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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Videos (screencasts): All I needed to know (about games and game design) I learned from Dungeons & Dragons

Lewis Pulsipher
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This is repeated from my Gamasutra "expert" blog: http://gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20140825/224051/Al...

The video is in two parts (each 8-9 minutes long).







The following is the text of the slides. Of course, if you comment based only on reading this text, you're not talking about what I said, only about a kind of table of contents.

All I needed to know (about games and game design) I learned from Dungeons & Dragons
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
Courses.PulsipherGames.Com

With thanks to . . .
Robert Fulghum’s little poem “All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.” It has inspired people since the late ‘80s.


First the list, then I’ll explain further
Keep in mind this applies to video games as well as tabletop. As many have written (especially when Gary Gygax died in 2008) D&D is a massive influence on video gaming


The List

You don't need high-level technology to make an "immersive" game
For human/psychological games (as opposed to computer-mediated challenge games), players enjoy the journey, not the destination.
Some people like to be told stories, others like to make their own.
The objective is to make the players THINK their characters are going to die, not to kill them.
We all like to improve.
User generated content enriches a game immensely. (Adventures, monsters, classes, etc.)
It's more fun with more than one person.
Cooperation is required for survival.
Think before you leap.
Get organized!
Don't run headlong where you've never been.
Keep track of the stuff you’ve got; otherwise you may forget something that could save your butt.
Always have a viable “Plan B”.
Always have a way out.
Don’t depend on luck!
R.I.P. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson.


You don't need high-level technology to make an "immersive" game
“Techno-fetishism” sometimes dominates the ranks of AAA list game creators
The idea that you have to use technology to make the appearance of a game highly “realistic” in order to let the player feel like he’s really there
This is partly because video game creators for so many years consisted of programmers who became game makers
In D&D we could feel like we were really there, at times, with nothing but a simple board and 2 dimensional pieces (though miniature figures might help)


It’s the game, not the technology
Nor is the “latest” version of the game necessary. I still think first edition AD&D is the most playable and enjoyable version of the game
Similarly, in life, we don’t need the latest technology to thoroughly enjoy ourselves.
Why spend 20 minutes striving to use/acquire the latest technology when doing the job the old way takes 10?


For human/psychological games (as opposed to computer-mediated challenge games), players enjoy the journey, not the destination.
When people play single-player video games, their objective is to meet all the challenges, to “beat the game”, and then to stop playing!
In D&D there is no destination, just a journey that continues until the campaign ends or the player quits
Low and behold, life is the same way. It’s not “he who has the most toys when he dies wins”, it’s “he who enjoyed life the most wins”. When you’re dead, that’s all.


Some people want to be told stories, others like to make their own
D&D is very flexible. Some referees like to tell stories through the game, what I call “leading people by the nose”
Others like to set up a situation, perhaps with a specific objective, and let the players work out what to do, to make their own story.
After all, if you try to predict what the players will do, you’ll often be wrong
In life, I prefer to make my own story, not depend on other people to decide how I ought to think and behave, what I should strive for.


The objective is to make the players THINK their characters are going to die, not to kill them
So many bad D&D referees get hung up on “holding up the side”, as the British would say, in making sure that the badguys make a really good showing, that they forget the point
The point is not that the badguys do really well, it’s that they do well enough to give the players a scare, and then lose!


We all like to improve
D&D was the first major game to include experience levels and “continuous improvement”
It was also one of the first to include lots of interesting individual loot. All this lets the player’s character improve himself, and that’s a major objective in many, many video games.
I’m old enough to get senior discounts, but that doesn’t stop me from learning and trying to get better at what I do


User generated content enriches a game immensely - adventures, monsters, classes, etc.)
D&D is the perfect non-electronic medium for user-generated content: monsters, magic items, scenarios/adventures, even character classes
As company-generated video-game content becomes more and more expensive in the 21st century, studios need to find more ways to enable users to modify the games and increase everyone’s enjoyment


It's more fun with more than one person
Traditional video games have been one-person affairs, playing with/against a computer, for decades
Now we’re changing that, to where more than one person is involved, and all but the most solitary or anti-social are going to learn that games were originally social affairs, and video games are now joining that tradition


Cooperation is required for survival
In the real world, of course, one person on their own in a dangerous situation is often a dead person. The same is true in D&D.


