Game Design Manifesto

Note: This page is a work in progress. The content is subject to change. If the topic interests you, you may want to check back periodically for any updates.

Another note: I am mostly talking about games other than video games. A lot of the same principles apply, but not entirely.

I want to start off by saying that this manifesto is a statement of what I consider to be the ideal game. There is no game in existence that is an ideal game. It is not possible to create an ideal game. These principles are goals to strive for. I believe a game is better the closer it comes to lining up with these principles.

The Core

The core of any game is its mechanics — the stuff that makes the game tick. This can be a combination of many elements: rules, text on cards, layout of the board, etc. Without the mechanics, the game is not a game at all. The mechanics are what make or break a game. They are what make the game interesting and fun. A game that is not designed around its mechanics will usually fail to be a game worth playing.

Games are not an attractive box or a zippy write-up in an online catalog. Games are not the pictures in the rulebook. I can design an awful, torturous game but hire good advertisers and fantastic graphic designers. Cool artwork will most definitely add to the coolness and fun of the game, but it cannot breathe life into a game that is lacking in a solid core.

The Foundationals

There at least four principles that are essential to creating a good game. All of the other principles are subject to these four and/or flow out from them. These principles can trump anything else that I say, and I will sometimes remark on how some principle can be trumped by one of the big four. I have listed them in order of their importance.

Focus

All good games have a focus. There is some objective that lies behind the game’s creation. For instance, the game could be intended as a fun party game that stimulates laughter and friendly interaction. Or a game could be intended as a full-on world domination military strategy game. The focus of the game guides all of the game design decisions. This principle can trump all others.

Fun

Of course a game has to be fun. No matter how perfectly a game is designed, why would you play it if you don’t find it fun? This can be disheartening for a game designer – you spend hours designing a particular game, only to discover upon playing it that it is not very enjoyable.

Fun is hard to quantify, and what is fun for one person is not necessarily fun for another. This is why focus is so important. Focus can define which type of fun the game is aiming for and who is the target player.

Focus can also trump fun. For instance, an educational game often cannot be as fun, since its main purpose is to educate. However, I think educational games should strive to be as fun as possible. Otherwise, why call it a game? If it is not at all fun, call it homework.

Replayability

A good game should be one that you want to play over and over. You should not feel like you exhausted all of its possibilities on the first time around. You should not come away from it thinking, “OK, that was pretty fun, but not fun enough to play again.”

Again, this principle can be trumped by the first two. For instance, murder mystery games usually can only be played once. After you have played it, you know the answer. That has to do with both the focus and the fun. The fun part is figuring out the mystery. The focus is the goal of having a game with a mystery to solve. When you purchase the game, you know that it is a one-play only game.

And this leads me to my first big soap box moment. Games today are being designed without the principle of replayability in mind. Why? It is the capitalistic tendency towards creating consumable and disposable goods. The game companies make more money if you only play your games once. In order to have fun, you find that you have to keep buying more games. When games are $40-$60 a shot, this is unacceptable. If I spend that much on a game, I expect it to be a game that I want to play more than once or twice. It’s an investment.

It wouldn’t be so bad if game companies were open about it. Why not say in the write-up, “This is a large-scale strategy game that will take all day to play. Suitable for playing once or twice…”? You are thinking that no one will buy the game. Perhaps fewer people would. What I have seen, though, is that savvy game buyers are starting to wise up and are no longer willing to shell out that kind of dough for games that they are not absolutely certain will provide repeatable fun, or they are consciously making the choice to spend that kind of money feeling like it is worth it for a single game session with their friends.

Interaction

A good game should promote interaction between friends. For some games (like many party games), this is the main focus of the game. But even for other games, the game should leave room for the players to interact with each other.

There are several different ways to accomplish this. The game can make interaction a necessity or have some in-game mechanism for interaction. For instance, some games require player-to-player diplomacy. The game can also be designed to provide moments of rest and chatter. For instance, in a game like chess, both players are usually straining to think at all times, but if they are friends, they will often pause to talk. The game can also provide enough of a storyline that players cannot resist rehashing it after the game is over. “Wasn’t it incredible how Jim’s puny army destroyed Bill’s superior force?” “Jim, how did you do that?” “It was my choice of units. I focused on a balance of offense and defense…” (OK, so that did not sound exactly like a real conversation, but gamers know what I mean by the post-game rehash.)

There are some game design flaws that can kill interaction. The game can be designed in such a way that it isolates players. This can be done by having lengthy turns that require a player’s full attention. Jim has a lot to do and think about on his turn. He spends fifteen minutes calculating resources, buying and placing units, moving units, setting up for battle, etc. During that time pretty much everyone else ignores Jim. They all talk amongst themselves. Jim may never consciously think about it, but he begins to feel isolated.

Another way a game can isolate is by allowing players to grow so big that they become self-sufficient, or they even become enemy number one. Jim has already conquered a third of the world. His army is huge, and his resources are abundant. Everyone begins to work together against Jim. No one will have any diplomatic talks with him. They begin to openly discuss plans to take him down, and there are thinly disguised undercurrents of jealousy and resentment. Jim begins to ignore everybody else. His empire is so vast that it takes all of his attention. He does not have the time to chat.

A final big way that a game can kill interaction is by fostering the wrong kind of interaction. Some games allow for and even promote lying, backstabbing, and other not-nice behaviors. No matter how much some players try to tell themselves it is just a game, these negative interactions can actually hurt. Seeds of distrust can be sown in a game that continue to grow outside of the game. The subtle subconscious thought is “Wow! I never knew that Jim could lie so well. He totally had me fooled. If he is that good at lying to me, how else has he lied to me? Can I trust him?”

To me this is no longer fun, and it is no longer a good game. A good game should give me a good time with my friends in such a way that I am better friends with them after the game is over.

Again, this principle can be trumped by the first three, but I think the main acceptable way it can be trumped is by games that have a focus of being a one-person game, like solitaire.

The Mix

There are many principles that I believe flow out of the foundationals. The best games are stuffed with a healthy mix of these elements. Not all elements may be in every game, and games will weight the elements differently. The appropriate mixture for a game is determined by the focus, fun, etc.

Creative

The best games are creative. I love it when I pick up a box for a new game, read the summary, and think, “Huh, what a great idea!” The idea of the game strikes you immediately as being creative. The board is laid out creatively. The mechanics employ creative solutions to common problems. Etc., etc.

Unique

A big part of a game’s creativeness is its uniqueness. Sometimes you read a write-up or review of a game and it says something like, “This game is just like Settlers of Catan, but with a cool new twist!” Is it a new game, or is it plagiarism? If it is just like Settlers of Catan with a cool new twist, just release it as yet another expansion set to Settlers of Catan.

Games within a particular genre have trouble establishing a unique identity. Oftentimes they are just a remix of pieces of multiple different games. It is like watching a montage of clips from reruns.

Again, it comes back to the game company’s need to make money. It is risky to try something new. They would rather put out the tried-and-true in a newly decorated box.

Imagination-Fueling

A good game stirs the imagination. It pulls you into its world. You begin to feel like a general commanding armies or a captain sailing a ship. When playing as a pirate you should be tempted to let out an “Arrrr!” or an “Ahoy!”

Representative

I believe a good game should represent something. The board should represent a map, or a timeline, or a money-tracker, etc. The pieces should represent armies, or individual people, or trains, etc.

The things that the game represents do not need to be real. They could be from science fiction or fantasy. They just have to be things that the player can relate to. It helps if the things in the game are designed to look like what they represent.

A good example of this principle is the difference between chess and checkers. What is a checker before it becomes a king? I have no idea. I am just moving circles around a board. But  in chess the pieces have names. My knight can take down your castle. My bishop can sneak up behind your queen. I don’t think chess does a very good job being representative, but it certainly does a better job than checkers. This may be part of the reason I know who Kasparov is, but I have no idea of the name of anyone who is good at playing checkers.

But remember that a game is its mechanics. So many games today do a great job making the pieces look like sailing vessels, but they lack in good mechanics.

