Pulsipher Boardgame Design

Most of my written comments about games nowadays go into my blogs, and I’ve recently decided to periodically post the material from Pulsipher Boardgame Design here. I have just cut-and-pasted the available material (which goes back to September 2010), with minimal editing. If you’d like to read it with the comments and links, I recommend you go to the blog site:


This blog contains comments by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher about boardgames he is designing or has designed in the past, as well as comments on game design in general.

Blog Archive

                + Dragon & Pearl Brit-like game

                + What’s important in board and card game design

                + PrezCon Games

                + Buying used games

                + PrezCon

          February (6)

                + Opposites in why people play

                + Ruminations

                + "Rules" of rules-writing

                + Game designing and writing as professions

                + Puzzles disguised as games. And Zombie Risk.

                + PrezCon attendance

          January (2)

                + What characterizes broad game markets?

                + "Most players are not like us"

   2010 (43)

          December (2)

                + Brief definition of "game designer"

                + Game Playing Styles

          November (5)

                + Branding

                + An unsual game seen at MACE: Ex Illis

                + MACE convention

                + Education: what are the major differences in focus...

                + Playing at being godlike

          October (6)

                + Go it alone games

                + The curse of Brit-like games: play balance

                + Game design can be hard work because thinking can ...

                + Social "games" as simple puzzles

                + Rumination about free-to-play games

                + Individual customization

          September (11)

                + Interesting quotes?

                + Post-mortems

                + Characterization

                + What are we looking for when playing a (tabletop) ...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dragon & Pearl Brit-like game

I'm going to be at the UK Game Expo in Birmingham this June 3-5. While checking out some exhibitors, I discovered that the China Britannia-like game The Dragon & the Pearl is evidently back in print (for 19.99 pounds, though shipping to this country would be expensive). See


I have a copy of this game, though I haven't played it. It appears to be avoid the major error of China: the Middle Kingdom (which is, limiting action to within modern Chinese boundaries). It is closer to Brit in its rules than CtMK is.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What’s important in

board and card game design

I was asked to write something for the blog of Buffalo Games, a smallish mass-market game company that, I confess, I had not heard of. They have since abandoned the blog, and posted it on their Facebook page.

They also published a "Q&A" with me.

Game design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Don’t think that the idea is important. What makes a marketable game is the execution, the creation of a complete game, not the idea. Some ideas are better than others, true, but there are hardly any original ideas–if you’ve thought of it, probably a hundred others have as well. Virtually no publisher pays for an idea, publishers pay for completed games (though they may then change them...). So be prepared to work!

The second most important thing to remember about ideas is, you need to work at getting lots of them: maybe a few will work out well.

Ideas come from everywhere, from all kinds of associations: you must actively seek to get ideas, don’t wait for them to come floating by.

Lots of people have game ideas, fewer make a prototype, fewer still actually play the game. You don’t really have a game until you have a prototype that can be played. It needn’t be pretty, but it must be functional. If people enjoy playing a merely functional version of the game, they’ll enjoy the pretty published version even more. Maybe when you submit the completed game to a publisher you’ll make a pretty version.

You don’t have to have a full set of rules to start with, you just need to know how to play. Writing nearly-perfect rules is the hardest part of designing a game. Trying to write perfect rules when the game is new may be a waste of time, as the game IS going to change. In the end, though, if the rules are inadequate, the game won’t be played correctly, which is usually a disaster, and you can’t leave rules writing until the very end because the rules must be tested just as the game must be tested.

“Playtesting is sovereign”. Play your prototype, probably solo at first to work out the worst kinks, then have others play. And play. And play. Virtually no game prototype is good at first. The key to a good game is to playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, and so forth until the gameplay is polished to a gleam. Change is the norm.

You will probably get sick of the game before it’s “done!” As Reiner Knizia says, it’s easy to get a game to an 80% completion state, hard to get it to 100%. And you may think it’s “done” only to find that something MUST be changed.

Getting your game playtested is an invitation to say it sucks! Your playtesters must be in your target audience (you ALWAYS have a target audience), and you need a lot of them. Your family is not sufficient! You need people who are willing to tell you the truth.

If you just want to design one game at a time, go for it. If you want to be a game designer, you need to be designing a lot of games at the same time.

Unless you are very very lucky, you aren’t going to get rich designing games. Do it because you love it, and perhaps you’ll make some money along the way.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

PrezCon Games

Some people go to PrezCon to play games for days on end, last year my roommate played something like 19 games of Roborally. This year he was focused on Merchant of Venus, long out-of-print pickup and deliver Avalon Hill game. So he played at least all three heats of the tournament as well as the final, winning two heats and finishing second in the other but not doing as well in the final. He also discovered another level of play. At one point, I think in the final, another player saw where he was going next to purchase goods, and beat him to it to disrupt my friend's entire scheme: a perfect example of anticipatory interaction, something that's quite common in Eurogames. I don't think many people would call Merchant of Venus a Eurogame, but it has some Eurogame characteristics such as no player elimination and no direct or even indirect conflicts. (For me, anticipatory conflict does not even count as indirect; someday I have to finish my description of types of conflict.)

The Britannia tournament had two heats and the final, with 12 different people participating, which is probably more than usual for PrezCon. Mark Smith from Kentucky won for something like the third year out of four or maybe the fourth year out of five!

I watched History of the World quite a bit--the version before the Hasbro plastic piece version--and asked the players, some of whom also play Britannia, why they played. Because it became fairly evident that the distribution of empires in the last round, which has a large random element to it, strongly determined who won the game. The guys really didn't have much to say about that, and I think in the end they enjoy playing because they enjoy the journey, the experience of trying to convince other people that they should attack somebody else, persuading people do go somewhere else rather than toward their holdings, and so forth.

The game itself has very little to do with reality because of the way scoring works. Although you can score extra points for dominating a region, it's more practical to have a presence in several regions, that is, hold at least one territory in that region. So you get things like the Romans, instead of conquering northern Europe, heading all the way to Southeast Asia in order to get presence in several regions. Empires tend to be strung out rather than concentrated. Concentration doesn't help, nor is your defense better when you have more armies in an area or own more adjacent areas. This has very little to do with how empires actually behave, of course. But what this does do is lead to a lot of variation in each game, especially because at least one Empire and possibly two in each epoch (generally out of seven available empires) does not appear. The ideal History of the World game is six players though some of these games were for five.

I should say that there is a new short History of the World game out, and from what I recall reading about it some months ago it may be a much better game.

But studying the game did give me an idea for a way to change how my game Eurasia works that may make it less random and more satisfying; only playtesting will tell.

It's not easy to get people to playtest games at a heavily tournament oriented convention because there are so many tournaments people want to play in. We did get up a session of my pirates card game, and I saw how much difference there is in play between the casual players that normally playtest my games and the "sharks" that tend to come to PrezCon. The sharks are happy to try to twist/distort the text on the cards whereas the casual players will generally take the meaning that appears to be intended. Even though the game is still pretty early and fairly rough, it seems that everybody who plays it likes it. Then again, one guy said "everything's better with pirates".

I also once again watched some Age of Renaissance. At one point a year or two ago I thought about trying to make a simplified "if this game were designed today" version, but it doesn't seem to be worth it.

I watched the only Kingmaker game at the con; for some reason people weren't up for playing Kingmaker, so this game consisted of the convention organizer (who uses kingmaker as his e-mail name), one fellow who had not played before, and two guys who had some experience but did not seem to be sharks. One of them, in particular, did not want anything to do with Parliament because he felt it was boring, though Parliament is supposed to be a big part of the game.

I especially wanted to see the start of the game, which people say is more fun than when the game settles down. Unfortunately this all confirmed what I had gathered from previous observations and from reading about the Wars of the Roses: this game has virtually nothing to do with historical reality. What the players are doing and what the game does just don't correspond to what actually happened or might have happened. So my project to do Kingmaker as if it were designed today will have to focus on the aspects that people seem to like, which are chaos management and negotiation, without actually adopting any of the mechanics of this game. Fortunately I had a long conversation about the game with Jim Jordan, who is the Britannia game master but who also really likes the Wars of the Roses period, and used to be a Kingmaker player but now despises it.

The topic is popular: we have Richard the Third, a block game from Columbia, Wars of the Roses, a Eurogame from Zman, and the upcoming Crown of Roses, another block game from GMT. The block games are for two players. The Eurogame, like most Eurogames, doesn't have much to do with reality, it's for 2 to 4 players. My game will be for 2 to 5 or 6 players. That is, if I ever get to the point of a playable prototype.

I watched some Axis and Allies being played and was struck again with the great variety of play, the different strategies that people employ, and also with the lack of attention to terrain and supply. But it has become, I'm told, a game that lasts as long as eight hours. So I resurrected the idea of trying to do a two (perhaps three) hour strategic World War II game that provides the advantages of Axis and Allies without the interminable dice rolling and the tremendous unnecessary detail. I have always hit a wall on this before, but I think this time I can make it work as a two player block game. The first version will be just Europe in World War II because that should be easier to cope with than trying to do the entire world. The entire world game will be the ultimate goal however. The difficulty with blocks is that I want noticeably different kinds of blocks for sea, land, and air, and I should have noticeably different blocks for five different nations, and that means a heck of a lot of different kinds of blocks! I have Command and Conquer blocks that will do for the Axis, but only one size of three more colors for the allies...

