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My responses to questions for a Risk book (part 4 of 5)

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 4.

**Risk has been published for more than 50 years. It has sold millions of copies around the world. As a designer, how do you approach the re-design of a game with such a long tradition?**

What I’m doing when I design a Risk variant is taking advantage of the essence of the very simple game system rather than trying to change it. I’m changing the setting, and perhaps in the course of modeling the new setting I modify the rules to make the game a better model. But given the nature of the Risk game system no game based on Risk is going to be a good model of any reality, not in my view. [A few years ago I designed a Zombie Risk, which works well but needs more testing.]

**Britannia is probably your best known design. What games influenced the design of the game? (Specifically, was Risk a factor?)**

No, Risk was not a factor. I don’t know where the combat system in Britannia comes from, I suspect I made it up whole cloth although it’s quite simple, but I know I didn’t want a combat system like the one in Risk because it doesn’t recognize the "principle of mass." In Risk the combat is the same when you’re 40 armies attacking 2 as when you have 3 armies attacking 2 (yes, there needs to be 4 to have 3 attack). I would never put a combat system like that into a standalone game because to me it flies so much in the face of reality. But it is that combat system that goes a long way to make the Risk a game of conquest and attack, because the attacker can always get the advantage even if there are far more defending armies than there are attacking armies, as long as the attacker has at least three attacking armies. In the real world if you have 15 armies and your opponent has 20 you usually dig in and defend. In Risk, if you know you’re going to fight sooner or later, you want to attack as long as you can attack with three armies, because the enemy will lose more than you will. This makes virtually no sense in reality, though I've heard apologists try to explain it.

The only influence on Britannia I recall is that at some point I read the rules for a game called Ancient Conquest, which as far as I know was the first game where the player controlled more than one nation over a large timescale. I incorporated that idea into Britannia but in every other way the game is quite different. Ancient Conquest used a hex board where Britannia uses an area board, it used the typical Avalon Hill style counters with attack and defense factors and movement factors and a combat table, it had all nations of a player playing at the same time, allowed those nations to cooperate directly; and perhaps most important of all Ancient Conquest was a battle game rather than a war game. That is, there is no economy, as if it were a battle taking place over a few days instead of wars taking place over many centuries. The economy is a vital part of Britannia, though it also has aspects of battle games in the order of appearance. (By the way, Ancient Conquest I (it had a sequel that I’ve never seen) is now back in print from Excalibre Games.)

**There are now at least ten games based on the Britannia system, did you expect the game to become so popular? **

I don’t think the possibility ever occurred to me, I was just happy at the prospect of getting it published. Though by the time it was published, two years after I’d submitted it to Gibsons, I had withdrawn from the game hobby and just played Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. When the English edition of Britannia arrived I looked at it and said “that’s nice” and did not even read the rules, because there was nothing I could do to influence it further. The next year, when Avalon Hill decided to do an edition of Britannia - a few years earlier they told me that games of that era didn’t sell and rejected it - they sent me a list of questions. But at that time I’d not played the published game, had not even read the rules, so I was no help at all. I did not actually see the published game played until 2004.

I didn’t even know that Maharajah existed until about that same time. That seems to be the most slavishly derivative of the Britannia-like games right down to having the same number of land areas and nations.

**After completing a game, have you ever wished you had changed something?**

I think that’s typical. On the other hand you recognize that as long as you did your part there's not anything more you can do. Sometimes published games are pretty much screwed up by the publisher, and there were some things caused by misunderstandings that were really “wrong” with the 1986 and 1987 editions of Britannia that I fixed - put back the way they were supposed to be - in the Fantasy Flight edition in 2006.

As I say in my game design book, you never really finish a game, it just comes to a point where the time it takes to improve it is not worth the value of the improvement. But if you get the opportunity to do a second edition it ought to be better than the first because you can take advantage of the vast body of playtesting, and that’s what I did with Britannia by getting in touch with people who still played it years after it was out-of-print and Avalon Hill was no more.

**After any of your games were published, was there anything that surprised you in the strategies of the players?**

Given my peculiar history in the game industry, being away from it for 20 years, and many other games originating more than 30 years ago, I don’t know that I can answer that question!

You certainly hope there aren't new strategies that become dominant. For example, recently someone discovered a can't-miss strategy in "A Few Acres of Snow" (the Halifax Hammer?) that required a change in the rules. That's not something any designer wants to have happen!



"You never really finish a game..."

Truer words were never spoken (or in this case, written). As a developer, my job is to cut away the excess but retain the most salient aspects of the game. I'm curious as to who served on your development team for Britannia? Did you follow their advice? I've worked with designers who stubbornly hold on to their design ideas even in the face of poor play experience, extended play-lengths, and other factors.

