Designing Modern Strategy Games by George Phillies - Read Online
Designing Modern Strategy Games
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"Designing Modern Strategy Games" is the definitive book on the design of modern strategy games. "Designing Modern Strategy Games" can also be used as a textbook; it includes more than 100 game design projects. For instructors, an Appendix includes the day-by-day course plans for three offerings of author Phillies' precedent-breaking university course "Design of Tabletop Board Wargames".

Phillies and Vasel's book, the second edition of Phillies and Vasel's 2006 text, opens with an inspiring essay by Greg Costikyan. It proceeds through a synoptic analysis of game design elements, recommendations of great game designers, and detailed analyses of rules of over a hundred games of strategy.

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ISBN: 9781476251998
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Designing Modern Strategy Games - George Phillies

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The series Studies in Game Design presents serious analyses of important topics in the design of games. George Phillies, Professor in the Worcester Polytechnic Institute program in Interactive Media and Game Development, serves as Series Editor. Professional book length contributions are invited.

Current titles in this series are

1 - Designing Modern Strategy Games

2 - Modern Perspectives in Game Design

Anticipated future titles include Stalingrad for Beginners, Stalingrad - Intermediate Strategy and Wargame Design.


Designing Modern Strategy Games is the second edition of Phillies and Vasel’s 2006 book Design Elements of Contemporary Strategy Games. There are two major changes from the first edition. First, we have added the syllabi for three cycles of Professor Phillies teaching his university course Design of Tabletop Strategy Games. We hope that this addition will be helpful for university instructors. Second, limitations on electronic book formats mean that the index found in the First Edition cannot with current technology appear in this volume.

Why should computer game designers study different types of games? Why not concentrate entirely on different sorts of computer games? The study of computer games offers many advantages to the would-be computer game designer. There’s a well-defined taxonomy for computer games. There are enormous banks of clever gimmicks, software codes, and artistic concepts. What can designers of computer games learn from studying other types of games? What can other designers learn from the design of contemporary strategy games?

These questions are analogous to asking why most artists of the first rank study and practice the full range of plastic media. A person who is a great sculptor may be a somewhat indifferent painter or cabinet maker. However, each art comes with its own tools and idioms, its own approaches to effective artistic representation. A great artist studies every medium, because the perspectives from each medium enrich the artist’s work in every other medium.

A rationale for studying other games is supplied by Greg Costikyan’s essay Don't Be a Vidiot, which he graciously allowed us to include as Chapter 1 of this volume. Costikyan writes If your sole experience of games derives from the arcade, the console, and the home PC--particularly if your sole experience derives from games published within the last five years--your imagination will be constrained. You will see only what exists in the here and now, and you will naturally be inclined to ring the changes on the apparently possible, rather than exploring more interesting alternatives. Your palette of techniques, your grasp of the possible, will be limited. You will be, if you will pardon the term, a vidiot, a person whose sole understanding of games derives from video games.

Board game designers can be and are far more exploratory than computer game designers, because the financial risks are immensely smaller. The GMT P-500 funding model, discussed in our book Contemporary Perspectives in Game Design, works reasonably well for board games, but would probably be impracticable for the computer game industry. As a result, board games have a far wider range of complexities than do computer games. The simplest board games have very short rules. The most complex board war games have rules far more complicated than the rules found in any other gaming genre. If one wants to play the World War II campaigns in Libya, there are available board game titles representing the armies as their component corps, divisions, brigades, or battalions, with logistics at different levels: Ignored, represented in a few sentences, or presented in enough detail that players must treat water supply as a distinct consideration, down to the actually rather substantial consequences of an Italian Army that subsisted on pasta rather than bread.

An important part of classical engineering design is the notion that the designer does not have to invent everything for himself. Rather, there is a vast pharmacopeia of engineering design elements--gears, wheels, levers, four-arm linkages—that can be assembled into a machine that performs particular processes. Similarly, in organic chemical synthesis, a chemist does not have to invent every synthetic step for himself. Rather, there is a vast armamentarium of synthetic methods of inducing chemical change--oxidations, reductions, stereospecific regiospecific transformations—that the chemist deploys to produce her new molecule.

The operations of machine design and organic synthesis are entirely different, but the underlying intellectual process is the same. Furthermore, the key to greatness is the same. A good engineer or chemist may have at his fingertips fifteen ways to solve a specific problem. An excellent engineer or chemist has forty.

Once upon a time, one of us (GP) had the good fortune to visit the greatest American board game designer, Sid Sackson, at his New York home. Sackson had by far the largest collection of traditional board games in the world (he did not collect board wargames). He estimated to me that he had 20,000 distinct titles. I can confirm that almost every room of his house was filled from floor to ceiling with games, including shelves in the middle of every room except the kitchen. He also had various game fragments, such as the cover of Race to the North Pole, a nineteenth-century game about a race to the North Pole via Montgolfier balloon. The collection was carefully organized, so that he could find whichever game he wanted almost immediately. Sackson’s game library was backed by a set of notebooks, so that when I described design elements of games from my board wargame collection, he rapidly inserted those details into a notebook and indexed them.