A good example is a game I just played recently for the first time. Something about exploration and colonization. So the point of the game is to represent the competition between private companies in the days of the explorers as they raced to explore and colonize. I am not a big history buff, but I remember a little bit about how the whole colonization process happened. I foolishly made decisions based on how such a private corporation would have pulled ahead in the colonization race a few hundred years ago. It quickly became apparent that by various means the game thwarted attempts to conduct reasonably realistic exploration/colonization.

Of course, you don’t want a game that is perfectly representative. At that point the game would just be real life. However, the game mechanics need to allow for the player to make “realistic” choices and obtain expected outcomes.

Game-to-Game Variation

The most important factor governing replayability is game-to-game variation. The players need to believe that the game has a strong possibility of being significantly different the next time they play it. Otherwise, why would they want to play it again?

There are many things that can kill a sense of game-to-game variation. Games can have an obvious dominant strategy. The players who always win employ this particular strategy. The game is not about playing creatively. It is about who can most efficiently utilize the correct strategy. Every time you play this game all of the players who want to win do the same things. All of the players who are bored try new things and are punished for it.

More generally, a game can favor a particular style player. For instance, the game might favor being aggressive or defensive. Games like this will generally have the same member of your gaming group winning the game over and over. Eventually, no one else will want to play it. Sure, it can be good for people to learn different styles of play, but games that are balanced offer more variety for repeated play.

There are many other factors that can kill game-to-game variation, but how do you encourage it? There are a few methods that can be used to great effect.

The simplest method to grasp is providing a method for variations in initial game setup. One of the most popular strategy games in history is Axis and Allies, but the Achilles heel of this game is that there is no variation in game setup. The map is always the same. The same pieces are always placed in the same locations. This is of course due to the focus and representative nature of the game. It is trying to emulate a particular moment in history. Unfortunately, this does not much allow for creatively varied strategy and game outcomes. Students of the game recognize the fact that there are only a few viable strategies for each player and for each side (Axis or Allies). You pick your strategy and hope the dice rolls are in your favor. Once your gaming group understands this, Axis and Allies returns to the shelf and collects dust.

A second method of game-to-game variation that is hard to envision is providing for and encouraging a wide range of player choices. The preeminent game to demonstrate this method is the game of chess. The setup for this game is identical every time. The rules and pieces are simple. The board is small. And yet, almost every game is different, and the players certainly come away feeling that the game will be very different the next time they play it. Game-to-game variation is accomplished purely by variation in player choice and strategy. There are a mind-boggling number of mathematically possible chess games which provides for the possibility of a wide range of player choices. But that is not the only key element. Chess has built-in mechanics for encouraging players to make different choices. If you play the same opponent over and over, both you and your opponent are forced to change things up or risk being too predictable. If you play a different opponent, they will often try new things that you have never encountered before. The game-to-game variation is completely provided for by the players’ own voluntary variations in strategy!

A third major method of creating game-to-game variation is introducing mechanics for randomization in game events — a randomization that is independent of player choices. I will deal with randomization at length below. Let me point out here some different ways of randomizing game events. There can be generalized game conditions that affect all players. For instance, the more realistic military strategy games have means of representing weather conditions. The weather conditions vary from game to game. Many games randomize the outcomes of certain player choices. When one army attacks another army in a game like Risk, the outcome of the battle is determined by dice roll. Another prime means of randomization is providing individual players with random elements that they must turn to their advantage. This is the case in most card games. The player draws random cards and has to make choices from then on. Many party games implement this method of randomization — for example, charades, in which the word to be acted out is often randomly selected. Again, I will speak more on the subject of randomization, but for now, let me say that randomization needs to be used judiciously. Randomization can kill a game.

More could be said on this subject, but I shall move on. I will just conclude by pointing out that the idea of game-to-game variation must be built into the mechanics of the game. This is best accomplished when game designers intentionally set out to create a game with variation built in. I have played many games that are too caught up in their game concept to give thought to the principle of game-to-game variation. Yes, the principle of focus can override the principle of game-to-game variation, but it takes a lot of work to design a game that can overcome inherent repetitiveness.

The Game Is the Battlefield, Not the Enemy

By this principle I am not referring to military strategy games only. Most games, even lighthearted party games, are competitive in nature. You want to be competing against the other players, not the game. If you win, you want to feel responsible. If you lose, you want to feel like you were outplayed by the winning player. You do not want to feel like you won or lost due to some flaw in the game itself.

(Savvy gamers will immediately wonder how all of this applies to cooperative games. I will deal with cooperative games below.)

Here are some ways that the game becomes the enemy:

1) The Unfair Advantage: Some games provide a significant unfair advantage to a particular player. Sometimes there is an unfair advantage in who goes first or last in turn order. For example, the player who goes first is able to get a jump on everyone else, or the player who goes last is able to see and counter everyone else’s strategy. Sometimes there is an unfair advantage in initial game setup. For example, the player who always begins in a certain position on the game board usually wins. The game designer has to identify possible unfair advantages and take steps to avoid them or balance them out. I will deal with turn order specifically later.

2) The Silly Rule: Many, many, many, many, many games have at least one Silly Rule. (Please note that I am using the word “silly” to be kind. Other words I could use are obnoxious, stupid, annoying, irritating, frustrating, mind-blowingly idiotic, etc.) I feel like most games I play today have their token Silly Rule. It is that rule that no one who plays it can really understand. You question why the rule exists. That rule seems to thwart you at every turn. Every good idea, every brilliant strategy, falls victim to the Silly Rule. It prevents you from making the most reasonable of game decisions.

I find that usually the Silly Rule is a cover-up. The Silly Rule is not the real problem. It merely masks the real problem. As an experiment take a Silly Rule in a game you know well, and discuss it with your gaming buddies. Why did the game creators write that rule? If you apply your mind to it, argue about it long enough, eventually you will uncover the real issue.

The essence of a Silly Rule is that the game designers are trying to accomplish by a rule what they should accomplish by game design.

For instance, a Silly Rule is often meant to curb certain strategies or behaviors that will imbalance the game. A good example of this is unit limits. Many military strategy games prevent you from purchasing an infinite number of units or an infinite number of any particular unit (e.g., you can only purchase 25 cavalry and 50 infantry). These games give you a certain number of pieces of your color, and once you purchase all of those pieces, you have to spend your in-game resources on other things. The point of this is to force the players to have a balanced strategy. You can’t just buy cavalry. You have to buy infantry too. You can’t just buy military units. You have to invest in technological research as well.

But no player wants to be told that they MUST make certain choices. They want to come to those decisions on their own. They want to figure it out for themselves. They want to be free to strategize and make choices.

If a game designer wants to encourage balanced strategy, then it needs to be more subtly woven into the fabric of the game mechanics. The game needs to be set up in such a way that it rewards balanced strategy and punishes imbalanced strategy. This may not be obvious on the first time playing the game, but as the gaming group experiments with different strategies they discover that in order to have a better chance of success they need to be more balanced. The player who only spends money on units is defeated by the player who has fewer units but better technology. The player who only buys cavalry because they are “better” is defeated by the player who has discovered how to make use of both cavalry and infantry. Gradually, the more times the game is played, the more the players see the advantages of making different choices. They expand their strategic repertoire.

3) Excessive Randomization: If you want someone to hate your game, make it heavy in the randomization department. Nothing turns players against your game like being defeated by a series of bad dice rolls, or the repeated drawing of useless cards. I am going to discuss randomization in detail, but for this discussion, let me point out that randomization should be an element that a good player has to account for in his strategy and game play. However, it should not be the thing that consistently defeats you. Anybody who has frequently played the game Risk knows what I am talking about.

4) Impossible Odds: The game should not consistently create hopeless situations. I should not feel like the game created circumstances which were impossible for me to overcome. Take, for instance, the game charades. I should not be given the word or phrase that is impossible to act out. If I get the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” and my opponent gets “butterfly,” I am not defeated by my opponent, but by the game.

I’d like to take some time to discuss how this principle applies to cooperative games. I love the concept of cooperative games. A cooperative game has tremendous potential for create positive interaction between players.

But cooperative games appear to violate this principle by definition. In cooperative games the players work together to accomplish a task or defeat a game-mechanic-controlled opponent. Is not making the game the enemy? There are two main ways that I know of of overcoming this problem.

