Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is a “sweep of history” game?

What is a “sweep of history” game?

I just started a community on Google+ for "sweep of history" games, so it's reasonable to work out a rough definition “sweep of history game” (also called “fast forward history” games). Sweep of history games are large-scale games, especially in time where the game covers several centuries to more than 1000 years. They are also fairly large-scale geographically, covering regions varying in size from Great Britain, Iberia, Russia, and China up to the entire world. They are historical, so games such as Risk, Vinci, and Smallworld do not qualify because they are so abstracted that there is no history of those games.

Another aspect of sweep of history games is that they are virtually always for more than two players. I cannot think of a two player sweep of history game although they may exist. Typically they are for four players, especially the Britannia-like games, or even more than four as History of the World really needs six (or less desirably, five) to work well. Civilization is another game that requires around six to work properly.

Could a game about a fictional history qualify as a sweep of history game? I don't see why not if the history is sufficiently detailed and well known. So your typical 4X space game (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) may cover centuries and certainly covers a very large area but probably isn't a sweep of history game because there's very little history, albeit fictional, in the game. On the other hand, what about a game covering the 3,000 years of the Third Age of Tolkien's Middle Earth? I think it would be hard not to call that a sweep of history game. There is no such published game, but I did once devise a Britannia-like prototype of that era and played the game once solo. It turned out that not only are rights expensive, but the rights granted by Tolkien did not include the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, and much of the information about the Third Age is in the appendices. The movies cheat more or less and use that material anyway, nonetheless it is not part of the official license.

We can also add that some sweep of history games are primarily wargames, while others involve a strong civilization building component. The wargames originate in the ancient Near East (Ancient Conquest I) and in Great Britain (Britannia), while the civilization component comes from Civilization (Mediterranean world). Britannia certainly covers an era when there was very little civilization building and a lot of warfare. Ancient Conquest I covers an era where civilization was built up and sometimes torn down, but that's not depicted in the game: the game is almost entirely a wargame, right down to hexes and numbered factors on the pieces. Civilization on the other hand - the original boardgame Civilization - is much more about civilization building than it is about warfare although warfare can be involved. Because many sweep of history games are based on Britannia there tend to be more wargames than civilization building games.
Most sweep games are “war games” rather than battle games, that is, there’s an economic production component, and warfare is as much about the economy as about the forces immediately involved.  Battle games have an order of battle but no economic component.  Many sweep games also have an order of battle (appearance of new invaders, for example).  History of the World is unusual in that it only has an order of battle, with no economic component.

Sweep games are frequently regarded as “epic”, usually in the sense of national epic rather than personally epic, and in the sense of an epic (noun) rather than “an epic game” (adjective).  (I’ve discussed this aspect of games in my book “Game Design”, excerpted here on GameCareerGuide.)

These games are never going to be very popular in the current market because there is no avatar-like role for the player, nothing the player can literally or even figuratively point to and say "that's me". Many wargames, for example, use a marketing pitch that “you are the commander and you can change history.” There is no single commander in a sweep of history game because nobody lives that long, not even close. And the history changes slowly on that scale, not the way it can change drastically in a single battle. Furthermore, sweep of history games tend to require lots of players and lots of time. It's hard for many gamers to get four players together for one of these games, let alone more than four, and that's exacerbated by the time required. Britannia is a 4 to 5 hour game, and as much as seven or eight when people play it for the first time. History of the World is even longer. Civilization is at least as long as History of the World. I have devised sweep of history game prototypes that have been played by ordinary players in an hour and a half, and these may become more common in time, but they inevitably lose some of the epic sweep of a longer game when they only take an hour and a half.

Board wargames are essentially a Baby Boomer generation hobby and don't attract nearly as much attention nowadays as they did 30-40 years ago. That's another reason why sweep of history games aren't likely to be as popular as in the past, unless they incorporate more civilization building elements and less warfare elements.

What about computer games? Civilization the computer game is certainly a sweep of history game, at least when played against other people. The limitation of computer games is that a single player game really doesn't provide the same kind of opposition as a game with several humans participating because the computer opponent cannot duplicate the guile and unpredictability of a human. There's also the video game industry tradition that a computer opponent is intended to put up a decent fight and then lose. Also, a player can go back to his saved game and try again when playing single player and so effectively he cannot lose. Large-scale turn-based computer games, though, often resemble boardgames in many respects, and that's certainly true of the computer game Civilization.

Computer real-time strategy games are more like sports than games because to be really good at it you have to be able to perform 200 actions per minute and practice many hours a day - I'm talking about competing in something like StarCraft tournaments. In any case the Google+ community is likely to be largely about boardgames - and cardgames if anyone devises a sweep of history card game, which I have not yet seen. (I have actually designed but not played a card game version of Britannia. But cardgames will tend to abstract so much history out of a game, if only because there's no board and little or no maneuver, that I'm not sure they really qualify as sweep of history games. Who knows.

Is Diplomacy a sweep game?  No, primarily because it covers only a single war, whether it lasts five years or fifteen.

What about some of the Middle-earth Diplomacy variants?  Many are intended to depict only the War of the Ring, hence too short a period.  But one intended to depict a much longer period, a significant part of the Third Age, would qualify IF you accept a fictional history.

Many years ago I began to design games that combined war and peacetime activities that we would now call civilization-building - and neither uses dice.  One or two of those may see print next in 2015.  One is Germania, a game about survival: civilization-defending as well as building.  It’s about the German tribes that brought down the West Roman Empire, then had to survive the depredations of invaders from the east, south, and north.  Another is a game about the Italian maritime states in the era of the Crusades (just before the Renaissance began), when they came to dominate the Mediterranean through control of the far eastern trade to northern Europe.  Both games fit the sweep of history definition but are much different from any of the games I’ve mentioned above.

Summary of definition:
●    Boardgame or boardgame-like computer game
●    Covers several centuries to more than a thousand years of history
●    Covers fairly large geographical region
●    Virtually always for more than two players
●    Warfare and (sometimes) civilization-building
●    Tend to be long games, often epics in themselves  I am @lewpuls on twitter. 
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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I supported a Kickstarter project!?


I expect that the new edition of Britannia (perhaps multiple versions) will show up on Kickstarter sooner or later, as the majority of publishers now use it.
I have not been a KS denizen in the past, not being cursed with the desire for Instant Gratification and not feeling a need to participate from the ground up.  However, I have just supported my first KS. This is a project to create d6s using 12-sided molds ("Doublesix Dice: Roll Better").  I need lots of dice at times for prototypes, and the unusual dice may help attract someone's interest.  I took the bulk deal for $25, which with the many unlocked stretch goals (it's more than 13 times oversubscribed) amounts to 70 dice of three colors.  Interestingly, the idea was patented long ago, but the patent has expired.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Quotes related to Game Design (But not specifically about it)

Quotes related to Game Design

(But not specifically about it)

 "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

This is my guide to game design, but I do not design puzzles.  When you design a puzzle you may want to make it more complex, so that it will take longer to solve.


“Never use a long word where a short one will do.” - George Orwell, 1984.

George Orwell is talking about writing, but for game design this amounts to the same advice as in the first quotes, keep everything as simple as possible. Stephen King puts it another way: “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”


“You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” - Jack London, Call of the Wild

Many beginners think that ideas will just come to them, that success will just come to them.  No, it's more like how Jack London describes writing.


"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."
- Bertrand Russell.

I suppose it depends partly on personality, but I'd argue that if a game designer is absolutely certain that he is right no matter what other people tell him, he's almost certainly wrong.  If you’re full of doubts about your game, but playtesters from the right representative group like it, then you're in pretty good shape.


"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare."
- Japanese Proverb

Too many beginning designers wait for things to happen, they daydream. You have to DO something, not just dream about doing it.  Much like Jack London’s admonition above.


"Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish." - John Quincy Adams

Especially applicable in the Age of Instant Gratification.

"The greatest motivational act one person can do for another is to listen." - Roy E. Moody

If you're the designer in a team of game developers, take this to heart.  Everyone wants to feel that they contribute to the game, as well as to the software.  They want to know their ideas are seriously considered.


 “Complicated programs are far easier to write than straightforward programs.” - John Page. 

The same is true for games: but it's usually the straightforward ones that are really good.


"My thing is that most scripts aren't bad scripts, they're just not finished yet."  - Michael Arndt (scriptwriter for Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story III, etc., and initially for StarWars VII). 

The same can be said for a great many published games nowadays.


