Lewis Pulsipher(lewpuls)United States
Three Subjects in One Blog Post
• Games are not inherently nice
• The Supernatural as an explanation of history - Bad Idea
• Heavy dependence of Ancient and Medieval armies on their specific leader
I am "old school" in the sense that I think of games as involving conflict and opposition, as challenge and mastery, not as story-telling or being nice to everyone. Games are not inherently nice.
But the latter sentence is why I stopped playing games against other people more than 40 years ago, and prefer to play co-operative games: fantasy role-playing is the epitome of co-operative game.
Add to that I dislike puzzles. so I'm not at all attracted by parallel competitions (Euro "games" commonly) even though, for the most part, they are "nice" games - if you can call them games at all.
One of the worst examples of historical "scholarship" is to attribute causation to the supernatural. The supernatural, whether gods or spirits or something else, can always be adduced as a cause of something, but explains nothing. The historian's job is to explain not only what happened but Why, and using the supernatural as a why is a waste of everyone's time.
I don't think "supernatural" exists. The trend of human history begins with suggestions that the supernatural is involved in many phenomena, then finding naturalistic explanations that don't require the supernatural. "The supernatural" keeps shrinking. Is there any reason to think this won't continue? No.
Yet even if I did believe the supernatural exists, I'd object to its use in historical scholarship. It's not an explanation.
One of the most marked, and interesting, characteristics of ancient and medieval armies was their psychological dependence on a single leader.
If their leader was killed, or even wounded, they lost heart and retreated or even broke. There's a story that William the Conqueror's horse was killed under him twice, and that nearly did in the Normans even though he was unhurt. There wasn't a clear chain of command so that a second leader could take over. Very different from modern armies, of course.
This is perhaps understandable when the leader was the king (or wannabe king), and there was no adult heir present. But it happened with non-royal generals with great frequency. Yet the leaders were expected to be in the thick of the fighting. Alexander the Great was crazy brave for a monarch, once leading an escalade on a city (Tyre?). At least once he was barely saved from battle death by a companion.
Even Napoleon took some big chances when he was younger. I should think the French army might have lost it if the later *Emperor* Napoleon had been killed in battle (there was no adult heir anywhere), but in general armies survived the loss of their leader without breaking. Many, many generals were killed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, though rarely the commander of an army - but artillery nearly hit Wellington at Waterloo.
This heavy dependence on one leader is why the death of William or Harold, in my game Hastings 1066, makes so much difference (though less than it would have historically). Whereas in Stalingrad Besieged (1942) using a variation of the same system, there are no leaders, it's all faceless struggle.
A reminder that my “Game Design” channel on YouTube continues to offer free videos about game design, one every Thursday, nearly 300 available. I say free: I cannot control the advertising, and don’t make any money from it as I don’t have enough subscribers. The channel exists thanks to contributions from my patrons (https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher).
Latest video has the LONG title "Good and weak gamers, with respect to chance and randomness, and how this affects game design" at https://youtu.be/0Kg3NbqHrAU
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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Three subjects in one blog post
• Yomi vs minimaxing
• Changes in habits from Corona/Covid-19
• Solo and Co-op Games
Yomi vs minimaxing
I realized recently that what I’m trying to do in my block games is to emphasize the uncertainty of warfare by offering opportunities to use Yomi rather than the typical wargame minimaxing. Yomi is a Japanese word referring to reading the opponent’s intentions that has been adapted to games. When you rely on Yomi you’re attempting to read or guess or divine your enemy’s intentions and take advantage of that. It is a riskier, more romantic way to do things. But it’s absolutely necessary in real warfare because there is insufficient information.
In a wargame, where typically a great deal of information is known, it’s possible to use a minimax strategy, that is to play the game as a game rather than as warfare. You can calculate what to do to maximize your minimum gain, assuming that your opponent is a perfect player; if they prove to be a less than perfect player you will do better than you expected. (This all flows from the mathematical theory of games.)
By using the hidden identity and hidden strength possible with blocks I try to move the game towards Yomi and away from minimax.
Which is all a bit strange considering that I’m a minimaxer rather than a Yomi player. But I design games for other people, not for myself.
Changes in habits from Corona/Covid-19
The coronavirus affects games because most game shops are closed. I’m told by one of my publishers that money from the typical hobby distribution through distributors to the game shops has dried up, though webstore sales are okay. But it all makes for precarious cash flows.
I hear that in the comic industry, where everything is distributed by one company (Diamond), things are precarious. Diamond has already suspended shipping to comic shops because they’re not getting paid by comic shops (most of which are closed). This lack of payment has also led them to suspend payments to comics publishers. Comics publishers aren’t nearly as strong as they used to be, in fact superhero style comics have been in decline for a decade despite the success of superhero movies. I don’t think Marvel any longer make any money from the movies, as the Marvel movies are owned by Disney. Whether publishers will be able to survive the lack of payments is unknown.
Diamond is a distributor for some RPGs as well as comics. Alliance, the main distributor for hobby tabletop games (and the same ownership as Diamond), has closed down temporarily.
I wonder if our local game store is likely to survive the hiatus. It was struggling as it was, as the local area has a smallish population for a game store (250,000 for the entire county), mitigated by the presence of 70,000+ college students. But in my experience, few college students actually buy games.
(Minor calculation: if there are 330,000,000 people in the US, and 3000 games stores (I believe that’s much higher than reality), each store serves on average 110,000 people (about the population of Gainesville without students). If there are 1500 games stores then each would serve on average of 220,000 people. Someone started a second game store in Gainesville, but it lasted only a year.)
