Wednesday, December 03, 2014

11 More "need to Knows" about game design

This 12+ minute screencast is primarily for aspiring designers, not for professionals.
This is a followup to "10 'need to knows' about game design"

The text of the slides follows.  Of course, there's a lot more to the screencast than this text.
11 MORE “need to knows” about Game Design
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube
Original 10 Wasn’t Enough
I started with 10 “ntk”
But I thought of more than 10, so here some more.  Keep in mind, the first 10, taken as a whole, are the most important
But these 11 are also important

The List
Focus on the essence
Professionals design for other people, not for themselves
Professional game design is about discipline, not self-indulgence
Game Design is not Mind Control
There is no perfect game
You probably won’t be good at game design, at first
Games are not just Mechanics
Making a good game takes a LOT of time
Piracy is everywhere (for “digital” goods)
You’re an Entertainer, or a teacher, not a gift to the world
“Fail Faster”

Focus on the Essence
My motto: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Another form, about Japanese gardening, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."
If you’re making a puzzle, complexity might be a goal; If you’re making “an experience”, simplicity may not be a goal.  For most games, the goal is to keep only what you absolutely need

Professionals design for other people, not for themselves
 [As this has been misunderstood by someone who didn't listen to the screencast, I interject the following: Your primary goal (for most games, recognizing there are specialized such as educational) is to entertain other people, not yourself.  The goal is to entertain, the design is for other people.  As such, any list of features that you think will make your game a surefire hit will likely turn into a soul-less mess.  So perhaps I could have worded the slide, "Professionals work to entertain other people, not themselves".]
Your job is to entertain or enlighten other people
You are not typical, or you wouldn’t be designing games!
So what you like, may not be typical of what large groups like
Don’t rely solely on your own opinions about the worth of a game
I recently had a game published that I didn’t think was a Big Deal, just a nice little game – but others had different opinions
And I have had games I thought were outstanding, but have not been published

Professional game design is about discipline, not self-indulgence
Many designers are self-indulgent, often thinking of themselves as “artists” who are blessing the world with their brilliance – so they do whatever they want
POPPYCOCK! (Though you can do this if you’re not interested in selling any games . . .)
Do player-centric, not designer-centric (or art-centric) design
Game design is compromise.  It’s never “perfect”

Game Design is not Mind Control
Some designers want to, in effect, control all that the player is doing and thinking
And if you think about it, a novel can be approached in this way
Though most novelists want to influence, not control
Linear video games can approach this ideal
But most game players want to have the ability to control the outcome of the game (and want “agency” as well)
Better to think of game design as offering players opportunities, not forcing anything on the players

There is no perfect game
There are dozens of genres for a reason
Tastes of game players vary as much as tastes of music-lovers.  (I dislike rap.  I like classical.  Some people love rap.  Some hate classical.  And so on.)
And there’s no room for perfectionism in professional design
You need to get games DONE.  Especially in video games
The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns sets in quickly for professionals, less so for hobbyist designers
So at some point, you have to finish even though the game isn’t perfect

You probably won’t be good at it, at first
How often do you start to do something complex, requiring a lot of critical thinking, and yet you’re immediately good at it?  Never!
Most complex things worth doing, take a long time to do well
Even playing a game well can take a long time to master
Some theorize that you need a great many opportunities to fail/succeed before you can become good at something
And there’s the “10,000 hours” notion, too, though I don’t take the quantification seriously

Games are not just Mechanics
What matters is the impression you make on the player(s)
MDA: Mechanics, Dynamics, “Aesthetics” (I prefer “Impressions” for the last)
Collections of mechanics can feel soul-less
If you choose mechanics based on a model, they tend to fit together; if they’re just collections, they’ll often not fit together

Making a good game takes a LOT of time
Most of what happens in game design takes place in the mind – of the designer, and of the players
Outsiders/non-practitioners tend to minimize the difficulty because they don’t see it happening
Moreover, it’s easy to get a game to 80%, it’s the last 20% that takes most of the game design time and effort
And then, if it’s a tabletop game, scheduling and manufacturing can take many months
Mayfair recently published a game they’d had for 8 years
I have a game that may be published in 2015, publisher accepted it in 2005 [sic]

Piracy of “digitally”-produced games is rampant
And there’s practically nothing you can do about it
Free-to-play helps (in video games), but even the in-app purchases in F2P are pirated regularly
Fortunately, not much piracy in tabletop games (unless it’s primarily a rulebook, such as RPGs)

