Trying to define “the board”
This is a short (10 questions, five minutes or less) survey for people who call themselves game designers, video or tabletop (which is as good a way to define who game designers are as any other).
Keep in mind we are talking about game design, not about programming, art, sound, or other parts of game production.
I am using the free SurveyMonkey application, which is limited in the number of respondents, but in the unlikely event this copy gets full (this copy has 25 responses, two others are full) I'll include another link there.
This announcement will be rolled out gradually, over the course of several days, so you may end up seeing it in more than one place. The survey will remain open well into January.
I will post results next year, likely in February.
I have already seen that I have left a few choices out, and suggestions for further improvements and other interesting questions for further surveys are welcome.
Survey link: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PJ9ZXS8
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In the very oldest traditional board and card games, dice are rarely used. (Backgammon and Parcheesi are the most notable exceptions.) Most of those boardgames have perfect information and the only uncertainty comes from the intentions of the other player, except where dice are used. There are always just two players. Think of checkers, go, chess, tic-tac-toe, Nine Men's Morris, mancala, and so forth.
Dice were used primarily for dice games. Cards were not really invented for game purposes ion the West until post-Medieval times, and cards provide so much uncertainty on their own by hiding information that there evidently wasn't much impetus to add dice to card games. Race and chase games combine dice with boards, but most of these don't have the ancient pedigree of the games I mentioned above.
With the advent of what I call traditional commercial games such as Monopoly, Sorry, the execrable Game of Life, Risk, and others much older, dice became a typical component of boardgames, to the extent that video game design students who are not familiar with today's hobby boardgames simply assume that a non-abstract boardgame must include dice.
When I first give game design students some materials to make games with I do not give them dice, but they often request it and then I give them whatever kinds of dice they need, whether d6s or something more offbeat.
Yet there was a time some years ago when many people playing Eurostyle games declared a great unhappiness with dice. They simply did not want to deal with them, perhaps because dice reminded them of non-intellectual American family games. And as someone who in early adulthood said "I hate dice games" I can sympathize with that. Yet there's a place for dice in games, depending on the target market and many other factors, and that's what I want to talk about, more the virtues of dice than the sins though I'll also mention the sins.
Obviously, dice are a randomizer. Spinners are an alternative, as is a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 6. (Note that an unshuffled deck of cards is not entirely random if players can memorize what numbers have already come out of the deck.) Unlike dice, spinners can have a great variety of weights to different choices, whereas with dice each number ought to come up with the same frequency. We can use dice with more or less than six sides, and combinations of results (such as, if you roll a 5 or a 6 something happens). It's also easy to roll several dice at once whether you add the results or not. Using the sum of two dice is common, giving probabilities from 1 to 6 out of 36. It's also possible to use pictures on the dice instead of numerals, and of course you can do the same thing with cards and spinners.
Randomization serves many purposes, and many things in life are random. If you're one of those people who says "everything happens for a reason" you might disagree.
An extreme example of randomization is the people who roll dice to decide what choice they're going to make within a game; this is especially popular amongst RPGers.
Replayability and Variety
I have a few multisided game prototypes where I have tried both deterministic combat methods and methods involving dice. In some games the deterministic method seems to be acceptable and in others a dice method seems to work better. This may be related to the "natural variety" of the game: a game with more natural variety can have a deterministic combat method, while a game with less natural variety needs the variety from the dice.
Now what do I mean by "natural variety", which is a term I made up just this minute? Imagine chess played on a board 16 squares wide instead of eight and with twice as many pieces on the side. This has more natural variety than standard chess because there are more places for pieces to be and more pieces to move. Then imagine chess with a 5 by 5 square board, or even 4 by 4, and proportional reduction in pieces. That has less natural variety.
To compare my two prototypes, in a game with only 30 locations and one type of unit (armies) there is much less natural variety than in a game with 45 locations, technological advances, and event cards, even though it too has only one type of unit. The latter game uses deterministic combat while the former game works better with a form of dice combat that is fairly predictable and has a small standard deviation.
