Tuesday, December 12, 2017

“Mechanics Salad”

Some tabletop games are collectively categorized as “Point Salad”. Many things enable you to score points in these games, and there is no apparent logic to what scores and what doesn’t, other than what works for the game, that is, “the designer said so.”

This is very different from a game that is attempting to model something. Then there ought to be some logic to what scores points and what does not, certainly in a good model. (Sometimes these are called “strongly thematic games”.)

Abstract games are by definition not models of any particular reality. Which mechanics are used is only a matter of arbitrary choice for the designer. Classic abstract games like Chess and Go are also simple games, games that reflect my motto:  "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 art-gardening, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

In other words, simplicity is a virtue in itself, because it enables the player to easily understand the mechanics and be able to focus on the tactics and strategies of the game. You could say that abstract games are naturally minimalist.

Point Salad games are almost always abstract. But there's a category of games that may not be Point Salad, but still seems quite arbitrary: "Mechanics Salad". A completley abstract game is a small collection of mechanics, but in Mechanics Salad there are lots of mechanics. Sometimes it seems as though it's a game made up entirely of exceptions to the rules, except there don't seem to be any basic rules, just lots of individual cases. I don't care for Mechanics Salad because they are abstract games without the main benefits of abstraction (from a gameplay standpoint), and all the disadvantages of puzzles (I dislike puzzles).

This makes the game hard to learn: we don't have the context provided by a model to help us understand how the game works, but we don't have the fundamental simplicity of the classic abstract game.

The other problem with Mechanics Salad is that it's hard to bring harmony to the game. (Read www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20170424/296624/Harmony_and_the_Kludge_in_Game_Design.php for my extended discussion of harmony; briefly, everything in the game seems to fit with everything else, nothing in the game sticks out as not fitting or not belonging.) It's much easier to bring harmony to simple abstract games.

Okay, then why would you make a Mechanics Salad game?  Because you want to make a parallel competition puzzle, not an opposed game. In a parallel competition the players can do little or nothing to affect the other players deliberately, and perhaps not at all.

Puzzles that are more complicated are often harder to solve. In practice, it's difficult to make a really simple game that actually has much depth to it. (And I mean depth, not variety.) It's much easier to make a more complicated game, though it's much harder to make a more complicated game that's really good.

Yet Mechanics Salad is a popular kind of game. More people like puzzles than like games, I think.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Is it Wrong to make a Game too Challenging (or too Opaque)?

(Originally published on Gamasutra.)

I watched some videos the other day about the videogame Cuphead, a game that is very difficult to play successfully. One gameplay video showed that you needed really fast and precise reactions. The question was whether it's wrong to create a game that's too challenging for some or many people.

Maybe it's my age (66), but I cannot imagine someone saying such a thing about a game. No matter what the game, some possibly small or possibly large number of people won't be able to play successfully. I suspect it's part of Rampant Egalitarianism, which is behind most of Political Correctness, that requires everything to be reduced to the lowest common denominator so that no one is ever left out no matter how incompetent or lazy or simply unfortunate they may be.

On the other hand, I've advocated for many years that video games include an "autopilot", so that when it IS too hard, the player can let the game play the game through that difficult patch, in order to let the player experience the entire game. Simple. But the outrage from hard-core players against my suggestion in the past has been remarkably irrational and often virulent.

The equivalent in tabletop games may be the impetus to make games highly transparent, that is, make a game so that by the time someone has finished playing it once they know, or at least think they know, how to play well. (That usually means, make it a shallow game rather than a deep one.) Then they typically play the game one to three times and move on to the next game. When you make a highly transparent game you can rarely put significant depth into the game, so we have a sea of shallow games that mostly don't deserve to be played even three times. But making the game transparent and shallow means a lot more people can play without becoming "uncomfortable." The entire situation where the majority of tabletop games are puzzles turned into parallel competitions is a way of making the games more comfortable for everyone.

It's the Age of Comfort after all, young people are taught that they should never be uncomfortable, and those who are "different" are made to conform to a supposed majority. A lot of people are evidently uncomfortable with the notion that Cuphead is too hard for them to "beat". I haven't played it but after watching an extended play by a YouTuber, I know I wouldn't have a prayer - yet that doesn't bother me. Why would it?

Not everyone can play basketball or football at a high level, not everyone can be good at chess. It's the natural order of things. Each person is different and has different strengths and weaknesses, and if playing a video game that is heavily Athleticware doesn't work for them, it doesn't diminish them or harm them. Only when rampant egalitarianism rears its ugly head would the question ever arise of whether a game was "too hard."

I find that some people have no idea how different rampant egalitarianism is from the idea that all people are equal under the law.

Political Correctness is aimed at squashing merit, squashing capability, squashing any effort to be better.  Political correctness is an attempt to interfere with the American right to free speech.  It is an attempt to impose the "tyranny of the majority" which the US constitution is designed to avoid. It is part of rampant egalitarianism:  make everyone be the same, including their opinions. This is entirely different from the Founding Fathers' idea that all people deserve equal opportunity, rather it's the idea that everyone must be the same. The Founding Fathers didn't want the next Beethoven to be stuck toiling in a field all his or her life. Rampant Egalitarianism doesn't want anyone to be Beethoven (who it must be said, was a pretty strange dude), that's much too different.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Convention Attendance

As I have retired and gotten older, and now moved to Florida which is farther from the major game conventions than my old home, I’ve had to pick and choose which conventions I go to. I stopped going to Origins quite a few years ago because it had diminished, and I’m not convinced yet that it has recovered sufficiently to be worth my time and money. It appears I will not be going to the UK Game Expo again (it is more than 4,200 miles). (Keep in mind, being retired means you have more time than money.) Last year I didn’t go to GenCon because I wanted to avoid the 50th anniversary insanity but mainly because the schedule just didn’t work out. I try to attend WBC in Pennsylvania (880 miles from here) and then go to GenCon, possibly with a few days with my brother and sister-in-law in DC in between. In 2018 I should be able to do that.

I also like to go to Prezcon in Charlottesville Virginia at the end of February. I know a fair number of people at both Prezcon and WBC, whereas at GenCon I might see a few people I know but everyone is so busy there’s rarely time to talk.

I attend small conventions here in north Florida – there aren’t any big game-only conventions nearby. Dice Tower con is the big convention in Florida, but Miami is 368 miles from here, and the Dice Tower caters to the “oh shiny” generation and games that are often puzzles disguised his games - not my interest. There’s a prototype con 2+ hours away, but I can’t go to both it and Prezcon because of scheduling. I went to the first one and it was, once again, just about all about parallel competition puzzles disguised as games.

In a few years GenCon and WBC will be at the same time, and I’ll surely prefer WBC.

Keep in mind, I have never gone to conventions to play games, I go to talk with people and listen to people and learn things, and possibly pitch games to publishers. Pitching at GenCon doesn’t strike me as fruitful because you’re competing with so many other people pitching at the same time, to the point where some publishers are almost punchdrunk from seeing one game after another. At WBC and Prezcon there aren’t many publishers but I do have the opportunity to talk with them at length and possibly play my games with them. Most of the small conventions don’t have any publishers in attendance.

Friday, December 01, 2017

BF/CM/Christmas sale - when the discounts are gone, they're gone until next November

I have been offering courses on Udemy for about four years. When I signed up to teach, I opted out of the  "kamikaze" marketing that just cheapens everything about online education. I won't ever be offering a "$200 course" for $10, or any course for 75% off, as Udemy has. (Most instructors participate in that marketing, btw.) Nor do I participate in affiliate marketing.

I come from actual full-time college teaching (now retired). Big discounts insult the intelligence: if it's only worth $10, why are you listing it at $150? Furthermore, I don't like the idea of someone paying nearly full price for one of my courses, only to see others sign up for $10. I know that would annoy the heck out of me, if I were the student.

But even I realize that "Black Friday" is the time for a big sale - my *only* sale of the year.

Here's how it works.  I have two deeper discounts than I normally offer. There are just four coupons at Level 1 (which is about 63% of the list price), and seven coupons at Level 2 (68-77%). When they're gone, they're gone, no more offered until next November. Any unused will turn off before the year ends. I offer them here first, and tomorrow I'll post them on my website and G+.

So if you wait, the coupons might be used up.

I have two courses that are listed for $20, because that's the minimum price Udemy allows, but I distribute free coupons for both.  If you are one of the very few people - a handful out of 10,000+ - who pay for the course, within 30 days you can get a refund, and use the free coupons (below).

