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My Responses to questions related to a book about the game Risk (end)

In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 5 of 5.

*You hold a Doctorate in Military History and have taught a course in game design for several years. The following questions are design related in general (not specifically Risk related). The questions are intended to encompass board, card and video games.*

There have been thousands of games released over the years. Today, more games are released in a single year than ever before. What percentage of these would you consider to have some core design flaws?

Design flaws, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. For example I think the leader-bashing in Vinci (and Smallworld) is a huge flaw but a lot of people evidently don’t think so.

I will say that I think people are much less critical of game designs and much more critical of the physical aspects of a tabletop game or of the graphics and sound of a video game than in the past. Often they don’t play the game enough times to reveal the design flaws. The original Ticket to Ride had a distinct design flaw from a competitive point of view but most people never figured that out. Or didn’t really care.

And the expectations have changed. People play a video game once or a few times and they’re done. That’s leaked over into tabletop games. Like many video games, many tabletop games now have a solution, and once you have that solution you can implement it each time and so you tend to stop playing that game and move on to something else. Also we’re in an age of the “cult of the new”, so people tend to play game a few times and then move on to the next new game - there are so many distractions including more games. It’s now much easier for people to self published games and so we have vastly more games published in a year than was true in the 60s or 70s.

There’s more a “consumption” point of view about games. So many people are interested much more in the destination, not the journey, in “beating the (video) game”, in bragging about how quickly they beat the game. People are more interested in saying how many different games they played, than in how much they did (or didn’t) enjoy while playing. This is an incentive to play lots of games shallowly than to play fewer games deeply.

Because of this perhaps, gamers are generally less skilled at playing games than they used to be. They rely on intuition more than logic, they don’t study the game, they just “don’t bother”. “On to the next game!”

Back in the day people would get a new game, read the rules, study the rules, study the game, and then play with someone else. Now people try to learn the game while reading the rules for the first time, which gives me the heebie-jeebies. They play once or twice or three times and then they’re on to the next game. Back in the day the emphasis was on depth in games and now it’s on variety.

As I say, games are often consumed rather than enjoyed.

So I’d say most published games have serious design flaws. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

I’d also say that as time passes, more and more poor games are published, especially with the common notion that games are made to be played just one to three times. I try to design games that can be enjoyably played 25 or even a 100 times, and I know people who have played Britannia (a 4-5 hour game) more than 500 times. (I haven’t!)

*What is the most common mistake novice designers make?*

I’ve written about this at length in my first book and on my blogs. There are a whole lot of big mistakes. Perhaps the most common one is that novices think that all they need is a good (great) idea and they can get rich. Ideas are worthless, they’re “a dime a dozen,” and it’s extremely likely that any idea you get is an idea at least 100 other people have got. “There is nothing new under the sun.” The idea is only the beginning.

One of the common complaints about video games is that they lack 'meat'; that the games are graphically superior but significantly lacking in 'game play'. In the past decade, similar complaints have risen concerning board games; that in an attempt to shorten playing time, the game play has been reduced. As an experienced observer, instructor and designer, would you agree with the criticism?

See answer to above question about design flaws. It’s really worse than that, as I’ll be discussing in a book I’m writing. Games have changed fundamentally, especially video games, from consequence-based to reward-based. You can’t lose a video game. You can’t fail in a video game, unless you are just insufficiently persistent or insufficiently dexterous in those “games” that are really sports rather than games. Games used to be about earning something, now they’re about being given something. Free to play video games continue to push us in this direction, where “engagement”, which used to mean “intellectual interest,” has been replaced in meaning with “activity and reward” that does not need to be earned.

*Another topic that regularly surfaces in game groups is a discussion on randomness. Some consider a game without any random factors to be a puzzle, not a game. The other extreme is that any randomness eliminates the ability to plan properly. How much randomness is acceptable in a game?*

Whatever’s acceptable to the target audience. I’m not a typical game player so I’m not generally a member of a target audience, I’m not the person to ask. But the question of “acceptable” is meaningless because it depends entirely on the preferences of the target audience of the game. An entirely random game like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders is acceptable to a four year old. But not to the same person when he or she grows older. (On the other hand, “Left Right Center” is entirely random, yet I see adults from my own extended family play it.)

Insofar as playing games now relies much more on intuition than on logic, randomness is more acceptable. On the other hand, games tend not to have solutions when a lot of randomness is involved, and more people like puzzles than games. A great many Eurostyle “games” are much more puzzle than game, where several people compete to solve the puzzle before anyone else does, or to have the most efficient solution when the game is arbitrarily ended, but they rarely affect one another during the game.