Naturally I asked some people why they like A&A, and the answers have convinced me that I need some dice rolling in this new game. Formerly I wanted deterministic or card-based combat. A few dice are cheaper than cards, at least. (And it must be said, everyone expects dice rolling in a block game.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Buying used games


I bought two items at the PrezCon auction store. Those who know me will be unsurprised to learn that they were the same item, because I was buying for pieces, not for a game to play. On my second walk-through of the auction store (later in the afternoon when the prices were sometimes cheaper) there were two copies of Exalted: War for the Throne. I could not place the game in my mind, so I supposed it was one of those self published games that one sometimes sees at small booths at conventions. Someone designs a game, which often appears to be like Risk (conquer the world), often with lots of plastic pieces that they've had made in China, and they go to a convention to publicize the game. You almost never see them back the next year because they found that the trip and booth cost them more money than it was worth. But when I later looked the game up via the Internet I discovered that it's a game published by well-known RPG company White Wolf, tying into their world setting. That helps explain how they could put so many plastic pieces into the game and not lose an arm and a leg, by using a large print run (and only three molds). But this $70 list game was being offered brand-new for $20.

When I saw that it included plastic ships that look like Viking ships I decided to buy one copy, then went back to the room and opened it up and check things out, and then went back and bought the second copy.

The game includes 30x5 ships, which on closer examination are galleys, 75x5 medieval spearmen, and 50 “manses”, which look rather pagoda-like. Along with that are 75 cards, 120 small glass beads, over 100 large cardboard “coins”, five very heavy cardboard information plaques for the five aspects of magic, and a few other bits, as well as 10 rather elaborate 10 sided dice. The plastic is fairly hard and very detailed: I decided the ships were galleys rather than Viking ships when I saw the eye bulges on the bow and the rowing superstructure along each side that characterize galleys but not drakkars. And there’s the mounted (but warped) board, which is rather small and plain and cursed with “four-color mapism”. That is, each dominion is colored separately like a typical political map of nations or states, which looks absolutely unrealistic if not garish on a game map. The only other board I can think of that does this is China: the Middle Kingdom, and it looks similarly unsuitable and unedifying.

So buying these for $20 each for parts, especially the ships, is a pretty good deal for a game designer. But this made me think about the materialist inclinations of game buyers. If I were buying this as a game, the fact that it has lots of plastic pieces would be relatively unimportant. I want a game that's good to play, over and over again. But in contemporary terms, many people don’t seem to expect to play a game more than a few times, so they’re not as worried about whether they are getting a really good game and more worried about whether they’re getting “their money’s worth” for the parts. This in itself is ridiculous because most people are not game designers and are not going to reuse the parts. But that seems to be the way many people think and talk.

It reminds me of the novice game designers who put lots of time and money into the looks of their prototypes. Manufacturers are much more interested in whether it’s a good game than in how the prototype looks. And designers should make simple prototypes, and spend their time on making the game better. But even here things are changing, because it’s harder and harder to get people to playtest a game unless it looks good. I spend more time on the looks of a game by far than I used to, but fortunately thanks to computers and having thousands of pieces like the ones I got from Exalted: War for the Throne, it doesn’t take me more time to make prototypes that it used to take.

I did read the comments about the game on Boardgamegeek, and read/skimmed the rules. An awful lot of the game seems to amount to spending magical essence to get additional dice rolls. It seems to be a Risk-like game, but better than Risk, or at least it would have been if it had been thoroughly play tested which may not be the case. But I confess that the first thing I did with the rulebook is look at the list of playtesters and see that there weren't many. That may not mean much or it may mean that the testing was insufficiently broad, and so some very effective strategies were not tried or certain situations were not played much.

But for people spending the $70 list price (about $45 online, compare with something like $30 or less for Risk), it’s really important to have lots of nice components. I suspect the game really has appeal only to people who play the role playing games in the Exalted world setting.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Once again I attended PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA. Organizer Justin Thompson says "600 players attended PrezCon 2011 which is a record! We ran 90 boardgames [tournaments] which was a record! Dominion had 84 players which is a non [-standard deck] card game record! We had our 1st Auction store in which we sold over 600 items." As usual PrezCon took place in the last full weekend of February, beginning with pre-cons on Monday and really getting started Wednesday or Thursday.

PrezCon appears to run like a well-oiled ship, you get exactly what you expect if you've been there in past years. It is a smaller version of WBC, heavily tournament oriented with some vendors/manufacturers, an auction, and auction store, and some open gaming. There are no miniatures, no RPGs, no collectible card games: just boardgames and specialized card games. The majority of attendees appear to be over 40 (especially if we don't count their teenage children who are often along). Some people I know don't come to PrezCon because they don't want to compete with the "sharks". Mayfair, ZMan, and GMT were among the vendors.

Most cons don't run tournaments, it seems. WBC and PrezCon, because they are meant to be tournament cons, are the exception. GenCon runs a few big ones, sponsored by manufacturers in many cases (thus leaving me/Brit out). Origins is about individual games, not tournaments.

The PrezCon organizers are running a new convention they have dubbed "National Eurogame Championships" on Memorial Day weekend in the District of Columbia. When I saw "Eurogame" I turned right off, and in any case I have other plans for that weekend. (I am atypical because I go to conventions to talk to publishers not play games.) I'm told there will be more than Eurogames played. There's more potential for a Memorial Day convention than for one at the end of February, but they need a broader title.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Opposites in why people play

A few years ago I was listening to taped lectures about the Roman Republic. The lecturer was a young man who recounted the experience of a much older scholar who was an expert on the Roman Republic’s constitution. The Roman constitution is an unwritten and often puzzling mishmash of traditions. The lecturer said the older scholar described his experiences: when he was young he thought he understood the Roman constitution, but as he got older he felt he understood less and less, so now as senior faculty he wasn’t at all sure how it worked!

The young lecturer found this a little depressing but I can understand it completely, because I sometimes feel the same way about my understanding of why people play games. Apparently some game scholars simply assume that people play games to win, but that’s clearly not even close to the truth, especially for many Euro gamers and for many people of the younger generation. When I wrote a piece about why people play games for my book that’s been printed on GameCareerGuide (republished in this blog ), I listed a wide variety of motivations, but that was only a beginning.

But what’s brought this to mind right now is watching people play two very different games: one is Betrayal at House on the Hill and the other is Hansa Teutonica (HT). These games are about as different as two games can be, yet the players in both cases were late teens and twenty-somethings. I’m pretty sure the players of Betrayal would immediately fall asleep if they played HT. Though I think the HT players would not be quite so put off by Betrayal I think they’d rapidly find it pointless.

Betrayal is a story driven game (exploration of a haunted house) with lots of chance involved; HT has a tacked-on “theme” of traders in the Hanseatic League but is for all practical purposes a rather complex abstract game with no chance, yet of the kind I call “mental gymnastics”.

At the NC State gamers club Betrayal is played virtually every week. Most of the players are as much role-playing gamers as boardgamers. "Casual" would describe them, most don't own enough games to say so (this is a club-owned copy), and play tabletop games once a week for 3-4 hours.

I have been reading reviews and watching video reviews of the game to try to understand exactly what it is that attracts the players. It seems to me that the story-driven aspect of it is what makes it popular, along with relatively short gameplay (an hour). The players don't seem to mind the initial wandering (which the hard-core on BoardgameGeek call "pointless"), but as someone pointed out, it's not much different than when D&D came out and you wandered around a dungeon. And certainly not different from the "leveling up", without interest a larger purpose, that characterizes most computer MMORPGs. Someone suggested that there was a resmblance in purpose to Munchkin, where the game goal is to reach a particular level.

I am not into tactically oriented story driven games--though I played D&D for 30 years, I hated being made to follow a particular story. I do like the sweep of history in games ("story" is part of "history"). But I am not a horror-movie fan. So I'm not the least tempted the play Betrayal.

The players of HT play games several times a week, sometimes for six hours or more. HT itself seems to be a one hour game, with three players anyway. As with many Euro games HT feels to me like a game where you do things for the sake of doing them, where complexity is introduced for the sake of complexity, where there are lots of different things you can do and yet none of them feels like you’re doing something that actually represents anything anyone would do in reality. To me either a game is completely abstract, and should be simple to play but have complexity in playing well, or the game should be one where everything I do can be *easily* seen to represent something that might be done or occur in reality. I don’t try to design simulations but if I’m designing a historical game I often want it to be a representation. Britannia is a representation of British history not a simulation, Dragon Rage is a representation of an attack on a city, not a simulation. In fact I think simulations of history are a delusion and a dead-end, perhaps excepting highly tactical games. (I’ve written two long articles about some of these topics, one of which was recently published in Against the Odds magazine.)

For me, either a game is entirely abstract (chess), or it is a model of some reality, but it doesn't have to be a highly detailed or "accurate" model. HT, like many recent Euro games, is neither, it's abstract but complex, pretending to be a model, yet frequently but not always turns out to be a particularly poor model.

So my reaction to HT is like my reaction to a great many Euro games, “why would anyone bother?” Yet obviously a lot of people do bother, and must enjoy what they’re doing.