Level One (best discount, about 63-64%% of list):

Learning Game Design, Part 1. $29 (list $45)

Learning Game Design, Part 2:  $26 (list $40)

Playtesting: the Heart of Game Design. $19 (list $30)

How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games $22 (list $35)

How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) $22 (list $35)

Brief Introduction to Game Design $16 (list $25)

Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design $13 (list $20)

Level 2 (68-77%):
Learning Game Design, Part 1. $34 (list $45)

Learning Game Design, Part 2:  $30 (list $40)

Playtesting: the Heart of Game Design. $23 (list $30)

How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games $26 (list $35)

How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) $26 (list $35)

Brief Introduction to Game Design $19 (list $25)

Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design $15 (list $20)


The following are always heavily discounted (because I had to raise the list price when Udemy required all courses to be at least $20):
Get a Job in the Video Game Industry $12 (list $20)

$10 off Joys of Game Design $10, list $20) (for hobby designers rather than aspiring pros), Coupon Joys10,

FREE "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences" Coupon ConventionsFree, URL:

Free "Conceiving a New Game: Tips for Aspiring Designers". This is actually a compilation of some screencasts from my YouTube channel, rather than a formal class. This is just another way to make them available.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Recent Screencasts (Video)

I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent screencasts instead.

What is a planner's game (No, not Tsuro!)
Brief comment on what a planner's game is, with Tsuro as the example of what it isn't.

Common errors in explaining how to play a game
I've seen so many people, when explaining face-to-face how to play a game, make big mistakes in their approach, that I felt I had to talk about the right way.

Number of Players
This video from an as-yet-unfinished Intro to Card Game Design makes sense for other kinds of games as well.

Game Contenders. Game Surfers, Game Bathers
Trying to understand game players. I tried my usual method of dividing something into two extremes with lots in between; but this time I had to go to three extremes.

Requests from fans to game designers
Stories of requests from fans of my games, some straightforward, some a bit odd.

Pulling from a bag vs Drawing from a deck
Sometimes pulling something from a bag is no different, in gameplay terms, than drawing a card from a deck. There are practical differences to be considered, though. Sometimes one makes more sense than the other.

14 milestones in the evolution of games
Just what it says.  Please help me pay the bills for all this free information: my Patreon is at:

How team sports cope with "board" size problems
As athletes have become bigger and faster, in effect the playing fields become smaller. How have sports coped with this (or not)?

Game design is never-ending compromise
Many novices think they can "have it all". But that's not the nature of game design (or of  life).

How I develop cards for a new game
This is part of a course still being created, about specialty card game design. But it applies to all games that use cards.

Two reasons for all the online arguments about games and platforms
For years I was surprised that people insistently argued with me when I said there were games I don't like/don't think much of, even when I explained fully. I've finally figured it out, and here's why.

Ideal FTF tournament game characteristics
With GenCon about to occur as I write, this seems an apropos topic. What characteristics make for the best tournament games at tabletop game conventions?

Adapting game systems to other topics
It's common to use the same game system for more than one game. At some point, adapting a system to a different game (different subject, objective, etc.) won’t work well.

Where do we draw the line?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Simplifying a Game Design

Almost always, when I talk with groups of people about game design, I quote Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Another way of saying this is about Japanese art-gardening "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

I make games that are models of something, or are “pure” abstract games, that is, games that are very simple in conception.  But there is an opposite philosophy of making a puzzle-like game more complex so that the puzzle is harder to solve. Simplification is quite a different matter in that situation, and something I can't address specifically both because it's the opposite of my philosophy and because I dislike that kind of so-called "game."

I try to be simple throughout, but it's common for designers to start with something simple and keep adding things to it, until they realize that they weighed the game down too much and need to go back toward the simple. When I see a problem in my design I try to find a simple solution, possibly a simplification, rather than add something to the game, but many designers will usually add something to fix a problem. And then those additions can become too much weight.

As I answered questions after a session at a convention, someone told me about an RPG he'd designed and tested, that all the testers said was too complex. "How do I simplify it?" he said.

An assumption here is that the testers, by and large, aren't able to say exactly what must be simplified, they just know that currently there's "too much."

First, I said, try to write down the "essence" of the game in a few sentences. This can take some doing, believe me. Ideally you've done it already, but if you had, perhaps you wouldn't be having the too-much-complexity problem to begin with.

There are different ways to characterize the essence of a game, sometimes structurally, sometimes according to what the player does, sometimes in another way or a combination. But be sure it's a unique essence, not just a list of mechanics, because the list the mechanics doesn't say anything about what's important or what the impression on the player is supposed to be.

Example (Britannia): "On an anvil of blood and terror they forged the destiny of an island!" In this epic wargame four players each control several nations playing at different times with different objectives throughout the Dark Ages history of Great Britain. Romans, Britons and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans - they all play a part in the history of Britain. Combat is resolved with dice. This is a strategic game of achieving objectives, not of conquest, though many invaders conquer large parts of Britain at different times. 4 to 5 hours for experienced players. "Invade Britain. Rewrite history. Rule." (The quoted phrases are tags devised by the publishers of the first and second editions of the game.)

Then think about the various aspects of the game in relation to that essence. If something doesn't contribute to the essence, can it be removed? Surely, at the least, it can be simplified, abstracted, or combined with something else. Every game (tabletop or video), at bottom, is fairly simple, and your job is to retain its simple heart and remove what doesn't contribute enough to that heart.

Second, make a list of the major features or elements of the game, perhaps 10 to 20 of them. Consider again how they contribute to the essence, and how you can remove or simplify or combine as appropriate.

After you have (in your mind, at this point) removed or simplified what you confidently can, give the list of the (now remaining) major features to some of your playtesters and ask them to decide which could be removed entirely, and which should be simplified. (This may not help much if testers disagree about whether the game is too complex.) Don't ask people to rank each feature in comparison to the others, as that can be very difficult. It's much easier for people to divide a group into four parts, in this case from most important to the game down to least important. You might even want to write each feature on a separate 3 by 5 index card to make it easy for the playtester to sort them.

Whether you ask playtesters individually or in groups depends on what you think they'll be most comfortable with.

Then consider how you can get rid of the items in the bottom quarter, or even the bottom half if the game is much too complex.

Then playtest the result, of course.

I've listed these in an order beginning with what you can do on your own, to what you can do in conjunction with your playtesters.

As for some details:
Perhaps you can simplify a game by combining two things together into one. You don't actually eliminate either, you just streamline.

An obvious way to simplify is to find decisions players must make that have no significant effect on the outcome of the game. In other words, if it doesn’t matter what the player chooses, if it's trivial, why make them choose at all?

Similarly, there can be choices for particular decisions that no one ever chooses. Get rid of them, if that's possible.

You can resort to abstraction, that is “remove a more accurate and detailed version of that aspect or function and replace it with a less accurate and detailed version or no version at all” (Adams and Rollings, Fundamentals of Game Design).

Automation is often a means of simplification in video games. While we cannot exactly automate anything in a purely tabletop game, we can take something onerous for the players, and turn it into something that happens in the background or automatically, from their point of view. (Yes, some tabletop games include smartphone apps to automate.)

Some games, including virtually all RPGs, are models of some situation, even if it’s a fictional situation as is often the case in RPGs. When you’re modeling something it’s a little easier to simplify, I think, because when you take something out of the game you can try to judge how that affects the correspondence of the model to the situation. When you’re simplifying an abstract game, and that includes a game with a tacked on theme such as many Eurostyle games, then you don’t have that guide.

In either case, harmony has to be one of your guides. I discussed this at length on Gamasutra (https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20170424/296624/Harmony_and_the_Kludge_in_Game_Design.php) and I’ll try to summarize here. Harmony: “everything in the game feels as though it belongs there and contributes to the purpose and feeling of the game as a whole.” This is like music harmony, it’s easy to recognize but not so easy to create. It's important because games are not just collections of mechanics, not just data, not just metrics. Games make intellectual and emotional impressions on players, and lack of harmony is noticeable, sometimes clearly, sometimes in subtle ways.

So the question is, what can be removed because it is inharmonious with the rest of the game? Or when you’re going to remove something, what will is do to the harmony of the game? And that’s going to apply whether the game is abstract or a model.

Sometimes a game's interface will get in the way, much more often true with video games than with tabletop games. Is there a way to make the interface simpler, to provide information in more accessible ways or to make it easier to manipulate the game?

Let me give you a drastic example of simplifying a well-known game: Monopoly.  Unless there are few players in the game, it's standard practice to buy whatever property you land on as you go around the first few times. This becomes a trivial decision, especially because most people incorrectly play the game without auctions; so it should be removed from the game. Why not shuffle the property cards and deal three or four to each player at start of the game, and let them decide whether to buy those properties or to put them into auction? (You might want to give players several hundred dollars extra because they're not Passing Go in this situation.) Once that's sorted out then you get on with the game. The game is not (should not be) about going round and round randomly, it's about trading properties and making monopolies. At least, that's what the game is for adults, for children the going round and round might be an enjoyable part of the game.