Sid Sackson was the leading American designer of what we would now recognize as contemporary strategy games (Eurogames). An important part of his work was creative wisdom. An important part of his work was having immediately at hand examples of the solutions that every other game designer had found to design challenges. However, every reader does not have access to a game collection like Sackson’s.

One resolution to this challenge is supplied by mechanical engineering. One could imagine, a century and a half ago, a successful engineer maintaining a warehouse full of ingenious devices, which could be examined for the solutions that they might provide. A modern mechanical engineer has a much more effective solution. The collection of machines is replaced by the study of machine design, as represented, e.g., by R. L. Norton’s Design of Machinery. Instead of examining crate after crate of machines containing gears, the mechanical engineering student studies the chapter on Gear Trains, probably attaining a deeper understanding of gears than would be obtained by looking at boxes of parts.

Designing Modern Strategy Games attempts to supply readers with a replacement, admittedly only a pale shadow of the real thing, for the complete library of all games. Designing Modern Strategy Games also responds to an aspect of Greg Costikyan’s recommendation that computer game designers should study other sorts of game. A single volume cannot treat every sort of game with any sort of depth. We limit ourselves here to modern Eurogames, including such famous titles as Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride.

Eurogames have standard characteristics that define a Eurogame archetype. What are these archetypical Eurogame characteristics, most characteristics being found in most games? Eurogames are defined by their shape, the space they occupy in each player’s life. They have relatively simple rules, a dozen or fewer pages in length despite ample use of white space and colorful illustrations of play. Eurogames are designed to be concluded in an hour or two. Dead time—the period while each player waits for others to complete their moves--is short. One of the brilliant design decisions of Puerto Rico was a change in turn order, rearranging matters so that every player had some action to take during each of the other player’s turns, thereby greatly shortening individual dead times. Player elimination is deprecated; preferably, all players remain active in the game until it is over. It is preferable that no player can, given reasonable play by all parties, take in the early game an overwhelming lead that cannot be overcome later in the game by her opponents. Players have competing goals, but as a tendency players try to score more points rather than trying to keep their opponents from scoring points. Purely military themes are largely excluded, though note the recent and highly successful Memoir ’44.

One of our writing challenges was to assign to each game a set of metatags identifying the game’s thematic content, the type of game, and various play elements that are particularly novel or worth identifying as a generic approach. The metatags appear in Chapter Four, listed immediately after each game title. The Appendix lists the games we analyzed, their publisher and designer, and the same metatags. Computer game designers will recognize some of these tags as a typology, analogous to the typology that classes computer games as single-person shooters or dungeon crawls.

Our parallel volume Modern Perspectives in Game Design gives an extensive series of interviews and discussions on game design, focused primarily on the thoughts and motivations of modern Eurogame designers. Throughout this book we’ll refer back to these interviews, identifying the source as our volume Modern Perspectives. A separate volume Wargame Design, now in preparation, will treat board and miniatures wargaming.

This book and Modern Perspectives were written as textbooks, for use in a course on board game design. One of the authors (GP) actually teaches such a course, under the title Design of Tabletop Strategy Games, as part of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s program in Interactive Media and Game Design. A set of videos of Phillies’s lectures in this course are available as a playlist of the georgephillies channel. The organization of the volume:

Chapter One presents Costikyan’s wise advice Don’t Be a Vidiot. Chapter Two presents an analytic index of the games, grouping titles in various ways that illustrate features of classes of Eurogame. Chapter Three suggests study problems to focus the student’s mind on particular features of game rules. Chapter Four, the heart of the book, presents the structure of the rules of play of a long series of contemporary strategy games. Chapter Five offers advice from contemporary game designers on how to turn your design fragments into a polished game. In Chapter Six I urge designers not to worry too much whether you are doing something truly creative or novel, because you may well not be able to tell what a genius you truly are. I cite two examples of brilliant innovations that were only recognized as such well after the fact. An Afterward brings the reader back to the advice of Greg Costikyan. Appendix One lists the games included here and their metatags. Appendix Two presents the syllabus for Phillies’s course Design of Tabletop Strategy Games.

The Analytic Index of Chapter Two discusses the metatags and other game features. For example, we have metatags for tile-laying games, area control games, and abstract games. The Chapter does not supply a complete list of every game that has been assigned to each metatag; for that list, see the Appendix.. Chapter Two discusses types of games, remarks on their salient features and novel approaches, and identifies some games that are, e.g., area control games, even if they do not appear to be about the control of an area. To see a list of all metatags assigned to each game, consult Appendix One.

Chapter Three provides a series of Discussion Problems. Chapter Three makes Design Elements into an orthodox textbook. The virtue of Discussion Problems is that they force the reader to make an intellectual engagement with the material. Some Study Problems can be read and worked by a single reader. Other problems require a playtesting effort by a group of players. If you are part of a cooperative group of designers, comparison of competitive solutions may be educational. Note we say ‘worked’ not ‘solved’. Game design questions are puzzles with a multitude of solutions, many of which are true for the right audience.