1) Make One Player the Opponent: A lot of cooperative games make this decision. One of the players is given the task of being the opponent. All the other players work together to defeat the one player. The advantage is that it at least can give the appearance that the game is not your enemy. Another advantage is that it gives a place for that one gamer in your group who is just awesome at games and always wins. You all end up ganging up on him anyway, so why not make it official?

However, in the end I think this method is a cop-out. The game designers could not come up with good game mechanics to govern the phantom opponent, so they make you appoint a stand-in. And then this type of game usually violates the principle of interaction. The one player who is the bad guy ends up being isolated. Oftentimes serious gamers get jealous because they want to play the bad guy.

2) Make the Opponent Mechanic Separate from Game Rules: This is the best method for creating cooperative games, but it is also nearly impossible. Somehow in the game mechanics there has to be a clear distinction between the mechanics governing the opponent/task and the mechanics/rules by which everyone must abide. The more blurred the lines are, the more the players will blame the game. If this is done, then the other rules above apply. The opponent/task cannot feel impossible. The randomization cannot turn against you too consistently. The game opponent/task cannot have an unfair advantage, and along with that, there cannot be a Silly Rule in the favor of the game opponent/task.

 

Sense of Player Control

The correlative principle to the last one is that players need to have the sense that they are largely in control of their own destiny. This is especially important for the losing player. When I lose I want to feel like I lost because I made poor choices, or I am not as skilled at the game, or I am just inexperienced. I want to be able to shake the winner’s hand and honestly tell him that he played a better game.

This principle is very important for replayability. If I am convinced that it is my fault that I lost, then I have some hope of winning next time I play. I can learn from my mistakes and do better next time.

Of course, this principle has to be used in conjunction with other principles. For instance, if a game is designed for a single style or strategy and it is a style or strategy that goes against my mental grain, then I may never enjoy playing this game again especially if I am convinced that I lost due to my own inadequacies.

Randomization Principle #1: Randomization Has Pros and Cons

Randomization in games can be very useful – even necessary. Randomization can be used to provide game-to-game variation. It can add the element of surprise. It can make the game unpredictable and unexpected. Randomization can also aid in making the game representative. Real life does not turn out the same way every time. Many times things in real life do not appear to follow consistent simplistic rules. Often the things a game is trying to represent can appear random on the surface.

An easy real life example is ocean waves. Now, of course, waves follow strict scientific laws, and if we had all of the necessary information (water temperature, air temperature, water currents, air currents, atmospheric conditions, underwater topography, etc.) and equations, we could predict the frequency, size, and shape of ocean waves. However, to a casual observer waves appear random, and, more importantly, there is no way that we could have all of the necessary information at our disposal or the necessary computing power to be able to accurately predict waves. So in a game, waves are best represented by a system of randomization.

Another major use for randomization is the representation of human error. It is easy for a gamer sitting in a chair to choose to do thus-and-so. However, the gamer is not actually having to attempt the action himself. If he were to attempt it, he would most likely fail. Nowhere is this more clear than in role-playing games (RPGs). In RPGs players control the actions of a particular character who has skills that the player could never dream of acquiring. The character could be an archer or a pickpocket. When a player wants to attempt a task that has room for human error, the game needs to introduce some means of randomization. For instance, the player wants to pick a lock in order to open a door. There has to be some means for deciding whether or not the character succeeds in the task or the character falls prey to human error.

However, randomization is far less useful than game designers often realize. It has already been discussed how the excessive use of randomization can make the game the enemy. Players feel like they are competing against the dice instead of each other. Too much randomization can make the players feel like they have very little control over the outcome. Most players do not enjoy the feeling of being at the mercy of random chance. Furthermore, if the situation of the game fluctuates too widely and too randomly, then any attempts at strategy are futile.

Of course, it must be recognized that some players enjoy the thrill of a gamble. They like being spectators of lady luck. There will always be those kinds of games where players bite their nails in agony waiting for the outcome of a dice roll or card draw. These types of games will always have their place, but if the goal is to design a game that has wide appeal and replayability, then randomization cannot be as strong a factor.

Putting randomization in a game is like putting fire in a house. If safely controlled in a fireplace, wood stove, oil burner, etc., fire can be extremely beneficial and even necessary for life. However, if fire is allowed to act uncontrolled, it will ruin the house.

Randomization Principle #2: Randomization Is Often Unnecessary

Games need randomization far less often than people realize. It is important to remember the foundational principle of focus. What is the focus of the game? Some games by definition should not include any random elements. For instance, pure strategy games like chess have intentionally eliminated the random elements from the game. The game is intended to be a pure battle of wits. It is mind against mind. Randomization would only interfere with the enjoyment of the game. As has already been mentioned above, chess achieves game-to-game variation by the voluntary strategic choices of the players who vary up their strategy in order to remain unpredictable.

A common flaw in a game is to use randomization for elements of the game that are outside of the focus of the game. For instance, in many world-domination-style strategy games, the players are making choices based on large-scale army movements. Those elements are not randomized. They are completely decided by the players. However, battles between the armies are What is usually randomized in these games are the battles between the armies. This is to take into account the variations in small-scale tactics, battle conditions, troop morale, etc. However, none of these elements are important to the focus of the game. The game is about large-scale strategy. It is not about tactics or troop morale.

If the game is about large-scale strategy, let it be about large-scale strategy. Why not assume that the other factors are equal? Why not assume that the generals and commanders on the field are all equally competent? Why not assume that both sides are equally capable in dealing with variable battle conditions such as weather and terrain? If the goal of the game is to be the best large-scale strategist, then let the best large-scale strategist win without any interference from factors that the game leaves outside of his control. A player who consistently employs impeccable strategy and yet is defeated by dice rolls will eventually tire of the game and play something else.

The idea of eliminating the battle dice roll is not strange or outlandish. In fact, this is a trend in the newer world-domination strategy games. More and more of these games are not using dice rolls to decide battles. Often battles are simply decided by a head count of troops.

This can seem overly-simplistic to a lot of people. How can battle be reduced to a head count? Smaller forces can overcome larger ones. Some generals are better than others. Besides, one of the main skills of a large-scale strategist is dealing with the tides of fortune. Eliminating these aspects of warfare reduces the representative nature of the game. At some point there has to be limits on representation, but there can be difference of opinion as to where to draw the line.

There are other options for providing for representation without randomization. Taking the example of a world-domination strategy game, the elements of battle normally represented by a dice roll could also be represented by some kind of minimal game mechanic, allowing the large-scale strategist to make minimal tactical choices.

Randomization can be useful, and it can be fun. However, it need not be the first resort when designing a game. It is wiser to seek other means of achieving the same ends first.

Randomization Principle #3: Randomization Is Subjectively Perceived

This is a principle that is hard for many people to understand. When playing a game, players perceive probabilities subjectively, rather than mathematically. Most players do not care whether or not the randomized elements of the game are actually fair. What they care about is whether or not the randomized elements feel fair to them.

This has at least two major effects (I had thought of a third, but I can’t remember it). First, players’ perceptions of randomized outcomes are skewed by their desire to win. If a game uses a coin toss to decide something, and if heads is favorable to the player, players will subconsciously expect the coin to turn up heads slightly more than it will turn up tails. If the coin turns up tails more than it turns up heads, the player will feel gypped, even though the coin toss is fair. In fact, players will probably feel gypped if the coin tosses in the game are split evenly 50/50.

Second, players expect to see probabilities hold true within a single game, or at least over the course of a small number of games. If they toss a coin 6 times in a game, they expect to see 3 heads and 3 tails. The more reasonable players will be willing to accept 4 heads and 2 tails (especially if heads is good for them, as noted above), but 1 and 5 or 0 and 6 will be hard to swallow. Of course, any of these outcomes are mathematically possible, and anybody who is familiar with the mathematics of probability understands that it is hard to guarantee an even spread of outcomes over a small number of coin tosses. It takes hundreds, even thousands of coin tosses to be confident that you will see the outcomes approach a 50/50 split. But players don’t usually care about the mathematics of probability. They want to have a good, fun game. To them that means having reliable probabilities.