"A lot of people say, 'Well, I like a challenge.' I don't like challenges.  Life is tough enough without any challenges."
  - Jackie Gleason (a very successful actor and comedian, among other things, you might recall)

People don't want their entertainment to be frustrating these days.


"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." - Terry Pratchett (Diskworld)

Don’t worry too much about all the details, get a prototype together to play as soon as you can - it’s a first draft, not a final draft.


“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
   Senator Dan Moynihan

Reality is what counts, not what you think reality is.


"The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition." - Carl Sagan

Just because you want it or like it, doesn’t mean it will happen.


"If you want to write better songs, write more songs. If you write 20 songs, ten of them will be better than the other ten."  Martin Atkins (of Public Image Limited, Killing Joke, et al)

Not, *listen* to more songs (“play more games”), *write* more songs.  Design more games.  There’s no substitute.


"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."  - Henry Ford (cars)

Even less on what you intend(ed) to do.  Important especially for younger people who, these days, tend to confuse intention with action.  Intention alone counts for very little.

"The way to succeed is to double your failure rate." - Thomas Watson (founder of IBM)

In game design it’s often called “fail fast”: try what you think will work, figure out if it works, get rid of it if it doesn’t, and do this quickly so that you can move on to something else that might work. 


"A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow." - General George S. Patton

There’s little place for perfectionism in game design.  You’re never perfect, practically speaking, because even if you’re perfect for a moment, the tastes of your audience will change over time.  The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns applies: at some point, the time it takes to improve a game will not be worth the minuscule value of the improvement.


"If everybody's thinking the same thing, then nobody's thinking." - General George S. Patton

This especially applies to large teams of video game developers.  Beware of “groupthink”.  It’s a major reason why we see games released that are widely regarded as just awful.  What was the team thinking?


"I am Loki, of Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose."
- Loki, in The Avengers movie

Sounds like one of those "atriste" game designers to me.  You know, the guys who think they’re great artists, and that they’re gifting the world with their brilliance, and they’re sure they’re right . . . and so forth.

Maybe you can actually be that artiste someday, but not when you’re starting out.  You have to earn it.  Games are entertainment (even educational games, we hope).   Don’t lose sight of that.


Here are a few more:

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit." - Plutarch

 "A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."  - Douglas Adams

"You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." - Mark Twain

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." - John Wooden

"A goal is a dream with a deadline." - Napoleon Hill

" . . . Picasso told the story, which I can only paraphrase, that when art critics get together, they talk about light and color and form; when painters get together, they talk about where to buy cheap turpentine."
- Peter Perla

Keep firmly grounded, don't get lost in "meaningfulness" of games.

 “Beware of self-indulgence. The romance surrounding the writing profession carries several myths: that one must suffer in order to be creative; that one must be cantankerous and objectionable in order to be bright; that ego is paramount over skill; that one can rise to a level from which one can tell the reader to go to hell. These myths, if believed, can ruin you.

If you believe you can make a living as a writer, you already have enough ego.”

- David Brin (novelist)

The same applies to game designers.

"It is the motivation to pursue excellence, a work ethic that reflects the determination to solve problems, the attention to the smallest details, and the desire to be the very best that distinguishes students who make a difference in their given professions."  - Candice Dowd Barnes and Janet Filer

Game designers as well.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Online game design course now open

My book-length audio visual course "Learning Game Design" now open.  $10 off coupon ($39 instead of $49):
(Expires 28 Feb.)
30 day money-back guarantee.

I say book-length because, in number of words, it's longer than my game design book. There is upwards of 15 hours of material made for the course, plus another 11 or so of bonus material (most of it recordings of my talks at game conventions, "bonus" because it's already on my Website).  Many of the same topics are covered as in my game design book, though there are very significant differences.

 If you'd like to see the "what you'll discover" video/screencast, it's on youtube at:

A few of the 137 "lectures" can be viewed for free, at the class site.

Lew Pulsipher

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Consultants, Evaluators, and Agents

Not long ago someone wrote to me out of the blue and offered to pay me to act as a consultant to evaluate his tabletop game.  He’d read my book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish.”  He had been working on his game - I assume a tabletop game in the circumstances - for 20 years, and evidently felt that my advice would be worthwhile.  However, he was coming from somewhere else to Duke University for a visit, and that’s 70 miles from my location.

The game consultant or agent is in the same legal situation as a publisher, facing the possibility that someone will become litigious if the consultant/agent/publisher is associated with publication of a game that could in any way be misconstrued as similar to the game that was submitted to them.  One reaction to that is a release agreement which the designer must sign before the consultant/agent/publisher will look at the game.  This release agreement essentially says that even if the game is published later that is very close to the one that was submitted there is no legal liability.

That’s because even though (in United States law) game ideas cannot be copyrighted, there are many novice designers who will spend money anyway to start a lawsuit, even though they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding.  And there are lawyers willing to take someone’s money to do something even though they know they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding.  (All you need to do is look at the ridiculous “games” and game ideas that are patented (all available online) to recognize how many lawyers are willing to take advantage of “game designers”.)  Defending against that lawsuit costs money.


But is evaluation practical otherwise?

It’s relatively easy to tell that a game isn’t very good.  There are so many obvious ways to screw up that there are plenty of ways to identify huge flaws.  But once something is judged better than the obviously poor, it becomes far more difficult to recognize what’s exceptionally good.  You might think that publishers can do that, but if they could, they’d be making a lot more money than most of them make!  No, no one can tell, really.  (Heck, there’s enough disagreement even about games that have been in publication for quite a while.)

And if that’s true, a consultant or evaluator is of more limited use than you might have thought at first.

(I especially remember a teacher of game design - online - who said that student games would be graded on how much fun they were.  Ridiculous!  The teacher didn’t have the time or players to play all the games even once, quite apart from the great variation in what people think “fun” is (I won’t even use the word “fun” about a game, preferring “enjoyable”).  And the teacher was not a lifelong game player, had only recently started playing games: she was a programmer.)

My general advice about game evaluators is the same advice most people give about job head-hunters.  If a headhunter wants money up front, he’s probably not really legit, it’s more likely a scam.  Good headhunters are paid by the hiring company when they find someone who fulfills the company’s needs.  Similarly, a good agent (or evaluator, or marketer) will get his money as part of the successful licensing when your game is published.

Many “evaluators” offer to evaluate your game for a fee, and perhaps list it on some website that publishers will never look at.  Once again, I don’t recommend any evaluator who wants money before you are paid by a publisher.


As for consultants, my response was:

    I am not sure how much I talked about consultants in the book.  My usual statement is something like "you won't make enough with a tabletop game (barring fantastic luck) to make consultants, agents, or even lawyers worthwhile (unless you're completely 'at sea' about contracts and law)."
    I also say that even publishers have trouble recognizing good games (just as book publishers have trouble recognizing good books, sometimes).  So I cannot pretend to be able to tell you how good your game is.  Moreover, it's difficult to evaluate some games without playing experience, which requires both time and players.
    Furthermore, just as many publishers won't listen to any idea about a game without legal protection, I'd have to require you to sign an agreement that released me from any liability should I later publish/have published a game with any similarity to yours.   Not that I would, I have many dozens of games in various stages and rarely start a new one, but the legal protection has been shown to be necessary.
    That's also why I have the following statement on my Website:  "Disclaimer: occasionally people send me unsolicited ideas or concepts for games.  Be aware that when you do this you acknowledge that I may use your ideas in any way I wish without legal obligation.  (I'm unlikely to do this, but I may have the same idea already, and I have no desire to be sued by someone who doesn't realize that ideas are not protected by copyright law in any case.)"
    So I generally don't act as a consultant for a variety of reasons.
    Moreover, Duke is about two hours away from my home, a consultant has to charge for travel a well as "face time".
    So I'm trying to talk you out of the idea in a variety of ways.  It's more important to get a large variety of people to play the game, watch them, listen to them, than to talk to any "expert" about it.

Evidently I convinced him, as I did not hear from him again.

What about asking your friendly neighborhood game designer for advice about your game?  If a game is “out in the open”, e.g. at a game club, then you would hope that any observer who happened to see it would be unlikely to be sued.  If the meeting is a game designers’ meeting intended to enable designers to get advice from other designers, one would hope that any suspicion of “stealing” ideas would be gone.  Unfortunately, given the extremely litigious climate in the USA, and a court system where anyone willing to spend money can get a day in court even when their situation is hopeless, caution is necessary.


