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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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RapierCon and Prezcon 2017

Lewis Pulsipher
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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

Lewis Pulsipher
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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
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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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Wed Sep 7, 2016 7:39 pm
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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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Experience versus Training in RPGs

Lewis Pulsipher
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Several years ago I was reading a column in PC gamer written by Desslock, who has been writing about computer RPGs for many years. He likes skill-based development systems because players improve in the capabilities that they use rather than allocate experience points to whatever improvements they choose, perhaps being required to “train” in those new abilities. To him it makes much more sense that you improve in the things you actually do than those you train for.

Bear with me a while here as I veer into teaching and then back to RPGs. I agree, though as a teacher I recognize that a good teacher can convey their experience to enable someone to avoid the lessons of the “school of hard knocks”. I also recognize that it’s possible for someone to do something over and over but to do it poorly in a way that does not lead to improvement. But as I read I realized that, in the United States at least, a great many people believe that training is the best way or the only way to know how to do something. I remember one 18-year-old student telling me a few years ago that he and his classmates had been taught in high school that the only way to learn how to do something is to take class for it! This was a student in a game design class; OTOH I certainly never had the opportunity to take any game design classes but I do pretty well at it and know quite a bit about it.

Yet I see this attitude that classes are the only way to learn, institutionalized in our schools and colleges. The accreditation agencies that a accredit typical public and private colleges and universities in this country emphasize degrees as the major criterion of qualification for teachers. It does not matter if you have been teaching the subject for 30 years: that is explicitly disregarded. I was told about someone who had taught a subject for 32 years in a local high school and received a letter from the state telling him he was not qualified to teach it because he did not have a degree in that area. (Yet at the same time, in the same state, a large proportion of K12 teachers have no qualifications including no teaching certificate. These are lateral entry people who are allowed to teach up to three years before they need to get the teaching certificate.)

It does not matter, unless the school is willing to go through a lengthy portfolio process, that you (for example) worked in networking at a major medical center more than nine years before teaching networking classes. If you don’t have a networking degree you are not qualified to teach networking, even though networking degrees did not exist until about 15 years ago and consequently anybody who went to school before that could not possibly have a networking degree. (These are actual experiences, not theoretical.) One college president told me that a person with a PhD in zoology was deemed by the accreditation people to be not qualified to teach freshman biology - zoology and botany are the two major divisions of biology - and as a result the school terminated the teacher! If this had been anticipated, or the school had been willing to disagree and create a portfolio for the instructor, he almost certainly would have been deemed qualified. But schools are very rarely willing to go to this trouble.

So we get a situation where, for example, the founder of creative writing as a curriculum in universities later said it should be done away with. The major reason for this is that the people who have actually published novels and other kinds of creative writing that people pay money for, do not usually have Masters or PhD degrees in creative writing and so are “not qualified” to teach creative writing. The people who are officially qualified to teach creative writing have gone through creative writing programs but may not have had anything published commercially.

What we tend to get in colleges and universities for teachers is people who have gone through undergraduate school and then graduate school and have a Masters or PhD in their subject, but have never actually practiced it in the real world. For some subjects there is no way to practice it in the real world but others are very much practice based.

Given how this point of view has permeated schools, colleges, and universities, should we be surprised if role-playing games take the same sort of path? I always thought one of the dumbest rules in early versions of D&D was the requirement that when you reached enough experience points to rising level you had to pay somebody an exorbitant sum to “train” you to be able act at the new level. It was dumb from a gameplay point of view, because if applied as written it turned adventurers into money grubbers in order to acquire enough money for training. It was also dumb because if you have done the things that enabled you to survive and prosper then why would you need somebody to train you? (And we can ask the chicken and egg question, where did the original trainer come from? There must be a way to learn these things successfully without being trained.)

Computers are ideal for skill-based development because the computer can keep track of what you did and raise your capability as you go along. This is much more difficult to track in tabletop RPG’s.
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Sun Aug 28, 2016 9:03 pm
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What’s it Like to be a Game Designer?

Lewis Pulsipher
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(This was originally a response to a question on Quora.)

Because there are so many kinds of game designers, the answer to the question is the same as the answer to many questions about game design: it depends.

The difference in experience between being a game designer who is working full time for a video game studio, someone who is an indie video game designer, and someone who is a freelance tabletop game designer such as myself, is immense. (There are a few full-time tabletop designers working for publishers, as well.)

For example, almost all of the time I can design whatever kind of game I want to design, and either I find someone to publish it, or I self publish it (which I personally do not do, but most tabletop designers do these days), or it doesn’t get published. Someone who is working as a game designer full-time may be lucky enough to work on a game they want to do, but much more likely will be working on a game that someone else decided is the one the studio needs to do. Indie video game designers tend to fall more into the freelance category in this respect, they’re on their own.

Video game designers tend to work on one game at a time, the one they’re trying to prepare to be published, while experienced tabletop designers tend to work on a lot of games in a given segment of time. The difference comes from how long it takes to get a game to a decent prototype. There is no programming or art or sound required for a tabletop game, so you can get to a good prototype relatively quickly, compared with a videogame. And from the good prototype to the final takes far longer for a video game than for a tabletop - the publisher takes care of production for the tabletop. That is, if the designer has licensed to a publisher, rather than self publishes.

Tabletop designers often spend a great deal more time involved in playtesting, than video game designers do. Much of that is because video games are designed to be played right out of the box, whereas someone has to read the rules of the tabletop game. And of course you can make as many copies as you want of a digital game at no cost, to send to playtesters. So it’s relatively easy for a video game studio to send their game out for “blind” playtesting (testing where the players have no knowledge of the development of the game). Tabletop designers spend much more time overseeing face-to-face playtesting of their games than they do actually designing them.

Video games can also go into “Early Access” or some other kind of pre-release and even post-release testing that is not possible for tabletop games.

Employment conditions in video game studios vary immensely. What Chris Crawford said 15 years ago is still true today, there are so many people who want jobs in the video game industry that the employers have supply and demand on their side; in that situation, employees are often treated poorly.

***

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

The Beta is available in some inexpensive bundles (which I thought were piracy, but are not!).
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Sat Aug 20, 2016 3:16 pm
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Doomstar PC Conversion beta test open

Lewis Pulsipher
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I had an unusual experience for a tabletop game designer at the UK game Expo. I watched an unpublished prototype that I had designed being played long after I had "finished" it. (And about 35 years after I started it.) This viewing in itself is not an unusual experience, because I sometimes leave a prototype for years and then come back to it. But in this case, I didn't watch just one play, I watched more than half a dozen. The game is a tactical space wargame that I call Doomstar, which is being converted to video. The idea is that the video version may help convince someone to publish the physical version. (Making money with a small video game is very much a matter of chance.)

(I'm happy to say that I couldn't find any fault with the game, either, and that's unusual for me. I usually have questions/doubts.)

The game is vaguely reminiscent of L'Attaque/Stratego, but immensely more fluid and less hierarchical, quite a different (and I think, better and much shorter) experience than Stratego.

If you want to sign up for the Doomstar PC beta, go to www.doomstargame.com/beta
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Sat Jun 18, 2016 9:35 pm
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