You’re an Entertainer or a Teacher, not a "gift to the world”
That is, if you want to be a commercial game designer
Publishers are in business to make money (mostly, but especially in video games)
Yes, you can self-publish
But a lot more people want games to entertain or enlighten them, than want games to be “art”
“We want to entertain people by surprising them, so I really don’t think we are psychologists – we are nothing but entertainers.” -Shigeru Miyamoto (Zelda, Donkey Kong, Wii Fit, etc. )
Reiner Knizia (over 500 [sic] published games) also says his purpose is entertainment

“Fail Faster”
You want to find all the ways your game can fail, and eliminate or fix them
So the faster you fail, the quicker you can eliminate or fix the failures
Or start over!
Get a playable prototype done as soon as possible – there is NO Substitute
If you’re doing a video game, try to make a paper prototype first, to try things out
Until I think of more ntk, enjoy your designing

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday once-a-year online course sale for Lew's Udemy courses

Black Friday once-a-year sale: you've got to do it before someone beats you to it.
As you may know, I do not take part in Udemy's kamikaze marketing, nor in the craziness of affiliation. This may have cost me some money (all the big earners participate) but I prefer to treat online teaching as something like books and good college classes, not like get-rich-quick schemes and super-discounted PC video games. So I'm not part of Udemy's kamikaze Black Friday marketing.
I confess I haven't gone out to shop on Black Friday for longer than I can remember (and I'm 63). But I will "join in the party" online. I have not offered this kind of thing before and may not again, certainly not anytime soon.

So here is a one-time-this-year promotion. I have discounted my classes much more than normal, but there are a *limited number* of coupons for the discounts: three each at "level one", five at "level two"; and an unlimited number at the "normal" discount (which exists only because I get a much larger percentage from my coupons than when someone signs up directly, without a coupon).
As always there are plenty of free previews available in each course, and a 30 day money back guarantee.

This was offered first to people already in my classes, so it's possible that some levels are already exhausted.

Level One (three coupons each):
$20 off Learning Game Design (list $59)
$10 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games (list $33)
$10 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) (list $29)
$5 off Brief Introduction to Game Design (list $12)
$9 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry (list $15)
In percentage terms this is a very large discount, 60%, because it is my one class not primarily about game design.

Level Two (five coupons each):
$15 off Learning Game Design (list $59)
$7 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games (list $33)
$7 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) (list $29)
$4 off Brief Introduction to Game Design (list $12)
$6 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry (list $15)

The "Normal" discounts (you'll recall I receive a larger cut from a coupon than from someone who pays full price, so I always offer these):
$10 off Learning Game Design (actual cost $49)
$4 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games (actual cost $29)
$4 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) (actual cost $25)
$3 off Brief Introduction to Game Design (actual cost $9)
$3 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry (actual cost $12)
"Joys of Game Design" is always discounted to $5 from Udemy's $9, no special discounts here:

Conventions and Conferences
I have completed the first part of a free course about game conventions and conferences. I may not be able to post it on Udemy (it will be on because so much of it is not yet done.

I'll be giving a talk about "Space Wargames" at PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA in late February.   I love designing them, though many of the published space wargames are too detailed for my liking (or too bloodless!).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Characteristics of game boards

Game Design: Discussing “The Board”
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Describing, not Defining
Because as soon as someone says “definition”, someone else will nitpick it
Given the loosey-goosey nature of English, absolutely clear definitions are nearly impossible
So, I’m just going to talk about game boards, not “define”

Why Boards?
A board is a natural way to depict maneuver and geospatial relationships
Which are virtually required for wargames
Cards don’t naturally do this
Yes, you can use a “board” as a status indicator without any reference to spatial relationships
As in some Eurogames
We’re interested in boards as fields for maneuver that depict geospatial relationships

Is there a formula for designing a board?
I’ve seen novice designers ask for a formula, as though everything in game design can be reduced to rote, to always-correct solutions
In short: NO!
Game design is about critical thinking, the opposite of rote learning
But we can see common characteristics in many “classic” game boards
And common ways to make boards

Square Grid
Chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe, Stratego, many others (even the video game Civilization (I through IV, V went to hexes)
Easy to see, easy to make a prototype, easy for players to understand
But movement diagonally is very distorted (1.41 times as far, per square)
Adjacency is a problem: is it four
squares adjacent, or eight?
But if you’re depicting walls or a city
 road grid, squares are very useful

Areas (like a map)
Looks most natural of all boards
Diplomacy, Risk, Axis & Allies, Britannia, a great many games that cover a large geographical area
Often used when more than one piece can be in a location (though Diplomacy allows only one per area)
Provides room for “individuality”, avoiding the geometric precision of squares and hexes