Chapter Four is the core resource of Design Elements. We provide a description of the rules structure of a series of contemporary games, with enough detail that a reader can see alternative methods of computing, e.g., control of an area. The descriptions are less detailed than the complete game is. For example, a train race game might have a series of event cards treating mechanical failures that reduce the speed of a locomotive, obtained by rolling dice to determine which deck of cards to draw from, but the descriptions of rules structures do not systematically enumerate the failures and their individual effects on a train’s speed.

Chapter Five is a collection of advice from game designers, suggesting what the reader might do with design notes, scraps of rules, and thoughts of possible themes in order to turn her collage into a complete, well-crafted game. There is a long list of suggestions, in which one word features prominently. That word is playtesting.

Chapter Six is meant as reassurance to budding designers. You should always strive to do well, and sometimes you will do much better than you had hoped. Greg Costikyan’s words of wisdom to computer game designers close the volume.

Appendix One lists the games treated herein and their associated metatags. Appendix Two presents the syllabi used in the first three incarnations of Phillies’s design course. Note the considerable evolution of course organization.

Chapter One

So why is it advantageous for budding game designers, most of whom will be designing computer games, to study the design of modern strategy games? For a systematic answer, we present the thoughts of noted Game Philosopher Greg Costikyan, taken from a speech he gave at the 1998 Game Developers Conference. Costikyan’s closing words, a list of prominent designers of tabletop wargames and rolegames, provide the clinching argument why budding game computer game designers should also work outside their genre: Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu and Ghostbusters (the rolegame)—and, not incidentally, designer of Doom and Quake.

Don't Be a Vidiot

What Computer Game Designers Can Learn From Non-Electronic Games

by Greg Costikyan

When you look at our industry, it's easy to get worried about the enormous number of dull, derivative titles, and the paucity of innovation in a field that was once known for originality and creativity. The best-seller lists are filled with licensed drivel--Barbie titles, games based on old mass-market boardgames... Developers produce shooters and real-time strategy games in enormous numbers, often finding it hard to articulate how their games differ from other games in the same genre because, fundamentally, they don't, much. Other sub-genres stagger on--graphic adventures, computer roleplaying games, flight sims--but innovation seems increasingly driven by technology rather than creativity in game design--as if a 3D graphic adventure were somehow qualitatively different from a 2D game.

For someone familiar with both software and games, this is a puzzling development. Software is an enormously plastic medium. You can do almost anything with software. If you can define it, you can develop it. And games are an enormously plastic medium, too; there is a staggering variety of games, an entire universe of weird and wonderful gaming styles.

There are those who claim that the consolidation of computer gaming into a handful of recognized sub-genres is merely indication of maturation of the industry, that we have now established the types of games people want to play, and that in future our task is to ring the changes, play with the tropes, explore the variations permissible within those established genres. I have a hard time believing that this is true. This field has only existed for twenty years. The capabilities of the machines we work with grow by leaps and bounds, year in and year out. If an artistic form as old as the novel continues to see works of amazing creativity every year, then surely it is too soon so say that we have explored the basic configurations of the computer game.

The question is one worth thinking about, not only because we, as artists, wish to accomplish innovative and creative work, but also because the history of our industry shows that the games that succeed best, that spur enormous movement down the retail pipe, are often those that are truly novel. That was true of Balance of Power and Sim City and M.U.L.E. and Tetris and Doom and Myst and Command & Conquer. It was true of Deer Hunter, which for all its flaws as a game qua game was still something we hadn't seen before, not a mere variant on the same-old same-old.

But if this is true, if the plasticity of software and the plasticity of the game mean truly novel products are possible, and if the market often rewards innovation, what is it that conspires to channel our efforts into reworking the same basic themes again and again? What is it about our industry that makes it so dull?

One factor is unquestionably the conservatism of publishers. If you're a producer for GT Interactive or EA or Eidos, say, and you green-light another Command & Conquer clone, and it doesn't sell, well, nobody can really say you failed. A lot of Command & Conquer clones get published. Some of them sell really well. Yours just didn't hit the nerve. You're not likely to get fired. If you green-light something truly offbeat and it fails, you must be a fool. What could you have been thinking? Your job is on the line. It's the old Hollywood cover-your-ass syndrome, and it's endemic in our field. Going with the flow, making the safe bet is easier.

Well, I'm not in a position to fund game development, so I can't do anything about the publishers' failure of imagination. But it occurs to me that computer game designers are at least partly at fault, too. Maybe it's true that the publishers are reluctant to fund novel notions; but I suspect that they aren't pitched many really creative concepts either.

Why not? Partly because of self-censorship by developers, who are unlikely to invest in a prototype if they know it won't get funded, and off-beat titles don't, often. But I suspect it's partly because most game developers just aren't aware of that entire universe of weird and wacky gaming styles I spoke about. Their own imaginations are constrained.

Tom Disch, a brilliant science fiction writer who has since gone on to a brilliant mainstream career, has a term for science fiction writers who have little understanding of any literature other than SF. He calls them science fictionoids, and says that their lack of knowledge limits them to a handful of literary techniques, blinds them to the importance of character, and constrains their imagination. He insists that a writer who wishes to master his craft must read widely, in work from all eras, in and out of genre.

