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  • What do we mean by "elegance" in games?

    When someone says a game is "elegant", what do they mean?  I'm not sure, so I've done a bit of investigating.

    Is it used much?  In my Info Select database, which includes my own notes about game design and teaching, and material that I've scraped off the Internet about those same topics in the past seven years, there are 84 notes containing the word "elegant" and another 34 containing "elegance".  Clearly the term is used a lot in conversations and writing.

    What about dictionary definitions of the word?
    el·e·gant   adjective
    1. tastefully fine or luxurious in dress, style, design, etc.: elegant furnishings.
    2. gracefully refined and dignified, as in tastes, habits, or literary style: an elegant young gentleman; an elegant prosodist.
    3. graceful in form or movement: an elegant wave of the hand.  [my emphasis]
    4. appropriate to refined taste: a man devoted to elegant pursuits.
    5. excellent; fine; superior: an absolutely elegant wine.
    Synonyms:  1. See fine. 2.  polished, courtly. [my emphasis]

    World English Dictionary
    elegant — adj
    1.     tasteful in dress, style, or design
    2.     dignified and graceful in appearance, behaviour, etc
    3.     cleverly simple; ingenious: an elegant solution to a problem [my emphasis]

    Elegance is a synonym for beauty that has come to acquire the additional connotations of unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is frequently used as a standard of tastefulness particularly in the areas of visual design, decoration, the sciences, and the esthetics of mathematics. Elegant things exhibit refined grace and dignified propriety. [my emphasis]

    So could we say, for games:  "A solution to a design problem that is seen as ingenious or cleverly simple, polished, and effective?"

    At some point I wondered what the difference is between "elegant" and "clever"?  For me, something can be clever without being worth doing; something that is elegant is likely worth doing.  So I might see a game and say "that's a clever juxtaposition of mechanics", and still not think the game was worth bothering with.   I would tend to think of games that model something in interesting or intriguing ways as elegant, whereas games that don't model something may only be clever.

    So one man's clever may be another man's elegant.
    adjective, -er, -est.
    1. mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.
    2. superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile: It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value.
    3. showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious: His clever device was the first to solve the problem.
    4. adroit with the hands or body; dexterous or nimble. Synonyms
    ingenious, talented, quick-witted; smart, gifted; apt, expert.

    There is no Wikipedia entry for the word "clever".

    A last expression of the idea of elegance, from the point of view of design:
    "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-Exup'ery
    When you achieve this "perfection", you also achieve elegance.

    So what do you mean when (if) you describe a game, or part of a game, as "elegant"?

  • What I did instead of Trashfest

    So, I didn't Go to Trashfest.  I could have. I probably should have.   It ends up a good thing that I didn't go, but I regret it.   

    I had a final project due Monday that my group ended up working on Sunday.  (my last project, last assignment in college...ever?)   so ok.   

    The going away/baby shower my wife's work threw us friday, that was pretty cool. ok.

    Taking the wife to the airport on saturday rather than paying the crazy prices for parking at the airport for a week.  ok.  

    so, valid excuses.   Plus I got to go to Spiel at VT's saturday gameday.   not bad. 

     I just received FFG's Warrior Knights in a trade for Galactic Emperor and was pumped to play it.    So I showed up and the other guys who really like AT weren't there.   shit.

     ah well, I got there late, so several people were involved in a game of Citadels, another pair in Balloon cup.   So i waited and played some silly bingo-esque-mathy game to kill the time.

     Then about 5 people were free and asked me what I wanted to play

     Hell yeah! "Warrior Knights"

     and then I got irritated.

    I was told, "I don't want to invest 3 hours in a game I don't know"  

    but how will you ever know if you will like it?

     and "I don't want to waste the time to learn it, let's play Imperial instead"

     Ok..I want to learn to play Imperial...but technically wouldn't it be a waste of my time too?   eesh, Normally I won't say no to learning a game.   but for him, I made an exception.

    I don't mine people not wanting to play.   but those responses both just irked me....

     still, got some good gaming in.   

    Innsmouth Escape - this was pretty good..some of the scotland yard/FoD feel while not nearly as long.   I'd like to try being the human, our player got stomped hard.

    Twilight Struggle - 3rd play, 1st win.   Soviets end up controlling south/central america & the middle east uncontested.   fighting over Europe and letting the US take most of Asia.    Turn 4 win for the soviets. woo!

    Container - okay, boring as shit theme.   but it was neat to see how the players control the economy.   we played with the "beginner's variant" where you can sell one of your produced conex's for 2 bucks.   I can see how this would stagnate without this greasing the economy.   I won, I wouldn't mind playing again, but only with certain people.

     Cosmic Encouter - cosmic goodness

    Dune - some dude had bought this at a garage sale the day before for $10.   and sat next to me punching it while we played container.   so I had to try it.   my reaction: eh....I need to try again with more people.   we didn't play with the "advanced"  rules....and that seems like it would give it alot of flavor.  AAAAnd we only played with 4.  seems like 5 or 6 would make things alot more interesting, with alliances and such.   


    and sunday, the kitchen flooded.   joy

  • What I did on my summer vacation (WBC)

  • What is "depth" in games?

    This has led to quite a discussion on BGG, so it's worth trying here:

    What is "depth" in games?

    I searched for “strategic depth” on Boardgamegeek and found surprisingly little in the way of definition. Lots of people used the term (or just “depth”), but they didn’t explain what they meant. It’s another of those “everyone knows what it means but does not define it”. (If there have been discussions of depth that my search missed, perhaps someone can point me to them.)

    I have since found that the word strategic can be a cause for much angst, so perhaps we should just talk about “depth”. What gives games depth (or what makes games “shallow”)? Which games have depth? I think most people would agree that chess and go are deep games. And that Candyland and Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts and Crosses) are not. What about Monopoly? Depth apparently has something to do with the complexity of decision making.
    Perhaps it has something to do with the number or type of choices presented to a player. If you need a jumpstart you might look at “How Many Choices are Too Many” which includes many comments as well.

    So what is “depth”?

  • What is a game, what is a puzzle?

    What is a game, what is a puzzle,

    how is this important for designers (and for players)?


    [This is another of those “on the edge of understanding” discussions.

    This is very long compared with the typical articles and comments you see on sites like this.  But compared with a book, it's short (6-7% of novel length).  This is a fundamental topic in games and game design, and I've found that trying to summarize or briefly explain a sometimes-contentious topic is not sufficient for everyone to understand, so I need to take more space to explain adequately.

    But if you try to skim it, you're unlikly to fully understand it.]

    Sometimes we use the term “game” to mean “playing at something”.  For example, several years ago I made a “game” out of thinking of phrases to represent a college-student friend, and my friend liked to try to guess from the acronym what the phrase was.  (For example, “THG”–Tommy Hilfiger Girl, because she often wore that company’s garments.)  Was that actually a “game”?   No, I think I was making up puzzles, which is a kind of puzzle in itself, and of course it was a puzzle for her, not a game.

    I don't like solving puzzles--though I enjoyed making them up for my friend-- because to me, in the end, solving a puzzle is a waste of time.  It achieves nothing, and I feel no sense of accomplishment when I solve one.  If it's an obstacle in my way, I deal with it and get on about my business, but I don't like it.   I'd rather use my time to create something or to socialize, or use my brain to find a solution to a practical problem.  Why bother with a puzzle?