So why use an agent?  To approach Hasbro or some German publishers you must go through an agent. The publishers use agents to winnow out all the obviously bad games that the publisher would otherwise have to deal with.   (There are thousands of wannabe designers who think that if they slightly modify Monopoly or Blackjack or some other well-known game they’ve got a great idea.  A glance at patented games will show you lots of worthless ideas people come up with that they think are so valuable they spend $3,000-$10,000 patenting the idea.)  Last I knew there were about 300 designers who could approach Mike Gray of Hasbro directly, rather than through an agent - but you probably aren’t one of them.  So an agent can be necessary in some circumstances, though not most.

Literary agents are much more common than game agents - most fiction writers have an agent.  They function the same way in the book business as for games, saving the publisher from many books that otherwise hit the “slush pile”, manuscripts by unknown writers submitted to the publisher.  (Publishers hire someone from outside the company to read the slush pile; in many cases, the reader can tell a book isn’t suitable after reading a page or two.)  I may be out of date, but last I knew a literary agent tended to take 10% of what the author made.  Game agents are likely to take much, much more.

When I lived in England, knowing little about the publishing situation there (this was long before the World Wide Web, in the late 70s), I did use an agent to place my first game with H. P. Gibsons, which was a major game publisher at the time.  (They later were the original publisher of Britannia after Avalon Hill rejected it with “games of this era don’t sell”, but this was for Swords & Wizardry, a somewhat Stratego-like game.)  That cost me 50% of the proceeds, but in the circumstances it was worth it.  As it would be to get a game published by Hasbro. 

So for most beginning designers, evaluators, consultants, and agents are to be avoided.

Brief, free audio-visual Introduction to Game Design course:  (I have had to change to an official charge of $9, but the coupon code BriefFreeIntro makes the course free again.)

Audio-visual course Get a Job in the Video Game Industry, $15 (or use this coupon URL for 20% off): or use the coupon code: VideoGameJobs20%Off
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Twitter: @lewpuls

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ruminations about Magical Numbers (and processes) in Card Games

Not long ago I wrote some ruminations about magical numbers and boardgames, ( and Steven Davis suggested I should talk about this in relation to card games, such as card hand size.  I’m not a person who plays standard card games, though I have played Old Maid, Canasta, Euchre, and even Poker in the distant past, and still may play Oh Hell once a year.  But I’ve never played Uno, let alone Hearts or Spades or Gin Rummy.  But lately I find myself designing games that use cards, though not the standard deck.

One of the benefits of cards is that there is a natural limit to play that does not exist in boardgames, that is, the exhaustion of the draw deck.  And card games naturally fall into relatively short sessions (one hand), though most traditional card games are played through several hands.

Hand size varies a lot in card games using the standard deck of cards.  One of the smallest hands is an Texas Hold ‘em (two cards) though more typical in poker is five cards.   Magic: the Gathering starts with seven.  I have made a brief list of hand size in some card games, and I’d judge that a hand size of five to seven cards is most common.  (I’m not counting games like Bridge and Old Maid where all the cards are dealt out.)

I like to design screwage games, which are pretty popular at the university game club I attend, and there I’ll start with somewhere between five and seven cards.  If I don’t have a strong feeling about where to start I’ll pick a larger number because that gives players more choices within the context of the usual card game limitation that there are typically fewer choices than in a boardgame.

When I design a boardgame that uses event cards I typically start players with five and see how it works out.  In one case, for a space wargame with three to five players, I reduced the number to four, three when there are five or more players, because the event cards had too strong an influence over the game.   Event cards are there for variety and uncertainty, not to dominate the game.  (I will write a separate piece about uses of event cards.)

The number of starting cards also depends on how many cards are available in the deck and on how many people typically play.  It doesn’t take much time to work out approximately how many rounds a game will take if players are drawing one card at a time and there are a given number of cards.  Multiply the hand size times the number of players, subtract that from the number of cards available, divide the result by the number of players to get the number of rounds.

Obviously, the more cards players start with, the more options they have.  The question may be at what point are there too many options for your target audience.  One way to broaden the appeal of a game is to reduce the number of decisions players have to make.  (Another way is to reduce the number of exceptions to the rules that people must keep in mind.)  So a hand of seven cards gives more options and decisions than a hand of five cards, but the question is, is it the right number of options and decisions for your game?

As a practical aspect as well, as the hand gets bigger people have more trouble coping with handling it, with keeping track of everything, even with being able to hold it in their hand so they can see all the cards.

In many games I don’t have a set hand size, or even a size limit.  A few players like to collect lots of cards to get a big hand; but they rarely win when they do this, because they’re expending actions to draw while other players are doing something potentially more productive.

I find that people so often forget to draw cards, especially in games where you occasionally use a free-to-play card that you don’t replace, that in some games I have a simple rule that if you find yourself with fewer than five cards at any time you draw back up to five immediately.

What about deck size? I tend to stick to the old standard governed by printing capabilities of 55 cards per deck (or 110, or 165 . . .).  A standard deck is 52, plus two jokers, plus a logo card.  (I understand there is more variation now in printing machinery.)  55 is a lot of cards for many purposes, such as Event Cards.  But a game that is purely cards often demands 110 cards or more, to provide sufficient variety and versatility.

I may as well make this observation about the card game process as well.  The paradigm for standard card games is that a players plays a card, and draws a card, each turn.  But which comes first? If the player draws the card afterward then he has time to think about how to use it and what to do next before his next turn.  If the player draws to start the turn then everyone waits while the player thinks about what to do with this new card.  On the other hand, if the player feels he has a poor set of cards then he’ll be happy to draw before he plays in hopes that he’ll draw something more satisfying.  Also it may be easier for players to remember to draw before playing than to remember to draw after playing, especially if playing one card can result in some additional actions.  But it’s so important for games to be shorter nowadays that I usually choose draw-after because that speeds up the game.

Of course, you can have games that use cards yet don’t follow the standard pattern of play one and draw one.  For example as I recall, in Fluxx the number you draw varies according to cards that people have played during the game.  In other games, drawing a card is one action among many possible actions, with a player taking two or three actions per turn, so he or she may draw two or three cards, or even none.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

“Play as many games as you can?” Maybe not.

“If you want to quit playing RPGs, start designing them.”
(quote from a GenCon 2012 panelist)

I sometimes see or hear game designers give the advice that is quoted in the title of this piece.  I have to disagree.  Game designers need to spend their time efficiently, just like anyone else.  And playing games (other than their own for testing) is not very efficient, certainly not the most important thing game designers should be doing.  Because playing games is *very* different from designing them.

The idea behind the advice is that game designers need to know lots of games.  That’s a reasonable point of view.  But playing a game is not necessarily the best way to learn about games:

•    1) Playing games is not, *for some people*, the most efficient way to learn about them. 
•    2) When you reach a certain experience level, you’re not going to learn a lot playing games, *compared to the time it takes*.
•    3) For most people it’s too easy to play games and not do what you should really be doing, which is designing, testing, and completing games.

Let’s eliminate right now a supposed reason not to play games.  Eric Hanuise (Flatlined Games) says "Every now and then I meet a game designer wannabee that proudly states he will not play other games or look at what's published, in order not to be influenced in his design."   That's *nuts*.  You need to know what is happening with other games more than you need to worry about being influenced by other games.  I would never worry about being influenced by other designs because borrowing is endemic in game design, yet insofar as I make games as models rather than collections of mechanics I’m unlikely to borrow as much as mechanics-constructors might be.  But that might not be true for someone with a lot less experience.

Now let’s go through the three reasons I’ve stated above, in greater detail.

There are many ways to learn about new games, and playing games is not always the most efficient way.  In fact it’s often quite inefficient.  If you rely only on playing the game you need to play several times to really understand what’s going on.  (This is why writers of formal detailed game reviews should have played the game several times.)  Some people (myself included) can learn more efficiently by reading about games, reading game rules, watching people play games, and *talking with people who have played the game several times*.  That is, not everyone has to actually play a game to understand it. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen many people play a game once and thoroughly misunderstand it.

The oft-expressed presumption that the only way, and presumably the most effective way, to learn about a game is to play it, is simply ignorant or self-centered (take your pick).  It depends on the person, on the situation, perhaps even on the game.  There also tends to be a presumption in some people that if you don't play a lot of games, you're not learning anything about games, which is clearly NOT true.