I think an analogous situation exists among computer game developers. If your sole experience of games derives from the arcade, the console, and the home PC--particularly if your sole experience derives from games published within the last five years--your imagination will be constrained. You will see only what exists in the here and now, and you will naturally be inclined to ring the changes on the apparently possible, rather than exploring more interesting alternatives. Your palette of techniques, your grasp of the possible, will be limited. You will be, if you will pardon the term, a vidiot, a person whose sole understanding of games derives from video games.

If, on the other hand, you explore that weird and mutable thing we call the game in all its manifestations, you will see that the universe is large, that the range of technique is enormous, that ‘the game’ truly is a medium of great plasticity. You will have a bigger grab-bag of ideas to draw on, a wider range of ideas to steal, a broader set of shoulders on which to stand.

That is my purpose in being here today: to explore the panoply of gaming styles that exist outside the three electronic game industries, outside arcade and console and PC. To demonstrate, in short, the importance of not being a vidiot, of studying non-electronic games.

Non-electronic games have been around far longer than electronic ones; and far more gaming styles have been explored in non-electronic media, if for no other reason than the fact that you can develop a non-electronic game on a budget of a few bucks for paper and cardboard and ink. The risk entailed in non-electronic game development is far more limited, and this has bred far greater creativity.

Children learn through play; so we may assume that games, which are merely formalized play, have existed since the evolution of language made it possible for people to negotiate and agree upon rules. Ball games seem universal; and dice of various forms extend back four thousand years. Indeed, the dodecahedral dice that roleplaying games have recently made popular are quite ancient; there's a very nice set, Roman in antiquity, in the British Museum.

The earliest stories, from Gilgamesh to Beowulf, were of an oral tradition; it was not until the Greeks that consciously-crafted works, attributable to individual authors, arose; not until then that plays and stories were thought of as art, their creators as artists.

Similarly, our earliest games are the product of a folk tradition: Chess and Go and O-War-Ee.

The first game attributable to an individual designer of which I'm aware was The King’s Game, designed by Helwig, Master of Pages for the Duke of Brunswick in 1780. The King’s Game was a Chess variant; but its board contained 1666 squares, containing different types of terrain, and the units represented infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

In 1824, Lieutenant von Reisswitz of the Prussian army devised a game using realistic military maps at a scale of 1:8000; he demonstrated it for the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army, who exclaimed, It's not a game at all; it's a training for war! And he ordered a copy for each regiment of the army. The game and variants of it continued to be played in the Prussian and German armed forces for decades thereafter.

The first true kriegspiel-- a military training featuring a gamesmaster or referee to adjudicate disputes--was designed in 1876 by Colonel von Verdy du Vernois of the German army. Players were permitted to do whatever they wished, as long as the gamesmaster ruled it feasible. In a sense, these less rigid Kriegspieler were forerunners of the modern roleplaying game.

Kriegspieler were widely used in training across Europe by the end of the 19th century; and their derivatives, complex combat simulations, both manual and computer-moderated, are widely used in the armed forces of all developed nations today.

The late 19th century also saw the first commercially-published board and card games--initially for use with folk games like Chess, Checkers, and Whist. But game manufacturers began to promote less-known folk titles like Parcheesi, too, and produced the first copyrighted original designs. George Parker founded Parker Brothers in 1883, and published his first design, Banking, in that year. Milton Bradley founded his eponymous company in 1860 as a publisher of lithographs, and began publishing puzzles and boardgames in 1880.

In other words, guys, history didn't begin with Pong.

In the early part of the century, commercial games became more widespread. Parker Brother's first real hits were Rook and Pit, both published in 1903.

Charles Darrow's Monopoly--a game essentially pirated from Lizzie Magie's The Landlord’s Game--became an enormous success after its publication in 1936, making Darrow the first freelance game designer to become a millionaire, and incidentally saving Parker from probable bankruptcy. It's worth remembering that games are cheap entertainment; you can play them again and again once you've bought the set. And during the Depression, money was scarce for most people.

After World War II, with the growth of the American economy, boardgaming grew as well, with most of the classic commercial boardgames published in the 50s and 60s--Candyland in ‘49, The Game of Life in ‘60 (although earlier games under the same title had been published as far back as the 19th century). Many of these titles were imports--Risk was originally from Miro in France, Clue from Waddington’s in Britain.

A number of freelance designers, including the revered Sid Sackson, found it possible to make a living as a game designer, albeit you'd be foolish to quit your day job. While Parker and Milton Bradley dominated the field, there were any number of smaller publishers, and the market was relatively open to new ventures--the retail channel was far less consolidated, and TV advertising not yet considered a must for a credible product launch.

From 1962 to 1976, 3M published some of the finest boardgames ever published in the English language, including Sid Sackson's Acquire and Bazaar and Alex Randolph's Twist. Eventually, though, 3M wondered what the hell it was doing in the game business, and sold its line to Avalon Hill, which of course sold its game line to Hasbro.

Hasbro acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, and Tonka, which by then owned Parker Brothers, in 1991. It also owns Selchow & Richter, US publishers of Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, and basically now controls the entire mass market gaming industry--there are still a few smaller players, but only one, Winning Moves, that's publishing much of interest any more.