    Yet puzzles are more popular than games.  “Brain-teasers” and cross-word puzzles are in most newspapers, Sudoku is ubiquitous.  The venerable Games magazine, founded in 1977, is self-described as "a consumer magazine featuring a wide variety of verbal and visual puzzles, brainteasers, trivia quizzes, and many other features, as well as reviews of new board games and electronic games."  It's a lot more about puzzles than games.  When I go to a bookstore I see far more books about puzzles than games in the "Games and Puzzles" section.

    One reason why single-player video "games" have become so popular through more than 30 years is that they are interactive puzzles, not games--especially the widely popular social networking "games."

    There are significant differences between games and puzzles in how you play, and how you design them, and that's why I've undertaken the task of defining the two types of play.  Much of the discussion of video games and video game design resolves and revolves around the difference between what I am calling games and “interactive puzzles”, but hardly anyone comes to grips with the fundamental difference.

    I’m looking for definitions that make a difference for designers, as well as for players.   It only confuses things when we call both single-player video “games” and more-than-two-player family games,  "games."  Yes, in both there are challenges to overcome.  But climbing a mountain is a challenge, though not a game (perhaps more like a puzzle, now that I think about it).  We need more than just “challenge”.

    In the end, no definition is going to satisfy everyone or every case.  But thinking about definitions can help you understand better what you’re doing when you try to design a game--or a puzzle.


    First, the Summary

    If we had to make one very broad generalization about games and puzzles it would be that games are about people and psychology, and puzzles are about calculation and logic (and, if all else fails, about guessing (trial and error)).

    A “puzzle” usually has a goal, some state that you want to reach.  Puzzles have a correct answer.  Card Solitaire(a puzzle, not a game) has a correct answer--or no answer--for each possible arrangement of the cards, but by shuffling the cards we are able to create a great many slightly different puzzles.

    A puzzle can be solved.  And once you’ve completely solved it there’s not much point in doing it again.  Some puzzles, like a jigsaw puzzle, may be so big and complex that you can’t remember the solution.  Where the traditional video game has no chance factors, such as the arcade version of Pac-Man, then you can ultimately solve it just as arcade Pac-Man has been solved.  In 1999 someone perceived the patterns (later explained in a Gamasutra article analyzing the programming ( ) and played all the way through 255 levels to the end, eating every ghost and never dying, at which point the game crashed.  We call the card activity Solitaire a game, but in fact it is a puzzle, by this definition.  So we see how some things that we call games are more properly characterized as puzzles.

    Moreover, puzzles do not involve conscious intelligent opposition.  There is (as yet) no intelligence or consciousness in a computer, although it can do some complex calculations. The key element, in the end, is that puzzles are for one person and games are for at least two persons (or semblance of persons) in opposition.  A cooperative game like the popular boardgame Pandemic is essentially solitaire, even though you substitute several players for the solo player.  And it is a puzzle, not a game, as there is no semblance of intelligent opposition.  It includes several ways to change the strength of opposition, but in the end players solve the game and are much less likely to play thereafter.

    Games do not have solutions, right answers, or if there is a solution to the game as there is for chess, it is beyond human capacity to figure it out.  Furthermore, you can’t influence the psychology of the “opposition” in a puzzle, and you can in a game.  Even in a perfect information, heavily studied and analyzed game like chess, there is a psychological element, as you can fool the other player or break his will to resist even if your position technically does not justify his surrender.



    I’ve listed the characteristics of games and puzzles in the table, then I’ll discuss each one in turn.  This list is naturally a black-and-white division, though in practice there are many activities that are in the large gray area between game and puzzle, so after the discussion of characteristics I'll try to determine how game and puzzle meet.





    Choices and Solutions

    Multiple choices that can lead to success; Good games do not have dominant strategies or saddle points

    Saddle points and dominant strategies are common; frequently “solvable”; pure puzzles always are solvable (one course of action ends in success)


    “Contests” are not really games.  You can time how long it takes someone to do something and declare whoever is fastest the winner, but that’s not a game

    “Multi-player solitaire”: everyone works at a puzzle within a contest framework, whoever does best by the “time” limit wins the contest.


    If you screw up or fail, you lose.  Trial and error (guessing then checking) is not suitable behavior

    No danger of “losing”–if you fail you can just try again.  Trial and error (guessing then checking) can be used to find the way


    Intelligent opposition

    No intelligent opposition: obstacles/challenges rather than active decision-making opponent

    Origin of challenges

    The challenges come largely from other players, within the context established by the designer(s)

    The challenges come from the puzzle-maker(s)


    The possibility of “Yomi”, reading the intentions of the opposition; this is much more practical when the player is face-to-face with his opponents, able to read visual, auditory, and other clues

    “Yomi” only possible if you can read the intentions of the puzzle creator; very difficult to do because the puzzle creator is not present offering cues to his intention


    A play of the game may end, but the game can never be “completed”, and you can never “beat the game”.   If the game is very good there’s always a reason to play again

    Can be completed: there’s no longer any reason to play.  You can “beat the game" [puzzle]

    System vs. psychological

    Games have a strong psychological component; players mostly contend with the other players, not with the system

    Puzzles have little or no psychological component; player(s) mostly contend with the game system, not with other players


    Games (like stories) usually involve direct conflict amongst the participants

    Puzzles lack conflict (though there are obstacles), in considerable part because there’s only one participant


    May have an explicit story component

    May have an explicit story component


    A game--unless it is very simple, such as Tic-Tac-Toe or Rock-Paper-Scissors--can never be entirely mastered, it always depends on the quality of opposition

    Puzzles can be completed.  Those with point scales can be played to improve mastery (high score).

    Randomness and Uncertainty

    A game need not have randomness or uncertainty, though a two player game with neither is probably solvable and is actually a puzzle, for example chess or checkers.

    Randomness and uncertainty can be present in something that still conforms to most of our characteristics; there can still be dominant strategies although there are unlikely to be saddle points


    [The characteristics in this table are in the order they came to me; there's likely a more logical order, but I haven't figured it out yet.]


    Choices and Solutions.

    Games have multiple choices that can lead to success.  Good games do not have dominant strategies or saddle points, a single best move that must always be pursued for best success.   Saddle points (surefire, always-best moves) and dominant strategies are common in puzzles; the solution to a formal puzzle is often a saddle point.  Pure puzzles, ones without uncertainty or random elements, are always solvable (one course of action ends in success, that is, the entire activity has a succession of saddle points).  Another way to put this is that pure puzzles are deterministic.  In general, if you do the right thing every time, it will always work (and solve the puzzle) every time.

    However, at some point the solution to a puzzle becomes so complex that no human can encompass it.  Checkers, for example, has been brute-force solved via the computer program Chinook, which has a database of every possible position and the best move for each position.  The remarkable human checkers champion, Marion Tinsley, lost only seven competitive games during his very long reign, and defeated Chinook before the final solution was incorporated into the program.  Chess will be solved sooner or later, and it has already been proved mathematically that a perfectly played chess game will always and in the same way, although the proof did not indicate whether that was a white win, a draw, or a black win.  So while checkers and chess are puzzles according to our definitions, they are so complex that no human can successfully figure out the solution and we can treat them as games.

    Theoretically, you can use the mathematical Theory of Games of Strategy to calculate mixed strategies for games, but in practice most commercial games are so complex and involve so much uncertainty that no one can reduce the possibilities to mathematical percentages.  Furthermore these mixed strategies are stochastic (probabilistic) rather than deterministic.  While these mixed strategies are best for the “perfect player” they do not guarantee success the way a saddle point does.



