Pulsipher Game Design

This blog contains comments by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher about tabletop games he is designing or has designed in the past, as well as comments on game design (tabletop and video) in general. It repeats his blog at http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/

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Triptych V: Three different topics in one blog post

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Really Old Commercial Wargames

One of my favorite games before I encountered Avalon Hill wargames was American Heritage Broadsides. It was non-random; the only uncertainty in the game was in where the defender placed his cannon, some of which scored hits and some of which did not, information not available to the attacker until one of his ships passed the gun and took the consequences. At the other end of the spectrum we had Conflict, a game with planes and armies and ships (all metal miniatures), but which was mostly a dice game. You rolled two dice and moved two of your pieces the distance of one of the dice. When you moved over an opposing piece you eliminated it. The game amounted to putting yourself in the right position and hoping to roll doubles, which would let you roll again.

Along with the Avalon Hill games we had Risk and Diplomacy. Risk is a game that depends strongly on dice and on the luck of the territory cards. Diplomacy is a game with no overt random element but with simultaneous movement, so that sometimes, intricate tactics and possibly guessing or trying to divine the intentions of the enemy were involved. Of course in both games you had the potential for negotiation - more or less a requirement in Diplomacy - because each player was outnumbered heavily by the other players in combination. You had to talk to people to try to change those odds.

“Holes” (Plot and Setting) in Military Novels

In David Weber's well-known Honor Harrington military SF series, the space battles are quite detailed. But as with most novels I read nowadays, there are holes you could drive a truck through, sometimes holes in setting, sometimes in plot. In this series, for example, missiles are the long-range space battle weapon. But in the books, battles often hinge on missiles having finite range because they burn up all their fuel, then "go ballistic" so that they can't maneuver (maneuver is particularly important).

Why not burn up some fuel, continue indefinitely at whatever velocity one reaches, then burn the rest of the fuel for maneuver when they reach the enemy? So simply obvious. Weber seems to somehow be thinking in earthly terms, where a missile that isn't burning fuel, slows down and eventurally crashes. Doh!

“Wave Your Hand” History

We have always had “pop” (popular) history as now embodied in The History Channel, though in the past it was in books and not in video. We’ve also had speculative history, and it has to be said that most historians have to speculate at one time or another because there is no way to know the truth.

I’m not sure how much in the past we’ve had what I call “wave your hand history”. By this I mean history where the “historian” collects a series of bits of history and links them all to one particular thesis by saying “well, this could relate to” whatever topic he or she is pursuing. At some point this “could” becomes “does” and pure speculation turns into “history”. For example, there is no contemporary evidence for the existence of “King Arthur,” whether as King of the Britons or as a war leader. But there’s an entire industry of book publishing (and public speaking) revolving around the supposed existence of Arthur. The epitome of this is the book “The Historic King Arthur” by Frank D. Reno, who has evidently made a career of getting paid to speculate about Arthur. He takes little bits of information that we have about various shadowy people and presumes that all relate to someone named Arthur, and ends up with a “history” of the “real Arthur”. To me this is somewhere between disingenuous and just plain dishonest. This period really is the Dark Ages with very little written information available, and not much archaeology.

The fundamental premise in Da Vinci Code (Mary Magdelaine) feels much like this. (I have not read the book, only watched the movie.)


Bits of news:
I intend to be at the UK Game Expo in 2016.

Sea Kings is less than $40 at coolstuffinc.com.

Black Friday will see a sale on my online classes - see pulsiphergames.com Thanksgiving Day. This is the only time of the year that I give discounts beyond the standard discount.
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Fri Nov 27, 2015 3:36 am
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Video (screencast): The “Demise” of the Board Game?

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Below is the text of the slides. There's more than that in the video, of course.