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to recognize that habits will change for some people after the pandemic. The pandemic has forced people to do things remotely, and to do digital rather than physical (for example in comic books and RPG books). How many of those people will continue to do things digitally rather than physically after the pandemic? This puts even more pressure on local game shops, even if they’ve survived the pandemic itself.
As I discussed this with my wife she said that if game shops fail then after while there will be other entrepreneurs who try their luck at running a game shop. But if the comics collapse, it will be that much harder to run a game shop, as many game shops rely on comics sales as well. And many people are aware of the old joke, “how do you make a small fortune in game retail?” Answer: “Start with a large fortune.”
Solo and Co-op Games
How much demand is there for tabletop games that only offer solo play? One of the major strengths of tabletop games is their socialization aspects, yet it’s well-known that many people play military games solitaire for lack of opponents.
Solo and cooperative versions are increasingly popular even for games that are designed to be competitive. I have designed three or four co-op games lately, and I’ve been putting solo versions into my games (as in my latest, Stalingrad Besieged, as best I could (that is, without increasing the cost).
But the typical co-op game is rather Euro-like, whereas mine are wargame-like.
Latest (free) videos on my YouTube “Game Design” Channel:
What causes exceptions to the rules?
Exceptions to the rules make a game more complicated, Even in a video game, where the rules are enforced by the software, the players have to learn what the exceptions are. So what causes a game design to have rules exceptions?
Pros and Cons of RPG character ability generation methods
What are the pros and cons of the two fundamental methods of RPG character generation, the stochastic (dice rolling) and the deterministic (point buy)?
"Yomi" versus Minimax
Some people play opposed games (such as historical representations of warfare) according to game theory notions (minimax), others act as many generals have and try to read the intentions of their opponents, then act accordingly. Yomi is closely related to intuition, minimax to logic. I've discussed intuition and logic in another video, https://youtu.be/M63j6_8D6iI
Getting started: World-Building
Some questions to ask yourself, and an admonition that it's the game (or novel) you should spend most of your time on, not the world.
21st century gamers are usually deficient in military strategy
In my experience (mostly with tabletoppers), 21st century gamers are poor at military-style strategy. They don't think in long-term, don't see in long-term. It is, after all, the Age of Instant Gratification. It's not different in video games, because video game "wargames" are usually resource management games, not wargames. And video games encourage the "instant gratification" point of view.
10 "need to knows" about level and adventure design
Level and adventure design is related to game design, but not the same thing.
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Three development paths for Britannia-like games
On the occasion of the Kickstarter for a reissue of my game Britannia https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1992455033/lew-pulsiphe..., I had some thoughts about the different ways development has gone for Britannia-like games. The reissue shows some of this, with plastic figures and other improvements in the interface but no changes in the rules, along with a two player newly-designed Duel Britannia that takes me 65 to 75 minutes to play.
Britannia was originally published in 1986 by HP Gibsons in the United Kingdom. It was picked up by Avalon Hill and published in 1987. (I had submitted it to Avalon Hill a few years before, but they told me that games of that era didn’t sell. Evidently Gibsons proved to them that they could sell.)
To make a long story short, I was not participating in the game hobby at this time, I was playing Dungeons & Dragons and making additions for Dungeons & Dragons to use with my friends, period. When I received a couple copies of Britannia from Gibsons I opened the box, looked at the contents, said “that’s nice” and did not actually see a published version of the game played until 2004.
In all that time some people liked the Britannia game system and adapted it to other situations. I think the first was the Avalon Hill Maharajah, which came close to being a slavish copy except that it was set in India. And went into the gunpowder age (which I would not do). So it continued the simplicity but considerable length of the parent game. This is the first branch of Britannia development. Other semi-commercial games such as the Dragon and the Pearl and Rus followed the same path. I’ve designed Normannia originally in this development path. I designed my prototype Caledonia as a somewhat cutdown version of Britannia, but I think I’m going to reduce it to the small development path.
But with Hispania we saw another branch of development, the bigger and more complex game. Where Britannia has about 200 pieces, games in this branch have over 500; where Britannia has only armies and cavalry and leaders, this kind of game adds elite units and sometimes fleets. More recently, Italia, by the same designer, continued this branch, and in the past year we have had a Kickstarter for Invasions (of Europe) by French designer Philippe Thibault. He has ready a successor chronologically to that game as well. These games violate my philosophy of design, which relies on simpler games where the players can play the other players. Or as Albert Einstein put it, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Or at least so I thought at the time, though I’ve since found that I can make games much simpler than Britannia.
My own prototypes “MegaBrit,” Dark Ages, and Helennia, use a larger form though not with as many pieces. More recently a Spanish designer designed Corsica, with more than 500 pieces, which is scheduled to be published, probably next year.
Of course, I was designing Britannia in the early 1980s, when long games were much more acceptable than today. (I made an all-of-Europe prototype during that period but the one time we played it (1980) we took 12 hours, so I set it aside and forgot it until I found the prototype 30 years later.) When I heard from the Mayfair guys at a convention that they were working on a “broad market” version of Catan (later published as Catan Junior) I said to myself, “I ought to try doing that for Britannia.” After quite a few years I ended up with Conquer Britannia which has just 12 nations and six turns and has been played in as little as 84 minutes. This is the third path, to make the game much simpler and smaller. (This requires a new board; in the late 2000s I designed a version of Britannia to play on the original board in a couple hours, as an expansion, but Fantasyflightgames who had published the Second Edition were not interested in the expansions.) There are something like 18 to 20 land areas on the Conquer board compared with 37 on the original board.
Having more or less perfected this method I have gone on to make prototypes for Frankia (also diceless), Barbaria (Europe from 410 to 1250 in six turns, has been played in 1:40), Rule Britannia (diceless), and have others in mind. And of course, when I got the assignment to design a two player 60 to 90 minute version of Britannia itself, which became Duel Britannia.