    Occasionally puzzles are turned into contests, where each player individually pursues the objective, and first one to achieve it wins.  These can be described as “multi-player solitaire”: everyone works at a puzzle within a contest framework, and whoever does best by the “time” limit wins the contest.  You can time how long it takes someone to do something and declare whoever is fastest the winner, but that’s not a game.

    A race is a contest where there is some way to directly affect an opponent, typically by blocking their path, and that ability to affect other players moves the activity toward game and away from puzzle.  But most races are closer to puzzles than to games, as the major problem is “how to go faster”, not “how to deal with opposition”.

    Consider how different traditional Olympic speed-skating is from the newer short track style of Apolo Anton Ohno.  They are both “racing” but the former is very close to a puzzle, while the latter includes a strong tactical element.

    “Contests” are not games.  Virtually anything that can be timed or measured can be turned into a contest.  Nor does a contest require design, and if we call a contest a game then virtually everything becomes a game and we have a useless definition.

    In “games” with more than two players, a contest will usually have symmetric starting positions, so that everyone has the same task.  Games for more than two players with asymmetric starting positions are unlikely to be contests.



    In a game, if you make mistakes or otherwise fail, you probably lose unless the opposition makes more mistakes.  Trial and error (guessing then checking) is not suitable behavior, because while you’re guessing your opponent is likely to make better moves and win the game.

    In a puzzle there is no danger of "losing"–if you fail you can just try again.  Trial and error (guessing then checking) can be used to find the way.   At worst you decide not to continue.  Video games have enshrined trial and error through respawning and save points, when played as single-player games.

    This has an interesting effect on player egos.  Some people don’t like to put their ego on the line by playing and possibly losing a game against other people.  On the other hand there are people who gain nothing from solving a puzzle and just feel stupid if they have trouble solving it.

    Puzzles that are turned into contests typically maintain a noncompetitive attitude so that players don’t feel very ego-involved.  Many Eurostyle boardgames are of this type.



    Games require intelligent opposition.  Intelligent opposition can provide active obstacles/challenges and can adjust to another player’s moves.  Puzzles provide passive

    obstacles/challenges that have been devised by the designer(s) rather than the active opposition of other players.

    In card Solitaire the obstacles are clearly inactive.  In Tetris, there is purely random selection of the next block, not involving significant decision-making, not “active” to me.  In Left4Dead, on the other hand, the Director is active opposition, changing the situation according to how well the players are doing.  Computer programming provides the opportunity for an inanimate object to provide some form of active opposition, sometimes resembling intelligence.  As the programming of computer opponents improves the computer can come closer to providing intelligent opposition.

    A puzzle will present the same problem and solution again and again.  In a game, the presence of intelligent opposition ought to mean that a variety of problems will be posed at a particular juncture, not the same one over and over.  The presence of randomness and uncertainty can play a strong part here.


    Origin of challenges

    In a game the challenges come largely from other players, within the context established by the designer(s).  In a puzzle the challenges come from the puzzle-maker(s).


    Games include the possibility of "Yomi", reading the intentions of the opposition; this is much more practical when the player is face-to-face with his opponents, able to read visual, auditory, and other clues, then online.  In a puzzle "Yomi" is only possible if you can read the intentions of the puzzle creator; this is very difficult to do because the puzzle creator is not present offering cues to his intention.

    Some games can be played as yomi if all participants are willing, yet if one uses a system solution, all end up conforming like it or not (Rock-Paper-Scissors is an example).



    A play of a game may end, but the game can never be "completed", and you can never "beat the game".   If the game is good there's always a reason to play again.  I’m sure there are people who have played chess, checkers, backgammon, go, and other games more than a thousand times, and I know people who have played my game Britannia– 4 to 5 hours per play – more than 500 times.

    Puzzles can be completed: there's no longer any reason to play once you know how to do the puzzle.  You can "beat the game" [puzzle], and once you’ve beaten it there’s little reason to play again.  Yet some puzzles, like many one player video games, have so much variety that you might play again.

    Perhaps an in-between occurrence is a game that depends heavily on its story for its attraction.  Once players know the story, many will stop playing the game.  Many people enjoy a story because they want to know “what happens next”, and once they know that they’re no longer interested in the story.  Other stories are timeless and can be enjoyed over and over.


    System versus psychological

    Games, especially those with more than two players, have a strong psychological component; players mostly contend with the other players, not with the system.  Puzzles have little or no psychological component; player(s) mostly contend with the game system, not with the other players (if any, as in a contest).

    In video game terms we can call the psychological PVP (player versus player) and the system PVE (player versus environment).

    Two player games tend to fall in the middle.  There are no opponents to persuade, just someone who controls the other side.  But that person can be misled or befuddled.  (Actually warfare is “two player”.  Yet Napoleon said that in war the moral (psychological) is three times more important than the physical (system).)  While you can try to psychologically manipulate a single opponent you must also understand the system very well or no amount of psychology will save you from losing.

    A “game” that's pure system is a puzzle, one that's pure psychology is a game.



    Games (like stories) usually involve direct conflict amongst participants.   Puzzles lack conflict (though there are obstacles), in considerable part because there’s only one participant.  Puzzles that are turned into contests rarely have direct conflict but there may be indirect conflict in the form of obstruction, something like a race.

    As you move toward the game end of the spectrum and away from the puzzle and it's more likely that there will be obvious conflicts between players.



    Both games and puzzles may have an explicit story component.  If the game depends heavily on the story component then once players have experienced the story they may no longer play.  More often, the story provides a marketing hook and a context for play, but the quality of the gameplay is what will determine whether people keep playing the game.

    The story component of a puzzle provides a context for what the player is doing and consequently could include hints about how to solve the puzzle.



    A game--unless it is very simple, such as Tic-Tac-Toe or Rock-Paper-Scissors--can never be entirely mastered, it always depends on the quality of opposition. Puzzles can be completed.  Puzzles can be played “perfectly”.  Those with point scales can be played to improve mastery (high score).  Arcade Pac-Man is a puzzle finally completed by someone after many, many years of play.  Up to that point, the point score indicated mastery.


    Randomness and Uncertainty

    A game need not have randomness or uncertainty, though a two player game with neither is probably solvable and is really a puzzle, for example chess or checkers.  Randomness and uncertainty can be present in something that still conforms to most of our puzzle characteristics; there can still be dominant strategies although there are unlikely to be saddle points.

    Many puzzle solvers do not like randomness.  For example a reviewer in Gameinformer magazine noted that "combat was accurate and satisfying--when we missed it was because our aim was off, and not because we came up short on some hidden die roll."

    Other puzzles have some random element to provide variation.  The player optimizes what he’s going to do in light of the knowledge that there is variation.

    Do we have to say that elements of randomness or hidden information are necessary for something to be a game?  Not exactly.  While theoretically chess is a puzzle, in practice no human is able to understand "the solution", even computers have not yet attained it although they will.  So while technically chess is a puzzle we treat it as a game.

    Where do game and puzzle meet?


    Puzzles versus problem-solving

    There has to be a vast gray area where game and puzzle meet.  What identifies or characterizes it? One difficulty I've had in differentiating puzzles and games is determining at what point the capabilities of a powerful programmed computer can mimic intelligent opposition, and also at what point puzzle-solving becomes problem solving.

    Games certainly involve problems to solve.  Where does puzzle-solving become problem-solving?   From the player point of view, I'm not sure.  From the designer point of view, it may amount to this: when someone devises a puzzle, he or she has in mind a particular way to solve it.  And might not even allow other solutions that, in real world terms, ought to work, but won't in the "game".  On the other hand, when someone devises a problem to solve, they don't have a particular solution in mind, they pose a situation and let the player figure it out.