Randomness is a big topic. The draft section of my Nature of Game Design book about randomness, chaos, and uncertainty is 8,000 words. The section comparing and defining games and puzzles is almost as large. Greg Costikyan has written an entire book about it.

*The game industry is now larger than the film industry. What do you see as the future of gaming?* [Remember, this is 2012]

Contemporary video games are more like cinema than like traditional games. In fact I advocate the inclusion of an autopilot mode in video games - it’s something that’s occasionally been done in the past decade but is quite rare - so that a player can let the video game play through the difficult parts while the player watches, and a player can play whatever parts he or she likes. Yet those players who still like challenges can be challenged by the game. As it stands now video games continue to become less and less challenging in order to attract a larger market. Autopilot would let us get around that although we partly do so with different difficulty levels.

Even though video games involve a lot of activity, in a sense they are becoming more passive because you’re always going to succeed, so in a way your activity is meaningless.

Brands are becoming increasingly important, which is why almost all the expensive video games are sequels rather than “new IP”. I mentioned what Hasbro is doing with brands in a previous part. Settlers of Catan, now just Catan, is a brand. D&D is a brand. Angry Birds is a huge brand, when you see Angry Birds stuffed toys in Walmart, Angry Birds movies, and “Angry Birds Star Wars”.

Tabletop games face a new challenge in free-to-play video games. When video games were $50-$60 a pop for a game that quickly wore out its welcome, tabletop games were a much, much better entertainment value. Now tabletop games can be compared to playing free-to-play video games, and tabletop games do not appear to be as good a value. Tabletop games have core aspects, such as the social aspect, that video games generally don’t have. On the other hand video game players are becoming much more group oriented than they used to be, but the tradition and stereotype is still the solitary video game player.

Moreover, we’ve taken competition out of the schools in the USA, and rampant egalitarianism is blanketing the country. And that means we want everyone to be the same and not let anyone stand out. So competition has been taken out of many tabletop games and this will continue to be a trend. Single player video games were never competitions, really, because you didn’t have an opponent and couldn’t lose.

The future of games may be less and less competition and more and more simple participation. Moreover, cooperative games are “trending upward”, more than competitive games. I’m happy with the trend to cooperative games personally, as I more or less quit playing games competitively when I was 25. But a game, for me, requires intelligent opposition, which a cooperative card or board game like Pandemic cannot provide. Though I have recently figured out ways to achieve this in a co-op board game. The ideal game for this future is a role-playing game because the players can cooperate with one another and win or lose collectively yet they have intelligent opposition from the referee/GM that doesn’t exist in puzzles and doesn’t exist in video games because the computer is not nearly as smart as a human. As time passes, computers will provide an opponent that is more and more like a human. We’re not near there yet.

That is the end of the entire set.

Recent videos on my free "Game Design" channel on YouTube:

Confusions: "Old School" and "New School", not just RPGs

How often is there a three-way battle?

"Monster" Tabletop Games

Musical analogy for understanding fundamental game types


The Cult of the New

While I agree that with the availability of "more" games on the market leads to each game getting LESS "table time"... I think the "Cult of the New" is a bit different than portrayed.

I don't think that a game is played "3 times" (Where did you come up with this number???) As with the Cult... A game is played while HOT or POPULAR among the players outside the TableTop scene. What I mean is this:

Terraforming Mars. Heard of it? Probably... Everyone has. If someone in your GROUP of gamers buys it... Odds are if you say: "Does everyone want to play 'Terraforming Mars'???" That everyone agrees. Until they've had "enough" (hard to estimate) of that particular game.

It's really not about Play Once or Twice, etc. It's more subtle. Like IF a game takes 5 hours to play, it may only get played ONCE. If a game lasts 1 hour, it may get played five (5) times, etc. If a game is quick (less than 30 minutes) ... It may get more playtime ... But I'd think not more than five (5) times in one night.

What happens on the NEXT game night depends. Was "Terraforming Mars" FUN. Did it offer up BIG MOMENTS?! If so, then maybe it might make it to the table another time.

This is as close to The "Cult of the New" as I can explain. Also note that if only ONE (1) Player had a bad experience playing a 5 hour game... Odds are that the game will NOT be replayed. 30 minute games are much more forgiven for power plays and poor luck (randomization)... But if it happens like three (3) times... Odds are that game won't be replayed again either!