This simplification should make it a significantly better game, yet the effect of most simplifications is not as obvious. It's the accumulation of simplification that helps polish the game and get from the 80% point (well, it works) closer to the 100% point (it's a good game).

Always beware that you don't take something out that's essential to the game. While you can simplify a game into oblivion (a bagatelle), it's much more likely you will complicate a game into oblivion (a train-wreck). And always keep Harmony in mind.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Designing Stock Market Games

Buying and selling stocks is fundamentally predicated on a forecast of how well the company is going to prosper in the future. In olden days this was based on the price to earnings ratio, where you wanted to pay not more than 15 times the annual dividend you would expect to get. Nowadays some companies do not pay dividends, so it can be based on your expectation of how much the stock price is going to rise or fall, for example if you bought Microsoft stock early on you would have a lot of money per share now (the stock has split several times I think). Same for Amazon stock (though it has not split).

But that’s the long term view. There’s also a short-term view, the view of “day-traders” who want to buy a stock at a lower price than they expect it to be in a few days or weeks and sell stocks at a higher price than expected to be in a similar amount of time. Day-trading in particular is susceptible to good or bad news, for example when the British voted to exit the European Union it had an immediate strong effect on the stock markets even though it was expected to take two years for them to actually withdraw.

I am strictly a long-term stock buyer and see day-trading as a form of gambling/insanity. But it’s also a kind of game, and for some people it’s their favorite game.

A former student wants to make a tabletop game to reflect how the day-trading stock market works. We had a long discussion about the other day at the North Florida Game Designers’ Guild meeting and this is a result.

The typical defect of a stock game is that the events causing stock prices to rise or fall are randomly generated, and unforeseeable. But there are exceptions. For example, the venerable and excellent Sid Sackson game Acquire uses the growth and mergers of hotel chains, which are controlled by the players, to strongly affect the final value of stocks. Some railroad games use the success or failures of railroad companies to cause stocks to rise or fall in value. The game Imperial uses a World War I like struggle among nations to govern the rise or fall in value according to how well the nation does in the war. The players are controlling/playing the railroad part of the game or the war part of the game, but the outcome of the game depends on stock ownership of successful entities.

But this is all a long-term point of view, and my former student was interested in the short term, the day trader point of view.

A perhaps not explicit assumption here is that game players want to feel that they control what goes on in the game, that they succeed because of their own efforts. Random fluctuations in price don’t allow that. So we need something that enables players to influence the price fluctuations in the short-term rather than the long-term. What I suggested is that each player could have an identical set of cards to use to influence the price of certain stocks. Among other things there could be a reckoning for a stock where each player would play a card face down, the cards would be collected and shuffled under the table so that no one knew which card came from which player, and those cards would collectively determine what happened to the stock. The obvious thing would be to have each card simply say, company does well, or company does badly, or company stays about where it is (neutral). There could also be the occasional card that represents some news that causes a fluctuation in prices, for example an international crisis.

So if the plurality of cards is success for the company than the price will go up, and if the plurality is poor results for the company than the price would go down. From that point further price changes would depend on the players, so if they sold a lot of stock the price would go down and if they were bought a lot of stock the price would go up. It would still be the case that any stock that was bought a lot would go up in price even if the company results were not good. (We do see that in the market.) While I’ve never thought much about making a stock market game myself, I think this was the method I came up with for enabling players to affect price in the short run.

The method I’ve seen for having buying and selling prices change is a simple ladder. As players buy or sell stock they put cubes on the spots on the ladder, and when the spots are filled on a rung they move to the next higher rung (when buying) where the prices they pay are higher compared to the base price at the start of the turn, or to the next lower rung (when selling) where the price they get is lower.

This method also offers the players the opportunity to collude to drive a stock price up or down, but if the “voting” is truly secret then there can be “backstabbing” insofar as a player may make a deal to vote for a company to prosper and yet play a card of some other type.

If all negotiation is over the table, however, it will be difficult to collude in a meaningful way. But to have lots of regular secret negotiation sessions, as in the game Diplomacy, means it would be a much longer game. The alternative is to give each player a certain number of tokens that can be played to enable them to have a brief secret negotiation with another willing player. The very fact that the two players are talking together can help make the other players paranoid, if nothing else, two or three minutes of talking ought to be enough to allow for collusion or other deals. When the player runs out of negotiation tokens then the only way they can have a secret negotiation of’s of someone else plays a token in order to talk to them.

I like this so much that I even thought of doing such a game myself for about five seconds, but I have so many other relatively new games with good prospects that I’ll have to put it aside.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

My ENWorld Columns - links

I have become a columnist on ENWorld, the most common meeting-place for fans of tabletop RPGs. (As some of you know, I was columnist/contributing editor of many RPG magazines in the late 70s and early 80s, such as Dragon, White Dwarf, Space gamer, and others.) These appear about twice a month.

#1 Dilemma of Simple RPG  29 Apr 17

#2 Consequence and Reward 20 May 17

#3 Let's Not Save the World . . . Again (elements of pacing) 7 June 17

#4 Different look at playing styles 7/8/2017

#5 Tactical Styles in Combat Oriented RPGs 7/22/2017

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Recent Screencasts August 17

 I don't post individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I list the most recent  screencasts instead.

Little choices can make a big difference in design
I try to illustrate how seemingly small choices can make a big difference to a game design.

Nuts & Bolts: The Co-op "Fail Mechanic"
I explain why I call co-ops with one winner a "fail-mechanic." With some players it just won't work.

Strategies to Respond to the "Eight Awful Truths" of game marketing
Original Awful Truths are at https://youtu.be/DbNlo4Jgk4A

13 "Laws" of Game Design
Like many "laws", these are more strong probabilities than absolutes.

Play to win? Nope. 
Pundits have sometimes been slow on the uptake, but it will come as no surprise to game players that playing to win is not the objective of many players. Keep that in mind when you design your games.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Triptych 10

Triptych 10
Three separate topics in one post

At the end of my more than two week trip with WBC in the middle . . .

Avatars in games
Using the word “narrative designer” to describe a story-teller? Bad idea.
The word “game” is becoming so broad in meaning as to be useless


A major change in games is the advent of the avatar-based game. In such games the player is represented by a single piece, and often if that single piece is killed the player loses the game. Now you can look at the King in chess as a sort of avatar, but the king is one of the weakest pieces in the game, whereas in a typical avatar-based game the avatar is a very strong “piece.” Dungeons & Dragons may not have invented the avatar-based game but certainly is one of the earliest and the most influential. The player is his character and the character is the player, in a sense. When people talk they often conflate the two. The avatar is the means by which the player affects the game and manipulates the assets of the game. The avatar is usually quite powerful, and may go up against many many enemies and prevail. This is pattern followed by a great many video games such as shooters and action games. The whole paraphernalia of levels and experience and loot and so on comes from Dungeons & Dragons.

Where tabletop games have gone toward card games, video games, at least the big ones, have largely gone to the avatar-based paradigm.  (In any case both have gone away from classic boardgames, which are games of conflict and maneuver where geospatial relationships are very important.) This is not to say that there aren't still boardgames around of the traditional style but they are much less common and they appeal to a much smaller part of the hobby game playing world than was true, say, 40 years ago.

We can also say that games that model some reality (possibly a fictional reality) were much more common in the past than they are now. A great many games are essentially abstract - insert here the bit about correspondence - with a so-called theme that I call an atmosphere tacked on for marketing purposes. It doesn't say much about the buying public that they buy more based on the marketing story then on the actual game. But I suppose that's partly because most people buy games and game shops don't really know much about the game, and the game doesn't tell them much about the game, on the back it tells them about the story. In a sense all the old classic games, before commercialism in games, are abstract but most of them have the maneuver and conflict that are common to warfare. The current abstract games with worker placement and drafting and role assumption, have nothing to do with any reality.

Using the words “narrative designer” to describe a story-teller? Bad idea

If I regarded myself as a professional story-maker, I certainly wouldn't use the word "narrative" to describe what I was doing.  Everything humans do has a narrative, an account of what happened, but that narrative is rarely of interest to other people.  Driving to the store and buying groceries has a narrative.  Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often not good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to.

A good story is a narrative, but one where the consumer cares about the characters, and where the plot is exceptionally interesting to the target audience.