Nowhere is this more evident than in book and paper RPGs. Anything of importance in an RPG is decided by dice roll. Characters have multiple skills, and they will use only a few of their skills frequently. Most characters have some skills that they will only use a handful of times. The players will expect to see outcomes of those few dice rolls reflect the probabilities of success and failure. No player will complain about a streak of successes, but if they fall into a streak of failures, they will begin to grumble. The game will no longer be enjoyable. Certainly, the decisions by dice roll were fair and mathematically possible, but the outcomes produced were not enjoyable for the player. What good is a diplomacy skill if the character can never persuade another character to do anything? If the character does not succeed with some regular frequency, then how could they be said to be skilled in that area? What good are fair probabilities if no one is having a good time?

Randomization Principle #4: Randomization Is a Spectrum from Soft to Strict

When we think of randomization in games, we normally think about strict randomization. By this I mean randomization that has clear probabilities that are strictly enforced. Dice rolling is the prime example of strict randomization. To succeed the player must achieve a certain roll on the die. The probability is clear and finite. It is easy for any with simple math skills to calculate it. There is no wiggle room, no mercy. Your chances are what they are and nothing different.

Most people either consciously or subconsciously find strict randomization to be lacking. It is so harsh and unforgiving. Strict randomization does not represent life well. The probabilities of events in real life are harder to determine. In real life, you can fudge things. You can try a little harder. You can sharpen your focus. There are gradations of success and failure that are not represented in cases of strict randomization. And then, as has already been mentioned, it is very difficult for probabilities to be consistently expressed in a small sample of instances.

Randomization is better if it is softened. Softening makes the There are many ways to soften randomization.

 

One method is obfuscation. You have to remember that randomization is perceived subjectively. The game’s randomization can be as strict as you want as long as it is not perceived that way. If you can use a method of randomization that is too complex to be quickly calculated. For instance, instead of rolling one or two dice, a game can call for larger pools of dice. The pools can be constructed to produce any desired probability, but the casual player will have trouble calculating them.

 

Other methods allow for some kind of interaction between players and the randomization. For one thing a game can give players options with different probabilities. For instance, games can offer higher rewards for greater risks with the players deciding the level of risk they are comfortable with.

 

A game can allow players to make choices with the results of randomization. A great example of this is the game of Yahtzee. Players roll the dice and then choose which dice to keep and which dice to reroll. They can see how the dice rolling is turning out and respond to it how they see fit. This process definitely softens the randomization. I can attest to this, since I consistently lose at Yahtzee. There must be more to this game than luck. The randomization system allows for enough strategy that someone like me who fails to understand the strategy will consistently lose.

 

A game can also allow players to assist in determining the probabilities. This can be seen in collectible card games. The player actually chooses which cards and how many of each go in their deck. This allows them to determine the probabilities of drawing each individual card. This has been expanded to a new type of game called deck-building games in which the game centers around the player constructing their deck as the game progresses, effectively crafting probabilities to their liking in response to the changing circumstances of the game. Another common example of determining probabilities is an RPG, in which the player determines the skills of their character and thereby determines the probability of attempting different tasks.

 

A final softening method I will mention is merely that of using a more palatable means of randomization. Again we must remember that randomization is perceived subjectively. Some means of randomization feel more palatable than others. Dice rolls and spins of a wheel are often too mathematical, and not enough like life. Cards can be more palatable in people’s perception. Some of this has to do with the fact that cards do not represent independent probability. The more cards you draw, the fewer cards that remain. The probability of drawing one of the remaining cards continuously increases. If you were to draw all of the cards in the deck, it is 100% guaranteed that you will draw the card you desire. Cards definitely do a fine job of representing a probability within a particular game. Draw enough cards and all the probabilities become apparent.

 

Randomization Principle #5:Do the Math

 

Even with complex the probabilities and softened the randomization, a game designer should do the math. In this age of computers there is little excuse for not calculating out the probabilities of all outcomes. This is how to ensure balance in the game.

 

Balancing Turn Order

 

Turn order can have a great impact on a game. In some games there is an advantage to going first. In other games there is an advantage to going last. Also, in many games the play goes in a circle dependent on the seating arrangement of the players. Therefore, one player’s turn always follows the same player.

 

There are three main methods for compensating for the advantages and disadvantages of turn order. The first method is just to assign turn order by some “fair” random method. This is usually done at the beginning of the game. From then on the first position in turn order might rotate around the table, or there may be a continuous circling around the table with no distinct rounds, or the turn order might be decided randomly every round. Randomly deciding turn order does not actually compensate for the imbalance of turn order. It only provides a fair method of determining who receives advantage and disadvantage.

 

Another method of compensating for turn order is to make the arrangement of turn order part of the game itself. Players can bid on a particular position in the turn order. Or they win an advantageous position through some other means within the game. Turn order then becomes an integral part of the game strategy to be manipulated along with everything else.

 

The last main method is to do away with turn order altogether. This is very difficult to achieve in a game of any complexity. Some games naturally lend themselves to no turn order, such as card games that are all about the speed at which a player can play all of his cards on shared piles in the center of the playing surface. However, other games are hard to conceive of without turn order, but even in these there is room for reducing the use of turn order. Some portions of the game might have to be played out in turn order, but other portions of the game could be played simultaneously. Again to use the example of world-domination strategy games (since they are often some of the most complex games on the market), players can purchase units, make trades, conduct diplomacy, etc. all simultaneously, whereas other elements may have to be handled in turn order.

 

Reasonable Victory Conditions

 

A game must have victory conditions that are reasonably achievable and that make sense. Furthermore, the victory conditions must be placed at the point of no return rather than at the point of total victory. In most games it becomes apparent who is going to win long before the end of the game. There is a point at which you can be about 90% certain that the player in the lead is the player who is going to win. Some games are fast-paced enough that there is little harm in playing the game out, but in other games, the last few turns can be agony for the loser(s). If the winner has already been decided, then there is no point in continuing play. The job of the game designer is to determine where that point of no return is and what victory conditions accurately express that game situation.

 

Reasonable and Relatively Predictable Game Length

 

Attention spans are continually decreasing. People’s lives are getting busier. Game designers are becoming more aware of the need to make games of a more reasonable length. Most games appear to be aiming for around 45 minutes. This length appears to make the game feel like a significant event without sucking the life out of your day.

 

Of course, there is always a place for games that are both longer and shorter than 45 minutes. Sometimes you hanker for a quick game. Sometimes you want an all day epic game. The most important thing is for the game box to have an accurate estimate of the time it takes to play. Players need to know what they are getting themselves into. Time estimates need to include time for setup, and if setup time is considerable, then that needs to be expressed. It is best for game length to be relatively predictable, but if that is not possible, then the box needs to express a wide variance in possible game length.

 

Simple, Clear, Easy-to-Learn, Reasonable, Intuitive Rules

 

It must be taken into account that a lot of people (myself included) find epic, complicated games really fun, but even complicated games need to avoid overcomplication. And truthfully, complicated games will never have wide appeal. Games with wide appeal have to have simple rules. The rulebook should be clearly written. There should be no possibility of misinterpretation. Every eventuality should have been considered and accounted for in the rules. A newcomer to the game should be able to pick up the rules quickly.

 

Again, a great example is the game of chess. People are frightened by the perceived complexity of chess, but actually the rules can be learned in a short time. The complexity is all in the game-play. What chess is lacking is intuitive rules. The rules of chess do not immediately make sense. For example, why does the knight jump in an “L” shape when it moves? This makes no sense to the beginner chess player.

 

The ideal game would have rules that when first read immediately evoke the reaction, “But of course, that is clearly the best way it could be done.” Or at the very least, the reasons for rules should be readily understandable and apparent.

 

A Variety of Feasible Strategies

 

A game should allow for a variety of strategies. Sometimes games will go as far as providing multiple possible victory conditions. But even if there is only one set of victory conditions, there should be multiple strategies to achieving it. The strategies may all be similar, but the differences should be significant enough to allow for variety in personality and game-play.