Hexagons (“hexes”)
Hex means six
Adjacency is clear – six adjacent vice 8
The typical wargame grid
Do hexes put people off?
Not uniform
Looked at one way, there are two ways forward
Look at it 90 degrees from that, there are three ways forward
Less distance distortion than squares (but contrary to popular belief, there IS distortion)
Not good for straight lines (such as walls or city roads)
(Illustration is a hand-drawn prototype board for my game Dragon Rage (1982, 2011)

The illustration (a space empires game prototype) is for outer space, but most are for land areas
Allows easy representation of routes, paths, bridges,  chokepoints, impassable terrain

All grids are ways of showing connectivity
Here’s a connectivity diagram of the FFG Britannia map
The relationships between areas are exactly the same
But notice lines crossing in a few places

Other Grids
Circular (IMM prototype board)
Spiral (Four Elements prototype board)
And many variations
Not always Maneuver . . .
Some games only provide for placement, not maneuver, such as Ingenious, my prototype Law & Chaos (Mayfair someday)
These are hex boards, but it’s not always hexes for placement – tic-tac-toe for example
Go, of course, is placement-only, and uses the intersections of a square grid

What do they have in Common?
Number of areas in many classic games doesn’t differ wildly from chess’s 64
When it does, it’s often a hex board
Diplomacy 70-some (IIRC), Risk 42, Britannia 37 +6 seas
This also depends on number of pieces
Tends to be fairly high in games with lots of hexes, such as wargames
Piece count: Diplomacy 34, Risk “a lot”, Britannia about 55

Number of Connections?
If we want to analyze boards further, we’d count number of connections to each area (which I actually did with that space wargame)
Hex board, this is always 6.  Square board, always either 4 or 8, depending on whether diagonals are counted
Examples of Pacific Convoy and DS – number of connections does matter
And we’d relate number of areas and number of connections to typical number of pieces
But you can overthink anything in games.  Try actually playing on a board and you’ll find out a lot, if you pay attention

Think of a board as a connectivity diagram for maneuver (or placement), and go from there to choose the grid that works best for your game.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Sea Kings: Thanks

My thanks to those who helped achieve Worthington Publishing's Kickstarter for my Viking adventure game Sea Kings, whether they are backers, publicizers, or cheerleaders!

I am not a big fan of Kickstarter for board and card games, and there's a distinct learning curve to hosting one, but achieving the goal makes up for a lot.

Someday I may try a Kickstarter myself to support writing another game design book.  This seems to be the only practical way to avoid the effects of rampant piracy.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Discount on Lew's online game design classes for Sea Kings backers

With 58 hours to go the Sea Kings kickstarter is $1,000 from its goal.  This offer won't persuade you to back Sea Kings if you who have already backed it, but it may make a difference to others, and I hope you'll pass the word.

As you may know, I am retired from college, teaching video game development and design the last few years.  I've also written a book about game design ("Game Design," McFarland 2012).  In the past year I have created the only non-degree (inexpensive) audiovisual online courses on game design (as opposed to game development) in the world.

I am offering 50% off any one of my courses on Udemy.Com for every backer of Sea Kings who buys at least one copy of the game (sorry $2 folks).  This applies only if the $15,000 goal is reached, of course.  So if you take my book-length  "Learning Game Design: as a job or a hobby" course (normally $59) you save $29.50.  Courses are listed at

Discount coupons available to everyone are at, but you'll see the discount for that big class is to $49.  I don't participate in the kamikaze discounts typically seen at Udemy.

(You can find lots of courses at Udemy that have "game design" in the title; they are actually about programming, as "game design" is used as a synonym for "video game development".)

Note also that Worthington has added a new level:
     Pledge $499 or more

    2 backers Limited (8 left of 10)

    "Sea Kings Celebration at Prezcon 2015" Receive 2 copies of Sea Kings plus all stretch goals reached PLUS one night's hotel lodging at Prezcon 2015 in Charlottesville VA PLUS meet the game designer, Lew Pulsipher, and the Worthington team PLUS attend a dinner and celebration for your contribution in making Sea Kings happen. Lew will autograph the game copies, PLUS play Sea Kings with the designer and the Worthington team. Also receive a third copy of the game mailed to your home at the time it is available for shipping. Free USA shipping on this copy, add $15 for Canada or $25 for international."

A friend saw this and was surprised that I was actually going to play a game.  Maybe we'll alter the rules slightly (the wargame version I'm working on), as I have a record of never having played one of my games exactly as it was published!  (It's done, as far as I'm concerned.)

Finally, I've "published" a new online course, "The Joys of Game Design".  It's (mostly) about game design as a hobby, rather than as a job.

