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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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Video/screencast: What Attracts backers to Kickstarter Board and Card Games?

Lewis Pulsipher
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13+ minutes
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube


Notes
I’m going to use the abbreviation KS for Kickstarter at times
I’m only talking about KS for board and card games – board games seem to fare better than card - not for video games or anything else

It’s Different – a “Dream machine”
I recently realized, “[Board and card] Games are works of and for the mind, not for the eyes.“
Traditional-style games are about thinking, not about looks
But that’s not how KS works
KS is a “dream system”, not a pre-order system (though sometimes it’s used for that, usually for an established franchise)
People go “all-in” for dreams, even others’ dreams; they don’t go all-in for pre-ordering, or for “pros”
They want to feel like they’re part of something new and cool


Selling “Dreams”
I received this tweet out of the blue one day: “ @lewpuls Soccer & design lovers should have this board game! RT and help making our dream come true!” [sic]
[RT = retweet, send to your followers]
Make our dream come true
People want to be something more than a “consumer”
And some people value intentions as much as actions
Young people value intention much more than in the past, I think. Older people tend to remember “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”


Feeling “in at the beginning” (or “part of the process”)

So expressing the intention to publish a game, is good enough for many younger people, not enough for many older people
Backers want to feel part of a creation
They want to see their name as a contributor
Backers love polls and votes about features to include in a game
They love reaching stretch goals that change the game
Consider the popularity of paid betas in video games (especially on Steam). People want to be part of something that isn’t yet complete, hoping to influence it!


Eye-candy Sells, Especially on KS

Especially, miniature figures, but also lots of “cool” art
The quality of the actual gameplay is secondary with many backers
Or perhaps, they assume the gameplay will match the minis and art
Of course, there’s little or no correlation
Cool dice, even
And I’ll admit, I’ve supported three dice projects – but no board or card game projects


Lower than MSRP?
Getting a “deal” seems to be secondary
James Mathe suggests a five dollar discount is sufficient
Read everything James Mathe has to say about KS
Now when KS is acting as a pre-order/”P500” system, a larger discount may be expected, as is typical for P500

“Pre-reviews”
Maybe it’s my age, but I see “pre-reviews” as a call to “shenanigans”
And paying someone to do a review for you? Good heavens!
Why would anyone trust such things?
But this comes back to intentions, I think. Younger people don’t seem to be suspicious of what might be happening with these “pre-reviews”
If a large company did this, though, I’ll bet there would be far more suspicion
It’s a matter of “the little guy’s dream” and trust in that dream

“Momentum”
It’s not just in sports
There’s a bandwagon effect in KS, and reverse bandwagon
This is one reason why you “go low” with your goal and then push the stretch goals, to help encourage momentum
If you haven’t made the goal as the project winds down, Kicktraq.com will predict failure, and potential backers just won’t bother
Or will pull out!


Oddball Pledge Offers

These seem to work often enough to be worth trying, since a lot of $$$$ is involved
Autographed games, play a game with the designer, get a lengthy phone call from the designer, and so forth
I’ve seen offers taken where the designer of an RPG flies to the backer’s location and GMs a game for him/her and friends
(Sea Kings example)

Highly professional can be a barrier
A highly professional presentation may be a detriment!
Backers think, “they’re pros, they don’t need help”
Pros are often using KS as a pre-order system, not a “dream system”
Newbies, or “little guys”, elicit sympathy if not empathy
For example, “Lew Pulsipher” as designer does little for a KS; does more for normal marketing and sales
I’m not only established/have a track record, I’m OLD!