Why would anyone make these massive games like Hispania and Invasions? May as well ask why people make Monster wargames (though the reasons are different). I suppose because they can; but I also suspect that the smaller the game is, the harder it is to balance. By including lots of units and lots of everything you have a game that’s easier to balance, and yet can show more detail. I think that’s probably a general balance rule for asymmetric games. Furthermore, individual nations may be more survivable/less likely to suffer a great disaster when they have more armies, and some players may prefer that.
From a marketing point of view the smaller game path makes much more sense for modern gamers, many of whom say they can’t handle even a three-hour game (although you can see many of those same people play a three-hour game if they’re enjoying it and if it has enough substance). Yet Thibault’s kickstarter for Invasions got 900 backers. (I suspect the French are more willing to play 80s style games than Americans are.)
Some years ago, when I was developing the “small” style, I made tables that used various formulas of multiplication using nations, areas, and turns, to try to focus on what would help make a game “small”. But the following table is more informative.
Characteristics of Brit-like Games:
Original “Big-huge” “Small”/Broad Mkt
Number of armies About 200 400-500 or more 100 or less
Number of turns 16 16 or more 6 or 7
Areas on board 37 + 4 sea 50 to over 100 18-25
Number of Nations 17 Several dozen 12 or fewer
Use Figures? Cardboard; Latest Brit uses figures
Too many armies for figures, practically
Designed to use figures
Timescale Does not seem to matter, but usually centuries
Not every game is going to conform in every category, of course. I can see making a Small game that has more than 12 nations, for example. Or a Big-huge game with only 17 or 20 nations.
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Proto atl -
a relatively new and specialized game convention
(and also about tabletop game publishing in general)
(and also about two Kickstarters for my games)
What is it?
Proto Atl is something like a Protospiel, but isn’t. Hence the odd name (Atl being Atlanta, or more specifically Suwanee Ga).
At a typical protospiel, designers playtest each others’ games. That happens a lot at Proto Atl, but also there are publisher representatives, seminars, this year a tour of the facilities of a fulfillment company (PSI), giveaways, and perhaps other non-playtesting activities I’ve forgotten. And there were a few people who registered as playtesters rather than designers.
This year was my first attendance, deciding at nearly the last minute, and I have to say there wasn’t much to help me understand what I was getting into before the fact. It didn’t help that if I searched for proto atl I got a previous year’s website that the hosts don’t control owing to previous deals, so they can’t get rid of it! You have to type in the URL (see below).
Andrew Smith is the host, with Steve Avery as sidekick and Eugene Bryant as a friend dragged in to help. Andrew’s friend Christy (or Chrissy?) took care of photography and other tasks. This is the third rendition of the convention, which has grown every year. The first was strictly protospiel for 50 people, now it has the other features I mentioned.
About a hundred people were there on Friday, the room was quite loud at peak. Attendance was capped at 150, likely more next year according to Andrew as he continues to expand.
Aside from two publishers I already knew, I didn’t see much of the 20-25 committed to be there. Unlike some conventions with publisher reps, there was no formal arrangement, and it turned out the expectation was that designers would arrange appointments with specific publishers. So if I go next year, I’ll be able to make better use of this part of the convention.
This was about board and card games, not RPGs, not full miniatures, not CCGs such as Magic: the Gathering.
I don’t go to conventions to playtest, by and large, other than with people I already know well. I’m very much not good at arm-twisting people into playing my games, perhaps because I am very large (6'4" despite shrinking 3 inches) and used to be quite intimidating (age tends to kill that) but don’t want to intimidate, partly because I dislike the typical parallel competitions that are the mainstay of the market (and so I won’t play them, I’m not in the target market). In the end I had a good session with three others where my Do It Now (Naval Arms Race) was one of the games played, while on Sunday I decided to get out a finished game, Warp, and got in three 3-4 player “tests.” (Of course, no game is ever truly finished.)
Neil Gaiman's advice about fiction readers applies to game testers: "when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." (Gaiman is a well-known author of novels and comics whose books have been turned into movies, American Gods, Good Omens, Stardust, etc.)
The game designer has to fix things, not the testers. He/she has experience of many plays/playtests of the game, not just one or a few. And the designer is thinking in terms of what’s best for the target market (I hope), not what he or she would like best.
So in some ways, game designer are much less than ideal playtesters!
As an example, people were playing my prototype Warp, It’s a spaceship race to move your ships to the other side of the cluster (board). Opposing ships block progress, but can be "teleported" (sent back to their start) in three ways. Black holes help slingshot ships farther than their own (variable) movement allows, such that with the ideal arrangement you can go all the way across in one move.
These were actually the 65th, 66th, and 67th plays in my records. The game is finished, in my mind. But some of the testers had recommendations.
For example, one player felt that something more needed to be added to Warp - adding to a game is always something to beware of - such as cards with special powers. I quoted my motto: "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)
And in this case I could also say, "that's for an expansion". In another case, the player doesn't like blocking, so he suggested taking it out, and increasing the possibilities for capture. Same answer. In this case, clearly, the suggestion was a personal preference. What I want as designer is what will be best for the most players in the target market, not a personal preference. On the other hand, for 5 and 6 players I don't allow blocking (you can move through opposing pieces) simply because the board gets too congested if I allow blocking. So I can include this as an optional rule. (Optional rules are often rules considered and rejected by the designer, but which were nearly as good as what the designer selected.)
In either case, my job as designer was to decide whether the fault they noticed was something that needs fixing; their suggestions for change were very secondary, it was the fault (if any) that mattered.
I'd have liked to know beforehand how many designer attendees have actually self-published a game or had a game published by someone else. I suspect, not many.