 

Allowing for a variety of strategies is not enough. Often games will allow for multiple strategies, and yet players will generally gravitate towards one main strategy. Often this is because the game rewards a particular strategy or makes it easier to play with that particular strategy. Many games provide rule options, unit types, cards, etc. that never really get used. The game is unintentionally designed so that those strategies do not get used. I would rather that the game did not include them in the first place than to render them useless.

 

A Variety of Skill Levels

 

The game should provide for a variety of skill levels. There should be built-in mechanics for changing the difficulty level of the game. In some games it is even possible for to assign some handicap to an experienced player. However, if a game is easy to learn, if it is intuitive, if it allows for a variety of strategy, etc., then it will be easy for a beginner to pick up the game and compete with experienced players.

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9 Responses to Game Design Manifesto

  1. the hero and the villian says:

    “Seeds of distrust can be sown in a game that continue to grow outside of the game. The subtle subconscious thought is “Wow! I never knew that Jim could lie so well. He totally had me fooled. If he is that good at lying to me, how else has he lied to me? Can I trust him?”

    – This seems a little paranoid. So if Jim is plays the game RISK really well, does that mean Jim is capable of world domination? No, of course not. The object of some games is the ability for one to be diabolical at times. This can be “fun” for some people. It’s like being an actor, you play the role so the audience believes you’re that person. How about poker? Isn’t some of the strategy involved to “bluff” the other players into thinking you have a good hand? Why would you do this? Let me tell you, you want what’s in the pot. You want to win. This does not mean Jim is evil and is going through life bluffing everyone. I think playing games should be exactly what they are, games. Everyone involved with playing any game should remember, “it’s only a game.” There is only one objective, to be FUN! Games are a great way to bring friends together and enjoy the social interaction.

    “Fun is hard to quantify, and what is fun for one person is not necessarily fun for another. This is why focus is so important. Focus can define which type of fun the game is aiming for and who is the target player.”

    – I think you answered your own question for the most part. I don’t agree that fun is hard to “quantify.” What’s fun for others might not be fun for you. It’s all a matter of aesthetics really. Find that common ground with good people and most of all, have fun. Also, you should never play a game with “Jim.” I hope he is not the monster you speak of. Thank you.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my Game Design Manifesto, thinking about it, and writing a response.

      I put the part about lying in the manifesto knowing full well that it is one of the ideas that I have that most gamers take issue with. As you say “The object of some games is the ability for one to be diabolical at times. This can be ‘fun’ for some people.” I would agree that some people find these games fun. I believe in my manifesto that I only said that “not everyone” was able to make the “it’s only a game” distinction. Some people cannot distinguish between the game and real life. Their minds may be telling them “it’s just a game,” but emotionally they still feel hurt by the fact that their trusted best friend just betrayed them.

      The issue is that the game at that point ceases to be representative. For example, you say, “So if Jim is plays the game RISK really well, does that mean Jim is capable of world domination? No, of course not.” There is a difference between Jim taking over the world on a game board and Jim lying to his friend to get there. When Jim takes over the world, it is a bunch of plastic pieces on a game board. The fighting is accomplished by rolling dice. No human beings actually die. In other words, the world domination part of Risk is “fake.” However, if Jim lied and back-stabbed his way to victory, the lying and back-stabbing actually happened. Jim really lies to his friends. He really makes promises and then breaks them. Sure, it is “just a game,” but for a lot of people it is hard to dodge the emotional/relational consequences.

      Risk is something of a weighted example. It is a strategy game, so it is often played by people of a more rational bent. I think a better example is the party game Mafia. I don’t know if you have ever played it, and I know that the rules vary throughout the country. It is a game in which some people are secretly mafia and the rest are regular townspeople. During the “night,” the mafia secretly “kill” one of the townspeople. During the “day,” players accuse someone of being mafia and then vote to kill him. Everyone is lying to each other and accusing each other. A lot of non-gamers enjoy playing this, which is why I bring it up. I have played this game often, and usually there are at least a couple of people who get emotionally hurt. When the game is over, there is usually someone complaining, “I can’t believe you were lying to me the whole time! I trusted you!” Not everyone finds the game fun. In fact, a lot of people find it hurtful.

      You also give the example of poker which I think highlights another problem with lying in most games. Poker and other gambling games have real-life consequences for poor game choices. If you bluff and someone calls you on it, you lose real money. This limits the frequency with which people bluff. If it is discovered that you are a person who bluffs frequently, you will get called on it frequently, and you will lose a lot more money. If you ever play poker with just chips and no money, you discover that people bluff much more frequently, since there are no real-life consequences. At that point, it is “just a game.”

      In a game like Risk or Mafia, there appear to be no real-life consequences for lying and betraying, so people employ those strategies much more frequently than they would in real life. In other words, games like Diplomacy do a poor job representing real-life political maneuvering. In real life, countries are very, very slow to sell out their allies. Now, they may ignore some of the smaller provisions in a treaty, but can you really imagine America not rushing to the aid of Great Britain in a time of war? If anyone attacked Great Britain, of course America would do something about it immediately. There is too much at stake. But put America and Great Britain on a game board and make their armies plastic pieces, and then see if America defends Great Britain. Why would they? America is large and self-sufficient. America does not need Great Britain. Why would they waste resources and troops?

      You state a couple of times that the only objective of a game is to have fun. As I state in my manifesto, there are actually other objectives for games besides fun. There are educational games, which try to be just fun enough that students will learn. There are the get-to-know-you ice-breaker type games, which try to be just fun enough to get people to interact. There are team-building games, which try to be just fun enough to get people to work together towards some common goal. There are war-simulation games used by the military, which are almost completely serious. I think that the more fun these games are, the closer they come to achieving the ideal game, but fun is definitely secondary to their true objective.

      When I said that fun is hard to quantify, I meant that there is no mathematical or scientific formula known to govern fun. When designing a game, there is no set of rules for me to follow that will guarantee that the final game product will be deemed to be fun by those who play it.

      As to Jim being a “monster,” my real life experience in playing games with all kinds of people in different states and in different countries has shown me that the general trend is that if Jim is good at lying and manipulating people in a game, it is because he has so much practice lying and manipulating people in real life. This is not always the case. In most such games, there is the one player who surprises everyone by their unknown abilities in lying and manipulation. However, as I said, that is what I have found to be a general trend. If you can’t trust Jim in game, it is often because you can’t trust Jim out of the game. And regardless of whether or not Jim is a liar outside of the game, the game can plant doubts in someone’s mind, no matter how unjustified those doubts may be.

      And this reminds me of one last thing. In the work world, the phrase is often used “it’s just business.” I have personally experienced how friends have used this excuse to betray me at work. I know there are great differences, but still I find it eerie that “it’s just a game” is such a similar excuse.

      Again, thanks for taking the time to respond. I will keep adding to my manifesto, so check back periodically for updates.

  2. the hero and the villian says:

    “And this reminds me of one last thing. In the work world, the phrase is often used “it’s just business.” I have personally experienced how friends have used this excuse to betray me at work.”

    -I could feel the amount of animosity in that sentence. I agree with aspects of that statement and can empathize, but could you elaborate a little more? Thanks.

  3. Well, the details of my own personal experiences are not necessarily blog-worthy. I wouldn’t say I really hold animosity against anyone in particular. People in the work world are often trained into thinking there is a separate set of business ethics to live by. Getting ahead (i.e., self-interest) can be used to excuse behavior that would be considered unethical (or at least not nice) in any other circumstance. It is like the work-world becomes an ethical bubble that runs on its own rules without any regard for what the rules might be outside of the bubble.

    To apply this idea to games, games often capitalize on their imagination-fueling aspect to try to give people experiences they could not enjoy in real life. One of these experiences that people desire is a life without consequences. The “it’s just a game” mentality creates an ethical bubble within the parameters of the game. For instance, in the what-if world of the game, the players want to imagine a world in which it would be OK to attempt conquering other nations, for no other reason than that the other nations are there. In a game, we need not concern ourselves with the value of the lives of our troops. We need not worry about collateral damage. All that is fake and imaginary. We are safe within the game’s ethical bubble.