The Exception
When the game is a new edition or special reprint (e.g. Ogre, Age of Conan), then the audience already exists, will hear about it, and will support it
And a game with lots of eye-candy (especially miniatures) will work regardless of origin
Age of Conan has lots of minis; so did the special edition Ogre

Separate categories of publishers
Traditional publishers – self-fund and use traditional distribution (FFG especially)
P500 publishers – direct sales and distribution (GMT)
“Kickstarter” publishers – direct via KS, a little distribution (Minion etc.)
Gamesalute may be unique in doing more KS than any game company, but then their own direct sales and distribution

Is Kickstarter a good gauge of how popular a game will be (how well it will sell)?
I doubt it greatly
The games don’t sell the KS to backers, dreams and intentions sell to backers
But that’s not how games sell in a shop, nor online
Stores and KS have different clienteles


Typical?
Matt Green recently described the audience of Dice Tower as: “chrome-obsessed 21-40 years olds with short attention spans.”
This might describe the largest portion of Kickstarter board and card game backers, as well
As one publisher said, “The sense of entitlement that pervades KS is a difficult thing to combat.”
This fits with Matt’s description, and with the Millennial generation

I don’t think we apply these generalizations to people who buy games via traditional distribution

So to succeed on KS, it helps to:
Sell a dream
Seem like a “little guy” even if you’re not
Offer participation in the form and content of the final product
Appear to need help, even if you don’t
Offer eye candy
Or, go to an established clientele . . .


An Addendum
Do card games do less well than board games on KS?
So I’ve read
If so, why?
There are no miniatures
Card games seem simpler, less a “big deal”, and so less worthy of the all-in excitement typical of very successful KS project funding

Resources
http://www.jamesmathe.com/dead-men-tell-no-tales/
Anything by Jamey Stegmeier (Stonemeier Games)
In RPGs, Fred Hicks

4,438 games successfully funded on KS (11/13/14)
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Mon Jan 5, 2015 4:01 pm
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Really Small Games (Card Version)

Lewis Pulsipher
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I attended a meeting of a NC game designers’ guild for the first time last week. The organizer, Matt Wolfe, asked about my design Sea Kings, which is currently on Kickstarter run by Worthington Publications (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1456271622/sea-kings ). At some point I said it was, at about 45 minutes, inevitably a filler game; and he responded, that’s not a filler game any more, fillers are 20 minutes! While it’s true that 45 minutes is sometimes more a serial filler (played several times consecutively), it’s surely not a destination game (you go to a regular game meeting with the intention of playing this particular game). (See http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2014/03/categorizing... for my definitions.) So as the meeting went on I got educated about a segment of gaming I wasn’t familiar with, mostly and often entirely abstract card games that sell for $10-$20 and take 10-30 minutes to play. (Abstract in design and play, but with a manufactured story tacked on after design. Abstract games without a story are hard to sell. Look at a game box sometime, you’ll find a lot more about the story, usually, than about how the game actually works.)

This put me in mind of a game designers’ weekend I attended in Charlottesville, VA about 10 years ago, hosted by Stephen Glenn. At one point one designer said, “I want to play games all day, but none longer than an hour.” I thought (and still think) that was an odd point of view; if you’re willing to play all day, why not allow longer games? Today I suspect the sentiment would be “I want to play games all evening, but none longer than 30 minutes” (which might be a commentary on shortening attention spans and a need for instant gratification).

Why would people limit how long a particular game is going to take, when they’re intent on playing all day, or all evening? I’m guessing, because it’s not the way I (or my generation, really) do things. First, you get the ultimate feedback quickly, whether you’ve won or lost. Second, you can switch from one game to another quickly, and play several different games. This is more important in modern short-attention-span times, and also fits with the change from gameplay depth to variety as a goal of a good game. The “Cult of the New” is in ascendance. Third, it also lets you play games with more people in one game meeting, if there are enough people to play several games at once. As you change games, you change the composition of your group. Fourth, you’re not putting your ego on the line when you play so many short games. If you play a three hour game and don’t do well, the psychological effect is much stronger than if it’s a 30 minute game. (And you’re not likely to lose six 30 minute games in a row.)

The ideal, to me, is a game flexible enough that it can be played in 10 or 20 minutes, even if the most satisfying version (to me, anyway) is 30 minutes up to an hour. I have designed several card games exactly like this (point games, not surprisingly), but they all use 110 cards, and 110 is too many for a $10 game, even for a $15 game unless you have a big print run. The inexpensive games I was shown mostly contained 55 cards or 16 cards (versions of Love Letter), not 110. (In case anyone reading isn’t aware of it, the most common card printers do 55 cards per sheet, which may be gradually changing to 54.) AEG has quite a few of these games, which Matt thought were printed in runs of 5,000.