    When you have uncertainty (if only about the human participants’ intention) or chance involved, you often have problem-solving; if you have no chance, and only uncertainty that can be predicted absolutely (you know what possible shapes are coming in Tetris, there is no human-unpredictability) then you have puzzle-solving--because the solution always works.

    Here's another way of looking at it, from a discussion of the future of video adventure games in PC Gamer magazine #217 (Richard Cobbett).  Recall that adventure games are traditionally narratives expressed through puzzles.

    Puzzles need to be largely retired in favor of problems.  What's the difference?  With a puzzle, the challenge is working out how the designer wants you to solve it; a problem is something that you solve on your own.  A puzzle is something you get stuck on; a problem has consequences and those consequences are all the more effective because you're more responsible for them. [Emphasis added]

    By this definition many single player video games have moved beyond puzzle to problem.  But by this definition a "problem" is still closer to a puzzle than to a game.



    Many modern "games" are hybrids of game and puzzle.  We can recognize that formal puzzles tend to be pure puzzle and some games tend to be pure game but there can be a mixture in many others.  For example many games players can benefit from being able to calculate probabilities in a game.  One version of Settlers of Catan that I own includes a table of probabilities for sums of the roll of two dice, a vital facet of the game.  People who understand the probabilities will play better than those who do not.  This calculation of probabilities is a solution, there is just one right way to do it.  In that respect it's like a simple puzzle in the midst of a game.

    While Settlers is a simple example familiar to both tabletop and video gamers, there are many AAA list games that rely heavily on computer opposition.  Varying with the success (and designer intent) of the "AI" we have a mix of game and puzzle as the computer opponent more or less successfully mimics a human opponent.


    Uncertainty revisited

    With all we've said about uncertainty, however, we can harken back to our first generalization, that games are about people and puzzles are about calculation and logic.

    Where there is no uncertainty, I'm not sure you can have a game in the long run, although if there's enough complexity then that provides a form of uncertainty.  Tic-Tac-Toe does not provide enough complexity to create uncertainty and so it is easily solved despite best efforts of the opponent.  To the human mind chess provides a great deal of uncertainty because of the complexity.  But it's likely that computers will solve it someday, just as they have solved checkers.

    When I was a kid I was a determinist, thinking that if you had a sufficiently powerful computer and enough knowledge then you could calculate everything that was going to happen.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, among other things, put paid to that notion.  While theoretically the mathematical Theory of Games of Strategy enables a "perfect player" (one who is maximizing minimum gain) to identify possible strategies (moves) and calculate the percentage of time he should use each one in a given situation, this doesn't mean the game always happens the same way, it will vary at each play with the dice rolls that pick which strategy you use THIS TIME.  Well, it does play the same each time if there's one strategy that should be used 100% of the time (Tic-Tac-Toe), but most games are more complex than that.  So each play of the game can be different even if it is solvable.

    Yet in practice the "determinist" view, which might be that you can always calculate the right mix of strategies, is impossible in the real world.  Among other things it's usually impossible to agree to the value of particular results when using various strategies.  Chess programs used to be written that way, relying on values of squares or pieces or positions, but I'm guessing that nowadays they're mostly brute-force look-aheads, given the speed of big computers.

    Games are not all math, nor is game design primarily a mathematical exercise.  When it approaches a mathematical exercise, the design is probably a puzzle, not a game.  You might be able to say that "all puzzles are math," but games are not.


    Number of players and player interaction

    While we cannot say that a game must have randomness, I think it must have uncertainty.  That uncertainty can come from having more than one opponent.  Diplomacyis a classic boardgame for more than two players that has no random element, but lots of uncertainty through seven players, compounded by the simultaneous movement method.  A two player game can have uncertainty about the other player's intentions, but because there is only one other player then you can try to account for all possibilities in a way that is usually impractical with more than one opponent.

    You can have more than one or two players when you have a puzzle that has been framed as a contest.  Many Eurostyle boardgames are constructed this way.  I don't think people often consciously think of Eurostyle games as puzzles, but in practice they treat them that way, as something to be solved.  It's not at all unusual to see Euro players helping each other during a game to make closer-to-optimum moves.  If every player is getting closer to the solution to the game, they can feel good about themselves even if they "lose" that particular play.  More broadly, people are playing against the game system far more than they're playing against other players.  There are lots of exceptions in this enormously broad category, of course, and some of the most popular Euros are far from puzzle-like.

    What about player interaction?  (This is interaction within the game, not social interaction amongst the players.)  "Multi-player solitaire", which often amounts to a puzzle-contest, is by definition lacking in player interaction (“solitaire”).  On the other hand, how can you play a game withother players if you cannot interact with them in the game?  Can a puzzle have interaction with other players?  As always with computers, we can ask ourselves how much a computer can substitute for a human.

    I think that player interaction is one of the defining characteristics of games, one that is missing from puzzles. There tends to be less player interaction as the “game” is more puzzle-like.  You can have a poorly-designed game, such as Monopoly, that has little player interaction because of poor design choices rather than because it is puzzle-like.



    David Sirlin's outstanding book "Playing to Win" on playing video fighting games is full of the psychology of play and "yomi" (reading the opponent’s mind)--but he's talking about a two-player game, not a one-player-and-computer game. .

    There is no Yomi, no reading of the minds of the opposition, in a puzzle, because there’s no opposition.  To generalize, the more Yomi can help a player succeed the more we have a game and the less Yomi can help a player succeed the more we have a puzzle.  In a pure puzzle Yomi is useless except in that strange case that you somehow divine what the puzzle-maker was doing.  In a pure game the player who is best that reading the minds the opposition will probably be most successful.

    An important distinction is whether the opposition is also trying to rely on Yomi or is trying to rely on Game Theory.  If someone is minimaxing, and relying on a stochastic method to determine which of a mixed set of strategies to use, Yomi is useless.  But in games of significant complexity few players will be able to figure out mixed strategies.

    For example in Rock-Paper-Scissors (RPS) the Game Theory solution is play each choice one third of the time.  And that is quite literally the way I would play if I had a randomizer available, that is I would play each possibility one third the time.  Other people try to outguess the opposition, to use Yomi.  If both players are trying to do that then the one who is better at it will probably win in the long run.  But if someone is trying to use Yomi against me it won't make any difference, in the long run the game will still be 50-50.  (At least, I think it will still be 50-50, I don't think the other player will do worse because he's trying to guess.)  So in one sense RPS is all about Yomi and in another sense it is solved.

    After all, the intention of the game is to determine something randomly. (Odds-Evens is even purer: each player "throws" one or two fingers, one having taken an "odd" to win and the other an "even" sum.)

    Tic-tac-toe is practically a puzzle because it's so easy to solve, although people who haven't solved it may use Yomi when playing.  This may work if both players are trying to use Yomi, but if one follows the solution, the game will end in a draw, period.

    Poker is an epitome of Yomi.  Players who best divine what the other players are trying to do are the most successful in the long run.  The system is easy to figure out and relatively easy to calculate odds for, although there are some people who cannot do it.  So lots of people know the system of playing poker, but a lot of them are not very good at it because they're not good about hiding their intentions and divining other players’ intentions.

    I'm often surprised that people play poker online, because many of the signals that provide information for Yomi are not available.  All you have left is trying to analyze the pattern of play of the opposition.

    Another way to put this is that a puzzle is challenge without Yomi.  And without the unpredictability of human intervention.


