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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Video (screencast) What a convention or conference can do for a game designer

Lewis Pulsipher
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What a convention or conference can do for a game designer



Text of the slides is below. Of course, there's much more to the screencast than the slides.

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

Why should game designers go to Cons?
I’m mixing video game (conferences) and tabletop game (conventions) in this discussion
(Brief difference: conferences focus on how to make better games; conventions focus on playing games)
Briefly:
Meet publishers and funders
Learn new techniques
Stimulate ideas
Find collaborators
Find playtesters

To meet Publishers / Funders
While much of the world is online/”virtual”, I’m convinced that face-to-face is a much stronger connection, especially for those designers without a track record (newbies)
So go and meet publishers at cons, talk with them, volunteer to work at their booths, and so forth

To Learn New Techniques
Conferences are all about talks to help you make games better
Examples: East Coast Game Conference 14
Putting stories into games
Game pitches
At tabletop conventions, seeing all the new games, playing them or watching them being played
Big tabletop conventions have many seminars (GenCon) about making and selling games
I do them myself at PrezCon, WBC, GenCon, sometimes ECGC

Stimulation of Ideas
When I go home from a tabletop convention or ECGC, I’m full of game ideas
In the case of ECGC, mostly for videos for my classes, and for things that would go into books
I drive (up to 650 miles one way), so I have lots of time to think, recording my thoughts on my easy-to-manipulate PDA-voice recorder
Of course, you have to follow-up once you get home

To Find Collaborators
I do not look for collaborators, but some people work better with another person
If you are looking for a non-local collaborator, where better to look than at a con?
If you hear someone speak about things that interest you . . . Talk with them

To Find Playtesters
As for playtesters, that’s more problematic, but you might find some willing to blind test
Of course, you might persuade people to playtest at the convention, but often people want to play the new published games, not prototypes

Keep an Open Mind. Everything at a con should be stimulating for a designer.
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Thu Dec 18, 2014 1:29 pm
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Some GenCon (and WBC) Observations

Lewis Pulsipher
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I’ve spent much of this month either preparing for or attending the World Wargaming Championships (WB C) and GenCon. These are very different conventions. WBC, currently in Lancaster Pennsylvania, is a boardgame and card game tournament convention. At 1,700 unique attendees is an intimate and family oriented convention that fits in a single hotel in a “country” tourist spot.

GenCon overflows from a huge Indiana Convention Center into quite a few large hotels.
GenCon announced a turnstile attendance in 2014 of 184,699 and unique attendance of 56,614 (which means that each attendee was there more than three (3.26) of the four days). The turnstile attendance is larger than the attendance at Essen Spiel (I’ve not seen a unique attendance announced for that convention). “Since 2009, Gen Con’s annual attendance has more than doubled.”

Does this mean GenCon is now a bigger board and card game convention than Essen Spiel? No. GenCon has become one of those now fairly typical “Amalgamated” conventions including board and card games, role-playing games, costuming, film, fiction writing, comic books, video games and more. (DragonCon in Atlanta is another example.) Of course, it has been a role-playing game convention first and foremost.

GenCon was certainly teeming with people. Unfortunately, my first experience was standing in the “will call” line - the line for people who pre-registered, to pick up their tickets - for half an hour. The lines for walk-ins were much less. Not good planning, I’d say. Maybe they want to encourage everyone to have their packets delivered at significant expense so that they won’t have to wait in line so long . . .

I gave four talks, well-attended even though they were in the far corner of one of the hotels. One was at 9AM Sunday. One guy said "I didn't know there was an AM!" But it was before exhibits opened, and 40-odd came. I was surprised that the most well-attended was “How to Write Clear Rules” (also the title of one of my online audiovisual classes).

The exhibition hall at GenCon was Vast, something like 370 exhibitors. Many of the largest companies rent separate rooms as well. Lots of card games with fine artwork were laid out on tables for demo or sale. How do any of them differentiate from all the others? Same for RPGs. Artwork is no longer a differentiator, in most cases. There was a huge number of less-than-30-minute games as well. All must be more-or-less shallow (opposite of deep) when for more than two players, because there simply isn't enough time per person for deep gameplay. Little enough when only two play . . .

Staying at a hotel distant from the convention center, and giving talks in the Crowne, I walked much more than I cared to, but I survived GenCon (need a T-shirt that says that).

WBC being so small in comparison with GenCon, even if you don’t stay at the hotel it’s 200 yards to the building from parking, and no more than 150 yards to anywhere within the building.

Seeing the Brit games being played in the tournament at WBC, the things I want to snuff out (such as “the deal” between Welsh and Romans), what players asked me to change (I could usually say, “done that”), gives me new interest in getting Epic Britannia done.
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Fri Aug 22, 2014 12:32 am
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PrezCon 2014

Lewis Pulsipher
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The first game convention I attended after my long hiatus from the hobby was PrezCon 2004. I used to go alternate years but I’ve been going consistently at the end of February for several years now.



