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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