Monday, February 21, 2011


* We often say that the essence of a game is player interaction. If so, what is the essence of a puzzle? I'm at a loss.

* I say I like cooperative games (D&D) but I don't go for cooperative boardgames. Why not? Because cooperative boardgames are puzzles, there's no semblance of intelligent opposition.

* I have been thinking I should write an article about game myths. Maybe "10 myths about games", but it could be another number. So far I have (in random order):

Everyone plays to win.

Everybody plays games.

You can gamify anything.

Games are complicated.

Games are all about shooting and blowing stuff up.

Girls don't play games.

Games are like puzzles.

Games are about math.

* Perhaps I ought to write "10 myths about game design" as well...

"Rules" of rules-writing

I've been reading the rules of some of the "strategy" and wargame category games on thegamecrafter.com. There are dozens of games in this category. (You may not have heard of this site, it's as close as we come to Print on Demand for board and card games.) Many of these games are designed by first-timers who have no editor or publisher to assist them.

Elementary "rules" of writing rules are often broken. For example, early in a rule set you should say how many players, how long the game takes, and (briefly) what you do to win. (Full victory conditions come later.) But most of these rule sets don't say the first two ANYWHERE, and often save "how to win" to the end. Having these three items of information early on helps the reader understand the rules. When you don't know how to win, for example, understanding what kinds of actions you might take, and why, can be difficult.

I think rules should include a section, near the end, "rules often missed or forgotten at first play". Not seen here.

I usually describe the components early on, so that as the owner has just removed things from the box, he can have some idea of their purposes. Not seen here.

Illustrations are good, but it must be said that the creators of these games are likely trying to keep costs down by fitting the rules onto fewer pages.

The rules tend to be devoid of examples, too. The best rules include a "playthrough" of a turn or two, so that the reader will know whether he is playing the game right. (True, many people will not bother to read through a playthrough, but some will.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Game designing and writing as professions

I was at a local game shop the other day to try out 4th edition D&D seasonal adventures. One of the players had played Warhammer 40,000 but had never played D&D. I discovered on further acquaintance that she likes to write fiction. This seems to be the most common hobby cum professional objective of people in their late teens or early 20s, after wanting to make video games, though that observation comes from my own experience rather than surveys. (Before someone comments that surveys show that teens want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and sports people, I’m talking about what they really want to do, not what they think they ought to want to do, or think that others think they should do, or what they think they will have to do.)

Fortunately this 19-year-old recognizes that she isn’t likely to make a living from writing; unfortunately she doesn’t really have any idea of what else she might want to do.

I guess that the number of people who make a full living from fiction writing worldwide is in the hundreds rather than the thousands. I recently read an interview with Glen Cook, who is one of my favorite fantasy authors, who said:

"Even in my best years of the first thirty it was never more than hobby money. The last maybe five I've made enough to support myself in genteel poverty. Certainly not enough to support a family and put three sons through college."

This is a man who worked full-time and retired from General Motors, and wrote in his spare time, but had a lot of books published. Now that he's retired he does about two a year.

In contrast the number of people who make a full living from tabletop game design is very likely less than 100, total, no more than a quarter of those freelancers. The obvious freelancers are Reiner Knizia, Klaus Tauber (Catan), and Alan R. Moon (Ticket to Ride), and likely Richard Borg (Liar's Dice, Memoir '44 etc.), plus people who work at Hasbro and a few other companies.

Perhaps even more in fiction writing than in games, it's very rare for young person to become well-known. Despite the exception of the author of Eragon (who got a lot of help), how many successful fiction authors, people who make enough to make a living, can you name who are less than 30 years old? There's probably somebody in tabletop game design under 30, but the ones I've named above are much older than that. Part of this may simply be that you need to do quite a few things before you become well-known, but in fiction writing I also think it's a matter of personal experience. The authors of really affective [sic] fiction can draw upon a wealth of life experience: they've personally experienced love and death and disappointment and betrayal. (When I talked about experience to my 19-year-old acquaintance she pointed out all the things she had *done* (such as skydiving and horse riding) rather than all the emotional experiences she had had.)

In the age of instant gratification it's now even harder for young people to recognize that practice makes a difference, THE difference. This is true for fiction writing and it's also true for game design. This is what Cook had to say about fiction writing when asked "Do you have any advice for beginning writers?"

"This is the easiest answer of all. Write. Don't talk about writing. Don't tell me about your wonderful story ideas. Don't give me a bunch of 'somedays.' Plant your ass and scribble, type, keyboard. If you have any talent at all, it will leak out despite your failure to pay attention in English. And if you didn't pay attention, learn. A carpenter needs to know how to use a hammer, level, saw, and so forth. You need to know how to use the tools of writing. Because, no, the editor won't fix it up. S/he will just chunk your thing in the shit heap and go on to somebody who can put together an English sentence with an appropriate sprinkle of punctuation marks."

Jerry Pournelle used to say you too can be a novelist if you're willing to throw away your first million words. Brandon Sanderson, who is finishing the Wheel of Time series following the unfortunate death of the original author, wrote something approaching a dozen novels before he sold one. Glen Cook apparently wrote a great many novels before he sold one. And none of those old novels will ever be published.

Fortunately my 19-year-old is writing rather than just talking about writing. I know another 19-year-old who wants to be a novelist who can only make herself write as part of National Novel Writing Month every November. With the support provided by others then and the aspects of a contest she can do it; the rest of the time it doesn't seem to happen. That's not going to work in the long run, is it?

Perhaps several hundred people work as game and level designers in the video game industry and make a living. But very few of them came out of school to get a job as a designer. Just as it's necessary for an aspiring fiction writer to have a fallback career in mind that will enable them to actually make a living, it's necessary for an aspiring game designer to gain other skills that can make them a desirable employee in the game industry. This would usually be programming or art, of course, although many people in game design and even game writing started out doing something for game companies that was not directly involved with game creation, such as game testing, working in the mailroom, working in the IT department, working in marketing, and so forth

Just as Cook says that you have to write I tell students that if you want to be a game designers you've got to design games. And you've got to take them all the way through to completion, it doesn't help just to get ideas or to flesh out the ideas a bit and then stop. A playable prototype is only the beginning.

One of the problems with video games is that it takes a long time to produce a playable prototype. It's much more practical to begin by designing tabletop games, where you can make a playable prototype in a few hours or less.

Of course, to begin with it makes a lot of sense to modify existing games to improve them rather than to do games from scratch. When I was a teenager and early 20 something I designed Risk variants and Diplomacy variants. But I had also designed games to play by myself, once I'd been exposed to commercial wargames beginning with Conflict when I was very young, then American Heritage Broadsides, and then especially Stalingrad, Afrika Korps, and other Avalon Hill games. But I tended to design games that were not commercially viable: for example I designed a massive space wargame that I played solitaire with many many sides, far too many to be practical, and also it used fog of war but there was no mechanism for it, I just pretended as I played each Empire that I couldn't see where the opposition was and didn't know what they were doing.

So when I teach beginners game design, one of the first things I do is talk about what an inadequate game Monopoly is (especially for adults), and why, and then have them try to come up with ways to improve it. And I have them actually play their variant to see that it usually won't turn out the way they think it will.

Cook quotes from http://www.sfsite.com/10a/gc209.htm

I hope I've cleaned up all the oddities introduced by Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Puzzles disguised as games. And Zombie Risk.

Nomenclature varies; what many people call games (such as card Solitaire) I call puzzles. Most single-player video games are puzzles, some (such as Pac-Man) with an exact but sometimes very difficult solution. Many Euro-style games are much more puzzles than games, such as the ones called "multi-player solitaire". Players are playing against the non-sentient system, not against each other. At most, the player interaction is of the anticipatory kind, "I'd better take that role before so-and-so gets it".

What brings this on is a game someone brought into the NC State game club recently, Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead. The title invokes possibilities, but it falls flat on its face. The game exhibits many of the sins of poor contemporary Euro-style games. Quite apart from virtually no player interaction, which goes far to make it a puzzle rather than a game, there is insufficient justification for the complexity, too many bits for what it does (at least there aren't a mass of cards with minuscule text), much too long for what there is to it: just too clunky. Add to that Tom Vasel's comments that the puzzle is too simple and too dependent on technology dice luck, too obvious, and it seems as though the game is a badly missed opportunity. The resemblance to Pandemic are pretty obvious, and while that isn't bad, there's nothing to justify the much longer game. I did not play (thank heaven, that would have been extraordinarily tedious), but it did tie up five players for several hours.

The question is, when is there justification for the complexity? If complexity is there in service of a story, or of an educational message, if the complexity results in a much richer and more interesting interaction amongst the players, then it can be justified. Substituting complex pieces and rules for substance seems to be a common characteristic of contemporary boardgames.

But I know that reasons for liking games vary immensely, as I've written about in this blog and elsewhere. So I went to boardgamegeek to see what people say.

The people who like it seem to like the semi-cooperative aspects but especially like "getting into the theme". The theme does nothing for me--I've designed two zombie games, but I've only ever watched two zombie movies in my life (well, plus the Resident Evil movies), and the idea that zombies can defeat tanks is just too much to swallow.

