Friday, July 25, 2014

Prototypical FRPG Character Classes?

My friend Jeffro (Jeff Johnson) writes a column about classic science fiction novels related to role-playing games. In his discussion of Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade (http://www.castaliahouse.com/retrospective-the-high-crusade-by-poul-anderson/ ) he briefly discusses what character classes most fit in medieval fantasy and which ones have a weaker place.  This set me to thinking.

Just about everyone would agree that the archetypical medieval fantasy characters are the fighter and the wizard. I don’t know whether clerics were part of the Chainmail rules, which were the first stab at adding fantasy elements to miniatures battle games, out of which grew D&D. At some point before publication of the original three D&D books the cleric became the third class in the game, and as Jeffro points out, clerics are major participants in the Middle Ages, though not clerics who cast spells per se. The first supplement, Eldritch Wizardry, added the thief class.

In many role-playing games the cleric is forced into the role of a mobile hospital, dispensing healing and not doing much else. Hardly anyone wants to play that kind of character. Fourth edition D&D got a whole lot of things wrong, but one they got right was to have the clerics be militant types who could do a little healing on the side; but at same time the vast amount of healing through “healing surges” available to everyone tended to ruin a great many things.

I disliked the thief class from the moment I started playing D&D (with those three books plus the one supplement). I disliked at first because I think of D&D is a cooperative game, and these are naturally uncooperative characters. They are loners, they are the ultimate expression of self-interest, and that doesn’t fit.

Perhaps more, I didn’t like the thief class because many of its powers were ones that by right some fighters ought to have, and two of its major powers - move silently and hide in shadows - were easily replicated and improved upon by Elven boots and invisibility rings. So in a game where there was much magic around the thieves soon found themselves obsolescent. In my games I turn the class into archery-expert Scouts, but they still did a lot better when they had invisibility rings and Elven boots.

For me, fighters ought to fall into two groups in rather the same way that strikers in soccer fall into two groups. First there are the big strong guys who rely on their strength to push around the defense, though they also have skills. Second there are the smaller fast guys who probably have more technical skill, and need to find ways to get around the defense rather than bull their way through it.  I divide the first kind further into two groups, the prototypical center-forwards like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Andy Carroll, and those who are more athletic but nearly as big and strong like Cristiano Rinaldo and Gareth Bale.  The latter are downright frightening when they get up a head of steam with the ball at their feet. The smaller strikers often play on the wings, though the prototype here, Lionel Messi, tends to play in the middle.

So some fighters should be big and strong and perhaps not very fast, like the prototypical center-forwards, some should be faster and more athletic, and some (the smaller ones) should be using many of those powers that were assigned to thieves. You could convert thieves into fighters of this type by giving them more hit points and better combat ability.  (I never understood why the original D&D thieves were not great with bows - as I recall they couldn’t use them at all.)

For those who’ve read Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, the Mouser is the prototypical little guy fighter and Fafhrd is the prototypical center-forward fighter.  (Chewbacca on the one hand, and Luke on the other, can be seen as the big and little types.  Han Solo may have been the Cristiano Ronaldo type.)

Perhaps there should be a place in RPGs for little sneaky guys, con-men, like Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo.  But if you play D&D with the idea that you’re the Good Guys, as I always have, these guys just don’t fit. And if you play it as a highly cooperative game, as I try to, their entire attitude doesn’t fit.

Someone at Castaliahouse remarked that the thief tends to be the primordial character for third edition D&D. If 3e tends to be a game for showing off, a game of every man for himself ("look at me, I'm a one-man army"), then that makes a lot of sense.  Thieves are the quintessential loners out only for themselves.

Going back to clerics, to me clerics are leaders, a kind of combination of fighter (but not as good) and spellcaster (but with less powerful, or often defensive spells). And shouldn't those guys who ultimately have a direct connection to some of god's greater minions (through that wonderful commune spell), and who will ultimately have access to the greatest play in the game, raising the dead, be seen as the leaders of adventuring parties in a world where gods are REAL and manifest in the world?
 
If first edition AD&D is all about cooperation, you could make an argument that the cleric is the primordial 1e character (if the cleric isn't reduced to a medic).


What's the primordial fourth edition character? Perhaps it's all those character classes that seem to be combinations of archetypes.

**
Online audiovisual class:
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Monday, July 14, 2014

July 2014 Miscellany

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

**
I'll be giving a game design talk at WBC in early August, and four at GenCon in mid-August.

**
I am all for using games in education.  But not for what so many "experts" mean by "gamification". *Shakes head*.  The bandwagon for "gamification" (which I call scorification) is immense.  I would not want to be associated with the word.  Use "game-based learning" when you're using actual games for learning. Leave the word "gamification" to  applications that don't use actual games.

**
GenCon now clearly as much a story convention as a game convention: writer's panels displaced the independent game seminars from the convention center.

**
Recipe for disaster?  An English-language Kickstarter pitch for a Dutch game, but they haven't finished the English translation of the rules.  What about testing them?

**
Can you call something a "block game" if it doesn't use steps (rotate)? If it doesn't use dice?  Is Stratego a "block game"? No, I'd say.  What seems to characterize block games is hidden identity and the rotation to show different strengths.

**
Why do people pay $4 for a  coffee, not for a mobile game? Maybe because there is no cost to making more of the video game, while there is a cost to making more coffee.

**
Games often show a typical misunderstanding of pirates. Pirates used small ships full of men to board, not guns, lousy for commerce.  Pirates were NOT merchants, nor could they profitably live as merchants using those small ships.

Moreover, piracy tended to be a democracy, not highly disciplined.  And pirates did NOT like to fight, by and large.

(Vikings had that fame and Valhalla thing about fighting, but mostly they avoided fighting, as well.  And when they did fight a pitched battle, they lost as often as they won.)

**
Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often NOT good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to. If I were a professional story-maker I'd never call myself "narrative consultant."

**
I’ve never seen a plastic meeple.  Surely when mass-produced they’d be cheaper than wood.  (What brought this to mind was the idea that plastics are cheaper from China, wood cheaper from Germany/eastern Europe.)

**
I suspect there's a pretty strong tendency for new publishers to prefer unknown designers to someone who is well-established/well-known.  First, they'll pay them less.  Second, the new designer will be less demanding/have lower expectations.  Third, the publisher will be the most prominent part of the package, not the designer.

**
I keep reading about photo-realistic video games that nonetheless sound more and more abstract in actual play. . .  So many gaming conventions (that's things typically done, not gatherings of gamers) that have no correspondence to reality (such as weapons and med-kits lying all over the place, switchable skills).