Udemy requires a price of at least $9, or free.  I don't like free because there are so many people who collect freebies without any actual interest or intent to make use of the class.  So I've gone for $9, but I will distribute coupons for $5.  This is a much bigger discount than I usually permit, but it's because I had to price it at $9 to begin with.

Joys, $5:

Lew  (designer of Sea Kings, Britannia, Dragon Rage, and others)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Video screencast: 10 "Need to Knows" about Game Design

Note: I saw someone refer to this as 10 need to knows about tabletop game design.  No, this applies to ALL game design.

Text from the slides is below.  Remember, I say more in the video than is in the slides, so commenting only on the basis of the text makes no sense.

10 “Need to Knows” about Game Design
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
What this is, and isn’t
This is for aspiring designers – pros likely already know
It’s NOT about the business, not about marketing, it’s about designing games, creating gameplay that entertains (or informs)
10 is an arbitrary number – in fact, I’ll be making another screencast for another 10.  I’ve tried to pick the 10 most important here

A List
You are most unlikely to get rich
Ideas are mostly worthless
Especially if money is involved, game design is sometimes unappealing work
Don’t worry about someone “stealing your ideas”
Innovation is Highly overrated
Games are NOT stories
The most important question is, who is your target audience?
The second most important is, what is the player going to DO?
Playtesting is Sovereign!
Your goal is to complete games!

You are most unlikely to get rich
You might hear of independently wealthy game designers
But they’re very rare
Most game designers don’t make a living, just as most novelists, playwrights, painters, sculptors, film-makers, and composers don’t
The tabletop games industry is very small, and there’s not much money there
Video games involve much more money, but there are so many games published that the average designer makes little
The tabletop mass-market is likely beyond your reach, and competition there is FIERCE

Ideas are mostly worthless
“Ideas are like ___holes, everybody’s got one”
What you think is a great idea, almost certainly isn’t
And likely has been thought of a hundred times and more
Ideas don’t sell, GAMES sell - no one will buy your idea
No one will make your game for you – they want to make THEIR games
Most game players think they have ideas for good games
But few ever complete a game design

Especially if money is involved, game design is sometimes unappealing work
It’s not always fun, and it definitely isn’t “playing games”
You’ll play fewer games if you’re a game designer
Playing games is pretty unproductive, isn’t it?
And you may enjoy game playing less
Because you’ll be seeing “the innards”, how the game is structured
The tedium of finding a programming bug, or of gluing together boards or cards, is just that: tedious

Innovation is Highly Overrated
“There is nothing new under the sun” – very little, anyway
Surprise is important in games, and a mechanic the players aren’t familiar with might surprise them
But most mechanics have already been used even if YOU don’t know it
Example: Stratego/L’Attaque
Where “new” comes into play in games is in the combinations of mechanics and settings you use
“The idea is like your finger, we all have them, but the implementation is like your fingerprint, everyone's is unique.”

Don’t worry about someone “stealing your ideas”
It’s a small industry (even video games)
If someone steals something, the word gets around
Game ideas aren’t worth much, and everyone seems to think they have good ones of their own
Parallel development happens often
Yes, there are lots of video game clones (deliberate copies), and that’s really annoying, but there’s usually nothing you can do about it because game ideas cannot be copyrighted
Almost always, cloning occurs after the original game is released

Games are NOT Stories
Games are activities.  Stories (traditional ones, anyway, novels, plays, film) are passive
Typically, when aspiring designers want to design a game, they think of stories instead of games
There are thousands of games that have no story
Yes, there’s always a narrative – an account of what happens – but not a story meant to entertain, with various standard elements
“An experience” is often a goal of RPG and video game designers – but they still do it through the mechanics of a game
If you don’t know what mechanics your game will use, you don’t have a game – maybe you have a story

The most important question is, “who is your target audience?”
Game design is always about constraints
The first set of constraints comes from your intended audience
No game can appeal to everyone – you have to CHOOSE
And then you have to understand that audience
And test your game with that audience

The second most important is,“what is the player going to DO?”

Games are activities
Players of video games have been conditioned to expect to be doing something more or less constantly
Visualize what the player is doing.  Is that enjoyable?  Does it fit with your target audience?
Get rid of anything that doesn’t contribute to what the player is going to enjoyably do in the game

Playtesting is Sovereign!
Game design isn’t like other individual arts such as sculpture, painting, composing
Because game playing is active, while enjoying those other arts is largely passive
You cannot be a good judge of the quality
You have to rely on representative members of your target audience
They play the game, you watch, you get feedback, you modify the game accordingly
The longest chapter in my book “Game Design” is about playtesting
Because it’s “the heart of game design”

Your goal is to complete games
No professional, no publisher, no funding person, is impressed with a partially completed game
You’ve got to prove you can make a complete game, the same way a would-be novelist must prove he/she can complete a novel
Another reason why starting with tabletop games rather than video is more practical, you don’t need programming skills
This is the most common advice I’ve seen for aspiring designers: “You must make complete games!”