The mass market industry, such as it is, consists largely of old brand-name product that sells because everyone knows the titles, crap licensed from film and television, and kid’s games that are essentially brain-dead.

The most interesting titles tend to be those that are aimed at adults. Even for such games, dirt-simple rules that can be explained in five minutes or less are a virtual requirement; you just won't get the buyer from Toys R Us interested in anything else. But that has its virtues; when the rules-set has to be that tight, you tend to get refined, tight, classy little games. And that, incidentally, it exactly what you want for an online-only, ad-supported game; you want something people can grok in a few sentences of explanation and plunge right into. People who want to develop this style of game have to realize that Hearts and Spades only gets you so far; everyone offers that, it's a commodity. To attract users, you're going to need proprietary games that others can't offer. If I were doing this, I'd sure look into licensing 25 Words or Less or Chronology.

There's still a great deal of creativity in modern mass-market boardgaming, but it's not coming out of the U.S. Hasbro is fat and happy and basically doesn't care about innovation. The most exciting modern product is being designed and published in Germany, which has a far more competitive market and a far bigger market on a per-capita basis--that is, Germans buy a lot more boardgames each, although there are fewer of them. And the aesthetic is far better developed there. In the U.S., there's only Games magazine, but in Germany, there are a great many publications that cover boardgames--newspapers and magazines often run boardgame reviews. And a great many publishers, and designers whose names command respect and generate sales--designers like Klaus Teuber (Settlers of Catan), Rudolf Knizia (Modern Art, Euphrate & Tigris) and Alan Moon (Elfenland). Moon is an interesting illustration, actually, since he's an American, but has to go to Germany to get published. Another indication of the superior aesthetic of the German market is that Sid Sackson is basically out of print in the US, except for Acquire from Avalon Hill, while many of his titles are available in Deutschland.

The aesthetic of the German boardgame is particularly interesting; these titles tend to be somewhat more complex than the US mass-market norm, but not a lot so. I don't have any problems playing them with my 9 year-old, for instance. Most are multiplayer. They tend to be tightly constrained in time, taking no more than two hours to play. They're turn-based, but taking your turn takes only a few minutes, so they zip along, and often there are actions others can take to affect you during your turn, so they're not sitting around waiting. Typically, you have a range of resources to manipulate--cards in your hands, or tokens, or something of the kind; and it isn't always obvious, in any particular circumstance, exactly what you should do with them. You're faced with a small set of decisions on a turn, but those decisions are difficult ones to make.

Contrast that with Candyland, say, where there are no decisions to make. Or most other US boardgames, where the decisions are meaningless or trivial.

Again, this is a great basic model for online games. Relatively short playtimes, turn-based to minimize latency issues, short turn times, thoughtful decisions.

A number of these games, including Modern Art and Settlers of Catan, have been republished in the states by Mayfair Games--which was bought by ICE--but you can probably find copies. Rio Grande Games also republishes some German games here. Others need to be ordered from overseas; English translations of many foreign boardgame rules can be found at

To say that boardgaming is dead in the States is, luckily, untrue. On the mass-market level, it is dead, or at least brain-dead, but boardgaming has found a modest home in hobby gaming. Unit sales tend to be pretty dismal, especially with the collapse in the distribution channel, but this doesn't necessarily stop people who love what they're doing from publishing this way. Particularly interesting is Cheapass Games, who produce titles like Kill Dr. Lucky, essentially a reversal of Clue, and Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond, in which you capture spies and then taunt them, doubling the point value of the spy each time you taunt. The kicker is that if someone has the same taunt card in his hand, he can play it to let the spy escape and blow up your lair.

Cheapass isn't the only company with games of this style; take a look at Chaosium's Credo, in which you play various bits of doctrine and try to get them established as official church doctrine, possibly ending up with a Catholic church where the Albigensian heresy is revealed truth. Or Greg Porter's Black Death, where you as a disease compete to rack up the largest body count against the other plagues. Or from Wizards of the Coast, in which the players are rival executioners competing to kill the most prestigious clients. Like German boardgames, these have simple rules-sets, although more complex than those of mass-market games; they tend not to be as strategically sophisticated or refined, but have a humorous edge that makes for fun play.

In addition to this style of boardgame is what you might call the Diplomatic game. The granddaddy of diplomatic games is, of course, Allan Calhammer's Diplomacy, first published in 1958. In Diplomacy, you take the part of one of seven European great powers. Moves are written, and then revealed and resolved simultaneously, so you never know what the other players are doing as you write your moves. The key to the game is the support order, which allows your units to support moves by other players. It is a fairly elegant game strategically, but the real innovation is that it depends utterly on negotiation and diplomacy. The powers are roughly equal in strength; the only way to overrun an opponent is to find allies. But because you can't be sure what the other players are doing, you can never entirely trust your allies. Backstabs are endemic. Games often end in tears. It is a vicious, wonderful, involving game.

As a class, Diplomatic games require negotiation among the players. This is by contrast to most so-called multiplayer games; in Monopoly, for instance, there's very little you can do to help or hinder your opponents, so diplomacy is not a factor. Avalon Hill was the premier publisher of diplomatic games, including my own Pax Britannica and the American edition of Kingmaker, but other publishers produce some as well.

