Tuesday, August 23, 2005


I'm having a lot of fun getting back into playing tabletop RPGs. I'm also having a lot of fun reading a bunch of cool blogs about RPGs, like this one--Deep in the Game. There's lots of good theoretical stuff there for anyone interested in playing (or designing) games.

I want to respond here to Bankuei's most recent post, where he complains about RPGs that don't have any rules about how to actually play them. He talks about playing in a game that had incomplete rules and how he--at first--felt guilty for not adding in his own rules to make the game better. And then he realized:

"It's NEVER my fault if I'm following the rules..."

This really struck a chord with me.

Over the last few years, I started playing a lot of boardgames, because playing RPGs just got too frustrating. But because I am a nerd and a recovering graduate student, I wasn't content to, you know, just play boardgames, I had to keep up with all the internet chatter and boardgame design/theory stuff.

One thing I noticed almost immediately was a big philosophical split when it came to judging how well a game worked. (I'm generalizing here, but just barely).

On one side were the people who primarily played "German Games" (like Settlers of Catan). Their position was that if you play the game by the rules and the experience is generally fun-good-interesting, then the game is probably good. If fun-good-interesting stuff isn't happening, then the game is most likely bad, and you might as well just not play it.

On the other side were the people who primarily played "American Hobby Games" (like Axis & Allies, Age of Mythology, the Steve Jackson card games). Their position was that the players of a game should take it on themselves to try to turn any game into a fun-good-interesting experience, even if this meant adding tons of house rules or only playing the game in a very specific way (for example, "voluntarily" avoiding kinds of tactics that were known to break the game's victory conditions).

A lot of debates went like this:

Eurogamer: Game X is bad because the starting positions aren't balanced, the randomness destroys any sense of overall strategy, the middle part of the game drags on forever (even after you know exactly who is going to win), and the victory conditions are broken.

American Hobby Gamer: No, Game X is great. You're just playing it wrong.

EGer: But I'm playing it by the rules!

AHGer: Well, to play it right, you have to add these house rules my group came up with: we change the starting positions, substitute a deck of cards for the dice, and we don't let anyone win through points alone. Plus, we joke a lot at the table and do funny voices.

EGer: Ummm, okay. Well, wouldn't it make more sense to play one of the many games where the designer has, you know, actually solved all those problems before they published the game?

At this point the AHGer usually gets pretty defensive and starts attacking the EGer for being a game snob.

At least since Settlers of Catan, there's a tradition of strong, coherent Eurogames that are 100% playable out of the box, so Eurogamers see no need to expect anything less than a fully functional game.

American Hobby Gamers, however, grew up playing games like Axis & Allies, which almost requires house rules, so they have been conditioned not to expect anything more than a cool idea and a bunch of cool pieces. Whether or not the game works out-of-the-box isn't as important as whether or not they can cobble together something fun for their group from what's inside.

The thing is, these jury-rigged games are never as satisfying as actual, fully formed games--even if there is some sentimental attachment to their DIY-ness. Or rather, the only two reasons to choose to play a cobbled together, house rule-filled game rather than one of the many games that works really well without the players having to put in a few dozen hours of extra design work are (a) habit--this is what we've always done--and/or (b) enjoyment of the DIY process itself.

I have no real beef with folks to jury-riggers-out-of-habit, although I do think it's sort of strange that a lot of them seem to feel that this should be the normal way to approach games. That is, I think it should be normal to expect that if you're paying for a game it should work the way it is supposed to, and if it doesn't then the fault lies with the game itself (or its designer and/or publisher) and not with the players because they didn't put the time and effort into figuring out ways to fix it.

As for the DIYers, if you like Game X but want it to have Effect Y, why spend your time trying to change it when you could just make a game that aims at Effect Y? And again, I've found a lot of DIYers who feel that the DIY process is central to the gaming hobby. But it isn't, and this is, I think, a bad way to think about games. For example, we don't think this way about computer games: if I go on a computer game website and complain about a computer game being bad I might find people who disagree with me, but they are not likely to tell me that I should become a programmer and fix the things I don't like about it until it fits my preferences. They're much more likely to suggest a game that does fit what I'm looking for.

Which gets me back to Deep in the Game, which argues that, as gamers, we shouldn't settle for less than what we're looking for.


Bankuei said...

Wow. I didn't know the same issue even existed in boardgames- that totally blows my mind.