    As I have already mentioned, the issue with lying, betrayal, etc. in a game is that it usually happens in the world of reality, and not in the imaginary world of the game. Not many games have a mechanic that governs treaties, promises, etc. (One exception is your example of poker. Bluffing happens by means of betting, not by verbalizing any falsehood.) But in most games, agreements and such are handled between the players directly. If I decide to lie to a friend in a game, I actually have to look him in the eye and tell him something that is untrue, all the while smiling and reassuring him that I am being totally honest. It can be really hard for some people to see this as being inside the game’s ethical bubble.

  4. the hero and the villian says:

    Ok..let’s continue our game shall we?
    I have read this a few times and our responses, but to my observations, you seem to be navigating in circles. It seems you are describing one particular type of game and the genre as a whole. I think this description can not be said for all games. So let’s break this down a little more. Do you play many games? Do you play them for fun or are you playing to look for “flaws.” You are looking to create the perfect game, but all i read is an opinion on what makes a good or bad game to you. Again, this is a matter of aesthetics.
    Lets side step for a moment. We could be standing in a room, viewing the same painting on the wall. As you know, I come from an art background. I could tear apart any painting if i chose to. I could tell you what works, what doesn’t and also why. To you, for example, you could tell me you like a particular piece., and I can’t fault you for your aesthetic reasoning. It’s as simple as you either like it or you don’t. The same can hold true for games. Art is meant to be viewed and you come up to your own conclusions.
    Games span across many varieties and ages. It’s meant to pass time, bring people together, and most importantly have fun. I want to get into your thoughts and conclusions to various games and how it correlates to your “game design manifesto.”
    Lets get into some examples going from small to more complex.

    Hungry hungry hippos – meant for young children, totally obnoxious, but super fun. Do you think the creators went down a complex checklist as you describe above? What could possibly be the fault in providing kids with pure enjoyment of watching hippos chow down on little white marbles. To me, the concept is hilarious.

    Candyland/Chutes and Latters – I place these two together because they are of a similar genre and the most known and widely used kids games that have stood the test of time for generations.

    Uno – Another big name in the game community. Opinions?

    Sweet Valley High and Mall Madness – yes, a game primarily geared toward young women, but does that mean a boy can’t enjoy it as well? Maybe he’s playing with his older sisters for fun. I’m really looking forward to this response.

    Clue – Is it not fun to play the detective? Again, has stood the test of time. There must something to it, right?

    Trouble – Go!

    Backgammon – oldest game known to man and still played to this day.

    Monopoly – This is big one. You could play for hours.

    Othello, Bridge, Poker, Magic the Gathering and dare i step it up a little? Tetris

    As you can see this is only a few of the examples of the hundreds of games out there. They don’t fit into any kind of mold. You like what you like and it’s fun. Thoughts?

    • I apologize in advance for the length of my response.
      To quote myself for a second, I said at the top of this document, “I want to start off by saying that this manifesto is a statement of what I consider to be the ideal game.” I admitted from the beginning that this manifesto is an expression of my individual opinion as to what makes a good game. However, as with all well-reasoned opinions, I hope my opinions will not be tossed aside too lightly, as I hope you have seen that I take your opinions seriously (hence the lengthy responses).
      Having said that, though, I also want to add that what I am trying to accomplish in my thinking about games is to extract some good general guidelines as to what makes a good game that is generally liked by most people who play it. In fact, I want to uncover what makes a game that people want to play over and over and over.
      There will always be games that break all of the “rules” and yet are still popular. And there will always be individual people who like “bad” games. But what are the common characteristics of games that groups of people generally agree on as being fun to play together? What I have found in my experience and from speaking to other gamers is that there are certain games that groups of people consistently come back to playing. What is it about those games? I contend that they generally have a good mix of certain characteristics. The mix is different in every game, but these characteristics generally hold true across many games.
      I do not think that fun is necessarily the ultimate goal of all games. As I have already mentioned, some games are educational. The military runs computer simulation games to test strategies. There are team-building games and ice-breaker games. In each of these games the “fun” elements only grease the wheels to help the players achieve the real purpose of the game. The success of these games is not determined by whether or not people have fun. Success is determined by whether or not the students learn the necessary material, or the team has learned to work together, etc. To limit games to pure entertainment rules out whole swaths of games from consideration.
      Again, though, I personally find these types of games to be less than ideal, because they are not always super-fun. Why can’t an educational game be loads of fun? I would rather see students playing a fun game and learning almost by accident than to see them begrudgingly trudging through a game merely because it is slightly more entertaining than regular homework. I most definitely think that games to be good games must be fun.
      Personally, I play games to have fun. I love games. I love spending time with other people while playing games. I like games of all kinds. I love party games that get people laughing and joking. I love card games. I love pure strategy games like chess or go. I love epic strategy games. I love goofy tongue-in-cheek mini strategy games.
      What has happened to me is the shock upon seeing the price tag associated with games and also the time commitment of some of the more epic-style games. If I am going to spend that much money on a game or if I am going to spend that much time playing a game, it had better be good. If a game is really expensive and really long, it had better be excellent. So often, I have gotten excited at the prospect of playing a game with my friends with the full expectation of enjoying myself, only to come away with the thought, “I wasted my entire afternoon playing this?”
      Then I realized there is a cumulative effect with the cheaper, shorter games. At first you think, “Well, it wasn’t the greatest game in the world, but it didn’t cost much.” Then you realize that instead of buying one really expensive game, you end up buying three or four cheaper games. And you have still lost the same total amount of money and time. So you don’t really save much money or time by going the cheaper, lighthearted, “just-for-fun” game route either.
      So now I am much slower to purchase a game. I take my time looking it over. I try it out ahead of time if I can. I look at it as an investment. If I see the potential of it yielding multiple sessions of game-playing enjoyment, then I will make the investment. And, yes, a lot of that process is subjective. A lot of it boils down to the question of whether or not I think I will have fun playing it. It may have a lot of good characteristics, but it may just not look like fun.
      And then, when I get that crisp, new game home, you bet your heart out that I play that game for all its worth. I enjoy that game as much as I can. When I am bored with it, it goes on the shelf for a while, but if I have made a good purchase, then it will only be a matter of time before that game makes it back out to be played over and over again.
      I doubt other people would believe this, but I generally approach a new game with the intent of having fun. I love playing new games. I love checking out the box, the artwork, the pieces, the cards, etc. I love seeing the unique, creative ideas that went into making the new game. So I approach the game with the inclination to think positively about it.

      What happens is that I try to win the game. As long as I am not trying to win, it doesn’t much matter how good the game is. However, if I try to win the game, that is when the trouble begins. In order to win, I have to try and figure out the best strategy for winning. This is even in the most simple of games. There is always some kind of strategy that you can use to improve your chances of winning. In order to come up with a strategy, I have to analyze the game by thinking about the underlying game mechanics (what makes the game tick), calculating/estimating the probabilities of different outcomes (am I more likely to draw one type of card or another), and experimenting with strategies by trial and error. In this process I will usually stumble upon some flaw or flaws. Sometimes the flaws are ones I can live with. Other times they are not flaws I can live with. Sometimes the flaws are so glaring that everyone sees them and complains about them. Sometimes I’m the only one to point it out. Sometimes the flaws are favorable to one type of player or another, so those players will defend the game to the hilt no matter how much the game bothers everyone else.

      The most common flaw to surface is the Silly Rule. So many games have a Silly Rule. You go online and it seems like everyone is complaining about the same Silly Rule. Most people just learn to live with it by some means or another. The most common fix is the house rule. Your gaming buddies don’t like the Silly Rule, so you all agree upon some other house rule that you find more tolerable. These days the most popular house rules will often make it into the second edition of the game. My contention is that I am spending too much money to purchase a defective product. I am not paying to play-test a game. I am paying to play it. I shouldn’t have to fix the game I spent money on. It should come already well-tested and refined. More and more, gamers are having to settle for games that they have to modify with house rules.

      I hope I have made it clear that I enjoy all kinds of games. I may often cite examples from longer, more complex strategy games, but this is only because they have more elements to analyze. In the end the same principles apply across the board. I think that other games often get off the hook because they are not attempting to be “serious” games. My contention is that there is no reason for even a party game to be poorly designed. Why can’t the designers take the extra few weeks to work out some of the kinks?