    Game Design Books

    What do some well-known books have to say about games and puzzles?

    Rollings and Adams in Fundamentals of Game Design give a simple definition of the difference between toys, puzzles, and games.  Toys have neither goals nor rules.  You do whatever you want with them.  Puzzles have goals but not rules.  And games have both goals and rules.  This is a useful rule of thumb, yet I always have a problem with this definition because most puzzles do have rules even if they are not explicitly written out.  For example, if you’re trying to work one of those puzzles with string and wire one of the rules is you cannot cut the string.  Let me illustrate it this way: Alexander the Great, when confronted with the extraordinarily complex Gordian knot, clearly a puzzle, broke the rules by using his sword to cut the knot.

    On the other hand some tabletop role-playing games specify no goals, but players have their own objectives.

    Zimmerman and Salen in Rules of Play after 80 pages constructing a definition of games find that puzzles ("The Puzzle of Puzzles") and role-playing games don't quite fit.  In the end they punt: "We are not going to split hairs.  In our opinion, all puzzles are games, although they constitute special kind of game."  I refuse to punt: the differences between puzzles and games are fundamental and of great importance to designers.

    I think any book that approaches game design from a video game point of view is trapped by the past: people call single player interactive entertainment software "video games" even though there are so many puzzle-like characteristics to single player video games.  Dear Esther is neither game nor puzzle, but it is sold along with video "games", so it’s reviewed in computer “game” magazines.  Wii Music and Wii Fit are also not games or puzzles, but are marketed by a video game company (Nintendo) along with other video games, so we tend to call them games.  A more practical/descriptive name for the video game industry is the video entertainment software industry.

    The glossary in my forthcoming book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" has this entry for "puzzle":

    Formal puzzles have a unique solution, and once you've solved the puzzle there is little point in playing further.  Many single player video games are interactive puzzles, some with a single solution where there’s no random factor, some (which include randomization to avoid complete predictability) with “optimal ways to do things”–dominant strategies and tactics.  Games, in contrast, cannot have “solutions” or a dominant strategy because of the unpredictable and infinitely-varying influence of the opponent(s).


    Designing games versus designing puzzles

    Both games and puzzles need to be designed.  But the objectives and methods are somewhat different because the method of posing of challenges is different (from other players, or from the system).   Design overlaps, but there are parts of game design that have nothing to do with puzzles, and parts of puzzle design that have nothing to do with games (see diagram).

    From a design point of view, it’s a lot easier to test a puzzle than to test a game.  You only need one person, except for puzzle-contests, and you don't need to design something that can be enjoyably played a hundred times, because people typically play puzzles only once, or a few times–only until they know the solution.  On the other hand, games can usually be simpler than puzzles, because the players provide much variation.


    An example, which is which?

    Recently I thought about definitions of game, puzzle, and toy in relation to three gambling activities: Texas Hold'em, Blackjack, and Slot Machines.

    In playing slot machines there is nothing to solve, no opposition, pure chance–but it isn’t quite a toy, because you can’t change anything to suit your own desires.  Is it just an activity?

    In BlackJack, there is no opposition except in a programmed sense, and it can be solved (by the card-counters over the course of a session, not individual hands).  It's a puzzle.

    Texas Hold'em is all about what’s in the mind, though there is also considerable chance, you can make all the right choices and still lose.  As with BlackJack, you must look at it by session, not by individual hand.  An individual hand played in isolation is much more like a puzzle as you try to calculate your odds and the opponent's odds.


    Another example

    Consider the "game" show Jeopardy.  Is this a game, a puzzle, somewhere in between?  Most of what the players do is answer trivia questions.  The only mechanism that lets a player affect another is to "beat them to the buzzer," to answer a question before anyone else can.  There are possible psychological effects that are aspects of the contest, and even a small chance for "yomi" when the players choose how much to bet/risk on the big bonus.

    If players took regular turns answering questions, this would absolutely be a puzzle-contest.  The buzzer introduces a way to hinder other players, or at least to help yourself at their expense, and takes Jeopardy a distance toward game (a form of race) and away from puzzle.  It is still much more puzzle than game.


    The bottom line

    Games are about people and psychology, puzzles are about systems, about calculation and logic (and, if all else fails, about guessing (trial and error)).

    Game designers devise ways for players to challenge other players.  Puzzle designers devise ways for the puzzle (perhaps implemented through a computer) to challenge the player or, in a puzzle-contest, to challenge all the players.  Many games involve both.

    [The editor has not liked my diagram.  It is a simple Venn diagram of game design and puzzle design with an intersection between the two.]


  • What is it with Me and Overly Involved Games?

  • What Is The Real People Multi-Game Solitaire Mega Tournament

    In case it's not clear:

  • What is your (current) favorite game? Kemet

    One of the first questions I always get once someone finds out that I am “Into” Board games is “What is your favorite game?” The last few years my answer has been, without hesitation, Matagot’s Kemet.

  • What is your favorite Party Game? Cash N Guns (2nd Edition)

    The latest in "What the hell does this guy like?" series. My current favorite party game is Cash N' Guns (2nd Edition).

  • What makes a game designer?

    I've been with Lunchtime Studio's for about a year now. I've been helping to design 'Lords of New York'. Before that I was a restaurant manager - most recently at Burger King. 

    So I was at ConnCon yesterday showing off our new game - 'Lords of New York'. A friend of mine came up to me and said "Well last I heard you were working for Burger King. How do you go from that to being a game designer?" I don't remember what I said. Something stupid probably. I was kind of shocked at the question. I'd never really thought about it. The question stuck with me though and I've thought about it a lot in the twenty four hours since it was first posed of me. 

    I love games. I've always loved games. Some of my only good childhood memories are playing UNO, Gin Rummy, Parcheesi and Monopoly with my mom. It seemed it was the only time my mom was happy. I played a lot of video games. I played a lot of roleplaying games - mostly D&D but also Gurps, Shadowrun, Vampire and Amber. I got hooked on Magic and then miniatures games. I discovered European board games and yes, Ameritrash games. I love all games and ever since I found out that 'Game Designer' was an actual job I've wanted to be one. 

    So how did I become a game designer? How did I go from being a fast food manager to being a game designer? First let's ask the question - 'What makes a game designer?' You love games - why aren't you a game designer? If this guy can be a game designer why can't we all be game designers?

    Here's a secret. We are all game designers. Have you ever house ruled a game? You're a game designer. Ever mod a game? You're a game designer. Ever decide that your D&D characters intimidation should be modified by strength and not charisma? You're a game designer. You ever put money in the middle of a Monopoly board and give it to the people that land on Free Parking. You're a game designer too. Congratulations. Welcome to the club.

    So how did I become a game designer? To be honest it was mostly being in the right place at the right time. I was at my bosses house running a Pathfinder game. I went outside for a break and my boss followed me out. He started telling me about the game he was working on. It's an adventure/poker game set in prohibition era New York City. My eyes lit up and said "Take my money! I want to play that game!" He explained that it wasn't nearly ready, he was an expert programmer with years of experience in the gaming industry but couldn't make the game he wanted to make by himself. He liked the stories I was telling in the Pathfinder game and gauged my interest in joining the team. At the time 'The Team' consisted of him, his wife and one artist. This was my opportunity. This was my chance to stop doing something I hated for a living and start doing what I loved. I was in.