Think before you leap
So many poor players seem to have their brains turned off. Nowadays some video games don’t give you time to think, but many do – use it
The same applies to design, of course


Get organized!
So many adventuring parties fail from sheer lack of organization. D&D showed how much difference “having your stuff together” made
Which also applies to game design


Don't run headlong where you've never been
Well, duh! But it was (and is) amazing how many people would “run away” in a direction they’d never been – and regret it


Keep track of the stuff you’ve got; otherwise you may forget something that could save your butt
When things go bad in D&D, it’s time to look at what you’re carrying, at your magic items and spells, to see if there’s something that will help; otherwise you’ll sometimes forget what you’ve got


Always have a viable “Plan B”
Doh! again. Yet so often players have no decent Plan B. There are no reloadable saves available in tabletop D&D, so we had to “do things right the first time” (which could itself be a lesson learned)
Good advice for game designers, too


Always have a way out
See previous entries. The fundamental Plan B is getting away to fight another day.


Don’t depend on luck
When I first saw D&D I said “I hate dice games.” But I discovered that it wasn’t a dice game, played properly
It is a microcosm of life: do everything you practically can to avoid having to rely on a die roll to save your bacon. You won’t always be able to, but you can minimize the number of times you have to life-and-death “roll dem bones.”
Iron golem example
Especially important for game designers. Trial and error (guess and check) is inefficient at best, hopeless at worst


I confess to literary license: D&D didn’t teach me all of these things, as I’d been playing games for many years and was 25 years old before I encountered D&D. But the game nonetheless well illustrates these points.

An earlier text version is at:
http://gamecareerguide.com/features/775/all_i_really_needed_...
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Tue Sep 2, 2014 2:21 pm
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Writing a book derived from an online audiovisual course

Lewis Pulsipher
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The surprisingly large attendance at my talk about “How to Write Clear Rules” at GenCon made me focus on the fact that there is nothing in print about writing game rules, other than the occasional blog post, and a chapter in the “Kobold Guide to Boardgame Design” by Mike Selinker that is primarily an exhortation to use simple, clear language in your rules. (Mike also recapitulated that chapter in a well-attended talk at GenCon.)

I have less than 20 participants so far in my online audiovisual class “How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)” on Udemy.com and Courses.Pulsiphergames.com. Like everything else in the digital age the course suffers from anonymity, more commonly called in games “discoverability” - if people don’t know it exists they can’t “consume” it. Of course it also suffers from being very specific, appealing primarily to aspiring tabletop game designers.

I’ve heard of other instructors at Udemy turning their courses into short electronic books. Because I’ve recorded more than 50 fairly short “lectures” for this class I actually have a large body of words that I could turn into a short book. I can run each screencast through CyberLink PowerDirector a second time and save it as a WAV file that can then be transcribed by the Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium software that I write with.

The voice recognition is definitely not perfect, a time-consuming obstacle to the project. Perhaps a greater one is that I speak my screencasts on-the-fly, that is I don’t work from a full script but only from notes that are the slides in the screen cast. Consequently I speak in a fairly casual rather than formal manner, the same manner I would use in my 17,000 hours of experience in the classroom where I tried to talk with the students rather than at them (small classes thank heaven). That style, when transformed to the written word, is wordy and informal. Consequently a great deal of editing is required to turn a transcription into satisfactory writing, both because of Dragon’s errors and because of the difference in style and delivery.

Nonetheless I have begun to do this, and of course all writers and game designers know that it’s easy to start a project but difficult to finish it. At this point I don’t really know how long it’s going to be - it will include some long rulesets of published games as examples - but I estimate somewhere around 50,000 words. The typical novel is 100,000 words and 50,000 is generally regarded as the minimum size, so this will be shorter than a normal book. (My McFarland book “Game Design” is just over 100,000 words, intentionally - I didn’t want to write a massive book that might put people off.) So this will be a thin paper book if it’s ever available in paper. My primary goal is to sell it as an e-book whether through Amazon or through a place like RPG now I don’t yet know.