[Justin wanted me to photograph the schedule posted on the wall. Virtually every line there is a tournament]


PrezCon is a relatively small friendly board and card game convention in Charlottesville Virginia at a Doubletree Hotel. There are no RPGs, no miniatures to speak of, no CCGs, no video games. Most of the players are gray-haired Baby Boomers, although there is a smattering of younger players as well. It uses the same format as the World Boardgaming Championships, you pay a single fee and play it in as many tournaments as you can squeeze in. There are not quite as many tournaments as at WBC, and they are generally smaller because the attendance is about 3/8 of WBC attendance (for example 15 in the Britannia tournament in a good year compared to 40 at WBC). But there’s lots of competition. There’s also an auction, an auction store (where I bought a 2008 copy of Risk for four dollars for the peculiar arrow pieces), and a large open gaming area. Where WBC offers half a dozen or more talks, there is only one at PrezCon (that I give, and that gets about half a dozen in attendance).



[Some of the plaques awarded for tournament success]



[Part of the main tournament room. The vendors are also in this room, to the left. There are also several subsidiary tournament rooms, and a large room (ballroom) for open gaming.]

There are game vendors as well, some of them publishers such as Worthington Publications, GMT, and Mayfair Games. Two of those three are wargame publishers and that’s reflected in the tournaments and open play, with many more wargames and you would see at GenCon. The vendors are set up from Friday through Sunday though they are packing up by midday Sunday.


[Vendor area]


Justin Thompson and company have PrezCon running like a well oiled machine in its 20th year. When Justin was temporarily laid low by illness his partner Grant Dalgliesh took care of things.

Owing to work reasons my friend and I arrived Thursday night instead of Wednesday night this year, and I miss the extra day to talk with people. (I don’t play games at conventions and never have: I can play games at home. And as some of you know I’m not that big into playing games other than D&D, which we definitely don’t see at PrezCon.) We usually stay until Sunday mid-afternoon because he usually plays in the Roborally finals (which he won for the fourth time). Just as at WBC and Origins, by that time almost everyone has left and it’s quite dead. I think GenCon stays alive somewhat longer though I have had to leave before noon because of a very long trip home. It’s a great contrast to the UK Game Expo a few years ago, where I had a talk scheduled at 1 PM on Sunday and the audience filled the large room, as well as for the talk after that. I suppose because Great Britain is relatively small and train travel is common, people don’t feel the need to leave as early as they do at American game conventions.

At one point I recruited a friend who had played the game the year before to playtest one of my prototypes with a publisher. He asked me privately whether he should go easy on the other player. I wouldn’t tell anyone to do that as it is slightly disrespectful to the other player, and in any case the publisher needed to see what the game could really do, so I told him know do the best you can. And he won the game fairly easily, showing that there’s something worth learning in the game (as opposed to some transparent games where experience doesn’t seem to make much difference).


[Britannia tournament]


[Playing my prototype Doomstar]

As I have observed at other conventions, especially those that are strictly board and card games, there are striking cultural differences if you take the time to notice. Non-white gamers are very rare at PrezCon, just as they are at WBC. They are much more noticeable at conventions that include RPGs, CCGs, art and written fiction, and so forth.

One friend saw a lot more “friction” in the game playing this year, though I noticed a lot less than last year. Friction as in rule arguments and even one occasion of possible cheating. Yet when a friend of mine played his first game of Britannia in the tournament he found that the players gave him genuinely good advice rather than trying to con him with poor advice, and he won the game. The wargamers are not quite like Eurostyle players who often seem to be collectively solving a puzzle and discussing what the best move would be, but they do want new players to enjoy the games. I have a friend who doesn’t go to PrezCon because he doesn’t want to tangle with the “sharks”, the really good players, nonetheless I think it’s a pretty friendly and mostly laid-back group considering the level of competition.



My talk this year was about strategic wargame design. There were lots of comments and questions that my recorder couldn’t pick up so I need to edit it before I post it on my website for anyone who wants to listen. The PowerPoint slides that I made for it are already posted at http://pulsiphergames.com/teaching1.htm. Don’t leave out that 1.

***
I now host (through Fedora) my online audiovisual courses at https://courses.pulsiphergames.com . They are still on Udemy.com at higher prices. They include “Learning Game Design”, “Brief Introduction to Game Design”, and “Get a Job in the Video Game Industry”. I will very soon be opening a course “How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games”. Some time after that I’ll open “How to Write Clear Rules (and Game Design Documents)”.

YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
@lewpuls
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Mon Mar 10, 2014 6:06 pm
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Triptych II

Lewis Pulsipher
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Conventions and classes
I'll be at PrezCon in Charlottesville this weekend (beginning Thursday night). I'll be giving a talk about strategic wargame design (Strategic Wargame Design Sat  20:00 (8PM) J. Madison room). If you care to talk with me (which is why I'll be there), I am about 6'6", unfortunately over 300 pounds, glasses, mustache, balding on top (or wearing a cap), and over 60. Can't miss me.

