Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Forthcoming (with the usual caveats) Games

Someone on Board Game Designers Forum asked for a preview of my forthcoming wargames. So here it is.

Now, when these will be published, whether they will actually be published, is something I never count on until it has actually happened. I’ve experienced enough failures of intent to be careful. (For example, I was never paid for the original (1982) Dragon Rage, though it sold quite well, owing to circumstances far beyond my control and having nothing to do with board games. And Law & Chaos was at Mayfair for many years (I was paid an advance), then the people who bought it moved on to Catan Studios and I now have it in hand once again.)

Germania

Possibly as soon as late summer we’ll see Germania, which despite the “ia” title is not a Britannia -like game. It’s a game of (Germanic) tribal survival in the ruins of the West Roman empire, a combination of wargame and peace game with many Euroish characteristics, but without the fiddliness of huge numbers of bits currently in vogue. (It’s not a puzzle.) A key to a hybrid like this is that the best way to success is to be peaceful, but sometimes others will see that you’re successful and attack you. It has been played where the players never attacked each other directly, but it has also been played where the players constantly attacked each other and had a great time doing so. There are always indirect attacks, that is, invasions of non-Germanic peoples, controlled temporarily by one player or another via the play of cards or other considerations.

The only involvement of dice in the game is in famines and plagues, which are fairly common via event cards. In combat the players use battle cards, choosing secretly and adding the number on the battle card to the strength of the unit(s) in the fight.

Each player has six action points per turn which he can use to create new settlers, improve the land, play event cards, convert settlers to soldiers, and convert units to horse (cavalry). A consequence of using action points in a multi-sided game is that it’s difficult for any player to dominate, even if he has much stronger forces, because he can only move a maximum of three pieces in a turn in the action points system.

When I originally designed the game more than 10 years ago, (it was with another company for a very long time) I tallied the score only at the end of the game. But it makes more sense to tally the score at the end of each player’s turn because, if you play the game long enough, success becomes cyclical, and you might be at a downtime of your nation at the end of the game. You score for holding territories occupied by settlers, and also for improvements built on your territories (or even a town if you can swing it). So the game involves both survival and a simple civilization building aspect. There are only 20-some areas on the board so it can become quite crowded, with a maximum of five players. There is no player elimination because, if your nation is really at a nadir, you can take over one of the external invaders and become the Moors, or the Slavs, the Byzantines or Magyars, or even the Norse or Danes. I don’t recall now if anyone has ever won after taking over an invader, but I recall lots of mayhem caused by player-adopted invaders.

The game uses plastic figures, and can take 2 to 3 hours, or more if you’re like some testers who just kept playing so they could slaughter each other further! (But it’s not really a wargame . . .)

Sweep of History Game

Another game that might appear this summer is presently called Eurasia but may have a different title like Surge of Empires. Again despite the “ia” name it is not Britannia -like, but it is a game where you control a succession of empires on the supercontinent of Eurasia (with North Africa tadded). It is a game of the rise and fall of empires, so over the course of the game a player will control four or five empires, no more than two at a time. There is a card for each empire detailing location of appearance, location of scoring, number of starting armies, and special characteristic. In the standard game they appear more or less in historical order, though there’s an option to have them appear randomly.

This is a game for 2 to 6, though it may only include components for five.

For a long time - this game is many years old - the game was diceless, using a deterministic combat system which is included as an option. But I finally decided that in this particular game the deterministic system was too sterile, too pat, so I replaced it with a simple dice system: roll a die per army, highest sum wins, ties go to defender. Loser loses one army and must retreat. So in a 2 to 1 the two usually win - but not always.

Space Wargame

Instead of Eurasia I might have a two year old space wargame published by the same company. I love space wargames, and this one is, if I do say so myself, “quite elegant”. The result is a two player (or partners, which works very well) civil war for control of a star cluster.

This is a block game but without dice. Any number of blocks can be in a hex but only four can move in a turn. Movement is along wormhole/jump lines, or via hex, although hex movement is usually slower as most of the jump lines are longer than one hex. The blocks are numbered from 1 to 7 except for the leader, but the conflict is not hierarchical (as in Stratego). Instead you sum the strength of the units and the stronger force wins; the winner loses their weakest piece, the loser loses their strongest piece and must retreat. 20 blocks per side in the smaller version, more with partners.

The victory criteria lead to a back-and-forth game where players can threaten victory several times before there’s a conclusion. Some games can be quite quick but up to an hour is more likely. There are 11 valuable systems out of the 27 on the board; if you hold at least seven and your opponent cannot reduce you to less than seven in their next turn, you win. However, each player has a home system, and if you take the enemy home system and he cannot retake it in his next turn, you win. It happens that one player achieves one criterion, then the other achieves the other criterion, and the game continues.

It is very much a game of maneuver, that’s what excellent generalship is about. "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill

The game has an entire set of technology rules that I really like, but they have rarely been tested; they’ll have to be an expansion, if they ever see the light. This is part of the simplification that is becoming more and more common in games: you design a game and then, even though it works fine as is, you try to find ways to make it smaller and shorter. In this case the removal of technology simplified, and made the package smaller.

It’s difficult to provide titles for space wargames, but this one may be called Crashing Suns: Civil War in the Hyades Cluster.

***

My Patreon is at:
https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

My online audiovisual courses about games design (and games in general) can be accessed at https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/
Discounts available on my website, http://pulsiphergames.com

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Do’s and Don’ts of RPG Monster Design

[This is adapted and improved from screencasts available on my “Game Design” channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign - search for "monster"]

Fairly close to my heart is devising role-playing game monsters. What expertise do I have in this subject? In the 70s and 80s I made up a lot of monsters that were published in White Dwarf and Dragon magazines, as well as for my own campaign. I designed several monsters that are in the original Fiend Folio. The Princes of Elemental Evil are particularly well-known and even have their own entry in Wikipedia (archomental). I'm also relying in this piece on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon 2015 early on a Sunday morning with, among others, Wolfgang Bauer and Jeff Grubb up front.