I almost never play a published game (including mine), period.   Also, by watching and talking with players I can learn about a game that I would obviously dislike strongly (and I am *very* picky).   I cannot recall ever having the experience of playing a board game that I was pretty sure I would dislike, only to find out I liked it.  Maybe that’s something that comes with age.  A senior citizen (me) has a lot more experience playing games than a 25-year-old, and so may be able to understand a game better without playing it. 

The more time I spend playing someone else's games, the less time I have to devote to my own (which must be played solo several times, if nothing else).  I don't even play my own published games *as they were published*.  On the other hand I've played Britannia in several versions more than twenty times solo this year, but that is in aid of making and testing rules for the new editions.

I don't mean to compare myself with him, obviously, but when some presumptuous dude decides that my views must be useless because I don't actually play a lot of different games, I point out that Reiner Knizia doesn't play other people's games.  (If you're interested in tabletop games and don't know who Reiner (as he likes to be called) is, you need to read more and get out more.)  I hasten to add that there are few other resemblances between me and Reiner. 

Perhaps a comparison to another field will help.  Many people like history but learn in different ways.  I was educated as a professional historian, and if I want to learn history I’ll read a book (or, these days, something shorter depending on the level of detail I need).  Some people learn history by watching the History Channel, which I very rarely watch.  That’s partly just how habits have been established and partly because the History Channel can go overboard in dramatizing history to the point that you don’t know what’s true and what’s not.  It’s “Hollywood history.”  Some people like to learn history by playing historical games.  Now I like to teach history through games, but I certainly don’t learn history that way, for me it’s not efficient.  I can learn a lot more in less time by reading a book. 

But I don’t tell everyone that if they don’t read history books they can’t know anything about history, no more than I would tell someone if they don’t play lots of games they can’t know anything about games.  There are different ways to learn, of different efficiency for different people.

Let me repeat, I'm *not* saying you don't need to *know* a lot of games, I'm saying you don't necessarily need to *play* a lot of games.  Because *one of the biggest barriers to productivity in the game industry is game playing.*  If you want to be *productive* as a designer you can't play too many games, because you won't have time to do the design.  (Caveat: if you're playing your own game prototypes then that's another thing entirely, because that ought to be productive.) Playing games is not very productive, or perhaps I should say, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns kicks in when you play other's games, and you need to work on your own games rather than play more of others.  I have a friend who has designed quite a few published games, but he would have published a lot more if he didn't enjoy playing games so much. 

To make a comparison with a related industry, I think you'd find that many full-time novelists don't have much time to read novels, because they're writing novels.

Also, when you get to a certain stage in understanding game design (or, for those novelists, fiction writing), when you play a game or read a novel you see how it's constructed, and it takes away some of the sense of wonder and the enjoyment that brings.  Kind of like when Keira Knightly at age 12 or so played Queen Amidala's handmaid in The Phantom Menace: being part of the production took away her sense of wonder of Star Wars.

Just as a professional game designer shouldn't be designing games for himself – unless he *knows* he is typical of his target audience – he shouldn't be designing games that are just like some other game.  The two sometimes go together, the designer likes a particular game so much that he tends to design games just like it.  On the other hand, I have had several favorite games over the course of the past 40 years, the biggest one Dungeons & Dragons (first edition).  I have never designed a role-playing game that would take the place of Dungeons & Dragons, instead I design additions and modifications to D&D.  In other words, I haven't tried to design an RPG for me, I've modified my favorite game instead.

Yes, an awful lot of games submitted to game companies are very, very much like existing games, and those aren't likely to get very far, although there are exceptions (usually self-published).  But in those cases the designer has consciously modeled his game on another one.  It is also possible to design a game that turns out to be much like a game designed independently by someone else - this has even happened to Knizia - though it's not likely.

I'm not discouraging you from playing games, as long as you enjoy it, *unless* it is a detriment to, an excuse not to work on, designing your own games. (If you’re only designing one game, you’re far out of step with most professional designers, who work on many games each year.)  If you like to play lots of published games, go ahead.  But recognize that you're not using your time efficiently, and may be unconsciously avoiding what you ought to be doing, if you want to be a game designer.  What you need to be doing is *designing and completing games*, not playing published games.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

“On the horns of a dilemma”

(In the following I’ll be using quotes gleaned from online discussions, from players and a well-known designer.  These are all personal observations, of course, and anecdotal evidence.  We simply don’t have the “scientific” evidence about games to “prove” any particular point of view.  You’ll have to examine your own experience to make an evaluation.)

A while ago I read a preview of the video game XCOM:Enemy Unknown, now released and not to be confused with its successor Declassified.  I was struck by how often the author talked about “hard choices”, struck because this is what games (beyond family/party games) traditionally have involved, yet are rarely present in a great many contemporary video games, and many tabletop games.  Traditionally, a game designer wanted to put the players of a game “on the horns of a dilemma”, trying to decide between two or more things the player wants to do when he can only do one. 

Even in family games there were occasional difficult choices to be made although the players often weren’t bothered whether they made the correct choice or not.  This may be one way of differentiating family/party games from more serious games.  That is, adult players of family/party games rarely take the game, or themselves as players, seriously.   Children often take them more seriously than the adults. 

Diablo III is a poster boy for video games where there are no hard choices, where in the long run your choices don’t matter at all.  It’s institutionalized in the game in such things as the selection and use of skills.  You do not have to make decisions that matter when choosing which skills to use, because you can always change combinations.  This is touted as providing greater variety, which it does, but once again it means that what the player decides *doesn’t really matter*.  There are no consequences for poor choices, just a “do again” akin to guess-and-check (which used to be known as “trial and error”, but the meaning of the latter is changing).  It is no long consequence-based gaming, it has become reward-based gaming.

In general, in Diablo III it doesn’t really matter what a player does, he’ll succeed in the end.

    "I know if I invest X amount of time into D3 I will beat it with no learning curve and nothing really gained from the experience other than over hyped cinematics and the bragging rights to sell things to my peers on an auction house.

    I know this for a fact. There is no skill set or learning curve required for D3 except point, click and equip the best weapon set for my class that I own. I can die millions of times and as long as I am willing to keep clicking, I will triumph eventually. D2 had challenges/elements throughout its design that made it more unwieldy but immensely more fun. All of those points were removed from the latest version of the game to accommodate a wider audience."   (John Karnay)

World of Warcraft is much the same.  Game designer Brenda Romero:

    "I play World of Warcraft a fair bit, but I don't really worry too much, because I know if I kill myself the very worst thing that's going to happen is I'll have to run a zillion miles back to my body.

    I am way more careful in Minecraft . . . when there's a fear of loss, your success means more to you."

This is not confined to video games.  Another aspect of these changes was reflected in the comments on a blog post that "weeped for newbs", lamenting that even secret doors seem to be regarded as a "dirty GM trick" in 4th edition D&D.

4th edition is WoWified, it doesn't ask the players to think much, it's really hard to screw up and die.  A comment on the post finally made me realize that the fundamental point of RPGs has changed between 1st and 4th edition.  In 1st edition you wanted to overcome the thrill of fear.  The referee's job was to scare the snot out of you, usually by threatening your character with death, sometimes by threatening to take or destroy your stuff, though his or her job definitely was NOT to actually kill you.  2nd edition was similar.  3rd edition became a contest to find rules that enabled you to construct a one-man army (OMA), and then the game was about you showing off the super-duper-ness of your one-man army (one person called it "fantasy Squad Leader").  Your OMA was too tough to be scared.  Where in 1st edition most of those unearned advantages would not even be allowed, they had become the main reason for playing 3rd.  In 4th edition it has gone further, essentially you're rewarded for participation.

In this respect many video and role-playing games are becoming pure entertainment, without any element of frustration or obstacle.

In traditional games the consequence of making the wrong choices, or sometimes simply being unlucky, was that you lost the game (or at least were more likely to lose).  In video game “entertainments” you can’t lose; if you fail or die you simply come back and continue as before, whether this is built into the game as is often the case now (respawning) or whether you go back to your saved games.  Nor can you lose in tabletop RPGs, if the referee chooses so.

I said in my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish that I thought video and tabletop games are converging, but sometimes I'm not so sure when I look at games like Farmville on one hand, and worse, the all-rewards-all-the-time games like Diablo III and many others, where anything that interferes with getting direct pleasure is regarded as a "fail".