**
"Replayability is a primary quality of the greatest games. Product sustained by the cult of the new only has to be good for a few sessions."  -Jeff Johnson,  http://jeffro.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/my-hobby-is-not-about-making-sure-anyone-stays-in-business/

**
Odd email request: someone making a game for his girlfriend.  Asked for the astronomical photo I used as background for a prototype, minus the grid etc.  So I sent it to him.

**
TV/fiction tropes: Interesting reading for aspiring writers (and, sometimes, game designers): tvtropes.org
**
There's more to designing games than the activity of designing games, especially for video games.  Usually video games are created by groups, and the designer must clearly and accurately communicate with the programmers, artists, and others making the game.

For tabletop games it's more solitary, but you have licensing, marketing

**
The heart of a novel is characterization, though there's more to it than that (plot, dramatic tension, etc.). The heart of a game is gameplay, though there's more to it than that (interface, appearance, sometimes story, etc.)  We might add here, the heart of an interactive puzzle (such as many one-player video games) is challenge, though there's more to it than that.

Quoted from my "Game Design" book (McFarland 2012)

**
“Gamification” in practice amounts to scorification of *contests*, not use of actual gameplay techniques.  There is no game. . .
 Contest: each competitor does something separately, without being able to affect the other competitors through gameplay.  Compare results.

**
I see people designing lots of tabletop fighting games an even shooters and equivalents of MMOs.

Just because it's a game, doesn't mean it's suitable for the tabletop.

Lots of fundamentally repetitious video games don't translate well to the tabletop.  Those video games are quite long or don't have a well-defined end at all (fighting games are an exception).  And most of those games are essentially athletic contests, sports.  Neither of those characteristics translates well to the tabletop.  Moreover, the computer can keep track of details, and provide "fog of war", that are very hard to reproduce in tabletop games.

**
When I need to change something to improve a game, I look for an historical/modeling reason first, rather than simply look for a good mechanic.  Those accustomed to making essentially abstract games, even if they have a so-called "theme", think of mechanics first, not modeling.

**
Morgan Freeman on art :
"I don't think that anything where you start off with something is an art form. If you start off with a blank page or a blank canvas or a blank slab or a blank stone, you're going to create something."

Games certainly qualify by that definition.

**
At a tabletop game club meeting earlier this year, there were 55 attendees.   Many of them did not appear to recognize Axis & Allies . . .


LP

Friday, July 11, 2014

How do we make players feel fear in games?

How do we make players feel fear in games?

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself” - Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR)

One of the major lessons for any aspiring game designer is that not every gamer thinks like you and likes the same things you like.  Games are “fun”, or at least interesting and enjoyable, activities.  On the face of it you might think that fun doesn’t involve fear, but for some people it certainly does. For example my wife and I don’t like horror stories/movies and don’t understand why people like to be scared by them, yet many do. Fear, or more likely a release from the tension of fear, is enjoyable for many people.

So sometimes it’s desirable that the player(s) of a game feel fear. Now I'm not saying that every game should make players fearful at some point, far from it.  But fear is (or used to be) a tool in the designer's toolbox, one of many emotions a game can engender in its players. How can we achieve this in a game, which is after all a play activity, fundamentally not serious?


The use of visuals and sound can more or less startle the player into being afraid (much as movies often do it), but that's very sudden and temporary.  It is more a surprise reaction than a fearful reaction. I'm not interested in that here. Fear, as opposed to other forms of tension, requires that the player has something to lose, something they value.  (Otherwise players are in the position FDR talked about, and aren't likely to fear anything.)  This potential loss can be their character lives, loot, or prestige (fear of losing).

In an old-school tabletop RPG what you could lose was your character, and the character's capabilities and assets.  The player invested time in the character, time he or she didn't want to lose.  The referee's job in those games was to scare the player by threatening these valuables.  It wasn't the referee's job to actually take them away but it had to be a credible threat. 

In more modern tabletop RPGs there is very little credible threat that a player will actually lose much of anything, which removes fear as a motivator. In most computer RPGs and MMOs there is absolutely no fear of losing your life or your loot, so the most that players fear is the boredom of a long trip to where their body lies after a death, to retrieve their stuff.

Many have observed that players are much more afraid to lose what they already have, than to lose the prospect of gain.  It's a natural human tendency. Some free-to-play games use this as a lever.  For example, many Facebook games require you to log in every day, or lose some progress you've achieved, for example, you plant crops, but if you don't come back to harvest them quickly enough they wither and die.  (On the other hand, many of those same games offer a daily freebie, and if you don't log in daily you miss out.)

RPGs/MMOs are persistent games, players could be afraid of losing what they've built up over a long time.  Contrast this with boardgames and most other video games. What can the game designer threaten in a game that lasts only an hour or three or even five?   There just isn't enough time and effort invested in what the player has, to enable you to make them afraid.  Instead, the major fear is of losing, and that's not such a big deal in a 1-5 hour activity.  Add to that the de-emphasis of competition in many tabletop games, and that most people only play a game a few times before moving on to another.  There isn't much investment in the game by the players.

Further, there have been few video games where a player can actually lose, once we left the era of the arcade game.  Persistence is usually enough to ultimately "beat the game."


Some video games can play upon a player's fears because the games last a lot longer (more investment), but only IF there is a credible threat - which is rare. In games with permanent death such as rogue-like games there is rarely a long-term investment that you lose when you die. XCOM: Enemy Unknown seems to be one of the few contemporary video games where you can lose something permanently that you've invested a lot of effort into, that is, your squadies (troops).



My takeaway is that in board and card games it's nearly impossible for the designer to make players fearful, because there's little player investment other than the fear of losing.  The game designer cannot create fear of losing, though he can remove much of it by design (for example, a cooperative game). 

In typical video games it's nearly impossible to make players fearful because consequence-based gaming has been largely replaced by reward-based gaming, so no player can actually lose much of anything during a game.

In other words, we're losing fear as a tool in game design, barring exceptional circumstances.  If you want players to be fearful, you'll have to get them to invest in your game so that they have something to lose, but that means you'll be appealing to a relatively small minority of contemporary gamers.

***

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Short-term Diplomacy (rules)

Short-term Diplomacy

There are three parts to a well-played game of Diplomacy, negotiation, grand strategy, and tactics. Strategy is something that functions over a full game, but that means 6 to 10 hours. Tactics is the most short-term of the three parts, with negotiation in between the other two.

But most people don’t have the time to play a full game of Diplomacy, even at the sacrifice of grand strategy. What can you do to play a shorter game?