The “Demise” of the Board Game?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Well, it sounds good; but really, “severe diminishment” is more accurate
I’m talking about fewer traditional-style board games where the board records maneuver and geospatial relationships
Instead we have far more card games . . .
And lots more “board games” where the board is a status indicator-recorder, not a field for maneuver
Many of these games are essentially abstract despite having a “theme” tacked on

What are boards for in games?
Think of classic (pre-commercial) board games
The board is almost always used to record geospatial relationships
And the core of the game is maneuver (or occasionally, placement) of pieces in geospatial relationships
War is about maneuver and geospatial relationships, and classic games are essentially wargames
There’s placement rather than maneuver in Go, but the locations of the pieces in relation to one another is very important

It’s a strong tradition
Monopoly, oddly, provided a board and made movement (though not maneuver – you had no choice) and current location important in an industry where it isn't!
(It did provide a form of the real estate mantra: “the three most important things are location, location, location”)
Game of Life also provided location and movement unnecessarily

“Board” games that don’t need a board
In lots of so-called board games the board is a status recorder/indicator, where there is no maneuver, where geospatial relationships are not part of the game
In other words, games that are like card games with lots more record-keeping
The record-keeping could be done just as well in other ways
Player “layouts” are popular

Rise of Card Games
At our local university game club, we usually see far more card games than board games being played
Even if you don’t count Magic: the Gathering, which is one-third of the club
Card games rarely involve geospatial relationships, even less often maneuver
But cards are easier to transport than boards
Card games are (on average) simpler than board games
And offer the opportunity to put much of the rules on the cards, so players don’t need to read as much before playing

Short Games
It’s also much easier to design a short game using cards than using a board
And short games are “where it’s at” these days
What used to be a filler (one hour) is now a relatively big game; fillers are 15-20 minutes
“5 minute games” are popular, though inevitably shallow

By the Numbers
"ICv2's study of the hobby game market estimates that retail for 2013 is now $700 million. Broken down by category, that covers collectible games ($450M), miniatures ($125M), board games ($75M), card games ($35M), and RPGs ($15M). " (Michael Tresca)
That “card game” category is odd, with best sellers I’ve never heard of
Look at the numbers. Games that are usually cards are at $485M

Less than a tenth
“Board games” includes all those status-indicator-board-games, as well as the maneuver board games
I think it includes all the games that are card games but spoken of and sold as board games, such as Munchkin, Bang!, Lost Cities, many more
So what fraction is still occupied by maneuver/spatial relationship games? Less than one tenth compared with card games?

The Future?
I have no expectation that these trends will change, in fact I think they’ll “get worse” (from a board game player’s point of view)
It’s the Age of Instant Gratification, which cards serve better
Also it’s the Age of Convenience, and card games are more convenient
Finally, it’s the Age of Short Attention Spans, and card games can be shorter

Another Aspect
I discuss this more in other screencasts, but will mention it here
The traditional boardgame was a game of Consequence. You had to take responsibility for what happened. You earned what you achieved
Modern games are moving toward a Reward basis. You are rewarded for participation. The game guides you. If a player fails, he blames the game (especially true in video games)
In this respect, board games are also “going away”

You see why I said “the demise of the board game?” Perhaps I should have said, “of new board games”, as the old ones are still going strong.
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Sun Sep 6, 2015 10:31 pm
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Video (screencast): Brief examples of playtesting individual modifications and optional rules

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Text of the slides: obviously there's more in the screencast than this.

Brief Examples of Playtesting a Modification
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Late Stage Playtesting
At some point your game will be “mostly done”, well-playtested, but ideas for modifications will still come up
Maybe a few PTers will wish something were a little different
Now you can try such things
At this point it isn’t, “make the game good,” it’s “make the game slightly better”
You could say this is the last few percentage points of improvement
But many of the attempts will be rejected, if the game works well

I have a “screwage” style pirate game, everyone has a hand of cards and a ship
It’s a combination of historical pirates and fantasy pirates (as in the recent Caribbean films)
Much of the action revolves around encounters with ships at sea
There are dice rolls for pursuit, for cannonfire, for boarding
Lots of dice rolls, all told
It’s more about the story than about strategy, but some people get frustrated with chance

A Solution?
So I said, we’ll let players trade in some of their loot for luck tokens
They can pay a luck token to reroll a die (but only once per event)
So we tried it
For the first two games, no one used them
Loot is pretty valuable, a good score is getting into double figures)
In the third game, the player who most got frustrated with chance did use them
But these players were accustomed to playing the game as it stood
What would others think who had never played before? I don’t know yet!

