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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Designing Stock Market Games

Lewis Pulsipher
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Buying and selling stocks is fundamentally predicated on a forecast of how well the company is going to prosper in the future. In olden days this was based on the price to earnings ratio, where you wanted to pay not more than 15 times the annual dividend you would expect to get. Nowadays some companies do not pay dividends, so it can be based on your expectation of how much the stock price is going to rise or fall, for example if you bought Microsoft stock early on you would have a lot of money per share now (the stock has split several times I think). Same for Amazon stock (though it has not split).

But that’s the long term view. There’s also a short-term view, the view of “day-traders” who want to buy a stock at a lower price than they expect it to be in a few days or weeks and sell stocks at a higher price than expected to be in a similar amount of time. Day-trading in particular is susceptible to good or bad news, for example when the British voted to exit the European Union it had an immediate strong effect on the stock markets even though it was expected to take two years for them to actually withdraw.

I am strictly a long-term stock buyer and see day-trading as a form of gambling/insanity. But it’s also a kind of game, and for some people it’s their favorite game.

A former student wants to make a tabletop game to reflect how the day-trading stock market works. We had a long discussion about the other day at the North Florida Game Designers’ Guild meeting and this is a result.

The typical defect of a stock game is that the events causing stock prices to rise or fall are randomly generated, and unforeseeable. But there are exceptions. For example, the venerable and excellent Sid Sackson game Acquire uses the growth and mergers of hotel chains, which are controlled by the players, to strongly affect the final value of stocks. Some railroad games use the success or failures of railroad companies to cause stocks to rise or fall in value. The game Imperial uses a World War I like struggle among nations to govern the rise or fall in value according to how well the nation does in the war. The players are controlling/playing the railroad part of the game or the war part of the game, but the outcome of the game depends on stock ownership of successful entities.

But this is all a long-term point of view, and my former student was interested in the short term, the day trader point of view.

A perhaps not explicit assumption here is that game players want to feel that they control what goes on in the game, that they succeed because of their own efforts. Random fluctuations in price don’t allow that. So we need something that enables players to influence the price fluctuations in the short-term rather than the long-term. What I suggested is that each player could have an identical set of cards to use to influence the price of certain stocks. Among other things there could be a reckoning for a stock where each player would play a card face down, the cards would be collected and shuffled under the table so that no one knew which card came from which player, and those cards would collectively determine what happened to the stock. The obvious thing would be to have each card simply say, company does well, or company does badly, or company stays about where it is (neutral). There could also be the occasional card that represents some news that causes a fluctuation in prices, for example an international crisis.

So if the plurality of cards is success for the company than the price will go up, and if the plurality is poor results for the company than the price would go down. From that point further price changes would depend on the players, so if they sold a lot of stock the price would go down and if they were bought a lot of stock the price would go up. It would still be the case that any stock that was bought a lot would go up in price even if the company results were not good. (We do see that in the market.) While I’ve never thought much about making a stock market game myself, I think this was the method I came up with for enabling players to affect price in the short run.

The method I’ve seen for having buying and selling prices change is a simple ladder. As players buy or sell stock they put cubes on the spots on the ladder, and when the spots are filled on a rung they move to the next higher rung (when buying) where the prices they pay are higher compared to the base price at the start of the turn, or to the next lower rung (when selling) where the price they get is lower.

This method also offers the players the opportunity to collude to drive a stock price up or down, but if the “voting” is truly secret then there can be “backstabbing” insofar as a player may make a deal to vote for a company to prosper and yet play a card of some other type.

If all negotiation is over the table, however, it will be difficult to collude in a meaningful way. But to have lots of regular secret negotiation sessions, as in the game Diplomacy, means it would be a much longer game. The alternative is to give each player a certain number of tokens that can be played to enable them to have a brief secret negotiation with another willing player. The very fact that the two players are talking together can help make the other players paranoid, if nothing else, two or three minutes of talking ought to be enough to allow for collusion or other deals. When the player runs out of negotiation tokens then the only way they can have a secret negotiation of’s of someone else plays a token in order to talk to them.

I like this so much that I even thought of doing such a game myself for about five seconds, but I have so many other relatively new games with good prospects that I’ll have to put it aside.
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Mon Oct 30, 2017 8:22 pm
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Recent Screencasts (9 June 2017)

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I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent screencasts instead.

Departing from the standard (card game) sequence of play
https://youtu.be/sfb1aWU6Ens 6/8/2017
The standard sequence of play makes a specialty card game easier to learn. But don't "settle" for it, your game may be better with something else.

Nuts & Bolts: How to get an improvisers's game from a planner's game
https://youtu.be/juG7AfFcqas 6/1/2017
I describe how I changed Britannia, an historical Planner's game par excellence, into an Improviser's space wargame, with just a few changes. Very different experience, essentially same underlying mechanics.

Ranking Sources of Information About Game Design Two parts
https://youtu.be/MjmP1kD7Vyc 4/20/2017
https://youtu.be/JnrGy8DBOOU
The best way to learn is to make games. The second best way is to talk with (and listen to) other game designers, whether informally or in a class. After that there are many sources of learning, and I've ranked those in a two-part screencast.

Eight awful truths about game marketing
https://youtu.be/DbNlo4Jgk4A
I ran across "10 Awful Truths about Book Marketing" online, and seeing the parallels with games, I'm discussing those Truths (including the two that don't apply). Another time I'll discuss some strategies you can follow to do your best in this environment.

There's no "Secret Knowledge" or "secret Sauce" (nor conspiracies) in Game Design
https://youtu.be/bzvMFoH0Ejk
Aspiring designers sometimes believe that there's a secret formula to game design, and all they have to do is follow it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The delusion seems to be common in society these days, that there's a secret knowledge to any discipline. It's the kind of thing that helps fuel conspiracy theories.
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Wed Aug 9, 2017 3:16 pm
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Harmony and the Kludge in Game Design

Lewis Pulsipher
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[Originally appeared at gamasutra.com]

Harmony and its opposite, the kludge, are fundamental to good game design. Games that lack harmony or have in-harmonious aspects have a handicap, though some succeed. Fortunately, most of the in-harmonious games are never published, or only self published. Players don't always recognize the in-harmony but its existence still affects the game. Designers may not recognize in-harmony if they think of the game as “My Baby.” But designers need to recognize it and get it out of the game.