      I think of it like an action movie. In an action movie, people want to see good fights, big explosions, awe-inspiring special effects, etc. They want quotable lines. They want some good humor. They want to see heroic good guys taking down the evil bad guys against impossible odds. Whatever is generally conceived of as making for a good action movie.

      However, when you read a film critic’s review on an action movie, you always see stuff like “flat characters” or “cliche dialogue” or “lacking in plot” or “not a good story.” And initially my reaction is, “Of course the characters are flat, the dialogue is cliché, the plot and story were missing. It was an action movie! It was just for entertainment!” But then I stop and think about it. Why can’t an action movie also have good character development, realistic and stirring dialogue, and a reasonably complex storyline? Wouldn’t the movie be better if it had the full package? Some of the action movies that have stood the test of time are the ones that do it all.

      That is my contention with games. Of course a game should be fun. Of course we want it to have all of the bells and whistles like a cool box and attractive artwork. My point is that games don’t have to be the mindless, flawed game-equivalent of the action movie. They can be more than that. A game can satisfy the general public and the critic. It can be a favorite of the average fan and of the game connoisseur. Not every game is going to, but more should be trying to.

      I have been purposely trying to avoid giving my opinion on many particular games because I do not want to endorse individual games or insult the hard-working game designers of games that I do not like. But since you ask, I can say some things on the games that you mention.

      Let me preface it by saying that not everything that claims to be a game is a game. Sometimes things are just fun activities. Games are on a spectrum. For instance, basketball in one sense is a game, but I would personally consider it to be a sport. It has game elements, but it falls more into the realm of athletics than gaming. Drawing is a fun activity, not a game, but Pictionary is a game which has drawing in it. Part of the purpose of my manifesto is to highlight things that make a game a game. A fun activity is more of a “true” game the more it approaches the ideal game of my manifesto.

      Let me illustrate it. The second item on your list is two games that tend more towards fun activities than games. Chutes and ladders or Candyland are just dice-rolling and counting activities. People may find them fun. More power to them. But just because they have game boards and pieces, they are not necessarily games. The player is virtually unnecessary in the game. The player rolls the dice and moves the piece. There is nothing the player can do to affect the outcome of the game. In fact, we could write a computer program to play the game for you. If someone has fun doing it themselves, great! Nothing wrong with that. I just do not think it is enough of a game to be evaluated according to my principles.

      Hungry Hungry Hippos is similar. It is much more of a game than chutes and ladders. I would say it is actually a really well-made game in a lot of ways. Its focus to get people to have fun with mechanical chomping hippos. It accomplishes that very well. But someone could also make the case that the game elements are secondary to watching the hippos. Again, it is totally fun, and who am I to stop people from playing it? However, it ends up being the game equivalent of an action movie. It has awesome special effects, but maybe is lacking in depth. This is understandable for the target audience of the game, so let me reiterate that I actually think it is a well-made game or game-like activity.

      Uno is simple, has simple rules, etc. Majorly important feature. I have enjoyed many hours playing Uno. I would certainly play it again if I was in a group that wanted to. I would have two main complaints about the game. My experience is that strategy in the game is limited and is quickly grasped by most players. This means that there is very little I can do to improve my chances of winning against the others I am playing against. Therefore, the winner is usually decided by luck of the draw. My second main complaint is the lack of representation or imagination in the game. The cards mean nothing. They are just numbers and colors. It’s still fun. I will still play the game. But I would rather play a game that represents something and is decided by good game-play, not random card drawing.

      Sweet Valley High and Mall Madness…never played them. Sorry. Sometime I’ll have to try them. Like I said, I love trying new games!

      Clue – Awesome game! A ton of fun. Good puzzle-solving, logic game. It has a good focus, cool board layout, interesting characters, etc. I love the little mini-weapons. I totally can picture Mr. Body lying dead on the floor with a candlestick-impression in his skull. It promotes interaction between players by having players ask questions of each other. This also means that you are participating in the game even when it is not your turn. My only beef with the game is the dice-rolling and movement aspects of the game. I am not sure what mechanic could replace it, but in any given game of Clue there is the player who loses because they never seemed to be able to make it into a room to ask any questions. Everyone else has a good time except for them. Overall, the game is pretty good. If you want to play Clue, I’ll be in.

      Trouble has a little more strategy than chutes and ladders. I would definitely take Trouble over a lot of roll-the-dice-move-your-piece games. What I have seen with Trouble is that it has entrenched itself in the travel game market. It can be sold in a self-contained hard plastic unit. It fits in well with car travel. It is hard to do heavy thinking when packed like sardines on a long trip. You need to have a game that takes just enough brainpower to keep you distracted, but not too much to be beyond your capacity to concentrate in the car. This all goes back to focus. The focus of Trouble is a compact, durable, travel game. It accomplishes this. Would I play it outside of the car with another adult? Probably not…ever.

      Backgammon is a well-designed game. Obviously, or else why would it still be popular. It is similar to Trouble in that it can be made into a self-contained unit. The board becomes the storage box. Very convenient. The large number of playing pieces allows for strategic options. The dice-rolling makes the game different every time you play it. It also forces the player to change up their strategy in response to dice rolls. It compensates for the randomness of the dice rolls by giving the players the ability to decide which pieces they are going to move. However, as you will see when I add my material on randomization, I find dice-rolling to be one of the worst forms of randomization in gaming. It doesn’t matter how much better I am than my opponent, if my opponent rolls 10 doubles in a row, they will almost certainly win. Also, backgammon is not representative or imaginative. What do those pieces mean? Why are we moving them around triangles? Again, great game. Wish I could play it more often, but there are games I like better.

      Monopoly is another great game. It most definitely makes an attempt at being representative. You get to buy property. You are given cards that represent deeds. You earn and spend fake money. You get a fun pewter piece to move around the board. It feels epic with all of that money changing hands. How can that help but be fun? However, Monopoly has four major flaws. 1) It is dice-roll dependent. How can you hope to win if you always land on the other guy’s hotel, and he never lands on yours? 2) It can run the risk of being too long. This is not a principle I have written about yet, but the best games are not too long. People are often too busy today for super-lengthy games. 3) The end of the game is inevitable long before it happens. Once the tide turns, it is almost impossible for the losing player(s) to come back. From that point on, only one player is enjoying themselves. 4) The game of Monopoly is perpetuated by house rules. Very few people actually play the game by the rules. To me that is a sign of poor design. The rules that come with the game should be the rules that make the most sense and lead to the most fun. That is most certainly not the case with Monopoly. A final parting criticism of Monopoly is that it can be too cutthroat and mean for a lot of people. All that being said, I can still enjoy playing the game on occasion. There are just other games I would rather play.

      Othello is a relatively well-made game. Simple rules. Simple to understand, but an appearance of a wide range of strategy. I think it might be too simplistic. Checkers and chess can provide better variety. It is similar to Monopoly in that often the winner is decided long before game is over, trapping the loser into playing long after the fun has ceased. My experience with the game is that it is fun as an occasional play. If you play it too frequently, the games all begin to look alike. It’s like tic tac toe. Eventually you figure out the possible permutations, and the ending is inevitable even before the game has begun. At least that is how it begins to feel.

      I have never played bridge, but I would love to. It appears to me to be a fantastic game. Endless possibilities and strategy. Teamwork is an essential component. I know a good bridge player, and sometime I am going to get him to teach me.

      Which poker do you mean? Five card stud is too much of a luck-of-the-draw game. No matter how much the movies try to convince you that it is not in the cards, but in the betting, it is not true. If you have terrible cards for 25 hands in a row, you either have to fold or bluff. If you fold, you lose all of those buy-in chips. If you bluff, you will eventually get called, and if you bluff too much, you will get called more frequently. Enough bad hands in a row, and you are out of chips one way or another.

      Texas hold’em is more popular these days for a reason. It is a better designed game. The cards on the table give you choices and options for strategy and bluffing. As each card is turned over, everyone has to rethink their strategy. It reduces the effects of luck-of-the-draw. The randomization of the card drawing becomes more of a means of variation than frustration.

