Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

new review for an old book

Rex’ recent post on InfoChess reminded me of a great book in my library, New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmittberger.  For those of us withering away in the heat of the northern hemisphere, there is still a month left in this oppressive summer, so I figured a short review of this classic book might be helpful to those of you looking for an interesting read to get your creative juices flowing on those game designs you’re working on.

I’ve read this book a few times and now have half a dozen copies in my library to gift my friends who are aspiring game designers.  It can be picked up cheap – I bought a handful of used copies for less than $5 each.  The great thing about this book is the thoughtful care that Schmittberger gives to each of his subjects.  He takes a great many classic games, from Risk to Backgammon to Chess, Go, Poker, Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit to the very classic Tablut and Shogi, he dusts them off, gives a short explanation of the rules, in cases where there is something wrong with the design, he explains what that is and then he suggests a few variants.

I am particularly partial to Schmittberger’s philosophy for two reasons:  1) We both agree with the classic adage that games are “kits”, he notes in the preface “Players should not view the rules that come in a game box as inviolate…”, and 2) We both follow game play by philosophical introspection – was this a good game?  Why?  How did the game model the world?  Were there dominant strategies?  Was it fair?  What would I do differently?  Schmittberger clearly has asked these questions a lot and the book is filled with thoughtful reflections on a very wide spectrum of games.  These two qualities are what make gaming so rewarding to me (my regular gaming group, the DC Gamers, experiments with variants and spends a lot of time deconstructing games that we’ve played).  The philosophical introspection combined with the wickedly corrupting and liberating awareness that rules exist only because we agree to them makes gaming a much more Bohemian exercise.  To pique your interest, I’ll give you a few tastes here… for free… you’ll be back.

Chapter 1 is the gateway for those just “experimenting” with changing the rules in some of the more classic games – here you’ll find simple twists for Monopoly, Scrabble and Chess – these are nice, little tweaks that you’ve probably thought of yourself – Schmittberger tells you what works and what doesn’t with some of these variations.

In Chapter 2, we go down the rabbit hole with two case studies – Schmittberger deconstructs two old Nordic games Tablut and Hnefatafl, shows how they are flawed and then shows some fixes.  Here he introduces two concepts for equalizing unfair games – bidding and the “pie rule”.  Bidding for a preferred side (in numbers of rounds to a win or handicapping) can balance an unbalanced game.  Splitting the pie before the game starts is a really smart solution – one player takes an opening move for both sides (in a two person game) and then the other chooses which side to play – this simple tweak can push a lot of unbalanced games where one player necessarily has to go first and therefore has an advantage (or disadvantage) into balance.

In later chapters, we really start hitting the hard stuff – from scrabble anagrams, checkers on hex boards, exotic chess (including missile chess, teleportation chess, wildebeest chess…), to diceless dice games and open scrabble (which is a fantastic variant for those of us who can’t stand the wide variance in luck of the letter draws in Scrabble).  The reading is light and fast and the variants are presented concisely but thoughtfully.  You’re hooked on variants by this point and you’ll be “fixing” those old, dusty classics in no time.

In these chapters Schmittberger also serves as game historian, recording rules for quite a few games that have been passed down but not necessarily recorded.  Among these, you’ll find rules for Eleusius, Ozymandia, Haggle and Super Babel (both of these great for a party), some brief histories of Chu Shogi, the Kadoban Concept, and Go along with nods to designs by Sid Sackson, Robert Abbott and John Conway.

Lastly, Schmittberger has a chapter with general suggestions on where to start with tweaking of rules.  These 12 suggestions are just there as starting points for the now converted to explore their own rules changes.  To bring this back to the blog – these suggestions might also help game designers that have hit a block – every once in a while it helps to pause and think through where you are with a design and whether it is too complicated, not engaging enough, whether you are using game mechanics or they are using you – these little prompts might help nudge you out of a box that you’ve made for yourself.  Whether you are designing a table top game, a roleplaying experience or a massive computer simulation, suggestions like increasing player interaction, changing the geometry or changing the powers pieces, players or participants have are always welcome and, in this, Schmittberger delivers a thoughtful starting place for those of us that think a lot about games.

One response to “new review for an old book

  1. Brian 04/08/2010 at 4:29 pm

    This is a great book, I snap up copies whenever I see them on the shelves of a used book store. Some games, or their components, seem to lend themselves to generating variants: there are whole books of chess variants, for example, and websites to match; there are umpteen regional “dialects” of checkers; and so forth. Go is a bit more resistant to this but its board seems to be as good a game system as the checker/chess board.

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