The course:
$4 off "How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)" ($23)
https://www.udemy.com/how-to-write-clear-rules/?couponCode=W...
You can see some sample screencasts without registering, and there's a 30 day money back guarantee.
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Thu Aug 28, 2014 1:19 pm
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Triptych III: three separate topics

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Three separate topics: "Enslaved by technology", Game Design: Understanding Why, and:

Must tabletop wargames only be just as the grognards want them to be?

I know tabletop wargamers, "grognards", who think you must have a board with hexes, and cardboard counters with numbers on them, or you don't have a wargame. Britannia-like games certainly don't meet these criteria, nor Diplomacy, nor Risk, nor many other games.

I think more fundamentally, many wargamers are people who don't like games that can involve negotiations, that is, games where talking with other players can give you an advantage (or disadvantage); or perhaps more specifically, they don't like games where you're clearly at a disadvantage if you don't talk to other players. Many wargamers are accustomed to playing solo, and I think some (who in many cases have gone into computer wargames) really don't want to deal with other people.

These wargamers tend to play battle games, games without production economies, whereas the wargames for more than two players not only feature talking, but frequently have production economies. (Axis & Allies is one of the exceptions, a two player wargame with production economies.) The object in a battle game is usually to destroy the enemy force; the object in a war game (notice the space between war and game) is to take economic capability from the enemy, and improve your own, because the best economy will usually win in the end. Which is quite often true in Britannia, for example, and always true in computer Civilization, Diplomacy, and (except for the kludge of the cards) Risk. It is *not* true in History of the World, which despite the title is a battle game, not a war game, with a variable order of battle and no production economy.

If there's a future for wargaming, other than an obscure niche in video games, it's in simpler games where there aren't numbers on the pieces, and where there are often more than two players. That will lose some of the grognards, but it should gain even more of the players who are not enamored of numbered counters and hexes.

***
Game Design: Understanding Why

One of the keys to being a good game designer, and to making yourself appear to a potential employer to be a good game designer, is understanding why you make changes that ultimately work out, rather than just guessing at changes until finally one of your changes works. If you're trying to get hired by a video game studio, you need to be able to articulate exactly why changes worked or didn't, and why you tried particular changes, so that they'll understand that you understand game design, you're not just using trial and error (guess and check). Trial and error works in the long run in playing most video games, but it's terribly inefficient in game production.

If you're a programmer, you may have seen lots of student programmers behave in this undesirable way: guessing at what's wrong, then guessing at a solution, instead of trying to figure out what's wrong and then find a way to fix it.

So in my "Game Design" book I try to explain WHY? It's my preference for education (understanding) over training (memorization).

***
"Enslaved by technology"

Some video gamers are so dazzled by tech (especially the techno-fetishists) that they cannot see the forest (the game as a whole) for the trees (the technology). They're Enthralled with "realistic water rippling" and "the play of moonlight in the leaves during a breeze." I think this appeals especially to the "Attention Deficit . . . oooooh shiny" generation.

It goes back to traditional dominance of video games by programmers, too. You had to be a programmer as well as a designer in the days when one person made a video game. And video gamer programmers still look down on designers, feeling they're just people who get ideas, and anyone can do that. (Which tells you how little they understand design.) There would be no video games without programmers, they say - mostly true even now - so they are impressed with themselves, but are not impressed by design.

Hardly surprising, then that there's techno-fetishism in the ranks of the game makers as well as the game players.

Ron Gilbert (The Secret of Monkey Island etc.):

Quote:
"I think many people making games today are very tech focused. They're very excited about the technology and how they're going to model realism - "We have a million blades of grass and they are all swaying to the wind correctly!" That's interesting at some level, but I think they might be missing this whole other piece, which is creating interesting characters and creating interesting worlds and stories. It's the technical versus the creative sides of this thing." GameInformer issue 199 November 2009 p. 53


Courses.PulsipherGames.Com

At WBC (Lancaster PA, early August), I will be talking about Designing Multi-player Games (and a lot of other design related topics) on Friday at 5 in Hopewell. This is listed as 1 hour, but I don't see anything scheduled thereafter, so as usual it will be up to 2 hours or whenever people no longer want to participate, whichever comes first.

