Wednesday, February 27, 2013

March - well, a little early - 2013 Miscellany

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

You know how to do something because you've done it, or because you've read about/seen how to do it, which is much more "iffy".  There is too much of the latter and not enough of the former in modern education, too much talking about how to do something and not enough doing it.

Tutorials, in video games, are examples of having players "do it" rather than read about it.

People play games for many reasons. I play either (in cooperative games such as D&D) to "succeed in the mission" and keep everyone on my side "whole", or (in competitive games) to win the game. I like to know the rules of a game thoroughly; I much prefer to read a set of rules rather than have someone teach me, probably because I want to thoroughly know what’s going on. I recognize that the rules-reading preference, in particular, is a minority view! Nonetheless, I tend to design games that I like to play.

Some people like to have music playing in the background all the time, though they aren't very particular about which music (liking many genres).  I call most of these people "sound bathers".  Gamers are often "game bathers," not caring greatly about which game they're playing as long as they play a game.
One "genius" of tabletop RPGs: there's intelligent opposition, but the referee doesn't "lose", and players don't so much "win" as survive.

2nd "genius" of tabletop RPGs: a good referee can react intelligently and creatively to what the players want to try, a computer cannot.

A 3rd "genius" of tabletop RPGs: it's in-person social (met my wife thru D&D) in a way computer RPGs/MMOs cannot be.

Allan B. Calhamer, designer (I'm tempted to say, inventor) of the game Diplomacy, passed away recently.  He published the original 500 copy run of Diplomacy in 1959 (also the year of the American edition of Risk, and of Tactics II, unless I misrecall the dates).  I met him a few times at a Diplomacy convention.  An unusual man.

The Power of Branding at Wal-mart: board games Angry Birds, Lego Harry Potter (Lego seems to be very strong), Star Wars R2D2 in Trouble.

I know "wargamers" who think you must have hexes and cardboard counters with numbers on them. But more fundamentally, I think many "wargamers" are people who don't like games that can involve negotiations, that is, games where talking with other players  can give you an advantage (or disadvantage); or perhaps more specifically, they don't like games where you're clearly at a disadvantage if you don't talk to other players.  Many wargamers are accustomed to playing solo, and I think some (who have probably gone into computer wargames) really don't want to deal with other people.  Fair enough, but that doesn't mean all wargames must be this way.

These wargamers tend to play battle games, games without production economies, whereas the wargames for more than two players not only feature talking, but frequently have production economies.  (Axis & Allies is one of the exceptions, a two player wargame with production economies.)  The object in a battle game is usually to destroy (though not necessarily kill) the enemy force; the object in a war game (notice the space between war and game) is to take economic capability from the enemy and improve your own, because the best economy will usually win in the end.  Which is quite often true in Britannia, for example, and always true in computer Civilization, Diplomacy, and Risk (except for the kludge of the cards).   It is *not* true in History of the World, which despite the title is a battle game, not a war game, with a variable order of battle and no production economy.

Many schools (secondary and college) think they're in the business of disseminating certain information and confirming that the individual has imbibed that information.  They don't think they're in the business of preparing people for life and work.  Which is one reason why so many high schoolers are so clueless when they get to college.  And a reason why so many college graduates are so clueless about career jobs.

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

This applies to games as well, including many that are published.

"You wouldn't expect to be able to run a marathon without training. Why do new devs think they can make the ultimate game without experience?"   werezompire (twitter)

 I recall 40 years ago hearing the idea that K12 education was designed to get people used to the idea of sitting quietly and doing something they didn't want to do for long periods of time, because that's what their adult work would be like.  But now it doesn't even do that.

I don't like the idea of Steam, because if owner-company Valve goes belly up, or just decides to discontinue Steam, then I've lost every game I've bought there.  Unfortunately, many PC games are only available through Steam.  That's because the publishers get something like 70% of the revenue, far higher than for other distribution methods, and because it pretty much prevents piracy, which is rampant in PC games.

Fortunately for players, games are often cheaper on Steam, and discounted heavily during sales.  I just bought Fallen Enchantress, for example, at 66% off (and the list is $40, not $60).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dragon Rage "Designer Diary"

(Eric Hanuise and I have tried since September to get this published amongst the Boardgamegeek designer diaries, with Eric even posting it in a BGG publishing queue in correct format, without success.  We are both puzzled about why we've been completely ignored.  We've finally decided to post it elsewhere.  LEP)

Dragon Rage Designer Diary
Lewis Pulsipher

While Dragon Rage was originally published in 1982, it was reissued in a much higher-quality format with an additional map and many additional scenarios in Belgium in 2011.  The game was very expensive to obtain from the US, as I’ll explain below, so I haven’t written this until the advent of good distribution in the USA through GameSalute.