It's all about WHAT'S NEW and un-played when it comes to "The Cult of the New"... Popularity, un-played (and unknown???) are all welcome to people who want to TRY something NEW. So you may have HEARD of the game... But may not have played it (New & Popular: a definite win).

I think this is a better portrayal of "The Cult of the New"...

Above was written many years

Above was written many years ago, mind you.

I was generalizing. "No generalization is always true, not even this one." Of course there are exceptions, Terraforming Mars is one (as for the gratuitous snarky remark . . . of course I've heard of it). It is irrelevant to the generalization.

Time spent playing might make more difference than how many times it's played, certainly. But so many players are now exploring a game to see what's there, and moving on to the next one, that I suspect more than one play may be needed to learn about the game, regardless of how long it takes.

This is also going to vary with the transparency of the game (how easy it is to learn the strategies). Remember, Eurostyle games are designed to be closed, and to be transparent. You learn the "multiple paths to victory" and you're done with the puzzle. Games designed with mastery in mind often are not transparent at all. Games with good depth are not transparent. They take longer to explore, but many people will give up and move on to something more obvious.

So number of plays is linked strongly to time to play, and transparency. One to three games is an estimate.

I wasn't being "snarky"... It's just like...

Some games you've HEARD of them from SOMEWHERE ... But you can't pin-point the actual source of the game. Maybe it was BGG Hotness Track or a FB Ad or you saw the Kickstarter or you've heard of it from friends, etc.

"Terraforming Mars" is like one of those games. Definitely a "Cult of the New" type of game ... Even if it is like 4 or 5 years old now. But still if it is NEW to a "Game Group" ... It's still subject to the same rules... And still has to POWER to "attract" attention from gamers.

There are games that I recognize the name from other people mentioning the game or have read a thread talking about it...

That's all I was saying... Some games, you just RECOGNIZE because you've heard of them... No worries. I wasn't being "facetious"...

Great Post

Dr. P.,

Thanks gain for including the last portion of the interview as there's quite a bit there to unpack, personally as both a gamer and developer. While you touched on a number of subjects, I'll limit my thoughts to three areas: consumption, randomness, and competition.

With regard to consumption, interestingly, the spate of new (and already existing) reviewer channels and podcasts have done more for both the increased sale of games and keeping the "hotness" (a term used on BGG) factor on a handful of games each month extremely high. As your interview was nearly a decade ago, just think back to that time when the Dice Tower was in its nascent stage Richard "rahdo" Ham was still making videos on his phone in Malta, and there were only a handful of podcasts dedicated to the hobby. I find myself intrigued by those gamers who possess hundreds of games. First, when do they have time to play them, as that's a huge investment. Second, they're probably not particularly good at any of them. I have found it best to purchase and play the best exemplar(s) of a particular set of game mechanics and themes versus acquiring a dozen worker-placement games, for example.

As to randomness, I'm particularly sensitive to this subject as I've worked on as many Eurogames as military hex-and-counter war games (around 3-4 dozen apiece). In military war games, decisions you make very often run head first into a CRT (combat result table) and even careful and cautious planning can (and in my case often does) result in failure. To that end, I've rarely worried about players solving a war game, but there have been a few occasions where that proved me wrong and additional playtesting was required. In Eurogames, there have been notable examples in including Puerto Rico which led to the Craftsman's Angst variant; rushing of a particular dial in Tzolk'in, the Mayan Calendar; and the nerfing of two Faction/Production boards in Scythe. While unfortunate, I'm heartened by the fact that there are still gamers out there willing to go deep into a game and not remain wading in the shallow end of the gaming pool.

Finally, with regard to competition (bear in mind that I absolutely love solo gaming and cooperative games, which often go hand-in-hand) your point is well-taken, and while I don't work in education, I hear parents lament the fact that everyone's given a participation trophy these days, so no one really stands out from their peers. On the one hand, I see high schools with more nd more social clubs and less and less Chess clubs. Additionally, the number of newer war gamers at the table seems to dwindle each year, while the number of grognards pass from this life at higher numbers. At 53, I'm often the youngest at the table by 15 or more years. I absolutely love the game Freedom The Underground Railroad and its companion book for teaching this important part of history. By extension, I would also appreciate war games taught as part of a military history class, as well. I'm hoping that games such as Memoir '44 and those titles produced by Academy Games spark interest in this and future generations of gamers.

