Monday, May 11, 2020

Triptych 13

Triptych 13
Three Subjects in One Blog Post

Games are not inherently nice
The Supernatural as an explanation of history - Bad Idea
Heavy dependence of Ancient and Medieval armies on their specific leader

I am "old school" in the sense that I think of games as involving conflict and opposition, as challenge and mastery, not as story-telling or being nice to everyone. Games are not inherently nice.

But the latter sentence is why I stopped playing games against other people more than 40 years ago, and prefer to play co-operative games: fantasy role-playing is the epitome of co-operative game.

Add to that I dislike puzzles. so I'm not at all attracted by parallel competitions (Euro "games" commonly) even though, for the most part, they are "nice" games - if you can call them games at all.


One of the worst examples of historical "scholarship" is to attribute causation to the supernatural. The supernatural, whether gods or spirits or something else, can always be adduced as a cause of something, but explains nothing. The historian's job is to explain not only what happened but Why, and using the supernatural as a why is a waste of everyone's time.

I don't think "supernatural" exists. The trend of human history begins with suggestions that the supernatural is involved in many phenomena, then finding naturalistic explanations that don't require the supernatural.  "The supernatural" keeps shrinking. Is there any reason to think this won't continue? No.

Yet even if I did believe the supernatural exists, I'd object to its use in historical scholarship. It's not an explanation.


One of the most marked, and interesting, characteristics of ancient and medieval armies was their psychological dependence on a single leader.

If their leader was killed, or even wounded, they lost heart and retreated or even broke. There's a story that William the Conqueror's horse was killed under him twice, and that nearly did in the Normans even though he was unhurt. There wasn't a clear chain of command so that a second leader could take over. Very different from modern armies, of course.

This is perhaps understandable when the leader was the king (or wannabe king), and there was no adult heir present. But it happened with non-royal generals with great frequency. Yet the leaders were expected to be in the thick of the fighting. Alexander the Great was crazy brave for a monarch, once leading an escalade on a city (Tyre?). At least once he was barely saved from battle death by a companion.

Even Napoleon took some big chances when he was younger. I should think the French army might have lost it if the later *Emperor* Napoleon had been killed in battle (there was no adult heir anywhere), but in general armies survived the loss of their leader without breaking.  Many, many generals were killed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, though rarely the commander of an army - but artillery nearly hit Wellington at Waterloo.

This heavy dependence on one leader is why the death of William or Harold, in my game Hastings 1066, makes so much difference (though less than it would have historically). Whereas in Stalingrad Besieged (1942) using a variation of the same system, there are no leaders, it's all faceless struggle.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Triptych 12

Triptych 12
Three subjects in one blog post

Yomi vs minimaxing
Changes in habits from Corona/Covid-19
Solo and Co-op Games

Yomi vs minimaxing

I realized recently that what I’m trying to do in my block games is to emphasize the uncertainty of warfare by offering opportunities to use Yomi rather than the typical wargame minimaxing. Yomi is a Japanese word referring to reading the opponent’s intentions that has been adapted to games. When you rely on Yomi you’re attempting to read or guess or divine your enemy’s intentions and take advantage of that. It is a riskier, more romantic way to do things. But it’s absolutely necessary in real warfare because there is insufficient information.

In a wargame, where typically a great deal of information is known, it’s possible to use a minimax strategy, that is to play the game as a game rather than as warfare. You can calculate what to do to maximize your minimum gain, assuming that your opponent is a perfect player; if they prove to be a less than perfect player you will do better than you expected. (This all flows from the mathematical theory of games.)

By using the hidden identity and hidden strength possible with blocks I try to move the game towards Yomi and away from minimax.

Which is all a bit strange considering that I’m a minimaxer rather than a Yomi player. But I design games for other people, not for myself.

Changes in habits from Corona/Covid-19

The coronavirus affects games because most game shops are closed. I’m told by one of my publishers that money from the typical hobby distribution through distributors to the game shops has dried up, though webstore sales are okay. But it all makes for precarious cash flows.

I hear that in the comic industry, where everything is distributed by one company (Diamond), things are precarious. Diamond has already suspended shipping to comic shops because they’re not getting paid by comic shops (most of which are closed). This lack of payment has also led them to suspend payments to comics publishers. Comics publishers aren’t nearly as strong as they used to be, in fact superhero style comics have been in decline for a decade despite the success of superhero movies. I don’t think Marvel any longer make any money from the movies, as the Marvel movies are owned by Disney. Whether publishers will be able to survive the lack of payments is unknown.

Diamond is a distributor for some RPGs as well as comics. Alliance, the main distributor for hobby tabletop games (and the same ownership as Diamond), has closed down temporarily.

I wonder if our local game store is likely to survive the hiatus. It was struggling as it was, as the local area has a smallish population for a game store (250,000 for the entire county), mitigated by the presence of 70,000+ college students. But in my experience, few college students actually buy games.

(Minor calculation: if there are 330,000,000 people in the US, and 3000 games stores (I believe that’s much higher than reality), each store serves on average 110,000 people (about the population of Gainesville without students). If there are 1500 games stores then each would serve on average of 220,000 people. Someone started a second game store in Gainesville, but it lasted only a year.)