This will be a quite different designer diary because it has been over 30 years since the original design.  Perhaps it will be instructive to game designers more for the publishing history of the game than for the development history.

Dragon Rage has had a pretty checkered history.  It was published in 1982 and sold very well I was told, but I was never paid for it.  The publisher went bankrupt for reasons having nothing to do with its boardgames, and their games went into a kind of limbo.  At the same time I took what amounted to a hiatus of 20 years from the game industry, and when I “came back” it took me many years to find a new publisher for the game.  Here’s the story.

The original publication
Dragon Rage was originally published in 1982.  I had already had some games published – Swords and Wizardry by H P Gibsons, the Diplomacy Games and Variants booklet, and Valley of the Four Winds (Games Workshop’s first game) – by the time I offered Dragon Rage to the Dwarfstar Games subsidiary of Heritage Models (Duke Siefried’s company).  Old-timers may recall that those publications were all in Britain, perhaps not surprising because I was living in London from 1976 to 1979 to research my doctoral dissertation on the Royal Navy.  By 1982 Britannia was also substantially complete and had been offered to Avalon Hill, who said games of that era don’t sell.  In 1984 I offered Britannia to Gibsons, and it was published in 1986, but by that time I was on hiatus and didn’t even see a published version of Britannia played until 2004.

I don’t recall what caused me to start working on DR.  I’d say the theme is quite obvious.  On the other hand Steve Jackson’s Ogre, which is closer to Dragon Rage in theme than any game I know of, was published in 1977, and though I never played it I was aware of it.  Much of the playtesting would have been done at the Drago game club at Duke University while I was finishing my Ph.D.  Further changes were made by Arnold Hendrick, Howard Barasch, and the developers at Dwarfstar, in cooperation with myself.  I’m including an image of the board as I submitted it, and those familiar with the game will notice that a second gate on the west side of the city was added during development.  The only other thing I recall - actually my brother recalls – is that the dragons might have one too few hits per wing, in our opinion.  But if you want a game to be more challenging for one side than the other, it’s probably best that the attackers have the challenge because attacking tends to be more fun than defending.

DR was designed as a hex and counter wargame, which was the typical hobby game of the time.  The game has the virtue as compared with many other hex and counter wargames that there are no stacks of pieces, only one unit per hex with very few exceptions.  The combat table is also a differential table so it’s not necessary to calculate odds by division, just to subtract.

The game was published along with seven others, six of them developed internally by Dwarfstar, in a Microgame format.  The boxes were 7.5" by 4.25", the 14" by 12" board was printed on thick cardboard rather than mounted, the half-inch pieces were also printed on cardboard though die cut.  On the other hand it cost only $10 (which amounts to about $30 in today’s money, but seemed quite cheap compared to game prices in 1982).

I was told that 10,000 copies were printed and that Dragon Rage was the best selling of the eight games.  I think I received maybe three copies of Dragon Rage and one or two copies each of the other seven games.  And as it turned out that’s all I ever received for designing the game.

The business failure
Now what I report I cannot swear to, I only know what I was told by the guys who developed the game, and I’m relying on memory about 30 years old. 

Dwarfstar was a subsidiary of Heritage Models.  Heritage was one of the big miniatures producers of the time, and even today Duke Seifried is very well-known in the miniatures community.  Like many small companies Heritage depended on a bank line of credit (loan), and according to my informants Duke and his bank manager got into a “spitting contest” (not literally of course - but I remember that phrase from 30 years ago) and the bank called in his loan.  That was it. Although Dwarfstar was doing well it went down with Heritage. 

There were reports in 1984 that the line would be revived, but I heard nothing about it directly, and nothing happened.  I suspect the unavailability of the printing plates was a deciding factor. The plates that were used to print the games were kept by the printer because he had not been paid.  This made it sufficiently expensive for someone else to pick up the games that they languished, and as far as I know the other seven languish to this day although you can find electronic copies of all seven at Joe Scoleri’s Dwarfstar games site at 

(The importance of printing plates at that time:  Remember Avalon Hill saying games of Britannia’s era don’t sell?  When Gibsons showed that it did sell, and Gibsons had the printing plates already done, which is a considerable part of the expense of publishing, Avalon Hill decided to publish Britannia in the USA.  This is why there’s so much physical resemblance between the Gibsons and Avalon Hill versions, evidently they used the same printing plates.  And of course it turned out that games of that era could sell.  But maybe they hadn’t up to that time.)