Walking around a recent game club meeting at NC State, with 66 people in attendance, I discovered that the only boardgame being played was one that my group was playtesting (albeit a three and a four player game at the same time). Two people were playing Carcassonne, one group of five or six was playing an RPG, the rest were playing Magic and several other card games. (And that’s without anyone playing Cards Against Humanity, a popular pastime at the club.)

Why card games? A major difference between what card games and board games naturally do is access to information. Card games naturally hide information, where board games naturally reveal information. If there's little hidden information, people try to figure out an optimal move, resulting sometimes in analysis paralysis (why chess clocks exist, to cut off the AP). People can often successfully play card games intuitively, which is much less "work" than playing logically, as well as quicker. So card games can be played more quickly. (I discussed the natural characteristics of board and card games at http://gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20120219/91123/The... )

In boardgames a player usually has several pieces to worry about, complicating decisions, not a problem in card games. Moreover, boards were invented to display maneuver and geospatial relationships. Games with those features may be inherently longer than abstract games without those characteristics (and the latter includes most card games, traditional and commercial). You CAN use cards to make a kind of board (I have three games that do this), but it's more the fact that maneuver and geospatial relationships are important that lengthens the game, not how the board is depicted. (By the way, two of those three are deliberate card-game versions of boardgames.)

Board games with one piece per player, avatars, can have a quick setup (Sea Kings among them). I discuss the trend of using avatars in tabletop games in my video on my YouTube “Game Design” channel, video at http://youtu.be/92Qn3leKA8c, channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign )

Card games are usually easier to carry, often easier to set up, and easier to put away than boardgames.

Card games are probably less complex than boardgames in general. This is helped by putting rules on the cards, so there are fewer rules to learn before the game starts.

As game manufacturers try to reach broader markets to make up for shortfalls in sales of individual games (because there are SO MANY games published now), a trend back toward traditional card game methods, such as trick-taking and set collection, also makes sense.

It's very hard to make a board game very short, especially non-abstracts and games for more than two players. Yeah, Tic-tac-toe is short, but it's solved, always a draw in perfect play. I discussed short board games (though only two player) in "Really Small Games" (http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2013/10/really-small...).

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Thu Oct 2, 2014 8:11 pm
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Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?

Lewis Pulsipher
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Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?


Those who have read this blog for a long time know that I am a categorizer. I try to organize things into categories in order to better to understand them and their relationships to each other. Recently it’s occurred to me that within the context of a game club meeting or even a smaller game session, different games have different uses, they fit into the session in different ways. This often is reflected in different price points, different lengths, different effort requirements, and so forth.

So the following are categories organized by how games are actually used at game meetings.

I’m sure other people must have done this at some point, although a simple search for “destination game” on BoardGameGeek yielded very little. Perhaps readers will let me know about other efforts to categorize games by usage.



First we have destination games. These are games that people look to play, or occasionally organize to play beforehand, when they go to a game session. These are usually games that take quite a while to play and may take some effort as well. Many of them are 2 to 3 hour games, while the ones that are just an hour are often serial destination games, that is, you expect to play two or three times consecutively, possibly the same game, or other serial destination games, in one game session. You expect destination games to be more expensive than many other games because they’re offering you more hours of use, and they’re often “more involved” if not “more complicated”. If the term “weight” is used to indicate the effort involves, destination games are often heavier games (though the special occasion games, below, are usually the heaviest). Serial destination games may be lighter.

Most destination games are for more than two players. Two player wargames are often serial destination games, two people get together and play the game two or more times, switching sides.

For serious chess players chess is a destination game although for some it will be a serial destination game.