    My first challenge was to make poker new and exciting for both new and experienced players. I looked at dozens of poker games to see what they were doing. They all had one thing in common. They expected you to be an expert poker player. What other game expects you to be an expert in the subject matter? Is 'Call of Duty' only for soldiers and veterans? Do you have to have personal experience fighting Cthulhu to play Arkham Horror? If real world experience counted for anything then my cat would be better at Angry Birds than I am. Then again my cat probably is better at Angry Birds than I am. She probably played it longer than I did.

    So we decided to make the player a poker superstar. We added talents to the game. Each character has talents based off their personality. Vince, the mafia captain, is good at cheating and intimidation. Veronica, the investigative reporter, is good at reading people and intuition. Tony is a undercover government agent and he's good at probability and statistics. This makes the game accessible to new players and interesting to experienced players. There are hundreds of other poker games on the market and I've played many of them. I haven't found one that let's you do anything like what we do.

    Ah, look at me. I've started to ramble. I am so proud of 'Lords of New York' and I love talking about it. I'm sure that I'll have plenty of opportunities in the coming weeks. I've got to get back to work but I'll be back to post more about the design process in a few days.

    If you want to learn more about 'Lords of New York' please visit our site -


  • What we have here is a failure to communicate

    I just watched Cool Hand Luke last night, which taught me two core life lessons.

    One, when you're playing Magic: The Gathering at least - "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.". The other is that sometimes, especially when it comes to me trying to express words and ideas in a verbal form: "What we have here is a failure to communicate.".

    All my life I've struggled with how I express words and ideas verbally. My writing's okay, and sometimes I can express an idea better in writing than I can through real speech. But while going to a speech therapist when I was younger helped me a whole lot, which gave me an uncomfortable empathy for the characters in another movie I saw recently, The King's Speech - my ability to communicate effectively and also receive some information is hampered significantly by that horrid condition I was born with that is often referred to as a "made up disease" when it isn't really a disease at all. Diseases are fatal, what I have isn't.

    It's probably why at first a lot of my blog articles were waffley and made no sense on the first parsing. I really did struggle with communication even in writing for a time. But worst of all, particularly when explaining rules to a new game to people, I struggle with that too.

    It's something that affects many gamers, much less people like me with genuine difficulty in even explaining difficult rules in a well meaning way that may misinterpret aspects of the rules which are game changers. I find it far easier to read and understand a book than a board game manual, maybe it's the fonts and pictures that clutter my mind, maybe it's the chains of numbers. But it's something that often somebody else has to read over for me, and even if I don't get blamed for screwing up the course of a game because of my failure to communicate, I feel terrible for not being able to understand the rules of a game on the first read like other people can.

    The worst part of this is where I'm sitting in my board game guild group playing Eurogames because that's what they want to play that night - and I'm utterly bewildered by how the economic system works, I get my butt handed to me by the banker players every time because while they understand the rules, they haven't really made the effort to make me hope I can understand with them how the game works.

    And this is the daunting thing that's prevented me from trying out Earth Reborn. If something has clear instructions and easy to store components I'll play it, but even instructions for punching out the tokens and putting them in the box weren't included. I really want to play Earth Reborn - otherwise I wouldn't have bought it - but the rules and background clutter my mind almost as much as the massive amounts of components that have to be stored in the box in a specific way. I have the equivalent of the anti-OCD, where instead of having the compulsion to organise anything into a very specific order that may not make sense, I'm overwhelmed by the pile of stuff in front of me and sometimes don't know where to start while organising it.

    I'm sure I'm not alone in being afflicted with a failure to communicate game rules properly, and it worries me that this inability to communicate core ideas whether on or off the table is affecting my life so much, that I feel ignored or worthless in terms of how to deal with life and the humans that inhabit it. Not that those plastic Ameritrash pieces have any pity for my poor mind either.

  • What's a blog?

    A couple of things I read this week.

    If cooking forums discussed cookbooks the way geeks discuss RPG rule books from WIRED.

    Mr. Bistro's Wild Ridefrom gameplaywrights.

    What the F-k is this board game?

  • What's old is new again

  • What's your Favorite Venue

    I know I’m going to totally date myself with  this blog submission, oh well.   When I listen to music, especially from bands that I’ve scene in play live, I can immediately visualize the band playing a particular venue.   Lets take  1980’s hair bands like Aerosmith, Van Halan, Motley Crew, etc., I picture them playing a big loud stadium show with lots of pyrotechnic stuff going on.  The hard rocking hair bands of the 1980’s look pretty sad playing at Busch Gardens or a lounge show in Atlantic City.  Even though, many of the 1980’s rockers are doing the Six Flags tour circuit.   Here some other examples:

     Billy Bragg, Jazz musicians, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddly I picture at a small smokey blues bar. 

    In high school we use to go to all ages puck shows.  So some how I picture bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedy’s, The Exploited or even the Clash or  The Replacements in an all ages club with 500 sweaty teenage kids slam dancing. 

     The Dead, Jimmy Buffet or Reggae Bands = Summer open out door music festival.

    College Auditorium:  REM, Beck, Police

    Six Flags tour:  Anybody from American Idol or who got there start on Disney

    Vegas or Atlantic City show: 1960 Motown group, Elvis Impersonators


    So what about games?  Is there better or worse venues for games?  What’s the advantage and disadvantages of different venues for gaming?  And more import what is the recommend drink of choice at different venues?

     Family game night at the house:   Uno attack, Sleeping queens, saboteur, moose in the house, Cluzzle, Clue, Buffy the Vampire Hunter or California.  The drink of choice is hot chocolate and cookies or popcorn.    

     Multi family game night at my house:  Werewolf, Shadow Hunters, Saboteur, Wits and Wagers, Pit, Last Night on Earth, Cash n’ Guns

     The basement of my mother’s house:There are some days I wish my wife, QueenPut would adopt me and I could become a 40 year virgin living in my basement on a diet of Doritos and Cherry Coke.  Here I’d become a level 50 D&D cleric with lots of cool spells and stuff.  I guess I’m dating myself again.  I guess if I was a 40 year old virgin living in my mom’s basement in 2009, I’d probably be playing World of Warcraft not D&D.

     You and one of best gaming buddies at their house or your house:   This is the best venue for two player war games.  The quiet atmosphere is perfect for a little hard core war gaming and little scotch on rocks. 

     Small private group of gaming friends (3 - 6) at somebody’s house:  This is the perfect location for some classic multiplayer Ameritrash games like Ti3, Arkham Horror, Fury of Dracula, Warrior Knight or some newer games like Battlestar Galatica, Android and Conan.  The recommended drink Bourbon and beers.

     Medium size group of people (6 – 20) at somebody’s house:  In this situation the big time Euros (Puerto Rico, Caylus, Agricola, Power Grid, Age of Steam) and filler games come out.   You may see one or two Ameritrash games if people make prior arrangement to play. 

     Open gaming at a community center or public location:  Short Euros, family games and card games.  The gaming time at community centers are usually limited to 3 – 4 hours and the turnout is very unpredictable.  You need games with easy rules because you may have a handful of new gamers show up and because time is limited you can be spending half your time teaching rules.   I’ve gone to the open gaming night at a community center a few times.  I even brought and played Arkham Horror once.   But if I never have to play at community center again I’d be very happy.  

     Gaming at the local game shop:   CCG and role playing game.  Actually, I’ve never played a game at a local game shop.  When I was kid my mother wouldn’t let because she was scared of the strange greasy smelly men.  As an adult, I’m kind of scared of the strange greasy smelly men who hang out in dark game shops.