Consistently, the games I saw being played were much more often card games than board games. This is consistent with what I see at college game clubs (not counting Magic: the Gathering). Many of the games using a board, used it as a status tracker rather than a field for geospatial relationships. (Like the board in Deluxe Munchkins versions that merely tracks level, which is easily done in other ways in the non-deluxe versions.) I didn’t see a single wargame (I wasn’t showing any either). Though I did hear someone say “wargames suck,” he was thinking of “wargame ghetto” hex-and-counter wargames, not representation wargames (which are quite different).
Groupthink in game design these days isn’t necessarily Euro, but groupthink IS “no war” and not much “death” in a game. (How would such people react to a co-op where you defend a galaxy from killing machines? LOTS of death - but surely a “Just War”.) Party games have become the “standard game” in the lower end of the market (for $30 and less), $60 and up games are the upper end. But there’s relentless pressure for simple, short, pretty much no-brainer games in the lower end. I was impressed with how many party games (at least, apparently, sometimes specifically said) I saw in PSI’s warehouse. Games of maneuver and geospatial relationships are rare. (Though paradoxically, many of the top Eurogames involve geospatial relationships.)
Remember, if you want people to try your game that could be called a wargame, use a different name (“historical representation”). People are much more likely to try (and perhaps enjoy) the game in those circumstances.
I suspect most of the designers were looking toward self-publishing. I haven’t tried to count (which would be a massive task) but I think the self-published games nowadays far outnumber the traditionally-published games, given there were something like 2,000 successful tabletop Kickstarters in 2018. And it’s really hard for an unpublished designer to get attention from traditional publishers. (Many of the traditional publishers started as self-publishers - Fantasy Flight Games for example.) Moreover, some aspiring designers self-publish to maintain “full artistic control” (still subject to manufacturing limitations).
In any case, one publisher tells me the life of virtually any game is “45 days”. Shops have so many new games to choose from, even if their initial allocation of a title sells well, they’re more likely to get the “new hotness” than reorder the now-“old” game.
Zev Schlasinger (the Z in Z-Man, though he sold the company years ago), when I asked what kinds of games he's looking for (for WizKids), said because the market is so saturated, good is no longer good enough, he has to feel that he MUST publish the game. Though that doesn’t tell us what kinds of games he’s interested in; I guess it’s kind of a fishing expedition!
By look I'd say lots of millennials were in attendance, much more than a majority; some Xgen, few Baby Boomers. I was likely oldest at 68, I know a publisher who is 61 who said he was glad I was there so he wouldn't be the oldest, but others were likely in their 60s from appearance. It’s a much different demographic than, say, PrezCon or WBC, where older folks are numerous if not dominant. Proto Atl was more like GenCon (which many old-time wargamers stay away from, and most purely wargame publishers don’t attend).
The convention was at the enormous warehouse and premises of PSI, a game “fulfillment” company. For example, they will take care of all the tasks of sending the rewards of a successful Kickstarter to customers, but they work with large companies (including Target) as well as small. A fascinating tour was arranged.
There were four or five seminars, modestly attended (maybe average 15?). The quality was consistently better than what I’ve seen at GenCon over the years.
Proto Atl - early May. https://www.facebook.com/ProtoATL/ $40-55 for designers (depending on when you sign up, places limited to 150 this year) There is a website, but some info only appeared on the Facebook.
Since I’ve been talking about design and marketing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this:
The Kickstarter for Stalingrad Besieged ends July 8. The game uses the Hastings 1066 system (modified) but has a mounted board and a choice of three sets of units: cards, blocks, or large chipboard (all included). https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1456271622/stalingrad-b...
The Kickstarter for the Classic/Duel Britannia package starts 11 July. Classic Brit plays same as FFG Brit except for use of plastic figures, and replacing Nation Cards with better methods. I deliberately have changed no rules in Classic (FFG).
Duel is two players, new board, 65-75 minutes. I skip most of the Roman era, and end the game with Cnut and Edmund Ironside (2 players, not enough for 1066).
Duel is newly developed, not a reissue.
So we have grand strategic games on the one hand, and a grand tactical game on the other.
Duel development went fine until final balancing, which has been an enormous headache.
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(This appeared originally and recently in Diplomacy World #144)
People involved in creation of something out of nothing really do get their ideas in odd places, sometimes. I get a significant “input” to my game design when I’m in the shower and while I’m lying awake in bed. This idea popped into my head at “Oh Dark Hundred” recently.
A little introduction might help. My most well-known game is Britannia (1986 and later), and there’s going to be a reprint with plastic figures in the next year or so. To go along with that, the publishers wanted me to make a two player version of the game that lasted 60 to 90 minutes (Britannia itself is 4 to 5 hours.) I’m surprised and pleased at how well it has come out. It uses a new board, lasts 65 to 75 minutes, and is recognizably Britannia-like.
So it’s not surprising that now my thoughts occasionally turn to creating two player versions of games for more than two (Britannia has four players). Usually this is my own games, but this morning it was Diplomacy.
Insofar as the essence of Diplomacy is playing against the other players, a two player game cannot be Diplomacy. In other words, Diplomacy is about the psychological part of the game and much less about the game system. Yet the “Gunboat Diplomacy” variant has been popular, and that’s a game where any negotiation is prohibited. With two players, much of the psychology is gone.
So, I said to myself, if we’re going to abandon the essence of the game anyway, what can we do to change the game to make it more interesting for two players? Because with two players it would be a sort of a chess match that depended on who guessed best in the strategic/tactical part of the game, and would be devilishly difficult to balance fairly.