So what is harmony? This is hard to pin down. It's like harmony in music, something you can hear and can recognize when harmony is not present. Here is a long quote from a 1997 lecture where this concept of harmony comes from:

Brian Moriarty: http://ludix.com/moriarty/listen.html
It’s something you feel. How do you achieve this feeling that everything works together? Where do you get this harmony stuff? Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t come from design committees. It doesn’t come from focus groups or market surveys. It doesn’t come from cool technology or expensive marketing. And it never happens by accident or by luck. Games with harmony emerge from a fundamental note of clear intention.

I think Moriarty moves into the touchy-feely as he goes on, but you can look it up and see what he has to say. I'm using a simpler definition: “everything in the game feels as though it belongs there and contributes to the purpose and feeling of the game as a whole.” That's harmony. 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. The effect is not good for the intellectual and emotional impression.

Harmony is not the same thing as “elegance,” in fact I hesitate to use the word elegance because it's used by fans of certain kinds of tabletop games as a bludgeon to attack fans of other kinds tabletop games, who in turn react very negatively to the word. ”Elegant” is often used in much the same sense as “clever.” It's usually used in relation to abstract games or practically abstract games, games that are not models of some reality.

Harmony isn't cleverness, it’s something that affects the game as a whole. It's about appropriate fit. Now what's appropriate fit depends on what standards people are using, and those standards have changed and very much loosened over the years. Think about movies and TV shows over the years. What makes sense? The screen has always required a heavy “suspension of disbelief”, but those entertainments have consistently become less believable. People will accept all kinds of foolishness and huge plot-holes because the program is otherwise entertaining. and we’re getting the same thing in games.

I love Star Wars for the adventure, but when I first watched the original Star Wars I came out of the theater and said “this is dumb” and “that is a big plot-hole” but I (in the long run) accepted it because “it’s a movie.”

I still have SOME standards even for movies. The Starship Troopers movie (monsters in outer space) had us travel 80,000 light years and then forget that we can use tanks or helicopters! Monsters farted unguided missiles, yet the human fleet stayed tightly packed together in space to make itself a good target! It's just ludicrous. Yet it was a popular movie that begetted a couple sequels.

The same kind of loosening of standards of disbelief has happened in game design. People often treat games more as time killers or something mildly engaging to do while they socialize, than as actual entertainment or something worth *focusing* on. So they let things go by that would not have been accepted many years ago.


All right. What's the opposite of harmony? The Kludge. I borrow this term from software (“kludgy” is the adjective that's used.) A kludge is a tacked-on solution to a particular problem, or a solution that works but isn’t consistent with the rest of the program. In software though not in games it's also hard to understand and modify.

The Kludge is hard to define in game design because one man's kludge is another man's “nothing wrong with that.” How do you notice the kludges if the game is a model of something? The kludge will usually be inconsistent with the rest of the model, and may have nothing at all to do with what's being modeled. It may be there to fix some design flaw. When I play games I sometimes ask, why am I doing this particular thing? If the only answer I can find is “because it fixes a design flaw,” or “because the designer liked it,” or “I have no clue why it's here,” then it is probably a kludge.

What about kludges in abstract games? A kludge is less obvious because the game doesn’t represent anything (other than “a game”). Abstracts are collections of mechanics, different from a model where the context should help people play the game, and the mechanics are expected to represent something that happens in a real world. Nonetheless, in abstracts you can have a mechanic that doesn't fit with the rest, that doesn't mix well or doesn't seem to have a useful function, or clearly should've been replaced with something else, or simply should have been removed from the game.

Where do kludges come from? Often they are added to games to solve a problem that appeared in testing. Or perhaps the designer realized it would be a problem, and added it before the testing. Most of the time it's added to fix a demonstrated flaw, but at other times, it's in the game because the designer liked it, even though it doesn't fit with what he ended up with. (Remember, games often end up some “distance” from where the designer originally intended.) He or she isn't willing to take it out, isn't willing to “shoot their baby”. It could be the original idea itself, yet the game has developed in another direction. At that point, the designer should shoot the original, get it out of there, but it's emotionally hard for a designer to do.

Now some examples. These are from well-known, successful games, so that you’ll be able to relate to what I’m explaining. Games can succeed despite kludges; but the more you have, the less likely that the game will be good.

Catan, which used to be known as Settlers of Catan: both the robber and the monopoly cards. Keep in mind there’s not a lot of interaction in Catan between the players except for the trading, and there's little you can do to actually hinder another player after the initial setup.

I think the designer saw the difficulty of hindrance, and decided to add the Robber, which has *nothing* to do with the rest of the game. It doesn't fit at all in any way, shape, or form, but was added to provide a way for a player to hinder another player or at least have the potential to hinder other players. It has nothing to do with the settling model. If it represented mere bandits, a player’s soldiers would be able to do something about it, nor do bandits affect a budding newly-settled region the way they can an old, over-populated region.

Catan is supposed to be a game about trading, but I've seen many players who don't trade much. The monopoly card takes all of a particular resource from all the other players and puts them into the hand of the player who played the monopoly card. Then others are forced to trade if they want to get that resource, or wait a long time for more of that resource to be produced. Perhaps someone can come up with an explanation (not excuse) of how this would happen in the real world, I cannot. I think the designer added that card to make people trade, thinking of the groups where there's otherwise not much trading.

Catan is very popular and is a decent design that was in the right place at the right time, although technically speaking it has these kludges.