Now I'm talking about monsters primarily for tabletop RPGs because there's a big difference between tabletop RPGs and video games. In video games, you have the boss mentality: boss monsters, really big, bad-ass, lone monsters that are very, very dangerous. I have never thought in those boss terms as I'll explain. I've always used a large number of monsters in a big climax led by some powerful leader. But the leader is not individually nearly as powerful as the character group. It's just that with all the other monsters around both the monsters and the leader collectively become very dangerous.

The big difference is that in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a save game to go back to. Bosses are designed with the idea that there's a save game to go back to. They are designed to kill you several times before you succeed. You can't play tabletop RPGs that way, even today with all the easy healing, because if you die you’re dead (more or less). So in video games the purpose of any monster can be to kill the characters the first several times, whereas in tabletop the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening their characters in some way, but not by actually killing the characters. Death may happen occasionally (just to keep everyone "honest"), but it can't happen frequently, or you're not going to have much of a campaign.

So video game bosses tend to be much tougher in relation to the adventuring party or individual than the monsters you meet at a climax in a tabletop RPG. This is a fundamental difference. Video gamers would be disappointed if almost every time they had a climax they win the first time. They'd feel cheated, that it was too easy. It's a matter of expectations is much as a game functionality.

Of course, there are many ways tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs and many of those are because of "save games" or lack of same. When you're making up monsters I think you should focus on the element of surprise, not just on making them super tough. Some game designers, including R. Knizia and S. Miyamoto ("We want to entertain people by surprising them ...") espouse this view. Likely Miyamoto would say that a major objective in any game is to surprise players, so perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players, and many of my suggestions derive from surprise. A specific surprise is only going to work once, but that's one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters, to provide new surprises.

So what do we look at? Here's a list, then I'll discuss each one:
The Unknown
One Unusual Characteristic (kind of a loop)
Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
Characteristics from two types combined into one
Misdirection
“Worse things than killing you”
Foreshadowing
Really Smart Enemies
Time Pressure
Positioning
Society/faction/group
Relentless Hordes

Fear of the Unknown is the first one. A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with something they don't already know. The players will probably feel it's more fair and perhaps more true to life if they can derive some of the characteristics of the unknown monsters from past experience or from appearance. "It looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant." "With those big teeth, I bet it bites HARD."

Sometimes it'll be just one unusual characteristic. This may work particularly well if you take a well-known monster and give it a single surprising quirk. The obvious that comes to mind is regeneration. Regeneration is very powerful and should be used sparingly, but if you have an ordinary monster that regenerates, it will surprise the heck out of players, especially when a monster gets back up off the dungeon floor.

A single characteristic can be a focus of an unknown monster as well. Some refs won't want to go to extremes such as flying orcs or regenerating orcs, on the other hand, we don't mind the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.  I once made up a group of several kinds of lightning spitting monsters roughly analogous to military tanks (in my mind), although the players never realized that. They were big and they looked dangerous, and they were even without the lightning. The catlike ones were faster, sluglike ones really hard to kill, and so on. But it was lightning that set them apart and scared the players, in many encounters with them.

You can take two types of monsters and have them cooperate. Keep in mind the truism, there's hardly anything original under the sun; but combinations of things can provide new experiences, and that can surprise. We see this kind of cooperation whenever a monster type is said to normally employ a different monster type as guards. Of course, powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters and those weaker monsters can nonetheless provide good interference when our heroes show up.

We can also take the characteristics from two monster types and combine them into one. There's the classic owl bear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtle, and so forth. You can take normally unintelligent monsters and provide them with human intelligence or normally intelligent monsters that aren't intelligent now. Some combinations may not be very believable, and I like believability in games and try to avoid them, but in this the age of TV and movie silliness not too many people care. The standards have changed over the past half century, so you can do things that would've been laughed out of the building, so to speak, 50-60 years ago, which now most people shrug at and accept.

Another way to make monsters interesting is misdirection. Play on the expectations of the players: change the appearance of the monster, pretend to be another monster, change stats (although it's easy to overdo that so I try to avoid just changing the stats of an existing monster).

There are worse things than killing you. Monsters don't have to kill to be frightening. They can turn your bones to rubber. The rust monster eats equipment. Permanent level drain, even temporary can be bad. Characters can be captured - slavers are monsters too. Theft  - lots of monsters that nick your items such as leprechauns. There lots of things you can think of that are not death but will frighten the players. Threaten their characters' well-being, their possessions.

Foreshadowing is something you can do with any monster. It helps foster fear of the unknown.  You can provide clues signaling danger - tracks, even something as simple as noises. Maybe the players will find something in writing that indicates that some intelligent monster is around - somewhere.

Really smart enemies.  Face it, classic movie enemies are often stupid. This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists, and if you haven't read the Evil Overlord list I strongly recommend that you do so. http://www.eviloverlord.com/lists/overlord.html . Relatively dim monsters can be cunning: the great boxer Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim brained man, but he was a cunning boxer. Consider though, you have to put your brain into the monster preparation. If you're not trying to be smart, how can the monsters be smart?

Time pressure is the classic videogame way to make monsters more dangerous. There's just not enough time to do all the characters want to do. But you can do this in tabletop games as well. Time stress leads to mistakes. “Watch out, it’s going to blow up!” or the enemy has diverted water into a room that's filling up with you trapped in it, or there's a fire spreading or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it. There are all kinds of ways to implement time pressure even if you're playing strictly on a turn basis. You know there only so many turns before something happens, you're still under pressure.

Positioning is another thing you can do with any monster. The classic is that you have a balcony that protects otherwise vulnerable archers because they're up there and you're down here on the floor or on the ground. Simple barricades, very low ceilings with/for short monsters: you're going after Duergar and they've kept their ceilings low so that humans have to bend down and are much less effective in every way, especially in a fight. Burrows of monsters can be hard to move around in. Water barriers can make a big difference. You can think of lots of ways to do this, but you have to think of it to make it happen.

You can have societies or factions or groups where the group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts. I've often found that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster, especially if they're subordinate to a leader that organizes them, a commander or "mastermind."