Again, thanks for your thoughts, Dr. P and I wish you the best in your future endeavor. Also, please send me a note if you plan on attending either PAX Unplugged (Philadelphia, PA) or Origins Game Fair (Columbus, OH) this year and we'll get Britannia to the table.

Professor's Lab

Old School Vs. New School

I think your video on "Old School vs. New School" is a solid analysis of what's happening in the market for games, both video games and tabletop games. I definitely appreciate your perspective, Dr. Lew.

I have two young nephews that I visit on occasion and play games with whenever I visit. I've seen this kind of attitude in them and their behaviour, consistent with your New School analysis: they generally avoid direct conflict and fuss about when they're being targeted individually (as you state in your video).

If you don't mind, I have a couple questions for you.

If the trends both within and without the gaming industry are pushing towards reward-for-engagement as opposed to achievement, what would be the reason for someone wanting to "succeed in the industry" to create games catering to an Old School mindset?

Secondly: do you feel catering to the New School in such a way is an admirable design goal? Should we all - for example - basically be steering towards RPGs and more-sophisticated AI systems?

Finally: thank you once again for sharing your insights. You've been very generous in sharing the wisdom you've gathered over the years.


I've seen lots of folks at a Diplomacy convention (DixieCon) playing Terraforming Mars, and its popularity does not wane. It is VERY MUCH an exception, perhaps THE exception, to the Cult of the New in recent times. To me it's still the same old dry as dust parallel competition, but as far as I can figure out, people like it because they are collectively achieving something that they can see gradually taking place - not the case with most Eurostyle games.

But I still don't understand such games emotionally, to me they're not even games. I'm reminded of Greg Costikyan, "A game without struggle is a game that’s dead"


WBC has just been canceled, I'll have to think about going to Origins (or PAX).

Those who think all games are math, frequently do not like randomness. See:

Three kinds of games/game fans: math, people, story

You might add to your list the dominant strategy Halifax Hammer in A Few Acres of Snow, which forced a change in the rules after the game was released.

Oddly enough, in video games reviews are worth less and less than in the past, for various reasons.
How important are formal game reviews (two parts)

Yes, not many younger wargamers. For a lot of reasons. I made a video, but am revising a text version.

I agree with you 100%

lewpuls wrote:
...But I still don't understand such games emotionally, to me they're not even games. I'm reminded of Greg Costikyan, "A game without struggle is a game that’s dead"

I wouldn't use the term "struggle" ... More like some form of "competition" and "adversarial play" ... A "competitive challenge" maybe! I know this because I have DEMO-ED "TradeWorlds" to a lot of groups... I don't think an ONE (1) game was completed without a "Victory". Meaning that the players like the game enough... That they are willing to stick around and PLAY.

But I remember one demo at the local FLGS in my area (or closest to my area) ... One of the players came with his girlfriend and I asked if both wanted to play. The girlfriend opted for watching, so I played along with 2 other gamers. I was doing pretty good in the "game" and one of the other 2 gamers pointed out to the "group"... That I was in the lead and that it could be to THEIR "collective" advantage to "take me out"! And yeah that's what they did... I was out of the game as the first Faction to be "defeated"... I did not mind this at all. I was shocked at how PERCEPTIVE the gamer who made the initial remark was ... Indeed he "understood" the game.

Truth be told had they not defeated me... I would have probably gotten 100 Credits FIRST and won the game. But what ensued AFTERWARDS, a sort-of every-man-for-himself kind of play... In the end, the player who came with his girlfriend said "That this was one of the most FUN games he has ever played... He couldn't believe how much he enjoyed PLAYING!"

So sometimes you NEED a "common enemy" to GROUP-UP and conquer together and at other times... everyone is on their own tending to their own collective...

Just reminds me that what YOU said is TRUE: A game requires some kind of "conflict" if it is going to be MEMORABLE!

Cheers Dr. Lew.

It IS depressing to see the

It IS depressing to see the slow disappearance of actual games, and does tend to take away enthusiasm for making such, as opposed to the parallel competitions. So lately I've been aiming at co-op (which unfortunately many of the players of opposed games don't want to try). But I just cannot bring myself to make non-games, even my co-ops treat the game as opposition.

Certainly, if you want a larger audience, you have to go down the parallel competition (multiplayer solitaire) path.

Is catering to New School admirable? Why would it be admirable or not admirable?

Any design activity that starts with "what's popular?" is likely to fail.

I think you have to design what you do not dislike, even though you're designing for others.

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