Most likely the failure to be paid anything for this game was one of the things that convinced me that hobby boardgames were going to, if not disappear, diminish greatly.  I saw RPGs on one side – D&D was for 20+ years my favorite game – and computer games on the other side, squeezing boardgames in the middle.  And I was right about wargames, they now have an immensely smaller market than in the early 80s.  So I decided to ignore the game hobby and get a real job, and for the next 20 years taught myself computer programming, became a teacher of computer literacy and programming, worked as chief of networking in an Army Medical Center, and then went back to being a college teacher of computer networking and later of video game design.  One of my last actions in the hobby was to submit Britannia to Gibsons and two years later they published it, but when the copies arrived I looked at it and then set it aside because that was no longer where my mind was.

The Theme
As you may know, many times a publisher will choose a different name than the author’s for a game.  I think Dragon Rage is one of the best titles any game could ever have, and  I don’t think there was ever a possibility of changing from the title I’d selected.  As an example of a change, my name for what became Britannia was “Invasions of Britain,” or “Invasions” for short.   I discovered a few years ago that there’s a PlayStation 2 game by 3DO named Dragon Rage that has nothing to do with this boardgame.  Good title, eh?  I used it first.  But if you look up Dragon Rage on Wikipedia, that’s the game you’ll get.

The only game I can remember designing where I tried to conform to a particular story was Valley of the Four Winds.  I don’t do “simulations” but I do like a non-abstract game to be a model of something, and the model here is an attack on a fantasy city by various monsters.  As one recent reviewer said, everything in the game serves to illuminate and reinforce the theme.  DR has a ready-made “story”, not a story imposed on the game, but a story growing out of a situation. 
I like to set up a situation and let the players determine what happens.  If it’s an historical game then I recognize that what did happen in history is only one of many possibilities, and probably not the most likely one, which leaves a lot of room for different occurrences.  So in Dragon Rage I didn’t try to impose a story, I just set up a situation where the bad guys – a couple dragons, or possibly a bunch of evil humanoids and giants – are attacking a human city.

While I’m no longer much interested in tactical games (other than Dungeons & Dragons), and now prefer games with more than two players, more than 30 years ago I designed several two player games including many tactical games.  The tactical games are certainly a stronger way to present a personal story, that is, something that you can identify with directly.  In Dragon Rage you can identify with a dragon or a giant, or you can identify with a hero or a wizard.  In sweep of history games like Britannia there’s really no one to identify with; although there are leaders, even the longest lived leader is only there for a small part of a thousand years of history.

I’ve always thought of boardgames as competitions where people are trying to figure out the best move, but there is no absolutely clear best move because of all the uncertainties of warfare and reality.  (Chess and checkers have certainty, there is a best move even though no human is good enough to always know the best move.  In a sense they are puzzles.  I don’t like puzzles.)  So you have to do some thinking to succeed at Dragon Rage.  Some players might say “oh I’m a dragon, I’m going to just kick butt and blow those humans away.”  You can try to do that, and for a while it will work, but if it were that easy then who would ever want to play the human defenders?  You can charge right in but this will probably lose the game.  You have to be smart; you have to, in sports terms, take what the defense gives you, nip in and out rather than simply charge in and start smashing.  There’s lots of smashing to be done but if you let yourself get into a slogging melee early on, you’re going to die.  Yet the city defenders receive reinforcements periodically so you can’t “take your sweet time” to avoid all risks.

I think this fits the theme better than sheer mayhem, although it may not encourage the kind of power trips that are common in video games where you don’t have an actual opponent.  Dragon Rage could certainly be adapted as a video game, either for the defenders to defend against computer attackers or as a two player networked game.

The game is colorful and provides a great stimulus to the imagination without actually having a specific story attached.

Jump ahead to 2004
In the early 80s I was teaching myself computer programming and networking and playing D&D as I had since 1975.  Between 1984 in 2004 I had nothing to do with hobby gaming other than to play Dungeons & Dragons and some video games.  When I gradually “came back” to the hobby my first concern was getting Britannia back into print, but another task was to find someone to reprint Dragon Rage.  Microgames per se had pretty much disappeared, replaced by collectible card games and casual video games.  And Dragon Rage is, despite its simplicity, fundamentally a hex and counter wargame, which is a category that diminished immensely during my 20 years away.  In any case I wanted Dragon Rage to be published in a much nicer, larger format than a microgame.