Optional Rules
So right now, I think of it as an optional rule
Many optional rules begin life as something that is tried, but only suits a minority segment of players
So it becomes an optional rule for those groups where that particular kind of player is common
Some people think there can be only one way to play a game
But then buy an expansion that changes how the game is played – but it’s “official”

Another Example
A 2-6 player space wargame, more or less
Players get points for destroying opponent worlds/systems as well as for holding systems at game end
For much of the game’s life, I gave double points for held systems over destroyed
But that tended to focus players on defense, and I wanted a more free-flowing, offensive game (there are reasons)

So I tried equal points for holding and destroying
But that made the game too offensively-minded
Even when I required that you hold at least one system at the end to score any points at all
So I settled on one more point per held system, than per destroyed system

But I’ve included the other two options in the rules for those who like to play more defensively, or more offensively

Don’t waste ideas when you can make them optional rules that satisfy a minority segment of players.
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Thu Aug 27, 2015 2:13 pm
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Video (screencast): What part does Creativity play in Game Design?

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Text of the slides:

What part does Creativity play in Game Design?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Quoting from my Book “Game Design”
“Creativity is an important but small component of game design. Most of the work involved in the game is fairly straightforward thinking and problem-solving. This is not to say that it’s easy, but it does not involve a great deal of creativity. Novice game designers often have a confused idea that game design is all about creativity, which is very far from the truth.”

Some Quotes about Creativity
"All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." Pablo Picasso
"The key question isn't ‘What fosters creativity?’ But it is why in God's name isn't everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything." Abraham Maslow
"Before you think outside the box, check inside the box first." Mark Rosewater

But Creativity can be Misunderstood
Creativity (in game design, at any rate) is mostly not about “getting ideas”
It’s not “brain fever”, not “wild imagination” – anybody can come up with nutty, off-the-wall stuff
It’s finding unusual ways to solve problems
Not necessarily unique – that’s very unusual
Not necessarily flashy
The “ashtray” example

Too many think creativity is all there is to game design
The "sexy" part of game design is the conception and elaboration of an idea that may turn into an enjoyable game
“Sexy" in game design is like "sexy" in a marriage, it can only make a difference at the beginning, sooner or later there has to be a lot more there
Game design, like long-term marriage, depends on a lot more than the “sexy” part

“Convenient Sex?”
Many so-called game designers want the equivalent of a "convenient girlfriend/boyfriend" relationship, the most fun parts without the work that makes it last
You can try to do this, but you'll end up with a lot of half done (and usually half-baked) "games" that never have a chance of being published, unless you self-publish them

Creativity and Constraints
It’s not uncommon to see so-called “designers” complain that constraints limit their creativity
They don’t realize that, in art as well as in game design, constraints promote creativity
Eras where “there are no rules,” such as the Rococo in music, or modern painting, lack lasting masterpieces [some may argue about the painting!]
When you can “do anything”, it’s really hard to decide what to do – yet you haven’t really contributed to entertaining your target audience
You always have a target audience, whether you know it or not

Creativity versus Execution
Creativity is important, but not nearly as important as overall execution and a willingness to stick with it until the end, when you're bloody well sick of the game but it still needs that final polishing
Adams and Rollings in Game Design Fundamentals estimate "innovation by the game designer contributes no more than 5 percent to the fun of the game." It's very important, but it's not the major part of the job. Including stage (level) design, they increase the influence of imagination to 14 percent

Inspiration and Perspiration
I prefer a modified form of Thomas Edison's dictum, amounting to "success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.“
(Edison said 1% and 99%, but he was famous for using trial and error (guess and check results))

Some people have a talent for designing games, some don't.
Inborn talent may make the difference between a decent game and a really good one, though this can be debated
Nonetheless, it is a craft that can be learned, not something that only a few lucky individuals can do
Necessary creativity is in most of us, we just need to bring it out (or bring it back, in Picasso and Maslow's terms).
It's execution that counts for far more in game design than creativity.

Much material here quoted from my book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games Start to Finish” (McFarland, 2012, inexpensively available at Amazon, other online bookstores in paper and electronic formats)
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Sat Aug 22, 2015 4:24 pm
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Video (screencast): Good once, good three times, or always good – what game do you want to make?

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Below is the text of the slides. There's much more to the video than that, of course.