How about Risk, the US pre-2008 version, not the newer version based on missions? Some of those earlier versions had mission cards, but they didn't work well. In 2008 Risk was revised with missions to make it quite a different game. In old Risk, the territory cards are kludges in two senses. First, they were an artificial method, and by artificial I mean there's no correspondence with reality, of encouraging players to attack. You have to a conquer a territory to get a card; it was something to try to discourage turtling, which is nonetheless quite common in Risk.

Second, you turn in the cards for armies. That's there to bring the game to a conclusion, because you have an increasing number of armies that can get very large. The game is pretty long as is, but it's very long without increasing numbers of armies, which I have played a number of times. Instead of going up to 50 armies and more I used 4-6-8-4-6-8-4-6-8, but that makes it a very long game.

Two kludges to solve (or at least mitigate) a fundamental problem in the game: the game didn't naturally come to a conclusion. The game didn't naturally encourage people to attack. So the cards were added for those purposes.

Let’s consider the online video games World of Tanks and World of Warships. In big video games like these both harmony and the kludge become obscured. We could probably say that it's easier to make a harmonious game that's relatively small and focused rather than one quite big.

In World of Tanks the entire idea of 15 versus 15 randomly assigned teams is a kludge, in the sense that it has nothing to do with real warfare, but it's necessary to make the online game practical for a very large audience. In World of Warships the overall kludge is to play in a small area, usually amongst lots of islands, places where real world battleships and aircraft carriers virtually never went. In both games we have the bizarre mix of nationalities of equipment: German and French and English and Russian tanks or ships on the same side, and possibly 15 different tanks or 12 different ships on a team. It's also a necessary kludge but has nothing to do with reality. So both games break down as models of reality, and the kludges are obvious.

But in video games there are many conventions, normal modes of design, that are ridiculous kludges but necessary to make a game of it. (Consider the ammo and medpacks sitting all over the place in shooters, or even respawning itself - awful kludges.) When is a kludge no longer a kludge? When almost everyone accepts it as necessary, I guess.

Let's take a tabletop game such as Eclipse, which is ostensibly a Euro-fied 4X space game. It's almost a wargame, almost an exploration game, almost this, almost that, but ultimately unsatisfactory (for me). The major kludge in the game is that players are awarded hidden-value victory points for fighting, and fighting early on tends to give you higher value points because you draw a number of VP pieces and throw some back into the supply. You’re encouraged to fight repeatedly as you can draw again whenever you fight. I think this was added when the rest of the game resulted in little fighting, because people didn't gain enough from fighting. What they were likely to lose in assets was more than they were willing to risk for the possible gain. So the victory points were added well.

Rewards for fighting make no sense in the 4X model, or any reasonable model. Your surviving units gain experience when you fight, yes, but you lose a lot of ships and people, and that experience in the overall context should not be worth a lot (if any) of victory points. Military forces are a means to an end, not an end in itself. In a game I watched, about half of the overall points for five of the six players came from fighting, which is ridiculous. They were roughly equal to the points for holding the solar systems that had been discovered. In the long run what do you think is more important? Wars are economic, after all.

There are other flaws in the game. For example, the results of exploration are that space is mostly impassable. I think that's deliberate, to avoid and out-and-out wargame, but it doesn't fit one's idea of space as wide-open territory. That makes the extermination part of 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) ineffective even with the fighting points.


Again, how do you recognize a kludge? I’d say it's easier to find things you think are kludges in a game you don't like than ones you do like. Also we have the limitation that some designers of puzzle-like games, whether they’re single player video games or solo tabletop games or cooperative games, tend to add things to make the puzzle solution more difficult. I come in heavily on the side of this 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.” I think that’s an alternative definition of harmony. Given that motto, I see many of those puzzle-maker additions as kludges.

This is not something you can rigidly define or easily pin down, it requires self-critical thinking. It doesn’t matter what specific mechanics you use, whether already very popular or brand new (the latter very rare). What matters is how they work together as a whole. Designers need to recognize the in-harmonious, and excise it!



My Patreon is at: https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.
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Mon May 1, 2017 6:38 pm
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RapierCon and Prezcon 2017

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Odd how the focus of game development can move quickly from one game to another. I don’t try to force testers to play any particular game. I bring a half dozen or more games to any game session or convention, and while I may mention first the one I am most interested in playing, I give players a choice.

Just before RapierCon (Jacksonville FL) I had played Rex Anglorum (about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Dark Ages Britain) several times solo. But for Rapier, which allows you to schedule a game for a articular block, I chose four: freeform (Intro) Brit, Epic Historical Brit, Doomfleets, and Conquer Britannia. In the end, only Doomfleets was played, twice, with the maximum five players each time, and players said they really liked it.

I created Doomfleets to remove many of the constraints that some players (especially Scott Pfeiffer) dislike in Second Edition (FFG) Britannia. And as it had been played - four times solo, then once by others - I’ve compressed it more and more into a shorter, more chaotic game. The same thing happened after two games at Rapier, as I reduced the standard game from 10 to 7 turns, and the short game from 6 to 5.

At PrezCon, with so many official tournament heats and semis, it’s pretty hard to get several people together for two-three hours to play something like Doomfleets, or even Britannia prototypes. But at Rapier, I’d hauled out my very old (35+ years) two player galactic space wargame to try to remedy what I saw as a problem. It had always been a perfect-information game. I think I must have had chess in mind when I originated it, down to having 16 pieces on a side. But when I last worked with it, maybe 8 years before, I’d feared that it was a solvable game, and that the “solution” might involve the first-mover always winning. (In fact, there are 93 spaces, and unusual movement rules, so it’s probably more complex than checkers, which has not formally been solved though it has been solved by brute force.) My solution was to use blocks to hide the identity of pieces (though not the color, important for movement), and I’d made a new set, but had not tried it.