     Regional Cons:   This is a great venue for loud Ameritrash games.   In a noisy room with beer flowing and Steve Avery pouring everyone Pina Colada it’s fun to roll dice and blow shit up.  Battleball, Shadow Hunters, Thunder Road, Axis and Allies, Epic Duels, Wings of War and Descent were all big hits 3 or more plays each.  Regional cons are great venue for longer games like Ti3 and Arkham Horror because everyone is there for the duration.  You don’t have your buddy who plays 2 hour of Ti3 and than says he has to get home.   The hot Euro games of week are also popular at these cons.  Dominion and Small World were the big hits this year.    

     World Board Gaming Championship (WBC): War games and old school AH games.  So you have an old crumbling copy of Civilization, Kremlin, Gangsters, Slap Shot or 1776 that nobody in your gaming ever wants to play with you.  Here the perfect venue to find other people like you from around the world to play some 1970’s and 80’s style gaming.  At WBC there are over 100 different gaming tournament.   This year Malloc and me are running the Ti3 tournament.

     Big cons and other cons like Essen, Gencon, BGG and Gathering of Friends.  I haven’t been and I don’t have a huge interest in attending but I’d appreciate if other people put in their two cents.


  • What’s in a name? (Especially, Trademarks)

    Names of games are important to help a potential buyer understand what the game is about, and to invoke certain emotions or points of view that may help persuade the customer to buy the game.  For example, “Dragon Rage” tells you a lot about that game.  Yet the trend in Eurostyle boardgames for a while was that names told you absolutely nothing about the game: Carcassonne, San Juan, St. Petersburg, Puerto Rico, those titles tell you absolutely nothing.

    Perhaps such uninformative titles are selected because most of the good game titles have already been used. It may also be because many Eurostyle games are not models of any reality and so there is no reality to refer to, that is, they are essentially abstract games and so the title may as well be abstractly meaningless. 
    The book industry faces the same title-already-used problem, and one of the ways they get around it is also used in the game industry.  You give your game or book a subtitle.  For example when I finished my first book about game design my final title choice was “Learning Game Design”, which was quite descriptive.  But the publisher wanted something that sounded more scholarly.  I’ve described elsewhere ( ) all the steps we went through before we settled on the title “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish”.  The subtitle was necessary to differentiate it from other books with “game design” in the title.
    This subtitle technique is also used for video games that are sequels or related to existing games but where the publisher does not want to use a number.  For example we have Assassins Creed III to show that it’s clearly related in a sequence from the original Assassins Creed, but we also have Assassins Creed: Liberation for the Sony Vita handheld.  Expansions to existing video games are often given subtitles so we have Civilization IV: Warlords and Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword.

     On the other hand, book titles are not trademarked, and game titles are, so the legal situation is somewhat different as we’ll see.  So far I’ve been talking about marketing, really, but the rest of this piece is about legal considerations.

    What brought this to mind recently was the appearance of a video game for Android devices titled “Dragon Rage”.  From the marketing video, it appears to be an Angry Birds/Crush the Castle kind of game.  As many readers know I had a game of that title published as a “micro game” by Heritage/Dwarfstar Games in 1982, which was reissued with additions and a much, much higher physical quality by Flatlined Games (Belgium) in 2011, though it didn’t become available through American retailers until 2012.  In the 20 year period while I was away from the hobby a PlayStation 2 video game titled “Dragon Rage” was published by 3DO in 2001 and 2002.  With the 2011 version of the board game I once again had the “common law” trademark on the game title “Dragon Rage.”

    What was I going to do about this?  At a minimum I didn’t want people to buy this video game thinking it is a video version of my boardgame.  Nor did I want people to buy my boardgame thinking it is a boardgame version of this video game.  You might say “who cares, they’ve bought your game” but then you end up with very unhappy customers and no one wants unhappy customers.

    Trademarks have to be enforced.  If they’re not they can come into public use, and that’s why the makers of Scrabble have always been high strung about enforcing their trademark.  From my point of view I did not think I could ignore the existence of this video game, though the publisher of Dragon Rage was not concerned at all.

    Now I don’t pretend to be a lawyer and cannot give legal advice.  Nonetheless, it’s not hard to read information about copyright and trademark, and I’ll give you a little bit of a run down.

    Game titles are generally protected by trademark rather than copyright.  Copyright is intended to protect larger strings of text than one or two or a few words that make up most titles.  While copyright law tends to be the same from country to country because of the Berne Copyright Convention, trademark law can vary much more so I’m talking only about the United States.

    There are two levels of trademark protection in the United States.  The simple “common law” protection is to claim trademark by putting the trademark symbol, a simple superscript “TM,” after the title to be trademarked, as in Britannia™.  In the case of games, the game has to actually be on the market, you can’t trademark something that isn’t (yet) a commercial product.  The more secure protection is to register the trademark, for which the symbol is an R in a circle ®.  The simple trademark costs no money, the registered trademark is officially $350 or more, though I have seen Trademarkia offer to register trademarks for $159.

    Trademark does not lapse the way copyright does - although it takes a very long time for copyright to lapse nowadays compared with the rules 40 years ago.  We can see a few cases where trademarks continue to be claimed on characters in novels that are well out of copyright, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-1923 novels.  His John Carter novels on which the movie “John Carter” is based are out of copyright but “John Carter” and other related terms are still maintained as trademarks, and so the makers of the movie had to work with Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated even though the author died more than 60 years ago!  (See to find a search engine for trademarks.  The ERB Inc. “Barsoom” trademark is listed in detail at .)

    Trademark law allows for the same word or phrase to be trademarked in many different areas of life as long as there is no likelihood of confusion.  For example there is Britannia the boardgame and there is a building society (more or less a savings and loan) in England called Britannia, both can be trademarked.  There are other uses of Britannia (such as the name of a world-setting in the video game Ultima) that probably don’t infringe on either trademark.  Apple Records and Apple Computer were content with the same name until recently when Apple Computer began to sell music through iTunes, and then there was legal action (since settled).

    A game called “Story Realms” throughout its funding via Kickstarter suffered a name change when a company that owns sent a cease and desist letter. :

        the real kicker is this... our lawyer thinks that if this were to go to court, the case would be dismissed on summary judgement because we have not violated their trademark (their trademark is for specific goods and services that are not what we are offering), BUT if a suit was filed there's a chance that the initial judge would look at the similarity in names "Story Realm", "Story Realms", and say they were close enough to warrant an injunction while we get this sorted out. That means we can't use the name, sell the game, etc for however long it takes to get our case heard and resolved... which could be YEARS. And not just time, but LOTS and LOTS of expenses.

    A great peculiarity and danger of trademark law seems to be that someone can register a trademark on some word or phrase and then stop other people from using it who have been using it for a long time.  Sometimes this reaches especially stupid proportions as large companies with sufficient funds to take people to court trademark everyday words such as “purple”.  (There are dozens of trademarks including the word purple, but one on the word alone.)  Unfortunately in the current climate in the USA where, as long as you’re doing something that makes money and is not obviously illegal, the government lets you get on with it, this kind of foolishness happens a great deal, especially in the Patent Office.  (I’m not going to get into patent trolling here, but it really is ridiculous.)

    As always, if you have enough money you can go to a court or arbitration body without a leg to stand on and still force someone to do what you want simply because they cannot afford to litigate.  There was a famous case some years ago of a new French company called Eurotrash, if I recall correctly.  A company in Scotland had been using that name online for many years but the French company took them to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and it cost the British company tens of thousands of pounds to successfully defend their use of the word.  Today Eurotrash is a name of an opera, the name of a TV series, and who knows what else - activities not in the same realm as waste collection.  (I relate all this from memory of many years ago and cannot find any trace of it on the Internet today, such as at (where the legal action took place - as I recall.))

