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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Ruminations on Types of Games and Game Players, Arising from a Sojourn

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
Linden
North Carolina
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(When I started to write this, I had no idea it would grow to exceed 3,500 words. But I think those who are interested in game design, and in why people play, will find it useful. LP)

I have been living in Gainesville, Florida temporarily, and with the advantages of being officially retired - no set schedule - I have been attending a variety of board/card game meetings and contemplating attendance at some conventions.

As my nature is to categorize phenomena to help understand them, there’s a lot of categorization below. That necessarily involves generalization over (in the end) thousands of games and game players. There are always exceptions: no generalization is always true (not even this on).


What I found in Gainesville is a lot of small groups, with almost no crossover in attendance. Even the groups with more than 200 people on Facebook have only 10 or 20 attending weekly meetings. There are three separate student groups, none of whom knew of the other two. Even though the larger group has been around for four years and more, the two new groups thought they were starting the only tabletop club at U. Florida.

There’s a lot of variation in attendance with these small groups; I went to one meeting where no one else showed up (yes, I had the right time and place - and this is the residents group, with the largest number of Facebook followers!).

There is the usual separation of groups for residents and groups for students (University of Florida has over 50,000 students, a very large university, the city population is 127,000). Residents are usually well into adulthood, up to their 50s and 60s, while the students are almost entirely 18 to 22 years old. Residents also usually have their own transportation, while the students are frequently stuck on campus. So the residents tend to meet at the primary local game shop, cleverly named Gamesville Tabletop. And the students meet on campus, usually in the Student Union food court. The one exception is that the residents meet there on Wednesdays.

Game Preferences. But there’s also a big difference in game preferences. College students tend to like “story games,” games that have a story attached in some way, often one with an avatar representing the player. Betrayal at House on the Hill is very popular. They are also happy with games that are directly competitive, because they are accustomed to playing video games that are often directly competitive if only between the player and the computer opponent. Most of the students (by actual poll) play video games more than they play tabletop games. Many of the students here, and also in Raleigh where I’ve attended the student game club for 9+ years, like RPGs as much or more than board/card games. One longtime member of the residents group here told me that at one time they tried to work with the larger student group but found that people tended to separate into two age groups at meetings. He also thought of the students as role-playing gamers, unlike the residents by and large who play boardgames.

Most of the games I have seen played at the residents group - other than a few of my own - are of the typical Euro parallel competition or multiplayer solitaire game where each player pursues his own course with little to no regard for what the other players are doing. There’s very rarely an avatar in such games. The students are happy enough to do the parallel competititions occasionally but it’s not what they’re accustomed to, and certainly not at all like RPGs, which are the epitome of avatar/story games.

Opposite Poles.
Game preferences have at their poles two kinds of games: races on the one hand, and direct competitions on the other (like chess, checkers, go - many classic games). Parallel competition/multiplayer solitaire is a form of race because as in most races you can do little or nothing to hinder or help the opposition. The opposition cannot oppose you, they can only outdo you. In direct competitions the opposition can oppose you, can hinder you or cause you harm within the game, or help you significantly in some cases.

There’s another set of poles, closely related, between games that have always-correct solutions - another term might be closed games - and games that are open and have no such solutions. The extreme of the closed game is a formal puzzle with one solution. In the open games, if there is a dominant strategy, which is to say an always-correct solution, then we say there’s something wrong with the game design. In the former kind of game a dominant strategy is expected, and “multiple paths to victory” is a way to provide a multiple choice of strategies that would otherwise individually be dominant. When those multiple paths to victory are well-known (which is typical and often deliberately designed), it’s sometimes possible for players to slow down another player following one of those paths, and that’s the kind of indirect competition that one sometimes sees in what are otherwise race games. It’s somewhat like NASCAR or Formula 1 where you can block a car behind you for a while. In open games, the good lines of play often are not obvious, may intentionally not be obvious, supplying the gameplay depth we sometimes talk about but which is not present in pure parallel competitions. There are not “multiple paths to victory”, there are all kinds of ways to achieve victory, and which one works best depends on how the players interact.