The word “game” is becoming so broad in meaning as to be useless

I stopped at one of those fast food restaurants that give you a large paper on the tray.  It sang the praises of a new sandwich.  In the corner it said "Games" with an arrow pointing to the other side.

So I turned it over.  Every one of the "games" was a formal puzzle: a maze, a word search, a search for objects hidden in the background, a recognition of topiary silhouettes (which animal is this?).

The point is, "games" has become a very broad category to the average person, not recognizing how very different a one-person puzzle with an always-correct solution is, from a game with more than one person and lots of player-to-player interaction.

When “game” becomes nearly synonymous with “play”, then we need to redefine “game,” or stop using it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

DixieCon 31 - a Regional Mini-Convention

Over Memorial Day weekend (2017) I attended a mini-convention in Chapel Hill North Carolina.

I call this a mini-convention because of the relatively small turnout. Fewer people were involved than in a typical meeting of the NC State Tabletop Gamers, but the difference is persistence, both in the con and from year to year (31 years). At one point I heard the number 45 participants, which was higher than in the past. So it’s roughly one third the size of Rapier Con in Jacksonville Florida - but Chapel Hill North Carolina is the small university town (UNC-CH, THE UNC), though Wake County is not far away with its 900 K or so people.

Many of the participants come from pretty far away (Tampa FL for example, and VA), come every year, and apparently have been doing this for many years. It was the first time for me, though I live less than 70 miles away. There were some young people around but many of the participants were of the age you see at wargame conventions - lots of Baby Boomers.

This wasn’t surprising because DixieCon is first and foremost a Diplomacy convention, and has been home for the World Diplomacy Championships about three times. I played Diplomacy (and designed many, many variants) a long time ago but have not played in decades. I arrived early Friday morning, and before the tournament began I was able to get people to playtest some of my games; after the tournament started (and aided and abetted by an eight player Twilight Imperium game) my playtesters evaporated.

There were lots of interesting people to talk with, from a game collector dealer to someone who runs lots of Diplomacy variants online.

Accommodation is available because the convention takes place in a couple of lounges in a high-rise dorm building (Granville Towers). $35 a night, simple and straightforward. I went to bed not long after 10, and had decided I wasn’t going to have a roommate, but he turned up after 2 AM. We just passed in the night more or less.

The convention itself has a $35 fee. Lots of parking is available, as the students aren’t present. There are lots of eateries on Franklin Street a third of a mile away, and on Saturday evening David Hood arranges a big barbecue (for eight dollars).

Saturday afternoon I tried to talk the guys out of playing Twilight Imperium, which is one of those games that last forever while not much happens, very much a corporate management game rather than command game: what I call a fake wargame. But the owner of the game had spent considerably more than $100 on game and expansions and needed to justify his expenditure!

The most popular game at the convention other than Diplomacy was Terraforming Mars. I try to figure out why it’s so popular: part of it may be that it’s typical Eurostyle Corporate Management, but it is tied much more closely to it’s theme than most Euros. And the theme itself is quite different.

I had some car starting problems Saturday morning but AAA sorted those out. I got home Saturday night (the third round of the tournament is on Sunday morning) with no further car difficulties, and as I went to bed after 10:30 I thought, "those guys are still playing Twilight Imperium!" There must be some "Monster Game" incentive there, that I'm immune to . . . I solo tested one of my two-player block games that afternoon, starting while they were still explaining the rules (which itself was a very long procedure), and when I finished they had not yet actually started to play though they had set up the board. [One of them responded electronically later that they probably were only in the second turn at 10:30!]

I'm really impressed that David Hood has been organizing such a fine little gathering for 31 years.  And he doesn't even get to play in the tournament, because of past shenanigans by another Diplomacy tournament director. I doubt he gets near enough praise for the effort.  Thanks, David.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Recent Screencasts (9 June 2017)

I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent  screencasts instead.

Departing from the standard (card game) sequence of play
https://youtu.be/sfb1aWU6Ens 6/8/2017
The standard sequence of play makes a specialty card game easier to learn. But don't "settle" for it, your game may be better with something else.

Nuts & Bolts: How to get an improvisers's game from a planner's game
https://youtu.be/juG7AfFcqas 6/1/2017
I describe how I changed Britannia, an historical Planner's game par excellence, into an Improviser's space wargame, with just a few changes. Very different experience, essentially same underlying mechanics.

Ranking Sources of Information About Game Design Two parts
https://youtu.be/MjmP1kD7Vyc 4/20/2017
The best way to learn is to make games. The second best way is to talk with (and listen to) other game designers, whether informally or in a class. After that there are many sources of learning, and I've ranked those in a two-part screencast.

Eight awful truths about game marketing
I ran across "10 Awful Truths about Book Marketing" online, and seeing the parallels with games, I'm discussing those Truths (including the two that don't apply). Another time I'll discuss some strategies you can follow to do your best in this environment.

There's no "Secret Knowledge" or "secret Sauce" (nor conspiracies) in Game Design 
Aspiring designers sometimes believe that there's a secret formula to game design, and all they have to do is follow it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The delusion seems to be common in society these days, that there's a secret knowledge to any discipline. It's the kind of thing that helps fuel conspiracy theories.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How Could the Axis Have Won World War II?

(This is the answer to a Quora question.)

The great wars of the 20th century were primarily economic. In World War II, the Axis powers had an advantage in military forces that they needed to use to overcome the economic advantage of the Allied powers, before the Allied advantage turned into a military advantage. Britain was far stronger than Italy economically, Russia was at least as strong as Germany, and the United States was overwhelmingly stronger than Japan, in the long run stronger than all the Axis powers together .

So to win the war the Axis would have needed to use its military forces more effectively, and focus on improving their economic situation. I suggest that two things would have helped, though I’m not sure even those could have brought victory, maybe a standoff. The first and most important of these was for the Germans to focus on the Mediterranean in 1941 and hold off the invasion of Russia until 1942. The second would be for the Japanese to declare war conventionally, rather than by surprise attack, and confine themselves primarily to action in Asia, with the idea that the United States would have been much less committed to a long-term war to unconditional surrender in this situation.

Focus on the Mediterranean

The Axis could never defeat the remote, enormous, and industrially powerful United States, so they needed to defeat either Britain or the Soviet Union. Britain was never in real danger of invasion given the strength of the British Navy, though if the Germans had continued to attack British air forces as they were successfully doing early in the Battle of Britain, they would have been able to make life even harder for the British. It was the Soviet Union that could conceivably be defeated. Unfortunately for Germany, Adolf Hitler was not a military strategist, he was an ideologue. He believed that lebensraum (living space) was the ultimate objective of war, and that living space was in the Soviet Union. So war between Germany and the Soviet Union was inevitable.

Conceivably if Germany held off a year the Soviet Union would’ve attacked the Germans first. I don’t know anything about Soviet plans though I’m sure historians have looked into it.

When it became necessary for the Germans to divert troops and planes to Africa and to the Balkans to help the Italians, both for the fighting and for subsequent occupation (keep in mind also the German paratroop force was practically destroyed) , the Germans should have decided to delay the invasion of Russia for a year. They could then have devoted far more than two divisions and a small fraction of the Luftwaffe to the task of defeating the British in Africa, including neutralizing or even capturing Malta, and driving the British Navy out of most of the Mediterranean. Yes, more divisions mean more supply problems, but the Luftwaffe would have provided much better protection for convoys, especially after Malta was reduced to defense only. (As it was, the Germans nearly succeeded.) Rommel would have taken Egypt (as it was on a shoestring, he was on Egyptian soil), which would have driven the British fleet out of the Mediterranean. Keep in mind the Allies were at the end of a much longer supply line than the Germans and Italians. I don’t see that the Vichy French or the Allies could have prevented German occupation of the entire Middle East; logistics more than defenders would have limited the number of divisions the Axis could deploy there, even after the eastern Mediterranean became an Axis lake. This would give the Axis large amounts of oil, lack of which became a big problem for them later in the war. It would also allow them to pose a small threat of attacking the Soviet Union through the Caucasus (where Soviet oil reserves were located), and even via raids from Afghanistan. Again, logistics would have limited forces available.

Who knows what the Turks would have done when more or less surrounded by Axis forces and the traditional enemy, Russia. Would they have joined the war to attack that traditional enemy? The Turks were with the Central Powers in World War I, but Ottoman government had been replaced with a secular government, so who knows?

I don’t think the Germans could have posed much of a threat to India because of the native Indian logistical support for native Indian divisions. But the need to defend India would not allow the British to deploy troops elsewhere.

