers, though in some games players may not be forced to follow it.

WBC (Lancaster Pennsylvania) again posted a 2% increase in attendance. In all, nearly every state plus 17 nations sent participants in 2012.   This is roughly 1,500 unique visiors.  PrezCon (Charlottesville Virginia) is about one third the size.  Origins (Columbus Ohio) is somewhere more than 10,000 unique visitors, but not much more, and many only by the inexpensive path that lets you go through the exhibit hall and a few other places for a day.  At GenCon (Indianapolis Indiana) 300+ exhibitors displayed in the Exhibit Hall, showing more than 45 debuting games.  41,000+ unique and 134,000+ turnstile attendees took part in the Best Four Days in Gaming™.  WBC and PrezCon are much longer conventions.

Compare this with Essen Spiel in Germany where attendance is said to be near 150,000, but I have never ascertain whether that's unique visitors or turnstile, but I think it's the former.  I've never been to Essen Spiel. 

For another comparison we have the UK Game Expo which is larger than WBC but not nearly as large as Origins.  (The population of the UK is between a fourth and a fifth of the US population.)  I'd compare the Game Expo most closely to Origins, except that where Origins seemed to be diminishing, the Expo I attended in 2011 seem to be "going great guns."

I'm from southeastern North Carolina, and encountered two people from North Carolina that I know.  Yet another from my university game club, a fellow who's easy to spot because he is tall and has a deep singer's voice, was at GenCon and neither of us saw the other (and I'm even easier to spot because I'm 6'6").  In my two times at GenCon I've never gone to the subsidiary hotels where many of the more story-based activities occur.  The Indiana Convention Center is huge, and with more than 40,000+ unique attendees this year the convention is much larger than it was three years ago at 27,000+.

Miscellaneous comments
I attended lots of seminars that GenCon, and they were always interesting and useful.  They make their guests of honor work, by having them sit in on many of the seminars that are panel discussions.  In fact the one-man seminar is the exception.  In contrast there are many fewer seminars at Origins and the quality is less consistent.  The WBC and PrezCon have few seminars.  Also many of the Origins seminars are the "National war College", which are not free.  In all the other conventions they are usually free.

If you’re interested in how the game industry works, then anytime you get a chance to listen to Matt Forbeck, James Ernest, or Ken Hite, do it.

I saw Risk Legacy on the Diana Jones award nominee list.  Readers of this blog know that I really despise the disposable nature of this game, something that was not necessary to the concept of the game.  Evidently people LIKE to be abused by commercialism/planned obsolescence.

I stopped at a GenCon booth for "Gaming Paper".  These are big rolls of paper with printed squares intended to be used with role-playing games.  I asked what made this better than the fabric battle mats that you can write on with a water-soluble pen and reuse indefinitely.  I was told what makes it better is, it's disposable!  Once you've used it you're done with it.  Consequently it is much cheaper per square inch than battle mats.  At that point I said I don't hold with disposability (which is ultimately a waste of scarce resources) and walked away.  I'm old enough to remember my mother's stories from the Great Depression about taking leftover bits of soap bars and melting them together to make new soap bars – in fact we did this when I was a kid – and I despise the wastefulness of the modern world. had a booth and is evidently going strong, with 400 games available and more and more options in pieces and boards (including mounted boards). 

Good story.  One person's Kickstarter project offered the opportunity (for $1,000, I think) for someone to have the author of the RPG book come to his house anywhere in the country and run a game.  Surprisingly, someone contributed the $1000.  At some point the contributor met with the author to talk about the upcoming trip, and afterward the author's daughter was excited.  Why?  She recognized that the contributor is a rock star, the drummer for "Fall Out Boy".   (If that doesn't mean anything to you, Fall Out Boy was ranked the 93rd Best Artist of the 2000–10 decade by Billboard.) They'll be playing on one of those fancy (and expensive) gaming tables that you see at Origins and GenCon, as well.

GenCon is largely a "non-electronic" convention.  I say that partly because there was no usable Wi-Fi available in the convention center as far as I could make out (though I only asked one of the volunteers about it), but mainly because it's not about video games.  Nonetheless there was a large ballroom where people could play video games for a per hour fee.  There were tournaments organized on the hour and I sat for a while watching the end of a Gears of War tournament (I don't know which version).  There were two players on a side with the sides video projected on the wall more than 10 feet wide so that people could look at one team or the other as they played.  I watched another four player team tournament where the objective in each heat was to win two out of three matches in which, when you died, you were out of the game.  I also heard a call for a Dance Dance Revolution tournament so it wasn't all shoot'em ups.  At Origins we only have the 'mech free-for-all where players actually walk into large pods and sit to play; it looked like the same gang was at GenCon.