I will soon be offering my online audiovisual classes on my own as well as through Udemy. They'll cost more through Udemy. News at pulsiphergames.com.


"Intuitive"
Quote from a comment on BGG: "Unintuitive rules are rules that don't make sense given the game's setting, goals, and components. It has nothing to do with previous gaming experience (otherwise every new game that strays from a known formula would be unintuitive)."

Get some people together who almost never play board games, and try to teach them some light (but not family) board games. What "makes sense" to gamers often does NOT make sense to the non-gamers. "Make sense" depends heavily on previous experience.

The effect of prior experience is especially obvious in user interfaces in video games. Players expect things to work a certain way because that's what they're used to. There may be a more sensible way to do it, but if you write your game in that more sensible way you've created a barrier for those used to the old way of doing it.

"Intuitive" frequently ends up meaning "what people are used to", not "what is most natural or sensible." Which is why I won't use the word in game design context.

Let's go further. We might think that photographs and maps are "intuitive", but take an aborigine who has never seen such a thing (no longer likely, but it's been done in the past) and they cannot make sense out of either. It is too far beyond their experience. They can be taught to recognize photos and even use maps, but to them there's NOTHING "intuitive" about it.

"Intuitive" as used in games is still a synonym for "easy to use" or "easy to learn", but it comes from what people are already familiar with.

Now on the other hand, there are things that may be natural to humans. For example, when moving a mouse, it's a lot easier to point at something at the edge of a screen, where you cannot overshoot it, than if it's away from the edge. In this respect, buttons on the screen edges are "intuitive", if anything is.

Twitter
I am @lewpuls on twitter. Some of these references from recent tweets may interest you:

Understanding Choice: 3dtotalgames.com/understanding-… (http://t.co/tDkm0EBxO1) It is written primarily with math-style games, often solvable games (puzzles), in mind.

Some games require software. Others (e.g. most tabletop) don't use software, just "brainware". (Term courtesy of my wife.)

Contest: each competitor does something separately, without being able to affect the other competitors through gameplay. Compare results.

“Gamification” in practice amounts to scorification of *contests*, not use of actual gameplay techniques. There is no game. . .

An articulate and fascinating look into a budding game designer's head: jeffro.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/how… (http://t.co/TgYM0AYkkK) #gamedesign (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23gamedesign)

Jakob Nielsen's advice about on-screen instructions for mobile apps should apply to mobile games too: nngroup.com/articles/mobil… (http://t.co/t9DfDqORj4) #gamedesign (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23gamedesign)

KS: "A service that lets you customize your perfect miniature using our web UI and have it 3D printed just for you!" kickstarter.com/projects/herof… (https://t.co/E9YEejaob5)

Avoiding player elimination in multi-sided games: youtu.be/Eu5C941Jjs8?a (http://t.co/gT0pvMe4YS) via @YouTube (https://twitter.com/YouTube/)

"Tech wars and talent shortages." How recruiting and working conditions have changed in the video game industry. gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-… (http://t.co/xPTer4OoPM)

"Player count and scalability" gamesprecipice.com/player-count-s… (http://t.co/9jvF0j8YAb)

Learning from backer cancellations in Kickstarter stonemaiergames.com/kickstarter-le… (http://t.co/mZwtqOnUSN) Anyone planning to run a KS should read Jamey's lessons.

Unusual, often artsy, dice: shapeways.com/games/dice?li=… (http://t.co/w2SNRCjeUT) And on KS, kickstarter.com/projects/tinde… (https://t.co/RjLiQBmbJO) kickstarter.com/projects/15847… (https://t.co/QWbfhDtuXk) kickstarter.com/projects/33900… (https://t.co/e5BfgsmPEk)

Today is the 6th anniversary of Purple Pawn, a site for all kinds of non-electronic game news, BROAD coverage. purplepawn.com/2014/02/happy-… (http://t.co/EW8wd86pJC)

What makes my Game Design book unusual or unique: youtu.be/x20MqWdpkOM?a (http://t.co/mgIE7E4fGI) via @YouTube (https://twitter.com/YouTube/)

Sherlock Holmes: the Card Game, second edition kickstarter.com/projects/excal… (https://t.co/E9hl3gnIGF)

For those who have run their own studios this states the obvious, but not to newbies: gamasutra.com/blogs/RobinHum… (http://t.co/GopjrlC1pf) #gamedesign (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23gamedesign)

Diatribe against F2P games (with a couple of very interesting comparative videos by Nerd3 - beware, strong language): baekdal.com/opinion/how-in… (http://t.co/gjE0iQXUiQ)
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Mon Feb 24, 2014 1:51 pm
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