News Paper Games

… is the not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in San Diego next week.

Here is my abstract:

Ian Bogost’s 2011 book Newsgames: Journalism At Play described the growing use of videogames distributed via the Internet to fulfill the basic objectives of journalism: to inform, educate, criticize and persuade. Manual games (also called board games) distributed or published through magazines or newspapers were long used for the same purposes prior to the creation of the Internet, and the practice continues to this day. Manual games are more permissive of remixing/ reskinning for these objectives than video games, by a wider range of people. As physical and tactile objects, they demand and offer a different form of engagement with the material, on the ludic and informational level. They also particularly lend themselves to parody and satire, leading to a greater consciousness of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

 This paper will focus on past and current examples of how manual games, as inclusions or features in print journalism products, have portrayed and “covered” (in the journalistic sense) contemporary issues and episodes of social, political and actual armed conflict. It will also discuss and present examples, including ones from my own work, of use of the Internet to disseminate manual games with critical and analytic content on current topics, as a form of citizen journalism.

Surprisingly, Bogost’s book does not mention paper games at all (or manual, or board, or analog, or tabletop, whatever term you want to use for games not played on a computer), except for a chapter on crosswords and other word puzzles with some news content in them appearing in newspapers.

Actually, nothing surprising about that… hardly anyone in the field of game studies writes anything about tabletop games. Last year’s conference had nearly 100 presentations in the game studies area, and three of them were not about some aspect of computer, video, digital games generally … two guys talking about people who play tabletop RPGs, and me.

Bored of War…          Back from Seattle

This year there are only about 50 presentations – it seems to be a smaller conference overall, though there will still be a couple of thousand people there – and still only three on non-digital games: one person presenting about narrative in Pandemic: Legacy (still can’t get used to the idea of a game that you scribble on, without first having made it yourself) and one person talking about “Policing Responsible Citizens: The Gamification of Crime Resistance in Children’s Table-Top Games” (seems interesting), and again me.

The fact remains, the practice of producing manual “newsgames”, under most of these genres, has been going on for some time. They remain as uncommon but clear acts of citizen-based social criticism and analytic journalism. And through DTP software, the PDF file, and the Internet for production, storage and distribution they carry on, in ever-greater numbers of PnP designs from ever-greater numbers of people.

Before there were video games there were manual games. But no one talks about it, at least not at an event like this. My talk is not even an argument, really, which I guess is fine because this seems to be a field profoundly ignorant of its origins.

Am I the skeleton at the feast?

Or does this just not have anything to do with elephants, in the room or out of it?

Anyway, there will be a game night like they had the year before, so I am bringing a few PnP items along for show, tell and play.


Interview in C3i 29


Apropos of nothing, a picture of me drinking a cuppa joe I really did make myself (long story).


I’ve been lucky enough to be asked by several people over the last few years about my  opinions on games, game design, and the games I design. I don’t think there is any one blog post or podcast or paper that encapsulates my philosophy – I am not sure I even have one, I think I just have thoughts and methods to express the thoughts (but maybe that’s what one is).

But last year Sam Sheikh interviewed me for C3i, a board wargaming magazine published by Rodger B. MacGowan (a longstanding great wargame artist, and a designer in his own right). The interview appeared in issue #29 and it’s a good selection of answers about how I got into game designing, what I like to see in the games I design, and how games portray modern irregular warfare (or don’t).

This is a scan of that section of the magazine. I hope you will find it interesting.

C3i29 intvw

Material is copyright RBM Studio 2015, reproduced with permission.

The early history of matrix games; 2p matrix games


Bob Cordery talks about the early history of matrix games:

I read about these in the 90s (it may have been from when they started to get mentioned and printed in Wargames Illustrated magazine) and may have been one of the first to mention them to the US professional wargaming community, back when I set up a small wargaming wiki (now defunct) for the Military Operations Research Society’s Community of Practice on Wargaming. If I wasn’t, so what – I’m glad this useful method is having its moment in the sun over on this side of the pond.

The US military has always had a bit of a problem with the “not invented here” issue, but then again, in the very beginning, it was invented there. Or “here”, depending on where your here is. Either way, we owe Chris Engle much.

EDIT: Over at Rex Brynen’s blog Paxsims, Chris Engle himself contributes a piece about how he came to conceive of and develop them! He is now writing a book that sets out the intellectual argument for, and varied uses of, matrix games. Looking forward to this one!

2-player matrix games?

Over on Peter Perla and I were discussing the argument resolution mechanism for a small press game by David Janik-Jones called “Move it, Soldier!”. It’s a card game, an attempt to render the Engle matrix game engine for two players – that is, no umpire.

The strength of each player’s arguments are rated by the other player, and the differences between the two ratings add or subtract dice from a total number of d6 to be rolled (highest total wins the argument). Peter pointed out that someone who looked at game mechanics, or at least knew about game theory, would never bother rating one’s argument at less than 5 (the highest possible), just to exploit the mechanism. My counterpoint was that the probable point of David’s game is for both players to work at creating a believable and enjoyable narrative together, and that hypercompetitive Lizard People who view all games as elaborate puzzles to break and win ought not to play it. David said much the same thing, less bluntly and more articulately. Peter responded that if that is really the case, then the formalism of the argument resolution mechanism actually got in the way of what the players were trying to do, that trying to make the mechanism objective undermined the motivation to make persuasive arguments. Players would be better off not  using it at all, or at least talking it through and coming to a consensus on who ought to get a DRM and how much.