So when the Axis and Soviet Union started fighting in 1942, the Germans would have had more strategic options. Would Germany have been better off vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in 1942 than in 1941? I don’t know, but I think the same incompetence the Soviets exhibited at the start of the invasion in 1941, would have existed in 1942. I don’t know whether it was a diversion of forces or the weather that prevented in 1941 invasion from starting before June 22, but if it was the former then in 1942 they might’ve started earlier.

Whether this would have been enough to enable the Axis to finish the Soviet Union no one knows, but the Germans would have been in a much better situation with respect to their enemies, in terms of strategic position and in terms of resources (especially oil).

This brings us to the second and less important point.

No Surprise Attack

Japan traditionally used surprise attacks to start wars. Admiral Yamamoto knew how the Americans would react to a surprise attack, and evidently having no choice, he chose to attack Pearl Harbor in hopes of catching the American aircraft carriers there. Fortunately for the USA, none of the carriers were there, where they almost certainly would have been sunk. Depending on the number of carriers sunk, the Japanese might have captured all of New Guinea, and Midway Island, and Guadalcanal, and it would have taken much longer for the Americans to break down the Japanese.

But if the Japanese had declared war in the accepted manner, confining their attacks to the East Asian sphere, the theory is that Americans would have been much less committed to war, and especially much less committed to an unconditional-surrender war. In other words, going back to economic superiority versus military superiority, the Americans might not have stayed in the war long enough to gain overwhelming military superiority. I don’t know, I don’t think anybody could know, though I have no doubt that some historians have tried to answer the question of how this would have affected the war effort.


So in summary, if the Mediterranean became an Axis lake, if the Axis held the Near/Middle East, if the Japanese fought a limited war in Asia so that the Americans would not have gone into the war wholeheartedly, and especially if this all resulted in the Soviet Union being defeated by the Axis, then the war might have ground to a halt rather than to an Axis loss. That’s not exactly a win, but there was no way the Axis could ever defeat the United States. In the long run whichever side gained the upper hand scientifically (nuclear weapons, jets, snorkel submarines, etc.) might have been able to win a continuation of the war, immediately or at a later time.

I am apparently in the process of becoming an ENWorld columnist (RPGs). That and many other projects take away from this blog.

Please help pay the bills for all this free information: my Patreon is at:
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

My online audiovisual courses about games design (and games in general) can be accessed at https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/
Discounts available on my website, http://pulsiphergames.com

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Harmony and the Kludge in Game Design

[Originally appeared on Gamasutra.com]

Harmony and its opposite, the kludge, are fundamental to good game design. Games that lack harmony or have in-harmonious aspects have a handicap, though some succeed. Fortunately, most of the in-harmonious games are never published, or only self published. Players don't always recognize the in-harmony but its existence still affects the game. Designers may not recognize in-harmony if they think of the game as “My Baby.” But designers need to recognize it and get it out of the game.

So what is harmony? This is hard to pin down. It's like harmony in music, something you can hear and can recognize when harmony is not present. Here is a long quote from a 1997 lecture where this concept of harmony comes from:

Brian Moriarty: http://ludix.com/moriarty/listen.html
It’s something you feel. How do you achieve this feeling that everything works together? Where do you get this harmony stuff? Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t come from design committees. It doesn’t come from focus groups or market surveys. It doesn’t come from cool technology or expensive marketing. And it never happens by accident or by luck. Games with harmony emerge from a fundamental note of clear intention.

I think Moriarty moves into the touchy-feely as he goes on, but you can look it up and see what he has to say. I'm using a simpler definition: “everything in the game feels as though it belongs there and contributes to the purpose and feeling of the game as a whole.” That's harmony. It's important because games are not just collections of mechanics. Not just data. Not just metrics. Games make intellectual and emotional impressions on players, and lack of harmony is noticeable, sometimes clearly, sometimes in subtle ways. The effect is not good for the intellectual and emotional impression.

Harmony is not the same thing as “elegance,” in fact I hesitate to use the word elegance because it's used by fans of certain kinds of tabletop games as a bludgeon to attack fans of other kinds tabletop games, who in turn react very negatively to the word. ”Elegant” is often used in much the same sense as “clever.” It's usually used in relation to abstract games or practically abstract games, games that are not models of some reality.

Harmony isn't cleverness, it’s something that affects the game as a whole. It's about appropriate fit. Now what's appropriate fit depends on what standards people are using, and those standards have changed and very much loosened over the years. Think about movies and TV shows over the years. What makes sense? The screen has always required a heavy “suspension of disbelief”, but those entertainments have consistently become less believable. People will accept all kinds of foolishness and huge plot-holes because the program is otherwise entertaining. and we’re getting the same thing in games.

I love Star Wars for the adventure, but when I first watched the original Star Wars I came out of the theater and said “this is dumb” and “that is a big plot-hole” but I (in the long run) accepted it because “it’s a movie.”

I still have SOME standards even for movies. The Starship Troopers movie (monsters in outer space) had us travel 80,000 light years and then forget that we can use tanks or helicopters! Monsters farted unguided missiles, yet the human fleet stayed tightly packed together in space to make itself a good target! It's just ludicrous. Yet it was a popular movie that begetted a couple sequels.

The same kind of loosening of standards of disbelief has happened in game design. People often treat games more as time killers or something mildly engaging to do while they socialize, than as actual entertainment or something worth *focusing* on. So they let things go by that would not have been accepted many years ago.

All right. What's the opposite of harmony? The Kludge. I borrow this term from software (“kludgy” is the adjective that's used.) A kludge is a tacked-on solution to a particular problem, or a solution that works but isn’t consistent with the rest of the program. In software though not in games it's also hard to understand and modify.

The Kludge is hard to define in game design because one man's kludge is another man's “nothing wrong with that.” How do you notice the kludges if the game is a model of something? The kludge will usually be inconsistent with the rest of the model, and may have nothing at all to do with what's being modeled. It may be there to fix some design flaw. When I play games I sometimes ask, why am I doing this particular thing? If the only answer I can find is “because it fixes a design flaw,” or “because the designer liked it,” or “I have no clue why it's here,” then it is probably a kludge.

What about kludges in abstract games? A kludge is less obvious because the game doesn’t represent anything (other than “a game”).  Abstracts are collections of mechanics, different from a model where the context should help people play the game, and the mechanics are expected to represent something that happens in a real world.  Nonetheless, in abstracts you can have a mechanic that doesn't fit with the rest, that doesn't mix well or doesn't seem to have a useful function, or clearly should've been replaced with something else, or simply should have been removed from the game.

Where do kludges come from? Often they are added to games to solve a problem that appeared in testing. Or perhaps the designer realized it would be a problem, and added it before the testing. Most of the time it's added to fix a demonstrated flaw, but at other times, it's in the game because the designer liked it, even though it doesn't fit with what he ended up with. (Remember, games often end up some “distance” from where the designer originally intended.) He or she isn't willing to take it out, isn't willing to “shoot their baby”. It could be the original idea itself, yet the game has developed in another direction. At that point, the designer should shoot the original, get it out of there, but it's emotionally hard for a designer to do.

Now some examples. These are from well-known, successful games, so that you’ll be able to relate to what I’m explaining. Games can succeed despite kludges; but the more you have, the less likely that the game will be good.

Catan, which used to be known as Settlers of Catan: both the robber and the monopoly cards. Keep in mind there’s not a lot of interaction in Catan between the players except for the trading, and there's little you can do to actually hinder another player after the initial setup.

I think the designer saw the difficulty of hindrance, and decided to add the Robber, which has *nothing* to do with the rest of the game. It doesn't fit at all in any way, shape, or form, but was added to provide a way for a player to hinder another player or at least have the potential to hinder other players. It has nothing to do with the settling model. If it represented mere bandits, a player’s soldiers would be able to do something about it, nor do bandits affect a budding newly-settled region the way they can an old, over-populated region.

Catan is supposed to be a game about trading, but I've seen many players who don't trade much. The monopoly card takes all of a particular resource from all the other players and puts them into the hand of the player who played the monopoly card. Then others are forced to trade if they want to get that resource, or wait a long time for more of that resource to be produced. Perhaps someone can come up with an explanation (not excuse) of how this would happen in the real world, I cannot. I think the designer added that card to make people trade, thinking of the groups where there's otherwise not much trading.

Catan is very popular and is a decent design that was in the right place at the right time, although technically speaking it has these kludges.

How about Risk, the US pre-2008 version, not the newer version based on missions? Some of those earlier versions had mission cards, but they didn't work well. In 2008 Risk was revised with missions to make it quite a different game. In old Risk, the territory cards are kludges in two senses. First, they were an artificial method, and by artificial I mean there's no correspondence with reality, of encouraging players to attack. You have to a conquer a territory to get a card; it was something to try to discourage turtling, which is nonetheless quite common in Risk.