On this flip side, I've seen good designers make some very bad decisions. Gloomhaven is wildly popular, and while I haven't played it, I've been in the same room with players and everything about the experience seems exciting and challenging. One of Isaac's other, far lesser known, title is Founders of Gloomhaven, which by all accounts is a Euro in the Gloomhaven universe. I wanted to like it...a lot. But after one play, it was so tedious and as a developer, I was able to see how some of the edges had never been shaved down and it made game play arduous. I turned to Isaac at that microCon and asked who was on his development team and he said, "me." I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "that's the one told you what to shed from the design."


I guess it must have been DIFFICULT, no?!

I mean nowadays we have so many Evergreen games some mass-market some hobby. So there are a number of inspirations and ideas you can get from those games (and I'm not saying copying ... but borrowing mechanics and such) that it's probably much easier to design a game today than 25 years ago. No?!

Like you said you had "Dungeons & Dragons" by TSR (previous owner; now WoTC) and then you had a few "Board Games" for mass-market (Life, Snakes & Lattes, Monopoly, Sorry!, etc.), then you had abstracts (Backgammon, Checkers, Go, Chess, Dominos, Mahjong, etc.) and then you had card games (Solitaire, Poker, Blackjack, Old Maid, Crazy 8s, Uno, etc.)

So it's not like there were NO games... As you can see there were quite a few ... But the Industry has GROWN tremendously during the last 5 years or so. In any case, you could find SOME inspiration in some of these games (maybe!?)

Congratulation on designing "Britannia".

And I've got to say that I've attended a group which focused on Risk-Like type of conquest. Whatever your army was on that part of territory (3 cubes for example), when an opponent ATTACKED you or you attacked them... You'd put your cubes into a cup and draw the victor (of the battle). Some "Nations" (or maybe Factions) had a Military Bonus (+1 Cube per attack) and he/she would add a cube to each battle. I know this is NOT Risk... But it is so very close and reminiscent of the original battle game of Risk!


Hi Joe,

I try to do my own development, which I'm much better at than 40 years ago, despite the 20 year hiatus.

A game developer is something like an editor of a book. As with a book, I try to maintain a view that it doesn't matter where an idea/technique/fix comes from, what matters is whether it works. I try not to get strongly wedded to any particular part of my games. In the case of games, if I've played or seen two or three dozen plays of the game, I probably am more familiar with it than any developer.

In Britannia's case, Roger Heyworth of H.P.Gibsons was the uncredited developer. He played it for two years (and later designed a big unpublished all-of-Europe Brit-like game) and made some changes, some because of misunderstanding, some that I retained when I did the second edition. Unfortunately Roger died in 2000. I didn't actually know what changes he had made, and since I didn't even read the published rules until 2004, I learned about the changes when I first watched someone play the Avalon Hill version of the game.

With so many game titles coming out, we get the same thing that is happening in books. More titles are published, even though each title sells less, so editors of books have much less time with each one, just as publishers have less time. So publishers rarely have the resources to assign a developer to a game. And I guess I develop mine well enough now that they are acceptable pretty much as is.

Isaac's problem may have been lack of developer, or may have been that it was a Euro, which is the opposite of an RPG-like game. I can't even design Euros, really, because I despise puzzles/low interaction games/parallel competitions, which is what most Euros are.

I've heard of wargame designers who depended strongly on a developer. They made a history thingy, someone else had to make it a decent game. Someone described one such designer as practically handing a box of notes to a developer to make a game out of. I design games, history is secondary (perhaps because I don't think games have much to do with real history?). That may make me a better self-developer.

What I'm really bad at is marketing. Too self-critical. And too concerned about finding publishers who won't mess up my games, I must admit.



Knizia has said he doesn't play other people's games because he wants to develop his own solutions to problems. I more or less agree with him. OTOH I'm not averse to borrowing ideas. Mechanics are less important to me than to those who design essentially abstract games (such as Euros). I'm making a model of something, if people say it's a good model I don't care about the originality of the mechanics.

So is it easier to design a game? For me, because of my experience, yes, not because there are so many games around (most of which are crap). I used to do a talk at GenCon, "Of course you can design a game, but can you design a good one?" It's easy to design a game to 80%, hard to get to 100% (as Knizia has said). And it's easier to get to 100% only because the standards of gamers have fallen drastically. I think most games are designed to be played 1 to 3 times only, because that's how so many people play these days. It was harder when the standard was 25 times or a 100 times. Like someone said about jokes, funny once, funny twice, or funny always. We used to expect games to be good always, now twice or thrice is deemed sufficient.

Hmm... A bit different than I thought

I would have said that experience would come from knowing a "repertoire" of current games that are available in the Hobby Market. Not Mass-Market games like Monopoly and Sorry! But the fact that there are so many other interesting games ... That can be borrowed. Although I come up with unique and inventive "aspects" to the game, sometimes the mechanics can come from other games like "Set Collection" in UNO. Of course the MAJORITY of "card" games have some form of Set Collection. Maybe I refer to UNO because MANY people understand this game vs. say a game of Gin-Rummy which is also primarily a Set Collection game too...