Many readers have probably heard about the confusion about rights of the game Merchant of Venus that is now being published by Fantasy Flight Games with additions by Stronghold Games.  I had encountered problems with Britannia, in fact my first reintroduction to the game hobby was hearing that MultiMan publishing thought that they had the rights to reprint Britannia, as assigned by Hasbro after the end of Avalon Hill.  The rights had been licensed to Avalon Hill by Gibsons, not from me directly, and my contract with Gibsons specified that the game rights reverted to me once it went out of print, so I was quite sure that neither Hasbro nor MultiMan had any rights at all.   (Notice also that the Avalon Hill Britannia was copyrighted in my name, not by Avalon Hill.) Fortunately MultiMan wasn’t really interested in publishing Britannia, otherwise there would have been “a mess”.

In the process of looking for a Dragon Rage publisher I heard that Reaper Miniatures thought they had the rights to the Dwarfstar games.  I had no trouble tracking down the main man at Reaper and being sure that there was no confusion about rights.  Then I could try to find a new publisher.

So as I attended game conventions I looked for possible publishers.  After Fantasy Flight Games published Britannia they had DR for a couple years before passing on it.  In any case it is not an FFG-style game if you look at their product line.  Neither is Britannia but in that case the owner liked the game, and the owner of a game publisher has some latitude in what he does!   GMT games looked at Dragon Rage and said they thought they could sell it for something like $45 but they couldn’t produce it to sell at that price.

I have no recollection of how I first came into contact with Eric Hanuise, who to this day I have never spoken with either by phone or in person (I can say the same about the owner of FFG).  Eric says he heard about DR through Joe Scoleri’s site and wrote to me out of the blue.  But over the course of three years we got to the point that his new company, Flatlined Games, published Dragon Rage as their first game.   (I’ll interject here that I tried to convince Eric to pick a different name for his company since “flatlined” means dead, but it’s some kind of inside joke.)

My original idea for reissuing Dragon Rage was to retain exactly the wording of the rules, because I know all the problems that can occur whenever you change rules, and I had seen that manifest in the reissue of Britannia (2006).  The only thing I wanted to do was add rules for the Princess, who was mentioned in an original scenario but without any rules for how to deal with her.  Eric felt he should rewrite the rules in a more modern style, more “sequence of play” than the old rules which were written in a reference style as most were in the early 1980s.

Believing in reusability, I’m going to quote from my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish"

In older games, rules were written to be read thoroughly before play.  They were organized to be easily referenced when a player forgot a detail.  Now most rules are written in "Sequence of Play" style, on the assumption that the players will try to play the game while reading the rules for the first time.  If that’s true, then the rules must follow the order in which the players will try to do something in the game.  This makes for a poor reference, unfortunately.  But the fact is, most tabletop game players want to be taught how to play rather than read the rules, and if no one can teach them, they often try to learn the game as they play.

I still prefer the reference style because I’m convinced that anybody who tries to play a game at the same time that they’re reading the rules is inevitably going to screw it up.   In Eurostyle games that doesn’t always matter, but it tends to be more important in wargames.  Yet sequence of play is how it’s done nowadays.  And I don’t think I tried to talk Eric out of it.  In the end we have both kinds of rules included in the game, a sequence of play set and a reference rulebook.

Eric devised the map for Nurkott and added the scenarios for it.  He made the maps with Profantasy Campaign Cartographer.   See for a brief description with the final maps.  The step-by-step process is described at (scroll down to September 12, 2011).

At one point Eric sent me a rough cut of cover art which unfortunately looked to me like a Neogi from Spelljammer, not a dragon.  Fortunately the cover art that was used in the end, by Miguel Coimbre, is outstanding and nothing like that first cut.

So my function was more as a proofreader than anything else as the project took shape.  We did run into one problem that’s very instructive, an example of how a simple misunderstanding in the rules can break a game.

At one point Eric told me that the dragons seemed to be losing an awful lot of games in his playtesting with the newly written rules and asked me if I could figure it out.  So I took his preliminary art and mounted the board and pieces on foam board and painstakingly cut the pieces out.  Then I took it up to my brother's house (more than 300 miles - but he had experience of having played the original version).  I sat in his living room with my originally submitted rules, the originally published rules, and Eric's version of the rules and tried to make comparisons.

Fortunately it didn't take long before I got an idea of what had happened.  Corresponding with Eric confirmed it.  In Dragon Rage the defenders get reinforcements by ship after the game has been going for a while and at regular intervals thereafter.  The design purpose was to force the dragons to have a serious go rather than hang back and ticky-tack the defenders to death.  The dragons have to pick and choose their time and place to act but the reinforcements help induce them to actually attack rather than fool about.