So at Rapier (or maybe at home?) I tried it on half a board, and it worked very well but needed a little more room. At PrezCon I put it on “my” table and persuaded some gents to play. Four games took about half an hour each including teaching time (the game is quite simple). I also showed it to a publisher, and despite some adventure (one of them doesn’t like having to choose his setup, even though the setup is part of the gameplay) the simplicity and short length were very attractive. But they asked about three players, and about four (which would only work in partnership, I don’t believe in four player competitive block games, too easy to see opposing identities). So Jim Jordan and I worked out strengths for the partners game (down to 7 pieces per player). And now I’m making more pieces.

I decided only at the last minute to take my co-operative space wargame to PrezCon. I’d hosted a few four and five player games some months before, but wasn’t sure how my latest changes would work out. In the end, Jim Jordan and I played it four times (working from more than 2 hours down to less than 90 minutes). It was a rarity, me playing on of my own game after the initial solo play, and I enjoyed it. Fundamentally, I strongly prefer good co-op games, hence D&D where you have human opposition. Programmed opposition often leads to the game being a puzzle that can be solved, e.g. Pandemic or Shadows Over Camelot. But casting the co-op as a wargame, complete with significant chance (especially, dice resolution of battles) makes a big difference. It’s a longer game, with more variation, but you’d expect that from a wargame. It worked much as co-ops are supposed to work: we got better, were stomped in first game, barely forced into a draw in second, won third (barely), handily won fourth. We didn’t get to the point of escalating the difficulty (escalation is remarkably easy to do, you just increase one number). Definitely a success at this point, but needs a lot more play, of course (total of only nine so far).

Never a sniff of Rex Anglorum at either con. Never a sniff of the Britannia 3rd edition games at PrezCon, either.I had other games with higher priorities.


I needed some spaceship pieces to replace one of the sets I was using in Doomfleets. (Different shapes for each of four species a player controls.) I couldn’t find my plastic rocket ships (look like V2s). But I stumbled upon Star Trek Risk in the auction store at PrezCon, and was very pleased - and can replace two of the piece sets. I also bought Risk Halo and Clash of Cultures for the pieces.



Jonathan Hagmaier is a recent addition to the Britannia (and History of the World) players at PrezCon. Old enough to have a daughter in college, but not nearly as old as I am, he’s full of cheerful enthusiasm, though occasionally reminiscent of the notorious Mark Smith. This year he lost a very close Britannia final to Rick Kirchner (the most laid-back man I know), with Mark (the least laid-back) a close third. Jon arranged for the participants, plus the GM Jim Jordan, plus myself, to receive a pint glass etched with part of the Britannia cover! Thanks!

People asked me how 3rd edition Brit is going. I could only say, the three games are pretty much settled, but lots of testing for balance is required (the curse of highly asymmetrical 3 and 4 player games). And right now I’m focusing on other things, unfortunately.


PrezCon seemed less crowded than usual, but Justin has been trying to alleviate crowding for some time. The Britannia tournament had two boards in each of two heats (a bit low), and Robo-Rally (my roommate’s favorite) participation was way down. There were 50 in Smallworld, however.

I had it from Justin Thompson himself that more people were at PrezCon than anytime before, which would mean somewhere around 700. Rapier, by the way, which switched from summer to February a couple years ago, had 150; they don’t want more than 200 because the hotel won’t accommodate more.
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Fri Mar 3, 2017 2:22 am
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Stories in Games (again)

Lewis Pulsipher
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In a 2011 survey published by Josiah Lebowitz and Chris Klug, people who identified themselves as "gamers" were asked to provide the three most important factors when determining whether or not to purchase a game. The most popular response? 52% of all respondents included "story" as one of the three most important factors. The second most popular determining factor was "gameplay mechanics", ranking in at 42%. Genre came in third at 37%.


Let's differentiate between narrative - an account of what happens, which is in every game ever played - and story, something with characters, plot, conflict, setting, point of view, and climax/denoument that is imposed on or part of the game, coming from the designers/developers.

Every game has narrative, even abstract ones. Someone can tell you the "story" (narrative) of a chess game they played. Such narratives may not be interesting to anyone but themselves and their friends, because it lacks some (many?) of the elements of professional stories.

"Story" in the above sense is primarily used to help sell/market a game. When players actually play, most are interested in the play of the game.

Stories wear out. You finish the story, you're finished with the game. Games, if they're really good, don't wear out, there's something new each time that keeps players coming back (much more common with tabletop games than video games). Much of that newness comes from the unpredictability and boundless creativity of human opposition.

Commenters on a tweet bout this pointed out that some games (e.g. Once Upon a Time, Betrayal at House on the Hill) have many stories built in. I don't know OUaT, but in Betrayal the "stories" are so simple they're more alternate narratives. Another said "Timeless stories don't wear out." True for Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but even those you probably won't revisit more than once a year, probably much less.

Puzzles in "games" wear out just as stories do, once you've solved the puzzle(s).

For that reason, during development, when there's a conflict between the story and the gameplay, gameplay usually wins out. Which makes it hard for a game to have a coherent professional story.

An "atmosphere" is the trappings of a story without the content.
Atmosphere doesn't alter how the game plays, whereas story ought to.
You can add an atmosphere to a game late in the day. Story has to be built in.

But atmosphere can be used to sell the game, it doesn't really need to have a coherent professional story. And as John Carmack (Doom and many other games) said, story in a video game is like story in pornography, an excuse to get to the action.

Many game devs are frustrated film-makers or novelists who want to tell a story. But in the main, games - other than RPGs and expensive video games, perhaps - are poor mediums for story-telling. It's like using a spreadsheet to do word processing. You can do it, but it's very inefficient, and limited.
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Mon Jan 30, 2017 1:45 pm
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My recent screencasts on YouTube

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I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel, so I decided to list the most recent five screencasts instead.