That's sort of what I meant. Not 25+ in terms of years because if you only publish one game during that time... Well that hardly accounts for much experience (and I'm not talking about you...) I'm talking in general terms. I can say that ATM I am working on maybe six (6) games concurrently. Many are different ... but a couple share some similarities.

Does the fact that TradeWorlds was designed by me mostly and developed by Joe mean that my other games are BETTER? No not really. TradeWorlds turned out to be this "Grandiose" game ... Much more complex that I had initially designed. But we PROVED the "XTG3" principle: the game was designed for "expansions". Mike designed the Re-enforcement Module which I playtested and tweaked to the best solution and Joe designed the Adversity AI based on "Morten Monrad Pedersen" Automa Approach which I also playtested and just worked on some of the wording of the cards.

This means that the game is open to MORE expansions... But we'll see. We lost our Killer Graphic Designer (RIP Mike) ... So I will eventually need to "connect" with another Graphic Designer to perfect whatever it is that I will be working on next.

But generally speaking I don't PLAY many board games. I watch VIDEOS like "The Dice Tower" (Tom Vasal and co.) or sometimes things like "Watch it Played" (Rodney Smith) or "Rahdo Run Through" (Richard Ham and his lovely Wife) ... Or sometimes Reviewers too... If it's a Kickstarted Game.

First of all I don't have the space for a WALL of Board Games. So because of my limited space, I require less demanding solutions such as watching a YouTube Video or Review which explains me the gist of the game. Plus I get feedback from the Reviewer on his/her thoughts on the game too...

Anyhow ... I think with so much variety ... I don't qualify ANY of it like "crap" ... I don't think it's fair to say this. I've seen some review of what I thought were "crappy" games and it turns out people enjoy playing them. So while I have my own judgment... I'll let the gamers decide what is good and what is mediocre.

See that's the difference... IMHO. Average games there are probably a bunch of those games each with their own "niche" market of gamers. Great games are far-and-few in between... So this makes for more average games to be the norm. And I think that this is acceptable.

For example: "Crystal Heroes" (CH) is not the most "ground-breaking" game. But what it does is keep a simple game easy to play with the possibility of expanded play. Moreover it has a "booster-like" feel to the game tiles which means that tiles can be drafted or constructed outside of the game.

It's HARD to get people excited about 2-Player games. That's why CH is either 2 or 4-Players. Making a game for both to me feels like it may have better adoption. Now is it the GREATEST game ever??? No. But CH does some complex things in a simple format. I'm hoping that reception of CH is acceptable and that people think the game is FUN. Because you can have a 100% accurate Model and still have a BORING game... I'll let the judge be the player who TRY the game be the real critics.

If I don't play ... For the most part, I don't judge.

But granted, I've seen some REALLY BORING games that sell just fine. So who am I to judge either way! Cheers.

And I can cite one example...

A game called "Tower"... Received great notoriety and yet ONE (1) CRITICAL review after playing the game ... paired down to the "core" of the game as being the "core" mechanic in the game was "randomly drawing crystals from a Bag"... How well you did in the game had a BIG FACTOR on how "lucky" you were in drawing the "RIGHT" crystals...

Sure there were other strategies at play with the "Black Market" cards that you can use to mess with your opponents...

BUT "at it's CORE" was a random mechanic. And MANY people LOVED the art (said it reminded them of "Aladdin") and the nice resource pieces (Wheat, Wood, Brick, etc.) made of wood and then there was the bag of crystals which was cool and all... But made for a very "swingy" game. And YET many people said they REALLY LIKED the game!

So taking everything into account... Many people gave the game a score of 3/10 ... Those who saw through the "core" and those who enjoyed the other elements of the game (artwork, goal, etc.) scored it a 6 to 8.

This shows that very SIMPLE games can be quite FUN ... If you don't take the game TOO seriously. My guess you calling most games "crap" is a bit serious. Like I said, many are probably AVERAGE and some here-and-there are a bit better (GOOD). The important part is did the players have FUN playing the game?!

I've demo-ed TradeWorlds to over 100 groups of people over the years at different CONs (before COVID-19) and not one person told me that they did not have FUN playing the game. Of course, I acted as the "host" and would work on making the games EXCITING (sometimes), other times I would act as a "coach" (sometimes too) and help inexperienced gamers play... Some came back to me asking if they could BUY the game... Unfortunately we are currently in PRODUCTION almost 4 years late... That too is something hard to comprehend... But like I said, it was a "Grandiose" Board Game!