Yet many Eurostyle board games lean toward removing the sting or frustration of failure by removing direct conflict or direct interaction from the game.  In the extreme I call this a “contest”, where several people are attempting to achieve the same thing without significantly affecting one another and whoever achieves its first wins.  Virtually any activity can be turned into a contest if it involves time or something else that’s measurable, such as who can get an arrow closest to the bull’s-eye, or who can type the most words in 5 minutes.  Many Olympics style sports are actually contests rather than games.  Some races are contests, for example most swimming races; others involve blocking an opponent which is an aspect of a game rather than a contest. 

The heart of this point of view is that games (as opposed to puzzles) require a semblance of intelligent opposition that can affect other players, and in contests there is no by-rule way to affect other players.  Yes, you can ALWAYS have a chance to affect another person psychologically, for example going out fast in a middle distance swimming race to try to spook your opponent; but the rules don't cover or facilitate this.

A game of hard decisions requires the player to use his brain, but that seems to be going out of fashion.  For example, Clay Johnson talked about how his son plays video games:

    "What I often observe though is that he 'cheats' to play through his games. By that I mean that he starts the game, and after a few rounds gets stuck. Instead of using his brain to try different strategies he simply looks up a guide on the net where there are countless free walkthrough guides for nearly every game out there.
    To me, this seems like it turns a puzzle into a basic clerical task, but he thrives on it !? Can this response by the users be the basic reason for 'dumbing down' games?"

This reminds me of contemporary programming students - usually those who aren't interested in becoming professional programmers - who guess at solutions rather than reason them out.  But instead of guessing or figuring it out, Johnson's son looks it up.

I like to say that at age 15 I "retired" from playing chess, because it had become too much like work.  Chess is a "game" (extraordinarily difficult puzzle, really) where there's always a correct, best move, and that combined with the vast weight of the chess literature, put me off.  Now "too much like work" has changed meaning.  For a great many players, a game that requires *any* hard decisions is "too much like work."

With a lack of hard decisions, gameplay depth (which is largely about hard decisions) is also absent or in short supply in most contemporary games.  In fact, when gamers say "depth" nowadays they often mean *variety*.  Variety is replacing gameplay depth as a goal for game design.

It's important to most western gamers that games are "fair".  But I think the definition of fair has changed for video gamers.  Where it used to imply that you got what you deserved, that you had to *earn* something, now it means "fair" in the way my young niece used to use it.  She'd say "that's not fair", but she meant, "that's not what I want, I'm not getting what I want".  Now video game players expect a game to give them what they want, when they want it, period.

I'm not saying this is bad, I'm saying this is what it is, and game designers have to recognize it, even if they design for a niche that prefers old-fashioned, consequence-based gaming - the niche that likes XCOM: Enemy Unknown. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Where are board and card games headed?

Where are board (and card) games headed?  Predicting the future is fraught with perils.  Sometimes a collective group can come up with a little better projection than any individual - and sometimes not.  So I'm going to try to peer into a murky crystal ball about the future of boardgames and card games, and see what the collective has to make of it.

But even if we could come to a consensus, as unlikely as that is, about the future of board and card games, what actually happens in history is often not what's most likely to happen.  So even if we accurately predict what's most likely to happen, there's a good chance something else will happen.  Which may ultimately be what makes a statesman's job so difficult.

Following where video games lead
I think we'll follow the lead of videogames in many respects.  I'm not saying that video games set the trend, but they react to what the populace wants, perhaps faster than board and card games, and of course vastly more people play video games than board and card games.  (You may have heard that Grand Theft Auto V made over a billion dollars (yes, with a B) in the first couple days of sales worldwide - $800 million the first day.)

We're obviously moving towards simpler and shorter games.  It's just about impossible to achieve the ideal that video games already enjoy, which is that someone can play the game without reading any rules.  But simpler games mean there are less rules to read and understand.

Also we'll find more games that effectively tell the player what to do next.  This has become common in video games, for example, in single player games where the helping hand is always there.  For a game to tell people what to do next might be a little peculiar when there's two or more players in opposition, but when it's a puzzle/contest, multiplayer solitaire, then it won't be seen as so odd.  All cooperative games are essentially single player and we'll certainly be seeing more cooperative games as we go toward more puzzles and less direct conflict/competition.

Discoverability and what it's done to game design
Discoverability is a huge problem in the video game industry as thousands of small-scale games are released every month.  The really good games are being overwhelmed by the crap, much as happened in the great videogame crash of the early 80s when so many crappy Atari games were released that finally no one bought any games at all.  Nintendo fixed that problem when they came along by controlling all manufacture of games for their console, thus limiting the supply and eliminating most of the crap.

Even if your game is very good, if someone doesn't know your game exists, he can't buy it or play it.  We're getting to that point in board and card games.  I was told there were 800 new tabletop games at Essen last year and I suppose that number was closer to 1000 this year.  As a result, just as in the video game world, the *marketing* possibilities of a game become much more important than whether it's a good game to *play*.  In the video game world few games are played very long before someone moves on to the next game, and I see this phenomenon has become common in the tabletop world where a typocal game is only played one or two or three times before players move on to something else.  The games don't have to be good games in the old sense of games that you enjoy playing over and over and over again, rather they have to be games that have a marketing hook and that look good and sound good when described (the latter especially for Kickstarter, which often amounts to "smoke and mirrors").  And not surprisingly, the typical published game is pretty weak, especially those coming out of Kickstarter.

Furthermore, publishers are bombarded with so many game prototypes that they focus very much on marketing and don't generally have a chance to find out whether a game is good enough to be enjoyably played even 25 times, let alone 500 times.  Kickstarter games are almost all marketing because in most cases no one has a chance to know how well they play before they fork over their Kickstarter support money.  This is a great contrast with the past when, if you designed a game that was really good to play, you had a significant chance of getting it published.  Now whether the game is really good to play in the long run is, if not pretty unimportant to the publisher, something that's no longer vital.

Computer gaming as an adjunct or replacement for board gaming
I think that the iPad may become the new board game platform for *two player* games.  People have less and less time to play games and this pushes them toward the casual end of the spectrum, as opposed to the hard-core who can sit for several hours to play a game or several games.  In typical game club contexts, almost all the games played are for more than two, except for CCGs - and I see a lot of CCG sessions for four or more people now. What the iPad offers is games in small snippets, as in the Battle of the Bulge game by Shenandoah of Philadelphia.  (See my post of September 3: )  The iPad provides a convenience that boards or big layouts of cards on the table simply cannot provide, and it makes it easy to preserve the state of the game when it cannot be completed in one sitting.  I did say iPad, but I mean tablets in general; however, people are much more willing to pay for iPad apps than for Android apps, and there is much more piracy in Android, so it appears that the platform for developers is much more the iPad specifically than the tablet.  (Free to play (F2P) games can go onto Android, I'm talking about games that cost money to buy.  But even in-app purchases in F2P games are being heavily pirated nowadays.)

As smartphones become ubiquitous, we may see more boardgames that require (or offer optional use of) a smartphone to track information and do calculations that today's gamers may find annoying, if not difficult.

Cardgames rising, boardgames descending
It appears to me also that cardgames are becoming more popular and boardgames less.  This is what's happening with FFG's lines, I've noticed.  This is quite apart from Magic, which is massively popular (some $270 million a year).  There are several reasons for this. One is that it is easier and cheaper to provide colorful visuals with cards, than with the board and pieces.  Visuals on the cards don't generally have anything to do with the play of the game, whereas the visuals on a board are usually important to gameplay, and so cannot be fooled around with.  Now there are exceptions to this like Smallworld which has such a busy looking board that when you put the pieces on the board it's very hard to see them.  But this hasn't prevented Smallworld from becoming quite a popular game.  (It is one of the great puzzles to me that an out and out wargame has become popular among Euro players, furthermore, a wargame that is broken, compared to the predecessor by the same designer (Vinci), and which has dysfunctional graphic design.  *Shrug*)

Another reason is that cardgames are naturally shorter than boardgames, if you consider each "hand" individually.  Moreover, it's easy to limit the length of a cardgame by relating length to the draw deck (if there is one), a limit that feels less arbitrary than a given number of turns.