The timing is determined by turns.  And Eric had counted turns differently than we did in the old days (and, I think still do in many wargames).  In the old days, play by one player and then the other constituted a single turn.  Eric counted this as two turns.  So the reinforcements started coming after five turns rather than 10 turns, and thereafter came twice as fast.  Keep in mind that Eric's native language is the Belgian version of French, not English, so this misunderstanding is not surprising.  But it made a huge difference in how the game played.

The rules had to be translated into Spanish and German, Eric having taken care of the French, and that actually may have delayed the entire project a while.

You may know that the number of copies printed of the game makes a huge difference to the cost per copy.  The setup cost is a fixed cost divided across the number of copies printed.  So Eric had to choose the largest print run that he thought he could afford to pay for, could sell, and could store somewhere, in order to have the best price for the product - 1,500.  The MSRP (which is several times the printing cost, of course - see came out to €50 or approaching $75 each.  This sounds like a heck of a lot compared to the price of the original game, but keep in mind the equivalent in today’s dollars, $30 rather than $10.  The new version has a much larger, mounted board with maps on both sides, and much larger pieces beautifully printed by LudoFact in Germany.  It is several times as good in physical quality as the original.

But the initial problem that raised the cost so much for buyers in the United States was that Flatlined Games is in Belgium, and the Belgian Post Office had a monopoly on shipping until quite recently.  As a result, shipping to most other countries cost €30, approaching $40!  So this made the game cost over $100 in the United States.

More than six months after publication, through contacts at Essen Spiel, the big game convention in Germany, Eric managed to sell some copies to online retailers in the US, but he wanted a more satisfactory situation.  The reasons are complicated, but at one point he was shipping games to Germany from which they were shipped to the US and Australia, because that was more practical than shipping them directly from Belgium!  In the end he has shipped his remaining English-language copies to GameSalute for distribution in the United States, and I saw GameSalute selling the game at GenCon for $75.  You can also get it at  That availability was the impetus for me to write this piece.

Future additions
Practically speaking, Dragon Rage provides a game system that can be used for many fantasy warfare situations involving fantasy creatures and battle magic.  And right now it seems to be one of the few, if not the only, fantasy hex-and-counter game in print and still supported by publisher and designer.

At some point Eric expressed a desire for ways to play the game with more than two players.  I devised a version, based on the idea that there is a competition to rule Nurkott, that works well but you need to have extra control markers to indicate who controls which pieces because there’s only two sets of pieces, the human pieces and the monster pieces.

Many boardgames have expansions these days but expansions have always struck me as very much limiting your market: if the expansion is an add-on to the original game only people with the original game have any interest in buying the expansion.  So we’ve settled on a standalone “expansion”, something that is a game in itself but can be combined with Dragon Rage for more scenarios and for play by more than two players.  But it will be a long time before that becomes available.

Dragon Rage is a niche game, not one that appeals to a broad market.  I think fans of the dry-as-dust, essentially abstract Eurostyle have started to want to play games where the theme really means something, where it makes a difference to how the game is designed and how it is played, and Dragon Rage is such a game.  It was designed as a game that can be played over and over again, not as a game that will be played a few times before people move on to something else.  Nor is it puzzle-like, there is no single solution as there are in many of today's “games.”  That's a large part of why it succeeded in the early 80s, and is succeeding today.


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

Thursday, February 07, 2013

February 2013 Miscellany

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


I expect to be at PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA on the last weekend of Feburary, and at WBC in Lancaster PA.  Remains to be seen whether I'll be at Origins or GenCon.

I'll have various versions of Britannia (one less than two hours long) to try out, as well as a pirates game that needs to be tested by the more hard-core kinds of players we get at PrezCon.

I'm also interested in talking with people about the nature of game design.  (Which can be really interesting, believe me.)  You don't need to be an expert, you don't even need to be a game designer, because the players are more important than the designers. . .


Alan Paull, English game designer and publisher, has started a blog that I'm sure will be good reading.  I've known him since 1977, and enjoyed many of his insights even as I sometimes disagree with him.

What is typically called "gamification" is usually "scorification".  Scoring mechanisms are adapted to some work that is goal-oriented.  That, plus the idea that you're "playing" rather than working, can help make work less onerous.  But it isn't turning work into games.  Not good games, anyway.

Even the higher class game magazines can get stupid, as when they're disappointed that Sony's presentation at E3 was not "stunning".  Getting punched in the face is stunning if you're not expecting it; finding out you have cancer is stunning, whether you expect it or not.  Being "stunned" by what someone says or shows in a presentation at E3 is NOT stunning, that's a sign of a weak mind.