It certainly illustrates how slippery the term "fun" is. To me it's deadly dull. To some people it's really "fun". I strongly suspect that those people like puzzles (I despise formal puzzles). One BGG video reviewer who said the game was really fun, played with his buddies, and they all got into the theme. I'm sure he and his buddies had fun with acting out the theme (evidently they helped each other as much as possible), but it's a case of the fun coming from the people, not from the game. (The same thing happens all the time with Monopoly; a mediocre game at best, but people often remember it fondly because of when and who they played it with.)

I think Tom Vasel was being nice about Zombie State when he said something like "it's not a very good game". To me it may be a (barely) acceptable puzzle for cooperative play, but as a *game* it's a bust.

A text review: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/580075/an-exceptionally-misleading-title-amongst-other-di

I was so disappointed with the promise of the phrases "Zombie state" and "Diplomacy of the Dead" that I devised, and solo tested three times, Zombie Risk. The zombies are like a disease, and absorb enemy armies as they defeat them. I need some folks to playtest it with real people, now (write to me if you'd like to try). And I have ideas for an actually competitive and interactive game involving world nations, zombies, and vampires...

Monday, February 14, 2011

PrezCon attendance

I expect to be at PrezCon in Charlottesville VA from Wednesday to Sunday (Feb 23-26). I'll have some games to playtest, of course, both Brit-like and much, much different. You can see many of my projects at:


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What characterizes broad game markets?

I have been thinking about what characterizes the broader market in games, both tabletop and video. I haven't come to any generalized theory yet (if I ever will), but I have some observations.

"Twitch games" are games requiring a player to move and react very quickly. This is the most common form of hard core video game, as epitomized by shooters, but can also be seen in many casual games such as Tetris.

The 21st century is the world of Instant Gratification, of "oh shiny", of the "Easy Button", of myriad distractions and encouragements to "just do it" rather than think about it. It's the world of "listen to your feelings, Luke", where something other than logic is preferred (e.g. "The Force" is better than any computer). K-12 education in most places in the USA consists of memorization of material to pass multiple choice tests. Students aren't encouraged to think. ("Life is an essay test, not multiple choice", but that's not the trend in education.) Twitch games are far more popular than strategy games because so many people in the modern world are unwilling to shift their brain out of first gear. I am talking about general points of view, not necessarily what YOU are like, of course. We don't need to concern ourselves with whether this is good or bad, it is what it is.

In the past decades we've "dumbed down" the twitch games to reach a broader market, as typical games are easier than in the past, repleat with such features as auto-aim and auto-save. I'm *not* saying this is bad, in fact I think we should go further in story-driven games so that those who want to enjoy the story without the work of playing the game can do so, while those who enjoy challenge can do so. A game can be hard for those who want it to be hard, and can provide auto-pilot for those who just want to enjoy the story.

But the "dumbing down" also means there is even more of a market now for "twitch games" than for thinking games. Kids especially are far more willing to learn the highly repetitive hand movements and the eye coordination, than to apply a lot of brainpower to a game.

There may have been a time--or may not--when the population as a whole were more willing to think than to twitch, but if so those days are long gone.

Not surprisingly, many of the people who like thinking games play tabletop games more than video games. The proportion of "twitch" is much higher in video games (of course), the proportion of thinking games much higher in tabletop because there are few ways to make them games of reaction and movement, and because people are more formidable and resourceful opponents than the computer.

Social networking games on Facebook are an extreme, in a sense a reversion to the original video games that required very little brainpower. Most if not all social networking games are deliberately designed to present very simple puzzles each day (often repetitive puzzles) that any normal person can solve without frustration, if they choose to do so. Nor are they actually social, as almost all of them can be played solitaire; other people are not required.

As a lifelong "strategy gamer" and one who enjoys playing games with other people, I find all of this disappointing, but game designers must deal with it.

Friday, January 07, 2011

"Most players are not like us"

One of the fascinations of game design is seeing how differently people play the same game. And that includes how differently people play games that I've played solo. I am by nature a minimaxer and a strategy gamer, which is different from most game players nowadays. In a sense game hobby playing is become more casual than it used to be. And in any case, any game designer has to recognize that he's "not typical".

The latest example of this is a very simple post-apocalyptic-setting card game that I've devised, derived from a card game that has turned out to be appropriate for a mass or at least broad market. (That's not the market I normally aim for, of course.) The game involves survival item cards that sometimes do something for players but are mostly there to give them opportunities to score points. When I played I scored as often as possible and had relatively few cards in front of the "players". In fact, I added a rule that if a player used up all the cards in front of him he got a new one for free. When four people played the game for the first time yesterday they tended to collect these cards rather than use them up when the opportunity arose, with the result that the deck of these cards was often exhausted. One player had nine cards in front of him at one point, much more than had happened in three solo games I'd played.

Now if they play more they may decide that using the cards up by scoring is the best thing to do, but only time will tell. Nonetheless, this is why we playtest games, to find out what people are going to do recognizing that most players are not like us.


Brett at http://www.brettspiel.co.uk/2011/01/game-spaces-why-everything-not.html has expounded at length on this experience, but implies that I was disappointed in the result. I was not disappointed, I was surprised. We playtest games to find out what "reality" is, and the reality is that some people play this way: as confirmed by more playtesting by an entirely different (though similarly aged) group. I think in the long run my method will be more efficient for those who want to win, but only time will tell.

Serendipitously, I ran across a bit in Wikipedia that applies: "Murphy's Law is really a design principle: if something can be done in more than one way (such as inserting a two-socket plug the wrong way around), somebody will eventually do it." As a design principle, then, game designers must recognize that if someone can play differently than you expect or intend, sooner or later they will.

Which reminds me also of Mike Gray's story of a game he showed to Hasbro's design group (Mike's job s finding games Hasbro might consider for publication). The game didn't really get going until a 50-50 chance came up positively. As Mike demonstrated the game, again and again the result was negative. But the time it did come up positive (something like the 13th time), the game was so skewed and screwed up that it had no chance of being accepted.

The designer should have taken this possibility into account in some way, even though it was very unlikely to occur.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Brief definition of "game designer"

I have been trying to write a description/definition of "game designers" in 50 words or less. This is my latest:

“A game designer conceives the framework for a series of interesting challenges in the form of a ‘game’, devises mechanics (rules), creates or helps create a working prototype, and repetitively and incrementally modifies the design in the light of playtesting until it is a good game for the target audience.”

(Update: I've substituted "design" for "game" because the latter implies that the designer will create/produce the actual changes in the game, which is unlikely to be the case for a video game: someone else will actually make the modification.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Game Playing Styles

(This was originally published on Gamedev.net, 25 Jan 10. You can click on the post title to go to that version.

Some Game Playing Styles, and How Games Match One Style or Another

Lewis Pulsipher

A big obstacle for beginning game designers is the common assumption that everyone likes the same kinds of games, and plays the same way, that they do. If they love shooters, they think EVERYone loves shooters. If they like strategic games, they assume EVERYone likes them. If they love puzzles, they suppose EVERYone does. They may say they understand the diversity, but emotionally they don’t.

Sometimes the nature of the traditional video game, a kind of interactive puzzle or interactive movie for one person, obscures all the different things games can be. Today I’m going to rely on 50 years of playing games of all kinds to describe several quite different points of view. Since some aspects of these points of view depend heavily on having several human or human-like opponents, many of the examples will be from tabletop games.

The first, of course, is that some people, especially many video gamers, prefer interactive puzzle “games” that have no human/psychological component, while other people strongly prefer games involving two or more people in opposition. In fact, “multiplayer” in the tabletop game hobby doesn’t mean “more than one player”, it means “more than two, and more than two sides”. A two-player game provides some human/psychological interaction, but it’s the more-than-two-sided games where the human element, not the puzzle-like challenges set by the video game designer, becomes paramount.

Classical and Romantic

A second difference that I’ll describe in much more detail has been called the “Classical” vs. the “Romantic”, following philosophers who have discussed this difference in a variety of contexts (e.g., Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian). A more modern term for the Classical player is “mini-max”, someone who tries to maximize his minimum gain (or minimize maximum loss) in every situation—the “perfect player” of mathematical game theory, if I recall correctly. In game theory terms this player seeks the “strategy that would guarantee the highest minimal expected outcome regardless of the strategy of the opponent.” (Wikipedia)

The Classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move his opponent(s) might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to little details which probably won’t matter but which in certain cases could be important. The Classical player does not avoid taking chances, but he carefully calculates the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. A cliche among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the Classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than on discovering brilliant coups.

The idea of managing risk doesn’t lend itself to single-player video games that have just one solution. In some of these games that involve no chance element (everything is set by the designer), something like game theory calculations of the “perfect strategy” don’t come into play. There is what is called a “saddle point” or dominant strategy, a perfect way to play that will win every time. If you make the right moves in, say, arcade Pac-Man, you will go all the way through all 255 levels every time without a single death, because there is no random element. (See Inside Pac-Man, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3938/the_pacman_dossier.php.) On the other hand, if the single-player game includes randomness that changes with each play, the player must manage risk, and the game becomes quite Classical. In general, single-player games are going to tend toward the Classical unless the “opposition” approaches a human in complexity.