These games, too, are important for online developers to study. They promote communication and debate among the players, and communication is what online is all about.

The hobby channel is far more receptive to new products, and products from garage operations, than any other game industry, and you therefore see all sorts of weird stuff published here, some of it quite interesting.

But enough of boardgaming; on to the next major category.

Although toy soldiers had been around for millennia, the first commercially-published set of rules for gaming with military miniatures was designed by H.G. Wells, the great novelist and humanitarian. Little Wars, published in 1911, and Floor Games, in 1913, were very simple, indeed minimalist rules sets with differential movement rates for infantry, cavalry, and artillery, a very simple algorithm for the resolution of melee, and artillery fire through the use of spring-loaded cannon. Basically, you aimed your spring-loaders, fired matchsticks, and what they hit was killed.

Miniatures gaming is still a thriving, if small, hobby. There are two pretty distinct groups of miniatures gamers. Military gamers, mostly men in their 40s and older, tend to have regular gaming groups with on-going campaigns, and a war metagame with the battles they fight affecting the course of the war. The rules they used are published in small quantities by hobbyists, and their figures cast by a small group of specialist manufacturers.

Fantasy and science fiction miniatures gamers are younger, mostly in their teens. The most popular games in this category--Warhammer and Warhammer 40K-- are produced by Games Workshop, the largest hobby game publisher in Britain, and the second largest worldwide, after Wizards of the Coast/TSR. It's a narrow but deep industry. If you're a serious miniatures gamer, you want a couple of hundred figures, which will cost you several hundred dollars, plus the cost of paint and the rules themselves. And the time involved is enormous as well; in addition to the time spent playing, you must paint your figures. Even if you get very good at that, we're talking a minimum of 15 minutes per figure, and when you start off, you'd better plan on 45 minutes. It's a hobby for fanatics.

The appeal of miniatures gaming should be obvious, if you've ever seen a well laid-out table. Gaily-painted figures march in serried ranks across the field. Visually, it's striking, and miniatures fans love showing off their hard work. The game appeal is similar to that of the board wargame; tactical planning, plenty of time to think about your moves. There's a bit of collectors' appeal, too; you can't use the dwarven assault wagon if you don't have the figure for it, for instance. The figures you possess dictate the nature of your army.

For us, there are two important things to note about miniatures gaming. The first is the business model: It's not about selling you the game, it's about selling you the figures. As a result, the manufacturers can pull far more bucks out of your wallet than they could on a single game product. You get into this, you're always going to want a cool new figure.

The second the activity external to the game. Miniatures gamers spend more time painting their figures than they do actually playing. They find that task enjoyable and interesting, in the same fashion as kit modelers. It is a form of modeling, in a way, particularly for those who get into kit-bashing.

That's a point worth thinking about, again particularly for online games. Is there a way to give players an offline activity that supports the game and is enjoyable in its own right but doesn't require them to consume bandwidth and server time?

The wargaming industry began with Tactics, published privately by Charles Roberts in 1953. In 1958, he founded the Avalon Hill Game Company, and began publishing both wargames and mass-market games for adults. Avalon Hill published just one or two titles a year, but quickly attracted a substantial cult audience for their games. They launched a magazine, The General; classified opponents-wanted ads in the back pages helped to create a community of wargamers, as the letter columns of the science fiction pulps did in days of yore. Titles like Stalingrad and Panzerblitz established enough of a reputation that they're still available 35 years later--or maybe they aren't, given A-H's takeover by Hasbro.

In 1968, James F. Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen took over a gaming fanzine called Strategy & Tactics from its founder, Chris Wagner, with the intention of making it the center of a game publishing enterprise. They began to publish a complete original wargame in each issue, a great deal for wargamers who got 6 games a year, plus the zine, for the price of a couple of boxed titles from Avalon Hill. It was an instant success, and SPI started publishing games outside the magazine too, using the zine as a promotional vehicle. By the late 70s, SPI was publishing dozens of titles annually, there were national game conventions and clubs across the country, and specialty game shops were springing up to serve the demand, and to sell roleplaying games, which were starting to become popular. In other words, this was an industry, albeit a small one, probably no more than $10 million at retail at the time.

SPI and Avalon Hill were always the largest of the wargame companies, but there were numerous other small publishers, too, including some reasonably professional ones like GDW. In the heyday of gaming, roughly from 1972 through 1980, there were hundreds of titles published. The typical wargame was far more complex, in terms of rules for the player to master, than any gaming category before or since. A typical rulebook was 16 unrelieved pages of 9 point type, and some games had as many as 96.

Rules complexity was not necessarily matched by strategic complexity. The only real choice for the German player in a strategic World War II game, after all, is Britain first or Russia first. The attraction of the wargame lies in mastering a complex system; and in the difficult, complicated tactical decisions to be made--exactly how to position your counters to deliver an attack of maximal effectiveness.

Wargaming is a treasure trove of systems design. Wargamers placed a premium on innovation and novelty in pursuit of clean military simulation. The variations on lines of supply, initiative, and combat resolution are many. If you take any three wargames at random, you'll find more fundamental differences in approach and design, even though these are all hex-based military simulations, than you will among three real-time strategy games selected at random. Of course, this was an industry convinced that innovation in design rather than in technology was what the audience wanted.