Thirdly, one of the great advantages of a game that's primarily cards is that you can put the rules (and especially, the exceptions to the standard rules) on the cards, and this makes it easier for someone to read the game rules so they can teach other people to play the game. (They don't have to read the cards to learn to play, they can read them as the cards turn up.)  Also, the great popularity of Magic: the Gathering (which grew by more than a third last  year) and Yu-Gi-Oh makes certain kinds of mechanics that are used with cards quite familiar to a large number of gamers.  At the NC State tabletop gamers club last year, often more than half of the players present were Magic players rather than players of boardgames and other cardgames.  (This has changed markedly when meetings moved from Thursday to Friday this year; some suggest that the organized play at game shops on Fridays has drawn off the CCG players.)

Furthermore, a cards-only game tends to limit what can be done by the player, and especially limits the gameplay depth of the game as compared to a game that can use both boards and cards and perhaps other elements as well.  But there's great potential for variety in the form of additional cards and decks of cards.  In this century variety seems to be displacing gameplay depth as the most desirable aspect of play of a game.

Positive and Rewarding
Video games in the age of free-to-play are rapidly going away from the idea that you have to earn something in the game to the idea that games are constant rewards, constantly positive.  In this century egos are fragile and people not only don't like to be frustrated, they don't like to move out of their comfort zone at all.  This will certainly be reflected in boardgames and card games.  Part and parcel of this is the de-emphasis of competition.  We'll have more games that are puzzles (you can't lose to a puzzle) and more co-ops that are essentially single player so that no player is putting his or her ego on the line.  Consequence-based gaming is being replaced in the video game world with reward-based gaming, and the same thing is likely to be expressed to some extent on the tabletop.

Game players versus game buyers
There are three different groups of gamers that I have been involved with in the past several years. 

One group is mostly-over-40 third-Friday-of-the-month boardgamers who are increasingly Euro oriented and increasingly part of the Cult of the New.  A fair number of those folks, although certainly a minority, buy games fairly regularly. 

The second group is video gamers who were students in my classes, and of course they didn't buy boardgames at all because they had not been exposed to them, although some of them were perfectly happy to play them at the game club (not during class hours - though they would've been happy to do it then too!).  They bought some video games, but they also pirated a lot and played a great many free-to-play games. 

The third group is at a University tabletop game club that has existed for seven or eight years.  Only two or three other members actually buy games, while the club buys a few games each year with membership dues (which are optional).  Most of the players are happy to play their favorite games week in and week out, such as Betrayal House on the Hill, Red Dragon Inn, Bang! , recently Munchkin, and others.  They are not Eurostyle players per se because they're perfectly happy to play directly competitive games where players can easily hinder or harm one another in the game.  Many of them are just as interested in the social aspects of being with a group of people to play games as they are in the specific game that they play.  The majority of them play video games as well, though usually free ones, and many are also RPGers.  Very few of them are involved with Boardgamegeek.

So we have a lot of game players who are not game buyers.  From the point of view of the future of the board and card game hobby how do we regard these folks?  They play games but they don't buy games.  They provide players for the people who do buy games.  But they don't put any money directly into the industry.   So are they part of the hobby but not part of the industry?

The videogame industry is faced with problems that mobile games can rarely be sold for more than a pittance ($.99), and most people who play free to play games never spend a dime on them.  Combine this with rampant piracy and it's becoming hard to make money on a mobile game.  ( Perhaps this is more or less the equivalent of having so many tabletop gamers who don't actually buy games.  But the one great blessing we have in the tabletop industry is that it's hard to pirate a physical game, though you can pirate RPG books and rulebooks easily.

A really safe prediction is that self-publishing will continue to grow, whether through POD like, or through crowd-funded games.  Self-published games inevitably tend to be of lesser qualtiy as games (ignoring the physical quality), just as self-published books tend to be a lesser quality than those going through traditional publishers.  Will Kickstarter failures (funded but no game is ever published) and general low quality of self-publishing ultimately lead to the kind of crash that affected video games in the early 80s?  Who knows?

The "Cult of the New"
My wife (who I met through Dungeons & Dragons), dislikes any changes in how the audiovisual and computer equipment works in the house.  She is the opposite of worshipers of the "Cult of the New".  But she's also not a game player.   To go back to my three groups of gamers, the college aged tabletoppers are happy to play the same games over and over again but are also happy to play new games.  But the Cult of the New is not noticeable.  On the other hand, they don't buy games.  BoardGameGeek, which is seen by publishers to be very influential in game buying, is a stronghold for the Cult of the New.  Is there something about game players - or I should say, game buyers - that makes them more likely to be part of the Cult of the New?  From a publisher's point of view the Cult of the New means people who do buy games are likely to buy more games than fewer.  But it seems to mean that buying is spread out over more games and so each game sells less than in the past, which is not good for publishers.

A Decrease in Design Quality
Many of the games being sold (or at least, demoed) at Origins or GenCon don't need to be very good designs.  (I'm talking about the design, not the graphics/marketing hooks.)  They only need to be good enough to be interesting for several plays, because the fate of most games is to be played only a few times before the owner goes on to the next game.  There are lots of reasons for this, e.g. the short attention span of the "Internet generation", and the vast number of games out there calling for play.  Moreover, in a "demo" environment such as a game convention players are strongly affected by "cool", which is often in graphics or theme, because they don't have time to learn whether the game actually has much to it, whether it can last more than a few plays.

As a result, a lot of these games simply aren't very good.  In a way it's like video games: most of the published ones aren't really very good, time killers more than anything else, though they may sound good or look good.  And that doesn't count the 90% that are funded but never see the light of day.  Board and card games are much less time-consuming to produce, so more of the "90%" are likely to actually be published/self-published.

(Not very good: as far as I'm concerned, a game that's only good for killing time isn't very good.  Whether it's played a lot by people or not.  (Card Solitaire is an example, 'course that's really a puzzle, not a game.))

Result: a lot of weak games.  Yet they all compete with the good games.  Unfortunately much of the sales process does not depend on how good the game design is, so the result is that the good games sometimes suffer, getting less sales and attention than they deserve.

Lower sales of individual games
And that brings us to the last "prediction", that sales of individual games will continue to fall, though that may not be true for the several really big hits each year.  The total sales of games may be climbing, but that doesn't help publishers whose profit depends heavily on the cost per unit.  The more copies of a single game you can print (which means, you can sell), the lower the cost per unit.  If sales are spread over a much larger number of titles, publishers then become more dependent on hits, and even though we as gamers spend more money on games, publishers don't make more money, they make less.

This is not very optimistic.  For an optimistic view, see Mary Couzin, "Establishing New Connections Through Board Games"

Monday, October 21, 2013

October 2013 Miscellany

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

I was reading a free RPG ruleset recently.  " features a long and exciting list of rules that are outside the normal scope of today‘s top most role-playing games."  How many gamers get excited by the rules?  The rules are only a means to allow a game to be played.  It's the play of the game, if anything, that should be exciting.  *Shrug*.  Perhaps the domination of the tabletop market by D&D/Pathfinder frustrates RPG designers who want to do things "differently".

Looking at the analytics for my free game design class, I'm astonished that Chrome is used more than twice as much as Firefox. (Top 2)  Internet Explorer is even behind Safari (MAC).

How reliable are reviews of games and game-related materials?  One thing you can do is compare reviews from different sources.  Of course, if you look at Metacritic you sometimes see a wide variation in the number ratings for particular games.

But here's a striking example.  GameInformer rates the Alienware 14 gaming laptop 8 out of 10 (very good), and in particular "loved the gentle feel of the systems soft-touch rubber keys" (which, I confess, sounds bad to me as a typist or a gamer).    PC Gamer gave it 56 out of 100 and heavily criticizes the trackpad on that same keyboard.  Five laptops in that review got much better ratings, only one worse.

For all of its colorful presentation, Magic: the Gathering is an abstract game.  Only by the greatest stretch of the imagination can you say that player actions, or occurrences in the game, correspond to something that happens in a (fantasy) reality.  There's no "analgousness" to any real (or fictional) reality.  Nor do I believe the designers think in terms of modeling something, they are thinking about how to improve (or just change) an abstract game.  The atmosphere is tacked on.

Gamer Psychology can be really odd.  There are many (most) people who always want to know what they need before they roll dice, when they could save time by rolling first, then figuring it out if it isn't obviously too low or easily high enough.  (One person says, well it's good practice to become familiar with the mods.  But most people do it even when they know all the mods. )  It's as though the player subtly thinks he can influence the dice roll.  Sure wastes time, though.