My book "Game Design" etc. is now available in a Kindle edition for $14.74!
A "Nook Book" (ebook) edition from Barnes & Noble is $13.74.  The "Nook book" version may only be readable on Barnes & Noble ereaders! .

You may know that you can get a free PC program  that lets you read (and buy) Kindle books.  Something of the same kind is available to read "Nook Books" on iPhones, but I don't know about other platforms.

My wife tells me about a friend whose 3 year old is spending money playing a "free to play" smartphone game.  Peter Molyneuax (Fable, etc.) thinks many "whales" (big spenders on F2P gmaes) are kids.  What happens when people, and smartphone controls, stop a lot of this?  Hard on F2P games?

A big topic in the video game industry is whether consoles will continue to be viable in the future.  Some had predicted we wouldn't see new ones from Sony and Microsoft, but it looks like there will be.  I've always thought of consoles as 1) ways to stay away from a scary keyboard (long ago when people were much more apprehensive about computers) and 2) wannabe computers that quickly become outdated.  Yet they have persisted because they provide completely standard platforms for games (which PCs do not), because they're designed to be played on a big TV (which PCs are not), and because the manufacturers could make lots of money by controlling the games that could be played, and by thwarting piracy (especially in the cartridge era).

So given the directions of PC gaming and mobile gaming, why do people even want consoles, even if they're ultimately moneymakers for the manufacturers?  I don't know.

Many video game makers have the saying "fail fast" (or "fail quickly").  That is, if something isn't working in a game, get it out of there, don't stick with it when you know, in your heart, that it isn't good enough.  Good advice for tabletop designers, too.

The only caution is that some people become so used to losing (failing) that they don't care any more.  Which is probably worse than the people who win all the time (assuming they win because they're good).

I understand that some first and second grade classes in some places are no longer given grades, so that we don't differentiate those who do better (for a variety of reasons) from those who do worse . . .  Hereabouts, the kindergarten teachers aren't allowed to give gold stars for exceptional work any more, for fear it might make the  kids who don't do anything exceptional feel bad . . .

 In computer games, you can have complex rules that go on behind the scenes, if the players don't have to see what's going on.  You cannot do that in tabletop because people have to understand what's going on.  But if people have to see it, they need to understand why it is the way it is whether it's tabletop or video game.

Here's an unusual website:  You can read about such things as a lawsuit over the ownership of twitter followers.

Accumulation of victory points:

The older method tended to be, see who had the most points at the end of the game, don't accumulate points during the game.  The focus was on the long term, not the short term.

In this century, short-term thinking is commonplace, and players evidently feel a need to be rewarded as they play - winning at the end is not sufficient reward (and of course, in multi-player games, most people don't win any particular game).  Hence the tendency is to have a player score frequently, using the accumulated scores from the many scoring opportunities to decide who wins at the end.


Every game has a narrative - a player's account of what happened to him and to others. Few have a story with plot, characterization, etc.

All these egotistical dudes who think that the way they like games to work is the ONLY way, or is the way everyone likes them to work. . . I've been called an egotistical dude too, but I recognize that there are many, many ways to enjoy games, and my way is not even close to the majority nowadays.


Tracking how "the word" gets around the Internet.  This is a piece at the site of the (German) Game Designer Association, SAZ, pointing to an piece that in turn points to Joe Huber's review of my book "Game Design" etc.

Perhaps tabletop game designers focus more on "the journey" and less on "the destination" than video game designers, who tend to design for one player.  You can't lose a video game.  But most of the players in a multiplayer (more than two) tabletop game lose the game.  So the designer needs to make the journey enjoyable, rather than the destination of "winning", in order to accommodate most of the players.

I have often speculated about how well chess or Go might sell if they had not existed heretofore and were issued as games today.  I think, not well at all.  Quite apart from both being very "difficult" to play well, chess would be heavily criticized for being so unbalanced in favor of white, and having so many draws.

I don't see their long history and intertwining with culture as a substitute for story or theme, as some have suggested.  It's simply the good luck of circumstances.  Monopoly, a poor design at best, enjoys the same advantage.  If it didn't exist and was issued today it would be a tremendous flop.

Comic books might be the midpoint between RPGs that resemble novels and those that resemble tentpole (fantasy) adventure movies like Indiana Jones.  Not that most comics make any attempt to be believable.

And I have to say that most video games that attempt to be photo-realistic, are actually more like comics in play because of the many accepted conventions in such games: unlimited respawning, unlimited ammo sometimes, unbelievably accurate shooting, etc.