Special Powers Card Games (SPCG)
Special Powers Card Games (Magic:the Gathering, Munchkin, many others) is a category that attracts many aspiring designers. But designers should avoid CCGs, and look at other kinds of SPCG.
https://youtu.be/9Q4ffTs_lfk

Charlemagne and "Yomi"
This is about two different and conrasting game playing styles. I use Charlemagne to represent "minimax" and "yomi" is a Japanese word adopted by David Sirlin to represent those who try to read the intentions and anticipate their opponents.
https://youtu.be/0dSh93LkeUk

The Demise of "Favorite" Games
When I taught video game design classes I asked students about their favorite games. Turned out, many of them had no favorites, or could only pick the game they were currently playing. How different from many years ago. Here's why, which has a lot to do with changes in the nature of games and how people play them.
https://youtu.be/C4CgD9UTH1k

Why is it so hard to persuade people to playtest prototypes?
I've just added this video to my online course "Playtesting: the Heart of Game Design" (about 6.5 hours). Discount URL: https://www.udemy.com/game-playtesting/?couponCode=PT25
This is by far the most comprehensive discussion of game playtesting in the world, to my knowledge. Converted to words, it's the size of a small novel, in 64 parts, including examples of playtesting notes I've taken over the years.
https://youtu.be/Ijq8xpV8fjs

Flexibility in Games
A seldom-discussed aspect of games - especially tabletop games - is their flexibility. Can the game be played to varying lengths, by varying numbers of players? Can players join in after the game has begun?
https://youtu.be/SiG_Xhe6rQs
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Tue Jan 10, 2017 10:19 pm
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Are you designing a game, or throwing one together?: You can’t design a game as though you were playing a video game

Lewis Pulsipher
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(First appeared on Gamasutra.com)

This is a vital topic in game design: are you designing a game or you throwing one together? Yes, creativity is part of game design, but it only amounts to about 10% of the whole. The rest is more or less engineering: you identify problems and propose solutions, implement the solutions, test the results of those solutions, and so on. Scientific method is involved in your testing, and engineering is involved in your solutions. Occasionally inspiration and creativity are involved.

Just Say No to Guessing

What game design definitely is not, or at least should not be, is trial and error. I'm using the meaning that was prevalent when I was young: guessing what might work, and then checking to see if it does. I now call it "guess and check", because there seems to be a notion today that trial and error is a form of scientific method. No, it's guessing. Game design is not a guessing game (though as in all other creative or engineering endeavors, sometimes you get a lucky guess).

Let me use an example from a beginning programming class to illustrate. While I was a college teacher I substituted for a teacher who was ill, in a programming class for beginners. Many the people were not going to become programmers, but everybody was required to learn some programming, which made good sense in a computer department. The students in the class already had a program to work on, a simple one, so I walked around trying to help in general, as their programs didn't work.

This is not surprising. Programming is very logical, and people often are not taught logical methods in K12. The proper response when the program isn't working 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. Much of the purpose of playing a prototype is to identify problems and test solutions. This includes some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it is logic.

But what did the students do rather than try to figure out why it wasn't working? They just guessed, changed the program in accordance with their guesses, and compiled/ran it again to see what happened. If that didn't work, they guessed something else. They were using traditional trial and error, guess and check, and they were frustrated, of course, because it wasn't working. I tried to show them how to figure out the logic and flow of the program rather than just guess.

Game design ought to be the same way; some people won't do it that way but I think it's the most efficient way, and it's the way that I like to teach people. Certainly different people have different design methods. Some design more from the gut than from logic. But it still involves hypotheses and tests: if you're actually designing something you are primarily using your brain in an organized way, I hope, and not just relying on inspiration.

Inspiration? Not Reliable


Inspiration is not very reliable. “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time . . . the wait is too long.” (Leonard Bernstein, the composer and conductor - and writer.) Inspiration comes and goes. The more you treat the modifications of your game as an engineering problem, the more efficient you're going to be.

Some people may think of a game as art, rather than craft, and the more that you think of it as art, the more you might be inclined to rely on inspiration and intuition. So we might say that you're not designing a game, you're creating a game, though it's mostly craft once you have a playable prototype. A playable prototype is going to change a lot if you're doing a good job. Game design is not throwing things against the wall to see if they stick, which is what trial and error and error amounts to. It's "try this and see what happens. Then let's try that and see what happens." Some things might happen better than others, but it's a terrible way to solve a problem.

Why Do People Design This Way?

When I did the video version of this piece, I had not realized why this guess-and-check method might be common. Unfortunately, changes in game playing have led to much greater use of trial-and-error (guess-and-check) than in the past, and to puzzle-solving rather than problem-solving.

When I was a kid (more than 50 years ago) I searched for games that required you to think to succeed, but which were not abstract. The classic games such as chess and checkers were just too abstract, I wanted something that represented, modeled, some (possibly fictional) reality. Avalon Hill's wargames finally filled the bill for me, followed by Diplomacy (for more than two players).

With the advent of video games, gaming became a matter of athletic skills more than brainwork. No matter how well you could think, if you didn't have the reflexes and hand-eye coordination needed, you'd not be good at most video games. Video games were athleticware, not brainware.

Moreover, video games tended to be single-player puzzles, where there was an always-correct solution, owing to the inadequacy of the computer opponent. There was no substitute for human opposition.

When you play an opposed game of strategy, a game you can lose - which is usually a tabletop game - you cannot afford to simply guess at what to do. That's the road to Loserville. But now we have so many single-player and co-op video games, games where you can save the game at will. Many players try lots of different choices to see what works best, saving each one, and then use the best to move on to the next challenge. They don't have to figure out anything, they can just guess-and-check. In the extreme I know of someone who, finding a chest with random contents, will open it, save it, open it again, save it, and so forth, dozens of times, in order to get the best result. Ridiculous! Alternatively, some play games with online help open. If something isn't working well, the player will look up the best way to "beat" it, and continue. But it's these kinds of mentality that are the opposite of what you should be doing when you design a game. These mentalities amount to "throwing things against the wall to see what sticks."

