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.