Excitement and Surprise
"Decks are fair, dice are exciting." (Sean Givan)
Dice provide moments of excitement that rarely come from cards, even more rarely from any other kind of activity. If you are at a convention or other well-attended game meeting, and hear a big cheer from a table, it probably involves a dice roll. Many kinds of games are meant to be intellectual (chess again) rather than exciting, but the exciting ones frequently involve dice. (Is there a connection to a fascination with gambling? I don't know. As I said, I used to say "I hate dice", and I have absolutely no fascination with gambling, which to me is a sort of tax on people who cannot do math.)
Dice also inject surprise into games, especially those that are otherwise perfect information. And if you think about it, surprise is one of the main reasons why people play games. It's really difficult to create new ways to surprise, but dice help do so, at least until people get used to the possibilities and probabilities in the game.
"Chance is skill when you win. (Skill is chance when you lose)." (Jonathon Walsh)
Dice contribute to replayability not only because randomization creates a greater variety of situations. Rolling dice means you're not putting your evaluation of your self into the game as much, not risking your ego. How many times have you heard people blame the dice for their loss in a game? Some people even profess to be convinced that they have consistently bad dice luck, which is of course ridiculous. Though it's certainly possible to have bad luck in a single game, as I remember one 2-player Risk game where I rolled one "6" during the entire game. Simply put, diceless games make you take more responsibility for the result than games with dice do. And people who feel they're responsible for a loss may be less likely to try again. Put it another way, if a player can convince himself that dice were his downfall, he's more likely to say "let's try that again."
One reason why people dislike dice is that randomization dilutes the "purity of the puzzle." Many modern games, both board and video, are essentially puzzles because they can be solved - played in a way that is always successful. When you introduce random factors then no solution will always work because luck won't always go your way. The "speed runs" that are popular in video games, where someone shows how fast he or she can go all the way through a video game that they've played before, often with astonishingly quick times, are much less possible if there is much randomization in the game. The speed running player cannot depend entirely on everything working exactly the way he's familiar with.
Having said that, hobby boardgame players are often much happier with cards as a randomizer than with dice. That may be because they feel they can manage a hand of cards whereas they can't manage dice rolls, or don't feel they can.
Using knowledge of probability to manage dice rolls is something I would expect hobby game players to be able to do, but I suspect relatively few can. For example, in Settlers of Catan two dice are rolled to determine which hexes produce raw materials. Experienced game players generally know the chances of rolling particular numbers and know that a "7" is six times as likely to be rolled as a "2". Yet the American edition of Settlers of Catan includes a table that shows those chances, so my suspicion is that a lot of people playing Catan don't know those dice odds.
In other words it's easier for some people to manage the cards they can see clearly in their hand than it is to manage probabilities that they can only see in your head - if they can work them out.
Then a "sin" of dice is that you need to understand probability to fully manage dice.
Another "sin" of dice is that they have the smell or odor of gambling, and gambling is very unattractive to a lot of people, though very attractive to many others. So much so that some religions ban dice games.
A minor sin of dice is that rambunctious (or merely clumsy) players sometimes disarray the game board while rolling dice all over the place!
But the biggest sin of dice, in the minds of many, is that they're random. Those who dislike randomness in games, dislike dice.
Randomness has a place in games, and strongly I recommend Greg Costikyan's brilliant and detailed exposition available at http://playthisthing.com/randomness-blight-or-bane, "Randomness blight or bane".
I'll close with some "six word stories". I occasionally ask blog readers to say six words about various topics, and here are some of the responses about "chance/randomness in games". The quotes above are also responses to this question.
First are some of mine:
Chance provides a form of surprise.
Cards are more manageable than dice.
Egos are not involved, with dice.
No chance/randomness, two players: mostly puzzle.
