Saturday, December 19, 2020

My responses to questions for a Risk book (part 4 of 5)


In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 4.

Risk has been published for more than 50 years. It has sold millions of copies around the world. As a designer, how do you approach the re-design of a game with such a long tradition?

What I’m doing when I design a Risk variant is taking advantage of the essence of the very simple game system rather than trying to change it.  I’m changing the setting, and perhaps in the course of modeling the new setting I modify the rules to make the game a better model.  But given the nature of the Risk game system no game based on Risk is going to be a good model of any reality, not in my view. [A few years ago I designed a Zombie Risk, which works well but needs more testing.]

Britannia is probably your best known design. What games influenced the design of the game? (Specifically, was Risk a factor?)

No, Risk was not a factor.  I don’t know where the combat system in Britannia comes from, I suspect I made it up whole cloth although it’s quite simple, but I know I didn’t want a combat system like the one in Risk because it doesn’t recognize the "principle of mass."  In Risk the combat is the same when you’re 40 armies attacking 2 as when you have 3 armies attacking 2 (yes, there needs to be 4 to have 3 attack).  I would never put a combat system like that into a standalone game because to me it flies so much in the face of reality.  But it is that combat system that goes a long way to make the Risk a game of conquest and attack, because the attacker can always get the advantage even if there are far more defending armies than there are attacking armies, as long as the attacker has at least three attacking armies.  In the real world if you have 15 armies and your opponent has 20 you usually dig in and defend.  In Risk, if you know you’re going to fight sooner or later, you want to attack as long as you can attack with three armies, because the enemy will lose more than you will.  This makes virtually no sense in reality, though I've heard apologists try to explain it.

The only influence on Britannia I recall is that at some point I read the rules for a game called Ancient Conquest, which as far as I know was the first game where the player controlled more than one nation over a large timescale.  I incorporated that idea into Britannia but in every other way the game is quite different.  Ancient Conquest used a hex board where Britannia uses an area board, it used the typical Avalon Hill style counters with attack and defense factors and movement factors and a combat table, it had all nations of a player playing at the same time, allowed those nations to cooperate directly; and perhaps most important of all Ancient Conquest was a battle game rather than a war game.  That is, there is no economy, as if it were a battle taking place over a few days instead of wars taking place over many centuries.  The economy is a vital part of Britannia, though it also has aspects of battle games in the order of appearance.  (By the way, Ancient Conquest I (it had a sequel that I’ve never seen) is now back in print from Excalibre Games.)

There are now at least ten games based on the Britannia system, did you expect the game to become so popular? 

I don’t think the possibility ever occurred to me, I was just happy at the prospect of getting it published.  Though by the time it was published, two years after I’d submitted it to Gibsons, I had withdrawn from the game hobby and just played Dungeons & Dragons with my friends.  When the English edition of Britannia arrived I looked at it and said “that’s nice” and did not even read the rules, because there was nothing I could do to influence it further.  The next year, when Avalon Hill decided to do an edition of Britannia - a few years earlier they told me that games of that era didn’t sell and rejected it - they sent me a list of questions.  But at that time I’d not played the published game, had not even read the rules, so I was no help at all.  I did not actually see the published game played until 2004.

I didn’t even know that Maharajah existed until about that same time.  That seems to be the most slavishly derivative of the Britannia-like games right down to having the same number of land areas and nations.

After completing a game, have you ever wished you had changed something?  

I think that’s typical.  On the other hand you recognize that as long as you did your part there's not anything more you can do.  Sometimes published games are pretty much screwed up by the publisher, and there were some things caused by misunderstandings that were really “wrong” with the 1986 and 1987 editions of Britannia that I fixed - put back the way they were supposed to be - in the Fantasy Flight edition in 2006.

As I say in my game design book, you never really finish a game, it just comes to a point where the time it takes to improve it is not worth the value of the improvement.  But if you get the opportunity to do a second edition it ought to be better than the first because you can take advantage of the vast body of playtesting, and that’s what I did with Britannia by getting in touch with people who still played it years after it was out-of-print and Avalon Hill was no more.

After any of your games were published, was there anything that surprised you in the strategies of the players?

Given my peculiar history in the game industry, being away from it for 20 years, and many other games originating more than 30 years ago, I don’t know that I can answer that question!

You certainly hope there aren't new strategies that become dominant.  For example, recently someone discovered a can't-miss strategy in "A Few Acres of Snow" (the Halifax Hammer?) that required a change in the rules.  That's not something any designer wants to have happen!


Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Triptych 18 Three Subjects in One Blog Post

"What’s your most memorable board game experience?"

Cheating (and diversity initiatives)

"Intuitive" is a much smaller set than what people mean when they say a game is intuitive

What’s your most memorable board game experience?

The first time I watched my game Britannia (1986) played (2004), at PrezCon in Charlottesville VA. (I’d taken 20 years away from the industry.) I watched for a while and finally somehow identified myself. The tournament players had been playing since 1986, but the reaction to meeting the designer for the first time was interesting.

In the game, the Jutes were floating in the English Channel long after their homeland no longer existed, and I exclaimed “no way!” Not the way I’d designed it; but I discovered the game had been changed when published, owing to a misunderstanding. I fixed it in the second edition (2006).


Cheating . . .

I don't know whether I wrote the following, though it expresses exactly my point of view. Unfortunately, I haven't saved the source info, and I cannot find it via Google search. So it’s possible I did write it.

Start quote:

It's fashionable for the “politically correct" to justify whatever immoral discrimination they desire in terms of rebalancing history . . .

Let's say we play a five player game.  One of the players cheats, and gains advantage, in several plays. We finally notice that player has been cheating, and prevent it from happening again.  Now we play again.  One of the other players wants to cheat, to make up for being cheated. Where does that leave the other players, those who never cheated, if some players are now allowed to cheat and others are not? That's where we are with "diversity initiatives", we're letting some people cheat others because of some misbegotten notion that somehow this will make it all right.

If cheating is wrong, isn't it always wrong? How can it be right for some people to cheat while others cannot?

End of quote.

I would add, of course those who favor "diversity initiatives/affirmative action" have arguments justifying the discrimination. ALL slavers, ALL immoral discriminators, have had arguments justifying their activities, many of those arguments much better than the arguments for diversity initiatives. (For example, Romans would tell you, enslaving captured enemy soldiers is much better than killing them out of hand. No one could afford to feed and house prisoners. Nor could you let them go, they’d fight you again. Slaves even had a good chance of being set free, in the long run.) Those who engage in immoral discrimination (such as diversity initiatives) always think they are right, while others who engaged in similar discrimination were wrong. Of course.



"Intuitive" is a much smaller set than what people mean when they say a game is intuitive. Usually, they actually mean "familiar" (to the target audience, of course).

Play a game with someone who doesn't normally play tabletop or video games, and what gamers think is "intuitive" is foreign and new, to them.

Play a game with people who aren't part of the target audience, even if they are gamers, and once again what you might think is "intuitive" may not be to them.

There ARE intuitive parts of games - e.g., that it's much easier to press a button with a mouse that is on the edge of a screen (you can't go past it). These derive from how all humans tend to see and do things. But that's a much smaller set of "intuitive" than most people mean when they use the word.