In the end I suppose Peter is right, as he usually is. But there ought to be a way to solve this 2-body problem. Chris Engle always wrote about these games in terms of role-playing, and perhaps there are mechanisms in that world that could help without getting into thick rulebooks and lists of conditional DRMs. I don’t know enough about what’s been done with RPGs.

Network-centric Go



Well now, this is kind of interesting:

Basically, about 10 years ago the author came up with an idea to re-wire the Go board. The new Network-Centric Go board had the same number of nodes and links (381 nodes, 684 links), but were arranged according to the “preferential attachment” process that researchers have found in models of the internet and world-wide web. You can see from the diagram this kind of network has a very, very large number of lightly connected nodes, a moderate number of moderately connected nodes, and a very small number of very, very well connected nodes.

The first-move advantages are obvious: the move in each turn will be to occupy the point with the highest number of nodes connected to it, until all available points have the same number of nodes. The author claims to have fixed this and made it susceptible to analysis by reducing the board to about a quarter of its size (a 10×10 grid) and adopting a “decreasing clustering coefficient” strategy. (“Clustering Coefficient is a measure of local cohesion, representing the proportion of a node’s neighbors that are also neighbors of each other” – so it kind of sounds like he decided to play normal territorial Go).

Now he has an Indiegogo project to make this game playable online. And you can give him your money!

Thoughts on Kandahar



Some recent posts from Neal Durando’s Defense Linguistics blog:

Kandahar Hot Washup

Through a Glass, Darkly

I think this man gets what I’m trying to say, or at least that I’m trying to say something.

Money quote from the latter, at least for me:

Of Brian’s designs with which I’m familiar all attempt a similar level of honesty. They are deeply skeptical of ideology and other power fantasies. Their mechanisms give you plenty of rope with which to hang yourself. Glorious blitzkriegs, chevauchées, razzias, and shit-hammerings are rare and never engaged without careful calculation of the downsides. If he had designed OGRE, there would be the possibility of co-opting the cybertank by surrendering power stations along with a good wash and detail. I still say his Algeria is way too hard on the French, although I’ve been able to win playing both sides.

These are, in their way, anti-games. They resist commercialization in the best way by raising the bar for their audience while keeping their author impoverished and angry.

Go read the rest of it! This man is a WRITER.

Much appreciated, Neal.

Bored of War…

… is the in-retrospect,-not-very-good title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in Seattle next week.

Here is my abstract:

Board wargames, or manual military simulation games, are a form of civilian entertainment that peaked commercially in the 1980s but continue today as a small press, near-DIY activity. They remain one of Western culture’s most complex analog artifacts, rich in their ability to generate narrative and explore historical possibilities.

 However, only a very small number of published civilian wargames address the dominant modes of actual post-World War Two conflict: irregular war and counterinsurgency. This paper will explore the cultural reasons for this absent focus, explain the social and political utility of these games as a means of interrogating and critiquing contemporary conflicts, and present specific games in this field as examples of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

The point I am trying to make is that there are few of these games not just because they are on an icky uncomfortable subject. It’s also because they are subversive – not only of the contextless and fragmented stream of simplified media interpretation of current conflicts, but also of how most board wargames are played.

I find it quite hard to articulate things like this, though I think about them a lot. I want to acknowledge Jeremy Antley, Matt Kirschenbaum and Mary Flanagan for the thoughts and inspiration.

The point may also be lost on the audience – this is a large conference, with a couple of thousand presentations to be made, and the Game Studies area is responsible for about 100 of them. Only a very small number of these are not about video games: a few about tabletop RPGs, someone talking about how the The Game of Life (Milton Bradley 1960) reflected the American Dream, and my thing.

I think they’re going to look at me like I have bugs in my eyebrows.  But it will be experience, and that is cheap at any price, as they say.


Mmm… yeah, probably as illustrated.

Games Without Frontiers 2.0



As part of the University of Victoria’s “Ideafest”, going on this week, there will be a session titled “Games w/o Frontiers: The Social Power of Video (& Other) Games”. This will include a game jam, where participants will be asked to work on creating a game to help resettle refugees or shift Canadian attitudes about the refugee experience.

Quote from

In Ideafest, the refugee experience will become the focus of a “game jam.”

It’s a session where participants brainstorm ideas. Then, with the assistance of two mentors, both experienced game designers, they can come up with ideas for plotting the refugee experience in a game format. It might be a board game, like Monopoly, or a card game or a video game.

But the idea will be to imagine or reconstruct an experience, in this case a refugee experience, to foster positive social change. It might help teach genuine refugees to navigate the Canadian experience. It might sensitize Canadians to what refugees need and would appreciate.

Meanwhile, other sessions in the Ideafest event will include discussions and exploration of issues such as games in education, virtual reality, games for health and games as art.

One of the the “experienced game designers” doing the mentoring is me!

I’ll be there in the morning, then I will be covering a table elsewhere in MacLaurin A-Wing with some of my games for display. Think I’ll set up A Distant Plain and Ukrainian Crisis, and have a few giveaway copies of Guerrilla Checkers ready. Stop by and say hi!

Game w/o Frontiers is on March 12, noon to 4:30 p.m. in the MacLaurin Building.