It is true, however, that these systems are all in support of military conflict simulation, with a fairly limited repertoire of physical components. But still, designers of real-time strategy games, in particular, need to study board wargames to learn that you can emphasize many, many different aspects of conflict in different games--it need not all be about building up crap and blowing up more crap. You can emphasize lines of supply, fog of war, combined arms, maneuver, formation, the quality of commanders, the importance of artillery and air power, morale, home-front production, even the willingness of the civilian population to sustain a war. You just need different systems to emphasize different things.

To toss off an example, Jim Dunnigan's World War I is in some ways a very boring game: Counters rarely move. An advance of a hex is a major victory. Like the war. But the tension comes from the casualties. You have a little counter that represents how many young men you get this year in the draft, and you never have to retreat as long as you have more men to throw into the maw of the enemy's machineguns. Those counters slide down and down and down as millions go over the top to get cut apart on the barbed wire. The simple motion of a square of cardboard gets across the utter senselessness and barbarity of the war.

Let's see something that fine from your lot.

Wargaming as an industry survives, something of a shadow of its former self, sustained by a few hobbyist publishers and, up until recently, Avalon Hill. It's one of those hobbies that has ceased to attract teenagers, however, and consists mainly of 40- and 50-something males, still grinding out the kilometers as the Nazis advance on Stalingrad as they did when they were young. But you can find good games out there, in Avalon Hill's inventory, in Decision Games product, and by scouring the postings on

Science fiction and fantasy boardgaming was an outgrowth of wargaming, and sold primarily through the same hobby distribution channels as wargames. The first successful such project was Howard Thompson's Stellar Conquest. Thompson followed it up with a series of small, cheap games with limited components, many of them designed by Steve Jackson. These were successful as well. SPI, then a major wargame publisher, also published quite a few SF&F boardgames, and launched a magazine, Ares, that included an SF&F game in each issue. Like wargaming, SF&F boardgaming attracted a core audience

SF&F boardgaming's heyday, however, was very brief; like wargaming, its popularity nose-dived when SPI, one of the largest publishers of such, was taken over by TSR, and TSR refused to honor the subscriptions of subscribers to SPI's magazine, an event that turned thousands of committed gamers off the field entirely.

Most of the early product is now out of print, although Steve Jackson keeps Ogre and Car Wars around. However, games like Battletech from FASA and Robo Rascals from Wizards still attract players. At this point, SF&F gaming is a minor appendage to the hobby games industry, but still sees the occasional new release.

SF&F boardgames have fairly complex rules, although generally simpler than those of historical wargames. They tend to be less narrowly typecast, too; the nature of SF&F allows you to justify just about anything you want to do in a game by inventing some theory for why things work this way. As a result, hexagonal grids are rarer; there are more multiplayer games and economic games, and so on.

Roleplaying games began in 1973, with the first publication of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D was published by Tactical Studies Rules, a small miniatures rules publisher run by Gary Gygax, whose day gig was as a shoe salesman. It was an outgrowth of the Chainmail miniatures rules for fighting fantasy battles. The originator of the concept was David Arneson, whose name was later removed from the credits by Gygax after TSR became big and arrogant. Of course, Gygax's name was also later removed after he was purged from TSR. The current edition of the game is credited to Zeb Cook.

The original brown box rules set for Dungeons & Dragons was one of the most poorly-written set of rules I've ever seen, rife with confusing rules susceptible to multiple interpretations. It was, in other words, an extremely poor implementation of a startlingly original and vital concept and, despite its poor design, quickly became a massive cult hit.

The key novel notion behind D&D, and the roleplaying games industry it spawned, was to have each player control a single character in an imaginary world--to play, in other words, not with a set of components or, as in a wargame, as the commander of an imaginary army, but as a single living person. One person would act as gamesmaster or referee, both enforcing the rules impartially among the players and also playing all non-player characters encountered by the players, describing the world, and providing the story.

For many traditional gamers, this was far too loosey goosey. Not only were the rules ill-defined, their enforcement was subject to the whim of a potentially arbitrary gamesmaster; there were no victory conditions or clear ways to win; the game world was open-ended and potentially boundless; and, worse yet, you had to cooperate rather than compete with your fellow players to get anything done.

But for many, this was an invigorating and exciting way to play. For one thing, it meant being able to experience much more directly the kind of fantastic adventures about which many of us read. It was a form of participatory fiction.

The very open-ended nature of the game was exhilarating, too. Anything could happen; a whole world lay out there. The poor quality of the rules was perversely an open invitation to creativity as well. You pretty much had to design your own rules set using these as a base, since they were incomprehensible as written. Not only did you have to create and imagine a world, and a character within it, but build the systems that made it live.

At first, the natural instinct of players was to play the game as the rules implied; as a hack-and-slash combat game of dungeon exploration. But the nature of roleplaying lent itself to more sophisticated gaming styles with real stories in which character interaction became important, and many gamers quickly began to play that way. For adolescents, particularly, this was an appealing gaming style, because by playing a role in a fantasy world, you could experiment with all sorts of personalities and actions you'd be hesitant or unwilling to explore in real life... For me, at least, and I suspect for many others, roleplaying was vitally important in our adolescent socialization, helping us to explore behaviors and interact with others in a non-threatening way that ultimately allowed us to be better, more fully-rounded people in the real world as well.