Though, I think the big difference is that a majority of known boardgames work just fine, while in rpgs, a majority of them don't.

If you'd like, I can throw you a list of rpgs that do, functionally work without having to juggle all kinds of madness, if you ever get the roleplaying bug again :)


Jon Hastings said...


You're right: the existence of basically functional mainstream boardgames (and card games) makes a big difference.

I think I've got a pretty good idea of what the "functional" rpgs are out there. I've been reading/collecting indie rpgs for the last few years (and lurking on The Forge), but I've only recently been able to get my friends to play them.


Shreyas said...


I'd be interested to see, actually, some of the repairs that DIY types make to broken games; I've recently lost all patience with what you refer to as American hobby games for precisely this reason, but the game designer in me wants to make them better.

Daniel Solis said...

Ooooh... Nice to see that board game design is being discussed outside of my own little circle of internet friends! I used to do a lot of RPG design, discussing things on the Forge, hashing out resolution systems, and so on. But ultimately, like you, I got frustrated with the whole thing and switched over to board games. And, like you, the geek in me was compelled not merely to play them, but to create them. (I just completed a major project with Greg Stolze, Meatbot Massacre.)

In the course of the design process, I've come across some of the same issues that you mention here and I was curious where exactly you read those two differing opinions.

You might also be interested in Cheapass Games. An American company making some innovative, low-production games. (http://www.cheapass.com/) If you're curious, my RPGs and board games are on my website. (http://www.luchacabra.com)

Jon Hastings said...

My favorite resource for boardgaming is BoardGameGeek. There's tons of stuff there on all sorts of games and its also where I first noticed the Eurogamer vs. American Hobby Gamer "conflict". The format of this site can be overwhelming at first, and it can take awhile to find the good stuff, in regards to content.

I also really like Chris Farrell's Gaming Blog. Chris Farrell posts a lot of capsule reviews on BoardGameGeek, and I think he's the most eloquent proponent of the "Game Should be Good" argument.


Elliot Wilen said...

As a wargamer, I want to say that you're wrong about so-called "hobby games" being broken compared to "German games". I have considerable experience with both, and while I enjoy many "German games", I always find they lack something that I enjoy about games such as Squad Leader or Magic Realm. Some of these games literally break down under certain circumstances, requiring house rules. And yes, others won't work if you approach them "incorrectly".

I'm thinking of an argument I had on Usenet once about a game whose subject was modern tank warfare. Someone said the game was flawed because the Soviet equipment was so inferior they had to resort to tactics which he considered unfun. I responded that this portrayal of relative capabilities was probably accurate, and this was exactly what made the game fun for its target audience.

Or I've heard complaints about multiplayer games where one side is dominant, because everyone wants a symmetrical situation instead of recognizing that the imbalance will be addressed naturally, if the players are smart. Or again the complaint about randomness, which I recall being leveled against Republic of Rome in one session I played--yes, it's there, but there are ways of dealing with it, and furthermore it doesn't necessarily invalidate the interactions. (E.g., scrambling to recover from a calamitous event is enjoyable if you enjoy the process.)

As I said, I want to disagree with you, but then you throw in that line about "enjoyment of the DIY process itself", and I can see that as a catch-all for pretty much everything I've written above. You see, wargamers (consimmers, grognards) work with a constant tension between representing the subject of the game, and making a game which is easy to play and "fun" in the conventional sense. For them, representation is fun, but representation is hard if not impossible to perfect, so there is a sort of dialog between the game (and the designer) and the player who is critiquing the rules and the outcomes for "believability" as he plays it. In German games, representation means little to nothing, (wargamers call them "themed" games--the theme is a veneer that really has little relation to the mechanics) so the only basis for judgment is whether the mechanics produce an interesting game-in-itself.

So I can see your point if we posit that wargamers are, effectively, constantly engaged in a DIY-mode that they enjoy. But if you're saying that representational wargames (simulation games, not all of which are about war) could all be done the "German" way with perfect rules--nope. As interest in historical or hypothetical situations drives much of the wargame niche, you're inevitably going to find situations which are of interest yet highly resistent to rules-perfection and well-oiled gameness in the German fashion. It doesn't mean that the latter aren't ideals to be strived for and appreciated, but it does mean that the balance is very much one of individual taste, and often isn't ANYONE's fault.