All of these are discussed at greater length in one or another of my courses, usually in “Learning Game Design.” And there will be 10 or so more in another screencast.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Really Small Games (Card Version)

I attended a meeting of a NC game designers’ guild for the first time last week.  The organizer, Matt Wolfe, asked about my design Sea Kings, which is currently on Kickstarter run by Worthington Publications ( ).  At some point I said it was, at about 45 minutes, inevitably a filler game; and he responded, that’s not a filler game any more, fillers are 20 minutes!  While it’s true that 45 minutes is sometimes more a serial filler (played several times consecutively), it’s surely not a destination game (you go to a regular game meeting with the intention of playing this particular game).  (See for my definitions.)  So as the meeting went on I got educated about a segment of gaming I wasn’t familiar with, mostly and often entirely abstract card games that sell for $10-$20 and take 10-30 minutes to play.  (Abstract in design and play, but with a manufactured story tacked on after design.  Abstract games without a story are hard to sell.  Look at a game box sometime, you’ll find a lot more about the story, usually, than about how the game actually works.)

This put me in mind of a game designers’ weekend I attended in Charlottesville, VA about 10 years ago, hosted by Stephen Glenn.  At one point one designer said, “I want to play games all day, but none longer than an hour.”  I thought (and still think) that was an odd point of view; if you’re willing to play all day, why not allow longer games?  Today I suspect the sentiment would be “I want to play games all evening, but none longer than 30 minutes” (which might be a commentary on shortening attention spans and a need for instant gratification).

Why would people limit how long a particular game is going to take, when they’re intent on playing all day, or all evening?  I’m guessing, because it’s not the way I (or my generation, really) do things.  First, you get the ultimate feedback quickly, whether you’ve won or lost.  Second, you can switch from one game to another quickly, and play several different games.  This is more important in modern short-attention-span times, and also fits with the change from gameplay depth to variety as a goal of a good game.  The “Cult of the New” is in ascendance.  Third, it also lets you play games with more people in one game meeting, if there are enough people to play several games at once.  As you change games, you change the composition of your group.  Fourth, you’re not putting your ego on the line when you play so many short games.  If you play a three hour game and don’t do well, the psychological effect is much stronger than if it’s a 30 minute game.  (And you’re not likely to lose six 30 minute games in a row.)

The ideal, to me, is a game flexible enough that it can be played in 10 or 20 minutes, even if the most satisfying version (to me, anyway) is 30 minutes up to an hour.  I have designed several card games exactly like this (point games, not surprisingly), but they all use 110 cards, and 110 is too many for a $10 game, even for a $15 game unless you have a big print run.  The inexpensive games I was shown mostly contained 55 cards or 16 cards (versions of Love Letter), not 110.  (In case anyone reading isn’t aware of it, the most common card printers do 55 cards per sheet, which may be gradually changing to 54.)  AEG has quite a few of these games, which Matt thought were printed in runs of 5,000.

Walking around a recent game club meeting at NC State, with 66 people in attendance, I discovered that the only boardgame being played was one that my group was playtesting (albeit a three and a four player game at the same time).  Two people were playing Carcassonne, one group of five or six was playing an RPG, the rest were playing Magic and several other card games.  (And that’s without anyone playing Cards Against Humanity, a popular pastime at the club.)

Why card games?  A major difference between what card games and board games naturally do is access to information.  Card games naturally hide information, where board games naturally reveal information. If there's little hidden information, people try to figure out an optimal move, resulting sometimes in analysis paralysis (why chess clocks exist, to cut off the AP). People can often successfully play card games intuitively, which is much less "work" than playing logically, as well as quicker. So card games can be played more quickly.  (I discussed the natural characteristics of board and card games at )

In boardgames a player usually has several pieces to worry about, complicating decisions, not a problem in card games.  Moreover, boards were invented to display maneuver and geospatial relationships. Games with those features may be inherently longer than abstract games without those characteristics (and the latter includes most card games, traditional and commercial). You CAN use cards to make a kind of board (I have three games that do this), but it's more the fact that maneuver and geospatial relationships are important that lengthens the game, not how the board is depicted. (By the way, two of those three are deliberate card-game versions of boardgames.)