Some articles I've recommended through twitter:
Warren Spector: Industry must recognize both good and bad effects of games

Game Developer Magazine complete archives:

James Mathe lists Facebook groups that may be helpful to game designers and publishers:

Some thought-provoking insight on games and stories from Chris Crawford:

Eric Zimmerman's How I Teach. (prologue):

Warren Spector's "commandments" of game design

Ian Bogost   What are MOOCs good for? For proving that MOOCs might be good if they were good.

Parody of game design school commercials (stick with it) :

Most Dangerous Game Design: Scaffolding Choice: Ease Players into a Game's Choices.

Extra Credits: Game Schools. (The Truth.)

Occasionally I encounter people who are absolutely convinced that there are no generational differences, even though businesspeople widely recognize and account for such differences. Think about this and then ask yourself why my point of view as a Baby Boomer is very different from the point of view of a Millennial (30 and under, more or less):

When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, if you were lucky you had three black and white television networks to watch instead of two, there was no Internet and consequently no e-mail, no cell phones, slide rules not personal computers (or printers, CDs, or DVDs), no World Wide Web, no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. A long distance call of any length cost real money. We had a "party line" phone shared by four households, which was common, so you listened to the ring to determine whether the call was for you or another party with the same line, and if you picked up the phone while someone else on the party line was having a conversation, you heard it all.  If you had an emergency and someone else was already using the line, you'd have to ask them to get off so you could make the emergency call.

I first saw color TV in a person's house when I was 10 (trick-or-treat: the owners let the kids come in and see their cool color TV). Books and magazines and newspapers were the major sources of information, not radio, not TV, not the Internet.  (Though if you wanted the most up-to-date news, you listened to the radio.)

Music was on 8-track tapes and vinyl LPs (33 and 45 revolutions per minute, though older 78 still existed). If you wanted to watch a movie, if on TV you stayed up after 11 (old movies only), or you went to a theater, there was no way to record a movie other than film. If you wanted a single song after its initial popularity you had to luckily find an out-of-print 45 or you bought an entire album. Or, once cassette tape became available (but by this time I was an adult), you recorded it from the radio.

There was no instant replay on sporting events because videotape had not been perfected. There was no three point shot in basketball, dunks were illegal for a few years, and high school women's basketball was played six a side with only two allowed to play both offense and defense. There not only was no Superbowl, the NFL championship game was not televised until several years after I was born.

Communication satellites came into use when I was a teenager, before then our foreign news came onto TV only with voice, via telephone undersea cables. The biggest recent events in the minds of adults were World War II, the Korean War (I was born during the Korean War), and the continuing Cold War. Nuclear Annihilation was on everyone's mind, an ever-present danger. (When I was 11 I walked home from school a few miles, alone, to test the possibility for sending everyone home that way if the Cuban Missile Crisis turned into a war.) Terrorism was something that happened far, far away.

My mother had grown up during the Great Depression. She would do things like collect the little bits of bar-soap left after use and melt them together to make new multi-colored bars for us to use. Waste not, want not. How many people do anything like that today, even the officially poor people?

I remember at age 9 watching the United States Army ensure a black girl could go to school in Little Rock, Arkansas - because the local National Guard couldn't be trusted to do it.  I was 17 or 18 the first time a man and woman, one black, one white, kissed on national TV.  No one expected we'd have a female or black president in our lifetimes.  Same-sex marriage was impossible.  "Made in Japan" was a bit of a joke.  The Japanese were former badguys seen on war movies (and adults all remembered "the war"), not the objects of near-worship by young people that they sometimes seem to be in the age of anime.

In that era, as for generations before, a book was a treasure trove of information, something to be read carefully and absorbed as much as possible.

Nowadays people are much less impressed by books because there's so many other sources of information, but if you really want to learn about something in depth a good book is a really good way to do it.

Makes for a quite different point of view. Yes, I know what Plato says that Socrates said about young people. This is not "oh, old people always say that", this is a result of real differences in life and culture, which change much faster than they used to.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Competition, direct conflict, wargames, and screwage games

Hard-core gamers are much more inclined to like competition and direct conflict than are casual gamers.  Part of this is because casual gamers tend to like short experiences while most games that have direct conflict are longer games, which allows that conflict to “play out”.  Another might be that hard-core gamers are satisfied with or even crave the tension that comes from direct conflict while casual gamers are more likely to be trying to relax and are not looking for a lot of tension.  Another reason might be that hard-core gamers are more willing to accept the frustration of direct opposition, of having obstacles that take some doing to overcome, as opposed to the casual gamers who want to see things happen in a game but not interested in being opposed.  (Think of popular casual video games like Bejeweled and Tetris.  There's only randomness, not opposition.)

Let’s differentiate between competition in general, and direct competition/conflict.  You can compete in a contest where you never actually can affect the other player, you're just comparing results.  Typing for five minutes and declaring the winner to be the person who typed the most correct words is a contest, and can be seen as a form of competition but is not a conflict.  Hard-core video gamers often compete via contests, comparing their scores in various games or how long it took to "beat the game" as they play the same game but do not play each other: for example "I scored 17,000 in Tetris and you only scored 15,000 so I beat you" even though the players played solo because that's the nature of the game.

Wargames are almost always direct conflict, it's the nature of warfare.  So people who are in the "wargames ghetto" as I've called it since I came back into the hobby eight or nine years ago, the ones who play lots of hex-and-counter wargames, are inevitably in conflict when they play one another.  But SPI used to say many years ago that 50% of their games were played solo, and I think that's probably still true, that people play the wargames solo in order to experience (and experiment with) the history rather than for the conflict itself. 

Wargames generally involve organized groups, usually governments, fighting each other either in short-term battle or long-term war.  What kind of direct competition can we have that doesn't involve warfare?  Business competition can often involve direct conflict, economic competition can certainly involve direct conflict, and individual competition can involve direct conflict.  For example role-playing games are not about warfare usually but are direct conflicts.  The big difference there is that they are cooperative games because one side of the conflict, the bad guys, the monsters, is controlled by a more or less neutral referee.  In that respect they're like single-player video games except that a human referee can always be much more inventive than any computer program at this point in history.  But in the video game world, especially MMOs, what has the trappings of an RPG can become direct conflict via the “PvP” (player versus player) mode of the game.

So we can have games that involve direct conflict but are not wargames per se.  Sometimes that direct conflict involves violence (as in the MMO), sometimes not (as in the economic or business game). Sometimes these are what I call “screwage games”.  These  games for from three to many players are usually directly competitive but do not require a lot of reasoning for success, games that involve a strong dose of chance as well as skill.  The games are more colorful than serious. Players are not focused on winning, they are focused on having a good time messing with their friends.  They can be played the strangers as long as it’s played within a social context, such as at a game club with lots of other people around.  The narratives of these games, that is the accounts of what happens, can be quite interesting or amusing, but the games themselves are not complex.  The narratives can amount to pretty good stories, sometimes.   And there is usually a fair bit of variety/replayability.

People who are very focused on winning aren’t likely to enjoy any screwage game.

In most cases a screwage game is played by a group round a table, with hands of cards, and simple scoring.  “Beer and pretzels” is another term that’s often used for this kind of game, although it also includes other kinds of games so I’ve decided to use a different term.  You could say that screwage games are a subset of beer and pretzels games.  Screwage games are not usually “Take That” games; though there certainly can be cards that have striking effects, it’s not usually the case that a single card can vault someone from a poor position/situation to a good one.

Player elimination seems to be acceptable in many well-known screwage games but it’s not at all desirable.  How can you mess with your friends when you’ve been eliminated from the game?  

Give a screwage game to strictly Eurostyle players and sometimes you’ll end up with bewildered looks, as the game is so different from the games with little or no direct conflict that they’re used to.

One of the most well-known screwage games, although one with a severe design flaw from the point of view of really good game players, is Munchkin.  (And I'll admit here that I don't care for Munchkin because the humor is silly and wears off very rapidly.)  The design flaw is that there is rampant leader bashing and when the game is played by people focused on winning it becomes constant leader bashing until everybody is near the goal and finally somebody breaks through.  But Munchkin is a very, very successful game because most people who play screwage games are not focused on winning, they're focused on messing with their friends and having a good time with others, and they don’t worry about the flaw (or don’t even realize it’s there, rather like the long-distance ticket flaw in original Ticket to Ride).

Nuclear War is one of the very early screwage games.  While it theoretically depicts warfare between countries, for all practical purposes it's warfare between individuals.