The field events in Track & Field are another example of parallel competition. In most cases every competitor knows the correct strategy, it’s a case of who can execute it best. In open games, many players never figure out the best strategies, partly because they change from game to game - they depend heavily on the actions of the other players.

Of course, another word for an activity where you have an always-correct solution is “puzzle,” and for me these closed games are a form of interactive puzzle. Just as in a formal puzzle, the obstacles to be overcome are mostly or entirely provided by the game, not by the players. In an open game the obstacles/opposition are provided more by the players than by the game.

As long-time readers know, I strongly dislike most puzzles, though I have been known to play single-player turn-based video games with procedurally generated situations that alter the puzzle somewhat with each play. If I solve a typical puzzle, I am only doing what I ought to do, so I get no satisfaction from it.

Transparency/Opacity.
Parallel competitions are often quite transparent, that is, designed so that after one play a player can know how to win (or at least thinks he knows). Those “multiple paths to victory” in Euros are usually easy to see. That’s also a characteristic of party and family games. Many of the more competitive games featuring lots of direct action are much more opaque, you have to play several times before you get a good handle on how to win - and many players never do even when they play many times.


Maneuver and Spatial Relationships.
Another strong differentiator in game preferences is whether or not the game involves maneuver (or placement) and spatial relationships (M/P & SR). Wargames and many RPGs are at one extreme in this spectrum, actual races (cars, horses) come after (“after” because the maneuver is severely constrained by the track), tile-laying is in the middle, and at the other end are most standard-deck card games and many so-called board games where the board is used as a status tracker rather than a field for maneuver and spatial relationships. (Keep in mind, virtually all ancient and early medieval games were M/P & SR games, dice being the obvious exception, cards and tile games not existing at that time.)


So to come back to game preferences in Gainesville, I think the fundamental divide between students and the residents (though with many exceptions) is a divide between open and closed games. People accustomed to “big” video games are also accustomed to using maneuver and spatial relationships, while many other video game players primarily play games without those attributes. (Yet even “Match 3" games use M & SR.) RPGs usually rely heavily on M & SR. Many of the more well-known Euros include some form of M/P & SR, such as Carcassonne and Power Grid, but most Euros do not.

Exceptions.

I say “many exceptions.” One of the officers of the big student group does not want to feel that he’s opposing and being opposed by someone else directly. RPGs, after all, are unique because they are co-operative games where you have actual human opposition (though the referee/DM is neutral or player-biased). You can almost do that in some video games, except with the limitation that programmed opposition is not as inventive and unpredictable (and downright sneaky) as human opposition - though you can get what Richard Garfield et. al. call in their book “one-and-a-half player games”.

Obviously, many people like multiple kinds of games, just as many people like multiple genres of music. But others want to stick to one kind. And preferences change over time. Such as, for two+ decades I would very rarely play a game against any person, so I played D&D and some single-player video games. Now I rarely play except solo testing my own designs, but I don’t mind a good “screwage” game, yet rarely play RPGs.

Not surprising that the sports I like (and participated in when younger) are team sports, not parallel competitions. Go Panthers!

Another big separation (reward-based vs consequence-based).
Some of the students in one of the new groups appear to be party gamers. Here I differentiate between people who are serious about game playing and those who are not. Party gamers expect to be rewarded for participation - that’s what party games are for, after all - whereas many serious gamers expect to earn their rewards. I’m not using the terms hard-core and casual because there are hard-core gamers, in terms of how often they play, who now expect to be rewarded for participation (thanks to MMOs and F2P games), and casual gamers who may not play very much but who still play to earn what they get in a game. If you had to choose groups to connect then I would connect hard-core and serious, and connect casual with reward for participation, but I do not intend to do that.

(MMOs and F2P: the developers must reward players constantly to try to get them to keep playing the game long enough to make in-app purchases. It comes down to marketing and money, as many things in games do.) These students, however, are by-and-large game hobbyists who prefer the party game style, rather than people who only play games at parties.

Going back to Gainesville, the students are used to RPGs and to video games where there is direct competition, and where winning (sort of) matters. (You can use Save Games to avoid losing many video games, but not the ones where two or more players take each other on, e.g. Super Smash Brothers or Street Fighter.)