Further, with the advent of Eurostyle games in the latter 90s, we entered the era of parallel competitions (which I called "contests" in my book Game Design), players all trying to solve the same puzzle. Even though there were usually several different solutions ("paths to victory"), they were still always-correct solutions. Many tabletop gamers became puzzle-solvers. People learned to look for the solutions, because they didn't need to worry about the opposition. Some games coming out of the Euro style transcended this, but most have not.

In designing a game, you do have, in effect, a "Save Game" option. Because you can try a solution you've devised, and if you decide it doesn't work, you can go back to the old way of doing it. But this takes a lot of time (one playtest often isn't enough to determine the success of a modification). Maybe you have lots of time to waste guessing at changes, but I certainly don't, nor does anyone who wants to design for a living.

Furthermore, knowing that there's always a best move (as it true of puzzles) is quite different than having to decide among uncertain alternatives, as in a typical wargame. Game design is problem-solving far more than puzzle-solving. There is rarely an always-correct solution in game design.

As a result of these changes in how games are played, many people who want to become game designers have learned the wrong ways of doing things, learned the wrong set of skills, to design games! Obviously, not everyone plays games this way (I don't, even when I play a video game), but the majority of gamers do.

Illustration of Throwing Against the Wall

I've seen the throw-against-the-wall method dramatically illustrated. Recently a beginning tabletop designer had his simple, multiplayer, 30 minute game, which involved cards and scoring only, playtested by players new to the game. The game had already been successfully Kickstarted but clearly it was far from done. Most of the cards were handwritten (not even computer-generated) for example. He also made the error of playing the game without having any rules with him (to test the rules as well). I asked why? His response was, he played it six or seven different ways, and was also changing it to satisfy backers as well, so he didn't bring the rules!

So here we had a game that was already Kickstarted and the rules writing wasn't being tested. When he said he was trying out a particular rule change my reaction was, how can you try a change when the rest of the game isn't stable? You're only trying to change 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. If the rest of it keeps changing, how can you evaluate the effect of one change?

My next question was, how are you recording the results of the playtest? He said he usually had a notebook, but not today, but he did have a laptop and he took notes after he was eliminated. (Yes, he played in the playtest, worse, without rules at hand. Bad Idea.) I can point out here that it was a game with player elimination, which is not desirable nowadays, even in a 30 minute game, and it was a scoring game yet he hadn't bothered to bring the scoring devices, so everyone scored on their smart phones. This is just sloppy. You've got to test the actual game, not substitutes!

I've talked about some of the obvious flaws like player elimination, but there was another one. It was a card game of direct attack on other players. There was no overall constraint on whom you could attack; the lesser constraint involved categories of who you could attack that is, your strongest attack in your hand at any given time could only be aimed at some of the players rather than any of them, depending on their characteristics. They had about five or six players in this game. I didn't watch the game much as I was doing other things. I asked afterward if there was a strong tendency to attack the leader, and the answer from the players was, yes. The game suffered from leader-bashing. I'm not sure the designer actually recognized the term when I used it, and only had a glimmering of why it was undesirable. People then started to suggest solutions to the leader-bashing, but the first, only allowing attack on adjacent players, would have pretty drastically changed a game that's already Kickstarted! (I'm often critical of Kickstarted games because of the nature of the audience, but I'm really offended by the idea of Kickstarting a game that is so far from complete.)

As an aside, why is leader bashing undesirable? It takes the strategic decision-making out of the game, you just attack the leader. It makes people want to sandbag (if they can), they don't want to be the leader until the very end. In fact, given the nature of the game, there was virtually no decision-making involved. You picked your strongest attack that could affect someone in or near the lead, and that was it. I'm not opposed to simple, even shallow, games, but they should still give players viable choices, the "horns of a dilemma" of traditional board games. This one didn't.

To continue with this egregious example, what we have in this designer is a case of somebody throwing things against the wall to see what will stick. He tried to playtest the game in various ways to see what seemed to work better. It seems to me to be trial and error in the undesirable sense. It also helps show that Kickstarter is often about ideas and intentions rather about an actual game. He had a little bit of the art for the actual game for a small number of the cards and that looked quite good, and probably helped the Kickstarter a lot.



"Scientific Method"/Engineering

So let me talk briefly about the proper way to go about this part of design, not just trying this and that, not throwing things against the wall. I use a fairly detailed diagram and a simpler version. This is an engineering design process. It's also something like project management, because each time in project management you're doing something that's rather different than what you've done before. I'll discuss this simpler project management diagram here.



The Plan is about you creating the game to the point where you have a playable prototype.

Execute is playing a prototype, first of all solo, then other people.

While a game is being played, you Monitor whether it's doing what it's supposed to do, whether it's going according to your plan, the vision you had in your head.

Control is when you monitor something that isn't going to plan, you do something to fix it, to make it work the way you want to.

Successful changes go into the Replan, where you modify your prototype. Then you go back to Execute and you play it again, and you keep going round and round on that, gradually making your game better.

I despise the word "iterate". Yes, this is an iterative (repetitive) process, but the word iterate, which is often used in video games, must be one of the ugliest words in the world, yet only covers half of what you're doing. You are modifying and testing, not just playing again and again. The scientific method is involved. 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. (Wikipedia)

Game design is lot more than that, though. Unlike scientists, in most cases you have to rely on relatively few tests. (Nowadays in video games we see "open beta" testing, and testing after release, in order to increase the sample size and use statistical methods of analysis.) Unlike the scientist you're making changes in the design, an actual product, as well as experimenting to see what happens. Fortunately, this is usability testing, not scientific testing, and usability testing does not require a large number of trials. I strongly recommend that you check out the Nielsen Norman Group's website at alertbox.com, and read their articles. They are talking about web design usability, but most of what they say applies to game design, especially video game design where user interface is very important. We have user interfaces in tabletop games, but they have over many centuries settled down and don't change rapidly.