Second, you turn in the cards for armies. That's there to bring the game to a conclusion, because you have an increasing number of armies that can get very large. The game is pretty long as is, but it's very long without increasing numbers of armies, which I have played a number of times. Instead of going up to 50 armies and more I used 4-6-8-4-6-8-4-6-8, but that makes it a very long game.

Two kludges to solve (or at least mitigate) a fundamental problem in the game: the game didn't naturally come to a conclusion. The game didn't naturally encourage people to attack. So the cards were added for those purposes.

Let’s consider the online video games World of Tanks and World of Warships. In big video games like these both harmony and the kludge become obscured. We could probably say that it's easier to make a harmonious game that's relatively small and focused rather than one quite big.

In World of Tanks the entire idea of 15 versus 15 randomly assigned teams is a kludge, in the sense that it has nothing to do with real warfare, but it's necessary to make the online game practical for a very large audience. In World of Warships the overall kludge is to play in a small area, usually amongst lots of islands, places where real world battleships and aircraft carriers virtually never went. In both games we have the bizarre mix of nationalities of equipment: German and French and English and Russian tanks or ships on the same side, and possibly 15 different tanks or 12 different ships on a team. It's also a necessary kludge but has nothing to do with reality. So both games break down as models of reality, and the kludges are obvious.

But in video games there are many conventions, normal modes of design, that are ridiculous kludges but necessary to make a game of it. (Consider the ammo and medpacks sitting all over the place in shooters, or even respawning itself - awful kludges.) When is a kludge no longer a kludge? When almost everyone accepts it as necessary, I guess.

Let's take a tabletop game such as Eclipse, which is ostensibly a Euro-fied 4X space game. It's almost a wargame, almost an exploration game, almost this, almost that, but ultimately unsatisfactory (for me). The major kludge in the game is that players are awarded hidden-value victory points for fighting, and fighting early on tends to give you higher value points because you draw a number of VP pieces and throw some back into the supply. You’re encouraged to fight repeatedly as you can draw again whenever you fight. I think this was added when the rest of the game resulted in little fighting, because people didn't gain enough from fighting. What they were likely to lose in assets was more than they were willing to risk for the possible gain. So the victory points were added well.

Rewards for fighting make no sense in the 4X model, or any reasonable model. Your surviving units gain experience when you fight, yes, but you lose a lot of ships and people, and that experience in the overall context should not be worth a lot (if any) of victory points. Military forces are a means to an end, not an end in itself. In a game I watched, about half of the overall points for five of the six players came from fighting, which is ridiculous. They were roughly equal to the points for holding the solar systems that had been discovered. In the long run what do you think is more important? Wars are economic, after all.

There are other flaws in the game. For example, the results of exploration are that space is mostly impassable. I think that's deliberate, to avoid and out-and-out wargame, but it doesn't fit one's idea of space as wide-open territory. That makes the extermination part of 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) ineffective even with the fighting points.

Again, how do you recognize a kludge? I’d say it's easier to find things you think are kludges in a game you don't like than ones you do like. Also we have the limitation that some designers of puzzle-like games, whether they’re single player video games or solo tabletop games or cooperative games, tend to add things to make the puzzle solution more difficult. I come in heavily on the side of this motto: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I think that’s an alternative definition of harmony. Given that motto, I see many of those puzzle-maker additions as kludges.

This is not something you can rigidly define or easily pin down, it requires self-critical thinking.  It doesn’t matter what specific mechanics you use, whether already very popular or brand new (the latter very rare). What matters is how they work together as a whole. Designers need to recognize the in-harmonious, and excise it!

My Patreon is at:  https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Recent Screencasts (24 Apr 17)

I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent screencasts instead.

What do I wish I'd been told when I started designing games?
I was asked this question in an interview. It doesn't much apply to me, I started more than 50 years ago, but I describe the advice I'd give people starting out today.

Nuts & Bolts: The Drafting Mechanic
Drafting (almost always, card drafting) is a common technique in games involving more than one side. The mechanic gives players a greater feeling of control, but takes time.

Foolish saying: "You get what you pay for"
"Conventional wisdom" sometimes isn't at all wise. Especially in games, but really in all facets of life, the saying "you get what you pay for" is foolish.

Elementary Statistics (Averages!) in Game Design
Game designers (tabletop or video) should understand elementary math, statistics, probability. So many people don't understand that "average" can have different meanings, that I've described the differences here.

 Is game design about software? Heck no!
Many schools, colleges, universities, whether deliberately or accidentally, equate “game design” with “game development”. The first is about how the game is supposed to work; the second is about creating game software. Why deliberately confuse the two?

My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

My online audiovisual courses about games design (and games in general) can be accessed at https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/
Discounts available on my website, http://pulsiphergames.com

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Triptych 9

Triptych 9

Three separate topics in one post

Why $200 for passing Go?
Game Components
Characterizing the Colors in Britannia

From a Quora answer to
Why there's the $200 reward in Monopoly for passing Go.

The $200 income increases the amount of money in play, in an otherwise virtually static economy (really a negative economy, since prices paid for properties and improvements go out of play). Whether that increases or decreases game length is uncertain. Properties have variable pricing (via auctions and inter-player interaction), but houses and hotels do not. A lack of additional funds might lead to “nibbling forever”, players collecting and paying small rents because none had enough money to buy many houses, and so no one would go bankrupt.

Only playtesting could tell us whether the game would be longer or shorter without the reward; I’d bet on longer.

Game Components

I'm apparently in a minority who believe that quality of components does not matter provided a minimum standard is met.  Chess is the same game whether you use a $100 set or a $5 set.  I may also be in a minority in thinking that particular design elements such as "no player elimination" are closely related to generational preferences rather than to any absolute standard of "game goodness", and consequently you cannot identify a great game by the nature of its individual design elements.

To make an analogy, a movie that is slickly professional may still be a poor movie, nor is slick professionalism a requirement for a movie to ultimately be judged as great.

Notice that formal reviewers often talk about a game's worth in terms of what's in the box. Isn't the gameplay far more important? If it's a dud game, does it matter if it has attractive bits?  Or is that a fall-back against disappointment with the gameplay?

E.g., of  Risk Game of Thrones: "That's a ton of stuff packed in there, and worth the price of admission.”
But the writer says nothing about gameplay.

Seriously, I should buy a game for the contents? I thought we PLAYED games, not just looked at them. Or maybe nowadays, some people do buy them just to look at them . . .

Characterizing the Colors in Britannia

Idle thought.  I tried to characterize the colors in Britannia (second edition) to match real-world styles of warfare.

Red - American: obvious, "in your face", smash 'em. Overwhelm at the point of attack.

Pre-WW II Germans thought the American army followed the style of American football of the time, roughly “four yards and a cloud of dust” in the T formation. Passing? Nah.

Blue - strategy of indirect approach (English), nibbling, just enough force for the job, requiring a "delicate hand"

Green - patient defense, almost guerrilla warfare, until ready to attack.  Chinese?

Yellow - conquest followed by recession and watchful care.   15th-16th century Spanish? 17th-18th century Russian?

My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

My online audiovisual courses about games design (and games in general) can be accessed at https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/
Discounts available on my website, http://pulsiphergames.com

Monday, March 27, 2017

“Not with a Bang but with a Whimper”

(From my answer to a Quora question.)

The West Roman empire “fell” “not with a bang but with a whimper”. Historians have arbitrarily chosen 476 A.D. as the date of the fall of the Empire because that’s when Odoacer deposed the last Emperor (who spent the rest of his life comfortably in a seaside villa). The West Roman empire decayed and faded away rather than going down in fire and blood. The two dates that would most stand out to inhabitants of the Empire would have been the two sacks of Rome in 410 and 455. But even then, the first sack was “polite”: Visigoth Alaric wanted to be appointed to high military position within the Empire and threatened Rome to exert leverage (unsuccessfully). The second sack, by the Vandals coming from North Africa by sea, might be a more appropriate date for the fall, as the Vandals dominated the Western Mediterranean. Some might choose the death of the “last Roman”, Flavius Aetius (who had put together the coalition that defeated Attila in France) in 454. But even later than that there were occasions when some recovery might have occurred, with better luck.

