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. 
Brief free introduction to game design audiovisual class ($9 if you don’t use this link):

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