One obvious way is to reduce the victory criterion to much less than 18 supply centers, for example nine or 10 (there are 34 altogether). But this still leaves a great deal of room for how long the game is going to take, and in some cases no one may ever reach nine or 10 as the game ends in a draw. If you only have a specific amount of time available this is unsatisfactory.

Another way to make the game shorter that also turns it into a very different game is to eliminate secret negotiation. All negotiation takes place over the board where anyone can hear it. But the very essence of Diplomacy is secret negotiation, so (at least in my view) you’re no longer playing Diplomacy. The extremist version of this, known as “Gunboat Diplomacy,” is to have no official negotiation at all. This is really hard to do in a face-to-face game because any comment that a player makes can be construed as negotiation, even if he or she is just “talking to no one”. I’ve heard of people putting tape over their mouths while they’re playing gunboat, but even then you can still gesture vigorously to try to make a point (or a deal). Gunboat removes negotiation from the game and minimizes strategy leaving only tactics, and even then you can’t arrange tactical cooperation with other players. So while it’s a popular way to play Diplomacy you’re not even close to playing real Diplomacy.

Another method is to play to the end of a previously specified game year.  That works okay but can still vary a lot depending on how fast the game is played, which depends quite a bit on the players. It gives everyone a definite target year for their “big stab,” perhaps allowing for more planning than my method below, but you could easily find the game taking a lot more (or less) time than you expected.

So my method for a short game is to establish a more or less fixed by-the-clock time limit for ending the game while allowing the secret negotiation and cooperation that characterize the game.  (This is hardly anything of great originality; points for centers is a common way to score short diplomacy games.)

Rules for Lew’s Short-Term Diplomacy


1.  Set a time limit. For a club meeting the time limit would be the ending time for the meeting. Half an hour before that time limit expires, whatever game-year is being played at that time becomes the last game-year of the game.  That game-year is played out in full. If players are slow then the game may still go beyond the actual time limit, or it may end somewhat before.  For example, if the time limit selected is 10 PM then the game could end as soon as 9:31 PM if you’re just about to complete a game-year, but it could also end later than 10 PM if you’re just starting a game-year (the last game-year will take longer, most likely, because everyone will want to talk privately with every other player).

2.  The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. Each player gets one point per supply center owned at the end of each game year, with centers counting double at the end of the last year. So if a player has five centers at the end of a game-year he or she scores five points. The score is doubled in the last game year for two reasons. First, it rewards players who have more centers, the idea being that those who are doing well would continue to do well if the game lasted longer. Second, it encourages more fluidity toward the end of the game in a grab for those extra points.

3.  There could still be a draw, though it’s much less likely than in a full game of Diplomacy.


This is likely to be a niggling and nibbling game as everyone maneuvers to be slightly ahead (or slightly behind) going into the last year.  If the game goes from 1900 to 1905, five normal scorings plus a double scoring for 1905, then on average a player’s going to have about 34 points. My guess is that 50 points will often be a win.


There are a variety of sometimes-complex ways to play Diplomacy with less than seven players, which could be combined with this Short-Term method.

===

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

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

Friday, June 27, 2014

How is Twitter useful to a game designer

 The 140 character limit of tweets makes Twitter look like a haven for the ADHD and "sound byte" mesmerized among us.  Despite that limitation, it can be useful for certain purposes to a game designer.

This is aimed at inexperienced designers, and those who have not used Twitter.


I am including the slide text here so that you have an idea of what the screencast is about.  Please don't comment unless you listen to the screencast; this outline is not the text just as a book's table of contents is not the book.




How is Twitter useful to a Game Designer?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
Courses.PulsipherGames.Com


140 characters per tweet . . .
The “word bite” nature of Twitter doesn’t lend itself to critical thinking
Which is at the heart of game design
But there are lots of really smart people on Twitter
And some who aren’t, of course
Twitter can help you find useful information
Sometimes it helps you understand other points of view than your own
And it can be good publicity for you and your games
You can do this in five minutes a day; or you can get sucked into a much deeper time sink

Publicity
Especially for independent designers and small publishers
(This is why I joined Twitter, to publicize various projects)
New blog posts
New games or books
Kickstarter
It’s one more antidote to the problem of “discoverability” (people can’t play your game if they don’t know it exists)
Retweets and favorites of your posts reach beyond  your followers
Get started now, because building up followers takes time


References to articles
Follow the right people and you can get references to useful articles on the Web
In a way it’s your personal reference service
Lots of heads (and eyes) are better than just yours
And you should provide the same to other people
(I keep track of useful articles, in part, by tweeting them to others)

Answers to questions
Got a design-related question?  Shoot it out (e.g. to #gamedesign) and you might get some useful answers
Questions about sources for something in particular – information, software, whatever – can also get useful answers


Source of quotes
I collect quotes that I might use in articles, classes, and books
Some people on Twitter are quite quotable, on occasion


Limited Discussions
Yes, you can conduct a (group) discussion through Twitter, it’s just strongly limited
Use hashtags (#thisisahashtag) to keep together
And it’s not private
Anyone can join in, if they notice it

Compare with Facebook
There are subject pages for books, games, shops, groups, etc.
Limited number can see your comments
Not limited to 140 characters
Better for discussions, less for publicity
Discussions tend to avoid the “anonymity = nastiness syndrome” because people are rarely anonymous on Facebook


Compare with Gamasutra/ GameCareerGuide
On Gamasutra you read news articles and blog posts, and comment if you wish
Much of the interest can come from the comments
I like it as a place to post occasional blogs (when they can be applied to video games)
GCG is fairly dormant these days
Not really for person-to-person communication
Video games only, of course


Compare with BGG etc
Boardgamegeek/Videogamegeek/RPGgeek can be really caustic or shallow, as is often true of forum-based communities
The Board Game Design forum on BGG is mostly wannabes and “look what I’ve done”; rarely useful beyond the ‘pinned’ discussions
Game Geeklists can be useful
I post my blog there (its home is on Blogger) because sometimes I get insightful (lengthy) comments
Board Game Designers Forum is also mostly wannabes and “look at me’s”, but occasionally insightful
All of these are better, for detailed discussions, than Twitter


Whatever discussion forums you favor, Twitter can have a place in your continuing education and your promotions




What I should have included in the video, but did not, is that Twitter can also provide some feedback about your blogs/videos, in terms of how many people favorite or retweet your tweet pointing to the blog or video.