The last one is relentless hordes. Sheer numbers can be terrifying even if the monsters are individually weak. The Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition "minions" rule is quite brilliantly simple. Any damage kills a minion, but you can have lots of them and they're easy to keep track of (tabletop) because either they're doing fine or they're dead. Relentless hordes are the opposite of the videogame boss syndrome where an often-lone monster is super tough, but try it, you may find it interesting.

Don'ts

I have talked about the Do's and not the Don'ts, now let's look at the other side. The general principle is, give the players a chance, don't spring something on them. Don't rely on them having to die to find out something. (Some people have given a name to that particular characteristic but I don't recall what it is.)  You don't ever want to force the players to die to learn something. I'm thinking in terms of a large set of players of many different attitudes, and trying not to really piss off any of the subgroups.

So, no "invulnerable to everything but X," though that's not so bad IF players know about it ahead of time. For example, we know about iron golem invulnerabilities in the older versions of D&D, which is to say virtually nothing hurts but +3 or greater weapons, and so we have time to prepare or avoid. We don't always manage to do that, but we've got the chance. At least that's what counts.

Another is sudden, unwarned-about death as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the carnivorous bunny kills in one attack. (Yes, "Tim" warned them, but it was not a believable monster so the warning had no effect.)

Another no-no: take an innocuous looking thing and make it a super monster, which turns out to be (again) like the Carnivorous Rabbit from Monty Python's Holy Grail. You may think that's funny, but serious players won't think that's funny when they're the victims. (As with everything else, "it depends".)

The golden rule applies. In fact, both golden rules, the general Golden Rule and the golden rule of RPGs. The general Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is pretty good. Ask yourself how you'd feel if such-and-such happened. The RPG golden rule is, "what's good for the players is good for the monsters and vice versa," that is, if the monsters can do something wild or drastic shouldn’t the players also have a chance to do it? And if the players can do something, shouldn't the monsters be able to as well? Think about it. Try to be at least halfway sensible and always put yourself in the shoes of the players and ask yourself how you would react if this happened to you.

Someone sufficiently steeped in the myriads of RPG rules published since 1974 could probably write a book (with many examples) about monster design. But this is enough to provide a guide for the inexperienced.

Lew Pulsipher

Friday, March 03, 2017

Recent screencasts (videos_

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

Nuts & Bolts: How a game can derive from a bit of another? https://youtu.be/z64CmrVCYN4
It's not unusual for a game to use a system that's been successful in another game. But sometimes one game grows out of a small bit of another.

Constraints in games from a player viewpoint (two parts) https://youtu.be/p_zEo1Dt0JQ
Though contemporary gamers (especially video gamers) tend to dislike constraints, practically speaking games ARE merely sets of constraints. Properly specified constraints can make the game especially interesting. for the player(s).

Digital Game Pricing (2 parts) https://youtu.be/Zr_67zmDtWQ
https://youtu.be/1ZezRtcsnJg
Some people suppose that there's a "solution" to (over)saturation of the downloadable game market. There are lots of schemes, but I don't see any solutions in this detailed examination.

RPGs: Stifling Creativity? https://youtu.be/anLNLWX090s
It seems too many DMs are guilty of letting players push them around, resulting in a waste of time while a player tries to convince the MD that such-and-such wildly unlikely occurrence should be assigned a decent chance of happening. When you enforce the game rules (and physics) you simply the game and keep it moving along, you aren't stifling creativity.

Yes, the dead-kobold wielder actually said "You're stifling my creativity." Poppycock!

Practical vs Reality https://youtu.be/kjbHNC3nkhk
Game design is a series of compromises, and major compromises can occur when reality and what's practical in a game clash. Some "practical decisions" result in behavior that has next to nothing to do with reality.

My Patreon is at:
https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

RapierCon and Prezcon 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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


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

I had it from Justin Thompson himself that more people were at PrezCon than anytime before, which would mean somewhere around 700. Rapier, by the way, which switched from summer to February a couple years ago, had 150; they don’t want more than 200 because the hotel won’t accommodate more.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Two+ Weeks Away at WBC and GenCon 2016

I wrote most of this last year, not long after returning from these two conventions. But as you see, I didn’t finish it until now. When I say “this year”below, I usually mean 2016, and “next year” is 2017. Because the conventions were on successive weeks (unlike 2017) I was able to go to WBC, then to my sister’s, then to GenCon, then to my brother’s, and home - more than 2,000 miles.

Going away for an extended period is, incidentally, a way to get rid of some unproductive habits.

WBC


WBC was at a new venue in a new location this year, a ski resort in Seven Springs Pennsylvania. In fact the resort is the town, there is no town of Seven Springs. Someone purchased a lot of land and set up a resort in the middle of nowhere, more or less, and takes advantage of the monopoly pricing that goes along with that. I know there were many people who had reservations about the new location, including me. As it turned out, the convention is very spread out - I overheard one person say his hotel room was over 1000 paces from the open gaming area at the other end of the complex - but the facilities are also much newer, and much more interesting to look at, then at the Lancaster Host where the convention has been for some years. (As the Britannia GM, Jim Jordan, put it: "Seven Springs is a really nice place and the game spaces were terrific compared to those we’ve had in the past."

Housing and food were very expensive (compared with Lancaster) owing to the monopoly nature of the location. Because the location in Lancaster is a tourist area, there were lots of hotels and restaurants short distances from the convention. At Lancaster I used to camp - a campground is only 400 yards from the Host, with a river running by and only cornfields on the other side of the river. One year I waited too long to reserve, and I'm getting older, so more recently I stayed in a decent (and cheap) Knights Inn a mile away. Nothing like that in Seven Springs!

My early impression was this: Yes, some things will likely be improved next year. But some things cannot change: the fundamental situation is that you're in the middle of NOwhere, and subject to a monopoly, with all the potential for slackness that a monopoly often entails.