The differences in meeting times and habits between the three Gainesville student groups, and the Raleigh group, are surprising. Raleigh meets Fridays at 6PM, many are present before then, peak attendance is during 7-8, then it rapidly goes down, occasionally people stay as late as 11:30. One student group in Gainesville meets Mondays 7:20 to 9-something, a short, biweekly meeting. Another group meets at 8 Fridays, most people drift in considerably later, and stay until well past midnight (they often get free meals at midnight (“Gator Nights”)). The third group meets at 5 Saturdays, and by 8 more than half have departed, latest stay I know of was 10:20. Not-free meals are available for the last two groups (Union Food Court). (Does food come into it?) I shake my head, I just don’t see any pattern to it all.

When did the players start playing games? Many of the older people who play Euros appear to have come to them in adulthood. That is, they weren’t game players while they were growing up. Perhaps they’re attracted to the serious nature of many of the newer-style games. Or they felt that other kinds of games were “kids’ stuff” (or worse, for RPGs), and here we have games that suited adults. (Recall the origin of Euros as “family games on steroids”, friendly games that actually require more brainwork than the typical American family game.)

Most of the students, I suspect, have played video games, at least, since they were small children.

Passion?
If you watch a Euro game (and I have watched many for many years, trying to understand why people play them), they are calm, perhaps even sedate, there’s little outward expression of excitement. The lack of direct action/competition contributes to that, keeping the game on an impersonal basis. Many of the people who are used to that kind of game seem to be bewildered when they play a game in which one player can directly and obviously hinder or harm their position. Contrast RPGs or wargames (or many player-against-player video games), where it’s not unusual to hear someone cheer, where people often stand up and crowd around when the game nears its climax, and it’s not unusual for people to get into “heated discussions.”

Euro players don’t appear to care much who wins - which certainly fits with the puzzle orientation. It’s the activity itself, progress in the puzzle-solving, that attracts. Also not surprising, insofar as it has always been true (I think) that more people like puzzles than non-puzzle games, going back to when there were no video games. Among other things, you’re not putting your ego on the line, and that also characterizes most of the Euro play I’ve observed over many years.

I’ve been known to call Euros “wine and cheese” games for this reason. Kind of like a wine-tasting sessions, too (no, I don’t drink). Another description I’ve seen is “dusty” or “dry”.

This doesn’t mean all Euro players aren’t competitive. Many of the most well-known Euros have gotten away from the parallel competition (Catan itself, for example, Power Grid), really to the point of being a different category (that some people think are the only Euros now). I was recently told that the people who caused the most trouble through being too-competitive at the venerable World Boardgaming Championships are Euro players, not wargamers. It is, though, a tournament convention, so it’s not surprising that those in the Euro tournaments might be highly competitive.


Kinds of Opposition.
We can identify two fundamental kinds of player opposition in games. The simple expression is “blocking and tackling.” The more detailed version is, one kind of opposition involves interference in the progress/plans of another, without harming them or taking anything away from them: such as blocking in a horse or NASCAR or Formula 1 race. Bidding in an auction is this kind of opposition, as well. So is “worker placement”, and many other favored Eurostyle mechanics. Railroad/train games often involve blocking. I often call this “indirect action” or “indirect interactivity.” The other kind involves actually harming the opponent’s assets, or taking something from them (or both) - as in wargames and other conflict games (such as some business games). “Direct action,”

So we can have players who aren’t used to player opposition of any kind, players who are used to only blocking from other players, and players who are used to direct action.

When you play a game without player opposition, you can’t always ignore the other players, but you certainly don’t have to watch their every move and react to it. When you play with blocking, you’ll try to avoid putting yourself in a position to be blocked, and you’ll take the opportunity to block an opponent, but most of the time (as in a standard race) you’re only concerned with progressing as fast or far as you can. When you play with “tackling”, you have to watch every move the opposition makes, and react to it (if only to decide to ignore it, if you can).