And contributions from others:
Need some randomness, JUST NOT DICE! ( BMinNY)
Randomness, for interesting situations; not outcomes (Matthew Rodgers)
Cards 'feel' less random than dice (davidestall)
A spoonful of chaos is fun (davidestall)
Randomness keeps you on your toes (davidestall) One. One. One. One. One. Impossible! (John Mitchell) [No, just improbable]
Used well, best game ingredient ever (Guido Gloor)
Life has randomness; why not games? (Wendell)
A good servant, a bad master (Anthony Simons)
Mastering chance is the true mastery (Ien Cheng)
Do we reflect, or master, life? (Brian Leet)
Say a prayer, pass the ammunition (Patrick Carroll)
Controlled chance: good; complete chaos: not (David Brain)
Randomness is merely just another tool (Russ Williams)
Randomness does not magically improve games (Russ Williams)
The skilled make their own luck (Steven Stadnicki)
Intelligently used, balances risk with reward (Eversor)
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In many “natural” games, such as sports, and in many traditional board and card games, every participant begins with an equal position and prospects to every other. This is symmetry. We can look at game design as devising interesting ways to break up symmetry, to introduce asymmetry. Some of these are achieved through player choice, some through randomness, some through uncertainty, and some through choice or caveat of the designer.
The most obvious way to break up symmetry is to be asymmetric from the start. Give each player different assets, or a different position if it’s a spatial/geographical game, or both. This is a characteristic of most two player wargames but much rarer in wargames for more than two. It’s rare in Eurostyle games as well. In fact it’s pretty rare generally because it’s much more work for the game designer. The designer has to balance at least two different groups in order to make the game fair. In my experience Britannia-like games are a big pain in the rear because there are four sides that are asymmetric in both assets and locations. It is much easier to balance a game that’s symmetric. Diplomacy and Diplomacy variants can be difficult to balance geographically but all sides usually have the same number of units to begin with (in the parent game, Russia is the exception, with four units rather than three).
Asymmetry through game setup
This occurs when players either choose their assets, often according to a point system, or they choose their locations. In Risk players either choose their locations during the setup or the territory cards are used to randomly distribute them about the board.
Sometimes the board/playing field itself changes from game to game as in Settlers of Catan or computer Civilization. Or a game may have an exploration component which means that as locations are explored you get a new and non-symmetric board every time.
Asymmetry through roles
Many Eurostyle tabletop games use the idea of roles, such as King’s adviser or merchant, each belonging exclusively to one player in each round.
Vinci/Smallworld uses a kind of role in the Empire characteristics that a player can choose. The difference is that available roles in typical Eurostyle games are the same every round. InVinci/Smallworld the pairs of Empire characteristics are rarely repeated within a game, so once selected by one player, they aren’t available to another.
Asymmetry through the roundel
Some tabletop games use a roundel or other means to limit the action choices a player has in his next turn. As the player “moves” around the roundel, each turn he has a different set of choices in front of him.
Asymmetry through turn order
In some turn-based games there is an advantage to playing first, or last, or some other place in the turn order, and there’s a mechanism to enable players to compete for the most desirable place in the turn order, such as an auction.
Chess is asymmetric with respect to turn order, with white having a much better chance to win than black. This is accounted for in tournaments by having players play both black and white equally in the course of the tournament. Another way might be to let black move twice after white’s first move.
(The above three amount to asymmetry through what a player can or cannot do in the sequence of his particular turn. There are other ways to do this as well.)
Asymmetry through different decks of cards
Collectible card games enable players to make up decks of cards that are different from other players’ decks. Other games that supply defined decks of cards, such as Fantasy Flight Games’ “Living Card Games”, strictly limit the number of possible decks yet each deck is different from each other deck.
Asymmetry through event cards
Many boardgames include a deck of event cards. Each player is dealt a hand of cards, so each player has different capabilities. There are many computer equivalents of this with many names such as beginning skills, perks, etc.
Asymmetry through character classes, feats, skills, perks
In games where the player acts through an avatar, the game often provides alternatives in character class (profession), character ability numbers, skills and feats, and other ways, both functional and cosmetic, to customize the character and make it different from all other characters.
Asymmetry through uncertainty
There are many forms of uncertainty, some of them resulting from randomness, some from the uncertain intentions of other players, and some from hidden information. Typical games using normal playing cards rely on hidden information, usually combined with the randomization of hands dealt from a shuffled deck to introduce a great deal of asymmetry immediately.