(I’m suddenly reminded of someone who reviewed my Dragon Rage (2011 version) quite negatively (the only negative review I know of).  He was annoyed that the pieces were not hexagonal shape to fit on the hexagons . . .  Of course, if he was at all familiar with wargames he wouldn’t have suggested this. Definitely not part of the target market. I can see it being very hard to manipulate hexagonal pieces when crowded together, unless they were much smaller than the hexes.)


Some recent videos on my FREE Game Design Channel on YouTube:

Board games today substitute progress and variety for excitement and depth 

A lesson in Absolutes 

Reserves in tabletop conflict games 

What would an "Avalon Hill throwback game" be like? 

Comparing Risk and Britannia 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Triptych 17 - Three Subjects in One Blog Post



Avalon Hill and Hasbro

I'm the sort of person who goes to Metacritic and reads some reviews of a movie to decide whether to go see it, rather than rely on trailers.  I don't turn on the TV just to see what's one, at most I might look at TitanTV for movies that I'd like to see. Atmosphere appeals to people who buy things on impulse, who buy a book because of its cover, who buy a cell phone or car because it's pretty.  (I once asked the salesperson, while buying new cell phones, how many people bought based on appearance rather than features.  She said people say they don't care about appearance, but often she'd show someone a phone that suited their needs and they'd say "I don't like how that one looks, show me another one.")

The trend for at least the past 50 years is that presentation has become relatively more important, and substance less important. Of course, it has become easier and easier to make something look good, regardless of whether it's actually worth bothering with in its substance. I'm reminded of a decades-old rule of thumb, that a poor novel with a good cover will sell well, while a good novel with a poor cover will not. Whether this still applies, when so many buy books without browsing in a bookstore, I don't know, but online sellers are careful to show the covers . . .

"Those who have too little, value quantity; those who have enough, value quality; and those who have too much, value presentation."  Originated with Will, aka the Class Guy (twitter)



I educated myself, and was formally educated as, an historian. The key to history is understanding the state of reality. If you don’t know what was happening, how can you explain why it was happening? Historians must be ultimate realists.

Similarly, leaders must be ultimate realists. This is not to say that they ignore emotion and irrationality, because a great deal of life is about emotion and irrationality. But they still need to know what is, “the facts”.

I’ve specialized in military and diplomatic history, where we see again and again and again that leaders must understand what’s actually happening in order to be able to achieve their goals. A military leader has to first know where his units are and what their capabilities are, and where the opposing units are and what their capabilities are. Or tends to be a vast chaos of uncertainty, and those leaders who can make the most sense out of it are the ones who succeed.

Political leaders also need to know what reality is, even if they then choose to ignore it, or to convince their followers that the truth is something else.

In the modern world we see many politicians relying heavily on wishful thinking and promoting wishful thinking in their followers. The most obvious example is Donald Trump, whose entire life is about persuading people of what the truth is rather than paying attention to the reality. Trump will make up anything he thinks sounds good to his followers, while anyone who is devoted to discovering what reality is wonders where he gets these stories. If Trump doesn’t like reality he tries to ignore it, as in the pandemic, where even now he says we’re turning the corner, that the pandemic will just go away, despite all the evidence in deaths and hospitalizations to the contrary. It’s inconvenient for him, so he ignores the 250,000 deaths and all that goes along with it.

Conspiracy theories are one of the heights of wishful thinking, fueled by ignorance and often by stupidity.

The older I get, the more I recognize how important leadership is to nations and other political and business entities.


According to former Avalon Hill (AH) employees, among them Don Greenwood, talking about the demise of AH at a get-together at WBC a few years ago, Hasbro asked to buy Diplomacy, and was told they'd have to buy the entire company.

Rex Martin, formerly of the General magazine, wrote a doctoral dissertation showing that wargames are a Baby Boomer hobby that didn't translate, by and large, to later generations.

Hasbro had no idea what they had. One of the games was my Britannia. They sent that on to Multiman Publishing. Fortunately, MMP didn't republish it, because the rights had reverted to me when it went out of print - but Hasbro had no clue. I was unaware of all this because I spent 20 years away from the hobby (except for playing D&D). When I came back, in 2003-4, I sorted this out and did a new edition for Fantasy Flight. (And now there’s a new edition (same rules, plastic pieces) from PSC Games (UK).)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A New Thing #3 (Have to think of another name, as it’s not new any more. . . Bites of Writing?)

Kind of like the Triptych but with much more than three topics per.


Has anyone made a list of Euroish game mechanics (mechanisms) that are generally unsuited to games that are models of something (because the mechanic has nothing to do with reality)?: worker placement, drafting, and change-each-round role selection are three that come to mind.


Video games: the games (and the players) now depend so little on imagination.  Then "immersive" is almost necessarily about photo-realism.  But they're wrong.  Tabletop RPGs  can be immensely immersive, if players and GM provide the necessary imagination.


Another claim sometimes made about video games is that they are far more interactive than other forms of entertainment. That's true if you can compare them to movies, plays, and books, but not true if you compare them to tabletop games. In fact tabletop games - some of them anyway - are much more interactive because you are interacting with humans, not with software (the game).


A person doesn't play a multi-sided game like Diplomacy or Britannia five hundred times to figure out the system, or to learn the story the system tells them.  In these cases, the story is an abstract version of World War I, or a representational version of a thousand years of British history.  They play to enjoy the interaction of the system and the players, to learn how people cope with the system and how they can be persuaded to think or act in certain ways.


A hallmark of a game of maneuver and geospatial relationships: position can be as important as possession.


SO amusing to see people who pirate copyrighted material, complaining that someone else scams that to get their credit card info! Justice?


"We give the fantasy author one giant leap away from reality, then demand tight-nit probabilities and no coincidences thereafter." -Robert McKee (Talking about novels)


"Poor technical decisions coupled with the newly hired team led to all key metrics being below thresholds required for an ROI positive title," Niccolo de Masi   [ROI - Return On Investment]

Means, they lost money for all kinds of reasons.


Sue's reading about people who set what seem, to her, to be odd goals.  Such as visiting the north pole, south pole, and peak of Everest all in one year.

I observed, we're more and more a nation of destinations, not journeys.  The same thing has happened in video games, in college, and in lots of other places.  People don't seem to enjoy the journey.


For multi-sided games with significant player interaction, the better the players know/understand the system, the more they can concentrate on playing the other players.


Creativity requires you to murder your children. If you are so enthralled with your designs that you can’t let them go, then you’ll never have the hard-bitten creativity of a truly good designer. -Chris Crawford (Eastern Front and other famous old video games)


The "zeitgeist" of 1e/2e AD&D was cooperation and exploration. For 3e it was "be a one-man army" and finding rule imbalances, showing off. ...

For 4e it was cooperation, purely tactical play, and a lack of real challenge (WoW-ification).  What is it for 5e?  The lack of real challenge is still there. But there's more than just tactical play. And co-operation is still important.


Gygax said: "There is something in D&D that strikes a chord in many people; the call of adventure."

But that's lost when you can't lose


A reason why historical interpretation changes from decade to decade, or generation to generation, is that the data is never as solid as some people want it to be. Even historians are subject to wishful thinking.


I don't believe in "outdated" rules or concepts in game design, that's pointless snobbishness rather than clear thinking. What's good is good whether it's old or new, and it always depends on the situation. If it's bad, it doesn't matter if it's new or not. "Outdated"? Poppycock!