My seminars at GenCon (August, Indianapolis):
SEM1453968 Introduction to Design of (Strategic) Wargames (https://www.gencon.com/events/53968) Thursday 3:00 PM 1 hr
SEM1453969 How to Write Clear Rules (https://www.gencon.com/events/53969) Friday 11:00 AM 1 hr
SEM1453970 Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design (https://www.gencon.com/events/53970) Saturday 11:00 AM 1 hr
SEM1453476 Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? (https://www.gencon.com/events/53476) Sunday 9:00 AM
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Mon Jun 23, 2014 3:00 pm
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Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer

Lewis Pulsipher
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Especially in video games, many "designers" conceive of themselves as fiction writers rather than game designers.



Slides from Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer?

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Pulsiphergames.com

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Question arises from the ECGC

East Coast Game Conference 2014 featured lots of discussion of story in games

Ken Rolston, keynote, called himself a writer

Mary deMarle talked about integrating story and game

Heather Albano discussed what amounted to same storyline but 3 or 4 quite different results from player’s point of view

Player’s viewpoint: Experience a story written by the game developers, or “write your own” story

Some writers clearly think they should decide how a game works, not the game designers

Which is a manifestation of the notion that all games (or at least, video games) are story

(My view is that there are three kinds of players/games:

Games are all math

Games are about people

Games are stories)

Why do people play?

Do people play a game for the story, or the gameplay?

I’m firmly in the gameplay camp

And the “games are about people camp,” with stories included because stories are about people

Stories don’t last. Once you know the story, you’ll rarely want to experience it again

The smaller the game, the less room there is for story – unless you get to a few art games that are much more story than game (Journey, Stanley Parable, etc.)

The Essential Difference

Game designer invites emergence, wants players to create the “narrative”

Game writer sets up a story (perhaps with variations) for players to follow

They’re trying to impose a passive experience on an interactive challenge – quite a challenge in itself

Not quite the same as a desire to “control the players”. Puzzle designers control players. Fiction writers often control players but many wish they didn’t have to.

Game designers like emergent behavior, up to a point

I especially like emergent objectives, where the player(s) find their own objectives, other than winning/beating the game, to pursue

They don’t like something that breaks the game

Fiction writers don’t like emergent behavior, their objective is to control the story

Though many are trying to find ways to provide 3 or 4 stories within one game

And sometimes fail, as in Mass Effect 3

Game formats

AAA video games are often about an “experience”, more or less a story

Tabletop games are usually “rules-emergent”, the game gives the players opportunities to write their own narrative or even story

That’s also true for many casual video games

Tabletop RPGs are the bridge between the two, and can be played either way

All kinds of games are moving more toward stories. GenCon is a story convention as much as game convention. The question is, what do you want to do, design games, or tell stories?
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Fri Jun 6, 2014 3:40 pm
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Generic plastic/wood game pieces you can buy for prototypes

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Generic plastic/wood game pieces you can buy for prototypes
(or for full production?)


Many game designers need 3D pieces to use in their prototypes, and some game publishers may want to make games with 3D pieces yet are not prepared to create custom components. I don’t know whether EAI makes their own stuff, but one way or another, if the pieces can be bought by individuals at these prices, they must be available for much less at very large order prices.

I get most pieces from EAIEducation.com. They are a school supplies seller. I’m looking at their latest “Spring 2014 Math” catalog (they also sell online, of course). I use quotation marks around the names EAI uses. I have listed their largest quantities, many are available at smaller quantities though higher cost per item.

“Stacking counters”. p. 15. These are excellent, and I’ve already seen them being used in published games. 2,500 in a tub (10 colors, .75" ) $49.95. So 2 cents each.

Plastic 1 “centimeter cubes”. p.22. (10 colors). 5,000 for $79.95. So 1.6 cents each. (Cost more in a tub.)
They also have “interlocking centimeter cubes”, same page, more expensive.

You can also order single-color sets of blue, yellow, orange plastic cubes on p. 34, 1,000 for $19.79.

1 inch square “plastic color tiles” p. 21 (large enough to write numbers on) in four colors.
4mm thick, 2,000 in a tub $64.50. I use these a lot for prototypes instead of cardboard counters.
2mm thin slightly translucent, 400 for $10.95
They also list transparent, 48 for $3.95. I haven’t tried these.
You can also get 4mm foam versions(“quietshape color tiles”), haven’t tried them.