Asymmetry through randomness
I’m sure you knew I would get here sooner or later, because randomness is a straightforward and easily designed way to introduce asymmetry to a game. That randomness can derive from dice or spinners, shuffled cards, chit draws, and other more esoteric methods.
This can be quite straightforward. In Britannia, the setup never varies. But as soon as the game begins, different players attack differently with the Romans; and dice rolls for combat result in even greater variety. So practically speaking the positions of the Romans, Belgae, and Welsh differ from game to game even though the setup is unvarying.
What may be most important about randomness is whether it occurs as what Geoff Engelstein calls input randomness or output randomness. Input randomness occurs before a player acts, and may affect all players equally. An example of this would be drawing a artwork token from a bag that all players will then bid for. Which painting comes out is random but all players are affected equally even though some may prefer a different painting than the one that came out. Output randomness occurs after the player acts, and usually affects only that player, as in the combat dice roll in so many wargames.
Output randomness can be accounted for up to a point, but modern hobby gamers tend to feel better about input randomness than output randomness.
Greg Costikyan has written a brilliantly explained discussion of how randomness can be used in games: http://playthisthing.com/randomness-blight-or-bane.
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Two military/political aspects of the ancient world hold a fascination for me, because I've not found or seen a really satisfactory way to represent them in games. These are the problems of "the bump" and of tribute.
The first of these is what I call "the bump" or the push. This is the way that horse barbarians migrating out of Central Asia pushed other barbarians before them. Sometimes the pushing continued until ultimately some of them crossed over the borders of the civilized world. For example, the Huns pushed the Goths into the Roman Empire in the late fourth century A.D., and helped push the Vandals/Alans/Sueves/Allamanni/Franks as well.
In historical games that have the benefit (or curse) of hindsight/foresight often the player representing the Goths, knowing the Huns are coming, moves into the Roman Empire on his own. But in terms of causality that is backwards, a flaw that's a consequence of putting history into repeatable gameplay. Also there can be cases where the player is not certain that the Huns (or whoever) are coming, or are coming immediately (this turn). But there's rarely a mechanism in games to enable the Goths to react immediately according to what the Huns do.
If the nation is not allowed to vacate an area until actually attacked then some of the hindsight/foresight problem goes away. But if they're not allowed to flee and attack somebody farther up the line that we don't have a true bump.
I have tried various rules that allow horse units to withdraw from combat without fighting and move to another adjacent area to cause a fight there, more or less replicating the pushing action, the bump, on the steppe. But this can be complex and time-consuming whken there are multiple simultaneous bumps, and I've never found it satisfactory; and it doesn't reflect more subtle pushes that affect foot barbarians farther on (the other Germans).
Confederations and Submissions
Associated with this problem is the problem of shifting tribal confederations. Historians believe that the typical large tribal groups that attacked civilized areas were confederations made up of many tribes, including tribes of varying ethnicities. So the Huns were not all Mongols - or is it Turks, nobody's really sure - but some were Iranians (Sarmatians, Alans) and some were other peoples that they'd picked up in their travels. The Franks were a confederation of many tribes, although probably all German tribes. The Vandals famous for sacking Rome in 455 A.D. were actually much more complex, with two kinds of Vandals plus hangers-on from other tribes including even the Iranian Alans. Along with them into Iberia came the Suevi who were themselves a confederation of Marccomani and Quadi (IIRC), but again mostly Germans.
This also extends to the long-term submission of one barbarian tribe to another, as of the Germanic Gepids to the Huns. (A confederation including Gepids finally took down the Hun empire after the death of Attila. The Lombards and Avars later did away with the Gepids.) Yes, there are submission rules in Britannia, but those don't reflect the reality that tribes submitted to the Huns made up a considerable part of Attila's force that invaded Gaul in 451.
How do we represent the coming together (and sometimes coming apart) of these tribal confederations? How do we keep track of who is who? How do we decide when a tribe submits and when it unsubmits?
