• Came across this post by wargame designer  Charles Vasey, who just designed Unhappy King Charles, on TOS and it really struck a chord.  We had just been talking in a thread here about how wargame designers tend to get a little less stuck in ruts than euros because they make mechanics to actually do something, not just to be mechanics.  And right out of Charles mouth:

    "If I am reading people correctly they view rules like (for example) the subordination rules as chrome. I (on the other hand) view them as part of the historical background without which you would have a simpler game but one which bore little resemblance to the real thing. Without this "chrome" you have players building perfect armies under perfect commanders, something that never happened. This limitation arose from the realities of political power and wealth in England. The earl of Newcastle could raise large armies, I cannot see he would willingly hand them over to anyone else; hence the rule

    But I do see that for some folks leading the strange entities that were 17th century armies is going to be less fun than leading an army that does what you tell it. UKC is an attempt to be period-specific which has both good and bad results. I didn't want a bland one-system-fits-all approach."


    I think this definitely illustrates the difference nicely.  It's not surprising that coming at a problem with this attitude, trying to accomplish something, make the player feel some way, rather than just making a game that works, could make you more creative with your mechanics.


  • SAINTS WIN!!!!!!!!!

  • This weekend was the third year of being on the FFG Trivia contest team, for the local Science Fiction etc etc group's fundraising show. Between former and current employees, out of 8 teams of 4 people, we had 11 people. 

     We did pretty good, and one of the other work heavy teams tied dead with us - no bragging rights. Hells, we can call bragging rights just because they did not stomp us into the ground like last year. 'Most Improved' :D  There was a catagory for games and the MC cautioned us that we would get mocked within an inch of our life if we missed any. In the 'Pyramid show' style round, we got D & D - which we lost a point because our guy accidentally said 'Player' in the question when the answer was 'players handbook' (Players need this to play...).

     Sunday I got together with Shellhead, Joel P? and Kingput and we

  • So it's been a few weeks now of trying to do 1 new game per week.

    So far I did Call of Cthulhu LCG

    Warrior Knights


     ..... a week off the wagon...

    and this week was Red November. 

    I had played half a game before, but it was at lunch and 0 people had played it before (right at release!) and we had a full house. Add to that some nitpickers who slowed stuff down, and the guy who showed up late, we did not get very far. I tried the next day to get people playing, but to no avail.

     This time I pestered some new people, one of the accountant ladies, and a card developer. I read up on the rules before hand, not looking forward to a repeat of the last time of trying to struggle through things with unfamiliar people - only to find THEY had both played it before! So our game went pretty smoothly. I sort of wonder if i had shuffled well enough, because things tended to come in clusters, but that could have just been fate. The game stretched barely into a second lunch, and the developer was already booked that day, so we replaced him with an editor type. He faked a russian accent alot of the time :D 

     We won, but JUST barely. Fires, fires, fires everywhere! I kept getting engine books, but the engine was fine. Oxygen pumps... not so.

     My impressions of this game is that it could go over pretty well with my more casual gamer friends. I really want to sort out drinking rules, too. It just screams with that possibility. I packed this to Iceland with me last year, but every time we were chilling and had time and people to play, I had left the damned thing back at the room. It fits in my purse-thing ok, but I was sometimes the packhorse for multiple people,  and I tend to carry food with me when I travel too. 


    I missed last week - so I am taking a game home this weekend. I figure I can try solo Runebound (which I have not finished a game of - we tried it after work once, and someone actually, um rage quit the game. He is a sensitive sort, and was newly hired, and out of everyone in the company, he had the absolutely best selection of shit talkers at the table, and we were in fine form. We did not know he was bothered by this. He's not the sort that likes direct games - or people who say 'oh yah? well you better think twice about that buddy, or I will be coming for you!'  - long story short, he quit the game suddenly and bolted. We all felt like dickheads. We sort of mumbled amongst ourselves and put the game away shortly thereafter. 

     I also have a new roommate - I tend to have a rotating roster of people every lease (or less than lease!) and this one was a friend from college of the current one. The last guy he recommended did not work out, and refused to sign the lease after moving in (note to self: do these things in order for a reason!) and I was chatting with the new guy this week  and he seemed very interested in trying them. He's a Catan player, and poker, and video game nerd. It's a bit of comedy that the guy who recommended him is a bit uncomfortable about nerdy things, and dislikes things discussed around him. When he found us in the kitchen talking Catan, he grabbed a soda and ran like hell while we invited him to play. It's hard to corner people on holiday weekends at times - but I will see if I can! 