Board games with one piece per player, avatars, can have a quick setup (Sea Kings among them).  I discuss the trend of using avatars in tabletop games in my video on my YouTube “Game Design” channel, video at, channel at )

Card games are usually easier to carry, often easier to set up, and easier to put away than boardgames. 

Card games are probably less complex than boardgames in general.  This is helped by putting rules on the cards, so there are fewer rules to learn before the game starts. 

As game manufacturers try to reach broader markets to make up for shortfalls in sales of individual games (because there are SO MANY games published now), a trend back toward traditional card game methods, such as trick-taking and set collection, also makes sense.

It's very hard to make a board game very short, especially non-abstracts and games for more than two players. Yeah, Tic-tac-toe is short, but it's solved, always a draw in perfect play.  I discussed short board games (though only two player) in "Really Small Games" (

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ways for publishers to get out of the "wargames ghetto"

With the opening of the Kickstarter for Sea Kings (, and the prospect of publication of two other crossover games I’ve designed, Seas of Gold and Germania, I’ve been trying to define what these alternatives (or escapes) from wargames are about.

In connection with the “Future of (Tabletop) Wargaming” that I wrote about some time ago (, we have three broad categories of games:

1) the “wargames ghetto” two player “simulation” games that are often hex board and cardboard counters with numbers/statistics on them. There are wargames that aren’t actually in the ghetto, such as Britannia, usually because they don’t use counters with numbers on them or hex boards, but also because some of them are for more than two players (Brit is all three). They’re still wargames, and many people for many reasons don’t or won’t play wargames.  Insofar as they're not hex-and-counter I might have divided wargames into two categories.

2) the “crossover” games designed to attract both a significant segment of the wargame crowd and a large segment of the non-wargame crowd. These usually have both a board and cards. This is divided further into two parts:
     A) the semi-wargames or “peace games” where players will do best if they are not involved in warfare/violence but warfare often occurs; usually the board and the maneuver component is more important than the card component.
     B) the games that may involve habitual violence, and certainly a lot of player interaction, but are not wargames, such as Sea Kings and some race games; the card component is usually more important than the maneuvering-on-the-board component.

In all of these, maneuver or placement, and geospatial relationships, are vital parts of the game, just as they are in wargames. But the primary objective has to be something other than conquest.

3) the games that may or may not include violence (such as a zombie game), do not involve much maneuver or geospatial relationships, and frequently are primarily cardgames. Many of these are “screwage” games (where you mess with your friends). Munchkin, Bang!, Nuclear War are some of the most well-known screwage games, though all of them with large flaws for contemporary players.

There can be exceptions, but most of the above games involve considerable player-to-player interaction. And almost all of them are models of some reality, rather than purely abstract games.

Remember, these categories are related to moving out of the wargames ghetto. There are lots of other categories of games not included here. For example, there’s a vast body of games that do not involve maneuver/geospatial relationships, a vast body that are abstract (that is, not models of some reality), a vast body where most of the player interaction is with the game, not with other players. Some games are all three.

I’ve focused recently on the crossover category, with Sea Kings now on Kickstarter and several race games in early development (such as a chariot racing game).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sea Kings Kickstarter now open

The Kickstarter for my tabletop game "Sea Kings" is now open on Kickstarter:

Worthington Publications is running a first-class KS.  The video provides the context for the game as well as details, another video teaches you the game in a couple minutes (it's quite a simple game), and the rules with art and layout are a click away.

There are no "pre-reviews", which I personally distrust as a fertile ground for shenanigans.  Worthington has been publishing games for 10 years, My games were published as long as 35 years ago.  You can read the rules and see the board.  I hope that's enough to help you decide whether to support the project.

This is a simple hybrid game (avatar-based, between wargame and peaceful game), not a wargame.  It's a short game (depends on # of players but pretty much 45 minutes).  It accommodates a wide range of players (at least 7).  So of course it's a filler game.  I was finally convinced of its value during playtesting when we set out, at the university game club one day, to play Sea Kings (the "Rogue Viking" version) while waiting for other people to turn up so that we could play two of my longer wargames.  When the meeting ended (less than 4 hours) they had played a 7, 6, 6, 5, and 5 player games (no, I didn't play, almost never do), including participation in all five games by one fellow's girlfriend who doesn't play the wargames.  Sea Kings uses an avatar, which suits people who don't want to figure out the movement of lots of pieces at one time.

Anytime people play a natural filler game again and again, there's something in it.

I hope Worthington do well with this Kickstarter and this game.  They want to get out of what I call the "wargame ghetto", and they have several of my other games lined up, some wargames, some not, if things work out.