“Two-color counters” p. 77 (red on one side, yellow on the other), 3/4" 1,000 in a jar for $22.25. I use them for sites that must be explored, writing on the yellow side, sitting red side up.
You can also get 1" magnetic ones, and transparent ones (single color, I think).

“Double-sided black and red counters”, 1", p. 121, 200 for $5.95.

“Black and red counters”, 3/4", not double-sided, two separate colors. 480 for $8.95.

‘Plastic, 1", four color transparent counters’ packed in a sturdy plastic container. 5,000 for $73.95 (missed it in the catalog, http://www.eaieducation.com/Product/531176/Transparent_Count... online)

“Game pawns”. P. 15. 300 in a jar for $8.95 (colors may vary, 5 shown). These are classic fat-bottom skinny-top game pawns. So 3 cents each.

“Blank playing cards”, decks of 54, $1.55 each of 36 decks for $39.95. P. 77 2.25" by 3.5"
Also transparent and colossal and normal cards available.

‘1" wood color cubes’510 in a tub, $45.95 p. 3

“Hardwood cubes in six colors” 2 cm, (blue, green, orange, white, yellow and red). Packed in a tub. 510 for $43.95 or 102 for $8.95. Also missed in the catalog, http://www.eaieducation.com/Product/530639/Wooden_Cubes_2cm_...

Another way to provide 3D pieces is to use wooden blocks with stickers. You can buy blocks individually from Columbia Games. A more economical source is GMT, who often sell big bags of blocks very reasonably priced at conventions (such as PrezCon, WBC). The blocks above can be used the same way typical wargame blocks are used, though they’re twice as thick as wargame blocks.

They have spinners, sand timers, plastic coins, dice (polyhedra), blank dice (http://www.eaieducation.com/search.aspx?Keyword=blank+dice&c...) and so forth as well.

EAI doesn’t sell chips. I get small ones from Rolco games, who make their plastic stuff themselves but sell direct to the public. http://www.rolcogames.com/category/pokerbingo+chips/7
Rolco even sells blank game boards and boxes: http://www.rolcogames.com/category/board+game+accessories/12.
You can also get bulk rocket ships, tanks, and lots of other small pieces.

You get bulk pricing on orders of 5,000 or more.

Eric Hanuise (Flatlined Games) also says for Europeans, “make sure to also check plastic for games ( http://www.p4g.co.uk/us/us_prod_directory.asp ) and spielmaterial ( http://www.spielematerial.de/en/ )

Using their bits for prototype design has the added advantage that they are mostly the same bits that manufacturers use for finished products

***
courses.pulsiphergames.com
YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
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Mon Mar 24, 2014 2:27 pm
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Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?

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Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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



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

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


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Thu Mar 20, 2014 10:12 am
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Three kinds of games and game fans: Math, People, Story

Lewis Pulsipher
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Categorizing aspects of game design in groups of two or three frequently promotes critical thinking. Here's one attempt (via a short video) to categorize game players by the nature of the games they prefer.



Blog insertion of a video still seems to fail, here's the actual URL:

http://youtu.be/8680nw61VWM
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Mon Feb 17, 2014 1:52 pm
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Ruminations about Magical Numbers (and processes) in Card Games

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Lewis Pulsipher
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“If you want to quit playing RPGs, start designing them.”
(quote from a GenCon 2012 panelist)


I sometimes see or hear game designers give the advice that is quoted in the title of this piece. I have to disagree. Game designers need to spend their time efficiently, just like anyone else. And playing games (other than their own for testing) is not very efficient, certainly not the most important thing game designers should be doing. Because playing games is *very* different from designing them.

The idea behind the advice is that game designers need to know lots of games. That’s a reasonable point of view. But playing a game is not necessarily the best way to learn about games:

• 1) Playing games is not, *for some people*, the most efficient way to learn about them.
• 2) When you reach a certain experience level, you’re not going to learn a lot playing games, *compared to the time it takes*.
• 3) For most people it’s too easy to play games and not do what you should really be doing, which is designing, testing, and completing games.