Reactions to Direct Human Opposition.
I saw this once again with one of the student groups that appears (from the games they have) to be more or less party gamers. My recently-published game Sea Kings, a "Viking adventure" game, is (in its simpler version) primarily a "go it alone" game where you do your thing and don't worry about what others are doing (though there is no puzzle, it's more or less card-driven). But there are cards that let you interfere with other players. When this group played the simple version of Sea Kings players were visibly taken aback when someone played one of these cards against them. This was a direct action aimed directly at them - though usually blocking rather than destructive - something they clearly were not used to. (By the way, the "Rogue" version of Sea Kings involves much more direct interaction.) When they played my prototype "Off with his Head", which involves no such direct action, they appeared to be quite happy.

Design. In direct-competition games my design motto applies, because the main competition in the end is between people, not between the player and the game. ("A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove.") I don’t want the game to get in the way of the player competition. I see many puzzle-games that appear to me to be unnecessarily complex, but that complexity may be there to make the puzzle harder to solve.

You can certainly design games that are not primarily direct competitions, but lack the always-correct solutions of puzzles I've talked about, perhaps because the presence of a lot of uncertainty takes them away from the realm of formal puzzles. Nonetheless, the opposition is largely provided by the game, not the players. I recall a time when Euro players appeared to despise dice, though that era has passed. There are other ways to introduce uncertainty, of course, via cards or human opposition (uncertainty of opposing intentions).

Game design is very different from puzzle-game/interactive puzzle design, which is different again from puzzle design, because of the varying focuses of opposition. In game design your job is to find ways for the game to help make the direct competition between people interesting and different. In puzzle-game design, you’re finding ways for the game to provide the opposition yet accommodate several people. Which may be why there’s such a strong focus on mechanics, especially “new” mechanics, for that kind of game. In puzzle design, you focus on providing all of the opposition through the activity.

Often, direct competition involves modeling some reality, which is much more rare in the two puzzle types. Most of the favorite mechanics of Euro games, such as worker placement and role assumption, have virtually nothing to do with the real world, making them useless for modeling.


Why do I need to figure this out?
Given the kinds of games I tend to design - Off with his Head is an outlier that I deliberately chose to try with the party gamers - I have to figure out what kinds of games suit each group, that is, I have to identify what target markets they fit into.

I sometimes contemplate a multi-dimensional diagram for these ideas, but it would become hopelessly complicated to show it all at once.

Conventions

I’m not sure there are big tabletop game conventions anywhere in the wintertime - PrezCon in Charlottesville VA with about 700 is the largest I know of - but certainly not in north/central Florida. February is the big month for small conventions. There is Rapier Con, which has been around a while, in Jacksonville, the first year Prototype Con in Kissimmee, and marginally (because it originated as an anime con) Swamp Con at the University of Florida.

The latter is pretty informal, evidently, with no registration fee though there are tickets, being held in the university Student Union. There’s a tabletop component but I have no idea what that will amount to, probably just open gaming.

The other two are held at hotels. I’m told Rapier has an attendance of about 200, the majority of them Euro gamers. Since Prototype Con is a new convention, no telling how many people will attend. As you might guess from the name, it’s more or less a playtesting convention, and will be attended by at least one very well-known designer, Richard Borg (Command & Colors etc.), and a small number of publishers.

As I’m on a retiree’s income, I’m contemplating driving to each convention for a day, which ought to be enough for me to understand what it’s like, and to talk with people.

END
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Tue Feb 2, 2016 2:48 pm
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Video (screencast): The Video Game Notion of “Bosses”, and Why it Doesn’t Apply to Tabletop

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
Linden
North Carolina
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The Video Game Notion of “Bosses”, and Why it Doesn’t Apply to Tabletop

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com

A Little History
Jeffro Johnson asked me if I’d used the monsters I contributed to the Fiend Folio back in the 70s, as “bosses”
Most of them were minor monsters, but the Princes of Elemental Evil are the most powerful, and most lasting
Recently for D&D 5e, an entire large adventure module was titled after these guys
I told Jeffro that no, my campaigns were never high enough level for the Princes
Though I ran into them once as a player – and we 9th-11th level characters “fled posthaste”


Made Me Realize . . .
I have never thought in terms of "boss monsters" in tabletop D&D, that's a video game mentality.
I tend to use numerous monsters (with several different kinds) at a climax rather than one super monster "boss“
It varies, of course.
But in tabletop D&D, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a "save game" to go back to
Video game bosses are designed to kill you many times before you succeed.
You can't play tabletop RPGs that way.