Monday, February 04, 2013

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?
(Especially, Trademarks)

Names of games are important to help a potential buyer understand what the game is about, and to invoke certain emotions or points of view that may help persuade the customer to buy the game.  For example, “Dragon Rage” tells you a lot about that game.  Yet the trend in Eurostyle boardgames for a while was that names told you absolutely nothing about the game: Carcassonne, San Juan, St. Petersburg, Puerto Rico, those titles tell you absolutely nothing.

Perhaps such uninformative titles are selected because most of the good game titles have already been used. It may also be because many Eurostyle games are not models of any reality and so there is no reality to refer to, that is, they are essentially abstract games and so the title may as well be abstractly meaningless. 

The book industry faces the same title-already-used problem, and one of the ways they get around it is also used in the game industry.  You give your game or book a subtitle.  For example when I finished my first book about game design my final title choice was “Learning Game Design”, which was quite descriptive.  But the publisher wanted something that sounded more scholarly.  I’ve described elsewhere ( ) all the steps we went through before we settled on the title “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish”.  The subtitle was necessary to differentiate it from other books with “game design” in the title.

This subtitle technique is also used for video games that are sequels or related to existing games but where the publisher does not want to use a number.  For example we have Assassins Creed III to show that it’s clearly related in a sequence from the original Assassins Creed, but we also have Assassins Creed: Liberation for the Sony Vita handheld.  Expansions to existing video games are often given subtitles so we have Civilization IV: Warlords and Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword.

 On the other hand, book titles are not trademarked, and game titles are, so the legal situation is somewhat different as we’ll see.  So far I’ve been talking about marketing, really, but the rest of this piece is about legal considerations.

What brought this to mind recently was the appearance of a video game for Android devices titled “Dragon Rage”.  From the marketing video, it appears to be an Angry Birds/Crush the Castle kind of game.  As many readers know I had a game of that title published as a “micro game” by Heritage/Dwarfstar Games in 1982, which was reissued with additions and a much, much higher physical quality by Flatlined Games (Belgium) in 2011, though it didn’t become available through American retailers until 2012.  In the 20 year period while I was away from the hobby a PlayStation 2 video game titled “Dragon Rage” was published by 3DO in 2001 and 2002.  With the 2011 version of the board game I once again had the “common law” trademark on the game title “Dragon Rage.”

What was I going to do about this?  At a minimum I didn’t want people to buy this video game thinking it is a video version of my boardgame.  Nor did I want people to buy my boardgame thinking it is a boardgame version of this video game.  You might say “who cares, they’ve bought your game” but then you end up with very unhappy customers and no one wants unhappy customers.

Trademarks have to be enforced.  If they’re not they can come into public use, and that’s why the makers of Scrabble have always been high strung about enforcing their trademark.  From my point of view I did not think I could ignore the existence of this video game, though the publisher of Dragon Rage was not concerned at all.

Now I don’t pretend to be a lawyer and cannot give legal advice.  Nonetheless, it’s not hard to read information about copyright and trademark, and I’ll give you a little bit of a run down.

Game titles are generally protected by trademark rather than copyright.  Copyright is intended to protect larger strings of text than one or two or a few words that make up most titles.  While copyright law tends to be the same from country to country because of the Berne Copyright Convention, trademark law can vary much more so I’m talking only about the United States.

There are two levels of trademark protection in the United States.  The simple “common law” protection is to claim trademark by putting the trademark symbol, a simple superscript “TM,” after the title to be trademarked, as in Britannia™.  In the case of games, the game has to actually be on the market, you can’t trademark something that isn’t (yet) a commercial product.  The more secure protection is to register the trademark, for which the symbol is an R in a circle ®.  The simple trademark costs no money, the registered trademark is officially $350 or more, though I have seen Trademarkia offer to register trademarks for $159.

Trademark does not lapse the way copyright does - although it takes a very long time for copyright to lapse nowadays compared with the rules 40 years ago.  We can see a few cases where trademarks continue to be claimed on characters in novels that are well out of copyright, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-1923 novels.  His John Carter novels on which the movie “John Carter” is based are out of copyright but “John Carter” and other related terms are still maintained as trademarks, and so the makers of the movie had to work with Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated even though the author died more than 60 years ago!  (See to find a search engine for trademarks.  The ERB Inc. “Barsoom” trademark is listed in detail at .)

Trademark law allows for the same word or phrase to be trademarked in many different areas of life as long as there is no likelihood of confusion.  For example there is Britannia the boardgame and there is a building society (more or less a savings and loan) in England called Britannia, both can be trademarked.  There are other uses of Britannia (such as the name of a world-setting in the video game Ultima) that probably don’t infringe on either trademark.  Apple Records and Apple Computer were content with the same name until recently when Apple Computer began to sell music through iTunes, and then there was legal action (since settled).