The second fascinating aspect of the ancient world is the interaction between tribute and control, especially in the ancient Near East. It seems that most warfare was not actually intended to conquer new land but only to raid adjacent nations into submission, both to gather loot and so that the victims would peaceably pay tribute in the future. The Assyrian empire especially was known for this, and only gradually did they take full control of areas they raided as their tributaries again and again reneged on their promises, especially when a new king came to power. Typically an Assyrian king went on campaign almost every year in order to chastise some opponent by raiding their lands. Sometimes the Assyrian kings raised stele that described in detail the loot they received in the tribute they extracted. And when the king died it was often necessary for his successor to go back and raid areas that had been tributary but stopped as soon as the strong King passed away. In most ancient Near Eastern empires the borders we see on maps represent tributary areas rather than a year-round control, though a few maps differentiate the two as best we can with limited knowledge.
In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne's Empire had some aspects of that tributary nature, but this often took the shape of feudal military obligations rather than actual payment of money and goods. And once the empire was no longer expanding, no longer collecting loot for the army, those obligations were more often not fulfilled. In contrast, in "modern" (post-Medieval) times in European warfare nations nibbled at the borders of their opponents, taking control of fortresses and small areas, or colonies overseas, and rarely resorted to tribute. Only occasionally as in the partitions of Poland did the attackers conquer large areas.
The Assyrians resorted to mass exportations of population to help gain control of new lands. In the end perhaps there just weren't enough Assyrians to control all that they had, and when there was a long fight over the succession after the death of a strong ruler such as Ashurbanipal, this could drag the Empire down, to the point that it was destroyed by its many enemies in the late seventh century BC. Thereafter there were still people around who called themselves Assyrians, and to this day there are people in Iraq and elsewhere in the region who call themselves Assyrians and proudly hearken back to the Assyrian Empire, but there's never been an Assyrian state of any note since 605 BC.
In an ancient Near Eastern game I'm working on I have a simple tribute mechanism, that armies can temporarily vacate an area (which is not normally allowed) in order to attack an adjacent area and extract tribute, afterward returning to the areas they came from. The owner of the raided area can decide to fight or can simply give up the tribute, which is one victory point to the attacker but no loss to the defender. It's the no loss to the defender that doesn't quite fit the historical situation, but in this game the economy is very simple and it's not worth trying to represent economically that the area was raided. The very long time scale - the game covers about 2,200 years in less than three hours for 3-5 players - makes it difficult to represent something that changed year-by-year in actual history.
For whatever reasons the ancients were not inclined to completely destroy enemy cities the way the Romans destroyed Carthage in 146 BC and Corinth in Greece in the same year (when he entered Corinth "Mummius put all the men to the sword and sold the women and children into slavery before he torched the city"). A common culture may have contributed to ancient reluctance; I think the Assyrians were more willing to destroy cities of enemies who were not part of the ancient Near Eastern culture dating back to old Babylonia and Sumeria. The Greeks may have had similar reasons not to destroy cities. The Spartans refused to destroy Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, but Alexander the Great - a Macedonian, which is somewhat different from a Greek though the Macedonians liked to think they were Greeks - razed Thebes to the ground after the Greeks rebelled at his accession. On the other hand, centuries earlier the Spartans had destroyed Messenia and enslaved the entire population, who nonetheless retained their identity as Messenians.
All of this can come into play in the great mystery of history, the extraordinary effect that good or bad leadership can have in ancient (and medieval) times. Assyria fell when a three-way succession struggle following the death of a strong leader went on too long, but it wasn't the first time Assyria had suffered because of doubtful succession. The Roman Empire's great problem was the succession, and I wonder if more Romans were killed by one another in succession struggles than were killed fighting barbarians. Again and again and again you see the vast difference between outstandingly good and outstandingly poor leadership. I have leaders in Britannia, but their effect is not massive on its own; the Major Invasions have a much greater effect, and those are sometimes a result of leadership. In the much-shorter version of Britannia that I intend to be one of the new editions, you can only move half your armies when you don't have a great leader, a stronger effect added to the leader's bonus in battle.