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to recognize that habits will change for some people after the pandemic. The pandemic has forced people to do things remotely, and to do digital rather than physical (for example in comic books and RPG books). How many of those people will continue to do things digitally rather than physically after the pandemic? This puts even more pressure on local game shops, even if they’ve survived the pandemic itself.

As I discussed this with my wife she said that if game shops fail then after while there will be other entrepreneurs who try their luck at running a game shop. But if the comics collapse, it will be that much harder to run a game shop, as many game shops rely on comics sales as well. And many people are aware of the old joke, “how do you make a small fortune in game retail?” Answer: “Start with a large fortune.”

Solo and Co-op Games

How much demand is there for tabletop games that only offer solo play? One of the major strengths of tabletop games is their socialization aspects, yet it’s well-known that many people play military games solitaire for lack of opponents.

Solo and cooperative versions are increasingly popular even for games that are designed to be competitive. I have designed three or four co-op games lately, and I’ve been putting solo versions into my games (as in my latest, Stalingrad Besieged, as best I could (that is, without increasing the cost).

But the typical co-op game is rather Euro-like, whereas mine are wargame-like.

Latest (free) videos on my YouTube “Game Design” Channel:

What causes exceptions to the rules?

Exceptions to the rules make a game more complicated, Even in a video game, where the rules are enforced by the software, the players have to learn what the exceptions are. So what causes a game design to have rules exceptions?

Pros and Cons of RPG character ability generation methods

What are the pros and cons of the two fundamental methods of RPG character generation, the stochastic (dice rolling) and the deterministic (point buy)?

"Yomi" versus Minimax

Some people play opposed games (such as historical representations of warfare) according to game theory notions (minimax), others act as many generals have and try to read the intentions of their opponents, then act accordingly. Yomi is closely related to intuition, minimax to logic. I've discussed intuition and logic in another video, 

Getting started: World-Building

Some questions to ask yourself, and an admonition that it's the game (or novel) you should spend most of your time on, not the world.

21st century gamers are usually deficient in military strategy

In my experience (mostly with tabletoppers), 21st century gamers are poor at military-style strategy. They don't think in long-term, don't see in long-term. It is, after all, the Age of Instant Gratification. It's not different in video games, because video game "wargames" are usually resource management games, not wargames. And video games encourage the "instant gratification" point of view.

10 "need to knows" about level and adventure design

Level and adventure design is related to game design, but not the same thing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A New Thing

As many of you know I had a triple bypass operation with an aortic rebuild in early October. In December I had 5+ liters of fluid on the left lung which necessitated another (six-day) hospital stay. I still have a little fluid on the lung and I’m not 100% in general. But I’ve been able to keep up with my YouTube channel and my Enworld column. The effort I used to put into this blog, often now goes into my weekly Game Design channel on YouTube.

So this is a new thing, kind of like the Triptych but with much more than three topics per.

Gameplay depth (there are other kinds of depth, such as puzzle depth) is a rarity nowadays because the audience has grown broader. Hobby games are much closer to party games than to hobby games of the past, on average, these days.

Hobby games are now often designed to reveal all there is to them in the first play. That's because many players expect this (it's especially common in video games); because many players play a game only 1-3 times before moving on; and because it's a lot easier to design that kind of game! The result: Shallowness rules!


Games are fundamentally about constraints. Every rule/mechanic is a constraint in one way or another. E.g. Manna (lands) is a constraint in MtG. The most skilled game players tend to be those who work well within constraints, just as, in general, creativity is encouraged by constraints, not by absolute freedom. Contemporary gamers, for various reasons, such as the influence of you-cannot-lose single-player video games and reward-based (rather than consequence-based) F2P games, especially dislike constraints in games. They really want playgrounds, not games. Though they'll accept puzzles, because there's no human involved to change things and "get in the way."

Games are not about mechanics.  Mechanics are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. I'm not interested in games that are mere collections of mechanics.

When I post on a blog or YouTube I'm not trying to encourage anyone in particular, I'm trying to explain what IS, as I see it, in game design. Some people don't like having their dreams challenged, but that's not relevant to what I'm trying to do.

If having strong opinions (that I can back up) and a willingness to tell people they're blowing smoke/don't have a clue, is arrogant, then yes, I'm arrogant.

The notion that everyone's "opinion" is equally good, and equally deserving of respect, drives a stake through the heart of the idea that truth matters.

One reason why people don't want to play long games any more is that variety has replaced gameplay depth as the major attraction of games.  And variety can only maintain interest so long, before the player wants to go on to "the next thing".  Gameplay depth can maintain interest, in those who are willing to think (a rarity in any Age).

It's the Age of Comfort, now much more than ever.  Many game players are passive, don't want to be challenged by their entertainment.

I think RPG fandom is one of those gaming segments where there is a lot more playing than buying. Compare with board/card where games seem to be made to last 1-3 plays before players (and buyers) move on to something else.

The game segments of "geek cons" are dominated by tabletop RPGs, not other kinds of tabletop. Even video gives way to it.

One of many reasons why there are SO many games published nowadays: abstract games (often with a so-called "theme" tacked on) are easier to design to the 80% stage (and to 100%, but many games never get there) than games that are models (of history or fiction).

Tile-laying, worker placement, deck-building, you're not constrained by having to model something. Moreover, you don't have to build player interaction into the game, because so many Euro-games are parallel competitions, puzzles, with little to no player interaction. Interaction makes for harder design.

January 13, 2020