Henry Ford said "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."  Yet that's what many try to do these days, to rely on intention and vocalization and (so-called) plans rather than on action.


Online Britannia sales - shipping is extra at all, afaik.

80 pounds at PSC Games (UK)

$$74.97 But listed as out of stock.

Atomic Empire is preorder $84.99

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Responses to Dave Shapiro's questions for a Risk book, part 3


In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 3.

The following questions are specifically about the Risk relationship in your designs.

What games most influenced your designs?

Heavens, it all started so long ago that that’s very hard to say.  I loved American Heritage Broadsides, I loved the old Avalon Hill games such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps, I loved to play Risk when I was a kid, and when I got a little older (high school senior) I “graduated” to Diplomacy.  The old hex-based games obviously influenced my Valley Of the Four Winds and Dragon Rage, though you can say that about any hex-based game I guess.

What games do you consider the foundations of modern gaming?

There are many games that more or less started certain genres.  But some games are exceptionally important.

Charles S. Roberts' games for Avalon Hill such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps showed us that you could have a strategic game modeling some reality (which Risk or Backgammon does not do) that also included dice.  Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most influential of all games because so many video games owe so much to tabletop D&D.  I’m not at all in sympathy with the “pay to win” original philosophy of Magic: the Gathering but it obviously started an enormous genre of its own.

In video games, it’s a little harder to point to games that “started it all” because frequently the breakthrough game isn’t the first game.  The Sims, for example, was preceded by a game called Little Computer People that was not successful.

Do you feel that Risk has influenced gaming? If so, in what way?

Risk is the quintessential conquest game.  And it has its own niche, a board game for young fellows who want to trash talk each other and be competitive, kind of hanging out with the guys.  Because it’s a conquest game it’s not really very cerebral, it’s too much attack Attack ATTACK!

But I’m not sure how many games there are, at least, well-known games, that directly derive from Risk.  It kind of stands on its own.  Yes, there are all the recent variants published by Hasbro, but they are all much, much younger than Risk.  What Hasbro is doing with Risk, as it is with its other games, is relying on the brand to sell more games.  Hence you have “Sorry Sliders” which really has very little to do with Sorry, but trades on the name.  “Battleship Galaxies” is another one.   

Risk also appeals to younger people because, thanks to the dice rolling, there’s always a small chance that a weak player will overcome a strong player, a chance to really doesn’t exist in Diplomacy with its diceless system.  I recall playing a two player game of Risk where I rolled one “6" the entire game.  I lost.  It probably wasn’t long after that that I switched to Diplomacy!

It’s not the fact that there are dice, it’s the fact that you have almost no opportunity to try to mitigate the effects of dice.  As I said my favorite commercial game is first edition Dungeons & Dragons.  There are lots of dice in that game but you can treat it just like some (wise) people treat life, you can try to minimize the times when you need to get lucky to survive.  (As in, wear a seatbelt in a car - yet some people don't. Or wear a mask during a pandemic.)   Sooner or later it’ll get you, but that’s life as well.  You don’t get those opportunities much in Risk.  First edition D&D also required players to cooperate to survive.  Second edition was much like first, third edition was about “one-man armies” and a lack of cooperation, 4th was back to cooperation, though you really have to screw up pretty badly to die.  

You designed Hyborian Risk in 1981 (a revision appeared in 2006). As this was prior to any of the published commercial versions, including Castle Risk, why tackle a Risk game? (I have not mentioned anything about your new versions - if you choose to mention/discuss them, it would be interesting.)

The 2006 version was by Chester E. Hendrix, I just host it on my website.

A way to practice designing games is to modify existing games.  If a game has a simple system that can be applied to lots of different situations then it’s more likely to be the subject of variants.

Although I’ve designed perhaps only one or two Diplomacy variants in the past 30 years, because of all the ones I did in the 70s I still have designed more Diplomacy variants altogether than anyone else in the world.  And as I much prefer Diplomacy to Risk, if I’m going to design a variant it will usually be a Diplomacy variant.  I don’t recall the origins of Hyborian Risk but for some reason I decided to make a Risk variant rather than a Diplomacy variant, perhaps because play balance is much, much easier to get right in a symmetric game like Risk as opposed to an asymmetric game like Diplomacy.


Friday, October 30, 2020

“Are we there yet?”

"When do you know you’re finished revising? When you’ve gone from making your writing better to merely making it different. That’s not always easy to determine, but it’s what makes you an author." - Jerry Jenkins, author of around 200 books

People who are learning to design games tend to lose the distinction between when a game is mechanically complete and when it is truly finished.   There’s complete as in “it works” (mechanically complete)  and complete as in “it’s not worth the time it would take to try to make it better” (polished as much as is practical). The latter is likely to be a much better game.

My “Game Design I” students were expected to individually create a tabletop game as a mostly-outside-of-class project.  Of course, we don’t have the time in one semester for them to produce a marketable game, because games take a lot of time, though unlimited resources (including willing playtesters) can reduce that time a lot.  I tell students we’re trying to get to a fairly advanced step along the way, with at least ten playtests.  This is enough to make a game with a fairly settled feature set, perhaps with major mechanics in place, but not enough to polish (and potentially make big revisions) to the gameplay and rules.

At this stage the game may appear to be mechanically complete.  It may even be a game that many people really like, though this is less likely.  But my experience is that the game may go through quite extensive changes, and it can certainly be polished so that it works better.  In other words, it may “work”, but it will not yet be nearly as good as it ought to be.

In particular, testing and polishing the rules of a tabletop game takes many plays by a great variety of people.  Here is where there’s a significant difference between tabletop and video games.  A video game makes the player follow the rules.  If there’s a programming error, then the player can take advantage of the “glitch”, if it doesn’t actually crash the game.  The focus question is, “does the programming accurately enforce what the designer intended.”  A tabletop game does not enforce the rules.  So the focus question is “can someone read the rules and play the game the way the designer intended it to be played.”

Even if the mechanics are fairly set, that is, even if the game “works” when played correctly, it’s very likely that many people reading the rules in their current state will not play the game correctly.  Just as cleaning up programming bugs can be very time-consuming because of the nature of programming, honing the rules can be very time-consuming, because so much playtesting is needed.

Reiner Knizia says that it's easy to get a game to an 80% stage, getting to 100% is hard. That's the difference between "it works" and "it's a good game."

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Part 2 of old interview via Dave Shapiro

 In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 2.

As with movies, books and music, there are those that enjoy the work and those that criticize it. How do you deal with criticism of your designs? 

Constructive criticism that explains why it is critical is welcome.  What I realize very strongly and have emphasized in my first game design book is that there’s a great variety of things that people find enjoyable in games, and not everybody can enjoy what I put into a particular game.  All you need to do is look at to see how widely opinions can vary about the same game or movie.

What I really dislike is uninformed criticism.  If I had a dime for every time someone plays Britannia once and says it’s terribly unbalanced I could buy some really good appliances.  Yet repeated plays by experts shows that it’s quite well-balanced.  The problem is that no one “gets” a highly strategic game like that at the first play, but there are now many “shallow” gamers who believe that if they don’t get it at first play it’s the game’s fault.