Special occasion games take so long (or have such unusual requirements) that people schedule meetings just to play the game, enabling them to recruit players specifically for it. Sessions are organized days or even weeks beforehand, especially if a large number of players is required, for example Diplomacy with seven, History of the World with five or six, or Civilization (the boardgame) which requires a large number of players to work well. Many RPGs are of this category, as they require both quite a few players and a referee as well as a lot of time. For many people Britannia is a special occasion game (especially if players aren’t experienced, then it can be 7 hours instead of 3.5-5), though if your game club runs many hours it might fall into the destination category. A two player “monster” wargame is also a special occasion game - sometimes several occasions before you can actually finish it. Miniatures wargames are often special occasion, though the smaller ones can be destination games.

At the other end of the spectrum we have filler games. These games almost always allow for a widely varying number of players because the purpose of the filler game is to let people play something before everyone has shown up for the destination game, or to play something after the destination game is finished. You never know in those circumstances exactly how many people you’re going to have, or how much time you’re going to have. Consequently filler games need to be relatively short, frequently under an hour and sometimes as little as five to 10 minutes. Some of the shorter serial destination games may be usable as fillers in the right circumstances.

I reserve the term “flexible filler” for games that can be played for 30 to 45 minutes but can also be played for as little as 5 to 10 minutes. These are often point games so that you can set a particular point target, or simply play in the amount of time available and then see who has more points.

Filler games are usually lighter games, ones without a lot of strategy to them. People often use the term “beer and pretzel” games in this context, but I prefer to avoid that term. It’s not unusual for a filler game, especially a longer one that can also serve as a serial destination game, to be a “screwage” game. (See “Competition, direct conflict, wargames, and screwage games,” http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2013/10/competition-...)

A subcategory of filler game is a convenience game. These are games that can be played in tight spaces (such as a vendor booth at a convention or in a car), or in unusual circumstances where it’s inconvenient to play most other games. Much of this is about the physical conformation of the game of course.

You’d expect fillers to cost significantly less than destination games, even though, in the end, you may play a filler for more hours during it’s “lifetime” than you will many destination games. Given the “Cult of the New” that is so strong in the hobby, people tend to focus their attention on destination games but then only play them a few times before moving on to something else. Popular fillers can actually last much longer.


Where do the old “micro” games fit? The micro category seems to have been virtually wiped out by CCGs like Magic: the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. Keep in mind that most micro games, and most CCGs, are two player games. Each individual play of a CCG can be quite short, but players tend to play several games consecutively, often for several hours. So these might best be characterized as serial destination games - lots of people come to a game meeting specifically to play their favorite CCG over and over again.

Gateway games have come to be popular to introduce people to hobby game playing. Settlers of Catan is the most well-known, but Ticket to Ride also fits this category. Originally these games were serial destination games or long fillers (and again can be treated as both). Gateway games tend to be simpler than destination or special occasion game. They also tend to be shorter because “the unwashed” often aren’t accustomed to sitting and doing something for long periods.


Sometimes what ought naturally to be a filler game becomes a destination game. For example, Munchkin ought to be a fairly short game if designed properly, but when played by serious gamers it becomes rampant leader bashing as everyone goes up to level 9 before somebody finally is allowed to reach level 10, and the game takes a couple hours.

In general, party games are filler games, the party is what's important, not the game. Few people take party games seriously.


I’m not strongly in touch with game prices, though obviously they’re going up. (I recall FFG’s Britannia in 2006 was $40, in 2008 $50.) Destination games cost much more than fillers, and special occasional games probably cost more yet. Serial destination games may be the cost of destinations or of fillers, or anywhere in between. Gateway games, because of their large print runs, should be close to filler game price even though they often amount to serial destinations.



So where does this get us as game designers? It will probably help you to be aware of what kind of game you’re designing when you’re still in the conception stage. It certainly won’t do to market your game as a destination game when it’s really a filler, or vice versa. Also, a destination game may justify more expensive components than a filler, because the former is likely to sell for more by virtue of being a destination game.

Consideration of game usage may also affect how many players you design a game for. Though nowadays, given the social nature of tabletop gaming, you’re limiting yourself anytime you design a game that cannot be played by at least four.