Let’s eliminate right now a supposed reason not to play games. Eric Hanuise (Flatlined Games) says "Every now and then I meet a game designer wannabee that proudly states he will not play other games or look at what's published, in order not to be influenced in his design." That's *nuts*. You need to know what is happening with other games more than you need to worry about being influenced by other games. I would never worry about being influenced by other designs because borrowing is endemic in game design, yet insofar as I make games as models rather than collections of mechanics I’m unlikely to borrow as much as mechanics-constructors might be. But that might not be true for someone with a lot less experience.


Now let’s go through the three reasons I’ve stated above, in greater detail.

There are many ways to learn about new games, and playing games is not always the most efficient way. In fact it’s often quite inefficient. If you rely only on playing the game you need to play several times to really understand what’s going on. (This is why writers of formal detailed game reviews should have played the game several times.) Some people (myself included) can learn more efficiently by reading about games, reading game rules, watching people play games, and *talking with people who have played the game several times*. That is, not everyone has to actually play a game to understand it.

On the other hand, I’ve seen many people play a game once and thoroughly misunderstand it.

The oft-expressed presumption that the only way, and presumably the most effective way, to learn about a game is to play it, is simply ignorant or self-centered (take your pick). It depends on the person, on the situation, perhaps even on the game. There also tends to be a presumption in some people that if you don't play a lot of games, you're not learning anything about games, which is clearly NOT true.

I almost never play a published game (including mine), period. Also, by watching and talking with players I can learn about a game that I would obviously dislike strongly (and I am *very* picky). I cannot recall ever having the experience of playing a board game that I was pretty sure I would dislike, only to find out I liked it. Maybe that’s something that comes with age. A senior citizen (me) has a lot more experience playing games than a 25-year-old, and so may be able to understand a game better without playing it.

The more time I spend playing someone else's games, the less time I have to devote to my own (which must be played solo several times, if nothing else). I don't even play my own published games *as they were published*. On the other hand I've played Britannia in several versions more than twenty times solo this year, but that is in aid of making and testing rules for the new editions.

I don't mean to compare myself with him, obviously, but when some presumptuous dude decides that my views must be useless because I don't actually play a lot of different games, I point out that Reiner Knizia doesn't play other people's games. (If you're interested in tabletop games and don't know who Reiner (as he likes to be called) is, you need to read more and get out more.) I hasten to add that there are few other resemblances between me and Reiner.

Perhaps a comparison to another field will help. Many people like history but learn in different ways. I was educated as a professional historian, and if I want to learn history I’ll read a book (or, these days, something shorter depending on the level of detail I need). Some people learn history by watching the History Channel, which I very rarely watch. That’s partly just how habits have been established and partly because the History Channel can go overboard in dramatizing history to the point that you don’t know what’s true and what’s not. It’s “Hollywood history.” Some people like to learn history by playing historical games. Now I like to teach history through games, but I certainly don’t learn history that way, for me it’s not efficient. I can learn a lot more in less time by reading a book.

But I don’t tell everyone that if they don’t read history books they can’t know anything about history, no more than I would tell someone if they don’t play lots of games they can’t know anything about games. There are different ways to learn, of different efficiency for different people.

Let me repeat, I'm *not* saying you don't need to *know* a lot of games, I'm saying you don't necessarily need to *play* a lot of games. Because *one of the biggest barriers to productivity in the game industry is game playing.* If you want to be *productive* as a designer you can't play too many games, because you won't have time to do the design. (Caveat: if you're playing your own game prototypes then that's another thing entirely, because that ought to be productive.) Playing games is not very productive, or perhaps I should say, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns kicks in when you play other's games, and you need to work on your own games rather than play more of others. I have a friend who has designed quite a few published games, but he would have published a lot more if he didn't enjoy playing games so much.

To make a comparison with a related industry, I think you'd find that many full-time novelists don't have much time to read novels, because they're writing novels.

Also, when you get to a certain stage in understanding game design (or, for those novelists, fiction writing), when you play a game or read a novel you see how it's constructed, and it takes away some of the sense of wonder and the enjoyment that brings. Kind of like when Keira Knightly at age 12 or so played Queen Amidala's handmaid in The Phantom Menace: being part of the production took away her sense of wonder of Star Wars.