  • Wizards of the Coast were kind enough to supply me with a review copy of Caravenloft1stle Ravenloft. Got to unbox it on Monday, much to the delight of my 4-year old daughter who absolutely loved the figures and is itching to help me play when we go away on holiday. But could I wait that long? Could I hell! So at lunchtime today I played two impromptu session of the introductory solo scenario in the back of my car. This has your adventurer racing to try and find the stairs out of the crypt before Strahd wakes up and starts pursuing them through the dungeon.

    My first choice was a human ranger - not a great choice for solo play as it turns out. The first monster she found was a kobold Skirmisher which she dispatched with ease since one of her abilities to to inflict a single point of damage without a dice roll. And a welcome ability it was too since she couldn't roll a decent dice for toffee. The second tile she ran into a rather more scary blazing skeleton which she missed, and then she ran into a succession of traps that she failed to disarm and which kept slowing her down and eating away at her hit points and since disarm attempts happen in lieu of attacks, the result was that each turn a new creature was added to a veritable horde of monsters following her round the board that she couldn't make a dent in due to trying - and failing - to deal with all those traps. Good thing she's fast else she wouldn't have lasted as long as she did, which wasn't very long at all. When she was on her last legs she drew a "burst of speed" card which allowed her to leg it all the way to the opposite side of the dungeon and get away from her pursuers and gain some breathing space, only to draw a new tile with... another blazing skeleton which promptly killed her.

    My second attempt was with the dragonborn fighter, who is a rather tougher proposition entirely and spent his first few tiles merrily ploughing through monster after monster with little ill-effect. That was until he ran into something as puny as a giant spider which started flinging webs at him, slowing him down, with the result he couldn't explore as fast and had to draw yet more of the nasty encounter cards that have terrible events and traps on them. After a hairy couple of tiles he took care of the arachnid and carried on, somewhat the worse for wear but at least having managed to gain 2nd level.  I was 2 tiles from the bottom of the stack and victory when Strahd woke up but he was miles behind me and I thought I'd have an easy win on my hand. But then I woke a Wraith, one the nastiest base monster in the game, who did me some serious damage after I'd failed to kill him. Still, I drew the next tile confidently, only to get a terrible event which teleported the character and the wraith to the tile furthest from his current location - which was right next to the newly awakened Strahd! The two monsters proceeded to give me a horrific mauling, although I managed to take down the Wraith in exchange. That just left me with 1 tile to explore and the hardest vampire in the history of D&D to deal with so I did the obvious thing and just ran for it. Strahd tossed a fireball at my rapidly disappearing arse which, if I could avoid it, would leave me clear to get up the stairs and out into the daylight. Sadly I took it right on the back of the head leading to a second loss in a row.

    The sessions were really fun and back-to-back they took less than an hour to play including a couple of rules checks. There seem to be a couple of rules ambiguities for a relatively simple game but I just worked round them in what seemed to be the most obvious manner. The game did present me with a couple of real tactical conundrums during my session but there's plenty left to chance too: overall the game seems to strike a good balance between strategy and luck for a short, rules-light game and it's certainly an exciting, atmospheric and entertaining experience.

    This is just an initial overview though - you'll get a few review in a couple of weeks.




  • This is sort of a reply to Bullwinkle’s excellent post regarding my previous installment. You guys with me? First: regarding kinds of conspiracies, I think JFK might be fun as a conspiracy thread, but are there whacky enough ideas around? The templar/illuminati thread is has been done to death, and besides, don’t Steve Jackson & Dan Brown own the rights to the whole conspiracy? 

  • Well, shit.  Today found me waking up to a horrible noise in the house.  Turns out it was the pipes and the entire front yard was under water.  Apparently a water line had broken......after awhile, I was finally able to get it turned off and localized so we can still use our houses water.  Not before tensions ran high throughout the house though.

    On the plus, I guess it is good that we didn't have to call some plumber or city service on Labor Day.  On the downside, I think about 3000+ gallons of water ran down the street.

    Sorry for the completely non-related game post.  Just needed a small outlet for frustration.

  • 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"?

  • 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

  • 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,

    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.]


  • In case it's not clear:

  • 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.

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

  • 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 -


  • 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.

  • 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?