The resort did try harder, evidently feeling a need to host conventions in the summertime because it doesn't get many people coming to the resort when skiing is not available. While I was scouting out the convention on the first day I was there (first Sunday) I discovered that part of the area where wargames were being played was not air-conditioned. I didn't visit there again, but I'm told that the resort put nine portable air conditioners into the area the next day.

There are other leisure activities available at the resort such as bowling, waterslides, zip lines, etc. But these are not cheap, the best deal being $30 a day to use any or all of them.

The nearest gas station is at least 9 miles away, and only one hotel slightly nearer than that. But I suspect more people will stay in that more-distant area next year than this year. My roommate and I were in four-story wooden buildings for skiers. (No elevator in sight, but if you're fit enough to ski then hauling baggage up three flights of stairs won't bother you.) While the literature said we'd be within a mile of the convention center, that was as the crow flies (or as the skier skis), driving it was over three and half miles one way. No ice, not even shampoo - but 6 bars of soap!

When you're already driving 3 1/2 miles, 9 miles doesn't sound so bad. I encountered someone at midweek who came up just for a day and night, and he had been told that the resort hotel, despite having 10 floors and something like 70 rooms per floor, was full.

Given the statistics (1 of 4 Americans over 60 is diabetic), many people at WBC must be diabetic.  But the food on offer did not feel accommodating. Then again, they're geared for skiers, not lots of older folks.


With the uncertainty and "exclusivity" of the venue, you'd expect attendance to be down. Yet it seemed to me that there were about as many attendees as in previous years. For my Thursday evening talk I had about as many people as I would normally expect at that time. The Britannia tournament actually had more unique individual players than the preceding year (35). But I overheard GM's of other tournaments asking one another for help in voting (to get approval next year) because their attendance was so down, and I was told of another tournament that had something like 50 instead of 100 participants. Someone at my talk, sounding as though he had certain information, said the attendance was down.

So it has proved:  “the overall paid headcount was down 22% from 2015 totals, attendees arrived earlier and stayed longer in the nine-day conference that no longer was split between pre-con and WBC week activities. 25 events drew triple-digit participation - up one from 2015 - as the average tournament field declined by only .7 player from 59.6 to 58.9 and 14 returning events actually posted their largest fields of the past decade. 152 of the scheduled 154 events achieved tournament status with fields ranging from a minimum of eight to 288 players for Splendor!” (Attendance in the past exceeded 1,500.)

As is typical of boardgame conventions such as WBC, it's a rarity to see a black person amongst the players. Lots of women and youngsters, though. As always, WBC is very family-friendly. The problem with family friendly is bawling kids (3 weeks old in one case!).


As many readers know, I do not play my own games once published. That's because I design games for other people, not for myself. But also my favorite game is the game of designing games, and playing my own published game rarely advances my game design. (I do play variations of my published games when I'm considering revision for a new edition, of course.)

At WBC this year I broke my streak, playing in the third heat of the Britannia tournament so that two other people could play (including the GM, who played twice to make up the numbers, and who had not been able to play in the first two rounds). I managed to win as green, but later announced my Retirement Undefeated rather than playing in the semi final! Mission accomplished.

I have never claimed to be a top class Britannia player. And some people would say that game designers are rarely very good at playing their own games.

More than 10 years ago, when I was just peeking back into the hobby I'd ignored for 20+ years, Brian Carr told me about some of the remarkable people who played Britanna, even though it had been out of print for some years. There are still remarkable people playing, and I once again enjoyed a "traditional" dinner with them at WBC.


The somewhat out-of-the-way vendors area at WBC was reasonably populated, though my friends from "Against the Odds" magazine didn't come citing the costs, and Worthington Publishing didn't come because one of their daughters was getting married. Still, GMT was there (and they're not at GenCon), Academy Games, Lost Battalion, and a variety of other vendors. One small publishing company told me he earned more in sales from Friday at WBC than he did all last year at GenCon. I bought the usual bits such as stands for cardboard pieces, a bag of unusually shaped blocks (I already have lots of normally shaped blocks), and even a counter sheet to make some counters for "free-form Britannia in outer space", which I'd conceived at the convention.

GenCon


There are higher proportions of women and  minorities at a convention as you add other kinds of games such as RPGs and CCGs, and story-games of all types, along with other geek hobbies such as film and comics.  GenCon seemed more crowded and yet more spread out (they added the indoor football (Colts) stadium). But it turned out that attendance was about the same as the previous year, about 61,000 unique individuals.

I don’t go to conventions to play games (though occasionally it happens). I figure I can play games a lot closer to home! I go to talk with people, especially game (and book) publishers. I did play four games this time, all of them my designs.

So I arranged, ahead of GenCon, to discuss a few of my games with publishers. Generally one makes an appointment, turns up at the booth (or other agreed place) at the agreed time, usually with a prototype, and you talk. Occasionally you might play the game with them, if it’s fairly short.

Where do these prearranged discussions take place? Sometimes we leave the enormous exhibit hall (which is crowded, rather loud, and rarely private) for an adjoining game hall, sitting at an empty table. I’ve even sat on the carpeted floor in the concourse outside the exhibit hall to show a game to a publisher. Occasionally a publisher has set up a (roofless) enclosed space as part of their booth, and the discussion takes place there. Or it may be at a table within a booth that’s open to the rest of the exhibit hall, so that we can actually play the game.


I don't attend the standard auction at either convention but I do look at the auction store, trying to find cheap sources of pieces. I couldn't find any copies of the boardgame Exalted (lots of Mediterranean galleys) but I did buy a copy of Risk Godstorm at WBC. (In case you haven't heard of it, and auction store involves people registering games with three prices which depend on the time of day, and these games are laid out on tables through which potential buyers circulate. Someone can buy at the current price or wait until later and hope that the game will still be available at a lower price.)





As you may know, GenCon applied "diversity" principles (that is, reverse immoral discrimination, not better than any other kind of immoral discrimination) to choose the Industry Insiders this year, with the result that I only recognized a couple of names. Add to that the problem that the Insider panels are added to the event list long after people have signed up for courses. When you find you've already signed up for something in the time slot, it's hard to get out of that one so you can sign up for another (there ought to be a single button to do that).