Good once, good three times, or always good – what game do you want to make?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Robert Heinlein’s Saying
It’s been decades since I read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”
But a friend tells me that author Robert Heinlein at one point says this about the nature of jokes: "Funny once, funny twice, or always funny"
Think about it, it’s true (and true of books, as well, if you substitute “worth reading” for “funny”)
And I think it’s become true of games, as well, if we substitute “worth playing” (and I’ll say three, not two)
(We’re ignoring all those jokes, books, games that aren’t worthwhile even once. . .)

How it applies to games
This tends to apply to modern games, both video and tabletop. "Enjoyable once, enjoyable thrice, or enjoyable always."
3500+ tabletop games a year, and tens of thousands of video games (think of all the mobiles (500 per day on iOS) and F2P games)
In both cases, it’s immensely easier to self-publish than in the past
AAA video games have always tended to be “one and done” – “I beat the game” and then I don’t play any more
Because they’re really puzzles more than games
They so often have always-correct solutions (like puzzles)

“Cult of the New”
But tabletop games are leaning the same way, not “I beat the game” (though there is that) but the “Cult of the New”
So most games are played just a few times before everyone moves on to the next
This is exacerbated as there are more and more new games
I think we’ve come to the point that most games are designed to meet this standard of “play three times” (or less)

Need for Personal Validation
So why don’t more people “call out” those weak games?
Heavily-hyped games (e.g. on Kickstarter) build up a “credit”
Young people, especially, feel that they need others to validate their likes, so that they campaign in favor of what they like (and against what they don't, or against anyone who doesn't like what they like). Hence the hype increases

Emotional Investment
Older generations tend to have more belief in their own preferences, and don't feel a need to campaign for them or against the contrary
A result: there is less actual analysis of games and more emotional “us and them”
Magnified by the Internet, of course
Those who let themselves be sold on a game before it’s released, are emotionally invested in the success of the game, so they’re less likely to criticize it once it’s on the market

That’s sad . . .
As long as there are enough buyers for “enjoyable once” or “enjoyable thrice”, it will continue
It’s easier to design games that way, too. You can forget about gameplay depth, and about replayability
You can design the game to be “transparent”, that is, people can figure out how to play well after playing once
No, this is not how deep games used to be designed, it’s “party and family” game design

But that’s where the market is
How many people do you know that study individual games in order to play better? Not many, I’ll bet
Heck, most people don’t even want to read the rules these days
Not surprising that the overall quality of games for “serious” players is decreasing
But that’s where the market is nowadays, short, simple, easy-to-digest games, bagatelles for the most part that we can play a few times and give up
Much easier to design such games, as well

More and more players treat games as time-killers
As long as the individual game isn't too long
What "too long" is varies, but I was recently at a game designer guild meeting where I described an hour-long game as a "filler", and was told fillers are now 15-20 minutes
Not surprising that so many games are shallow, lacking substance

What standard are you working toward as a designer?

@lewpuls on twitter
Online courses (with discounts) listed at pulsiphergames.com
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Sun Jul 26, 2015 6:33 pm
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Video (screencast): Pitching a tabletop game? Don’t Talk much about Mechanics

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Below is the text of the slides. There's more to this in the video, of course.

Pitching a tabletop game? Don’t Talk much about Mechanics
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

I work with publishers who usually publish games that are models of something, that clearly represent something, not abstracts
Abstract games are hard to sell – because there’s no story attached
Publishers vary as much as designers do

Following is for an email pitch, but most applies to an in-person or over-the-phone pitch

But isn’t a game the mechanics?
Technically, quite a bit; practically, NO!
Mechanics are a means to an end, not the end itself
Games are about an impression the game makes on the players
That depends on many things
mechanics are secondary
(for example) Depends on the level of player interactivity and whether or not it has always-correct solutions (a puzzle)

What’s important is what the player actually does
Talk about that, not about mechanics
Except insofar as mechanics are relevant to player action
But keep in mind, players rarely think of themselves as “doing worker placement” or “building a deck”
They think in terms of winning, and of the context of the game

Publishers also want to know the components so that they can make a ballpark estimate of cost
How many cards, how many dice, what kind of pieces and how many
Especially if the pitch comes from an unknown designer, there's a significant chance that the game will be too expensive to produce for what it does/is
A big selling-point of games (to publishers) is inexpensive components (16 or 20 cards only, for example).