The Romantic looks for the decisive blow which will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the playing arena. He wishes to convince his opponent(s) of the inevitability of their defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his Romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The Romantic is willing to take a dangerous risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than to maximize his minimum gain. A flamboyant, but only probable, win is his goal. He may make mistakes, but he hopes to seize victory rather than wait for the enemy to make mistakes. The Romantic is more likely to try to “get into the head” of his opponent, to divine which strategy the opponent will use and play his own strategy that best counteracts it.

In the standard single player interactive puzzle video game, there is no human opponent to “psyche out” or to fool. Yet some of the more sophisticated modern games are designed to provide a “computer opponent” that behaves in some ways like a human, and clever players figure out ways to take advantage of the programming to “fool” the opponent. When playing a multi-sided game such as Civilization or Warcraft III against several computer opponents you can find ways to “make the opposition look foolish”: in fact, this may be easier than when playing against good human opponents. A political victory in Civilization, in effect persuading the computer players to give up, can be seen as a Romantic goal. Further, real-time games tend toward the Romantic simply because there isn’t time for the Classical player to make careful calculations. Under great time-stress some people will still try to play Classically, it will simply be harder for them to do so effectively.

In the single-player video game with no chance element, the Romantic very likely has no opportunity to “take the path less trodden” in order to fool the computer.

Here’s a simple comparison of these two types of players. The Classical player, in Tic-Tac-Toe, will always play to the center square when playing second if his opponent doesn’t take it—and will always take the center if he moves first. The Romantic may try to fool his opponent into playing badly by making a less-than-optimal play, in order to try for a win rather than accept the otherwise-inevitable draw.

To further generalize, playing against the computer tends to encourage the Classical, playing against people tends to encourage the Romantic. However, when the stress of limited time is introduced, it becomes difficult or impossible to play Classically as you have less and less time to calculate risks.

Many good players depend on intuition rather than study and logic to make good moves, yet the moves can be either Classical or Romantic. A Romantic player can also be a very cerebral or intellectual player who happens to prefer the Romantic style. Nonetheless, the Classical player tends to use logic while the Romantic tends to use intuition. Some people would refer to Classical players with derision as “mathematical” players. It is true that Classical players are concerned with odds and expected losses and saddle points (though this alone doesn’t identify or qualify a person as a Classical player). Nonetheless, Classical players do quite well in non-mathematical games.

Games sometimes tend to favor one playing style over the other. Chess is clearly a Classical game. Single-player video games are often Classical. Poker tends to favor Romantic play, because so much depends on bluffing. Most shooters (the frenetic kind) are Romantic, while stealth shooters tend to be Classical, as far as you can categorize single-player games. A game like two player Street Fighter can be played either way. It seems that the very best players, though, play Street Fighter Romantically, somehow reading their opponent’s intentions and beating them to the punch, the ultimate in playing the opponent rather than playing the game. For more about this see David Sirlin’s book, Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion (http://www.lulu.com/content/205476 ) (http://www.sirlin.net/ptw/).

Diplomacy, though without any overt chance factor, is a good game for both Classical and Romantic players. The negotiations and alliance structures give both types plenty to work with. The Classical player tends to be better at tactics and strategy; he prefers long alliances to continuous free-for-all, for there are too many risks and incalculable factors inherent in a fluid situation. The Romantic tends to prefer the fluid state, and his big weapon is the backstab.

It’s hard to say whether an extreme form of Classical play, in a typical one-player video game, would involve rare resort to reloading a saved game, or would involve frequent saves and attempts at all kinds of different tactics to find out which one is best. I tend to be a Classical player, and I prefer the former, but I’m not going to make the mistake of assuming I’m typical!

While “Minimaxers” are usually Classical players, I have known gamers who apply minimax methods to characters or unit mixes, to more or less tactical concerns, but play the overall game Romantically. “Yomi” is David Sirlin’s term for reading the opponent’s mind; the best Romantic players probably have “Yomi”, but this is not necessarily so, and it’s possible that a Classical player may be able to read opposing intentions but still relies on attaining the minimum maximum gain.

Nonetheless, you’d expect most Classical players to be mimimaxers, and most Romantic players to rely on Yomi.

Reaction to Chaos and Randomness

But this is only one way of looking at game playing styles. The third and last for this article, is to look at a player’s reaction to fluidity and randomness. I’ll call the three points of view:

• the “Planner”,

• the “Adapter” (who tends to represent the middle ground) and

• the “Improviser”

The Planner likes to plan ahead-well ahead. He loves it when things he did long ago in a game come together to give him a big success. He is likely, though not certainly, going to prefer a game where much if not all of the information is always available, e.g. chess. He’s likely to prefer turn-based rather than real-time games. When it’s time for him to make a play, to execute a strategy, he doesn’t want to find that the game has changed drastically owing to a recent move by someone else, or because of the nature of the game itself. The Planner will often be a Classical player as well, though this is not necessary.

The “Improviser” does not like to plan ahead. He wants to react to circumstances at the time he makes his play, and he doesn’t mind at all if circumstances change drastically between one play and the next, or in a short time (in a real-time game). Games with limited information availability aren’t going to bother him, while games with perfect information aren’t likely to be attractive. Such players tend to be Romantic, obviously.

The “Adapter” likes to impose order on chaos, he wants to be able to see ahead a couple moves (or a short while in real-time) and then adapt to them, that is, arrange to “take control” of what’s going on. As you can see, this falls somewhere between the other two.

Once again, some games favor one of the three styles or another. Team video games, if the team actually tries to plan and work together, can be for Adapters. Real-time strategy games may attract Adapters, who can plan ahead some, having gained some information about what’s going on. Two multi-sided boardgames that fit the “Adapter” mindset are Vinci and RoboRally. Vinci is a game with perfect information, and with little overt chance, yet you can’t plan far ahead because the rise and fall of empires and selection of new empire capabilities results in great changes on the Europe-like board in a few turns. RoboRally requires players to program movements of their Robot in a violent race through several checkpoints in a bizarrely-dangerous factory. Each player is dealt nine movement cards, and must lay five face down to be executed in order one at a time. You can plan a route, but you won’t always get the cards you need. Chaos sometimes results from player mistakes, yours and mistakes of others.

Civilization (board or video) tends to be a game for the Planner. Card games tend to be for the Improvisers, though some can favor the Adapter. Poker is a game for Improvisers, except that there can be long-term bluffing plans that are characteristic of a Planner.

Diplomacy could attract Planners, Adapters, or Improvisers, depending on how it’s played.

In Tetris, if you’re just reacting to each shape as it appears, you’re playing as an Improvisor; if you’re trying to calculate which shapes will go well, so that you’ll know where to put one when it shows up, you’re playing more as an Adaptor. Because of the time stress and uncertainty about what will appear soon, it’s hard to play Tetris as a Planner.

Because arcade Pac-Man is ultimately predictable, a Planner may have been the first to notice the patterns and find ways to take advantage of them. Insofar as video games tend to conceal a lot of information, they’re not fruitful ground for a Planner, rather encouraging Improvisation.

Platformers reward short-range planning of the kind common amongst Adaptors. Some RTS games (the ones that are short on time-stress and long on strategy) are good for Adaptors. Survival Horror games with limited ammunition available are good for Adaptors. But something like Left4Dead, with practically unlimited ammo and a Director that increases the challenge as necessary, fits an Improviser point of view.

Depending on circumstances, a Planner or Adaptor should be a good leader in a team deathmatch or capture the flag using maps that are well-known.

Race games can favor any type depending on how much information is known to players when the race begins.

Role of Chance

People might tend to assume that these playing styles are closely related to the role of chance in the game. But it’s not a matter of “how many dice rolls”. Some chance can be managed. Tabletop or video Dungeons and Dragons, on the face of it, is full of dice rolls or equivalent, but a player can do his best to minimize the number of times he must rely on dice to save his bacon, or he can “go with the flow” and rely on the dice.

If there are few dice rolls or equivalent, and some are very important while many are not, then chance is very hard to manage. Randomness is largely unmanageable chance. The Planner doesn’t like randomness, while the Improvisor won’t mind at all. Adapters like some fluidity as a result of what other players do, but don’t much like randomness. Classical players tend to hate randomness, while Romantics may welcome it.

In general, games that provide difficulty by requiring quick reactions tend to favor the Improvisor style and make Planning difficult. You don’t have time to plan a lot in Halo or Combat Arms; you can in the “stealth” shooters such as many Red Storm games like Rainbow Six. Real-time games tend to be better for Improvisors, turn-based games for Planners. Games with most information hidden from the players make Improvising much easier than Planning, hence the AAA video games that usually use “fog of war” (hidden information, even the map is hidden to begin with) tend to be games for Improvisors more than Planners.

In other words, “traditional” one-player video games tend to favor the Improvisor rather than the Planner. But this will gradually change over time: as the market for video games continues to expand, many new players will dislike being time-challenged, they’ll want to relax while they play their games, they’ll want to play a little bit (one turn) at a time. The trend is already obvious in casual games.

These are only three spectra of game-playing styles, out of many. For example, I know someone whose main pleasure in playing games is in helping someone else win! I suspect this is such a tiny minority view that designers need not worry about it—though cooperative games have become quite popular this year--but it helps illustrate how many different “favorite ways to play” exist among game players.