But this year I found I was sufficiently busy that I attended none of the seminars I'd signed up for, and only three altogether. One was really useful, one good, one a bust. None were Insider panels, for the second year in a row.

GenCon also made a subtle change that reduced free seminar attendance (most are free). They did not list, in the convention catalog distributed on site, the events that were already full. I can understand this for paying events, but for free events such as seminars, it was a mistake. People often attend seminars when they have a non-busy interval - that’s how I attended the three I made it to - and look in the catalog for what's available. The theoretically full seminars weren't there. Yet only perhaps a third of the people who sign up for a free seminar actually attend, and without the attendance of the browsers, overall attendance was down significantly.

I was told the smartphone app did list the theoretically full free ones, but many people rely on the catalog.

My not-officially-full seminar had twice the actual attendance of my two that were officially full.


When possible I like to hang out at one publisher’s booth during the day, to rest and to leave stuff I don’t want to carry around all the time. That didn’t happen at WBC this year, but at GenCon it was the booth of my book publisher, McFarland. There I met Karl-Heinz Roseman, who like Lisa Camp before him is a “good guy” interesting to talk with. He was especially busy this year, it seemed. My book sold out once again - does every year, a game design book at a big game convention?  For some reason McFarland doesn’t “get it” and send more copies the next year . . .


I didn't see a single hex-and-counter wargame at GenCon.  It's a story convention, a geek convention, only partly a game convention.

2017


I'm not planning to attend GenCon this year.  This is a combination of things. The two conventions are two weeks apart, and I prefer WBC.  It's more relaxed, and I know a lot more of the people and have a better chance of getting games playtested.  I'm afraid the 50th Anniversary of GenCon may make it more of a ratrace/zoo than it normally is. I'm also put off by the immoral reverse discrimination being used to select the Industry Insiders, though it doesn't seem to affect the rest of the convention. I used to go to some Insider panels, but the past two years I've attended none. I also begin to suspect that game designers and designs get lost in the crowd at GenCon, so I'm going to try to approach publishers separately.


My Patreon is at:
https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Games as Art (with a capital A)?

To me, games are models of something, not a medium for conveying "meaning" and "significance."  If, say, the model is history, then the players may learn history (a form of meaning).  And they can learn a variety of other things from games.  But this is usually a byproduct of the interest in the game, not the purpose of the game.

My usual response to questions about games as art is, of course games are art (though not Art) - but most players don't care.

Perhaps "Artists" create Art largely for themselves, so that we (consumers) can think about something "meaningful" or "significant".  I create games for other people.  In most cases, the ultimate test is whether people like to play the game.  If I can make a four to five hour game that people willingly play more than *five hundred* times (I have), then I've certainly succeeded.

Ian Bogost is quoted as saying, "Art is about changing the world; entertainment is about leisure."   In that sense, virtually no games are art, they are entertainment, and in a short definition I would not try to reflect the (rare) possibilities for Art.

Big video games seem to be designed by committee, with all the problems of committees.   In most cases, the person listed as "designer" has no more than (say) 25% influence on the result, the rest coming from the many other people involved (up to and including the publisher).  Small video games offer a higher percentage, and tabletop games enable 80% to nearly 100%.

In cases where the designer can create the prototypes himself (tabletop games, simple video games), there is no formal writing involved other than to write the rules (tabletop).   Yes, most designers write notes to begin with, and those notes guide the creation of prototypes, but the prototypes are the "meaning", not the writing.

Games existed long before they became software.   Long descriptions of a game - game design documents - are only required as part of a large software project, and are not inherently necessary to creation of a game.  The game must speak for itself, the descriptions do not.

Individuals can motivate themselves to create Art, not Product, when making their own game; but most people on a large video game project are not making *their* game, they're being paid to make someone else's game, so it's not surprising that Art doesn't come into their calculations.  And when the entire team collectively "designs" the game, almost inevitably there is no thought about Art, as no one really feels authorship.

(Written in 2011 - but just as true today.)

 My Patreon is at:
https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Stories in Games (again)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many game devs are frustrated film-makers or novelists who want to tell a story.  But in the main, games - other than RPGs and expensive video games, perhaps - are poor mediums for story-telling.  It's like using a spreadsheet to do word processing.  You can do it, but it's very inefficient, and limited.

Monday, January 09, 2017

My recent screencasts on YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

 Flexibility in Games
A seldom-discussed aspect of games - especially tabletop games - is their flexibility. Can the game be played to varying lengths, by varying numbers of players? Can players join in after the game has begun?
https://youtu.be/SiG_Xhe6rQs

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Are you designing a game, or throwing one together? : You can’t design a game as though you were playing a video game

(First appeared on Gamasutra.com)

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

Just Say No to Guessing

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

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

This is not surprising. Programming is very logical, and people often are not taught logical methods in K12. The proper response when the program isn't working is to figure out the program flow, identify where it went wrong, change the program, and test the solution. It works the same way in game design. Much of the purpose of playing a prototype is to identify problems and test solutions. This includes some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it is logic.

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

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

Inspiration? Not Reliable

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

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

Why Do People Design This Way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration of Throwing Against the Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Scientific Method"/Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

I despise the word "iterate". Yes, this is an iterative (repetitive) process, but the word iterate, which is often used in video games, must be one of the ugliest words in the world, yet only covers half of what you're doing. You are modifying and testing, not just playing again and again. The scientific method is involved.  To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. (Wikipedia)

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

An Analogy

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

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

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

Method is important, and trial and error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it. If you rely heavily on intuition or inspiration, more power to you, but that's not something that I want to teach aspiring game designers. If you think it's all about inspiration, I think you're dead wrong, any more than getting ideas is all about inspiration. You have to work at something to do it well on a consistent basis. You can't hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance.

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

Design a game, don't guess at it.

Lewis Pulsipher



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

Patreon:  https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
Twitter @lewpuls
Pulsiphergames.com
Online courses: https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/
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google.com/+Pulsiphergames

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Triptych VIII: Three separate topics in one post

(Except this time it’s four to get to a 1,000 words. . .!)