No Save Game?!

So a video game “boss” tends to be much tougher than the monster(s)-met-at-a-climax in tabletop RPGs
Video gamers would be disappointed if, almost every time they hit a climax, they won first time
They’d feel cheated

It’s a matter of expectations, as much as of game functionality
Of course, there are many ways that tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs, because of the lack of Save Games
So “bosses” are really a video game phenomenon, too dangerous for tabletop RPGs. You can’t lose a computer RPG, thanks to save games, but you can “lose” a Tabletop RPG, by dying.


Additional note: Much of the disagreement about game design in general can be laid to semantics, as people say the same words and mean different things. It's very common. We cannot even agree on the definition of the word "game".

For me, the boss is "the bad-ass monster at the end of the level." That's common in video games, and while less common in tabletop RPGs, that may be because the level-orientation (even though it came from tabletop RPGs) is less strong on the tabletop. I suspect that I'm influenced by level-oriented shooters as well, which may be more extreme than other kinds of video games.
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Tue Jan 26, 2016 6:05 pm
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Video (screencast): Confusions of Game Design: Game Design is NOT "Mind Control"

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
Linden
North Carolina
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Here is the text of the slides. The presentation includes more, of course.

Confusions of Game Design Series: Game Design is NOT “Mind Control”
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Why this topic?
Title occasioned by a recording of a GenCon presentation, “Game Design is Mind Control”
Though I never got around to listening to much of it!
Perhaps because the title is absolutely antithetical to my views about tabletop games
In single-player video games, the “mind control” idea makes somewhat more sense
Though there’s lots of disagreement there, too

A Live Presentation
The idea came up again as a result of presentation I attended at a recent convention
Essentially, the speaker wanted to tell beginning designers to get rid of anything that didn’t contribute to the core loop of a game
Good advice, usually
But English isn’t his first language (though you’d never know it)


“Manipulation”
So he used the word “manipulate”
This sounds too much like “control” or even “mind control” and got a negative reaction from some listeners
The speaker, when he later found out exactly what “manipulate” means, decided to use a different word such as influence
Manipulate: “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”
Not the only meaning, but the negative one for sure

Engineering
The speaker is an engineer, so he may naturally tend to focus on elements he might control
Many engineers tend to neglect the “human component”
Engineers tend to think in scientific/highly logical ways, where most people think of game design as an art
To me, it’s 90% science and 10% art, but that 10% is very important
Especially in days of soul-less “design by metric” in the video game world

Manipulation or Mind Control Implies Passivity

Are you making a movie rather than a game?
Then your audience is passive, not active
Games are active, they’re about doing and thinking
“Horns of a dilemma” (assume player wants that, that it’s a desirable tension)
I want to give players significant choices in a game, not lead them by the hand to where I want them to go.

Addictive? No!
Another way to express the “control” idea is to say you want to make the game “addictive”
No, no, no! Addiction is BAD. People don’t want to be addicted. It indicates a loss of control by the person who is addicted. Why would a decent person want to get anyone addicted?
Is that something you want to do to other people? Do you want to treat people that way? I sure don’t
Would you like to be treated that way, as someone to become “addicted” to a game?
Perhaps if you have an addictive personality you wouldn’t mind; I’m the opposite

There’s a general principle . . .
The “Golden Rule,” in some form, should apply
E. Kant’s non-religious version is: Treat no man as a means to an end, but as an end only
I think game designers have to treat players as ends, not means
Good customer service, too treats people as ends, not means
“Mind control” is the opposite of this, it treats people as mere means to your end (“addiction”?)