Notice I said “coalition”. By 451 the Visigoths had been living in southwest France for decades, and had conquered most of Iberia from the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves who had occupied it soon after the breakdown of the Rhine frontier in 406. (The Vandals were carried to North Africa by Roman ships to take part in an intra-Roman dispute, but ultimately took control of North Africa and many Mediterranean islands.) The Franks occupied northeastern Gaul and were also part of the coalition that defeated Attila. But the “barbarians” did not come to plunder, they came to take advantage of the benefits of Roman civilization, and relied on the Roman administration. They did not intend to destroy the Empire.

Many reasons have been posed for the decay of the Roman Empire, but many of them don’t make much sense because the same conditions prevailed in the East, yet the East Roman Empire lasted another thousand years. For example, the famous historian Gibbon blamed Christianity, but the East was more Christian than the West. Some blamed the lead in water pipes, but all of the Empire used the same kind of pipes. More likely, constant waves of disease depopulated the West, while the much more highly populated East (where most of the big cities were) managed to overcome this. The East also had geographical advantages in defense.

The Empire had been in serious trouble on and off since the crisis of the third century. I suspect people expected Rome to continue because it had always been there, from their point of view, even with barbarian invasions and succession problems such as blighted the third century. Think about this: the Romans beat the Carthaginians in the First Punic War 264–241 BC. From then to 455 is more than 700 years. Go back 700 years in our history and we are at 1300. That’s a very very long time.

So to return to the original question, I doubt that many people thought to themselves “the Empire has fallen”. If they did, it was probably at the sack of Rome in 455. Yet in Italy itself, the real devastation and destruction occurred during fighting between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths in the early sixth century. Even then, there was some prospect that Emperor Justinian of the East would be able to reestablish the Empire in the West, but that prospect was destroyed by devastating plagues that may have been worse than the Black Plague (often called the Justinianic Plagues). The Roman administration (by another name) may have persisted in Iberia until the conquest by the Muslims in the eighth century.

The Empire became a story of the good old days, the golden days, told by older folks to younger folks who had never encountered it. It just gradually faded away, yet the ideal remained even for the Frank Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor in the early ninth century, much to the disgust of “the” Emperor in Constantinople.

(One place where the absence of Rome was very obvious was in Britain after the Romans pulled out in 410. This is a major event in my historical game Britannia. Britain was the only place where Christianity disappeared along with the Roman administration, to be reintroduced from the continent and from Ireland via Scotland.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Forthcoming (with the usual caveats) Games

Someone on Board Game Designers Forum asked for a preview of my forthcoming wargames. So here it is.

Now, when these will be published, whether they will actually be published, is something I never count on until it has actually happened. I’ve experienced enough failures of intent to be careful. (For example, I was never paid for the original (1982) Dragon Rage, though it sold quite well, owing to circumstances far beyond my control and having nothing to do with board games. And Law & Chaos was at Mayfair for many years (I was paid an advance), then the people who bought it moved on to Catan Studios and I now have it in hand once again.)

29 May 17

Pirate Game

I'm adding this one, which came as a recent surprise.  I'd left the files for the game, among others, with a publisher last summer, and not long ago he writes to tell me he wants to publish it! The name is changing (I called it YAAARRRHHH!). You're the captain of a pirate vessel, sometimes of a small squadron, sailing the seas to garner plunder (victory points, tallied at game end). You encounter vessels on the high seas, and also suffer the slings and arrows of fortune (and cards played by other players) as you go. Players often follow their own objectives, such as get a big fleet, take a town, capture the Spanish Silver Fleet - or take a Ship of the Line (has never happened, and useless for piracy because it's so slow).

It's a combination of historical and Romantic (movie-style) pirates. Boarding is the objective, as it was with all pirates, who tended to use small, fast ships loaded with men. But you have to get past the pursuit, and cannonfire, to have a chance to board. Nor do you want to fight warships, ordinarily, you want to run. On the other hand, it's really hard to die, not at all like real piracy. And some weird things happen. For 3-8 players (players can join after the game has started), 110 cards plus lots of plastic and high-level card stuff. An hour or less, or you can make it much shorter if you like.


Possibly as soon as late summer we’ll see Germania, which despite the “ia” title is not a Britannia -like game. It’s a game of (Germanic) tribal survival in the ruins of the West Roman empire, a combination of wargame and peace game with many Euroish characteristics, but without the fiddliness of huge numbers of bits currently in vogue. (It’s not a puzzle.) A key to a hybrid like this is that the best way to success is to be peaceful, but sometimes others will see that you’re successful and attack you. It has been played where the players never attacked each other directly, but it has also been played where the players constantly attacked each other and had a great time doing so. There are always indirect attacks, that is, invasions of non-Germanic peoples, controlled temporarily by one player or another via the play of cards or other considerations.

The only involvement of dice in the game is in famines and plagues, which are fairly common via event cards. In combat the players use battle cards, choosing secretly and adding the number on the battle card to the strength of the unit(s) in the fight.

Each player has six action points per turn which he can use to create new settlers, improve the land, play event cards, convert settlers to soldiers, and convert units to horse (cavalry). A consequence of using action points in a multi-sided game is that it’s difficult for any player to dominate, even if he has much stronger forces, because he can only move a maximum of three pieces in a turn in the action points system.

When I originally designed the game more than 10 years ago, (it was with another company for a very long time) I tallied the score only at the end of the game. But it makes more sense to tally the score at the end of each player’s turn because, if you play the game long enough, success becomes cyclical, and you might be at a downtime of your nation at the end of the game. You score for holding territories occupied by settlers, and also for improvements built on your territories (or even a town if you can swing it). So the game involves both survival and a simple civilization building aspect. There are only 20-some areas on the board so it can become quite crowded, with a maximum of five players. There is no player elimination because, if your nation is really at a nadir, you can take over one of the external invaders and become the Moors, or the Slavs, the Byzantines or Magyars, or even the Norse or Danes. I don’t recall now if anyone has ever won after taking over an invader, but I recall lots of mayhem caused by player-adopted invaders.

The game uses plastic figures, and can take 2 to 3 hours, or more if you’re like some testers who just kept playing so they could slaughter each other further! (But it’s not really a wargame . . .)

Sweep of History Game

Another game that might appear this summer is presently called Eurasia but may have a different title like Surge of Empires. Again despite the “ia” name it is not Britannia -like, but it is a game where you control a succession of empires on the supercontinent of Eurasia (with North Africa tadded). It is a game of the rise and fall of empires, so over the course of the game a player will control four or five empires, no more than two at a time. There is a card for each empire detailing location of appearance, location of scoring, number of starting armies, and special characteristic. In the standard game they appear more or less in historical order, though there’s an option to have them appear randomly.

This is a game for 2 to 6, though it may only include components for five.

For a long time - this game is many years old - the game was diceless, using a deterministic combat system which is included as an option. But I finally decided that in this particular game the deterministic system was too sterile, too pat, so I replaced it with a simple dice system: roll a die per army, highest sum wins, ties go to defender. Loser loses one army and must retreat. So in a 2 to 1 the two usually win - but not always.

Space Wargame

Instead of Eurasia I might have a two year old space wargame published by the same company. I love space wargames, and this one is, if I do say so myself, “quite elegant”. The result is a two player (or partners, which works very well) civil war for control of a star cluster.

This is a block game but without dice. Any number of blocks can be in a hex but only four can move in a turn. Movement is along wormhole/jump lines, or via hex, although hex movement is usually slower as most of the jump lines are longer than one hex. The blocks are numbered from 1 to 7 except for the leader, but the conflict is not hierarchical (as in Stratego). Instead you sum the strength of the units and the stronger force wins; the winner loses their weakest piece, the loser loses their strongest piece and must retreat. 20 blocks per side in the smaller version, more with partners.

The victory criteria lead to a back-and-forth game where players can threaten victory several times before there’s a conclusion. Some games can be quite quick but up to an hour is more likely. There are 11 valuable systems out of the 27 on the board; if you hold at least seven and your opponent cannot reduce you to less than seven in their next turn, you win. However, each player has a home system, and if you take the enemy home system and he cannot retake it in his next turn, you win. It happens that one player achieves one criterion, then the other achieves the other criterion, and the game continues.

It is very much a game of maneuver, that’s what excellent generalship is about. "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill

The game has an entire set of technology rules that I really like, but they have rarely been tested; they’ll have to be an expansion, if they ever see the light. This is part of the simplification that is becoming more and more common in games: you design a game and then, even though it works fine as is, you try to find ways to make it smaller and shorter. In this case the removal of technology simplified, and made the package smaller.

It’s difficult to provide titles for space wargames, but this one may be called Crashing Suns: Civil War in the Hyades Cluster.