By removing the multiplayer aspect we remove much of the uncertainty of the game: with two players you can minimax it, you can assume the other player is perfect and play accordingly to maximize your minimum gain as in the premise behind the mathematical theory of games. Chess, Go, Checkers survive the situation because they are too complex to be solved by humans, though all three are played better by computers now than by the best humans. That’s not desirable, so I would replace the uncertainty of more than two players with two things: dice in combat and event cards.
Now I can hear many people sucking in a deep (dismayed?) breath at the idea of overt chance elements in the game, but I’ve explained why I think it’s necessary, and I have a dice combat system that would only mildly affect things but would provide an element of unpredictability. That method is that you roll one die per Army or fleet in the combat, including supports. The side with a higher sum wins the combat, with ties going to the defender most likely (or rerolled if both sides are attacking), but that’s something that would be determined in testing.
For example, a supported army (two) attacks an unsupported army (one). Rolls are 4,5 for the attackers, so the defender cannot win (can’t get more than a 6).
Occasionally a two on one would not dislodge the defender because the defender wins (or ties) the dice rolls. And in rare instances even a 3 to 1 attack might fail. On the other hand, a two versus three attack would occasionally succeed. The biggest change here would be that one-to-one attacks would sometimes succeed. (One vs one, 15 wins for each side plus 6 ties. If ties go to defender (assuming there is a defender rather than both moving), that’s 21 vs 15 (7 to 5). Two vs one results: 15 ties, 21 wins for the weaker, 180 wins for the stronger. If ties go to weaker, it’s 180 to 36.)
I use this method in Eurasia (name likely to change to something like Surge of Empires), which is scheduled to be published sometime.
Another way to provide variance in combat would be to use combat cards rather than dice. Each player would have the same set of cards, but different ones in hand at different times, and it would be a guessing element involved in whether you play a strong card or weak card to add to the combat (there are also some special cards). I use such a method in several games but I’m not going to go into it here.
I don’t know if event cards would be necessary, and I haven’t tried to come up with any kind of scheme. But event cards are a way to add interest and variation to a game that the players can control in a way that they cannot control the dice, though with dice they can play to take account of probability.
The other point of uncertainty/variance would be in selection of the sides. While lying in bed I tried to think of an entirely fair three versus three and didn’t get very far. I’d probably use a combination of selection and chance to assign countries. The first player would choose a country, the second player would choose two countries, the third player would choose a second country. The third country that each received would be determined randomly from the three remaining. And for the one that was not controlled by either player, we could use a method known in some Diplomacy variants, where the players write orders (say, five of them?) for the units of the uncontrolled country. They can allocate all five (identical) orders to one unit or spread them amongst the units. If a unit received a majority of the same order then it would execute that order. Of course, you could go further and do that for all three countries that the players had not themselves selected.
How long would this game take the play? I should think it would hit that magic 60 to 90 minute length that is commonly desired nowadays in wargames, if not to the victory criterion then certainly to a point where one player resigns. It would be quicker, of course, if you had some electronic method of giving orders/moving the pieces. Handwriting orders for two or three countries takes a while.
I said “idle” in the title because this is not a game I’m going to develop, as it has no commercial possibilities for standalone publication, and I have many standalone games of my own that I need to work on. It would be interesting to try, if I didn’t have so many other prototype games that need playing. If you do happen to try it, please let me know how it goes. My email handle is lewpuls, and I use gmail.
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(This was written for my Worlds of Design column at ENWorld.org, but was rejected by both outgoing and incoming editors, because they avoid any discussion that might compare genders - the site owner gets too many vicious messages.)
I read a long discussion recently that started with a GM asking others how to cope with a player who wanted to be a female barbarian fighter who carried her newborn baby along with her at all times, including adventures.
A major point of RPGs is that they DO relate to the real world - they are not abstract. How does anyone think that a warrior could do this without the baby dying soon? Even if the fighter somehow managed to protect the baby in melee (yeah, right), the first area effect spell that caused damage would kill the baby with its one hit point. (If you’ve ever had the old D&D familiar with its two hit dice, you know that sooner or later as you rise in levels the familiar is going to be turned into a popsicle or a burnt marshmallow. At least you didn’t lose hit points permanently when that happened. My original MU character lost three by ninth level and chose not to have any more.)
Your response depends on whether your campaign is a game or a playground. If it’s the latter, you might want to accommodate extremely unusual requests of players, because there’s no danger of actually losing a game. And “all about me” is part of the package. If it’s a game, then the barbarian’s desire is a nonstarter.
Some players wisely pointed out that the player who wanted to do this was going to be a big problem in general, and would probably be very unhappy when the baby inevitably was killed.
As any student of history knows, female fighters in the world of melee (pre-gunpowder) were vanishingly rare. Even with the “great equalizer” of the gun, they have been extremely rare until quite recently. (Effective bows through most of history required a lot of strength and size for use, no substitute for guns.) This has nothing to do with females lacking courage or killer instinct, as anyone knows who watches some women’s professional boxing or MMA matches. It’s a matter of two things: women are much smaller than men on average, and their hormones don’t produce dense muscle the way men’s do. There’s a reason why there are weight classes in combat sports, because the bigger and inevitably stronger person almost always beats the smaller person if of roughly equal skill. In other words, size matters a lot and brawn wins out in a melee world.
Aside from the problem of physical capability, there’s second reason. Until recently it was difficult for a woman to have sex and consistently avoid pregnancy. A pregnant woman is an easy target for physical violence. Furthermore, after pregnancy someone has to take care of the children, who will depend on women’s milk for a year or even two after birth. The legendary Amazons solved the problem by having no men around and no children. But the Amazons never existed. Moderns solve the problem with contraceptives and baby formula, both fairly recent inventions.