I've just run across this article that may interest some readers: http://www.zdnet.com/how-it-professionals-can-get-the-most-out-of-twitter-7000030760/

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Triptych III

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Game Design: Understanding Why

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

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

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

***
"Enslaved by technology"

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

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

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

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

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


Courses.PulsipherGames.Com

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

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Game Design: Interesting Decisions versus Wish Fulfillment



Slides from this screencast:

Interesting Decisions
versus
Wish Fulfillment
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
Courses.PulsipherGames.Com

Another way to look at game design
Insofar as game design is much about thinking…
Dividing/categorizing what game design is about can be fruitful
So we can look at games as:
Those with human opposition vs those without
All math, about people, or about stories
Linear vs “open world”
Mind control vs players make own story
Games vs puzzles
The system and the psychological
Talent vs technique

This time it’s: games as a series of choices
 versus games as wish fulfillment

Sid Meier’s classic definition of a game as “a series of interesting choices” versus
Games as wish-fulfillment, as “an experience” (role-play)
AAA video games have enabled the second method
Traditional board and card games lack ways to make something that “feels real” for the player

Wish-fulfillment can still have choice
But in many cases, to implement wish-fulfillment the designer/writer eliminates the larger choices in order to guide a story to a conclusion
As in, say, Mass Effect 3?
Role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons provide the bridge between the two
You can play it either way
Some RP game systems encourage one or the other

Is one way “better?”
No
“Interesting choices” is the traditional game
“Experiences” is the “new” game
(And puzzles are something else again)
I’ll confess I’m mostly in the choices camp
Yet in D&D I tended to play the game as though it was me in there, not as an actor, so in that respect it was an “experience”

What kind of games do YOU want to make?

Friday, June 06, 2014

Can we define "Game mechanic?" Not really.

Gary at iceboxdoor.blogspot.com/2014/06/game-mechanics-search-for-definition.html is looking for a hard-and-fast, absolutely precise definition of "game mechanic".

In his discussion he mentioned my entry in the glossary of my book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish", which was too fuzzy for him.  I'm going to quote the glassary entry:

    Mechanism or mechanic-- game rules (or game programming for video games) generally describe methods by which the game moves forward, and these methods are the mechanics of the game.  For example, rolling two dice and moving your token the sum of the roll around the board is a game mechanic (Monopoly).  Moving one piece on an 8 x 8 square board according to the movement capability of the piece is a mechanic in chess.  In video games mechanics result in challenges that players take actions (such as moving a joystick or pressing a button) to overcome.

Gary says  [The ellipses are his, by the way, not an indication that I left something out.]:
    '. . . it's a fine definition. As you might guess... I'm still not satisfied. Pulsipher's definition is much like Wikipedia's. "game rules..." "methods..." and "for example..." Why am I not satisfied? Well, I guess these only seem to hit at the surface. Again referencing rules and listing examples.'

I don't think of glossary entries as definitions so much as descriptions.  I try to avoid definitions, because given the fundamental ambiguity of language, especially of English because it incorporates so many additions from other languages, ANY definition of any complexity is likely to be fuzzy to some.

The reason I prefer descriptions to definitions is that, at some low level, all you can do in a definition is substitute another word (that then is subject to the same problems) - for example "method" for "mechanic" (which is what I did). A dictionary typically does this a lot, but there's no way around it, the hope is that the substitute word will satisfy.

Carl Klutzke, in a comment to the discussion, cleverly noted:
"Recursion: noun. See recursion."

Curious about the actual definition of recursion, I actually found one that used the word "recursive" in the definition; using a form of the word to define the word is a real no-no in my view.

It reminded me of 50 years ago, when my family had a multi-volume encyclopedia in which Hurricane just said "See Tornado", and Tornado just said "See Hurricane".  Or at least, that's how I remember it.  :-)


Some concepts in any field, such as game design, may also not be susceptible to definition.  This puts me in mind of the premises that are fundamental to mathematical proofs (such as, the shortest distance between two points is a line, and parallel lines never meet) that cannot be proved though they can be defined.  I suspect "game mechanic" is something that cannot be perfectly defined but can be a useful notion.

In the end, if (most) everyone agrees that something is a mechanic, it is.  Perhaps that's why "definitions" of mechanic use examples (as I did in my description).  I confess, I was more interested in helping those who didn't know what a game mechanic was, than in trying to actually define the term.

It's like trying to define "game".  Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen in their book "Rules of Play" spent 80 pages trying to define "game", and then found that puzzles and RPGs had not been accounted for.  The effort of defining game can lead to new insights, but no definition is going to be ironclad and satisfy most people.

I recall the big hoorah in some places (such as Fortress:AT) when I discussed in this blog what the word "elegant" means in games, without offering an explicit definition (IIRC).  http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-do-we-mean-by-elegance-in-games.html .  The word meant very different things to different people.

It's actually more important to differentiate "mechanic", "rule", and "description" than to rigorously define any one of them.  See http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2012/01/game-descriptions-rules-and-mechanics.html

Almost all definitions are fuzzy.  In this wise, my glossary entry is sufficient for most, I think, though it leaves room for "edge cases".

***
I'm giving four free seminars at GenCon (all 1 hour):
SEM1453968  Introduction to Design of (Strategic) Wargames Thursday  3:00 PM 
SEM1453969  How to Write Clear Rules  Friday 11:00 AM
SEM1453970  Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design  Saturday 11:00 AM
SEM1453476  Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? Sunday  9:00 AM




Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Video: Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer?

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


 
Slides from Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
Courses.PulsipherGames.Com

Question arises from the ECGC
East Coast Game Conference 2014 featured lots of discussion of story in games
Ken Rolston, keynote, called himself a writer
Mary deMarle talked about integrating story and game
Heather Albano discussed what amounted to same storyline but 3 or 4 quite different results from player’s point of view

Player’s viewpoint: Experience a story written by the game developers, or “write your own” story
Some writers clearly think they should decide how a game works, not the game designers
Which is a manifestation of the notion that all games (or at least, video games) are story
(My view is that there are three kinds of players/games:
Games are all math
Games are about people
Games are stories)

Why do people play?
Do people play a game for the story, or the gameplay?
I’m firmly in the gameplay camp
And the “games are about people camp,” with stories included because stories are about people
Stories don’t last.  Once you know the story, you’ll rarely want to experience it again
The smaller the game, the less room there is for story – unless you get to a few art games that are much more story than game (Journey,  Stanley Parable, etc.)

The Essential Difference
Game designer invites emergence, wants players to create the “narrative”
Game writer sets up a story (perhaps with variations) for players to follow
They’re trying to impose a passive experience on an interactive challenge – quite a challenge in itself
Not quite the same as a desire to “control the players”.  Puzzle designers control players.  Fiction writers often control players but many wish they didn’t have to.