We're on our way to getting the game into the Backers hands... We've just received the SAMPLE with some content for the production including one (1) miniature. I'm glad to see this... Because it means we are FINALLY on our way towards completing the project (but regrettably 4 years after the initial Kickstarter)...!

Another quick comment

About your Q&A for Dave Shapiro's book...

In Part #4, Question #2: "Britannia is probably your best known design. What games influenced the design of the game? (Specifically, was Risk a factor?)" probably swayed the Publisher in DISREGARDING all of your Q&A ... Because you state that your game was in no way influenced by Risk.

I think had you maybe said "YES" and limited the scope to whatever minor aspect had influenced your game... This Q&A would have been included in whatever endeavor he was working (namely his Risk Book).

I don't know if this was and still is of value to you. You never did say the reason Dave Shapiro (or his Publisher) decided not to include the Q&A. I'm just offering a PLAUSIBLE reason.


Note #1: What I mean about saying "YES" is exactly what you wrote... But saying "YES" means that you considered Risk and decided that you wanted something more "Balanced" than Risk.

Starting with: "No, Risk was not a factor." is probably why the Publisher decided to remove the Q&A from the book.

Had it instead been: "Yes indeed, I wanted to ensure that Britannia had a more balanced feel/approach to combat resolution..." And so forth... "And so yes indeed Risk was a factor in that I wanted something different to which I cannot trace the source of inspiration for the combat mechanic used in Britannia"...

Sometimes you've got to figure out what is the other person's ANGLE. And in Dave Shapiro's position, he was writing about Risk and wanted content relevant to HIS subject (not yours e.g. Britannia).

And believe me...

I've made the same mistake during a playtest session. At that time, I was demo-ing "Crystal Heroes" to a FLGS manager... I explained the game was a Tile Laying game... And so I played my first tile and then she player her first tile in a "non-desirable" location.

What can I possibly mean???

Meaning that my FIRST tiles was controlling the AREA of her FIRST tile, meaning that I could conquer the card immediately on my next turn.

I said: "No you shouldn't put your tile there."

And that ended the playtesting session... Had I attacked her tile on the NEXT turn (as it would be) ... She probably would have figured out her own error instead of abruptly ending the session.

So you've got to be extremely wary when using the word: "NO".

It's probably better to say "YES but" and then spin the answer into the opposite (an actual "NO") but the person doesn't get an immediate reaction to the contrary.

This is a NEW design and because of COVID-19... I have not been able to bring it to game shops to have it playtested. Unfortunately. And that first playtest was a couple years ago. But I definitely stuck my foot into my mouth on that occasion...

Darn it!

Why crap

The average game player today is a weak player. That's partly because of the influence of video games (where what mostly counts is persistence), partly because people rarely play a game enough to master it, so they don't even recognize (and often don't care about) what makes for masterful play.

For whatever reasons (there are lots) people are now much less concerned with the actual play of a game, and more with looks, "coolness", "Jokiness", other non-play factors. Which tends to mean less time is put into the gameplay. Which suffers.

Thousands of games are self-published. By and large, unless the self-publisher is also an experienced developer, this is going to lead to poorly developed games: crap.

Not surprising, then, that the average game is crap - closer to Knizia's 80% than to 100%.

I started a video long ago, "Many (maybe all) famous games have technical weaknesses". E.g. Munchkin is OK for three players, but the more players in the game, the worse it gets because of leader-bashing: crap. But it's very popular, isn't it? Kind of an extended joke. The best-seller of all, Monopoly, is double-crap. Hardly surprising for a game from so long ago that was more or less designed by committee.

I haven't finished the video. I try not to bother talking about this very often, because it serves little purpose, in the end.

Ratings on BGG are subject to all kinds of foolishness. E.g. people who rate games without knowing them, sometimes without even seeing them.

Thanks to the great variety of what we call games, there are usually some people who like almost any game you might name. It may still be crap from most points of view.

I agree, for a designer, watching videos about games, and talking with players of those games, is often a more efficient way to learn about them than by actually playing them.

Dave had a co-author (lead author) who became ill and could not continue. That changed the book quite drastically. I suppose that was why the material wasn't in the book; which is also fairly long as it is (I've not yet finished it). The book is self-published, btw, that is, Dave is the publisher. I wasn't answering to pander to anyone's ANGLE, Quest. I just tell the truth as I see it.


Always great insight, Lew!

Admittedly, I play a lot of games, either in-person where practical or via BGA or other sites, but the number of games in my collection is small. I'm quite the discriminating gamer as I do enjoy mastering a game, especially if it's taking space on my shelves. Until the day may father passed away, I never beat him 2-out-of-3 games of Chess...and it wasn't for a lack of trying. I've never gotten better at a game playing a weaker opponent.

At some point in the not-too-distant-future, hope fully you and I , along with a few others can get Britannia to the table.


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