I don’t run “all about me” campaigns, I run games that are semi-military and mission-based. So it would be easy for me to cope with someone like this. I’d tell them first that the baby would certainly die. Second, the barbarian fighter would realize this and refuse to carry a baby along even if the player wanted to (no, players can’t make their characters do “anything”). Third, the other characters (not necessarily players) would realize that the baby would jeopardize the party in many ways (especially if they needed to be stealthy) and refuse to have anything to do with it or its mother. And if those didn’t persuade, I would Just Say No. Every GM has to Just Say No at one point or another or the campaign will become a brain-fever playground as players do whatever they want, however little sense it may make. I draw the line sooner than some people do.
Remarkably enough, some of the respondents actually tried to think of ways to avoid the death of the baby: for example, having the baby and the mother somehow share hit points and armor. You must be kidding! Why make up bogus rules just to accommodate this peculiar (and wholly unrealistic) desire? But if you like “All about Me” campaigns, if you like playgrounds, or if you have some other reason to disagree with me, as always I’m describing what I do, not prescribing what you should do.
For a lengthy discussion of the biological differences between men and women that affect athletic performance, see some of the answers (by both male and female) to this Quora question:
https://www.quora.com/Why-do-we-still-have-separate-men-and-.... Equality is legal and social, not physical.
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I have been writing a column about game design and RPGs at ENWorld for nearly a year. Here are latest entries (missing numbers: too large for current word count, or waiting to be published).
#6 Three Acts and the Hero's Journey
#7 Pure Innovation is Highly Overrated
#8 Fun and the Flow in Games
#9 Power Creep
#10 RPG Combat: Sport or War?
Oct 14 17
#11 What makes a game great?
Oct 21 17
#12 Loops in RPG Game and Adventure Design
#14 The most important design aspect of hobby RPGs is the Pure Avatar
#15 Fundamental Patterns of War
#16 Tension, Threats, and Progression in RPGs
#19 What do you mean by "fun" in your RPG?
#20 Don't Lose the Forest for the Trees
#21 "Atoms" in Game and Adventure Design 680
#22 Tastes in Heroes and Heroism have Changed as "Heroes in Shades of Grey"
#23 Difficulties of running a low-magic medieval-style campaign
#28 Spelljammer's Game Design As "How would you design for spelljammer?"
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27 Feb 2018
A Board Game that only Uses Cards, OR,
What Matters is Function, not Appearance OR
How to make a board game that costs you a lot less
My game Hastings 1066, about the famous battle where William of Normandy conquered England, is a board game in disguise. It functions as a board game, yet uses cards, with the result that it costs buyers a lot less than if a physical board were included. Yet I’m told by a publisher that wargamers don’t generally care for card games. I think I understand why, but the objections do not apply to Hastings 1066.
When most gamers think of “card games” they think of Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Pokemon. These are a combination of slick marketing scheme and appeal to children, so it’s not surprising that wargamers (who tend to be older people, often Baby Boomers, who don’t “get hooked” on things) are put off. Moreover, these games make more revenue than all other kinds of tabletop games put together. MtG alone makes more than all board games combined. (Figures from IcV2, US and Canada only.)
Moreover, collectible card games (CCG), certainly the three I’ve mentioned, are far from depicting warfare. There is no maneuver, next to no geospatial relationships. Perhaps that makes a little sense in a wizard’s duel (though I don’t think so), but you cannot depict battles that way. "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill
If you’re not depicting maneuver (and the geospatial relationships that make maneuver meaningful/possible) then you can’t depict battles – and it’s hard to depict wars. We can’t model wars in games, we model generalship, but without maneuver there is no generalship.
Wargamers may also feel that card games are “taking over,” and they don’t like it. I recall walking around the dozen tables in use at a big meeting of the NC State Tabletop Gamers, noticing that every game being played (none of them a CCG) was primarily a card game, and the only board game was the one being playtested at my table.
Not surprising that wargamers would rather not have deal with card games.
The Board Function
The fallacy of this perception is that you can use cards without a physical board to depict maneuver and geospatial relationships, as in my game. In practice, Hastings 1066 is a board game, not a card game, that happens to use cards for units rather than using blocks or tiny counters.
The purpose of using a board in games, originally, was to depict maneuver (or placement) and geospatial relationships. Think of Chess, Checkers, Go, even race games such as Pacheesi and Backgammon. They’d be very difficult or impossible to play without a board. What’s important is not the physical board itself, but the depiction and control of maneuver/placement and spatial relationships. It’s the function that counts in the game, not the appearance. (Computer Civilization, for example, is a board game.)
A board game isn’t a game that uses a board; many games that use a board are only tracking various statuses that could be tracked as easily in other ways. For example, some of the recent Munchkin (deluxe) versions have a board, but all it does (in Zombie Munchkins at least) is to track the experience level of each player. This has been done in other (non-board) ways for many years. Is Zombie Munchkin a board game? Not only no, but “Hell No.” The appearance is of a board, but the function is not.
Hastings 1066 uses cards for double duty, as units and as the board (in conjunction with two strips of cardboard). The layout looks like a grid.
I could have used a board with that same grid, but that would have raised the price of the game drastically. A board is the most expensive part of a board game, and if it’s a mounted board, it requires use of a much larger box. Mounted boards are printed in 11 by 11 inch segments; that requires an 11.5 by 11.5 inch box. The larger box costs significantly more than a smaller box.
Moreover, Hastings is not only a deck of cards. There are the map strips, the cubes for marking arrow wounds, and the markers for William and Harold. Those components would be the same if it were a “board” game.
CCGs vs Hastings
A comparison of Hastings with CCGs shows great differences. CCGs are usually “special powers card games”, as I call them for lack of a better name. Each card has a different exception to the standard rules. They tend to be tactical games, and rely on combos for much of the interest. My game uses no combos or exceptions, though it is tactical as any game about a singe battle is likely to be. It is much more like a board game than a CCG.