While I'm at it I might compare hobby tabletop game conventions with videogame conferences.  The major differences are that there is little game playing at videogame conference, less than video games ard played at GenCon.  And that's because the conferences are for game creation professionals and students, not for consumers.  The tabletop game conventions include tabletop game creation professionals but most of the people are consumers, ordinary game players, and the conventions are primarily about playing games.  So at the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh, NC, the primary activity is attending seminars or occasionally panel discussions where people talk about making video games.

Typically when I get to the door of a convention, having driven a long way (as much as 680 miles), I find myself asking "why the hell am I here, why have I bothered to spend so much time and money?"  That's easily answered at PrezCon and WBC because I know fairly well the folks who play Britannia in the tournaments, and I enjoy talking with them and watching the games.  Occasionally I persuade them to playtest a game.  But there's nothing like that at Origins or GenCon.  Fortunately I usually encounter folks who I can have long and interesting talks with, at Origins Steve Rawlings and Paul Rohrbach of Against the Odds Magazine, at GenCon Lisa Camp who is the managing editor for my publisher McFarland.  And of course it's possible to have interesting conversations with lots of people on the floor as they man their booths.  GenCon also has lots of interesting seminars and panel discussions, though there was not much for me at Origins this year.

Must-have item?  I succumbed and bought 100 plastic inch-tall skeletons in three colors.  I don't know why, other than the possibility that they might be used as pieces in a game.  I suppose it's more practical than the wooden cutlass I bought at Origins last year.  Thank heaven I don't buy games these days so at least I avoid that expense.

I have to admit, if I didn't have some design/publishing business to conduct I'd not attend as many conventions, because of the long trips and expense.  But the cons are rarely dull or tedious!


My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is now available from or Amazon.   I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other things.)  Web:

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Interface (and other) game design lessons from a rental car

Recent experiences with a rental car brought home to me the importance of familiarity in the game interface.

The word “intuitive” is often used in connection with interfaces.  As far as I can make out, intuitive in this context just means “familiar”.  There are certainly some things that are more natural to people than others, or at least that can take advantage of how people behave.  For example, if you put a button at the very edge of a video game screen it’s a lot easier to point at with a mouse or similar pointing device than if the button is not at the edge. [You really should read ]  But familiarity is what matters most.

I’m accustomed to driving Fords and Plymouths, but my rental was a Nissan Altima.  Moreover, it had a high-tech starting system.  Instead of a key it had a small American-football-shaped key fob that I first found inserted into a suitable port; and it had a start button.  And here is where lack of familiarity set in.  Neither the port for the fob nor the start button were in either of the two places I’ve seen ignition keyholes (either on the steering column or in the area between the two front seats).  The fob port is placed to the left of the driver and near the bottom of the dashboard, lower than the steering column.  The start button is on the dashboard to the right of and a little above the level of the steering column.

When I first tried to start the vehicle I pressed the start button after inserting the fob and nothing happened.  It turned out that I needed to have my foot on the brake to start the car.  I was accustomed to vehicles where you could not shift out of park without a foot on the brake, but not vehicles that required the brake to start.  There was an electronic note on the dashboard display that said something like press brake down, but by the time I noticed that I had already checked the quick start manual and discovered the right way to do it.  (Why the brake?  The start button also controlled auxiliary power, so something needed to differentiate Auxiliary Power from Start.)

Another interface problem was the wipers interval control.  In my vehicles there is a turnable control to set the length of the interval, with a series of lines from short to long.  But where the long line meant more wipes per minute, in the Nissan it was exactly reversed, with a long line meaning a longer interval between wipes which results in fewer wipes per minute.  This may make more sense, but was unfamiliar.

How does this relate to games, especially video games?  When the method of manipulating a game is unusual, it will get in the way, at least initially, compared with tried-and-true methods.  Interface is one of the few areas of games where innovation may be a bad idea, because the user will struggle with the unfamiliar.