Game designers like emergent behavior, up to a point
I especially like emergent objectives, where the player(s) find their own objectives, other than winning/beating the game, to pursue
They don’t like something that breaks the game
Fiction writers don’t like emergent behavior, their objective is to control the story
Though many are trying to find ways to provide 3 or 4 stories within one game
And sometimes fail, as in Mass Effect 3

Game formats
AAA video games are often about an “experience”, more or less a story
Tabletop games are usually “rules-emergent”, the game gives the players opportunities to write their own narrative or even story
That’s also true for many casual video games
Tabletop RPGs are the bridge between the two, and can be played either way

All kinds of games are moving more toward stories.  GenCon is a story convention as much as game convention.  The question is, what do you want to do, design games, or tell stories?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Video: Level/Adventure Pacing

Video: Level/Adventure Pacing (from my "Game Design" YouTube channel, ultimately from my course "How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games"



Slide text:

Tension and Relaxation
If a level/adventure is very much “the same”, whether always tense or always relaxed, it’s missing something
Constant tension becomes tedious
Constant relaxation is only for those who play games purely to relax
So for most game levels/adventures, alternation of tension and relaxation is ideal

Writers of fiction of all kinds (including movies) recognize this
So in movies, you have periods of tension followed by periods of relaxation, though the trend overall is upward to the final climax
(This is also called “peaks and valleys”, from the look of it on the chart)
As illustrated on the next page, from Star Wars (original 1977 movie)

Diagram from “Beyond Pacing: Games Aren't Hollywood”  by Jacek Wesolowski http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4032/beyond_pacing_games_arent_.php


Each level has its own overall rising tension as it goes from peak to valley to peak
This is also true of the game (or campaign in RPGs) as a whole
Also watch Extra credits: Pacing  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LScL4CWe5E
And I’d read the article the chart came from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4032/beyond_pacing_games_arent_.php

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Limited "Content" in AAA (and other) Video Games


Big ("AAA" ) video games continue to become more expensive yet shorter, because 3D/complex "content" costs so much.  This is a video/screencast discussion of existing, successful alternative ways to inexpensively provide content.



In case the embedding doesn't work, here is the URL:
http://youtu.be/K2vJ5oyfNgw

Here is the text of the slides (which are created with the intention to be intelligible on their own):

Limited “Content” in AAA (and other) Video Games
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
Courses.PulsipherGames.Com


Content = Expense in Video Games
In most video games, as in puzzles, the creator(s) of the game must provide all of the “content” – everything the player(s) can possibly do
When computers were very limited, this was not a problem
One person could provide all the content: programming, “graphics” such as they were, “sound” such as it was
But in the 3D computer age content is much more expensive
Typically more artists than non-artists work on a AAA game


This is why games are getting shorter
Even as AAA games increase in price, they get shorter
Because 3D content (art and programming) simply costs too much
AND now many more players like “open world” games, with lots of possibilities, as opposed to linear games, with strictly limited possibilities
Some content isn’t used
So more content overall is required per minute of actual play
Everything is getting more complicated, with online play


Human opposition
In games with human opposition, the opponent(s) provide much of the “content”
Humans are expert, and unpredictable, and fascinating, in ways computers cannot be
Yet they also provide opportunities for “yomi”, reading the opponent’s intentions, that computers cannot provide (being too predictable)
This is why a person can play a tabletop game hundreds of times yet still see and learn new things


RPGs
Much of video gaming derives from Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop

RPGs
(Think of “dungeon” levels, experience points and levels, a single avatar per player, distinct episodic adventures, character advancement, loot that increases player capability, and so on)
In these RPGs, there’s human-controlled opposition (by the referee/”DM”), but it’s a co-operative game
Co-op is becoming more and more popular in both tabletop and video games


One solution to the VG content problem
Is, video games use human opposition to provide “content”
EVE Online has been doing this for over a decade
Every player is an independent potential ally or enemy
Players form corporations and alliances, and those larger entities also fight, somewhat like Earth-bound nations do
When video game players play as a team against another team, the human element provides much of the interest, the “content”
Think Team Fortress, Call of Duty, etc.

PvP (Player vs Player)
MOBAs such as League of Legends and DotA2 (DotA was the original, a Warcraft III mod)
The only way to play is in teams of five
World of Tanks isn’t a MOBA, but focuses on team versus team
The way to play is mostly-random teams of 15 vs 15
Clan versus Clan is more or less an RTS that pits players against players
These games are some of the most profitable today, even though “free to play”


A variation – non-dev humans create content
Some games let human players generate new content that is executed by the computer
Such as new levels, scenarios, puzzles
Little Big Planet (PS3) notable early example
New scenarios for Civilization
New levels for Unreal Tournament (Deluxe version provided level editor and many hours of tutorials)
Mods in general (though these are much less numerous because much harder to create)


Procedural generation of content
The computer generates new areas of play
In old-time Dungeons & Dragons you could use the tables in the DM guide to generate dungeons, monsters, magic items – procedural generation
“Roguelikes” have rebounded in popularity in part because they procedurally generate the content
Though that makes it harder on the player: it can get really hard to succeed


MMOs
Typical MMOs: content is created by the developers
And that’s why MMOs are so vastly expensive to create
Even then, some players shoot through all the content very rapidly, then quit – that’s killed the subscription basis
So now most MMOs are “free to play” – but EVE is not, because it offers more


MMOs
Some MMOs are now going to use procedurally generated content
The problem is, in a typical F2P environment players expect to be continually rewarded.  Procedurally-generated content can often be quite hard-to-play content
In MMOs “a player challenged is a player lost” - will players quit?

Conclusion
To reduce the spiraling costs of producing big video games:
Provide human opposition
Via EVE model
Via PvP
Via team play “multiplayer,” MOBA
Procedurally generate content
Let humans generate new content

Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 2014 Miscellany


Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

**
A "new" Britannia-like game:
Wallace Nicoll has prepared a PDF edition of Roger Heyworth's game Conquest Europa.  Roger was the uncredited editor of Britannia for its original publication by H. P. Gibsons in Britain in 1986.  He passed away in 2000, unfortunately.  Wallace was involved in the testing.  http://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/99400/conquest-europa-2014

The game covers all of Europe and North Africa, from the fall of the Roman Empire to Tamerlane and beyond.  With some 500 pieces, 35 nations, and 106 areas, it lasts 10-12 hours with experienced players.

When I began to think about doing a new edition of Britannia, around 2004, a 1980 all-of-Europe game I had done while developing Britannia.  Though not as big as Conquest Europa, it took 12 hours to play the first time, so I set it aside and then completely forgot about it.