What makes the game Unusual?
It’s the Kiss of Death to say, for example, “it’s a deck-building game”.
There are hundreds of deck-building games. What sets yours apart? Why would anyone bother with it?
The publisher wants to know what makes your game unusual, not what makes it ordinary!
Don’t say “it’s a worker placement game.”
OMG, another one?!

Your definition when you pitch
If your definition as a game designer of your game is that it's a worker placement game (say), you've already failed.
There are hundreds of such. And the mechanic you use is irrelevant to what the game actually does
You may be proud of how you’ve made certain mechanics fit together
But that isn’t what the game is about, not to a player or publisher
So don’t talk about mechanics, unless you have a unique, surefire mechanic (both of which are very unlikely, understand)

A list?
Next slide is a list of items I include in a one-page pitch sheet (not the cover letter)
The only thing that approaches mechanics is “Game Type”, where I might say “Sweep of history game” – but that isn’t mechanics, is it?
(Sequence of play could be called a mechanic, too)
Keep in mind, these categories are for a one page pitch sheet, not for the cover letter
In the cover letter I establish my credentials and my interest in this particular publishing company
Which is harder to do if you don’t have a track record yet

Number of Players:
Game Length:
What does the game represent?:
Game Type:
How to Win:
Who does the player represent?:
What does the player do?:
Sequence of Play:
Game End:
Attractions for Buyers:
Suitability for Expansion:

Talk about how your game affects players, what the components are, why you’ve designed it as you have (where you might mention mechanics).

I intend to be at GenCon and WBC (from Wed afternoon).
I'm giving our talks at GenCon (one per day), one at WBC (Thursday afternoon)
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Tue Jul 21, 2015 8:44 pm
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Video (screencast): Confusions of Game Design Series: Dominant Strategies are OK? (Only in puzzles, not games)

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Here is the text of the slides (there's more to the video than that, of course):

Confusions of Game Design Series: Dominant Strategies are OK? (Only in puzzles, not games)
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Part of a Series
This is a series that will likely run for years
It’s about some ways game designers can get confused
As such, sometimes it will be semantical as well as practical
Primarily it’s about games with human opposition, or a strong semblance
Hence, most of the examples will be from tabletop games, though much of the discussion will apply to video games as well

What’s a Dominant Strategy?
This is a way of playing a game - a strategy - that is so good, you must play that way to succeed/win
In a puzzle, that’s what’s expected, an “always-correct solution”: what you do to solve the puzzle
Many “games,” e.g. single-player video games, are far more puzzles than games, and have such solutions
There may be more than one solution in a VG, but once you figure it out, it’ll always work

So in puzzles, DS is OK
Players expect a puzzle will have one or a few solutions
They don’t want randomness to mess it up
(They don’t want other players to mess it up!)
One way to tell:
You can only do a “speed run” when there’s a solution to a game
(“Speed run” – go through a single-player video game in 5 or 10 minutes, when it takes many hours to play the first time – you’ve already figured out the solution)

Stories, too
Many games with stories built in are linear, that is, players must follow a particular path to complete the story
Sounds much like a puzzle, doesn’t it?
In this kind of story (which isn’t the only kind in games), dominant strategy/always-correct solution is OK, if not expected
Story-in-video-game tends to be linear because it’s a lot cheaper to make!

“Multiplayer Solitaire”
In tabletop games, especially “Euro” style, we often see games for 3-4 (or more) players that are essentially puzzles
There are a few “paths to victory” that are in fact solutions
These are usually transparent games, where these paths are quickly seen
Players have little or no influence (within the game) on one another, hence the “solitaire” part
At most, you may be able to block one player’s path, but then you’re not following a path

In Games, DS is a BAD IDEA!
First, it’s boring
What real games – good ones, anyway - offer is a variety of ways to play that can succeed in certain circumstances
This derives from the game, but also from having more than one player
Players provide uncertainty, difficult predictability, Yomi, invention, that a programmed opponent cannot
If a game has a dominant strategy, it’s BROKEN!