Jon Hastings said...


Good points and I agree with your general take on wargames. My own preference is for the "can be completed in under 6 hours"-type wargames, like Columbia's block games, but I definitely understand the attraction of serious, huge-ass monster games.

That said, when I talk about "American Hobby Games", I'm talking less about the kind of wargames real grognards play and more about games like "Axis & Allies", "Doom: The Boardgame", and "War of the Rings".

I think its true that a game like "Squad Leader" or the Gamers' "Korea" or "Lock 'n' Load" (a recent personal fave) doesn't need the kind of coherence as, say, Settlers of Catan, but I do think that coherence (if not balance) should be a required component of something like "War of the Ring" or "Axis & Allies"--i.e. games where the goal of "historical military simulation" isn't even on the table.

I still think, though, that even wargames could use some more objective standards.

For example, out-of-the-box, GMT's "Empire of the Sun" is 30-40% unplayable: not all the scenarios really work that well, and the rules are atrociously put together. If I want to get the game to really work, I have to be really dedicated to figuring out all of its little problems.

Now, compare this to GMT's "Downtown", which is really a more complicated game, but which I found a lot easier to get up and running, because its design was more coherent and it was better supported by the rules.

However, I do feel that if the only way a sim-wargame works is if you play in ONE right way (that might take a bunch of plays to figure out) or you have to engage in "unfun" tactics than it is a bad game. It might be a perfectly fine simulation, and people who get a kick out of the sim aspect might very well have fun with it. But this is a different kind of fun than most people who play games are looking for.

I suppose that's kind of what you were getting at by mentioning "individual taste", but one of the things that struck me about Chris's blog--and what moved me to respond--was the idea that rpgs and hobby gaming have a stunted audience partly because their designers and players lost (or never had) the notion of what makes games fun for most people. And I also think that remembering what makes games fun for most people will almost invariably lead to a better game than ignoring it.


Elliot Wilen said...

Well, I did elide over how atrociously bad the rules-writing is in some games. What generally happens these days, with the Internet and the Consimworld forums, is there is instant feedback and eventually a free PDF cleaned-up rulebook. I won't make excuses for bad editing or even lack of playtesting but it is worth noting that in wargames, actual systemic coherence sometimes has to be balanced against a competing aesthetic priority--and this isn't the case with German games.

I think we're in agreement there. I also agree that, as a reflection of this, the design-by-grognards and design-for-grognards of the wargame hobby puts it in a perilous position. Although there's more to it than that--I doubt that there'd be much of an audience today even for the relatively simple wargames of the 60's and 70's. The audience has changed, and the market has changed.

Perhaps I should mention that there are some games which are truly bad, and no amount of tweaking short of a complete rewrite will fix them. I doubt that EotS falls into this category...but that's based purely on what I know about the underlying system and the people who designed it. I don't know much about the other hobby games you mention except War of the Ring--if you're talking about the Fantasy Flight game, I'm pretty surprised. Granted, I only played it once, and I mostly accessed the rules by having them taught to me (instead of reading them) but the System itself seems to work very well indeed. I'd compare it to the card-driven games, most of which have been quite successful, such as We the People or Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. (And incidentally, I'd say that both the card-driven and block-style games are generally very successful meldings of game-engineering with simulation goals.)

Jon Hastings said...


We're definitely in agreement. I didn't bring it up, but I think your point about the future of the wargaming hobby is an important one.

In the early-mid 1990s, during my high school/college summer breaks, I played tons of games from the Gamers (mostly their Civil War Brigade Series, but also OCS and SCS). Eventually though, I just didn't have time for them, and even if I could find the time, no one in my circle of friends was interested in playing a game where actually learning to play bordered on being a lifestyle choice. I ended up stopping wargaming a little bit before I stopped rpging.

However, recently I've not only gotten back into wargaming, but have discovered a bunch of wargames that my non-grognard friends are actually interested in playing. Of course, some of these games had been around for a while (like Columbia's Napoleon) without me ever really knowing about them, but a handful of them are relatively recent (like Columbia's Hammer of the Scots or GMT's Paths of Glory). It would be nice to have more of these games: they have fairly deep play, without ever getting out-of-hand as far as complexity/accessibility goes.

And, your right, I didn't really give EtoS its due. I think it is a pretty good game, but it takes a lot of work to get to it.


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