End of Part 1
Part 2 of Confusions: Game Design is NOT Mind Control: - this is the other side of the arguement

“Experiences”
Where a single-player game is conceived and created as an “experience”, what is the designer doing?
Not “controlling” a player’s mind, but certainly influencing the player’s feelings and perceptions
It can be more like a novel, where the author clearly controls all that happens
Once you get to two independent players in the same game, “mind control” doesn’t make much sense for the designer

Stories
Traditional story forms are linear and passive
Stories work better with puzzles (where there’s an always-correct solution, a route or line to follow) than with games that provide lots of choices and alternative ways to succeed
Are you a game designer or a story-teller?
For many they are opposites
Though some game designers are frustrated story-tellers

“Create a feeling”
The idea that games always start with what feeling you want to engender in the player . . .
The implication is the designer wants to control the player, more or less
I'm of the "what happens next" school, I set up a situation and let the players make of it what they will (notice, players, plural - the “create feelings" folks are often about one player, singular).
They start MDA at A. Others are more interested in interplay of mechanics and players, the Dynamics

Players want Control
Many serious game players want to feel “in control”
And many do not like obvious manipulation
OTOH, some of those who like stories are happy to be “led around by the nose” (as I put it)
But others want to make things happen themselves
If your target market is people who want to be in a story (but not really affect the story), then you’re closer to “mind control”

But playing Within the game...
Negotiation inside a game does have an element of “mind control”
You want the other players to do exactly what you intend for them to do
Though you’d never expect them to do exactly the best thing for you

Summary

Think of game design as providing opportunities for players to enjoy and express themselves
Not as opportunities to control players
Though strict control is easier to arrange – as in many puzzles
The more your “game” is like a novel or movie, the more you’re likely to want to “mind control” the players.
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Thu Jan 14, 2016 5:40 pm
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Video (screencast) Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
Linden
North Carolina
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Here is the text of the slides. The entire presentation (over 15 minutes), obviously, contains more than this text.

Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

This is Really Important
Yes, there is creativity in game design, but it may amount to 10% of the whole
The rest is more or less engineering: identifying problems, proposing solutions, testing the results of those solutions, and so on
Scientific method is involved, more or less
It is not trial and error
(I use the meaning prevalent when I was young, that of guessing what might work, then checking to see if it does)
There seems to be a notion now that trial-and-error is more or less scientific method: NO!

It’s not a Guessing Game!
Let me use an example from programming to illustrate
While I was a college teacher, I substituted for a teacher who was ill in a beginning programming class
The students had a program to work on, so I walked around trying to help
In general, their program didn’t work
Programming is very logical. The proper response is to figure out the program flow, identify where it went wrong, change the program, and test the solution

It works the same way in game design once you’re playing a prototype
That “identify” might include some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it’s logic
But the students?
Rather than try to figure out why it wasn’t working, they just guessed, changed the program, and compiled it again to see what happened
If that didn’t work, they guessed something else
They were using trial and error (guess and check)
And they were frustrated, of course
So I tried to show them how to figure out the logic and flow of the program, rather than guess

Methods
Certainly, different people have different design methods
Some design more “from the gut” than via logic, hypothesis, and test
Nonetheless, if you are actually designing something, you are primarily using your brain, I think (I hope), not just inspiration
Inspiration is not very reliable! It comes and goes
And the more you treat modification as an engineering problem, the more efficient you’ll be

Art versus Craft
The more you think of a game as art rather than craft, the more you may be inclined to rely on inspiration and intuition
Perhaps we should call that “game creation” or “game inspiration,” not “game design”
Practically speaking, though, it’s mostly craft once you have a playable prototype

NOT throwing things against the wall to see if they stick
Trial and error amounts to “throw things against the wall and see what sticks”
This is a terrible way to solve a problem, if you have any alternative
I’ve seen this dramatically illustrated

Egregious Example
A beginning designer had his simple (< 30 minutes, cards and scoring only) card game playtested by players new to the game
The game has already been successfully Kickstarted, but clearly was far from done – most of the cards were hand-written (not even computer generated), for example
As he started the game (he played – also an error in my view) – I saw that he had no rules with him
His response was, he played it 6 or 7 different ways, and was changing it to satisfy backers as well
My comment: already Kickstarted and the rules writing wasn’t being tested, since they weren’t even at hand

But then he said he was trying out a particular rule change
How can you try a change when the rest of the game isn’t stable? You’re only trying with one of those half dozen ways to play!
When you playtest you playtest the whole game not just the part that you're experimenting with
The next question was, “how are you recording the results of the playtest”?
He usually had a notebook, he said, but not today

Though he did have a laptop on which he took notes after the game ended
By the way, this game involved player elimination – NOT desirable nowadays, even in a 30 minute game
And though it was a scoring game, the designer hadn’t bothered to bring the scoring devices, so everyone scored on their smartphones!
This is just sloppy. You’ve got to test the actual game, not substitutes!