Sometimes criticism comes from people who are not anywhere near your target market.  For example, someone recently criticized Dragon Rage because the pieces were not hexagonal to match the hexagon grid on the board!  (This actually wouldn’t work well, and if you think if it would work well it would be much more common in the long history of wargames.)  There were other remarks indicating that apparently the reviewer had no experience of hex-and-counter wargames.  In 2012, that indicates a strong bias to games quite unlike Dragon Rage.  So an overall unfavorable review was hardly surprising.

Reviewers should always explain why, rather than assume that their tastes are the same as the readers’.  I’m often fascinated by the reviewing style in video game magazines (PC Gamer and GameInformer) where the reviewers assume that their tastes match their readers’ tastes.  Maybe they do, though not mine!

The anonymity and “distance” of the Internet is widely known to encourage people to say and even do things that they’d never do “in person”.  There’s also what might be called “everyone’s an expert” syndrome, so commenters on the Internet are certain they know better than anyone else, regardless of their background or real expertise.  I see (for example) many people who told the former manager of Arsenal (soccer) that he doesn't know what he's doing, though he was there for 22 years and is one of the most successful soccer managers in the world in charge of one of the most well-known clubs. 

There’s a twitter account called “@AvoidComments" which issues tweets that all amount to the same advice: don't read the comments of those who criticize online, whether criticizing articles, books, games, whatever.  For example: "'What an interesting article! I can't wait to read what the average internet denizen thinks about it!' Just stop right there. You're wrong." and "Nobody on their deathbed ever said, 'I wish I had spent more time reading internet comments.'"

I’m old enough and confident enough in what I’ve done to shrug off the random criticism I encounter, which fortunately is not often.  Once in a great while I'll encounter someone online that I've never heard of, who clearly has it in for me individually (no idea why), often getting personal about it, and that can be quite annoying.

When you encounter a game that is an obvious derivative of one of your designs (Hispania, Maharaja and Italia for example), do you play the game? Do you view this as a compliment or is there some resentment? (Personally, the first time I was told that an article I had written had been plagiarized, I was extremely angry. The second time it occurred, the publisher threatened to take legal action.)

I strongly dislike plagiarism, which is exact copying without attribution, but virtually no game is “original” anymore, and most games are derivative of some other games.  I’d just as soon get formal credit for the game system that’s being used in the game, and sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.  Oh well.  It’s a compliment more than anything else.


The latest videos on my free Game Design Channel on YouTube:

Is location setup (usually in a wargame) in some sense an example of worker placement and drafting?! 

The Failure of Cause and Effect! 

Games are not stories  

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Triptych 16 Three Subjects in One Blog Post

Rewards for Intermediate Objectives

Video Games and Imagination

Technical Quality and Soccer Players

Rewards for Intermediate Objectives

(Written in 2015)

We were playtesting my Zombie Escape at Origins many years ago.

I was quite surprised when one of the players suggested that there should be a reward for defeating a zombie.  It is not a long game, 40 minutes on average but longer with the six players we had this time.  To me, defeating the zombie was one of the steps of winning the game and did not require a separate reward.  But in the video gamer point of view virtually every successful action should have a reward.

Why is this?  Partly it’s the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) of the 21st century, kids in school expect rewards merely for participation, and rewards that single out someone for particularly good work tend to be frowned upon.  Some kindergarten teachers are told not to give out gold stars because it makes the students who didn’t stand out feel bad.  I suppose in the end it’s a culture of entitlement rather than a culture of earning what you get.

Partly the reason for wanting immediate rewards is that completing a video game is not really an accomplishment anymore, because it’s largely a matter of persistence.  You can keep going back to your save points to try again and again, possibly using trial and error (guess and check), until you succeed.  You can’t actually lose a video game the way you can lose a tabletop game.

From another point of view it’s a symptom of shortsightedness.  If you don’t have your eyes on the long-term goal then you’re more likely to want many intermediate rewards along the way to that goal.  And another aspect of the zeitgeist is shortsightedness, the “Age of Instant Gratification.”


Interesting to see video games proposed as vehicles for imagination.  Everything I've read or seen suggests that kids have much less imagination now because everything is supplied to them with the story already made (and often in viewable (which is to say, passive) form).  "Let us imagine that for you." Maybe the 8 bit generation was the last to need to use imagination with games.

We "grew up with" games in the 60s, but they were paper games, Diplomacy and Stalingrad and Afrika Korps and Gettysburg and Acquire, and a little later, Dungeons and Dragons.  Our toys were paper boats and planes, plastic soldiers and cars, dolls, and so on, not often-electronic stuff with stories built in.  Imagination was definitely not optional.

Games don't have to be about photo-realistic stories, and of course they weren't in the 80s (or 60s), they were about interesting gameplay.

Games through the ages have let people make their own stories, with no pretension of telling them a story (that's what novels, plays, films are for).

This is what the video game industry often loses sight of: games are enjoyable because of what you DO, not because of what you see or hear.  Technology is not necessary to good games.


Nowadays I’m a soccer fan, even as I bemoan how conservative (backward) the rules are. Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal for nearly 22 years, sometimes called “The Professor,” is a person I always listen to.

Players have lost their technical quality over the past 10 years,” (Arsene) Wenger argued. “Athleticism has become more important than technique and decision making. It's more about physical characteristics and intensity, about explosiveness. And it's also about being a showman.”

That's not true for women.  Because they are smaller, slower, not as muscular, technical skill is still the ideal. Further, they have more room to shoot at, given goalies are smaller, slower, less muscular than male goalies. It's in effect as though men played with a bigger goal.  But women also have more room on the pitch, because of their lesser athleticism, perhaps similar to men's games 75 years ago.

So a women's game can be more technical than a present-day men's game. It's harder for women to "park the bus" (fall back and defend in depth) as well. And women are less likely to play in a way physically dangerous to their opponents. For whatever reasons. Just better to watch. Unless you're just looking for astounding physical feats.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Triptych 15 Three Subjects in One Blog Post

Viking female war leaders?

Why does the game Monopoly have such market power?

The number of people convinced that there is evidence of a god or gods is ridiculous

Viking female war leaders?

A friend of mine told me that long ago Viking burials of women had been found with regalia such as swords, implying they were warriors.

But how likely is this, especially in the rough-tough Viking mold? Do we find women warrior leaders elsewhere? No. 

Lagertha on the History Channel series “Vikings” is cool, but that’s fictional imagination/wish fulfillment, not based on fact. Even if she were a lot bigger than 5’6”, she wouldn’t be able to compete with men of comparable training, because she’d still be smaller in almost all cases. Combat sports have weight classes for reasons, the larger will almost always defeat the smaller. Then consider muscle development (hormones), far stronger in men than in women. And speed/quickness.

Imaginations are running rampant here, perhaps the same imaginations that think Vikings were black skinned. (Yes, there were people called black Vikings, but not black as in African black.)

Why not women war leaders? Through most of history, the leader had to be someone the warriors respected as a warrior. The leaders were expected to be in the front lines along with everyone else, and were often killed. Women simply could not prosper in that melee environment.

What about Boudicca? Boudicca was a symbol, not a warrior leader, despite some fevered imaginations. After all, didn’t it start with Romans sexually assaulting Boudicca?