Still, I’d only scratched the surface of the new car interface.  It wasn’t until I read the entire Quick Reference Manual - which I did after most of the above - that I found out the interface is “a lot more different” than I thought.  The key fob provides a radio signal.  You don’t have to insert it anywhere, you just need to have it close to the car.  While the key fob is in your pocket, you can lock or unlock all the doors from the outside by pressing a button on the door handle.  You can open the trunk by pressing a concealed button under the edge of the lid, which won’t do a thing if the key fob is not nearby.  You can start the car with the key fob in your pocket.  (Which also means, you can’t lock your “keys” in the car, because you can unlock using the handle button as long as the fob is within the car.) 

The drawback of all this is that without reading the brief manual it would have taken me some time, if ever, to learn how it all worked.  And when we translate this back to game terms, how many video gamers read even a 10 page manual for a game?  How many don’t even read the text within the game?  Even if your new video game interface is as slick as the Altima’s radio key fob, if people don’t know how it works, it won’t help them.

So what do you do?  For a video game, you make the first “level” (if it’s a game with that kind of structure) the tutorial that makes people notice the new interface methods.  For a tabletop game, someone has to read the rules, and you try to make sure that person reads about the new interface.  But we have to say, unusual and unfamiliar interface capabilities are much less likely to be in a tabletop game than in a video game.

I do wonder what happens when the batteries in the key fob run out of power . . .  There is a conventional keyhole in the door, but not an ignition keyhole.  Nor do I know whether owners, as opposed to renters, get a key.

And another thing I had to be careful of, in my motel room, was to put the key fob as far from the car as possible, out of range.  It was parked just outside the room door.  Unlikely as it may be, I didn’t want someone to walk up in the middle of the night and press the door handle button to unlock the car, as I’d left things in the trunk . . .

Another lesson.  The Nissan has a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) that I really liked.  It had no problem in cruise control going up or down mountains on my way to GenCon, even with a mere 4 cylinder engine.  All of my vehicles are old (1995-98), so not surprisingly I looked up the Altima online to see what people thought of it, in case I decided I might buy one.  The owner comments revealed how different opinions and likes can be about exactly the same thing, another reminder of how there is no "ideal" in games (as well as in cars), and of how much depends on what you're used to.  For example, some people felt the transmission (and the car in general) was much too loud.  To me, used to my old trucks and van, it wasn't loud at all.  But compared with an expensive luxury car, it probably was quite loud.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

"Seven years and a million dollars"

Here's the kind of really sad story you can hear sometimes from novice designers.  At one of the game design/game publishing seminars at GenCon, right at the end, someone raised his hand and said he and a group of friends had been working on a game for seven years, and it was a great game, and they had spent over seven years and a million dollars developing it including paying Marvel comic artists to do the art; and how could he get to talk to Fantasy Flight Games about it?  The three panelists were taken aback – if I wrote in contemporary style I would say they were "stunned" – and said nothing for a moment.  Because there's really nothing to say.  These “designers” were in cloud-cuckoo land to spend so much time and money, and their game very likely wasn't particularly good, either.

Finally James Ernest said "when you talk to Fantasy Flight I wouldn't mention the million dollars".  (Because it would mark them as clueless noobs.)  And it turned out that much of the million dollars was a calculation of how much the developers would have paid themselves if they had paid themselves anything.  But those Marvel artists must've cost a lot of money.  Yet anyone who knows anything about the tabletop publishing business knows that the manufacturer provides the art and the designer should use clipart for the prototypes, even if it's copyrighted (fair use), rather than spend money on art.  And that virtually no game is so good as to earn a million dollars for the developers, so you shouldn't be spending a million dollars.  Yet they had done so little research that they had no idea how to approach Fantasy Flight, and while that is very far from easy to achieve, the basic steps are well-known.

The session then ended and no more was said publicly.  But this is the kind of sad story one hears occasionally from stars-in-their-eyes "game designers".  They've done little or no research, they think their game's great because it's their game (and they probably designed it for themselves, not for other people), and they evidently think there's a lot of money in tabletop game design.  One can only shake one's head.  (And yes, I realize that it's just barely possible that they do have a great game but the odds are astronomically against it.)

So at that moment I started to write down "Most important cautions for novice game designers ".  And after further thought, here they are.

You won't be very good to start with.  Practice makes perfect.  When someone begins a creative endeavor they are very rarely good at it to begin with.  Nowadays so much that's involved in so many professions is hidden away or occurs in someone's mind that young people get the notion that it's easy simply because they don't see it happening.  No, there is no Easy Button.  So be prepared to throw way or give away much of your early work.