(Parts of this were originally published in Dragon magazine, September 1982, and in revised form in The Games Journal, February 2005, and revised again on GameCareerGuide, 26 November 2009.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Branding is becoming very important in the world (or at least, the US). There's the classic experiment where young kids were given two sets of fast food to evaluate. One was marked McDonalds, the other not. The food was identical, but the kids significantly favored the branded food. And a famous pinball machine designer said that you just couldn't succeed without a tie-in to some IP or other... We see many, many sequels in the video game world, but that is partly because sequels have ready-made brands.

Even in playtesting, I'm finding that it's become harder to persuade people to play a game they've never heard of or seen, even when I've taken the time to make the prototype fairly attractive. This is at a monthly meeting that I've attended, off-and-on, for many years; but the people keep changing over time, with the trend away from old-time strategy gamers and toward Euro types.

The exception is where I'm a well-known quantity, as at NC State, where the people have played many of my games and know they're worthwhile. Someone said "you're the brand" when I mentioned this, and I suppose that's true. Perhaps, in the first case, if I sat with a couple of my published games beside me that would help. Then again, I'm just not an arm-twister.

Another difference between the two is that at NC State there are few new games coming into the club and not a great number of old ones, whereas at the monthly meeting people bring lots of games, including lots of new ones, and there's a big games library as well. (There's also a big age difference; the average age at the monthly meeting is around 40, at NC State around 20.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

An unusual game seen at MACE: Ex Illis

The most unusual game I saw at MACE is called ex illis. It is a miniatures game played on a 4x4 square grid with units of several troops and occasional individuals. It's supposed to reflect some non-historical 13th century European situation, but is obviously fantastical. The striking part, however, is that can only be played in conjunction with software that tracks many of the complexities of the game system. The software is free but you can't use a unit until you "activate" it, so the software alone doesn't let you do anything. The software doesn't show the map with actual units, but otherwise it shows graphics of the units and their movement as you move them and attack. You can look up their level of help but the information about their exact offense of capabilities doesn't appear to be accessible. The company's website (http://ex-illis.com/) emphasizes the possibility that units can become more powerful, gaining levels and other capabilities, as you play more games. The unpainted miniatures themselves are plastic, and I'd say they're very expensive but people used it typical miniatures prices may have a different view. A single huge monster is $55. Eight priests or eight warriors are $30. Four cavalry are $35.

There is no ruleset that I could see, it's all in the software. I watched several games being played, and have to say that it appears there is even less tactics to the game than I see in most miniatures games (and I don't see that there's much in typical miniatures). I guess this game will appeal more to miniatures than to battle fans, because there appears to be not much in the battles; of course I'd say the same thing about Warhammer fantasy.

A pitch-man talking about Ex Illis: For $70 you get a lot of hobby, you gotta paint all those miniatues and..." That's a problem, not a recommendation. Painting minis is not my hobby.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

MACE convention

MACE (Mid-Atlantic Convention Expo), proclaiming itself "the largest gaming convention in the Carolinas", met for the 14th year on November 12-14 in High Point, NC. I was at MACE only on Saturday.

MACE is an offshoot of science fiction and fantasy conventions. There are lots of SF/F conventions, often with comics and costuming and lots of other things including games thrown in. I haven't been to one of those conventions since the world science fiction convention that was in Washington DC about 35 years ago. I have a friend who attends many conventions of this kind, and he finds most of them are not very interesting from a game point of view. He has the same to say about his experience in the past with MACE. But he is interested in boardgames and non-collectible card games, and offshoots like HeroClix. He has played D&D for more than 20 years but isn't interested in playing some other RPG.

Not surprisingly, SF/F convention gameplaying emphasizes individual role-playing, as this is the kind of tabletop gaming that most emphasizes story. MACE follows that tradition. Although it was possible to see several board games going on at any particular time, and although there were miniatures games and some CCG's, most of the gameplaying was role-playing. I think a lot of the people came to try role-playing games that they don't have the opportunity to play at home. I talked for a bit with the owner of the convention, Jeff Smith, and he emphasized how much he likes to introduce people to new games and get them out of their ruts. The convention does that well, and people were obviously having a good time which is what counts.

He's tried tournaments, but they don't get much interest. He has never been to a game convention that derives from game traditions, such as PrezCon, WBC, Origins, or GenCon. Two of those are entirely board and noncollectible card games, and the others are much less heavily role-playing.

The small vendor room also reflected the ancestry of the convention, as there were lots of nongame items such as clothing, and the only well-established game publisher was Hero Games, which specializes in RPG's.

In the middle of the day Saturday there was a "chat with the pros panel," which the convention does each year. At a convention where most of the people are relatively local-I drove 104 miles each way which is probably one of the longer trips-I wouldn't expect there to be many people who are interested in the professional side of game production, and so it proved to be. I think they were four spectators and eight pros, all in the RPG business except for me. But it was a lively two-hour discussion, and I learned a lot because I haven't been involved in role-playing gaming for quite some time.

I don't know what the convention attendance was but it appeared to be several hundred.

I had volunteered to talk later the same way I do at WBC and Origins and there was one pro (me) talking to one person who was interested in role-playing game design. Which was alright because I had to think about what to write in my game design book to say how role-playing game design differs from other kinds of tabletop game design. It does show the nature of the convention which was a lot of people wanting to play games and most of them being role-playing games.

I've been inspired by what I've heard at the convention about game distribution to go back to working on my Aetherships game. It's fantasy ships in outer space, kind of like SpellJammer. I originally devised it in 2003 but didn't write the rules in detail and didn't test it. Now I'm going to make it a standalone game with two parts, one a tactical ship to ship/fleet to fleet game, the other a game with boarding actions and individual characters using a very simple RPG system I devised for another game that has sat gathering dust.

If that goes far enough, I may go back to MACE next year to look for playtesters. Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be anything to really hold my interest. I don't follow RPGs any more, and don't usually play; and certainly don't have any interest in trying new ones.

I'm going to list game conventions here in case anyone is adjusted in trying one of the more prominent ones. I'm going to include the distance from my place which is a bit north of Fayetteville, NC.

MACE--100 miles, High Point, mid-November, 3 days, 400? people.

PrezCon--250 miles, Charlottesville Virginia, late February, 4 days, 500 people. This convention is all about boardgames and noncollectible card games, and is organized in tournaments with plaques as prizes. It is a convention for people who want to play their favorite games many times. My friend who didn't find much at MACE played nineteen games of Roborally at the last PrezCon!

WBC (World Boardgaming Championships) -- 450 miles, Lancaster Pennsylvania, early August (beautiful weather), six days, 1500 people. This is the granddaddy of PrezCon. As with PrezCon, you rarely see anyone playing see CCG's or miniatures or RPG's. (There's a huge miniatures convention, Historicon, at the same place a week or two before.)

Origins-- 500 miles, Columbus Ohio, late June/early July, four or five days, more than 10,000 people. This is a much more diverse convention (there's even an art show) and does not have tournaments. It is the main awards and famous guests convention for boardgames and noncollectible card games.

GenCon-- 660 miles, Indianapolis Indiana, early-mid August, four or five days, nearly 30,000 people. GenCon having originated from Dungeons & Dragons, RPG's are much more prominent here, but there are also comic fans and Cosplay (costume) fans and movie fans, and it's more like a SF/F convention that the preceding three game conventions. There are some tournaments, but usually not ones that extend over several days as at WBC or PrezCon. The exhibit hall is awesomely enormous, with "booth babes" yet (no, the others aren't big enough for that expense). Unfortunately, next year GenCon is scheduled at the same time as WBC, just as it was this year.

There are lots of local/regional game conventions on this side of the country that I don't attend, and some larger conventions west of the Mississippi. But if I were to name the major hobby board and non-collectible card game conventions in the US, GenCon, Origins, and WBC would be the only three I would name.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Education: what are the major differences

in focus between various kinds of game curricula?

This originally appeared (with the title "Game Curricula: Differences in Focus" on GameCareerGuide 4 Aug 09. You can click the title of this post to go there.

Education: what are the major differences in focus

between various kinds of game curricula?

Lewis Pulsipher

There seems to be a lot of confusion–some of it deliberate, unfortunately–about several categories of academic programs devoted to games. I’m going to try to describe the differences between “game studies,” “game development/production,” and “game design.”

Game Studies

In “game studies” you are not creating games or even ideas or frameworks for games. You are studying and analyzing games and game players the way psychologists study people or biologists study plants and animals. You want to know such things as why people play games, what “fun” is, what are the fundamental elements of games, what role story plays in games; you may spend a lot of time and effort defining just what a game is–and never come to a conclusion all can agree on! Another aspect of game studies can be evaluating the effect of game playing on the players (for example, with educational games and simulations). The person studying games may not be a lifelong avid game player, though I’d think that many are. Someone in game studies, when playing or watching a game, is more likely to think about how it works, to analyze it, to consider how it affects the players, than he is to be concerned about how enjoyable it is to play (though that IS part of the analysis). The principle “deliverables” of game studies students–what they actually make or do--are long academic papers about games.

Sometimes the study of games is called “ludology”, and as with any other academic discipline, there are doctoral dissertations and formal journals and conferences devoted to the study of games.