D&D became a massive hit; roleplaying games soon outsold wargames, with which they shared the hobby distribution channel. Other companies began to publish roleplaying games as well. Chaosium published Steve Perrin's Runequest, still one of the cleanest and most interesting fantasy RPGs, set in Greg Stafford's well-conceived world of Glorantha. GDW, a wargame publisher, had considerable success with Traveller, a science fiction RPG. Soon, there were roleplaying games for virtually every fictional genre, and publishers began to cast about for other paradigms. An obvious one was licensing; the second wave of roleplaying games began, with Lord of the Rings and Star Trek and Star Wars and Marvel Superheroes.

In 1984, West End Games published Gelber, Costikyan, and Goldberg's Paranoia, which pointed the way to another way to do roleplaying games: Create a universe with its own rules and culture, and set a game within that. Variations on that theme, like Shadowrun, a strange fantasy/cyberpunk hybrid, quickly appeared. And Steve Jackson experimented with another approach to roleplaying with G.U.R.P.S., an ugly acronym for generic universal roleplaying system, a base set of rules with supplements extending the rules set for all kinds of different genres, worlds, and roleplaying environments--another quickly-imitated approach.

Mark Rhein-Hagen's Vampire: The Masquerade innovated in a different way: like Paranoia and others before it, it created a universe of its own, but this time with a difference. It was designed specifically to appeal to the Ann Rice/Goth sensibility, and its emphasis was on atmosphere and mood, its rules set minimal. It found a new audience not merely among existing RPGers, but among people who had never roleplayed before. For the first time, roleplaying was not the preserve of nerds and geeks, but something tres hip, something Goth girls with long black nails and sable hair would and could play. Today, you can walk down St. Marks Place in New York and, amid the Sonic Youth and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Chumbawumba t-shirts, find players for Vampire and Werewolf. Roleplaying is officially cool.

In recent years, the feeling that the basic configurations of the roleplaying game have been explored has not, as it has in computer gaming, led to conservatism and reluctance to innovate. Rather, it has bred a desire to do original and different work. The result has been fine products like Over the Edge, a surrealistic RPG set in an espionage-cum-conspiracy modern world, and Death Lands, a horror/western RPG, and HOL, which stands for Human Occupied Landfill, a bizarre science fiction RPG set in the literal trash bin of the universe.

Despite breakdowns in the hobby games distribution channel that parallel the catastrophe that befell comics a few years ago, roleplaying remains one of the most creative, vital, and interesting gaming styles. The greatest threat at present to that creativity is that the consolidation of the industry's two largest companies---TSR and Wizards of the Coast---and the change in distribution patterns will ultimately create barriers to entry for new firms and ideas. We can only hope that does not come to pass.

The collectors card industry began with the publication of Richard Garfield's Magic: The Gathering in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, then an obscure Seattle-based roleplaying games publisher. Garfield had submitted a boardgame to Wizards that they had rejected--but asked him to design something else for them, maybe a simple little card game that lent itself to convention play. Garfield came up with Magic. Neither he nor Wizards had any idea that it would become the phenomenon it is today.

Magic is of the class of what we call an exceptions game; another good example is the boardgame Cosmic Encounter. An exceptions game has a very simple, limited rules set; but some game components have additional rules printed on them that alter, modify, or break the basic rules. As a result, they can be quite complicated when viewed in toto, but are quite simple to learn in the first instance.

In Magic, virtually every card has some special power or ability. The genius of the design, however, is in the open-ended nature of the game. When you buy a Magic desk, you get 80 cards, which are, in fact, enough to build a playable deck. However, the basic Magic game has more than 300 cards, some of them quite rare; to build a powerful deck, you must go out and buy additional booster packs and basic decks, then select the cards you wish to play in your deck. Expansions since the original publication have created a universe with literally thousands of different cards.

You play against other people who have each assembled their own deck. As a result, you never know quite what you're going to be up against. Out of the thousands of available cards, your opponent has selected perhaps 60 to play against you. Part of the fascination of the game lies in this wide variability, the fact that you never know what you'll be up against.

Perhaps more important is the meta-game of Magic. The literal game is, of course, you against another player with a deck, and what happens over the table. The meta-game is what occurs beforehand: the purchase of cards, the construction of a deck of cards that support and interact with each other in interesting ways, the trading of cards with other players, and the interaction among a group of gamers that leads players to build decks precisely to take down the decks of other players in the group, and so on.

Never mind the game itself: Magic was also a brilliant marketing concept, for at least two reasons. First, hobby games, particularly roleplaying games, are frequently sold in the same outlets that carry comics and other pop-culture collectibles--including non-game collectors cards, sports cards, illustration cards, and the like. Consequently, this was a kind of product that outlets which already carried game products knew how to sell and market; it was a wide-open channel.

Second, the nature of the game--the desire to build a hot new deck and blow away your