Conventional Speech
Conventionally, we talk about many actual puzzles as games
It’s built into the video game industry (which would better be called interactive software entertainment industry)
The word “game” has come to have a very broad meaning, encompassing all kinds of entertainment software (Wii Fit, Wii Music, Katamari Damacy)
But you design puzzles differently than actual games
We also talk about contests as games
Contests like hot-dog eating competitions, Olympic swimming races, anything you can time or otherwise measure objectively where players cannot use the rules to affect one another (psychology is another thing)

Be Aware
Are you designing something that has always-correct solutions?
Are you content to design a puzzle or linear story-game, or do you want to design a game?
It’s a lot easier to design a game if you have human opposition

Some designers like one or the other type (I despise puzzles), and some players lean strongly one way or the other
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Wed Jul 8, 2015 1:25 pm
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My experiences as a Kickstarter backer are disappointing

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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I was telling my wife about one of the Kickstarters I had backed, what seems to be a long time ago, without receiving "the goods", and realized that that's been my experience for many of those I've backed. So I decided to write a brief blog post about my experiences. I'll start with the good ones and work my way downward.

(Note that I have not backed a game; in my very limited experience, pre-ordering games (which is what Kickstarter amounts to) has resulted in me paying more than people who waited. And I'm not the sort of person to get excited by the hype and smoke and mirrors that surrounds so many Kickstarter game offerings. I want to find out what the game is really about before I buy it, and among other things I do not trust pre-reviews, a field open to vast possibilities of "shenanigans.")

In most cases by the time I backed the project it had already exceeded its minimum target.

The most immediate return, and one of only two that have actually delivered so far, was run by Evil Hat Productions, which is one of the stars of the Kickstarter universe as I understand it. It was for a new edition of the book Designers and Dragons, and three new companion books. Since I only "backed" electronic copies which were already more or less done the delivery was very quick. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/evilhat/designers-and-d...

I supported an offer to deliver custom laser etched dice. This one went off without a hitch and I received my dice some time ago. (They're not very practical as dice because many are hard to read, but the college kids think they're cool and prefer to use them when possible.) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tinderbox/dice-empire-s...

The next one is much more recent than the others, an offering of fantasy coins. The producers actually had to try three times before they succeeded in funding, and there hasn't been enough time for them to deliver. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/420090979/fantasy-gamin...

I think the first Kickstarter I supported was for "Doublesix Dice", 12 sided dice numbered 1 to 6 twice. This project has run into many production problems (Chinese manufacturer) but the man in charge has spent a great deal of time and is very open about what's happening, providing videos of the production candidates, and I expect that sooner or later the dice will be delivered. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/916188323/doublesix-dic...

Another project I supported is for "GripMats". These are a great idea, but it turned out that only one printer in the United States could handle the job and they tended to ignore the project in favor of other things. At one point the project manager said he had quit his job in order to spend full time nursing this along, and later a foreign printer was found. But there's been no delivery and I have no idea when or if there ever will be. The best we have seen is photographs.


I supported another custom etched dice project that has hit hard times. The project manager used the money to buy laser etching equipment and reported on his experiences setting up, but then he went silent. Recently he has described in great detail a physical malady that prevents him from doing any work, and he's waiting to get an appointment with a top level specialist. This points up, of course, the problem that so many Kickstarters depend on a single individual. We'll hope he recovers sometime and can deliver. (There is no money to refund because he spent it on the equipment.) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/customgamelab/custom-ga...

At best you could call this a chequered experience. "It is what it is." But I notice that I haven't backed any new projects in quite a while.


$10 off my "book length" "Learning Game Design" online audiovisual course ($49) https://www.udemy.com/learning-game-design/?couponCode=LGD%2...
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Wed Jun 24, 2015 3:27 pm
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Video (screencast): The Many Meanings of the Word "Theme"

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Text of the slides is below. Keep in mind, there's more to the presentation than this text!

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Rendered useless . . .
I don’t use the word “theme” any more, because there are so many different meanings
If you cannot know how your reader/listener understands a word, you can’t use it (if you want to be clear)
These meanings are not even close to the same things. Which is why I don’t use the word any more, it’s confusing rather than meaningful
This happens periodically with certain words as the language changes
For example, “bi-annual” is useless
So is “literal”

. . . by too many different meanings
I’m going to these meanings for “theme” and suggest alternatives
Here’s a list of different meanings:
“Theme” as model
“Theme” as a guide to action or “context”
“Theme” as an atmosphere/canvas/decoration
“Theme” as a gloss – or even less
If I’m talking about theme as model, and you’re talking about theme as atmosphere/decoration, we’ll never understand each other

Theme as model
The game is an attempt to model a situation
There’s a strong connection, in what the players do and what happens, between the game and some reality (even if it’s a fictional reality)
I call this “correspondence” (or “analogousness,” but that’s an ugly word, from analogy)
Keep in mind, models always simplify the reality
Most historical wargames fit this meaning of “theme” – how could they not?
Though some conquest games, like Risk, are pretty far removed from any history and any reality – is Risk even a poor model?