Game studies people PONDER; game developers and game designers DO. As with many academic disciplines, then, game studies can ultimately illuminate how games can be improved, but its effects on game creation are indirect and distant rather than direct. If you want to actually make games, “game studies” is not where you want to be.

Game Development

In video game development, your concern is how to create the entire game, to get from the image of the game originally residing in the mind of the designer(s)–the initial game design–to a working video game. (A better term would be video game production or video game creation.) The great part of the production time and money is devoted to programming and art, with lesser amounts spent on game design.

A school teaching game development, then, may concentrate on one of the aspects, or may try to cover the three major ones, design, programming, and art.

In contrast, in the non-electronic game world, game development plays a fairly small part in the creation of a game, because there is no programming, no sound, and so forth. The art is simple, and there is rarely much of it. A published non-electronic game is 80-95% the work of the designer, whereas a AAA list video game is perhaps 25% the work of the design team (such games are designed by committee, in effect if not formally).

A video game developer who is not a designer, when playing or watching a game, is likely to think about how it how it was made, what software tools were used, how long it took, how many people were involved. But developers usually love to play games, as well.

The “deliverables” of game development students, depending on their concentration, will be 3D models, animation, artwork, pieces of game programs, mods, fully-realized simple video games (no one has the time to make a AAA list style game in school).

Game Design

This brings us to game design. The game designer is the person who conceives the framework and structure of a game, who writes the rules or the game design document for the game, who decides how to modify the prototype many times until, ideally, the game is good enough to be manufactured. Game design is a combination of conception, communication, and dogged continuous improvement, via playtesting. The initial ideas don’t count for much, and anyone who thinks he can get an idea and someone else will do the real work is in “cloud-cuckoo land”.

In video games constant communication is very important, as other people actually make the game and get it to work. The designer has to describe his game in great detail so that those people can make it. (In the non-electronic world, the designer makes the entire game, except for the actual production artwork. Communication with playtesters and publishers is still important.) In many cases, AAA list video games are actually designed by committee, involving several official “designers” but also every person on the production team. Everyone wants to contribute to how the game works, and the designer must carefully accommodate (and take advantage of the brain power of) all those folks.

A video game designer, when playing or watching a game, is likely to think about player interaction, challenges, what makes the game worth playing.

The “deliverables” of game design students, are completed non-electronic games, completed levels for existing games, completed game mods, game design documents (for games not yet made), and (in conjunction with game development students) completed simple video games.

Confusing or Misleading Labeling

You may be able to see why game designers are rarely hired straight out of school. Experience counts for a lot, and of all people on a production team the designers are most able to completely foul up a game. In most cases, the designer begins as a tester or programmer in the industry, or as a level designer.

Because there are relatively few jobs for graduates as designers, many game schools devote little instruction time to game design, and not much to level design (which is a subset of game design). Unfortunately, “game design” sounds much cooler than “game production” or “game development”. The big problem, then, for those wanting to attend game-related curricula is that schools often accidentally or deliberately mislabel what they do, most often labeling as “game design” a curriculum that is all about programming or art.

For example, I encountered a university recently that teaches 3D modeling, with a couple game-design-related classes. Yet they call it “game design” and claim that 3D modeling will lead to a game design job once you’re in the industry. I cannot think of a single game designer who started as a 3D modeler (I'm sure there must be some). Designers tend to be former programmers or people who started in QA and other ancillary parts of game production, not in art. (This particular school is in England, the problem is not confined to the United States.)

Similarly, there are schools that say they teach “game development”, but in practice focus almost entirely on game studies or on programming. The latter is especially confusing. A “developer”, in the computer world, is someone who creates software, whereas a “game developer” is someone who creates games whether by programming, art, design, sound, or other means. This is why “game creator” would be a better term, to avoid the confusion with programming.

So what is it, really?

So how do you as a prospective student tell what’s really happening? First, find descriptions of the required classes. Often this will be enough. If most of the required classes involve programming, it doesn’t matter whether the school calls it “game design”, it’s about programming. If most of the required classes are art/3D courses, it’s not game design, it’s game art. If most of the classes involve studying and analyzing games rather than designing, programming, and doing art for games, then it’s game studies, not game development.

If the descriptions aren’t enough–and sometimes descriptions don’t match reality–then you’ll have to try to talk to a current student. Talking with the instructors may help, too, but this depends on how much the instructors are responsible for the mislabeling of the curriculum!

Finally, find out what the background of the instructors is. Have they made games? Look at their resumes and their Web portfolios (they have one, no?). (Few “game studies” people have actual experience of making commercial games.) If teaching game design, have they had games published commercially?

Few schools actually teach game design on its own, without a lot of associated game production classes. In my part of the country, the only one I know of is Savannah College of Art and Design.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Playing at being godlike

Last night at the NC State tabletop gamers meeting, a large group was playing a "game" called "Dawn of Worlds". (Google the title with quotation marks for the PDF.) I put game in quotation marks because it's actually a cooperative--or mostly cooperative--way for a group of people to create a world for a role-playing game. The brief rules provide guidelines for using power points to create terrain, create races and cities, create godlike avatars and armies, and use catastrophes and other methods to reshape the land and the people. This is all very free form, in the end there's probably one person who is the main guide and settles disputes.

Eight people played for more than three hours and did not finish. Some who had played before said it was fun. Most of what happened was cooperative, but a couple guys held all their points for most of the game and then created mayhem. (The game provides extra power points for players who use their points regularly, probably because this storage and mayhem tactic had been used more than once.)

The purpose of the original creators of the "game" was to enable a group of people to create a common fantasy world so that everyone would understand what it was like and what its history was. This would be easier than each person creating their own world that the others would not be familiar with.

Me being me, I was trying to think how this could be integrated into a board game something like Populous, the original gods game by Peter Molyneux from back in DOS days. The young participants in Dawn of Worlds had never heard of Populous, but I have for years had the notion of creating a boardgame something like the video game.

Dawn of Worlds, created by a considerable group of fantasy gamers, has been around since 2005 but I had never heard of it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Go it alone games

One of my recently devised prototypes is a nameless game ("Colonial Scramble", maybe) that I think of as my gateway card wargame. Roughly speaking it's set around 1890, a time when the great European powers were still grabbing colonies in Africa. With five players, the most successful players are likely to work together, it's not a game where you can "go it alone". Yet some of the players are accustomed to typical board and card games of today, which are designed to enable you to go it alone even when there are four or more players.

And now that I think of it I suspect that many modern games, certainly Eurostyle games, are designed to let people go it alone and still succeed. Even the nature of role-playing games reflects this one way or the other. If you try to go it alone in first or second edition D&D, you are probably going to die, later if not sooner. Then third edition came along, designed to let each player be a one-man army that could succeed on his or her own.

A general comment about Gen X versus millennials (Gen Y) is that Gen Xers like to go it alone while millennials prefer to share and work together. In my experience the serious Eurostyle players are much higher proportion of Gen X while the role-playing gamers include a much higher proportion of millennials. Perhaps that's reflected in fourth edition D&D which is returned to being a game in which you must cooperate or your party is likely to fail.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The curse of Brit-like games: play balance

After a partial session of Arthuria on Thursday, I am reminded once again how bloody difficult it is to get balanced sides in a Britannia-like game. On the basis of one playing, many people will say that Britannia itself is unbalanced--then pick any one of the colors to be one that has a big advantage or disadvantage--but we know from statistics that it is in fact quite well-balanced. Part of that is a result of what I call the invisible hand, the way the four players interact to keep someone from running away with the victory, and the way experienced players know what they need to do. You can bet that even those players when they first played the game did not know whether it made sense to attack Caledonians early in the game or whether the Welsh should fight tooth and nail rather than submit, and so on. (And some groups come up with different answers to those questions.) Playtesting a new game, there's none of that experience base to draw on. But given the length of games of this type it is pretty hard to get people together to play again and again, at least for me where I live.

My original sides in Britannia were slightly different than the ones published. And despite several occasions when I've tried to find another set of four with the current forces in points that would be balanced, I have not found any that are satisfactory. The game has to be tweaked to fit the sides.

For some of my prototype games I think I've got pretty good sides; for others it seems like every time there's a playtest, something's lopsided. The trick is not to overreact. Arthuria was originally designed to have players draft their nations. But I quickly decided you can have players doing that when they have no idea of how the game's going to go, which is why I'm trying to figure out a set of sides. *Shakes head*.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Game design can be hard work

because thinking can be hard work

In high school, the teacher is expected to think for you, to package everything in small digestible bits that can be memorized for multiple-choice tests. For the most part, you are trained, not educated, taught to memorize how to do something, rather than understand how to do something, or to memorize facts instead of understanding how systems work. Problem-solving is not part of that package, for sure.

High schoolers become accustomed to the thinking part of their brain being in first gear, or park, rather than in top gear. “Idle”.

Game design is all about critical thinking; one well-known “indie” video game designer says it’s 99% critical thinking, though I won’t go quite that far. The teacher cannot think for you, in game design, you have to think for yourself. And thinking is undoubtedly hard.

Too many people think they can get an idea and someone else will do the work–work which involves a great deal of thinking. Too many think they can easily make a game “just like such-and-such but better”, having no idea how hard it is to make really good games (it’s easy to make poor ones). When they’re posed the problem of making a game that isn’t “just like such-and-such”, they are floored.