An Analogy

Being a literal-minded person, I don't venture into analogies much, but I'll try one here. This question of engineering versus trial and error (guess and check) is comparable to how people learn software or home appliances or electronics. Unlike most people I read the manual. It's amazing how much you can learn that way and it's far more efficient. But what most people do is a just dive in and try things, or they simply remain ignorant. I read the manual and find out all you can do (if it's a good manual) that most people who just dive in and try things are not going to figure out.

The engineering style of game design is like reading the manual, the trial and error style is like diving in and trying things. It's much less efficient, but it is easier, just like not reading the manual is easier, and we can apply this to games. I would rather read the rules to a tabletop game in order to learn it, unlike most people who would rather be taught. It may take longer, but I miss less when I read the rules and understand the game better when I read the rules, if they're good set of rules, than when somebody teaches me.

I've discussed the whole cycle of testing and modification in my "Learning Game Design" course on Udemy.com, and there's also a course just about Playtesting. The major point to make here is that you follow a process that relies on solving problems you've identified. You also have to know what kinds of problems might occur, like leader bashing in a card game, and that's why I make so many of my videos to educate people about those possible problems.

Method is important, and trial and error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it. If you rely heavily on intuition or inspiration, more power to you, but that's not something that I want to teach aspiring game 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 on a consistent basis. You can't hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance.

As a teacher I want people to understand a good, efficient method: "inspiration," "intuition," and especially trial and error (guess and check) are not good, efficient methods.

Design a game, don't guess at it.

Lewis Pulsipher




For the video screencast this derives from, see Youtube:
Part 1 https://youtu.be/USZQipf4GLM
Part 2 https://youtu.be/UOUItO3uCSk

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
Twitter @lewpuls
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Online courses: https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/
Free "Game Design" channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign
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Tue Dec 27, 2016 1:32 pm
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"Does playing board games with people always lead to frustration and anger?"

Lewis Pulsipher
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(This is another Quora answer, to the question quoted in the title.)

Of course not! Even with traditional-style board games that are directly competitive, most people remember most of the time that IT'S A GAME, not real-world. A particularly cut-throat game like Diplomacy or Age of Renaissance may engender more anger than others, but there are lots of quite peaceful board games as well.

Traditional games are intended to frustrate, to pose obstacles, to create tension, but a well-designed game poses that tension in game terms, and most players are aware of the potential for frustration when they play the game. (Much of this tension is lost in single-player video games because you can save your game, and try over and over again until you like the result. In a board game, you can LOSE, and (in most cases) you can't call "REDO".)

Moreover, there are co-operative board games, and solo board games, where there is little or no conflict among players, who are playing against the game system, just as players usually do in video games.

There are certainly board games that are designed to de-emphasize conflict, to reduce emotion, usually because they are fundamentally puzzles rather than traditional-style games. Often they are so abstract that despite decoration/atmosphere, they have nothing to do with the real world (which tends to reduce unwanted tension). These games allow people to progress in their efforts to solve the puzzle, even if they don't do as well as someone else. They're parallel competitions where players can do little or nothing to hinder one another, like many Olympic sports, rather than direct competitions (such as in major-league sports). Most Euro-style games are of this type. I personally dislike this kind of puzzle-game, but they're very popular with many older folks, especially those who don't play video games.

If a person cannot accept that "it's a game", if a person cannot stand away from their own self-centeredness/ego, then they shouldn't play the kinds of games that provide direct human opposition. There are lots of ways to play against the system (computer or other programmed opponent as in co-op games) if the psychological side of game playing does not appeal.

***
My game Doomstar now available on Steam ($7.49 until Sept 23, list $9.99) http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/?snr=1_620_4_1401_4...

It's the boardgame in video form, not something designed as a video game from scratch. Works just like the (two player, turn-based) tactical boardgame. You can play against the computer (AI is weak), but it's mainly intended for playing against someone else online (which could include two computers in the same house, I think). It is vaguley Stratego-like, but much quicker (15-30 minutes for most games) and much more fluid.
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Fri Sep 16, 2016 7:06 pm
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"Essential" (as in "Essence") 4X Tabletop Game

Lewis Pulsipher
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Recently, Oliver Kiley described his desires for a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) video game that did not rest largely on warfare. His idea is to have players compete to Transcend, for the race to rise to a higher plane of existence.

The problem is that if the players cannot compete with one another in a way that hinders or harms the others, then you're back to a multiplayer solitaire (parallel competition) kind of game, which I wouldn't want. I think Oliver wouldn't want it either. So the question I've been asking myself is what can we substitute for all-out warfare that still enables players to affect each other as they try to achieve their objective, whether it's Transcendence or something else.

The not-so-long-ago concluded Cold War is the obvious example, but I have been reading a maritime history of the world, and you to use in a game the kind of competition that the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, and others waged during the age of European expansion. This was sometimes called "no peace beyond the line", a reference to the virtual line drawn by the Pope to separate the Portuguese and Spanish areas of control early in the age of expansion. English, French, and Dutch, but especially the English, harried the Spanish in the Spanish Main and even in the Pacific Ocean, raiding their commerce and sometimes attacking their towns. In effect, there were rules of engagement, rarely broken, that usually prevented the competition from becoming all-out war, although all-out wars did result at times.

While at WBC I was told about a game that offers only three possible actions, and suddenly decided I'd like to try making a tabletop 4X game with 3 or 4 actions, to be played one action at a time in turn! It's intended to be the essence of 4X, as simple as possible so that players can concentrate on strategy, certainly not on resource management.

When I tried to make a list of essential actions, I came down to:
● Explore
● Colonize
● Build Ships
● Attack

You could try to combine Explore and Attack in a "Move" action, or Colonize with Explore or Build, and I may experiment with these combinations. But the list seems good, and as I couldn't make a full prototype and play it while traveling, I thought more about the game. I want a typical action to involve just one ship/fleet. At some point I realized that the Diplomacy model of movement and support would work, and adopted it here in a turn-based form that I've used in one other game years ago. I have a board I created for a co-operative space wargame that I've modified to try in play.