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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Do’s and Don’ts of RPG Monster Design

[This is adapted and improved from screencasts available on my “Game Design” channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign - search for "monster"]

Fairly close to my heart is devising role-playing game monsters. What expertise do I have in this subject? In the 70s and 80s I made up a lot of monsters that were published in White Dwarf and Dragon magazines, as well as for my own campaign. I designed several monsters that are in the original Fiend Folio. The Princes of Elemental Evil are particularly well-known and even have their own entry in Wikipedia (archomental). I'm also relying in this piece on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon 2015 early on a Sunday morning with, among others, Wolfgang Bauer and Jeff Grubb up front.

Now I'm talking about monsters primarily for tabletop RPGs because there's a big difference between tabletop RPGs and video games. In video games, you have the boss mentality: boss monsters, really big, bad-ass, lone monsters that are very, very dangerous. I have never thought in those boss terms as I'll explain. I've always used a large number of monsters in a big climax led by some powerful leader. But the leader is not individually nearly as powerful as the character group. It's just that with all the other monsters around both the monsters and the leader collectively become very dangerous.

The big difference is that in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a save game to go back to. Bosses are designed with the idea that there's a save game to go back to. They are designed to kill you several times before you succeed. You can't play tabletop RPGs that way, even today with all the easy healing, because if you die you’re dead (more or less). So in video games the purpose of any monster can be to kill the characters the first several times, whereas in tabletop the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening their characters in some way, but not by actually killing the characters. Death may happen occasionally (just to keep everyone "honest"), but it can't happen frequently, or you're not going to have much of a campaign.

So video game bosses tend to be much tougher in relation to the adventuring party or individual than the monsters you meet at a climax in a tabletop RPG. This is a fundamental difference. Video gamers would be disappointed if almost every time they had a climax they win the first time. They'd feel cheated, that it was too easy. It's a matter of expectations is much as a game functionality.

Of course, there are many ways tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs and many of those are because of "save games" or lack of same. When you're making up monsters I think you should focus on the element of surprise, not just on making them super tough. Some game designers, including R. Knizia and S. Miyamoto ("We want to entertain people by surprising them ...") espouse this view. Likely Miyamoto would say that a major objective in any game is to surprise players, so perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players, and many of my suggestions derive from surprise. A specific surprise is only going to work once, but that's one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters, to provide new surprises.

So what do we look at? Here's a list, then I'll discuss each one:
The Unknown
One Unusual Characteristic (kind of a loop)
Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
Characteristics from two types combined into one
“Worse things than killing you”
Really Smart Enemies
Time Pressure
Relentless Hordes

Fear of the Unknown is the first one. A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with something they don't already know. The players will probably feel it's more fair and perhaps more true to life if they can derive some of the characteristics of the unknown monsters from past experience or from appearance. "It looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant." "With those big teeth, I bet it bites HARD."

Sometimes it'll be just one unusual characteristic. This may work particularly well if you take a well-known monster and give it a single surprising quirk. The obvious that comes to mind is regeneration. Regeneration is very powerful and should be used sparingly, but if you have an ordinary monster that regenerates, it will surprise the heck out of players, especially when a monster gets back up off the dungeon floor.

A single characteristic can be a focus of an unknown monster as well. Some refs won't want to go to extremes such as flying orcs or regenerating orcs, on the other hand, we don't mind the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.  I once made up a group of several kinds of lightning spitting monsters roughly analogous to military tanks (in my mind), although the players never realized that. They were big and they looked dangerous, and they were even without the lightning. The catlike ones were faster, sluglike ones really hard to kill, and so on. But it was lightning that set them apart and scared the players, in many encounters with them.

You can take two types of monsters and have them cooperate. Keep in mind the truism, there's hardly anything original under the sun; but combinations of things can provide new experiences, and that can surprise. We see this kind of cooperation whenever a monster type is said to normally employ a different monster type as guards. Of course, powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters and those weaker monsters can nonetheless provide good interference when our heroes show up.

We can also take the characteristics from two monster types and combine them into one. There's the classic owl bear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtle, and so forth. You can take normally unintelligent monsters and provide them with human intelligence or normally intelligent monsters that aren't intelligent now. Some combinations may not be very believable, and I like believability in games and try to avoid them, but in this the age of TV and movie silliness not too many people care. The standards have changed over the past half century, so you can do things that would've been laughed out of the building, so to speak, 50-60 years ago, which now most people shrug at and accept.

Another way to make monsters interesting is misdirection. Play on the expectations of the players: change the appearance of the monster, pretend to be another monster, change stats (although it's easy to overdo that so I try to avoid just changing the stats of an existing monster).

There are worse things than killing you. Monsters don't have to kill to be frightening. They can turn your bones to rubber. The rust monster eats equipment. Permanent level drain, even temporary can be bad. Characters can be captured - slavers are monsters too. Theft  - lots of monsters that nick your items such as leprechauns. There lots of things you can think of that are not death but will frighten the players. Threaten their characters' well-being, their possessions.

Foreshadowing is something you can do with any monster. It helps foster fear of the unknown.  You can provide clues signaling danger - tracks, even something as simple as noises. Maybe the players will find something in writing that indicates that some intelligent monster is around - somewhere.

Really smart enemies.  Face it, classic movie enemies are often stupid. This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists, and if you haven't read the Evil Overlord list I strongly recommend that you do so. http://www.eviloverlord.com/lists/overlord.html . Relatively dim monsters can be cunning: the great boxer Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim brained man, but he was a cunning boxer. Consider though, you have to put your brain into the monster preparation. If you're not trying to be smart, how can the monsters be smart?

Time pressure is the classic videogame way to make monsters more dangerous. There's just not enough time to do all the characters want to do. But you can do this in tabletop games as well. Time stress leads to mistakes. “Watch out, it’s going to blow up!” or the enemy has diverted water into a room that's filling up with you trapped in it, or there's a fire spreading or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it. There are all kinds of ways to implement time pressure even if you're playing strictly on a turn basis. You know there only so many turns before something happens, you're still under pressure.

Positioning is another thing you can do with any monster. The classic is that you have a balcony that protects otherwise vulnerable archers because they're up there and you're down here on the floor or on the ground. Simple barricades, very low ceilings with/for short monsters: you're going after Duergar and they've kept their ceilings low so that humans have to bend down and are much less effective in every way, especially in a fight. Burrows of monsters can be hard to move around in. Water barriers can make a big difference. You can think of lots of ways to do this, but you have to think of it to make it happen.

You can have societies or factions or groups where the group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts. I've often found that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster, especially if they're subordinate to a leader that organizes them, a commander or "mastermind."

The last one is relentless hordes. Sheer numbers can be terrifying even if the monsters are individually weak. The Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition "minions" rule is quite brilliantly simple. Any damage kills a minion, but you can have lots of them and they're easy to keep track of (tabletop) because either they're doing fine or they're dead. Relentless hordes are the opposite of the videogame boss syndrome where an often-lone monster is super tough, but try it, you may find it interesting.


I have talked about the Do's and not the Don'ts, now let's look at the other side. The general principle is, give the players a chance, don't spring something on them. Don't rely on them having to die to find out something. (Some people have given a name to that particular characteristic but I don't recall what it is.)  You don't ever want to force the players to die to learn something. I'm thinking in terms of a large set of players of many different attitudes, and trying not to really piss off any of the subgroups.

So, no "invulnerable to everything but X," though that's not so bad IF players know about it ahead of time. For example, we know about iron golem invulnerabilities in the older versions of D&D, which is to say virtually nothing hurts but +3 or greater weapons, and so we have time to prepare or avoid. We don't always manage to do that, but we've got the chance. At least that's what counts.

Another is sudden, unwarned-about death as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the carnivorous bunny kills in one attack. (Yes, "Tim" warned them, but it was not a believable monster so the warning had no effect.)

Another no-no: take an innocuous looking thing and make it a super monster, which turns out to be (again) like the Carnivorous Rabbit from Monty Python's Holy Grail. You may think that's funny, but serious players won't think that's funny when they're the victims. (As with everything else, "it depends".)

The golden rule applies. In fact, both golden rules, the general Golden Rule and the golden rule of RPGs. The general Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is pretty good. Ask yourself how you'd feel if such-and-such happened. The RPG golden rule is, "what's good for the players is good for the monsters and vice versa," that is, if the monsters can do something wild or drastic shouldn’t the players also have a chance to do it? And if the players can do something, shouldn't the monsters be able to as well? Think about it. Try to be at least halfway sensible and always put yourself in the shoes of the players and ask yourself how you would react if this happened to you.

Someone sufficiently steeped in the myriads of RPG rules published since 1974 could probably write a book (with many examples) about monster design. But this is enough to provide a guide for the inexperienced.

Lew Pulsipher