One of the first new games I started when I came back into the hobby was an all-Europe game, which was playtested at WBC in 2008.  It turned out to be a natural five player rather than four player game.  Someday it may see print, perhaps in Against-the-Odds magazine or annual.  In the meantime I've devised another all-Europe game that lasts about two hours, and has been played in 1:40.

These games both end with the Mongol invasion, after starting with the fall of the West Roman Empire.

**
Before playtesting (of "D&D Next") started I wrote:  I don't see how WotC can accommodate  fans of 1e/2e and 3e and 4e, because gameplay depth was important to many 1e players, self-expression and one-man-armies was important for 3e (fantasy Squad Leader), 4e is all tactical battles, and variety has become the main interest in 3e and 4e.

And now that the public playtesting is done, I'll repeat what I said above.  I didn't even see an effort to accommodate such different play styles.  The game seemed to be an attempt to upgrade 3e with some 1e/2e, and very little 4e.

**
Am I the only person who is really distrustful of these pre-"reviews" I see on Kickstarter games?  This is such an obvious marketing tactic, and the reviews I've seen are so fulsomely (overflowingly?) positive, all of my skepticism receptors light up.

**
Convergence:  The broadest difference between traditional video games and tabletop games is that the former are used to pass the time (or kill time) while the latter are used to spend time with friends - socializing if you will.

"New" video games such co-ops, some Wii games, and some MMOs are going toward the "spend time with friends" side.

**
Why I fundamentally "never get" most Euro-style games (and I'm using the traditional definition, not the "heavy strategy non-wargame" definition now in vogue)

1) I prefer games of conflict and maneuver.  Euro games are usually designed to reduce and deemphasize conflict, and rarely use maneuver and geospatial location.

2) I try to design a game that someone can enjoy playing many, many times (there are folks who have played Britannia more than five hundred times).  Most Euros are designed to attract for a few plays only, after which the players will move on to something else ("the cult of the new")

3) I like games.  Euros tend to be interactive solvable puzzles.

**
I like people-watching in board and card games more than I like playing (in part because I gave up playing games against other people when I was 25).  If a game is good for people-watching, it probably has lots of interaction; Dominion, for example, is nothing for people-watching, there's nothing to see/hear really.

**
I was looking for a word to compare games where software is needed, to those where it isn't.  The former tend to be sports, latter heavily involve the mind.  Someone (my wife?) came up with software versus "brainware".

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

**
Some recent tweets

My talk "On the horns of a dilemma" at East Coast Game Conference (Raleigh NC): 3:15pm–4:15pm Thursday April 24, 302C http://t.co/gTPJFHMBpd

Two Kickstarter game groups: one susceptible to/attracted by "smoke and mirrors", the other doing pre-order "P500" via another medium?

Links to free versions of books that inspired Gary Gygax (Appendix N of D&D): http://t.co/ZGhaTjENmg

My video What are you trying to do when you design a level or adventure?: http://youtu.be/NibOtLO9Mwo?a?

Why do people pay $4 for a coffee, not for a mobile game? Maybe because no cost to making more of the game, there is to making more coffee

If I were a professional story-maker I'd never call myself "narrative consultant."  Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often not good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to.

If you're interested in RPG news, reviews, analysis, look at this near-daily column: http://www.examiner.com/rpg-in-national/michael-tresca?

Commodity Game Design - Avoiding Clones. http://gamasutra.com/blogs/AndrewPellerano/20140331/214298/Commodity_Game_Design__Avoiding_Clones.php?

My videa about PrezCon2014: http://youtu.be/NkrhVZTJAZI?a?

My video from "Learning Game Design" course: What is the player going to do?: http://youtu.be/ugH0Edy21T0?a?

Gamasutra blog by Zachary Strebeck, Three contracts every game developer needs: http://t.co/QBxzjc0ZGG

**
I have two new courses at https://courses.pulsiphergames.com
How to design levels/adventures for video and tabletop games ($19)
How to write clear rules ($15)
These are priced as though they were books, despite being audiovisual courses.  There are no discounts.  The same courses, when on Udemy, cost about 50% more.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

A&A 1941 $18.99 today (April 5) only

Axis & Allies 1941, which appears to have 160 plastic miniatures (five colors), is on sale April 5 for international tabletop day at Amazon for $18.99 (and if your order is over $35 you get free shipping).  You might consider this if you need a bunch of WWII plastic pieces for a protoype.

http://www.amazon.com/Axis-Allies-1941-Board-Game/dp/B007TB3R80/ref=br_lf_m_8887135011_1_19_ttl?ie=UTF8&m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&s=toys-and-games&pf_rd_p=1772969562&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_i=8887135011&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=0AY40JB8FCGCVS2AKEEH

Many, many other games are being sold up to 45% off, as well.  Acquire for $18.99 e.g.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

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

Generic plastic/wood game pieces you can 

buy for prototypes

(or for full production?)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Plastic, 1", four color transparent counters’ packed in a sturdy plastic container.  5,000 for $73.95 (missed it in the catalog, http://www.eaieducation.com/Product/531176/Transparent_Counters_-_Set_of_5000_in_Tub.aspx online)

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

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

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

“Hardwood cubes in six colors” 2 cm, (blue, green, orange, white, yellow and red). Packed in a tub.  510 for $43.95 or 102 for $8.95.  Also missed in the catalog, http://www.eaieducation.com/Product/530639/Wooden_Cubes_2cm_Color_-_Set_of_102.aspx

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

They have spinners, sand timers, plastic coins, dice (polyhedra), blank dice (http://www.eaieducation.com/search.aspx?Keyword=blank+dice&category=-1) and so forth as well.

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

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

***
courses.pulsiphergames.com
YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA 
@lewpuls

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?

Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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



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

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


@lewpuls
Courses.PulsipherGames.Com

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Avoiding Player Elimination in Multi-player Tabletop Games (video)

I've just added this to my Learning Game Design course, and in my video blog experiment here is the link  to the video.  It applies mostly to tabletop games where there are more than two sides, each with a human (rather than computer) in charge.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Future of (Tabletop) Wargames? Getting out of the wargame ghetto . . .

    “I didn't realize how out of my element I was until I had to listen to guys talking about their retirement and/or how they were retiring soon. Made me wonder if the hobby as I know it is going to slowly evaporate over the next decade or so.... (But no wonder I couldn't find players for wargames all those years...!)?
 - Jeffro Johnson (who is approaching 40 himself, as I recall) about his experience at PrezCon ’14

(Lest anyone have any doubts, I am one of those Baby Boomers who grew up with Avalon Hill games, and am more or less retired. )

I was asked more than once during my PrezCon talk (by a publisher of hex-and-counter wargames, no less) where the future of wargames lies.  The Charles S. Roberts/Avalon Hill originated hex-and-counter game style is a Baby Boomer hobby, and Baby Boomers are a shrinking group.  Tabletop wargames now sell 1,000-2,000 copies, typically, whereas in Avalon Hill’s heyday they could sell over 100,000. Even in 2004-5 when I came back into the hobby it was easy to see that there was a wargames ghetto (as I call it). People in the ghetto were okay with that but it did not and does not appeal much to people outside.  And it gets smaller over time.