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Thu Mar 20, 2014 10:12 am
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Ruminations about Magical Numbers (and processes) in Card Games

Lewis Pulsipher
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Not long ago I wrote some ruminations about magical numbers and boardgames, (http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2013/09/ruminations-...) and Steven Davis suggested I should talk about this in relation to card games, such as card hand size. I’m not a person who plays standard card games, though I have played Old Maid, Canasta, Euchre, and even Poker in the distant past, and still may play Oh Hell once a year. But I’ve never played Uno, let alone Hearts or Spades or Gin Rummy. But lately I find myself designing games that use cards, though not the standard deck.

One of the benefits of cards is that there is a natural limit to play that does not exist in boardgames, that is, the exhaustion of the draw deck. And card games naturally fall into relatively short sessions (one hand), though most traditional card games are played through several hands.


Hand size varies a lot in card games using the standard deck of cards. One of the smallest hands is an Texas Hold ‘em (two cards) though more typical in poker is five cards. Magic: the Gathering starts with seven. I have made a brief list of hand size in some card games, and I’d judge that a hand size of five to seven cards is most common. (I’m not counting games like Bridge and Old Maid where all the cards are dealt out.)

I like to design screwage games, which are pretty popular at the university game club I attend, and there I’ll start with somewhere between five and seven cards. If I don’t have a strong feeling about where to start I’ll pick a larger number because that gives players more choices within the context of the usual card game limitation that there are typically fewer choices than in a boardgame.

When I design a boardgame that uses event cards I typically start players with five and see how it works out. In one case, for a space wargame with three to five players, I reduced the number to four, three when there are five or more players, because the event cards had too strong an influence over the game. Event cards are there for variety and uncertainty, not to dominate the game. (I will write a separate piece about uses of event cards.)

The number of starting cards also depends on how many cards are available in the deck and on how many people typically play. It doesn’t take much time to work out approximately how many rounds a game will take if players are drawing one card at a time and there are a given number of cards. Multiply the hand size times the number of players, subtract that from the number of cards available, divide the result by the number of players to get the number of rounds.

Obviously, the more cards players start with, the more options they have. The question may be at what point are there too many options for your target audience. One way to broaden the appeal of a game is to reduce the number of decisions players have to make. (Another way is to reduce the number of exceptions to the rules that people must keep in mind.) So a hand of seven cards gives more options and decisions than a hand of five cards, but the question is, is it the right number of options and decisions for your game?

As a practical aspect as well, as the hand gets bigger people have more trouble coping with handling it, with keeping track of everything, even with being able to hold it in their hand so they can see all the cards.

In many games I don’t have a set hand size, or even a size limit. A few players like to collect lots of cards to get a big hand; but they rarely win when they do this, because they’re expending actions to draw while other players are doing something potentially more productive.

I find that people so often forget to draw cards, especially in games where you occasionally use a free-to-play card that you don’t replace, that in some games I have a simple rule that if you find yourself with fewer than five cards at any time you draw back up to five immediately.


What about deck size? I tend to stick to the old standard governed by printing capabilities of 55 cards per deck (or 110, or 165 . . .). A standard deck is 52, plus two jokers, plus a logo card. (I understand there is more variation now in printing machinery.) 55 is a lot of cards for many purposes, such as Event Cards. But a game that is purely cards often demands 110 cards or more, to provide sufficient variety and versatility.


I may as well make this observation about the card game process as well. The paradigm for standard card games is that a players plays a card, and draws a card, each turn. But which comes first? If the player draws the card afterward then he has time to think about how to use it and what to do next before his next turn. If the player draws to start the turn then everyone waits while the player thinks about what to do with this new card. On the other hand, if the player feels he has a poor set of cards then he’ll be happy to draw before he plays in hopes that he’ll draw something more satisfying. Also it may be easier for players to remember to draw before playing than to remember to draw after playing, especially if playing one card can result in some additional actions. But it’s so important for games to be shorter nowadays that I usually choose draw-after because that speeds up the game.

Of course, you can have games that use cards yet don’t follow the standard pattern of play one and draw one. For example as I recall, in Fluxx the number you draw varies according to cards that people have played during the game. In other games, drawing a card is one action among many possible actions, with a player taking two or three actions per turn, so he or she may draw two or three cards, or even none.
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Fri Nov 22, 2013 12:08 pm
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