      Poker in all of its variation is a good social game. People have to interact. They have to get to know each other and how they think. They have to read each other. From an ethics perspective, I am not a fan of gambling. From a game perspective, the gambling elements keep players from making rash decisions. It helps balance the game out. It keeps people honest. In the end, though, I think it can introduce real-life greed and selfishness into what should be free fun.

      Magic the Gathering….There is a subject for a whole column. Overall, cool artwork. Very imaginative. Sparks the imagination in all kinds of ways. Cards are a great means of randomization. Having the ability to build your own deck gives the player control over probabilities. Unfortunately, collectible card games introduce the collection element into a game. No matter how good of a player I am, my cards may not be as good as my opponent’s. This can be very frustrating for someone who has limited funds. Eventually, people without much money just give up on CCGs. They can’t compete with their rich friends. I think Magic’s issues are deeper than that, however. What is the actual game? Play land to be able to play other cards. Play cards down on the table. Compare the numbers on those cards to the numbers on the other player’s cards. Higher number wins. There are limited options for strategy with this type of game. Strategies are definitely limited by limitations placed on the number of each card allowed in your deck. Basically, every player is required to have a deck with a balance of different types of cards. They have limited freedom in deck design. They have limited options in game play. In the end, the players have similar decks and similar playing strategies. I prefer CCGs that allow for extreme strategies. I like to be able to stack my deck with large quantities of the same common card. I like to be able to surprise my opponent by making use of cards they consider to be of limited value. This is generally the only way that a player with a small collection can hope to compete with a player with a large collection. I am notorious among my friends for creating unusual decks and playing with unusual strategies. So, CCGs need to allow for wide variety in game-play and wide variety in deck building. Unfortunately, they do not make money that way. The way they make money is by forcing you to keep buying newer and better cards.

      Tetris is a video game, so it is kind of outside of the subject matter I am trying to cover. Obviously Tetris is a pretty well-designed game. Simple to learn, hard to master. Increasing difficulty. Requires creative on-the-spot problem solving. It’s big flaw is the lack of representation. I think it is usually billed as a building game, but what are you building? In fact, the better you build, the more it disappears. You kind of feel like Sisyphus, set upon an endless task. And of course then there are the times you get that one annoying piece like 35 times in a row. Of course it is just a game you can learn in two seconds, pick up at any time, play as long as you like. But mobile apps have proved that you can have games just like that but are more imaginative and representative and yield more of a sense of accomplishment.

      I just want to close my all too long-winded response by commenting that games are often popular because they were ground-breaking, were first-of-their-kind, or have just been around for a long time. Most of the games on your list are of that type. Once a game gets entrenched, it continues to be popular. We play the game because it was in our parents’ game closet. We grew up playing it. We are used to it. We have developed house rules to compensate for its many flaws. It has many memories attached to it. We move out of the house, and we buy our own copy of the game to have in our own game collection. We learned to love the game before we were old enough to think about it too deeply. We never really stop to consider that there might be a new game out there that does the same thing, only better. There is a new game that is similar, but is better designed and more fun.

      I am saying, don’t be a lemming. Evaluate the game for yourself. Vote with your dollars for games that are excellent and have replay value. Don’t settle for mediocre. If we all ask for better games, then the game companies will put out better games.

  5. the hero and the villian says:

    WOW! you have seemed to bash everything i threw at you. No matter what genre or type, you have found something flawed. How does anyone play a game with you? You seem to be to preoccupied with over-analyzing ever little aspect to even enjoy yourself. As i was reading your response i had an eyebrow raised the entire time. From what I’ve gathered, you don’t mind that people are having fun playing these games, but they could be better. Newsflash! Everything in life can be better. Stop worrying about your “investment” and just enjoy yourself.
    The dice thing. You don’t like dice, i get it. Your logic concerning dice is ridiculous. You’re going to hate a game with the randomization of dice rolls? The point is, it is random. You cant get mad or say a game is flawed because someone rolls well. You seem to have given up before you try or even make a comeback.
    So I’m posing this to you. Are you trying to make the “perfect” game? Is there any game out there that you haven’t found flawed? Tell me why.
    I also would like to hear you’re thoughts on twister, because that is a great party game. If you haven’t tried, i recommend you do. Thank you.

    • I am sorry! Perhaps I was not writing clearly or explaining myself well! I believe I had positive and negative things to say about each game. In fact, many of the games I praised quite highly, and many of them I said I enjoy playing and would be more than willing to play again. Perhaps I should quote from the opening paragraph of my manifesto: “There is no game in existence that is an ideal game. It is not possible to create an ideal game. These principles are goals to strive for. I believe a game is better the closer it comes to lining up with these principles.” I totally get it that there is no such thing as a perfect game. All it takes is trying to create a game of your own to realize how you will never be completely satisfied with any game you can create. I am very much on board with enjoying a game in spite of its flaws. If you cannot enjoy a flawed game, then you cannot enjoy any game ever. And as I said repeatedly throughout my last response I love playing games.

      I believe that everyone consciously or subconsciously analyzes a game. If the game requires them to make any strategic choices whatsoever (e.g., choosing which card to play), they have to analyze how the game works to some extent in order to make some kind of reasoned decision. Oftentimes a game makes only limited sense to a player. They are trying to make reasonable choices, but they can never seem to quite improve their chances of winning. People assume that it is their own lack of understanding, but I have found that more often than people realize, the fault is not with the player. There is some flaw in the game that is hindering them from being able to make sensible strategic choices. Having discovered this, I do now consciously look for “loopholes” (a flaw that can be exploited to your benefit) or “stumbling blocks” (a flaw that hijacks reasonable game-play) in games. A well-designed game will be lacking in major loopholes or stumbling blocks. Many of the award winning games are relatively loophole or stumbling block free. These games have been play-tested enough to work out those kinks. Sure, even a well-designed game will have minor hiccups, but a seasoned, astute player will just compensate for them in strategy. What we want to avoid are the major hangups — the things that prevent reasonable strategy and unhampered fun.

      I also believe that all people consciously or subconsciously evaluate a game. They may at the time think the game is fun, but the first real moment of truth comes when they receive the invitation to play it again. Do they jump at the chance? I find more and more that people are content with a one-time play. They tried it. They enjoyed it. They do not want to repeat it. Somewhere in their subconscious they have evaluated that game and found it lacking in the replayability department. But those very same people will gladly play some other game over and over and over. What accounts for the difference? I think there are characteristics that are often shared in the games that get re-played more frequently. And I think that game companies are settling for creating and selling many games that will only survive a single play.

      My point is that I am doing consciously what everyone else does, whether they do it consciously or subconsciously. People analyze games and get frustrated. People evaluate games and never play them again. I have merely asked the question, “Is the problem the game or the player?” Sometimes its the player. They just don’t get it. I would include myself in this category along with everyone else. Some games don’t come easily, but once it makes sense, it gets fun. In fact those games can be the most fun, because they stretch you in new ways. Right now, though, game companies are churning out more and more games. With such volume output, quality of the game mechanics can often be lacking. I find that very frequently, the frustration factor or the single-play factor is not the player, it is the game. The game is designed in such a way that it frustrates many people who play it, or the game is designed in such a way that not many people give it a second try.

      As to my logic concerning dice, I have not actually shared it yet. I am still in the process of writing the section on randomization. Randomization can make or break a game. There are multiple methods of randomization. Dice are just one method. Dice can be used effectively, and sometimes using dice is the best choice for a particular game. Before you comment about my thoughts on dice, you should probably read everything I have to say on the subject of randomization.

      Yes, I am always working to create better games (none of which will be perfect, and that is OK). Yes, I have played games that I think are way better than most (none of them are perfect, but I still love playing them). No, I am not going to endorse them at this time. The reaction I received to my evaluations demonstrates why I am not trying to get into specific games, especially before I am finished with the manifesto.

      Let me just say one final thing. Most, if not all, of the games you mentioned are older games, or first-of-their kind games. They have a certain pride of place. It is really not fair to evaluate this kind of game. It’s like trying to judge the movie Godzilla by modern movie standards. Each generation of games builds on the last. Many newer games have learned from the mistakes of the older games. But then again, newer games will often make new mistakes. It’s a learning process.

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