Might not be a GOOD model . . .
Keep in mind, the model may not be a good one
For example, World of Tanks, an otherwise fine game, has lots of “nuts and bolts” for war buffs, but the actual play has very little to do with actual warfare
It’s a model, but a poor one
The same can be said about most shooters (WoT is really an arcade third person team shooter)
World of Warships, same thing

Mechanics not lending themselves to models
Some common game mechanics, having next to nothing to do with real life, do not lend themselves to theme as model or even theme as context
For example, worker placement: something almost never found in real life
It may exist, but I’ve not seen a worker placement game that was anything but abstract
Swapping roles from turn to turn is another
Drafting is also rare in real life (outside of American pro sports player drafts)

Video games
Respawning in video games is anti-model, for sure!
It’s far too easy to hit something with a long-range weapon, too
In RTS, the base-building style doesn’t match any real or fictional reality I know
And so forth: in some ways, taken altogether video games are worse models than tabletop

Theme as guide to action or “context,” via a story
The “theme” is a story that provides a context to help players play the game
This requires some resemblance between game and reality, but does not require it to be a model
(Where one ends and the other begins is hard to say)
At some point, this merges into theme as atmosphere/decoration

Theme as atmosphere/canvas/decoration
The “theme” provides an atmosphere, a feeling, for what is largely an abstract game
What the player does has virtually nothing to do with the supposed situation/story
What happens in the game has little to do with the proposed situation/story
“Decoration” might be the clearest word to use, as much of this comes from appearance without substance
If you can take an existing game and change the so-called “theme”, you have this version of theme, or even less

Theme as a gloss – or even less than that
Gloss – something tacked onto a game after it has been designed and tested
While this may be an attempt to provide context, for the most part it’s a marketing ploy
Think about how people buy games in stores
They pick it up and look at the back cover
The back cover tells them a story that may have nothing to do with the game
In fact, the back cover rarely discusses gameplay

With all these meanings . . .
If you use the word “theme” without one of the other words I’ve proposed, you likely confuse the reader/listener
When people talk about games, much of the confusion comes from semantics
Let’s try not to contribute to the confusion
Just Say No to using the word “theme”

No doubt there are other meanings out there, but these seem to be the principle ones


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Fri Jun 19, 2015 12:51 am
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The Stages of Playtesting: the Nature of the Testers, or the State of the Game?

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
North Carolina
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Typically, the stages of game play testing are divided into Alpha and Beta and sometimes other names. But when people use these terms, they often mean quite different things. I’m going to discuss some of the different views of the stages of playtesting, and the “new” stages that can come even after release of a game.

It doesn’t really matter what we call the stages, what matters is what’s happening, and that’s what we’ll focus on.

I have always thought of playtesting in terms of who is doing the playtesting and what their relationship is to the creation of the game. But some people focus on the state of the game rather than who is doing the testing. That’s where much of the confusion arises.

In my book Game Design (McFarland, 2012), I briefly discussed the stages of playtesting:

There are three stages to playtesting: solo playtesting (also called "alpha"), local playtesting ("beta"), and "blind" or “external” playtesting (often spoken of as part of the "beta" stage). While there are various ways to name these stages, the stages certainly exist, although sometimes video game companies leave out the “external” testing stage.

Of course, in single-player video games all testing will be solo for a single player game. I might have said instead of “solo playtesting,” “playtesting by the game developer(s).” The difference between Alpha and Beta is that the Beta testers are not among the developers of the game, so they have a completely different point of view. Developers often have worked with the game so long and so closely that they cannot see it objectively, and they have learned over time to cope with problems or peculiarities in the game that an ordinary player would regard as seriously detrimental.