As for Brit, I hope to restart on Epic soon and write the advanced rules (intro rules already posted).  Conquer has been played a few times in the past 11 months, not many.  Balance is a pain, especially of a smaller game.  But I've had so many other things going on (still on track to have five non-Brit games published next year), and online classes (may as well put those below, too, hope no one minds), that Brit has taken a back seat.  And sometimes letting a game "lie fallow" helps.

Coupons for Udemy classes!
$10 off Learning Game Design ($49)

$4 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games ($29)

$6 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) ($23)

$3 off Brief Introduction to Game Design ($9)

$3 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry ($12)


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Video: Conventions - WBC 2014

 Text of slides:

“World Boardgaming Championships” (WBC)
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

A National Tournament Convention
Annual for 30-some years (originally “Avalon Con”)
Lancaster, PA, early August
But beginning 2016 it will be near Somerset PA at Seven Springs Resort
Lancaster Host Hotel
1,700 attendees for up to a week
Auction, auction store, open gaming, vendors Fri-Sun, but mostly TOURNAMENTS
Strictly board and card games, no RPGs, no CCGs, no minis, no video games
Though there IS some Werewolf late at night . . .

Tournament Orientation
You pay single fee, play in as many tournaments as you can
Wargame tournaments, Euro tournaments (Ticket to Ride was the largest in 2014 at 115 entrants), “kids’ game” tournaments Liars Dice, Werewolf
It’s perhaps the last stronghold of old-time wargaming
35 was a good turnout for the Britannia tournament

Friendly Competition
Tournaments typically have several heats, and you don’t need to play every heat; but formats vary
Mostly-helpful players, but really skillful (“sharks”, as a friend calls them)
Some games are more affected by “sharks” (hard-core tournament players) than others
Many come to play games they cannot play at home
For lack of opponents or space or time
And of course, some games aren’t highly competitive to begin with – many non-wargames, for example

Why I Go
I go to talk with game publishers (some of whom don’t go to GenCon)
And to be with the Britannia guys (since I designed the game)
And to get a little prototype testing done by “grognards”
But I usually go only Thursday-Sunday
(Keep in mind, Sunday is “mostly dead” except for vendors, who pack up about noon)
See many of the same folks every year

Don Greenwood (“Mr. Avalon Hill”) runs this convention, he intends it to be family-friendly, and he succeeds.

Don himself has corrected some errors:  There were 303 in the Ticket to Ride tournament (I think I was remembering the PrezCon figure), the overall attendance this year was 2,000, and there were 159 tournaments plus 20 Juniors events.  (He also says the Euro tournaments are very competitive!)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Video - Tabletop RPGs, Prisoners of Modern Capitalism (Among Other Things)

This is a Video hosted on YouTube.

Comments on YouTube lead me to add the following:
1) "Collapse" doesn't mean it's gone entirely, just that it's much less than it was 
2) it actually happened several years ago, with no sign of recovery 
3) Suspicion of Simplicity refers to RPGdom, not gaming at large where simplicity is a keyword these days.

Slide text (If you only read this text and don't listen to the screencast, you won't know what I said.  If you comment based only on the text, you'll be like someone who reads a detailed table of contents for a book and then comments as though he read the book.)

 Three parts to this “imprisonment”
First, the economic need to constantly produce more rules
Second, oversaturation has set in
Third, “crowd-sourcing” changes things
Together, they’ve made the RPG market very difficult for all but the largest publishers, or for small PDF specialists
The “More” Dichotomy
To produce a really good, broadly popular RPG, you need to do what all games are doing: get shorter and simpler
Avoid “crunchiness” (rules that are barriers to entry, such as long character creation)
People who play tabletop RPGs frequently do so for social reasons.  The hard core can play complex computer RPGs (Skyrim) and MMOs (WoW etc.)
But to continue making money from a tabletop RPGs, you need to keep adding rules, settings, adventures
Unfortunately, settings and adventures from other games can be adapted to yours
So additional rules that apply directly to your game are published by the boatload
That’s the first problem

The multiplying rules problem
As rules are added, the simplicity (and maybe quick play) are lost
Play balance is often ruined, as well
All of this discourages new players rather than attracts them
E.g., 3e D&D often became a contest to find the set of additional rules for your character that most imbalanced the game
To me, the apparent object of the game is to show off, to be a “one-man army”
Which DIScourages cooperation
Not interesting at all.  I want a cooperative game, not a “ME” game
Which is true for many other people, I think

Suspicion of Simplicity
Is it part of the nature of the Triumph of Capitalism that people are suspicious of something that's simple?
If modern consumers can’t see the result of effort, then for them the effort doesn’t exist
In effect, game designers are sometimes substituting complexity for substance
But that’s easy to do.  Simplifying is harder

Simplicity as a Goal for Game Designers
My motto: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."
If you’re making a puzzle, complexity might be a goal; not for a game

Economics defeats Game Design
So economics is lined up against good game design, and for WotC, at least, economics triumphs in the end
The game gets unwieldy, and finally they replace it with the next edition
But with 4e they made it so different, it didn’t seem to be connected to previous editions; that let Pathfinder (revised 3.5e) overtake and pass 4e in sales!