Programming is not “Integral” to Games
Pop History
Special Powers Card Games 
Virtual Reality

Programming is not “Integral” to Games
(Originally written in 2009. And we now see, with Unity, how much easier it is to make video game software than in 2009.) I don't regard video games as fundamentally different from non-electronic games.  There are tens of thousands of non-electronic games that were never touched by a programmer.  If the video game designer had some "magic" (technologically advanced) way to create the software - and as time goes on and technology improves, this will be the case - then programmers would be unnecessary.

That's why I regard programming as a necessary evil of video games, not fundamental to games.

It is already the case that someone who isn't a programmer by training or inclination can create the equivalent of Pac-Man with Gamemaker in a fairly short time.  More and more complex video games will be made without trained/professional programmers.

Ultimately, programming is "donkey work," something that ought to be done by machines.  But I could say the same about many kinds of work.  Some of those kinds of work have already disappeared or are disappearing, some will disappear.  Programming is going to be done by machines--already is, in many cases, though the machines are using software created by programmers - long before design or art is done by machines.

***

Pop History
I read something recently about a game covering the fall of Rome in Britain, and about incorporating Arthurian stories into it.

Yes, I included Arthur in Britannia, but that was literary license, not history.

Yes, there are lots of books supposedly about Arthur, all amounting to "well, this could have meant that, and could have been about the person we call Arthur" that then transforms into "this was Arthur".  It's a big industry of speculation with virtually no foundation, much more fiction than fact. There is NO contemporary evidence for "Arthur", almost no contemporary evidence for *anything* in this time period. ("Dark Ages",  remember? Dark because of lack of information, not a comment on the standard of living.)

A big reason why history changes so much from one generation to the next, is that so much of it is malleable rather than certain. History becomes, not fact, but fiction intended to appeal to the desires or needs of contemporaries.

"Pop" history, video history as we sometimes see on the History Channel, is a reflection of this. It's history as modified by what "the masses" want it to be.

***

Special Powers Card Games
One reason why Magic:the Gathering  became successful is that it was, if not the first game, one of the first games where the main interaction is between the cards of the two players, using special powers that are exceptions to the rules. That has been generalized for many card games, it's a kind of game that's easy to make, and I know several budding designers whose first game is of this type.

I am not a fan of them because they don't have anything do with reality. Some of the people who are designing the games may think so - but there's a weak grasp on reality these days. Yu-Gi-Oh is even worse because lacks the constraint of "lands".

For me any "theme" in these games is just a gloss. It's not something that actually affects how the cards are played or how the game is designed. It doesn't help people understand how the game works, either.

My name for this kind of game is "Special Powers Card Game" (SPCG).

***

Virtual Reality
Pundits are still pontificating about whether virtual-reality games (VR) will succeed as a business, and have been since the announced release date for the Oculus VR with the anticipation that it’s Valve and Sony competitors would be not far behind.

I have not used one of these contemporary VR systems, and I read that people who do are often converted to the cause. My experience goes back some decades when (at a convention I cannot otherwise recall) I put on a primitive VR-like device. It was suspended as a pair of eyeglasses, but with one side empty and the other side occupied by a small module. That module produced a red dot on black screen display (this tells you how old it was) that substituted for the screen display of typical computers of the time. You could see the “screen” with one eye while the other could see your normal surroundings. I didn’t try to play a game with it but I was quite impressed with how very well it substituted for a screen.

I also recall, in the early to mid 90s, watching a graphical “virtual tour” of a part of the new Womack Medical Center that was being built. The 486 computers of the day really weren’t fast enough to render the tour in more than slow motion. It was quite fascinating nonetheless.

More recently I’ve seen augmented reality (AR) games, and I understand that game developers are far more gung ho about AR than about VR, yet few of them are actually producing AR products. [Written before Pokemon Go was released! I bet a lot more are working on AR now.]

Within the past six or seven years I’ve also been in a virtual-reality chamber where three walls showed a seascape and you could walk around looking at it.

Recognizing that computing power is still advancing rapidly, and thinking about how the graphical capabilities of computers have changed from the old ASCII graphics to modern 3-D, it appears to me to be inevitable that VR will succeed sooner or later. Too many people want to reach the Star Trek holodeck stage for maximum immersion.

Whether the current products will start that progression, or fail as those of the past have failed, is subject to all kinds of chance and unforeseen factors (such as hygiene?). Remember, the best products don’t always prevail in the marketplace (Betamax versus VHS VCR for example). Timing is very important, and we have no idea, even now with products out there, whether the timing is good.

***

My Black Friday/Christmas sale on my online game design courses is listed on my website, http://pulsiphergames.com/#BlackFriday

Doomstar has sold better than the average mobile game, though how it compares with other PC (and Mac/Linux) games I do not know. It’s on Steam as “Lew Pulsipher’s Doomstar” but Doomstar is good enough to search. Or buy from the publisher https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

Lewis Pulsipher

For the first time in a few years, I refereed a fantasy role-playing game. In this case I was using my own simplified rules (“Basic (Fantasy) RPG”), in order to playtest them, and I was running a game for my usual college playtesters.

Keep in mind that I started playing D&D in 1975. The title refers to how things are a lot different than they were in 1975, at least in role-playing games. Role-playing games have been badly influenced by video games, where you cannot lose because you can always go back to a save game, then worsened with MMOs and free-to-play games. The practice there is to constantly reward people so they'll continue to play, so that ultimately spend some money on in-game purchases/transactions.