Just as a professional game designer shouldn't be designing games for himself – unless he *knows* he is typical of his target audience – he shouldn't be designing games that are just like some other game. The two sometimes go together, the designer likes a particular game so much that he tends to design games just like it. On the other hand, I have had several favorite games over the course of the past 40 years, the biggest one Dungeons & Dragons (first edition). I have never designed a role-playing game that would take the place of Dungeons & Dragons, instead I design additions and modifications to D&D. In other words, I haven't tried to design an RPG for me, I've modified my favorite game instead.

Yes, an awful lot of games submitted to game companies are very, very much like existing games, and those aren't likely to get very far, although there are exceptions (usually self-published). But in those cases the designer has consciously modeled his game on another one. It is also possible to design a game that turns out to be much like a game designed independently by someone else - this has even happened to Knizia - though it's not likely.



I'm not discouraging you from playing games, as long as you enjoy it, *unless* it is a detriment to, an excuse not to work on, designing your own games. (If you’re only designing one game, you’re far out of step with most professional designers, who work on many games each year.) If you like to play lots of published games, go ahead. But recognize that you're not using your time efficiently, and may be unconsciously avoiding what you ought to be doing, if you want to be a game designer. What you need to be doing is *designing and completing games*, not playing published games.
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Wed Nov 20, 2013 2:44 am
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“On the horns of a dilemma”

Lewis Pulsipher
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(In the following I’ll be using quotes gleaned from online discussions, from players and a well-known designer. These are all personal observations, of course, and anecdotal evidence. We simply don’t have the “scientific” evidence about games to “prove” any particular point of view. You’ll have to examine your own experience to make an evaluation.)

A while ago I read a preview of the video game XCOM:Enemy Unknown, now released and not to be confused with its successor Declassified. I was struck by how often the author talked about “hard choices”, struck because this is what games (beyond family/party games) traditionally have involved, yet are rarely present in a great many contemporary video games, and many tabletop games. Traditionally, a game designer wanted to put the players of a game “on the horns of a dilemma”, trying to decide between two or more things the player wants to do when he can only do one.

Even in family games there were occasional difficult choices to be made although the players often weren’t bothered whether they made the correct choice or not. This may be one way of differentiating family/party games from more serious games. That is, adult players of family/party games rarely take the game, or themselves as players, seriously. Children often take them more seriously than the adults.

Diablo III is a poster boy for video games where there are no hard choices, where in the long run your choices don’t matter at all. It’s institutionalized in the game in such things as the selection and use of skills. You do not have to make decisions that matter when choosing which skills to use, because you can always change combinations. This is touted as providing greater variety, which it does, but once again it means that what the player decides *doesn’t really matter*. There are no consequences for poor choices, just a “do again” akin to guess-and-check (which used to be known as “trial and error”, but the meaning of the latter is changing). It is no long consequence-based gaming, it has become reward-based gaming.

In general, in Diablo III it doesn’t really matter what a player does, he’ll succeed in the end.
Quote:

"I know if I invest X amount of time into D3 I will beat it with no learning curve and nothing really gained from the experience other than over hyped cinematics and the bragging rights to sell things to my peers on an auction house.

I know this for a fact. There is no skill set or learning curve required for D3 except point, click and equip the best weapon set for my class that I own. I can die millions of times and as long as I am willing to keep clicking, I will triumph eventually. D2 had challenges/elements throughout its design that made it more unwieldy but immensely more fun. All of those points were removed from the latest version of the game to accommodate a wider audience." (John Karnay)

World of Warcraft is much the same. Game designer Brenda Romero:

Quote:
"I play World of Warcraft a fair bit, but I don't really worry too much, because I know if I kill myself the very worst thing that's going to happen is I'll have to run a zillion miles back to my body.

I am way more careful in Minecraft . . . when there's a fear of loss, your success means more to you."