So what is the future of hobby wargaming?  Practically speaking, the traditional market is disappearing.  What can replace it?

Video Games?

Tabletop wargames not only have to survive vis-à-vis other tabletop games but vis-à-vis video games. We always have to keep in mind the greater popularity of video games when we talk about any kind of tabletop game. Video games are easy to play, with the tremendous advantage that you don’t need to read the any rules, and video games are also becoming quite cheap with vast numbers of free to play and $.99 games available. Most video games that appear to be about war are actually closer to sporting events, as top RTS (Real-Time Strategy) game players must execute 200 actions-per-minute to succeed. But the capability to make two-player games primarily requiring thinking to succeed is there, and there are turn-based video games involving war (most notably, Civilization).

Yet the future isn’t video games, at least not the kind of simulation-like video wargames that have been produced so far by companies like Matrix Games.  These sell hardly better than tabletop wargames (3,000 is a number I’ve seen, minuscule for video games requiring that much effort to produce).  I don’t think video games are a threat or a salvation for tabletop wargames.

Multiplayer (Multi-sided) Games and “Losers”

The future of all kinds of tabletop games is in multiplayer (more than two player) games, because a great attraction of tabletop games that video games cannot reproduce is the social interaction.  Whether that interaction occurs within the game rules or not, it comes from people being in one place seeing, hearing, and sometimes smelling and emotionally (and sometimes physically) feeling other people.

Another advantage of multiplayer games is that they don’t put “the loser” on the spot, they don’t involve the ego nearly as much.  In a two player wargame, there’s a Loser with a capital L.   In a game for five, there are four losers, but an average player is only going to win 20% of the time anyway (assuming there are no draws), so you can lose and not feel “failure” - you’re in the same boat as almost everyone else, and “I’ll get ‘em next time”.  You can also feel that you were the best player but people ganged up on you.  At some point, there’s nothing you can do about that. (In the case where both/all the players are against the game, that’s OK - the humans are all in it together, essentially a single player game, and all lose or win together, no stigma involved.)

These games should not have player elimination, something that can unnecessarily bring out those feelings of failure.  Practically speaking, too, a game without player elimination is likely to be shorter than one with elimination.

Video games achieve this through single player games/campaigns that are often puzzles that you will sooner or later solve if you’re persistent. With save games and respawning there is no way to Lose.

SPI’s surveys indicated that 50% of play of their games was solo.  People who are inclined to solo play often like two-player, detailed wargames.  I think the solo player is much more likely to play video games these days.  Solo play is a mostly-dead-end for tabletop games.

So games that allow for the social aspects of face to face gaming, and don’t put the loser on the spot, are where wargaming has a chance to succeed.

“Peaceful” Semi-wargames

Games that allow for the possibility or even likelihood of war but recognize that peace is a better way to succeed are more broadly appealing than games that are out-and-out, cut-throat war. These games can be less directly confrontational. For example, a game about the Italian city states in the era of the Crusades can allow players to prosper if they can peacefully take advantage of the trade from the Far East and develop influence in foreign places, but can provide the ability to go to war. If a player can stay out of a debilitating war, or win a war very quickly, he or she will have a good chance to win the game. (I speak of this as though hypothetically, but my prototype Seas of Gold does just this.)

Sometimes games of this kind are given funny names that imply a cross between Eurostyle and wargame. But there’s a big difference between wargame and Eurostyle that I think needs to be preserved in the semi-wargames, as they might be called, that many wargames allow for great differences in playing style, whereas many Euro games assume a formalistic style where certain paths to success are well-known and blocking those paths is a common activity, where there are “generally accepted moves” that you’re expected to make, that you may even be criticized if you don’t because “that’s not the way to play the game!”  (I have to interject here, those who have decided that “Euro” only means certain heavy-strategy games that they like are going to disagree with me, because I use the older, broader meaning of Euro.)

To my mind, good multiplayer wargames are like open world video games, and Eurostyle games are more like closed world or linear video games. That open style is often lost in “simulations”, but simulations that force certain outcomes as the old SPI games often did are not going to survive on the tabletop - if only because they’re boring to most people and anathema to historians, like myself, who believe that what happened in the chaos of history is often not what was most likely to happen.  (And also because that kind of simulation is almost always a two-player game.)

Grand Strategic Wargames

I think we’ll see more grand strategic wargames rather than tactical games. First, grand strategic games are more believable for more than two players than tactical games. You can easily think of entire nations as competing in a multi-sided way, whereas battles with more than two sides are almost unheard of.  Second, tactical games in the wargame tradition are littered with nuts and bolts and details that hold much less interest for people in our fast living, imprecise century than they did in the glory days of Avalon Hill and SPI. There are lots of tactical games involving fighting, but they are individual skirmish games like Heroscape and many RPGs, not “nuts and bolts” games. Another aspect of grand strategic games is that ultimate success usually depends on building up your economy, as it does in almost any war. Games that build up have proved to be more attractive to many people than games that tear down. A grand strategic wargame can be one that combines the tearing down that’s involved in taking economic value from another player along with the building up that people seem to like, a combination of negative and positive. In contrast, a battle game, one without an economy, where the objective is terrain-based or simply killing lots of the enemy, is purely negative.

Visual and Tactile Appeal

It almost goes without saying that wargames need to be more visually appealing. Wargames with traditional half-inch counters aren’t even a starter except in the wargame ghetto. If you must use cardboard counters, they need to be a lot larger.  Three-dimensional pieces provide a tactile pleasure and feedback that you cannot get from video games, but it’s hard to get that from half-inch counters.  Some larger counters feel and look (and even sound) more like tiles, and that may work - I have in mind the FFG Britannia pieces.  3-D pieces and cards provide a visual appeal that standard wargames do not.  (I was told that Command & Colors was getting no traction for GMT, before publication, until they introduced the use of blocks as 3D pieces (not for “fog of war”).  Then it took off, and has proved to be very popular.)

Games with multiple numbers on each piece don’t have much appeal.  Players don’t mind having lots of information on cards, but not on pieces.  (NO lookup tables, either.)  3D makes it harder to put numbers on pieces, as well.