In appearance, CCG cards have tiny text and numbers. Everything you need to see in Hastings is in large print on an uncluttered card.
I’ve designed a number of card games, but none of them in the CCG category, nor in the special-powers-combo style. Yet wargamers may tend to assume that a card game is CCG/combo style.
As an example of the latter, recently a game called “Tears to Many Mothers” (really?) that is ostensibly about the Battle of Hastings was Kickstarted. But if I can judge from its Kickstarter, it’s a special-powers game with virtually no maneuver or geospatial relationships. That is, it cannot be a wargame despite the supposed topic. But with gorgeous artwork, and an audience on Kickstarter that tends to like gorgeous art (and special powers combo games), it Kickstarted very well. Wargamers, however, might point to it as “what’s wrong with card games”.
Pay attention to the components of a game that count. It’s function, not appearance, that determines whether it’s a good game to play.
Another topic that comes to mind is microgames. These were popular board games of the 1970s and eighties. The most popular was Steve Jackson’s Ogre in 1977, while my game Dragon Rage (1982) was another. These games had thin, tiny unit counters and cardboard boards, and originally came in a plastic bag (DRage was in a small box). You could carry them with you and play (most of) them in less than an hour. Yet they were fully functioning board games, usually for just two players.
Microgames disappeared a long time ago - people no longer accept thin, tiny cardboard units. They have largely been replaced in the market by card games, CCGs and otherwise. DRage cost $10 in 1982, which is equivalent after inflation to $25.42 in January 2018. A $5.95 game from 1970 would be $37.82 today (big inflation in the mid-70s). The pre-order price for Hastings is $24 (same as the Kickstarter price), MSRP is $35. Hastings 1066 is an example of a “new” microgame, something you can carry with you and play quickly when you have a little time.
Dragon Rage was reissued in 2011 with large, thick cardboard pieces, a mounted board, and an additional map and scenarios on the other side of the board. It cost more than three times the $24. Hastings 1066 could have been made much more expensively, but it would no longer fit that niche of a board game microgame.
The Kickstarter for Hastings 1066 ends tomorrow (Wednesday Feb 28). https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1456271622/hastings-106...
Preorder (version with black core French Linen cards only available via KS) at: https://worthingtonpublishing.com/?product=hastings-1066-pre...
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21 Jan 2018
• Where did we start out with in games?
• "Why should designers avoid these two extremely popular mechanisms?
• Catch-up Mechanisms - Why?
Where did we start out with in games? I suspect games started with players using their physical bodies, for example, in wrestling or running. Wrestling is the ultimate direct conflict between two sides. Running is the ultimate parallel competition, if you're running in separate lanes, because you can't do anything to hinder or help the opposition.
The first games, then, were likely "athleticware", depending primarily on athletic prowess and skill.
Games of chance probably preceded board games. Even where dice are unknown you can have a game of chance, as long as you can find objects that are two-sided that can be flipped or thrown. For example, you can throw a bunch of sea shells or throw a bunch of stones, you can even split a stick lengthwise and then throw a group of sticks to see whether they come up flat side or round side. We know from some games that use these methods that the ancients were poor at probability in relation to these two-sided questions. At some point someone invented a boardgame, if only to put holes in the ground for some form of mancala. Card games (and tile games beginning with dominoes) came vastly later.
So the ancient Greek Olympics involved everything ranging from direct competition to entirely parallel competition, but it was all using one's body. In that respect. These are athleticware, as opposed to thoughtware/brainware which occurs when you play a board game where good thinking is your path to success.
With video games, we’ve veered back toward athleticware (especially in AAA, not so much in casual).
Comment on a forum "Why should designers avoid these two extremely popular mechanisms? (Worker placement and deck-building)"
Why would I use a mechanism simply because it's popular? Especially a mechanism I dislike personally? I adapt mechanisms to the situation the game represents, or I devise my own mechanisms. That is, I might design several games using the same base system that I've devised, but I don't go out of my way to use a mechanism devised by someone else (though I have nothing against that, I just don't intend to do it). Long ago I did adopt other systems (Stratego, though quite modified). Not these days.
Now, there are SO many worker placement games, and SO many deck-building games, why would I want to make yet another one?
Many years ago (when it was still new) I did consider adapting deck-building to a Zombie apocalypse-style game, but it didn't work for me.
From an online forum: "But a board game should not be too punishing either. I despise board games where you just can't catch up when someone has an early lead, and where you already know far before the end that you will lose."
"Should" is a slippery word, different people have different opinions. Nor does every game need to be the same. So "punishing" mistakes is more appropriate in some games, less in others.
It's more often puzzles/parallel competitions where you can't catch up, than opposed games. Because in the former you have no strong way to affect the other players.
Nonetheless, there will be times when one player will play much better than others (or be much luckier): should that player be punished by having to put up with (from their point of view) bogus catch-up mechanisms?
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30 Nov 2017
Almost always, when I talk with groups of people about game design, I quote Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Another way of saying this is about Japanese art-gardening "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."
I make games that are models of something, or are “pure” abstract games, that is, games that are very simple in conception. But there is an opposite philosophy of making a puzzle-like game more complex so that the puzzle is harder to solve. Simplification is quite a different matter in that situation, and something I can't address specifically both because it's the opposite of my philosophy and because I dislike that kind of so-called "game."
I try to be simple throughout, but it's common for designers to start with something simple and keep adding things to it, until they realize that they weighed the game down too much and need to go back toward the simple. When I see a problem in my design I try to find a simple solution, possibly a simplification, rather than add something to the game, but many designers will usually add something to fix a problem. And then those additions can become too much weight.