This is not confined to video games. Another aspect of these changes was reflected in the comments on a blog post that "weeped for newbs", lamenting that even secret doors seem to be regarded as a "dirty GM trick" in 4th edition D&D. http://shirosrpg.blogspot.com/2011/12/i-weep-for-newbs.html

4th edition is WoWified, it doesn't ask the players to think much, it's really hard to screw up and die. A comment on the post finally made me realize that the fundamental point of RPGs has changed between 1st and 4th edition. In 1st edition you wanted to overcome the thrill of fear. The referee's job was to scare the snot out of you, usually by threatening your character with death, sometimes by threatening to take or destroy your stuff, though his or her job definitely was NOT to actually kill you. 2nd edition was similar. 3rd edition became a contest to find rules that enabled you to construct a one-man army (OMA), and then the game was about you showing off the super-duper-ness of your one-man army (one person called it "fantasy Squad Leader"). Your OMA was too tough to be scared. Where in 1st edition most of those unearned advantages would not even be allowed, they had become the main reason for playing 3rd. In 4th edition it has gone further, essentially you're rewarded for participation.


In this respect many video and role-playing games are becoming pure entertainment, without any element of frustration or obstacle.

In traditional games the consequence of making the wrong choices, or sometimes simply being unlucky, was that you lost the game (or at least were more likely to lose). In video game “entertainments” you can’t lose; if you fail or die you simply come back and continue as before, whether this is built into the game as is often the case now (respawning) or whether you go back to your saved games. Nor can you lose in tabletop RPGs, if the referee chooses so.


I said in my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish that I thought video and tabletop games are converging, but sometimes I'm not so sure when I look at games like Farmville on one hand, and worse, the all-rewards-all-the-time games like Diablo III and many others, where anything that interferes with getting direct pleasure is regarded as a "fail".


Yet many Eurostyle board games lean toward removing the sting or frustration of failure by removing direct conflict or direct interaction from the game. In the extreme I call this a “contest”, where several people are attempting to achieve the same thing without significantly affecting one another and whoever achieves its first wins. Virtually any activity can be turned into a contest if it involves time or something else that’s measurable, such as who can get an arrow closest to the bull’s-eye, or who can type the most words in 5 minutes. Many Olympics style sports are actually contests rather than games. Some races are contests, for example most swimming races; others involve blocking an opponent which is an aspect of a game rather than a contest.

The heart of this point of view is that games (as opposed to puzzles) require a semblance of intelligent opposition that can affect other players, and in contests there is no by-rule way to affect other players. Yes, you can ALWAYS have a chance to affect another person psychologically, for example going out fast in a middle distance swimming race to try to spook your opponent; but the rules don't cover or facilitate this.

A game of hard decisions requires the player to use his brain, but that seems to be going out of fashion. For example, Clay Johnson talked about how his son plays video games:

Quote:
"What I often observe though is that he 'cheats' to play through his games. By that I mean that he starts the game, and after a few rounds gets stuck. Instead of using his brain to try different strategies he simply looks up a guide on the net where there are countless free walkthrough guides for nearly every game out there.

To me, this seems like it turns a puzzle into a basic clerical task, but he thrives on it !? Can this response by the users be the basic reason for 'dumbing down' games?"

This reminds me of contemporary programming students - usually those who aren't interested in becoming professional programmers - who guess at solutions rather than reason them out. But instead of guessing or figuring it out, Johnson's son looks it up.



I like to say that at age 15 I "retired" from playing chess, because it had become too much like work. Chess is a "game" (extraordinarily difficult puzzle, really) where there's always a correct, best move, and that combined with the vast weight of the chess literature, put me off. Now "too much like work" has changed meaning. For a great many players, a game that requires *any* hard decisions is "too much like work."



With a lack of hard decisions, gameplay depth (which is largely about hard decisions) is also absent or in short supply in most contemporary games. In fact, when gamers say "depth" nowadays they often mean *variety*. Variety is replacing gameplay depth as a goal for game design.



It's important to most western gamers that games are "fair". But I think the definition of fair has changed for video gamers. Where it used to imply that you got what you deserved, that you had to *earn* something, now it means "fair" in the way my young niece used to use it. She'd say "that's not fair", but she meant, "that's not what I want, I'm not getting what I want". Now video game players expect a game to give them what they want, when they want it, period.



I'm not saying this is bad, I'm saying this is what it is, and game designers have to recognize it, even if they design for a niche that prefers old-fashioned, consequence-based gaming - the niche that likes XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
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