I emphasized who is doing the testing, because historically video game studios often failed to playtest beyond the game developers themselves, that is, never got to the Beta stage. And their games suffered severely for it. This failure is much, much less common today.

Since I wrote the book I’ve added the third Greek letter, “Gamma,” to represent testing after a game is released. This is especially common in video games where a free-to-play game is often released in an unfinished but functional state so that the developers can discover whether there’s “something in it”. If there isn’t, they stop development and they’ve saved themselves a lot of time and effort (and that equals money). If there is something in it (if enough people enjoy it), they can continue to develop the game and continue to benefit from user feedback, which is after all what playtesting is, user feedback.

In contrast to judging playtesting stages by who is testing, Alan Paull, designer of many published games and lately of games for his co-owned company Surprised Stare, thinks of testing in terms of the state of the game. In the Alpha stage the game is not stable (is changed frequently), whereas in the Beta stage the game is fairly stable.

When judging from the state of the game, at some point the game is regarded as entirely stable, that is, ready to publish. In this context I’m reminded of the Microsoft term “release candidate,” where software is tested, and if no additional problems are found it is released, even though there are still lots of known coding problems in the software. (No large computer application is ever released without lots of bugs, both known and unknown.) In tabletop game terms the nearest equivalent would be a game distributed for testing by a publisher who has committed to publishing the game.

“Blind testing” is quite different in the video game world than in tabletop, because video games are intended to work without requiring the player to read a rules manual, whereas blind testing in tabletop requires the tester to read the rules and learn the game from the rules. It’s really hard to find people who will follow through with a blind tabletop playtest, unless the game is a “release candidate.” In tabletop the presumption is that at the blind testing stage you have a “release candidate.” The other assumption is that the playtesters have had nothing to do with the development of the game.

Recently some terms have been adopted in the video game world that further differentiate (and also confuse) the matter. Alpha and Beta stages can now be “open” or “closed.” Closed means that only certain select/privileged/lucky people are able to participate. For example, World of Warships has gone through an Alpha stage, a closed Beta, and soon an open Beta. In all of those stages virtually all players have had nothing to do with development of the game, so these terms relate to the state of the game - what I would three years ago have called Beta.

On Steam (video game distribution for PCs) we have “Early Access” games where players are already paying for the game even though it is still in playtesting. Playtesters paying to play? That’s a good trick if you can manage it. (World of Warships has achieved it, by selling “Premium” ships that give people access to play in the otherwise-closed Beta.) "Early Access" testing is possible primarily because there is no cost in making another (playtest) copy of a software game.

Furthermore, as publishing and re-publishing becomes easier, “playtesting” becomes part of publication. Video game patches fix programming bugs, but they can also fix gameplay problems. In effect, they’re changes to the game resulting from the “Gamma” testing, testing after publication. Even for some tabletop games this kind of thing can be done. “Living rules” (rules posted online that can be revised) are the result of testing-after-release of a tabletop game. Or imagine you’ve published a Print-on-Demand (POD) game, e.g. through DriveThruCards or theGameCrafter.com. If a problem arises, you can change one or more components so that every subsequent buyer benefits from the testing-after-release. Gamma testing is a reality for many kinds of games.

In any case, the accompanying diagram is an attempt to graphically show what’s happening. As time passes, the game is improved (shown by black line), but improvements come more slowly as the game approaches completion (also shown by the blue rate of improvement line). As the game improves, the testing usually reaches a wider audience (shown by red line). Late in the testing process this audience may contract (tabletop games blind testing), or may expand (video game “release candidate” testing), shown by the two branches of the red line.

As for the names of playtesting stages, I think Gamma (post-release) needs to be recognized, though some might want to use Gamma to designate "release candidate" testing, and Delta for post-release testing. I don’t think we’ll have any agreement about Alpha and Beta, as some people continue to emphasize who is testing, and some emphasize the state of the game.

I've recently opened a brief (one hour?) online course, "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences" on Udemy.
This is officially $5, but FREE to you with this URL-coupon:

At the same time I've opened an "Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design"
More than four hours long, but it IS an introduction.
This is $15 on Udemy, with this URL-coupon it's $12:

I will soon start a Patreon campaign for support for my Game Design channel on YouTube, as well.
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Mon Jun 8, 2015 6:12 pm
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