As I answered questions after a session at a convention, someone told me about an RPG he'd designed and tested, that all the testers said was too complex. "How do I simplify it?" he said.
An assumption here is that the testers, by and large, aren't able to say exactly what must be simplified, they just know that currently there's "too much."
First, I said, try to write down the "essence" of the game in a few sentences. This can take some doing, believe me. Ideally you've done it already, but if you had, perhaps you wouldn't be having the too-much-complexity problem to begin with.
There are different ways to characterize the essence of a game, sometimes structurally, sometimes according to what the player does, sometimes in another way or a combination. But be sure it's a unique essence, not just a list of mechanics, because the list the mechanics doesn't say anything about what's important or what the impression on the player is supposed to be.
Example (Britannia): "On an anvil of blood and terror they forged the destiny of an island!" In this epic wargame four players each control several nations playing at different times with different objectives throughout the Dark Ages history of Great Britain. Romans, Britons and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans - they all play a part in the history of Britain. Combat is resolved with dice. This is a strategic game of achieving objectives, not of conquest, though many invaders conquer large parts of Britain at different times. 4 to 5 hours for experienced players. "Invade Britain. Rewrite history. Rule." (The quoted phrases are tags devised by the publishers of the first and second editions of the game.)
Then think about the various aspects of the game in relation to that essence. If something doesn't contribute to the essence, can it be removed? Surely, at the least, it can be simplified, abstracted, or combined with something else. Every game (tabletop or video), at bottom, is fairly simple, and your job is to retain its simple heart and remove what doesn't contribute enough to that heart.
Second, make a list of the major features or elements of the game, perhaps 10 to 20 of them. Consider again how they contribute to the essence, and how you can remove or simplify or combine as appropriate.
After you have (in your mind, at this point) removed or simplified what you confidently can, give the list of the (now remaining) major features to some of your playtesters and ask them to decide which could be removed entirely, and which should be simplified. (This may not help much if testers disagree about whether the game is too complex.) Don't ask people to rank each feature in comparison to the others, as that can be very difficult. It's much easier for people to divide a group into four parts, in this case from most important to the game down to least important. You might even want to write each feature on a separate 3 by 5 index card to make it easy for the playtester to sort them.
Whether you ask playtesters individually or in groups depends on what you think they'll be most comfortable with.
Then consider how you can get rid of the items in the bottom quarter, or even the bottom half if the game is much too complex.
Then playtest the result, of course.
I've listed these in an order beginning with what you can do on your own, to what you can do in conjunction with your playtesters.
As for some details:
Perhaps you can simplify a game by combining two things together into one. You don't actually eliminate either, you just streamline.
An obvious way to simplify is to find decisions players must make that have no significant effect on the outcome of the game. In other words, if it doesn’t matter what the player chooses, if it's trivial, why make them choose at all?
Similarly, there can be choices for particular decisions that no one ever chooses. Get rid of them, if that's possible.
You can resort to abstraction, that is “remove a more accurate and detailed version of that aspect or function and replace it with a less accurate and detailed version or no version at all” (Adams and Rollings, Fundamentals of Game Design).
Automation is often a means of simplification in video games. While we cannot exactly automate anything in a purely tabletop game, we can take something onerous for the players, and turn it into something that happens in the background or automatically, from their point of view. (Yes, some tabletop games include smartphone apps to automate.)
Some games, including virtually all RPGs, are models of some situation, even if it’s a fictional situation as is often the case in RPGs. When you’re modeling something it’s a little easier to simplify, I think, because when you take something out of the game you can try to judge how that affects the correspondence of the model to the situation. When you’re simplifying an abstract game, and that includes a game with a tacked on theme such as many Eurostyle games, then you don’t have that guide.
In either case, harmony has to be one of your guides. I discussed this at length on Gamasutra (https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20170424/2966...) and I’ll try to summarize here. Harmony: “everything in the game feels as though it belongs there and contributes to the purpose and feeling of the game as a whole.” This is like music harmony, it’s easy to recognize but not so easy to create. It's important because games are not just collections of mechanics, not just data, not just metrics. Games make intellectual and emotional impressions on players, and lack of harmony is noticeable, sometimes clearly, sometimes in subtle ways.
So the question is, what can be removed because it is inharmonious with the rest of the game? Or when you’re going to remove something, what will is do to the harmony of the game? And that’s going to apply whether the game is abstract or a model.
Sometimes a game's interface will get in the way, much more often true with video games than with tabletop games. Is there a way to make the interface simpler, to provide information in more accessible ways or to make it easier to manipulate the game?
Let me give you a drastic example of simplifying a well-known game: Monopoly. Unless there are few players in the game, it's standard practice to buy whatever property you land on as you go around the first few times. This becomes a trivial decision, especially because most people incorrectly play the game without auctions; so it should be removed from the game. Why not shuffle the property cards and deal three or four to each player at start of the game, and let them decide whether to buy those properties or to put them into auction? (You might want to give players several hundred dollars extra because they're not Passing Go in this situation.) Once that's sorted out then you get on with the game. The game is not (should not be) about going round and round randomly, it's about trading properties and making monopolies. At least, that's what the game is for adults, for children the going round and round might be an enjoyable part of the game.
This simplification should make it a significantly better game, yet the effect of most simplifications is not as obvious. It's the accumulation of simplification that helps polish the game and get from the 80% point (well, it works) closer to the 100% point (it's a good game).
Always beware that you don't take something out that's essential to the game. While you can simplify a game into oblivion (a bagatelle), it's much more likely you will complicate a game into oblivion (a train-wreck). And always keep Harmony in mind.
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