What about actual female rulers in pre-modern times? One Egyptian pharaoh (plus Cleopatra, a Greek-descended member of the Ptolemies); one Chinese emperor; Catherine the Great and Elizabeth I. I don’t know of any in India despite the vast number of states that have existed. No one in the Greek/Roman worlds. No one in Medieval Europe (though Henry VI’s wife Matilda was often the one really in charge, as Henry was not sane).

Yes, there were lots of queens, but they didn’t rule. And to be fair, there have been women who were “powers behind the throne” for their weak husbands/sons.

Even where we find the existence of a woman in a role, if there’s just one or a very few, that doesn’t mean there were many. Whether ruling queens, or warrior leaders. 

Why does the game Monopoly have such market power?

Habit/familiarity. The majority of mass-market games are bought as presents. Parents buying a game as a present will pick Monopoly because they know it or at least know of it. They also do so because “everybody knows how to play” even though many don’t actually play correctly (auctions are often dropped). And if everybody knows how to play, the parent(s) won’t have to teach the recipient! If it’s a lesser-known game, someone has to figure out how to play!

Its market power certainly doesn’t stem from being a good game. It’s not.

Evidence of the existence of god(s)?

The number of people convinced that there is evidence of a god or gods is amazing. I recall talking with some friends at PrezCon about this. They were absolutely convinced that there was such evidence. No, there is none, scientifically or historically.

Frequently people point to the Bible, ignoring that there are at least four different Bibles, ignoring that the Old Testament is the JEWISH bible, ignoring that it's just a book. (What about "Chariots of the Gods," shall I believe in that crap because it's a book?). Utter nonsense.

If there were real evidence, do you think the world would be divided into so many religions? Don’t you think professional historians would take account of the existence of gods (they do not, and that's pretty much the point of this)? This idea that there’s evidence, is people who believe in “superstitious mumbo jumbo” (actually Alec Guiness’s remark about The Force, applies to any religion) trying to convince themselves that they aren’t suffering from delusions.

Religion is a matter of faith, not evidence.

You may as well believe the earth is flat. (Yes, I know hundreds of thousands do, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Faith, I guess.)

The latest video on my free Game Design channel on YouTube is "Robust Games" A new video every Thursday, and occasionally Monday.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Responses to Dave Shapiro's Questions for a Risk Book, Part 1

In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. And it turned out to be about 5,000 words, 5% or more of the length of the average novel (must have been good questions!).

Dave’s co-author later suffered ill health, and the book was ultimately published in Kindle form (Risk: The Book: A Compendium by Dave Shapiro), without my contribution.  So here are my answers, slightly edited, eight years later. (This will be in five parts.) 

Dave’s questions are in bold.

When and how did you become interested in playing games? 

I can’t recall a time when I didn’t like to play games.  Growing up in the 50s and 60s there were many fewer distractions and entertainment opportunities than now - for example I was lucky to get three (black and white) TV stations instead of two, and there were no computer games.  (I say computer games because the first computer game I saw, when I was 18, had no video, each turn it printed out a simple “map” of a part of Federation space for a game called “Star Trek”.)  So boardgames were very much an outlet for activity and creativity. (I also played sports.)  And I started to design games as soon as I was old enough to understand what that meant, for example writing rules for our battles with plastic tanks and soldiers.

You have had some very successful designs (Britannia), do you still play games?

I have a friend who is an excellent game designer but he doesn’t design many games because he likes to play games too much.  I don’t have that problem, although there was a 20 year period from about 1984 to 2004 when the only designing I did was modifications to Dungeons & Dragons and the only game I played was Dungeons & Dragons.

My favorite “game” is the game of designing games, really.  

In aid of designing games I’ll play a lot.  Iplayed Britannia solo more than two dozen times in the six months, testing a new edition.  Every new design I get to prototype stage, I play solo several times.  But I try not to play my prototypes when other people are playing, it skews the results (I call it the “Designer Effect”).  I don’t play the published versions of my games - I made them for other people, not for me - and I almost never play a tabletop game designed by someone else, though I’ll play the occasional simple video game.  I don’t want to spend the time to play the more time-consuming video games.

Yet there’s one old video game, Empire Deluxe Enhanced Edition, that I play many hours a month, and have for more than eight years.

If you have a game with more than two players, where you cannot gain an advantage (or disadvantage) from talking with the other players, you may as well call it a puzzle, not a game.  I don’t like puzzles, if I succeed, that’s what I should have done, if I don’t, I feel stupid.  Why bother?

I’m a people-watcher when it comes to games, trying to figure out why someone likes to play.  So I enjoy watching as much as playing, and watching takes a lot less concentration and can be easily interrupted.

Do you prefer playing board games, card games or video games?

If I play a game just for pleasure it’s probably first edition Dungeons & Dragons.  Games with cards, though not with a standard deck, can be pretty relaxing because they rarely need to be taken seriously.  But I am much more a boardgamer than a card game player, and more of either than a video game player.  Most video games don’t have much staying power, and the ones that do can take up so much time that I have to stop and say “I don’t have time for this because I need to design my own games”.

I’m much more interested in strategic games than tactical games.  Though much of D&D is tactical, isn’t it?

What is your favorite board game?

It would have to be Britannia. I’d better like it!  It’s a good “what happens next?” game, which really helps make solo play more enjoyable.  But I wouldn’t play it if I wasn’t playtesting a new version.  I go to WBC every year to watch the Britannia tournament, but I never play. Gets funny reactions from the guys, though they’re used to it now. I did play once in the tournament recently, so that two friends could also play. Managed to win, and retired undefeated! 

What is your favorite card game?

Probably my as yet unpublished pirates game.  It’s a “screwage” game that no one takes real seriously, and serendipitously has the desirable characteristic that players make up their own objectives, such as getting the biggest pirate fleet, or taking a ship of the line or the Spanish treasure fleet.  They can enjoy playing even if they don’t “win” according to the game rules.  Everything’s better with Pirates!

What is your favorite video game?

For many years, Civilization in several incarnations.  Turn-based strategy games in general.  I don’t have the quickness (6'7" people rarely do) or dexterity, especially at my age and with arthritis in my hands and wrists, to play real-time strategy anymore, and even when I did play a lot when I was younger (Total Annihilation!) I had to slow it way down to enjoy it!

But for the past several years I’ve played (far too much) one old (2004) wargame, Empire Deluxe Enhanced Edition.


Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Ranking Sources of Information and Discussion about Game Design (long)


(This is a transcribed and much modified version of a screen cast from my “Game Design” Channel on YouTube.)

 The number one way to learn to design games is to do it, to make games that you've designed, and this is why it's much easier to start with tabletop games, because you don't need to learn computer programming. Programming is a whole discipline, a whole job in itself. If you have to learn that before you work with games you are putting the cart before the horse.

 There are lots of ruts in the road for game design, and experienced people can steer you around those ruts. You don't, in other words, need to dive into the “school of hard knocks,” you can learn by reading, listening and watching. But in the end you have to do it.

 I'm not going to talk much about face-to-face sources. Clearly the very best sources of information and discussion are in-person, whether it's a class with a good teacher or through a local Game Designers Guild, or just talking with game designers and players. If you're talking with the right people and with the right attitude these are the best ways to learn other than actually making games. Unfortunately (speaking as a retired college and grad school teacher who also taught some high schoolers in college courses), the US education system is a huge mess, many official teachers at every level are poor teachers, and self-appointed teachers are no better than the official system. Too many teachers at every level are trainers, trying to teach by rote, rather than educators, trying to help people understand how something works, because the latter takes a lot more effort. The goals of the current system - memorization and regurgitation - are guaranteed to stifle thinking and creativity.

  On to the non-face-to-face stuff. Signal-to-noise ratio is what I'm going to use. We want high signal-to-noise ratios, in other words we want something that gives us a lot of information, compared to the waste of time as people blather often-half-baked (and unsupported) opinions along with ad hominem arguments, as happens so often these days (especially online). The Dunning-Kruger effect shows itself everywhere.

 There are lots of different sources of information, some of them cost money, most are free. The free ones tend to be less worthwhile - surprise, surprise. But it certainly isn’t “you get what you pay for” (one of the most moronic phrases in the language). So a low signal-to-noise ratio means there's not much useful information compared to the useless stuff, a high signal-to-noise ratio means there's a lot of useful information.

 Here is a list (in S:N order, best to worst):

          Books written by one or two authors

         Online courses

         Books written by many authors

         Articles (edited/curated)

         Blog posts and uncurated “articles”


         Panels/speakers at game conventions (and videos thereof)


         Non‑anonymous online forums (especially Facebook)

         Structured forums (reddit, Quora, etc.)

         Anonymous Online Forums/comments


 The most bang for a buck, most useful way to spend your time, is with a book written by one or two authors. Most of the numerous books about games are solely about video games. Unfortunately, if in fact you're not interested in video games you have a problem. Furthermore, many of the books about video games talk more about game studies than about actual nuts and bolts of how to design games. My book is the one I recommend (of course), Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish published by McFarland, a large independent publisher, in 2012. It was reduced in price to $19.99 from $38 paperback, and $9.99 for Kindle, so it's the best bargain as well. This book is designed to help someone learn on his or her own, it's not a textbook. Insofar as you start learning game design with the tabletop, not video (so you don’t need to be a programmer) it serves as both a tabletop game design book and a video game design book.

 (Yes, this is my own book: I wrote it to fill a gap that existed. I’m not going to ignore a resource just because it’s mine.)

 Online courses: some of these are written, most are audiovisual, some are free, some cost money. You can think of online courses as something like an oral book in the case of audio-visuals, or like a written book in the case of the written courses. Courses about actual game design as opposed to game development are hard to find. Most of the courses online that are listed as “game design” teach you elementary programming. They don't teach you how to design a game except in passing. Game design has nothing to do with programming. Let me repeat that: game design has nothing to do with programming. Programming is a means to make software. Game design is to determine how a game is going to work, the rules of the game in effect.

 I have a lot of courses on Udemy that are about game design. You can get discounts at The free courses are quite elementary, for people just starting out. If that's you, then you should try the free ones.

 The next best source is books written by many authors. A book written by a single author (or two) tends to be focused on a topic and follow a logical structure, but that's rarely true when there are many authors, typically each writing one essay. Chapters can be very hit and miss. A free book of this type is Analog [Tabletop] Game Design published years ago. I wrote the lead chapter, “The Three Player Problem.” There’s also the (not free) Kobold Guides to Game Design (there's more than one). They tend to focus on RPGs because Kobold is a commercial RPG supplement publisher. There are many books related to videogame development that are written by many authors in this chapter form, so there are a fair number of choices.

 When you consider books or courses, find out whether it's self-published. Most anyone can self-publish a book or course, there may be no editing other than self-editing. Some people can do this well, many cannot.

 The next most useful source is articles that are edited or curated. I differentiate these from typical blog posts because a blog is usually self-edited. By curated I mean somebody is editing or at least looking at the content and possibly making suggestions for improvement, and so it ought to be higher-quality, but I've seen lots of fine blog posts and I've seen some weak curated articles. It's also true that curated game articles are rare. There are online and even printed game magazines, some of which cost money, many of which are free. Those are all curated articles. There are not many websites that are curated. (the major site for tabletop RPG fans) comes to mind because I’m writing a twice monthly column there about (mostly tabletop) RPGs and game design (“Worlds of Design”). I even get paid a small amount for it! That’s unusual these days.

 Next we have blog posts. In general, blog posts are more cerebral, have more thought content, than videos do. It's the nature of the media, but more people nowadays want to watch or listen than want to read. My blog ( has been running since 2003. Some of it is repeated on Boardgamegeek or Boardgame Designers Forum and sometimes on Gamasutra ( Gamasutra is the number one site for video game developers, hosting many blogs by video game developers.

 Videos are your next source. They are frequently hosted on YouTube, some are in channels such as Extra Credits and my own channel, Game Design. Some are more entertainment than teaching. Mine is a teaching channel. They are generally free, although there are sometimes advertisements involved. Many of them are supported through Patreon. I would have stopped adding a video or two a week long ago, without Patreon.

 The next one as we go down from more useful to less useful ways of learning is panels or speakers at game conventions, and also videos or audios of the same, which are made more often than you might think. For example, I record the audio of many talks I give it game conventions. They’re available on my website.

 Panels tend to be more diverse and less focused than individual speakers. The signal-to-noise ratio ought to be better for the individual speakers, but that depends on the people involved.

 Next we have podcasts. Many podcasts are more or less spontaneous or involve a lot of chitchat between the two or more hosts, in contrast videos usually are carefully planned. So in a podcast there can be lots of wasted airspace. Unfortunately, I think many podcasters are more interested in hearing themselves than in helping their listeners, so it's haphazard. A virtue of this format, because they are purely audio, is you have the opportunity to listen to the podcast while you’re doing something else.

 Then we go to non-anonymous specialized online forums. Facebook is a major player here. In recent years many game-related discussion groups have moved to Facebook because it avoids anonymity. For example, the late James Mathe ran three groups, each with over 5,000 members. There’s an equation “online plus anonymity plus audience equals” something we really don't want to deal with. The people on these forums are not only not anonymous, they have to behave or they may be banned by the moderators.

 Of games only sites we have prominently Boardgamegeek that has forums for specific games. I confess I rarely go there for discussions. It suffers from some of the Internet mass nastiness, but the game design section specifically is an awful lot of “look what I did,” and over the years I look at it less and less. On the other hand Boardgame Designers Forum is less “me oriented” and offers a much higher level of useful information.


 With structured general forums like Reddit and Quora the problem is so many of these places are all about the writer. Some even actively don't want to hear about solutions such as books or articles or blog posts or podcasts that answer the question very well. They want it answered right there. So it's all about the forum, and yet that's a recipe for duplication and wasted effort. But it’s the ME generation after all. Quora is closely watched by moderators and I sometimes contribute there. I don't mess with Reddit, which could be quite toxic back when I tried it out.

 Then we have the purely anonymous online forums and comments and the traditional formula really applies here, online plus anonymity plus audience equals something very bad, that is, you're likely to run into a lot of nastiness posing as an expert even when the writer is clueless, and a lot of “look at me” behavior (amongst which is “I’m cool because I have an opinion”).

 Some people recommend that you don't read the comments on any piece online because there are many weak minded people who feel such a need to validate their own opinions and preferences that they attack anyone who is different.

 Tom Sorensen is a Charlotte Observer sports columnist, what he says about sports applies the same for games. “In sports, as in politics, there are people who think that if you dare disagree with them you are a moron, and not even a regular moron but a certified moron." Another Sorensen quote:

 Message boards are where the perpetually put‑upon gather. I get it. When I was in college I worked to be cynical. Then I grew up. Message board writers are mad at referees, the media, the government, the school board, rival teams that get all the breaks and the world. If your job is at all public, you hear from them. In the old days I responded to their emails and Tweets. But I got nothing out of it. They were angry on rainy Mondays and on sunny Saturdays.

 With games it is the same. He regards Twitter as one of these message boards. I use Twitter a fair bit, and occasionally I get something useful out of it. I haven't run into too much hostility although it's there, but anything where you were limited to 140 character entries is just not likely to provide high-quality information. The change to 280 characters helps discussions be more like discussions and less like people talking at one another without listening. The Jury is Out.


What do I use? While to me books are a treasure trove, online courses can be if you can find one that's appropriate. I rarely watch individual videos or listen to podcasts.

 I like to attend talks at conventions by people I respect, but unlike many I don't go to conventions to play games, I go to conventions to talk with people or listen to people, so I have the time available. I like Boardgame Designers Forum for tabletop games. I pick and choose very carefully from Gamasutra blogs. I use Twitter but I'm not using it so much for discussion as dissemination of information, and occasionally running across an article recommended by somebody else.

 The most fruitful discussions I have are with gamers face-to-face. There’s no way around that. But if I want to express an idea of some complexity I’ll write an article/blog post, with one eye on putting it in a book someday.

 Try to spend your time wisely. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to make games.

Let me know if you have a favorite source I haven't listed.


Sunday, October 04, 2020

Dual Britannia Design Notes


Duel Britannia was released in late August 2020. This standalone game is included in a package with classic Britannia, an unchanged Britannia in the rules, but changed in the interface. It uses plastic figures for armies, for example.

This is not a variant of Britannia, however, it's a standalone game covering some of the same period, in this case 350 A.D. to 1050, and it includes Ireland. It uses methods resembling and sometimes identical to those of Britannia, but for two players. It's a great deal shorter than Britannia, and feels something like a quick Brit.

This is one of two of my published games that originated with someone else's idea. The other is Valley of the Four Winds from 1980, Games Workshop’s first boardgame. This time, PSC Games (UK) asked me to design a sort of intro game for two players that used Britannia methods more or less, but was playable and 60 to 90 minutes, and that would be included with the reissue of the classic (second, FFG) edition of Britannia.

I did this using a new board, which is printed on the other side of the Britannia board.. Dragon Rage second edition in 2011 showed me that two-sided boards are quite practical. The problem that required a new board was that the Britannia game system was not devised for two players, it was devised for four players. Long ago I tried to adapt Britannia for two players, but too much depended on the dice, or to put it another way, there's too much variability in combat for two players only. I actually played it a couple times with somebody else, but it just did not work satisfactorily.

Britannia is not designed to be short. The board is too big, that is to say there are too many areas for a two player game with the system. There were also way too many rounds (16) and too many nations (17). If you want a shorter game, you’ve got to reduce all that. Fortunately I dealt with the length problems in a prototype called Conquer Britannia, a prototype that hasn't been submitted yet although I've worked on it for years. It provided me with an example of a board with just 18 areas (Britannia has 37 not counting seas). The Duel board is 24 land areas. Conquer Britannia is a four player, six turn game using plastic figures, starting after the Romans leave Britain through 1066, unlike Duel Britannia which ends about 1050. The king competition in 1066 and after is a three or four sided situation, which makes it impractical for two players. Duel instead ends with Cnut and Edmund Ironside more or less.

I was able to adapt the Conquer combat method, a simple enough variation of Britannia. Roll two dice for each army instead of one, and it takes two hits to eliminate an enemy (you cannoa divide hits up amongst your armies). It’s still a hit on a die roll of 5or 6. This reduces the standard deviation of the results. It also makes land combat less lethal, which makes a difference to how the game is played. If you have a one versus one there’s only one chance in nine of one Army killing the other on the first roll, because that Army needs to get a five or six on both dice to get two hits. What this method also does is make for a lot of dice rolling!

There are various other ways to reduce the length. For example, fewer units. I use a maintenance economy, not cumulative, in other words, you pay for existing units first. Because there are only 24 land areas there are fewer units, though I did arrange the maintenance so that even a weak nation is likely to be able to get a new army in a turn. Maintenance also eliminates the overpopulation rule, simplifying things a bit.

It's seven turns beginning just before the Romans leave. A simple calculation of number of nations times and number of rounds gives you a rough idea of how long a Britannia-like game is going to last. 7*12 = 84 is less than a third of 16*17 = 272.

Scoring occurs after each nation turn because people expect immediate feedback these days, also encouraging aggression. With only seven turns, having scoring after each nation turn still works out, but it's after each nation turn, not at the end of the round. Scoring is also simpler. Each nation has a scoring center or two and, as it’s printed on the board, the players don't spend time looking up scoring points, they just look at the board. Again that's from Conquer Britannia.

Other rules are simplified, for example, no King or Bretwalda, no movement from one sea zone to another, there's only four sea zones, no straits, no extended raiding, with the new interface. There are no nation cards while both players have cards showing the appearance.

I decided to have one player defending against the Anglo-Saxon invaders other invaders, and then the Anglo-Saxon player defends against the Vikings, so one player starts as a defender and ends the game as an attacker; the other player starts as an attacker, ends as a defender. I think that gives a game a seesaw aspect that makes it much more interesting than when the sides are more or less equal from the start.

Some asymmetric two player games tend to snowball, especially if ferociously asymmetric; that is, if one player gets ahead after a certain juncture in a game, perhaps midway through the game in this case, that player tends to get further and further ahead. This one seems to work that way. Unfortunately, this is just as two players on the second edition board worked, but that was worse. Toward the end of development I found myself reducing the maximum armies of some nations in order to reduce the swing effect they could have on the game if they got to their maximum.

I tend to design and develop games over a long time, usually several years. I only had a year and part of a month to do this one. I really had to get at it, which was kind of nerve-racking. Designers of course always wish they could get more playtesting and this one was particularly sensitive to changes. Ideally, I wanted all the Vikings on the same side as the original inhabitants of Britain. But that was unbalancing things. At one time after some testing at Prezcon I actually split ownership of the Norse to try to fine tune balance. But that didn't work out, too many possibilities of shenanigans.

As it’s difficult for me to find testers for two player wargames, I relied heavily on blind testing. The blind testing results were all over the map. Some people said that one side had a strong advantage, some people the other side had the advantage, some people were in between, and I had my own results from playing solo. I've never played as many solo games of anything as of Duel Britannia.

Would this make a good tournament game? It's relatively short and simple, 90 minutes is sufficient unless you have “deliberate” players, that is, slow, so we'll see how that goes. I’d probably let players bid victory points for which side they want to play, so you might say “I'll sacrifice two victory points in order to play such and such side,” and at the end of the game two victory points are subtracted from your final score if you play the side you wanted. Some people don't like that method, but it's kind of a self balancing method. A lot depends on play style, even in Britannia itself. I recall with the Avalon Hill version some people who played regularly in Canada saying they didn't see how one particular color could ever win, but the people who played at WBC had figured it out and the results were relatively even between the four colors.

I don't like “living rules,” which is changes in the rules after publication. But if a very large number of plays, especially in tournaments, shows that one side has an advantage, the rules can be changed and publicized to adjust the balance.

The length, the resemblance to and feel of Britannia all work well. You can see that the existence of Conquer Britannia allowed me to use well tested mechanisms and that helped a lot. The system works fine. It's the play balance that was difficult to achieve, and without Conquer Britannia I’d never have managed in 13 months.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Why I’m less interested in video games than in the past

When I was teaching videogame development and working on my game design book (Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish, Mcfarland 2012), I read a great deal about video games both online and in magazines, and played my usual “stupid video game” that I spend so much time with. Now in 2020 as I work on adding material to the book (but changing virtually nothing that’s already in it) I realize that I’m spending a lot less time keeping up with video games, though actually spend a lot of time watching people play video games on YouTube. I asked myself, why the change?

Of course, I retired from teaching before my book was published, and so I lost some of the incentive to keep up with video games and videogame development. But that’s not the major reason.

I’m afraid I have to say the main reason is, I have a lot less respect for video games than I did a decade ago. Video games have gone a long way into reward rather than consequences, that is, people are rewarded for participation rather than earning their rewards. ANY negative consequence is avoided. This of course cannot possibly apply to all video games, it’s a generalization about what is typical.

Further, too many video games are puzzles, not games, with always-correct solutions. That’s why you can “speed run” a game, why you can “beat the game”, because it’s a puzzle. And I don’t like puzzles.

I also dislike the venality of games with micro-transactions, games that in most cases find ways to reward gamers until they spend some money, or provide those old “pain points” or slow activity points that persuade people to spend money to get ahead, and ultimately to “pay to win.” Such techniques as loot boxes, which as far as I’m concerned are clearly a form of gambling, have caused me to disrespect where the industry has gone. Players are being too-obviously manipulated.

At the same time, some of the woefully entitled players - certainly many of the most vocal ones - are  not worthy of respect, as they behave like badly-brought-up children. I’m not eager to be identified with such widespread behavior.

Why watch video games rather than play them? I do play one old video game many hours a week (sigh). But viewing others play is a lot less work. And I’m exposed to and learn about games (such as Elite:Dangerous) that I would not bother to play, but that I will watch. (Thank you, Mighty Jingles.) And on rare occasions, I actually try playing one of the games.

You probably know that even venerable Dungeons & Dragons is a commonly-watched game on Twitch and YouTube. Lots of people watch other people playing games, these days.

The other reason for less interest in video games is that I prefer to spend my time on game design, making videos about game design, writing about game design, playing my video game, and so forth, rather than having anything to do with toxic video game “fans.”


Speaking of my games: my game package combining Classic Britannia (with plastic figure armies) and the new Duel Britannia (two players, new board, up to 90 minutes), has been released (late August). Last time I checked, it had not reached US online stores except for one that offered pre-orders (, and who knows about game shops. 

Likely next year there will be an electronic version (being made in France). Design notes for both games in the package are on my “Game Design” channel on YouTube (

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Triptych 14 Three Subjects in One Blog Post

Triptych 14
Three Subjects in One Blog Post

Consequence and Reward in Games
Chinese Britannia
Ignoring History OR Can you function if you try not to offend anyone?

Games can be quite consequence-based, where players try to earn something, or they can be all about avoiding negative consequences, where players are rewarded for participation (most notably, in F2P video games). The more the game is of the latter type, the fewer setbacks you can incorporate.

Similarly, some players embrace constraints (which can lead to setbacks), others really dislike constraints. (This applies to a lot more than games, of course.) The more players dislike constraints, the more they dislike the setbacks that grow out of constraints.

Party games tend not to have setbacks, and many of the folks who have come into the tabletop board and card game hobby have come from party games.

The trend is toward fewer constraints and toward reward-based "games".  Question is, what does your target market think?


Chinese Britannia?

Someone thought he'd heard of a Chinese Britannia I'd made.

No, I haven't made a Chinese Britannia. I've dabbled at it, but haven't got to playing a prototype.

There is an old one called The Dragon and the Pearl, published by a UK game shop in a small number of copies, long out of print as far as I know. It looks quite good. (Although it's out of print, my correspondent managed to get a copy from that game shop.)

There is also China: the Middle Kingdom, published by Decisions Games. I wrote about it on the BGG site for the game. Egregious error here: the designer for some reason decided to limit all action to the modern China borders! It also goes to and through WW II. I wouldn't use the Britannia game system for gunpowder era at all.

Someone was testing a China Brit game (called Mandate of Heaven) online years ago, but it hasn't seen the light of day.

I have designed a 2-3 player strategic game also called The Mandate of Heaven (if you know Chinese history, it's THE obvious title), about a time between dynasties, but it's a block game, no resemblance to Britannia. Not published, though it may be one of my best games.

My correspondent said, "I wonder why there are so few games about China."

My guess: the Chinese have been "the enemy" for a long time now, that may translate into less interest in games related to the Chinese.

Also, I think far eastern history will always be less attractive to westerners than western history.

And historical games are very much out of fashion, just as history itself is out of fashion in the USA. Too many people prefer wishful thinking to fact, so history is ignored in favor of fancy. Which leads to the next topic.


Ignoring What’s Ugly in History
Can you function if you try not to offend anyone?

Here’s a description from an event at the Meta-topia convention in 2017:

Writing More Inclusive Alternate Histories" presented by Eric Simon, Darren Watts, Shoshana Kessock, Elsa Henry. From the implicit imperialism of steampunk to the complicated controversy of HBO's Confederate, it seems like alternate history is often fraught with problems. We provide you with techniques and ideas for writing, designing, and playing with historical and alternate historical themes in ways that are positive, inclusive, respectful, and productive

But history isn't necessarily or even primarily any of those things (positive, inclusive, respectful, and productive). Nor is Life. History is Not Nice.

You might say, "in a game we can be different," but then you're in fantasy, not history or even alternate history.

Being constantly "positive" is not a virtue; it's a way to escape reality, especially when you consider history as a whole. There's a LOT of ugliness in history, why pretend there isn't? It's often messy, violent, greedy, self-centered, self-serving, and most of the "seven deadly sins".

No one designs history to satisfy lots of people. It is what it is. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. And as we all know, those who ignore reality too much end up in asylums for the insane. Although in America in 2020, there are a vast number of people ignoring reality.

“But what if I offend someone with this ugliness?” Can you do anything of substance without offending someone, somewhere? I don't think so. Because there are too many people who feel a need for validation of their views and aare offended if you don't validate those views, if nothing else. And too many who are "offended" by anything they disagree with. In other words, offense is frequently taken, not given, and consquently it's really hard to avoid offending some people.

As a writer of anything, but especially of history, can you use "don't offend" as a major goal of writing? What happens when it clashes with "is it true"? You’re screwed. I always think truth matters more than someone's feelings.

There's a saying, "the truth hurts." But lies, or wishful thinking if you will, hurts a lot more in the long run.


Monday, July 20, 2020

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.