Stacks of counters are also a bad idea, though less so if only the owning player is allowed to look in the stack.  A good decision I made decades ago in Dragon Rage (which is a hex-and-counter wargame) was to prohibit stacking.  With the larger pieces in the 2011 edition, I’ve avoided the old problems of stacks of half inch counters.

Perhaps a reason for the popularity of “block games” beyond the fog of war is that they avoid counter stacks, and often have less information on them than do traditional counters.

Fewer Significant Decisions

The fundamental experiences people want in games have changed, too. People are much more interested in variety than in gameplay depth. They like lots of choices but they don’t like many difficult/significant choices.  They tend to rely more on intuition than logic, a reliance that’s often encouraged in the schools and society (“use the Force, Luke”, don’t depend on the computer to aim that torpedo). So a game with lots of choices but few decisions that make a significant difference tends to be preferred to the older kind of game, where there is not only lots of choices but lots of decisions, and decisions within decisions. (I’m sorry if that’s not entirely clear but my spiel about gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games is something like 10,000 words.  This will have to do.)

This trend is already enormously clear in video games.  Players want to be rewarded for participation, they don’t want to have to earn their rewards by making good decisions.

Hobby wargaming often involves studying the games. People don’t study games much anymore, especially casual gamers. Between cheap or free video games and the proliferation of many hundreds of new tabletop games each year, people are accustomed to playing a game only a few times before they move on to the next one in a kind of “Cult of the New”.  I know people who have played Britannia more than 500 times, but nowadays you’re going to find few newly published games that anyone will ever play 500 times, especially not one as long as Britannia.

I think wargames are still going to be a haven for people who want old-fashioned gameplay depth as opposed to simple variety, but if you want to reach a larger market you need to recognize that the number of significant decisions has to be reduced.  I’m put in mind of a young lady who used to attend our university game club. At age 18 she was exceptionally intelligent and focused, and when she played games she really put her brain to work (more than most), but because she was playing games to relax she did not want to play anything like a standard wargame where you have bunches of pieces to move in each of your turns. That was far too many decisions to make.  She liked tactical video games, where you have just a few characters to control. That’s the kind of person who can be attracted to strategic multiplayer games that involve war, but only if they are designed to be broadly appealing. 

Be sure your wargame doesn’t have a player moving dozens of units every turn!

Personal Stories

Gamers are also much more interested in personal stories and avatars in games than they were 40 years ago.  RPGs are an example, and many kinds of video games, both just coming into existence back then.  Wargames by their nature tend to be about nations and large units, though there are many games with individuals as the primary units (squad level games). The word “story” is in “history”, but the history of warfare tends to be impersonal. The kinds of personal stories people like aren’t about the Military, by and large.  I’m not sure how this is going to pan out, as the grand strategic games I recommend are not well-suited for the “you are there” mentality (think History of the World or Diplomacy).

People Games, not Math Games

What wargames need to focus on is the other people playing the game, rather than on the details of the game system. Britannia has some detail in it but it’s essentially a simple game to play, and the really good players are playing the other players, not the game system. You have to master the game system but that’s not the ultimate mastery, as opposed to chess and so many two-player wargames where mastery of the system is all that matters. (Oddly enough, mastery of real generalship is much about psychology, but wargames rarely reflect real warfare.)  That’s the kind of game we need, though Britannia is not the best example because it’s much too long for most players. One of the new versions of Britannia I’ve created can be played in 90-120 minutes and has been played in 84, even though the players were not hurrying.  Yet it is still clearly Britannia.

Games where “Yomi” is needed, discerning the intentions of other players, reading their minds, are popular for many reasons (think poker, Werewolf, Resistance).  Wargames need to make Yomi more prominent, and the details of mechanical play less prominent.  Multiplayer, of course, immediately puts Yomi to the forefront in highly interactive games.

On the other hand, you can’t remove a fairly high degree of interaction from a wargame and still have a wargame, instead you have something that begins to approach a puzzle or multiplayer solitaire. I don’t see this as a route wargames can take because then you have a major disadvantage of a wargame - the tearing down - without the compensating advantages of high interactivity.

Where there’s a place for two player wargames is on tablets and PCs, so that those who like this kind of ultimately confrontational math-like game can find opponents, and can play in short sessions even if the game itself is quite long in aggregate.  For examples, see http://www.shenandoah-studio.com.

Shorter and Simpler

Finally, all games are noticeably getting simpler and shorter (especially video games).  Wargames must as well. That’s quite a challenge for multiplayer games simply because the more players you have, usually the longer the game. I have pursued a quest for a “one hour (multiplayer) wargame” for many years, and while I usually end up with 2+ hours I do have one game that has been played in an hour by three players.  But that will remain exceptional, except in wargames that use cards rather than a board.

Card-based wargames are another possible route out of the “ghetto”, but when you use cards you usually (though not always) abandon maneuver, which is one of the salient aspects of war.

Simulations?

I’ve briefly alluded to where “simulations” are going. The kind of simulation that values the model before the game, that tries to force a particular outcome to match history, is rapidly going down the tubes. The kind of model that Phil Sabin calls a simulation - though I wouldn’t - that helps one understand history will still be around. If you’ve read Sabin’s book Lost Battles you’ll know that his simulation to help understand what really happened to during ancient battles is pretty simple, not at all the kind of highly detailed simulation we used to get from SPI.

On the other hand, wargames can never approach the abstraction of the typical Eurostyle game. Wargames have to be models of some reality, and anything that happens in the wargame ought to correspond to something that happens in reality. That’s rarely the case in Eurostyle games, which are frequently abstractions with some kind of atmosphere tacked on (yes there are exceptions). Eurostyle games are designed to have particular paths or actions that can be easily blocked by the opposition (without any actual destruction), and that’s not even close to the nature of warfare.

Conclusion

Will the “grognards” of the ghetto like these wargames? Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re gradually going out of the market for games and publishers have to look at younger markets.

Having said all this, I’ve described one of the kinds of games I like to design, so maybe I’m prejudiced. Or maybe I saw the need years ago and have been working on it ever since.

When I started this I intended to write something fairly brief, but many of the trends in games in general have come into the question of the future of wargames.  I’ll stop here before it grows any further! 

***

I will be a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, April 23-24 in Raleigh, NC.   Exact time or day as yet unknown.  The topic will be “On the Horns of a Dilemma” (Game Design).

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

YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
@lewpuls

Monday, March 10, 2014

PrezCon 2014



PrezCon 2014

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


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


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


[Some of the plaques awarded for tournament success]


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

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

[Vendor area]


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

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

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

[Britannia tournament]

[Playing my prototype Doomstar]

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

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



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

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

YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
@lewpuls