But mainly I tried to think of add-on modules, sets of rules that could be added to the simplest base game. So far I've come up with a Dipomatic module (possibly including forced non-aggression pacts), Sabotage, Trade, Technology, Culture (which could lead to "Transcendance"), and Commerce Raiding modules. Orbital Forts and Bishop's Rings (Halos) can be included in one module or another.

Now I have to make a prototype and test the basic idea. Delayed because "Britannia in Outer Space" has taken precedence!

***

I hope to get my comments about WBC and GenCon up here pretty soon.

ICYMI, the list price for my book "Game Design" has been nearly halved, to $19.99 (was $38). That's also reduced the ebook price to $9.99 (Kindle). This is much less than the price for any game design book I know of (not counting "anthologies" with many authors).
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Two New Designs

Lewis Pulsipher
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When I started this blog a dozen or so years ago it was mostly a personal blog where I discussed what I was doing (in connection with game design). Gradually it became more formal, more like magazine articles at a time when magazines were disappearing (especially the paying ones). Some of the material in my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish, which I finish writing in 2011, first appeared in the blog. After the book I started making videos for online audiovisual classes, as well as my Game Design channel on YouTube, and I wrote less.

I’m starting to write more now - haven't recorded a video in five weeks - but some of it is informal, the kind of stuff I used in the early period of the blog. I think that’s going to continue.

What have I been doing (in game design) post WBC and GenCon? I had to get some stuff together to send to publishers that I talked to at the conventions, but mainly I’ve been trying to put together prototypes and play the four games that I devised in the 2 ½ week period I was away from home. Not only can conventions be stimulating to the imagination, the long drives (nearly 2,200 miles altogether) offer the opportunity to use my PDA to record voice notes about games. In effect, I tried to design games while I’m driving. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s considerably more likely to work when I have just been at a game convention.

Of course, some of the ideas never get beyond those voice notes, or transcription of the voice notes into Info Select (my old and expensive free-text database). But this time, three are taking shape and two have been played, one solo by me, another by players without benefit of me playing solo beforehand. That’s a first, but the (admittedly simple) game turned out to work very well.

The first game I thought of, and the one that most excites me, and also the one I’ve played solo four times, is “free-form Britannia in outer space!” I have used the free-form techniques I’ve devised and tested for the introductory version of Epic Britannia and for Conquer Britannia (the broad market version of Britannia.

Why am I doing this? It’s all Scott Pfeiffer’s fault. At WBC Scott - who was known as one of the outstanding players of the Avalon Hill version of Britannia - played in all three heats of the tournament. He cheerfully told me how the old version of Britannia is the best game ever while the newer version (second edition, Fantasy Flight) was a good game but not nearly as good as the old one. I disagree with him, but as we discussed the games it became clear that what he objected to was the additional constraints added to the second edition.

In contemporary games just as in contemporary life people object to constraints more strenuously than in the past, I think, because there are so many more things that we can do these days than, say 50 years ago. It’s an odd dichotomy, because games are by definition an artificial set of constraints that players agree to be bound by when they play the game. In particular, for example, Scott liked being able to keep raider armies out to sea indefinitely. This was actually a mistake made by the original British publisher/developer, a misunderstanding of how it was supposed to work, because I didn’t want Jute armies floating out in the English Channel long after the Jute homeland was no longer inhabited by Jutes! Nor the Angles waiting until the year 1000 to come into Britain. (You may have heard the story, I had dropped out of the gaming hobby for 20 years and first saw someone play the published version of Britannia in 2004 (original publication 1986). I saw those same Jutes floating out there long after they should’ve been forced into Britain, and exclaimed “No Way!”)

The game comes first in Britannia, but it’s also intended to be history, and this perpetual floating was not historical in any way shape or form. But in a space wargame you’re not constrained by history, so I can use what I call the free-form techniques that tend to ignore history, to make an interesting game. Players still have four nations - well, species - but the other players don’t know three of the four until they actually turn up! The point scoring depends on a “scoring center” that the player can move around as the game proceeds. Many of the historically based constraints have been removed. I can also keep the number of pieces down somewhat via a smaller board, so that at present no species can have more than 10 fleets. And to compensate for the smaller number of fleets I have each fleet roll two dice, and it takes two hits to destroy an enemy fleet.

Who knows how players will react to it, I think it is closer to the spirit of Risk insofar as there are fewer constraints, and that’s what people like in a certain kind of wargame as epitomized by Risk. We’ll see.

I love space wargames that I love designing space wargames, but I’m not sure there’s much of a commercial market for them. In the end I design games because I enjoy designing games, so I continue to pursue this one.

The second game that’s been played is a pure specialty card game, that is there are 110 cards and no other components. It’s meant to depict wizards sending out their minions to explore various areas and try to collect loot. The wizards cast spells to help out (or hinder their rivals) but they don’t get personally involved in the actual fighting.

I managed to get a prototype of this game done on the day of the first meeting of the semester of the NC State tabletop game club. It’s quite a simple game, so I decided to ask the players, some of whom have played my games for three or four years, if they were willing to play a game that I had not played before. They agreed, and it turned out to be one of the quickest playing games I have ever seen, not quick as in a short time to complete the game (though it can be), but a short time to complete your turn, so that in a 4 player game it seems like it’s your turn almost as soon as you finish your previous turn. I had not planned the game to be so quick playing, it just happened. A bonus of playing a “not played before” game is that the players offered lots of suggestions for new cards. I’ve added 16 new ones (and deleted 16 old ones) to see how it goes.

My next task is to get the third game together to play. It’s a 4X space wargame cut down to bare essentials.

***

My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/ https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar
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Thu Sep 1, 2016 5:30 pm
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