So the players were constantly wondering where the loot drop was when they bumped off a few kobolds that wandered by, or some other wimpy monster. But worse, I saw manifestations of something I read about recently, where players frequently experiment with items to try to find “creative” ways to use them, and expect the referee to accommodate them.  (For example, rub a little healing potion on a wound and expect it to heal it.) One player had been captured and probably killed (as far as other players knew) by a fairly powerful monster; he was unconscious. In his backpack, wrapped up in a bag, he had a crystalline disk, about the size of a frisbee, that they picked up from some phraints (thri-keen). He wanted the disc to slip out of the bag, somehow, then out his backpack, and cut the monster in half! I just looked at him and said no, but he had already decided that there had to be a chance for it and rolled dice as though he was rolling for it. I told him, if I were to give you a roll for that, and I don't, you'd have to take 10 six sided dice and roll six on everyone. (The chances were actually MUCH worse than that, but it was enough for me to think he’d shut up. No, he proceeded to gather up 10 six sided dice and roll them. (Keep in mind, this lad is a freshman and appears to enjoy being an annoying younger brother.) It didn’t count, of course, and of course he didn’t come close to 10 sixes.

There was another player who was constantly trying to do tricks – what *he* called creative – with the dead kobold that he carried around on his back. He evinced astonishment whenever he couldn't do what he wanted, and at one point he even said “you’re interfering with my creativity.” Well, creativity has to be associated with reality, and many things he was trying to do just didn't make any sense. That's not creativity, that's brain fever.

Now I know that many younger people playing role-playing games indulge in this kind of so-called creativity all the time, but I won't have any of it. Creativity in problem-solving is desirable, but not when flying in the face of physics or other realities.

Another of the things he felt he ought to be able to do, is run away from some enemies who were beating on him (melee), then stop, turn around and shoot them in the face with his self bow. I said, these guys are right on top of you. You turn around and run away, when you turn back to shoot them they're gonna be there and they're going to break your bow with their weapons. If nothing else. He didn't seem to understand how that would be. Of course, in some game rules when you run away like that the opponents get a free attack on you and then you could pull off what you said. I was treating it like a realistic situation in this case - it was a playtest - and there was no way he could do this.

It was also a one-shot game rather than a campaign, so they didn't take it as seriously as they might have otherwise. At least they enjoyed it.

In olden days you had to “train” players to accept limitations. I suppose that’s true today as well, but contemporaries strongly dislike constraints, and often want this kind of game to be a playground, not a game where you have to earn something.

****
The “exigencies of life” (and hurricanes) have interfered with this blog.  I still (until the past couple weeks) post a screencast (video) each Thursday on my “Game Design” YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign).

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Dirigible Diplomacy

(I don't know when I devised this variant - decades ago, no doubt, when I was devising Dipvariants regularly. I've just run across it in my note program, and as I've been contemplating a "steampunk" game involving "dirigible juggernauts", I decided to post this one in the blog.)

This variant is partially based on H.G. Wells' novel, "The War in the Air".  Written in 1907, the book depicted the development of air forces which were both very destructive and cheap and easy to build.  The main force were huge rigid-framework hydrogen-filled airships (known in 1914 as dirigibles or Zeppelins).  Wells however did not foresee the real expense and maintenance required.  Also, dirigibles were very vulnerable to special bullets fired by aeroplanes (such bullets did not exist when Wells wrote his novel).  For purposes of this variant however, we assume Wells to be partially right; dirigibles are stronger than they were in World War I.

1. There is an additional type of unit, the dirigible air fleet (D).  Several huge airships and heavier-than-air machines carried by them comprise a D, which is relatively cheap to build but also fragile.

2. Each supply center yields five supply points (SP) each game year.  Each year it costs the following to supply a unit:  Army or Fleet - 4 SP, Dirigible - 3 SP.  SP may not be accumulated or transferred to another player, so any extra are lost.

3. The game begins with a 1900 building session.  Using their SP from home supply centers (15 except Russia, 20) each player builds units of this choice in his home centers.  A dirigible may be built in a center which also contains a normal army or fleet.  Russia, however may not build fleet ST. Pete north coast in 1900.

4. D orders are treated as an additional set of conflicts taking place above armies and fleets.  As well as acting for and against one another, D's may support an attack on, or defense in the space directly "below" (the one the D occupies), but may not themselves attack.  Therefore a D cannot cut support by an army or fleet.  Armies and Fleets have no effect on D's.  When a D supports an army or fleet it may not do anything else and an attack on it by another D will cut the support.

5. Only one D may occupy a space, but an army or fleet, even one belonging to another player, may also occupy the space.

6. If a D is dislodged, it is automatically disbanded.

7. A D cannot be built in a center where a D of another player is present even though the opponents D cannot capture the center.  However, if the country is entitled to a build, an army or fleet may be built if the center is not devastated.

8. A D may not capture a supply center, but if alone in the center in spring or fall it may "devastate" it.  A unit may not be built in a devastated center and it is not counted in supply center totals, for the next adjustments only.  Afterwards it reverts to normal.  A player may not devastate a center he owns.

9. A D may not transport an army.

10. A player wins when he owns nineteen undevastated supply centers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"The War in the Air"

My vaguely Stratego-like game Doomstar (video version of unpublished tabletop game) was released on Steam September 16. Another, (tabletop) Pacific Convoy, is supposed to be published by Worthington Publishing, though one can never be certain about such things.

Continuing to move further from Stratego/L'Attaque (from which Stratego itself closely derives), I'm trying to create a Steampunk game "The War in the Air", that will use plastic figures with numbers on the bottom, reminiscent of the old comic-book-ad game Convoy Terror (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/14486/convoy-terror). In Convoy Terror there were several different sculpts of ships, for example, a set of destroyers, a set of cruisers, and a set of submarines. But the strength numbers on the bottom of each cruiser differed from one another, as did the strength numbers on the bottom of the destroyers, though you could be sure that a cruiser could beat a destroyer. The ships moved on a rectangular map in rectangular locations, but it amounted to the same kind of board as Stratego. If you think about it, though, you gained a lot of information from being able to see the difference between a submarine, cargo ship, battleship (there was only one), etc.

What I intend is to use baroque steampunk notions, such as dirigible juggernauts and steam bombers and diesel fighters. I'll also use ships and possibly land units, again resorting to such things on land as massive slow juggernauts and steam tanks. The numbers on the bottoms will overlap, that is, a strong unit of a weaker general type will be able to tie the strength of the weaker unit of the stronger general type. This will all be on a hex board where units will be able to move their speed (usually more than one) in a straight line only, except for the aerial units which will be able to move in a dogleg. With good sculpting it could look really interesting, and looks seem to count for a lot these days.