Obvious Flaws
It was a card game of direct attack on other players (in a more than two-sided game)
There was no constraint on whom you could attack
So while I didn’t watch the game much, I asked afterward if there was a strong tendency to attack the leader
The answer from the players was “yes”

Leader-Bashing
The game suffered from leader-bashing, but I’m not sure the designer recognized that term when I used it, and only had glimmerings of why it was undesirable
Then people suggested solutions, but the first (only attack those adjacent) would have pretty drastically changed a game that’s already Kickstarted!

Why is leader-bashing undesirable?
It takes most decision-making out of the game
It makes people want to sandbag
It’s dull because it’s predictable

Part 2

What we have here is a case of somebody throwing things against the wall to see what will stick
He tries to playtest the game in various ways and see what seems to work better
That’s Trial and Error (in the older, undesirable, sense)
And it helps show that Kickstarter is often about ideas and intentions rather than about an actual game
The art (he had it for a small number of cards) looked good, and that probably helped the KS a lot

Here’s the proper way to go about this, not just trying this and that, with a fairly detailed borrowed diagram, and with a simpler version:
[diagrams]

Or more simply
[Diagram]

Scientific Method
Wikipedia’s description of the scientific method (accessed 14 April 09) can be taken as a guide to what you’re doing as part of (but not all of) this design process:
“To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”
This is a large part of the replan and especially the monitoring tasks

But More Than That
Unlike scientists, in most cases you must rely on fewer testing iterations
These are more like usability tests than scientific experiments (Nielsen-Norman group: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/ or alertbox.com)
On the other hand, you’re making changes in a design, as well as experimenting to see what happens

An Analogy
This engineering versus trial and error is comparable to how people learn software or home appliances/electronics
I read the manual (shocking). It’s amazing how much you can learn that way. And far more efficient
Most people just dive in and try things
Or simply remain ignorant
The engineering style of game design is like reading the manual. The T&E method is like diving in and trying things – much less efficient
Yes, not reading the manual is easier
(And yes, I prefer to read the rules to a game in order to learn it, unlike most people)

Education
I’ve discussed this cycle at length in my “Learning Game Design” course on Udemy.com
The major point to make here is that you follow a process that relies on solving problems you’ve identified
But you also have to know what kinds of problems might occur
Such as leader-bashing in a card game
Or many others – which is why I make so many of my videos, to educate people about those possible problems

Method
Trial & Error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it
If you rely heavily on intuition, more power to you
But that’s not something we want to teach to aspiring designers
If you think it’s all about inspiration, I think you’re “dead wrong”, any more than getting ideas is all about inspiration
You have to work at something to do it well consistently, not hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance

For me as a teacher, I want people to understand a good method, and “inspiration/intuition” or especially trial and error are not good methods.
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Triptych V: Three different topics in one blog post

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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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Video (screencast): The “Demise” of the Board Game?

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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
Pulsiphergames.com

“Demise?”
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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Video (screencast): Brief examples of playtesting individual modifications and optional rules

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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
PulsipherGames.Com
“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

Example
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)

Experimentation
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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Video (screencast): What part does Creativity play in Game Design?

Lewis Pulsipher
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Text of the slides:

What part does Creativity play in Game Design?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“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))

Talent?
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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Video (screencast): Good once, good three times, or always good – what game do you want to make?

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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
Pulsiphergames.com

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

Time-killers
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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Video (screencast): Pitching a tabletop game? Don’t Talk much about Mechanics

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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
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Caveat
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

Components?
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

Title:
Tagline:
Number of Players:
Game Length:
What does the game represent?:
Game Type:
Components:
How to Win:
Who does the player represent?:
What does the player do?:
Sequence of Play:
Game End:
Attractions for Buyers:
Designer:
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)
PulsipherGames.Com
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Tue Jul 21, 2015 8:44 pm
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