    To go back to the case of Dragon Rage, only courts and lawyers can tell us whether boardgames and video games are sufficiently different that they can be regarded as separate areas of life.  In my view they were separate 15 or 20 years ago but not today when so many boardgames have video game versions and so many video games have boardgame versions.

    Fortunately, when I pointed out the name clash to the company (making no demands and certainly not telling them to “cease and desist”) there was no problem.  They showed me that they had searched for registered trademarks, and that the 3DO trademark registered in 2001 had lapsed in 2003 because no statement of use was filed (3DO went out of business).  (When 3DO registered this trademark, if I had known about it, and if I had had the funds, and if Dragon Rage had not been out of print for nearly 20 years at that point, I might have tried to do something about it.  But none of those things were true.) 
    Trademarkia also told them:

        This Dragon Rage mark has a greater likelihood of registration if it satisfies the following conditions: (1) it is not confusingly similar to other marks, (2) it does not dilute a famous mark, (3) it is not generic or descriptive, (4) if there are no unregistered, common law trademark holders that are using this trademark in commerce today, and (5) if the description and classification of your use of Dragon Rage is different than other non-abandoned registered marks having the same name.

    My Dragon Rage trademark is of the “unregistered, common law” used in commerce today type.  Perhaps if they had searched the Internet for “Dragon Rage” they would have discovered the entries at Boargamegeek and at Flatlined Games (the publisher).  (Just as the Story Realms people should have searched the Internet for variations of their proposed game name.)  If Dragon Rage had been out of print since 1982 and not reissued, there would have been no existing common law trademark to interfere.  Unfortunately they were not aware that Dragon Rage had been reprinted in 2011. 
    Fortunately, they were still in testing for their game, so they were able to fairly easily change the name to “Dragon Frenzy” - maybe an even better game name for when the dragon is going wild because you’re destroying its eggs.

    The “moral of the story”?  If you publish a game be sure to claim the common law trademark on the name.  But first be very thorough in searching for other games and related activities of the same name, and if necessary use a subtitle to try to avoid future problems, or choose a different name.

    Keep in mind that long out of print games no longer fulfill the “used in commerce today” requirement.  But the safer thing is probably to use a subtitle for a game if you think the main title has been used even in the distant past.  For example, “Dragon Rage: Defend the City” (I’m sure you can think of better subtitles!).
    If you read any open discussion about trademarks, copyright, and patent, for example ) you’ll see that it really is a big can of worms at times.  It’s one of the reasons why we have courts and lawyers.

    Search engine for registered trademarks

    You can also use the US Patent Office to search for registered trademarks.
    Go to and choose the trademark search.

    and don't forget international search:

  • Where are all the Dice.

    For the past two weeks Me, the Good Doctor, Slick Nick and Bien have been playing Runewars, 1st trying to learn the thing and then again trying to get over the rules and actually play it. This is not going to be a review of that game, one that I think I like but need more time with.

  • Where have all the new designs gone?

    This started out as one of my usual rambling forum posts, but it's a slow news day so I've cleaned it up a bit to make it more suitable for a front page article. Still, I'm not known for coherent writing so attempt to read at your own peril.

  • Where's my Transformers game?

    Yesterday, I went to the movies and saw Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, sure it was a craptastic script filled with inexplicable holes.  That being said, I left the movie theater excited as that movie was a complete rush of adrenaline, like drinking a 3 liter Coke bottle and eating a whole bag of sugar coated candies.

     But it astounds me that the level of importance that Transformers is as an intelectual property still has no decent boardgame of it's own.  Sure there are tons of versions of other games but where is it's Federation Commander, it's Strategy Tabletop Game (aka GW's LOTR), it's Mechwarrior, it's War of the Ring, it's anything?

    I mean, have a look at the Transformers, they are robots that transform from a cool looking car or plane into a mean robot.  Sometimes they join each other (Devastator), or even have small robots that can be attached to them.

     The Transformers universe is huge, having a lot of sagas, iterations and versions, so there's no shortage of cool characters to choose from.

     If you go with the movie you have the Autobots working closely with an elite team of soldiers, so you could even add squads of highly specialized and capable men as well as the latest man made technology to their disposal.  Yeah, a rifle or pistol wouldn't do much harm to a transformer (if any), but something like an RPG should prove a worthy addition.  Just use some common sense and figure out that transformers could be harmed by our big weapons, otherwise it's stupid to put soldiers in their way.

     By looking at their confrontations you realize there's no way that a couple of hulking robots duking it out in the city are doing so without wreaking havoc, so all of the sudeen you have destructible environments and tons of props to use (light poles as bats per instance).

     So how does this idea sound for a game?  A game of squad level in which two rival factions of transforming robots can duke it out agaisnt each other, destroying the city they are while being assisted by the elite of modern military?  For me, it sounds like a recipe for a sundae chocolate ice cream with hot fugde a brownie and some peanuts, in other words it's so great.

    I know the license to the IP must be expensive, but so for Star Wars and LOTR and look at the good games we've gotten from them, why can't  a company just make a miniatures game or wargame or boardgame using this ideas? 

     Imagine a counter having the car on one side and the robot on the other, or follow the route of LOTR and have 2 miniatures per character (one as a robot and one as a plane).

     Anyways, there are a lot of difficulties in making this reality but it saddens me that with or without the IP, nobody has tried to exploit this concept.

  • Which 12 games for 2014?

    Okay, if I want to play 12 of my games in this coming year, I had better prepare a shortlist. I will give you a choice from my most recent acquisitions in 2012 and 2013: 


    From Secret Satan

    The World Cup Card Game (got in 2011)

    Ascalion (aka Borderlands, got in 2012)

    Mission Red Planet (got in 2012)


    Mag Blast

    Scarab Lords

    Isle of dr Necreaux

    Red November

    (I already played Pass the Pigs on New Year’s Eve with the kids. Success.)


    From Essen


    Sigismundus Augustus

    (I already played Strajk at the Christmas Offensive 2013, and Rats in the Walls at Essen)

    Signum Mortis (Essen 2012)

    Other acquisitions

    Warriors & Traders

    Mice & Mystics

    City of Remnants

    Love Letters

    Pathfinder card game

    Lord of the Rings card game (not the CCG)

    and some games on Waterloo or Napoleonic wars

    Beyond Waterloo

    1815: The Waterloo Campaign

    Dresden 20

    Napoleonic Wars (GMT)

    Wellington (GMT)


    Most of these are light games, but others require serious study, so they might not make it in the end.

    Which one do you guys think I should try first?

  • Which games look cool and which games look like shit

    Last week I was at a gaming party and there was a number people playing Endeavor.  For some reason I took one look at the game and I was repulsed by the awful look of the game.  This reaction seems to be happening more and more to me as I take one look at a typical new Euros game.  So I did a little experiment, I just flipped through some photos of some games from Essen with out looking at the names of the games to see which games look interesting and which games looked awful.  

    Here's the photos:

     Here's the games that actually looked interesting enough for me to try in the future:

    Imperial 2030
    Rush 'n Crush
    Nostra City
    Der Her der Ringe - I think that's Middle Earth Quest
    Inarticulate Epic Game - I think that's War of the Ring
    Unknown game
    Hotel Amsterdam - Work placement for sex and drugs?
    Dungeon Lords

    Most of the rest of the games looked awful.