In Convoy Terror you had 10 cargo ships and the objective was to get cargo ships through to the other end of the board. I adapted a form of that in Pacific Convoy, where all unit identities are hidden as in normal Stratego. I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do in this game, which depends partly on whether I include the land element or just air and sea. If I include the land I'll have ports/cities and you'll have to control three of the four to win the game.

By the way, "The War in the Air" is the title of a novel by H. G. Wells that I read a few decades ago. It was written before World War I (1907) and posits a war of airships and flying machines that more or less destroys civilization. (In the early 20th century people did not understand how resilient civilization can be.) It fits with the idea that the aerial arm is much stronger than was true even in World War II. But I don't intend the game to be a representation of the book, I just like the title. Of course, titles of games do change.

Now as I think about this game without having played yet, the problem I see is that when you know the type of unit and know the range of strength there may be too much certainty in play leading to "analysis paralysis". I thought about using dice, but that's neither necessary nor desirably as a mechanic that would frequently come into play (each conflict). So I've devised a method to test that increases uncertainty without introducing a random factor. Each player will get a set of 13 cards identically numbered with zero, one, or two. When there is a battle each player will play one of these cards face down in and reveal it, and this will be added to the strength of the unit (which is generally from one through five). There will be bluffing and card management involved, and when all 13 cards are expended the player will get them back again to continue. (Why 13? The two small decks amount to 26 cards, and 27 is half of a standard 55-card deck.)

(I'm reminded now, having just reread a review of Convoy Terror, that it used the equivalent of dice on a number of occasions, though infrequently in ship-to-ship combat.  https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/683354/convoy-terror-genuine-gem-sixties)

My question is, will this introduction of the card element contribute to the interest of the game or will it be something that puts people off? (Keep in mind my game Swords and Wizardry (H. P. Gibsons, London, 1980), a much closer derivative of Stratego than the games I'm discussing now, did use a die when a player cast a spell.)


Friday, September 16, 2016

"Does playing board games with people always lead to frustration and anger?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
My game Doomstar now available on Steam ($7.49 until Sept 23, list $9.99) http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/?snr=1_620_4_1401_45

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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

“Bad-ass Gamers”

One of the most worrisome aspects of the hard core video gamer culture is the ridiculous notion that being a "bad ass gamer" is both worthwhile and praiseworthy.  Not even close. It is unproductive.  It doesn't help your friends, your family, your community, your country, in any way.  It contributes nothing to the world.  It is purely empty egotism.  Virtually anyone who plays video games four hours a day (on average) is not acting as an adult.  (Which may be perfectly all right if that person is a youngster . . . or retired?)

A big reason why "the unwashed", those who are not into video games as a culture, tend to treat video games as "kid's stuff" is this childish egotism.  So what?  The "unwashed" includes a large fraction of the country,  especially of older people, the people who lead opinion and who make financial decisions.

It would be easy to write an article titled "When will video gamers grow up?"

In tabletop games males generally LIKE women gamers, because TT games are social, and because TTers don't tie their self-worth/ego to being a "bad-ass gamer".  (I met my wife in 1977 through D&D, when women gamers were much less common; two other people in that group of five married one another (though not attached when it began), and the last married my wife's best friend.  All still married.  Tabletop gaming is usually social.)

In video games we get a very vocal segment that appears to hate women, apparently seeing them as rivals.  The root of #gamergate is males who measure their self-worth through gaming, afraid of female competition.

I am also convinced that a significant proportion of rabid Hilary-haters use a different standard than they would with any male political figure, because she's a woman. If she were a man, Trump wouldn't stand a chance.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Video (screencast): “Snowball” and “Engine” Games



Following is the text of the slides:
“Snowball” and “engine” games
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
PulsipherGames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube http://youtube.com/LewGameDesign

Wazzat?
Snowballs – usually economic – occur when the player who is ahead, more or less inevitably continues to get further and further ahead
Like a snowball getting larger as you roll it through sticky snow
E.g. a game where you can research (or spend) to improve economic output, that allows you to produce more, which allows more research/spending, and so forth

“Engine” Games?
“Engine” games are all about providing the right inputs to get the best output
They are “natural puzzles”, exercises in optimization
An economic snowball game is usually an engine game, but there are other kinds of snowball games – the problem, though, is the same

More than Two Sides
Snowballs aren’t a serious problem in games for two or fewer sides
When one side gets the snowball rolling, the game should end
Whether by resignation or by the rules of the game
But we don’t have those options, generally, with more than two players
I do, in rules for a few point games that are multiplayer (more than two) wargames, provide for ending the game early if one side gets way ahead

Conditions
Snowballs can occur when:
1) the game is deterministic and there are no explicit catch-up mechanisms AND
2) there are few ways for one player to significantly hinder another
When someone gets ahead, then naturally he or she continues to get farther ahead

How to Prevent Snowballs?
1) Ways to directly hinder or harm another player (as in wargames)
2) Chance built into the “system” that could cause the leader to falter
But this is “leaving it all to chance”, not a good idea
3) An explicit catch-up mechanism
But many players dislike these
Any combination of these three are also possible

Wargames?
A well-designed wargame cannot be a Snowball
Because there are lots of ways to hinder other players
Two or more players can gang up on the snowball leader
But there are 4X wargames that become economic snowballs
Partly because other players don’t know it’s happening, so cannot react to stop it
Also computer Civilization (which is in many ways a 4X game)
(4X: Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate)

Be Aware
Many games, by their nature, don’t suffer from snowballing
But “engine” games often do
It’s up to the designer to guard against this
If you keep it in mind, you can look for it, and do something about it

An aside: it seems players rarely play a game more than a few times these days
If that’s the case, the snowballing doesn’t become obvious
But you should always treat your game as though it will be played dozens of times

“Snowballs” that cannot be stopped are a design flaw. But not uncommon these days.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

"Essential" (as in Essence) 4X Tabletop Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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