That’s the first problem, what’s next?  Saturation (or, if you prefer, over-saturation) of the market, and Crowdsourcing

The Weight of Years - Saturation
As time passes, veteran RPGers have more and more accumulated settings and adventures that can be adapted to newer role-playing games
And so, less and less incentive to buy more settings and more adventures
More and more older material is available in cheap PDF format (such as Gygax’s Giants adventures)
So why buy new ones?
Lots of people (like me) who play RPGs don’t buy anything new
The result: it’s harder to sell professionally-priced settings and adventures
Which leaves us with more rules . . .

Crowdsourcing: competition from “the crowd” online
Which has severely impacted the stock photography business, for example
In RPGs we have competition from amateurs and semi-professionals via online distribution
There are hundreds of fanboys and fangirls who just want people to see their stuff, so they give it away, or nearly so
And the fan stuff may be better playtested than the professional stuff
Professionals sometimes cannot take time to playtest

Semi-pro verus Pro
People who wrote RPG material freelance used to be paid royalties and retain ownership, now it’s all “work for hire” at dire rates (2 cents a word, 5 cents if you’re really good)
2 cents a word was a high rate in the pulp era (1930s), but that was equivalent to 30-odd cents now
At current rates, you have little incentive to spend much time playtesting your material, or even to take much care in the writing
The result: there’s lots and lots of cheap material out there as good, or nearly as good, as the professional stuff
So why would a smart person pay professional prices?

The "Collapse"
So we have lots of players, but not much of a market
Many aren’t looking for new, especially professional, material
Add to this the competition from computer RPGs
Unfortunately, tabletop RPGs require imagination and thinking, while computer RPGs require much less of both.  In a way we're doomed by the "Easy Button"
Result: the market for tabletop RPG material “collapsed” years ago
Companies that formerly published successful RPG material wouldn’t touch it now
So the bottom has fallen out of the fully professional RPG market, with no prospect that it will ever return - because saturation and crowdsourcing are here to stay

Current State
People at GenCon who give talks about RPGs say an independent is lucky to sell a thousand copies of a book, usually less.  That cannot keep larger companies going, though we can suppose their marketing power would sell more than a thousand
Ask yourself how much you buy, compared to years ago (and recall that you're exceptional).  I buy hardly anything, and don't have time to read what I've got
The biggest companies can still prosper, of course

Some new companies (such as Kobold – founded by a former WotC person) succeed enough to provide a living, but most do not.  And we continue to be doomed to a cycle of more rules until the edifice falls down and a new edition results.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

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

This is repeated from my Gamasutra "expert" blog:

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

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

All I needed to know (about games and game design) I learned from Dungeons & Dragons
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
With thanks to . . .
Robert Fulghum’s little poem “All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.” It has inspired people since the late ‘80s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Writing a book derived from an online audiovisual course

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

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

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

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

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

The course:
$4 off "How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)" ($23)
You can see some sample screencasts without registering, and there's a 30 day money back guarantee.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Some GenCon (and WBC) Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ( ) 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:
$4 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games ($29)

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,

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):
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 . . .


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.


Some people may be reluctant to register for courses at an indivual's site, preferring a large, well-known educational site such as Udemy.  For those folks, I provide the following "coupon" links for my courses on Udemy, even though the courses cost less on https://Courses.PulsipherGames.Com:

$10 off Learning Game Design  Expires Aug 31 at latest ($49)

$4 off Level Design Expires Aug 31 at latest ($29)

$4 off How to Write Clear Rules   Expires Aug 31 at latest ($23)

$3 off Brief Introduction to Game Design ($9)

$3 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry ($12)

The courses are the same on both sites, except that assessments (quizzes) are included on Udemy but not on (technical limitation).

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 (   Thursday  3:00 PM  1 hr
SEM1453969  How to Write Clear Rules (   Friday 11:00 AM  1 hr 
SEM1453970  Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design (   Saturday 11:00 AM  1 hr 
SEM1453476  Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? (   Sunday  9:00 AM