You need to design and complete games.  Publishers don't want to buy ideas, they want to buy complete games.  It is extraordinarily rare for someone to have an original idea, that is, one that no one else has had.  An idea may be original to you but that doesn't mean a lot of other people have not also thought of it.  And may well have used it in a game years ago.  As a result, ideas are seen as worthless by publishers.

Don't spend much money on making a prototype.  In particular, don't pay anybody for art, don't pay a lot for high-quality printing or fancy boxes, don't pay an "agent", don't pay an "evaluator".  Many prototypes don't even have a box, they are in some kind of pouch or wallet (especially considering that it's pretty hard to reduce a large board to box size, the board is often separate).  Really slick prototypes tend to put publishers off because they're afraid the designer has put so much time into the prettiness of the prototype that they've been reluctant to change it!

With modern computer software and printers you can produce a nice-looking prototype quite cheaply.  I discuss software and other points about making prototypes in my "Game Design" book if you need more information. Ask you local library to get a copy.

The 4 P's.  When you deal with publishers be professional, polite, punctual, and persistent.  And be friendly.  But remember that publishers are busy people who have hundreds of designers wanting to show them prototypes.  If you stand out because you're a butthead you're not going to get anywhere.

Playtest, playtest, playtest.  Be sure to playtest your game with a wide variety of players.  Don't rely on your family to tell you whether it's a good game or not.

You will never be finished with a game.  You'll just reach the point of diminishing marginal returns or the time it takes to make an improvement is just not worth the value of the improvement.  Even if your game is published, there will be things you may want to do in a second edition should that ever occur.

Real designers work on many games at the same time.  But there are cases where someone designed one game that proved to be so good that they are independently wealthy (for example Blokus).  If you're working on just one game however. it probably won't be published; good luck.

Designing a game is a form of work.  My favorite game is a game of designing games, but there are still times when I really wish I could just think of the prototype I wanted and it would appear before me, or when I get tired of tweaking rules the umpteenth time.  Shoving cards in the card sleeves, painstakingly drawing boards or pieces, is rarely enjoyable but it is necessary.

It's even tougher in the video game industry because you almost never get to make the game you want to make, you have to make someone else's game or work with someone else's idea.  On the other hand there are many more people making a living as game designers in the video game industry than in the tabletop game industry.

Design a game, not a story.  Stories can be important in some kinds of games, but people play a game because of the gameplay, not because of the story.

Read.  Read articles, read blog posts, read books, about game design.  Quite apart from the many books on video game design, which admittedly often have little immediately practical advice for tabletop designers, there are books that cover tabletop game design specifically.  One objective of a book is to convey the experience of the writer to the reader so that the reader doesn't have to go through the "school of hard knocks".  And nowadays no one wants to take hard knocks.

Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish.  L. Pulsipher.
This is my book, and because my publisher sells a lot of books to libraries you may be able to persuade your local library to buy it if you don't want to buy it (and if they don't have it already).

Tabletop Analog Game Design.  This is a freely downloadable book of contributions that vary widely in their approach.

Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design.  A quite small $10 book of contributions about game design.

Contemporary Perspectives on Game Design and
Design Elements of Contemporary Strategy Games
by George Phillies and Tom Vasel. 

There are other books that specifically discuss tabletop game and toy licensing and marketing, as opposed to game design:
The Game Inventor's Guidebook: How to Invent and Sell Board Games, Card Games, Role-Playing Games, & Everything in Between! by Brian Tinsman.

Paid to Play: The Business of Game Design by Keith Meyers.

See also my "Student Illusions About Being a Game Designer"  May 7, 09

Just realized I missed a big one:
Do not worry about someone “stealing” your game!  Your “great idea” likely isn’t great at all, and game designers have their own ideas.  Moreover it’s a small industry, the word gets around rapidly.  And if you don’t want to tell anyone about your great idea for fear of theft, how can anyone (especially publishers) begin to evaluate it? 

A sure sign of a clueless noob “designer” is one who has patented his game.  At $3,000-$10,000 the patent costs more than the game is likely to make if it’s published!  And patents cost much more in legal fees if you want to try to enforce one.  Copyright is as much protection as you can expect, and copyright is free and immediate, though if you want to sue someone about copyright you’ll have had to register it, which does cost money ($35?).