Bang!  is another screwage game that has been very successful, including a knockoff Three Kingdoms game that is very popular in China.  Bang! is about the old West, the conflict between the sheriff and possibly deputies and outlaws, and people are shooting each other, but it's not warfare per se.  Bang! relies heavily on unknown roles - although the role of the sheriff is known - and also has a mechanism that involves the range of your weapons so that you cannot attack anyone you want any time.  This contrasts with some of the leader bashing that we see so rampantly in Munchkin when there's a fight, because anybody can join in in Munchkin. Whenever you can always target the leader then you're likely to have rampant leader bashing, especially if it's obvious who the leader is.  In Munchkin you know everyone’s level, and reaching the target level is how you win.

Should you contemplate design of a screwage game - I’ve designed several, as they go over quite well at the university game club, especially when the subject is something like pirates or zombies or surviving the apocalypse - then be sure to limit in some way the ability of a player to attack every other player.  Otherwise you may end up with a game with a Munchkin-like flaw.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Really Small Games

Some time ago I was designing a couple games that are so small you couldn't even call them microgames.  Maybe nano-games would do?  At the World Boardgaming Championships in early August I saw yet again the postcard-size wargames that "Against the Odds" magazine gives away as promotional materials.  The entire game is on the postcard, board on one side, rules on the other side, 17 to 20 half inch pieces printed along the edge.

As I've said many times before, I think that restrictions and constraints help one actually create better work.  Beethoven benefited from the rules of classical music even as he sometimes broke those rules.  Modern painting is so god-awful, at least in my opinion, because there are no rules.  If you give a novice game designer carte blanche to design whatever they want they often flail around and then try to do something completely impractical.  A postcard size game, on the other hand, introduces tremendous constraints.

As my favorite game is the game of designing games, this was an interesting project to attempt.  Having worked up two of them and played one with the other about to be played, I can say that this format requires you to decide what is the essence you want people to learn from the game.  These are not games that people are going to play over and over again because there is so little there.  So when they play I want them to understand the essence of the historical situation, what was really important.  And that can be done even in this small format, although there is no room for the designer to then explain the reasoning behind his choices. 

For example, the first game is about the raids of the "Great Heathen Army" on Frankia in the late ninth century, after they’d been stymied by Alfred the Great in Britain.  It is a solitaire game with the player trying to defend Frankia from randomly determined attacking Vikings.  The player does not know the strengths of either the Vikings or his own troops.  He doesn't know the strength of the Vikings because it was so hard to collect and then communicate information in that era, and the Vikings could move by boat much, much faster than the Franks could move on land.  He doesn't know the strength of his own troops because both raising those troops and getting them to fight was so unreliable.  (At this point the Franks actually had a capable king, which was exceptional.)  The Vikings are especially likely to go upriver, and that's reflected in the dice rolls to determine their actions.

I have doubts that I'll be able to get all the rules into a format of about 600 words, we'll see.

The second game is the First Battle of Savo Island, during the American invasion of Guadalcanal.  The Japanese were immensely better at night fighting than the Americans, aided by having immensely better torpedoes (and lots of torpedoes on their cruisers, which the Americans either didn't have or didn’t use).  The American guarding force got crushed but the Japanese turned away rather than tear into the American transport fleet.  So the game needs to reflect those spotting limitations and the difference in torpedoes.  And once again I use the uncertainty of face down pieces to try to represent the confusion of night fighting.

When you have so few pieces you must make them do double-duty.  Either they must have “steps,” so that you can turn the piece over when hit to show the weaker side, or they must simulate "fog of war" to provide uncertainty, so players see only the blank side of the opposition much of the time.  In the Viking game some of the pieces are "0's", which are decoys on the Viking side, failures of recruitment and leadership on the Frankish side, but this is not revealed until there's a battle.  There are a few decoys in Savo, too, but also a non-decoy piece can be as weak as a couple destroyers or as strong as a couple heavy cruisers.

Nano-games tend to be tactical rather than strategic - though I have to say my Viking game is more strategic than tactical.  The board and piece limitations don’t provide much room for the flexibility of a game with economic production, which is often a component of strategic games.

A virtue of designing "nano-games" is that they take less time to create and to balance.  The accompanying diagram reflects this notion.  Notice at the end, the "monster tabletop games" of a thousand pieces and enormous boards, the time goes down.  That's because such games are bought more for the information than to actually play, and are rarely playtested more than a few times during design.  Playtesting, of course, takes up most of the time in designing almost any game.

(Most of my blog hosts don’t handle diagrams well, so you may need to go to
to see this diagram.)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What do RPGs amount to, what are you actually designing (if you do the whole thing)?

Just trying to get this straight in my mind.  I’ve never designed an entire RPG, and probably never will, nonetheless it’s well to know exactly what’s involved.

1)  A set of mechanics to govern play of the game - the actual “game design.”

2)  A world-setting, which could be a time (era) for familiar worlds (such as, medieval Europe or ancient Rome for an earth-like world), or an entirely different world that nonetheless may resemble Earth and earthly history in some ways.  E.g. Middle-earth, Spelljammer.

Some settings don’t make much difference to the play - they’re atmospheres, not themes.  In other cases, the setting makes a big difference to how the game is constructed and how it’s played.  Consider, say, AD&D settings like Spelljammer where there are many additional spells and such, and where the play tends to be quite different from the old standard “dungeon/wilderness exploration”.

World and setting are actually two separate-but-related things.  In our world there are lots of possible settings, but lots that are not possible (those involving magic or starships, e.g.).

3) This world-setting includes a definition of the state of technology (science) and magic.  At some point technology and magic look the same (remember Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic).  But technology tends to have scientific trappings while magic is usually wrapped in mystery.   Moreover, is there lots of magic or technology in the setting, or only a little?  Are “14th level wizards” (extraordinarily powerful wizards) common, or as rare as US senators (less than 1 in 3 million people), or unknown (in Third Age Middle-earth there was only one, Sauron) or somewhere in between?   Is magic used to substitute for functions where we in the real world use technology?  Does the populace approve of magic, or fear it?  Is magic based on religion, on the elements, on “mind-power”, etc.

4) The world setting, and even the rules, have a strong bearing on the stories that are part of RPGs.  But often the published game will include only some overarching stories that are wrapped up in the particular world setting, or maybe no stories at all.

5) Adventures.  Adventures are mostly published separately, though there may be introductory adventure(s) with the published game.  Adventures have their own stories within the context of the overall world-setting.  Maybe there's also an overarching story that affects all adventures (perhaps as simple as a war between good and evil), maybe not.

6) (Moral) Tone and (player) Angle.    This “player view” is something I added late in the day as I made this list.  I refer to the overall purpose and “world-view” of the game, from the players’ point of view.  This can be drastically altered by the referee, but each game starts somewhere.  Here is where we run into such tonal questions as “how black-and-white is the moral point of view”?  Some players like an RPG with the same kinds of moral gray areas that we might encounter in everyday life, where the bad guys don’t seem much different from the good guys.  Others like much greater clarity and separation, where they can KNOW that someone is a hero, or someone is a villain.  The other part of this concerns how the player interacts with the game.  Is he an actor playing a role, or is he participating vicariously in the action, putting himself into the game?  Is the game to be treated primarily as a wargame, or as a story, or as cinema, or where in between (or something else entirely)?  Once again, a referee can always push these viewpoints, but games begin somewhere: Fate, for example, is very much a cinematic game that would be hard to play as a wargame.  Most versions of D&D are much closer to wargame than to a story or cinematic game. 

In here somewhere is also the question of how “realistic” the game is intended to be.  RPGs are inherently unrealistic, I think, but some players want a game where disbelief can be suspended but not abandoned, as in a good novel, while others want something closer to the (thoroughly unbelievable) tentpole adventure movies like recent Star Wars and Indiana Jones IV.

Other notes:
A created world setting and story are both parts of fantasy-SF novels.  Though someone writing a "Star Wars" novel takes the already-existing setting and makes a story to fit within it.

A single world setting can be applied to many different sets of game rules, in general.  If we take “Tolkien-like fantasy world with elves and dwarves” as a brief description of a setting, many games use it.  Some settings will be closely tied to technology or game mechanics, many will not.

So there are games and worlds to devise, and adventures and stories to devise.  The tone and angle will be in the game, whether the designer chooses one consciously or not. 

If we wanted to narrow this down from six to three elements, it would be mechanics, world-settings, and adventures.  Most published RPG supplements focus on one of these elements, usually adventures or world-settings, that can be applied to many sets of mechanics. 


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