Further, game design is about problem-solving. In general, a prototype game is broken. The game designer must figure out ways to fix it, and then ways to make it even better even though it works, because lots of games that work aren’t really very good. These are all problem-solving exercises.

If the initial conception is fundamentally good, then there’s a lot of work to be done to get a good (or better) game out of it. If the initial conception is poor, then it will be difficult if not impossible to get a decent game out of it, and that will require abandoning some of the original conception. Even if the initial conception is “wonderful”, there are thousands of ways to mess it up.

Yes, there are hard jobs that are nonetheless rewarding and even fun. Dave Duncan, a well-known science fiction and fantasy novelist, didn’t start publishing novels until he was laid off from Canadian oil fields at over 50 years old. After 33 novels, he said writing (which is largely thinking) was still hard work.

Sometimes, designing games is hard work because thinking is hard work.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Social "games" as simple puzzles

Farmville and similar social "games" are in fact very simple continuing puzzles. Contrast this with real games and with the typical traditional single-player "interactive puzzle".

Let's face it, puzzles are more popular than games. Crossword puzzles, physical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles. The venerable "Games" magazine is more about puzzles than games, and if you look in the "Games" section of a bookdstore, you're more likely to find books of puzzles than books about games.

Why? Well, one reason may be that you can work with a puzzle a little, then go do something else, then come back. You can't do that with a real game (until recently with mail and email games) because there's a group of people right there, right now. And puzzles have very simple rules, so simple that many people would say a puzzle has no rules. People don't like to be bothered with rules (hence the popularity of video "games"). But I think the main reason why puzzles are more popular than games is, no one can beat you in a puzzle. You might feel a bit like a loser if you can't solve the puzzle, but that depends on the person; still, no one beats you--you cannot "lose", you can only give up.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Rumination about free-to-play games

If so many social games and other free-to-play games depend on voluntary expenditure of funds by the players, will we see over time that players become more resistant to such expenditures, the way people have become more and more indifferent to advertising? (Yes, advertising still works; but it requires a higher volume/greater frequency to be effective, I believe.)

Friday, October 01, 2010

Individual customization

Customization seems to be very attractive to young people who play video games. Perhaps they feel more of a need to express their individuality than someone of my generation (baby boomer) might feel.

Does this desire for customization spill over into the ranks of tabletop game players? And if so, how can we accommodate the desire? Role-playing games can do it, of course, through multiple classes, character attribute numbers, feats, skills, and the like; but how do we do it in board or card games?

Last Night I was talking to college age gamers about creating characters in Paranoia and other role-playing games. Evidently it takes a long time to generate a Paranoia character. And I said that's a barrier to entry, if someone takes a long time to create the character they're less likely to play. Well, they don't see it that way. They talk about character generation in someone's variant of Harn to where you could actually die during character generation. And apparently character generation in normal Harn can take an hour or more. So there's lots of lots of dice rolling to generate things from tables.

Now I remember back in the early days of D&D, we would sometimes do strange things like "roll a sword"--roll on the magic sword tables and see what we came up with. It was a fun way to do something with D&D when we couldn't play. But this hours long character generation, and the possibility of ending up with something that's pretty junky, I just don't get. I guess it's a generational thing. I note that in fourth edition D&D there is a character generation method that doesn't use dice, and no dice-generated character is allowed in the official RPGA events. (By the way, as far as I know I was one of the first people, if not the first, to have a no-dice character generation method published.)

Getting back to the board and card games, it is impractical to have a long customization built into a game because then the game will take too long. About as close as I come is having cards to represent a variety of different characters or groups that can be played in some of my card games. And of course in historical game, in effect which side you play (if the game is asymmetric) provides a small modicum of customization.

(Another day, further thoughts)

Why is customization so important to young video game players? I read two video game magazines regularly, plus a lot on the Web, and I have had many video game design students. The importance of customization is often mentioned by all of these sources. This can range from the purely cosmetic (customization of appearance) to functional (customizing weapons, or merely having lots of weapons to choose from).

I can understand functional customization because it may give you an advantage in the game. I don't understand cosmetic customization. That may be because I'm not visually oriented, or because I'm a veteran gamer and veterans tend to pay attention to what lets them succeed in the game, not what it looks like.

But why the interest in cosmetic customization? Have young people become oppressed by the sameness of modern civilization? Do they feel so helpless in real life that they need a means of self-expression in their games? Is this desire to "look different" related to the constant monitoring that seems to be the norm for kids nowadays (helicopter parents)? Is it just an expression of something else?

I have no idea.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Interesting quotes?

I read the following quote and then tried to find an analog for video games: “In a G-rated film, the hero gets the girl, in an R-rated film, the villain gets the girl, and in an X-rated film, everybody gets the girl.” - Michael Douglas

Here's the best I've been able to come up with: "In an E rated game, no one bleeds, in a T rated game the bad guys and bystanders bleed a little, in an M rated game, everyone bleeds a lot."

Monday, September 27, 2010


I am struck by the difference between the video game industry and tabletop game industry with respect to game "post-mortems". A postmortem examining what went right and what went wrong in the production of a video game is very common. I don't recall ever seeing something called a post-mortem for tabletop game, and rarely see anything like one.

Why the difference? Is it because for tabletop games you keep testing it until you've got it right? Whereas in video games usually constrained by a deadline and almost never have enough time to "get it right". But that doesn't prevent us from producing a lot of weak and sometimes just plain awful tabletop games. Maybe the difference in production budgets has a lot more to do with it. Publishing a small or even medium-sized tabletop game is a matter of five or low six figures of dollars. Only Hasbro or a collectible card game publisher is likely to spend as much as $1 million to produce a tabletop game. Well-known video games now cost in the tens of millions. When that much money is being spent, a postmortem can save a lot of money on the next game. Further, video games are usually the work of a group of people, whereas the design of a tabletop game is usually the work of one person with the assistance of playtesters, and the entire production only involves a few artists and perhaps an editor as well.

It is likely that the major topic for a postmortem of a tabletop game would be production errors or ways that the publisher change the game for better or worse. Designers would say, usually worse.

In fact, I suppose this reflects the difference that the video game industry manufactures complicated software, while the tabletop industry manufactures (mostly) simple games.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


I have much-belatedly begun to read George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series.

You know the novelist has succeeded in his craft when the characters take on a life of their own in the mind of the reader, as though they were real people, the reader thinking about how a character might react in a particular situation (not in the book(s), perhaps imagining conversations with the character, certainly imagining what might happen next in the book(s), and so forth.

Is there any equivalent to that, in games, other than in (perhaps) a heavily story-driven game? I can't think of one.

(A few days later)

I thought of an answer at least where strategy games are concerned. If the player, when he isn't playing the game, spends time thinking about strategies, what he can do, what his opponents can do, playing the game in his mind, then that's more or less the equivalent of what I was talking about above.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What are we looking for when playing

a (tabletop) game we have designed?

The past several days, despite a bout of flu when it’s still 90+ degrees highs outside, I have been playing for the first time a World War II naval development of my science fiction game Doomstar, which in turn descends ultimately from Stratego/l’Attaque. It uses a hexagonal board rather than squares, pieces can ordinarily move two hexes (or more) in a straight line, fighters and bombers can take advantage of aircraft carriers and islands to change direction and move further, pieces have variable strength, and in other ways it’s really not a lot like traditional Stratego.

I’ve asked myself what I’m looking for as I play the game solo. The answer is I’m looking for interesting decisions, lots of them. If the game has interesting decisions to make, then maybe it will be an interesting and enjoyable game for others. In this respect I’m kind of old-fashioned, as most of the games I design are strategy games.

But this led me to ask myself, what other kinds of things might one be looking for in early plays of the game?

How about “telling an interesting story”? Keeping in mind that history is a story, this may be what the simulation wargame designers are looking for, and part of what I look for in historical games like Britannia. But I was thinking more of the people who play games to enjoy the stories. This is particularly true of role-playing games, and of a great many video games. I personally don’t play games to be told a story any more than I play games to learn history, yet I know there are people who play games to learn history or to be told stories.

How about “lots of laughs” as another thing that the designer might look for? This would be particularly true for party games, and for many family games.

“Opportunities to mess with/screw your friends” is another objective. There’s a whole category of “screwage” games where this is very important.

How about “opportunities to manipulate or convince the other players of something”, which might be close to the hearts of Diplomacy players and negotiators in general. But even poker involves subtle forms of manipulation.

“Opportunities to learn” would be important for “serious” games.

“Personal involvement in the story” is a hallmark of many role-playing games. This is quite different from being told a story, which is what I was referring to earlier, this is being involved in the story that you as the players write. RPG’s can go either way. The referee can use the RPG as a way to tell a story, or the referee can set up situations in the RPG so that players can write their own stories, in effect.

“A sense of mystery” might be something else one could look for in a game. This could be an exploration game, it could be a deduction game, or it could be a detective/investigative game. Many puzzle-like games will include mystery.

Some video game designers make games to engender particular emotions, or to fulfill certain kinds of dreams. They would then be looking for something quite specific. This is much more difficult to do in tabletop games, other than RPGs. (RPGs are the bridge between the tabletop and modern video games.)

I’m sure there’s much more to be said about this.


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