A game called “Story Realms” throughout its funding via Kickstarter suffered a name change when a company that owns sent a cease and desist letter. :
    the real kicker is this... our lawyer thinks that if this were to go to court, the case would be dismissed on summary judgement because we have not violated their trademark (their trademark is for specific goods and services that are not what we are offering), BUT if a suit was filed there's a chance that the initial judge would look at the similarity in names "Story Realm", "Story Realms", and say they were close enough to warrant an injunction while we get this sorted out. That means we can't use the name, sell the game, etc for however long it takes to get our case heard and resolved... which could be YEARS. And not just time, but LOTS and LOTS of expenses.

A great peculiarity and danger of trademark law seems to be that someone can register a trademark on some word or phrase and then stop other people from using it who have been using it for a long time.  Sometimes this reaches especially stupid proportions as large companies with sufficient funds to take people to court trademark everyday words such as “purple”.  (There are dozens of trademarks including the word purple, but one on the word alone.)  Unfortunately in the current climate in the USA where, as long as you’re doing something that makes money and is not obviously illegal, the government lets you get on with it, this kind of foolishness happens a great deal, especially in the Patent Office.  (I’m not going to get into patent trolling here, but it really is ridiculous.)

As always, if you have enough money you can go to a court or arbitration body without a leg to stand on and still force someone to do what you want simply because they cannot afford to litigate.  There was a famous case some years ago of a new French company called Eurotrash, if I recall correctly.  A company in Scotland had been using that name online for many years but the French company took them to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and it cost the British company tens of thousands of pounds to successfully defend their use of the word.  Today Eurotrash is a name of an opera, the name of a TV series, and who knows what else - activities not in the same realm as waste collection.  (I relate all this from memory of many years ago and cannot find any trace of it on the Internet today, such as at (where the legal action took place - as I recall.))

To go back to the case of Dragon Rage, only courts and lawyers can tell us whether boardgames and video games are sufficiently different that they can be regarded as separate areas of life.  In my view they were separate 15 or 20 years ago but not today when so many boardgames have video game versions and so many video games have boardgame versions.

Fortunately, when I pointed out the name clash to the company (making no demands and certainly not telling them to “cease and desist”) there was no problem.  They showed me that they had searched for registered trademarks, and that the 3DO trademark registered in 2001 had lapsed in 2003 because no statement of use was filed (3DO went out of business).  (When 3DO registered this trademark, if I had known about it, and if I had had the funds, and if Dragon Rage had not been out of print for nearly 20 years at that point, I might have tried to do something about it.  But none of those things were true.) 

Trademarkia also told them:
    This Dragon Rage mark has a greater likelihood of registration if it satisfies the following conditions: (1) it is not confusingly similar to other marks, (2) it does not dilute a famous mark, (3) it is not generic or descriptive, (4) if there are no unregistered, common law trademark holders that are using this trademark in commerce today, and (5) if the description and classification of your use of Dragon Rage is different than other non-abandoned registered marks having the same name.

My Dragon Rage trademark is of the “unregistered, common law” used in commerce today type.  Perhaps if they had searched the Internet for “Dragon Rage” they would have discovered the entries at Boargamegeek and at Flatlined Games (the publisher).  (Just as the Story Realms people should have searched the Internet for variations of their proposed game name.)  If Dragon Rage had been out of print since 1982 and not reissued, there would have been no existing common law trademark to interfere.  Unfortunately they were not aware that Dragon Rage had been reprinted in 2011. 

Fortunately, they were still in testing for their game, so they were able to fairly easily change the name to “Dragon Frenzy” - maybe an even better game name for when the dragon is going wild because you’re destroying its eggs.

The “moral of the story”?  If you publish a game be sure to claim the common law trademark on the name.  But first be very thorough in searching for other games and related activities of the same name, and if necessary use a subtitle to try to avoid future problems, or choose a different name.

Keep in mind that long out of print games no longer fulfill the “used in commerce today” requirement.  But the safer thing is probably to use a subtitle for a game if you think the main title has been used even in the distant past.  For example, “Dragon Rage: Defend the City” (I’m sure you can think of better subtitles!).

If you read any open discussion about trademarks, copyright, and patent, for example ) you’ll see that it really is a big can of worms at times.  It’s one of the reasons why we have courts and lawyers.

Search engine for registered trademarks

You can also use the US Patent Office to search for registered trademarks.
Go to and choose the trademark search.

and don't forget international search: