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.